Koreatown: Riot Wounds The World Doesn't See

Los Angeles is a bitter place these days. I got a taste of it the other night when I went to see the hit movie Falling Down. In one scene, the hero, a middle-aged middle-American played by Michael Douglas, walks into a Korean grocery store in South Central and asks for change. The Korean, a surly looking fellow with a wispy mustache and a thick accent, won't give change without a purchase. The white guy, a laid-off defense worker having a bad day, goes nuts. "You come to my country," he scowls, "take my money, and don't even have the grace to learn the language." He then trashes the tiny store with a baseball bat. The Korean grocer cowers in terror. Nasty scene.

Even scarier was the audience--hooting and howling with joy. That's the way it was, at least, where I saw the movie, at the famous Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Leaving the theater, I passed Fred Astaire's and Gary Cooper's footprints, which were enshrined in cement in the 1930s. I wondered if Michael Douglas would get similar honors someday. Although I did enjoy the movie, I felt queasy at its invitation to join in a racist attack. That made me think more about the city's Koreans as an embattled community.

To find out how Koreans feel, I went to the movies again. This time, at an auditorium at the University of Southern California, where I attended the premiere of Sa-I-Gu (Korean for Apr. 29). The documentary chronicles--from the Korean point of view--the deadly riots in South Central following the acquittal of four white police officers in the first Rodney King trial. It focuses, painfully, on a half-dozen Korean women whose lives were shattered by the ordeal. A year later, as Los Angeles braces for more violence--depending on the outcome of Rodney King's civil-rights case and the Reginald Denny beating case--the particular plight of Korean store owners has gotten scant attention.

Like other Angelenos, I hadn't given Koreans much thought. Since the riots, we've been preoccupied by the general malaise that has spread over the economically depressed region and by thoughts of how to cope with the poverty and deep-seated social problems that the riots spotlighted. I guess most people figure that Koreans are a resourceful people who will rebuild and cope. But watching Sa-I-Gu gave me a sense of just how maligned and ignored Koreans feel. Korean merchants, after all, suffered more than half of the $800 million in riot damages. The film translates that mute statistic into human terms.

Arriving just after the lights went down, I inched my way to a seat in the back and watched the stories unfold. There's Jung Hui Lee, a mother whose all-night vigil waiting for her teenage son to come home ends with the tragic news that he has been killed by a fellow Korean, who mistook him for a looter. Another woman describes her sense of betrayal when neighborhood teenagers burst into her store, took whatever they could carry, then set the place on fire. "In that moment, I felt all my love for the black kids turn to hatred," she says. Through it all, there's rough footage of the looting and of neighborhoods in flames--with no police or firefighters in sight.

SILENT SOBBING. The women, all immigrants since 1970, tell the story of leaving Korea to start anew in Los Angeles. Ranging from their early thirties to a wizened grandmother in her eighties, many left comfortable lives in Korea to give their children a shot at making it in America. Flashbacks, told through glimpses of photo albums showing weddings, children playing, and family picnics, document their progress. Addressing the camera three months after the riots, the women still seem numb, suggesting that their problems have only just begun to sink in. "We made the movie in a kind of desperation," says filmmaker Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, who borrowed $20,000 to make Sa-I-Gu. "Korean Americans are individuals with roots and a history. We wanted to give them a voice."

One of the voices belongs to Young Soon Han, who came to L.A. in 1970 as a beautiful young nurse starting out life with her husband. They were happy for a while, succeeding with their family-run grocery store in South Central. But after her husband died in 1989, Han took over the store. And now it's gone, too. "We were young, and our dreams were small," Han says in the movie. As the film ended and the lights went up, I noticed the woman sitting next to me. She was Asian, and she was quietly sobbing. Then I realized she was Mrs. Han.

A few days later, I visited Han. It was a short trip: She now works at a relief agency on Wilshire Boulevard, just across the street from BUSINESS WEEK's Los Angeles bureau. Today, Wilshire cuts through Koreatown. But not long ago, it was the hub of upper-crust Anglo L.A. Down the street to the west is the now-defunct Ambassador Hotel, where the rich and famous used to kick up their heels at the Coconut Grove. To the east, there's the recently shuttered Bullock's Wilshire department store, a marvel of Art Deco architecture, where fashionable ladies went for lunch or afternoon tea.

In recent years, the big department stores and corporate law firms have moved out, and Koreans have poured in with their own offices, stores, barbecue restaurants, and billiard parlors. A jumbled maze of Korean signs seems to thicken daily, replacing the familiar with the foreign. Despite my efforts to be broad-minded, I can't help feeling a bit out of place.

REIGN OF TERROR. Han now spends her days haggling with government agencies and going to city meetings--on behalf of the relief agency she helped set up to aid other burned-out grocers. Her insurance policy paid her only a fraction of what it would take to rebuild her store, and even if she had enough money, she doesn't seem to have the heart to return to South Central. In fact, only five of the nearly 200 members of her group are now back in business, partly because of the city's tough new restrictions on renewing licenses to sell liquor. The measure, which was intended to prevent liquor stores from reopening, has in effect put hundreds of Korean groceries out of business. "We are being turned into scapegoats," she says. "We haven't had a penny of income in a year."

And the Koreans who have stayed in business now live in fear. In the past eight weeks, five Korean merchants have been shot and killed in or near their stores, while another nine have been robbed, beaten, or wounded by gunfire. Crime is on the rise, and Koreans often feel they're being singled out. What makes the killings even worse is that few non-Koreans seem to notice or care. "Koreans are under siege," says Angela E. Oh, an attorney who represents victims and their families. "There's a sense that we are fair game."

So I drove down to City Hall at dusk to attend a memorial service intended to draw attention to the Koreans' plight. Several hundred Korean Americans--neatly dressed young couples, children, and grandparents--pack themselves onto the wide staircase. They pray, light candles, make a speech or two, and softly sing a few hymns, before quietly making their way back to their cars. As the local television crews pack their gear, the little grimy park reverts to its usual state: dark and deserted. It's all finished in less than an hour. But for Koreans, Sa-I-Gu is still a long way from being over.

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