Unlearned Lesson of 4-29

K.W.

At 82-years-old, K.W. Lee is considered the “Godfather of Asian American journalism.” He immigrated to the U.S. in 1950 on a student visa and became the first Asian immigrant to be hired by a mainstream news daily and has reported for the Kingsport Times and News in Tennessee, the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia and the Sacramento Union. He has covered stories ranging from the plight of coal miners in the Appalachians to the civil rights movement in the Jim Crow South to the unjust incarceration of Chol Soo Lee. K.W. founded the Korea Times English Edition and continues to work and lecture across the country.

“Round up the usual suspects.”

The corrupt Vichy French captain Renault tells his men at Rick’s gambling joint in a classic romantic drama film, Casablanca.

With the 18th anniversary of 4.29 (Sa-I-Gu) upon us today, I can’t help but hear his mocking order reverberated during the fiery siege of L. A. Koreatown in which Korean Americans witnessed their American Dream go up in smoke overnight.

Have we learned anything from America’s first media-fanned urban pogrom which gutted more than 2,000 Korean businesses and ruined 10,000 lives to the tune of nearly a half billion dollars in property damage alone in the City of Angeles?

“Round up the usual scapegoats.”

Come the next fire, we may end up as America’s favorite urban scapegoat.

Today, Korean Americans, now numbering a million and a half, can claim not a single English-language daily or weekly or broadcast outlet— in stark contrast with our Chinese and Japanese American neighbors enpowered with so many English papers for so many years.

Thus, without our critical, proactive English voice, we have been shut out of the 24/7 news cycle with devastating consequences, in cases of fast developing urban unrest or anti-Korean rumor- or race-mongering.

Even a high school kid learns fast that English is his or her best weapon in classrooms and school yards and dealing with school bullies.

I am haunted by the escalating generational divide between the non-English speaking immigrants and their English-speaking American-born children now in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

They are like two ships in the night passing each other without exchanging a signal. No day-in, day-out English medium. No dialogue, no debate, no consensus, and no direction.

Koreatowns scattered across the seething urban centers stumble along half-mute, half-blind and half-deaf — without the common English medium of communication in this nation of competing groups and interests.

How can we ever expect our Latino, black and other ethnic neighbors to get to know us as we really are — except through the mainstream media that have so often portrayed Koreans and Asians alike as strangers and permanent foreigners since the arrival of our pioneers in the rocky shores of California?

These are harder times with rising tension everywhere. Among the most misperceived and misrepresented minorities, our seemingly thriving tribe of voiceless newcomers is more vulnerable to potential flashpoints of ethnic conflict than ever before.

Deep in our hearts we know why, or do we?

I ought to know. I’ve founded and edited two English weeklies: Koreatown Weekly, the first national English language newspaper for the emerging Korean American community (1979-1982) and Korea Times (English) Weekly (1990-1993) at a time of rising black-Korean tensions.

The Koreatown tabloid’s initial issues were produced in the newsroom of The Pacific Citizen, a weekly house organ of the national Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) in Japantown, thanks to the generous backing of its iconic editor Harry Honda. The small multi-ethnic staff was run by my two partners, managing editor Steve Chanecka, former business editor of The Sacramento Union, and news editor Randy Hagihara, fresh out of a local community college. It folded for a lack of ad revenue after gaining 3,000 subscriptions. Chaneck later became a founder of a regional chain of weeklies for senior citizens, and Hagihara the head- hunter of Los Angeles Times, respectively.

The weekly English edition of the vernacular Korea Times daily served as the lone English voice for the Korean community before, during and after the 1992 riots, but this weekly, staffed mostly by second-generation reporters and interns, went down in its fiery 4.29 aftermath.

Few ethnic groups in this nation of immigrants have achieved such explosive growth in academe and small enterprises and information technology ventures as Korean America has. Tens of thousands of lawyers, doctors, professors, engineers, scientists, financial and business executives, and public servants abound among us.

Media reports brim with spectacular individual successes in governments, media, medicine, Wall Street, trades and academia and scientific research. But the disengagement of these American-educated professional elites from the struggling immigrant settlements —except for a splendid few — has left the huge leadership vacuum. Their absence and silence in media, politics and coalition efforts is thundering.

No wonder. Today’s movers and shakers of Koreatowns show little clue as to:

—Why Korean Americans were singled out from among 100 different ethnic-language groups as a convenient scapegoat for the enduring social and racial injustices that had tormented South Central L.A. for decades.

— How to bring about uniting the increasingly diverse Korean community, consisting of monolingual first-generation immigrants and their English-speaking children, of inner-city poor inhabitants and suburban middle-class people, adoptive and biracial generations, Korean women married to former military servicemen, and their children, and descendants of the first-wave pioneers.

But not all is gloom and doom.

At least, two feisty quality ethnic magazines –Koream Journal and non-profit Korean Quarterly –have thrived on nothing but adversity, sacrifice and physical exhaustion— a small miracle indeed.

They are our fragile but precious English voice. Without them, Korean America will be invisible to the English-speaking world.

I dare say these periodicals represent a rare window into our fast evolving body politic, beyond birth, geography, creed, border and even race.

Koream, founded 18 years ago by a remarkable father/son team (publisher Jung Shig Ryu and editor in chief James Ryu), has elevated the local magazine to a national presence among the rapidly expanding ethnic media. Its writings have won top awards in the New California Media contest (Ethnic Pulitzer) almost annually.

Ditto the 10-year-old quarterly based in St. Paul in Minnesota, strictly independent, with a national reputation among independent media.

What’s so unique is that it’s spearheaded by an American adoptive parent, as Korean American as any Korean American I know. It’s an all volunteer operation.

In my book, Korean Quarterly is a truly global publication for Koreans everywhere when it comes to depth, scope, insight and vision. Many contributors are Korean adoptees based in nearly all continents. It covers Korean and Korean America culture wall-to-wall.

It’s a special calling that demands a vow of poverty. Editor Martha Vickery, a veteran state worker, and her husband-partner Stephen Wunrow have practiced it without a hint of rancor. Nobody draws salary except expenses incurred in preparation.

In this digital era, like most print media, big or small, Koream is in its mortal struggle to keep alive as the last English monthly for Korean America.

Just imagine a global mega-metropolis like L.A., boasting the largest Koreatown in the world outside Korea, without a single English periodical for its quarter million Korean inhabitants.

If we ever let our own investment in Koream gone with the wind, we surely will have abandoned our existential medium of communication with our diverse neighbors in the City of Angeles.

7 thoughts on “Unlearned Lesson of 4-29

  1. Thank you for your contributions to journalism and the Korean/Korean-American community, and also for your insight into the threat that a loss of communication/voice presents to all immigrant families and communities.

  2. What an honor to have Mr. KW Lee as a Guest Offender! I learned so much today. Thank you.

  3. Thank you, K.W. Would it be possible to hear a brief summary of your thoughts on the singling out and unification of Koreans? Insights into the latter point would be applicable to Asian America generally.

    Very briefly, I’m of the opinion that point 2 isn’t really possible, at least with regard to Asian America (I haven’t thought about it in an intra-Korean context); the class, cultural, and linguistic differences are too divergent. Attempts at unity strike me as somewhat arbitrary, particularly when “Asian” gets expanded to South Asians and Pacific Islanders.

    To briefly compare with another ethnic group, while African-Americans have not been wholly successful in unifying (class will always be an issue, until we get to a Star Trek level lack of scarcity), to the extent that they have succeeded in forming a loose “Black Identity,” they have done so because they have wholly embraced the idea of being American and do not have significant ties to non-American cultures, i.e. some sort of strong African identity or set of values. Their “Africanness” was wiped out by slavery, so they had to form a culture a values based solely in America. Despite the P.C. term “African-American,” they are not truly hyphenated (recent African immigrants aside), and generational differences are not nearly as vast as they are among Asian-Americans.

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