Jung Hui Lee and her husband emigrated from Korea to the United States in 1972, settling first in Virginia and later in California in pursuit of the “American Dream”. They raised a family in Los Angeles and for many years worked multiple low-wage jobs to provide for their children.
During the 1992 L.A. uprising, Lee’s 18-year old son, Edward Jae Song Lee entered the fray to help protect his Koreatown neighborhood, which was virtually abandoned by police. On April 30, 1992 Edward was fatally shot by crossfire. Later, it was discovered he was shot by another Korean-American by mistake.
Days after Lee’s death, thousands of people assembled in Koreatown to march for peace. In all, over 300 businesses were burned and looted in the district, with damage exceeding $200 million. Many uninsured businesses never re-opened, uprooting the lives of Korean-American families who had labored for years to build their livelihoods from scratch.
In memory of the losses suffered in 1992, Korean-Americans call the unrest "Sa-I-Gu," or 4-2-9 in native pronunciation. It is remembered by many Korean-Americans as an awakening to their minority status, a time they felt abandoned by the government and unfairly portrayed by the media as aggressors despite inadequate law enforcement protection.
"Let It Fall: LA 1982-1992," an ABC News documentary television event, airs April 28 at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. central), marking the 25th anniversary of the L.A. uprising.
Lee spoke to John Ridley in an interview for the documentary "Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992.” The following are excerpts.
In Korea, I met my husband. But I did not know that my husband was in the process of filing for immigration; we were dating then. When the passport was issued, he told me about it: that we would go live in the United States. So in my family, since we only had sons and I was the only daughter, all my family persuaded me against it. But in the end, we wound up getting married and came to the United States.
I generally thought the United States was a country that helped realize any young person’s dream. There was Disneyland; there was Long Beach. I was full of hopes. More than anything grand, I imagined that I would work in a big office building, where I would go to work early in the morning, and leave by 5pm and have a plenty of leisure time for hobbies, like eating out at a fancy restaurant.
We arrived in Virginia in April or early May. It rained a lot and houses were made of bricks. In my mind, from the image of our country, brick buildings were prisons. West Gate Prison looked like that. So it scared me, and I did not like the darkness that resembled the prison color. Even now, you know the big trash bins, with several of those placed next to the building; it’s a terrifying memory even now.
My husband came as a skilled worker immigrant. He came as a motorcycle mechanic. In Virginia, we couldn’t even rent a room because of racial discrimination… And later we realized that they had never seen Asians before. So with the help of the owner – we got a basement room, where, when you look outside, you could only see people’s feet walking by.
The life was… in another word, I felt like we were not treated as human beings. And even on the streets, I could tell that people were not kind. And I was very scared of that unkindness…
I was not able to communicate in English, and I felt looked down on. And as I did not work, I did not have much contact with people. But when I went to a market, I would be met by stares of people looking at me as a stranger.
My husband’s income alone was not enough for us to get by… I think he was paid $2 an hour. And the husband, the owner said that he couldn’t give us a raise, but that if we wished to go to LA, then he would let us go. He had an older sister here, so we came to LA.
SURVIVING IN L.A.
My husband started working at a gas station, pumping gas. I started working at a sewing factory downtown. When it came to work, because our/his English was limited, there were no available opportunities. But by then I did not have the luxury of dreaming on any longer; all the dreams had dissipated. Getting by was the priority, to establish a living. Getting by was the priority, so we were not choosy over which job to work at. That is how this any-labor-solely-for-money began.
We earned about $300-400 combined. From that, we paid the rent, the electricity bill, and… and I had not realized it then, but life was like a war… Others came for studies, but for us, it was for survival, and we had not brought much money with us….we worked at places like Swap meet, cleaning jobs at night. So in the earlier days of our immigration, we worked three jobs. Looking back, it was a hard life.
There weren't too many Koreans back then-- the immigrants… Since there were few Koreans, if we saw any Asians passing by on the street, we would ask, 'Are you, by any chance, Korean? Would you like to come over to my house for a meal?' Even strangers were made familiar just by hearing that they were also Korean and lead us to open homes… the Korean community was hard to find.
BIRTH OF A SON
After I gave birth to my son, I was very happy…When [Eddie] was first born, I saw other Korean women having baby-sitters, and I didn't think it was appropriate to have others take care of my baby. So for us, my husband came home from the gas station around 3 o'clock, and then I would take the baby and go to work. We even worked night shifts. In the beginning, we brought our son to work. Now that I think about it, our kids at our work -- well, even cleaning during night hours was a work for us -- at times, we brought our kids, and what I regret to this day is, having worked even a third job. Money comes and goes. I think we didn't think far enough. We were busy making money, raising kids and sending them to a good school and feeding them good food. Taking those young kids to work, looking back now, it's like we dragged them to work. That, I still regret it.
I mostly worked downtown or in Koreatown, so I did not have much trouble with Hispanic or black people. Thankfully I lived without conflict until then. Then many Koreans, after I had already immigrated to the United States, came in the 80s. And they made money and started driving nice cars. And in the black neighborhoods… This is something I heard later in the media. Koreans made money in black neighborhoods, lived in white neighborhoods, drove nice cars; even I would have been jealous of this… And with the money they earned there, they should have served the community back, but they didn’t. I think this led the blacks to harbor ill feelings. They lived as slaves, if you look at history, and finally in the 1960s, through Martin Luther King, came this far. But from their perspective, Koreans did not seem to have suffered much, yet came to their neighborhood and made easy money and became well off. This must have angered them… Yes, this conflict was initially between the black and white races. But when you put Koreans into the scene, this must have made them think, “Yes, that owner of the liquor store only took money from me, but never gave back.”
EDDIE JAE SUNG
Since childhood, Eddie had a sense of justice and was full of energy. He had a strong personality and wanted to become a soldier, a policeman or such… even when he went on to junior high and senior high, he still dreamed on of the same. A policeman, a soldier, he always wanted to become one. So he was very active even in his thoughts and preferred being outside over studying at a desk. Even when he was young, he would go camping or fishing to somewhere far. His way of thinking was more mature than of his peers.
RODNEY KING BEATING
The Rodney King images on television shocked me. Really. Because Rodney King was just one person, but if you saw it on television, several officers beat him with a club and kicked him… I did not imagine that he would survive after such beatings. How could humans do that to another human being? I thought for sure he would die.
When the verdict was read on television we became ill at ease thinking, “The black community will not take this. Something might happen.” We sensed it. People talked of a possible riot, rising up, led by blacks….The word spread through calls, so we closed the stores and came home.
During that time, our son was with us, our daughter was with us, the entire family was together. So that’s when we were in such terror, thinking, ‘What do we make of this? What if something happens?’ That was our first encounter with a riot.
LATASHA HARLINS SHOOTING
Thirteen days after the Rodney King beating a 15-year-old black girl named Latasha Harlins was shot in the back of the head by a Korean shopkeeper who accused her of shoplifting. A jury found the shopkeeper guilty of involuntary manslaughter, but the judge gave her 5 years probation without jail time. The incident escalated tensions between Korean-American and black residents of Los Angeles.
That had a profound impact on me personally. Because had that incident not occurred, my son might not have died. The woman [who shot Harlins] was named Du Soonja.
Du Soonja shooting at the back of the girl leaving [the store] it’s 100 percent the woman’s fault. I only knew that Du Soonja was beat up by Harlins and had a black eye. So without knowing the full story, I just thought, “wow, she’s badly beaten.” But I don’t think it was justifiable to kill. Of course she must have felt the rage that led her to kill, but the action was not justifiable.
RIOTS ON TV
On television, they would visually focus on fires and looting… And the broadcasters, though it was not a conflict between Koreans and blacks, they began to add those elements little by little. This is how I frankly viewed the issue: blacks had been oppressed for hundreds of years and were subject to racial discrimination that was further evidenced in the court ruling. But how the broadcasters continued to put Koreatown into focus and made an issue out of it, both puzzled and enraged us. There, we were faced with a discrimination of language. That’s what I thought. So we said amongst ourselves that this shouldn’t be. But our voice was so faint because the Korean community was very small. And the broadcasters painted it as a conflict between Koreans and blacks and made it big, in my opinion.
That day, I only watched the television and felt ill at ease, but still thought that it would never come to my house. The route that the black rioters took was wide roads like Western and Vermont, and it kept getting closer to our home… my son went out despite my dissuading him from getting involved. My son got sucked into the war.
Because though he was born here, he experienced the difficult times when he was young, when we had brought him to our workplaces in our struggling days. We had brought him to the swap meet, and he helped us, so he knows. So he thought all that we had amassed, although not a lot, was about to disappear. So he was very enraged and convinced that he had to go out and combat. Or if not, help at least.
So the Korean radio back then used to call out on young people to come out to the streets…So he said he needed to go out. And I said, “No, you can’t. You need to protect us.” And we had an arguments saying, “You can’t go out.”…
I wanted to go out, too, honestly. I am also the type to get enraged by that kind of thing. But I couldn’t say, “I also want to go out with you, son.” It’s just how I secretly felt. … When the radio broadcasted that battle story, my son asked about it and I explained. Then he said, “This is it!” “Let’s go out, mother, and throw at least one stone and stop this….The radio broadcast seemed to be firmly convinced in stating that the blacks were invading in, that the blacks were targeting Koreans, and that it was a conflict between Koreans and blacks.. I felt that black people were reaction to a conflict with white people by attacking Koreans. And I thought “How could they be so reckless?” “Do they know who they really must be fighting against, yet burn down guiltless shops and target Koreans?”… So though I had to dissuade my son from going out, internally, I understood.
That day, around 10 o’clock, around then, a woman called Radio Korea. I heard this story myself. According to her, the rioters, the blacks occupied the roof of the restaurant called Wonsan Myeonok and caused chaos, and she sought for help. Then Radio Korea without verifying, well there was no such verification process then, they just had to believe incoming reports. It was an emergency situation to learn of the rioters being up there. So they had live broadcast soliciting help for that. But never in my dream, had I ever imagined that my son would go there.
Even before I saw the papers, the radio had announced that there had been a Korean victim. So when I connected the dots, I came to learn of the place, and that the young man on the paper was my son.
My son was shot by someone who had fired from the roof, and it turned out that the people on the roof weren’t blacks, but Koreans.
WHY SPEAK NOW
I came to hope that something like this would never happen again. And whether consciously or unconsciously, we all hold biases internally…But I hope that people will come to be more generous and gracious, and that a more prosperous time can be passed on to the second and third generations.
I think that event led Koreans to a different thinking. Before, people used to be more self-absorbed in trying to make it out here, but the thought that it should no longer be so, that Koreans must rather unite, that Koreans should not just be in hiding, was birthed in the mind of all.
Those of us of the first generation, including myself and others, have no particular strength. We are just loud. But the second and third generations are the ones to lead that united Korean community, and I hope for that.