Youn-Jin Kim was justifiably proud when he and a partner bought Giant Video in Inglewood two years ago.
The 39-year-old Korean immigrant already owned a video store in Hawthorne, but the second store--purchased 15 years after he left his native land--had finally brought him within grasp of the American dream.
But last week, the dream for which he had scrimped and saved and worked 16-hour days went up in flames during the lawlessness of the riots.
"It's unbelievable. It's totally unbelievable. I can't say anything else," Kim said in anguish this week.
Today, Kim and his wife, Jung-Sil, also known as Clara, are trying to make sense of their loss, the anger and hatred that led to the violence and the impotence of police and fire officials to protect their life savings from harm.
"I'm a victim . . . I'm not forgiving them who destroyed my business, but I can understand a little bit," Clara Kim said this week. "I have money to buy shoes, but they don't. I have money to buy food, they don't. So when there's no rule, no law, no policeman, who is going to pass that temptation? For them, it is hard."
Although the Kims' video shop did not generate significant tax dollars for the city of Inglewood, local officials are nevertheless pained by its loss.
"The majority of the businesses in Inglewood are small businesses," said Shannon Howe, executive vice president of he Inglewood/Airport Area Chamber of Commerce. The local economy is "not going to miss one small business, but it is the basis of our small business community here and every small business is important," she said.
Like dozens of South Bay shop owners who saw their livelihoods ransacked or set ablaze, the Kims have lost a sense of security about their future. By unlucky coincidence, they had just canceled their insurance policy on the Inglewood store and were looking for better coverage when their store was destroyed April 30.
Although they leased the building in a mini-mall near Crenshaw and Century boulevards, the Kims and their partner, Jeffrey Kang, had spent the last two years investing thousands of dollars in the business, adding to their inventory of videotapes and renovating the store's interior with new fixtures, shelves and a computer network.
Today, a tangle of metal supports is all they have to show for their $200,000 investment. Everything else, including whatever was left of their collection of 8,000 videotapes and all their receipts and business documents, was reduced to ash. A Chinese restaurant and a Chinese-owned one-hour photo shop were also destroyed in the fire.
Unlike some Korean families they know, the Kims and Kang will not go hungry as a result of the loss of Giant Video. The Kims still have their Hawthorne video store, which was untouched in the riots, and Kang has a job in an electrical manufacturing firm.
The partners also have applied for a loan with the Small Business Administration to rebuild the Inglewood store.
Nonetheless, the Kims, who have seen their income decrease by half because of the fire, will very likely have to pull their three daughters out of Harvard-Westlake private school, the one luxury they afforded themselves. And Kang, who had mortgaged his house in Agoura to invest in the business, is hoping he can sell the home before the bank forces him into foreclosure.
Because Giant Video employed four black youths, neither the Kims nor Kang believe the attack on their store was racially motivated.
"We didn't have any problems with the black community," Kang said. "I used to go there every weekend . . . always ask them how they are doing in school. If their grades dropped, I cut their hours.
"There are always some people in the community who are anti-everything," Kang added. "And those people took advantage of the confusion. They wanted to steal, burn just to relieve their anger and stress without really thinking what the consequences are."
Nevertheless, he and the Kims have seen numerous television interviews with black community leaders who seemingly harbor deep anger for their people. And they want those with hatred in their hearts to know that Korean blood also runs red.
"People who have a bad impression of Koreans, I want them to understand us," Clara Kim said. "We come from another country. We don't have a background or (fluency in the English) language. All we have is our labor. Please don't complain to us that we only work and know the money only. We have to work harder than other people . . . to survive."
The story of how this immigrant family fashioned a place for themselves in mainstream America is common to those in their community.
Youn-Jin Kim and his wife, Jung-Sil, moved to Hawthorne in 1977, soon after they graduated from college in their native Seoul. Youn-Jin had studied chemistry at Korea's premier university while his wife had studied commercial art and ceramics.
In a tiny country overflowing with talented and educated citizens, their college degrees could not guarantee good jobs. So the newly married couple moved to Hawthorne, where Jung-Sil had a brother, to start their life together.
They were, they now admit, naive at first. They looked for jobs in their fields, but their lack of fluency in English was an unsurpassable barrier.
So they took jobs in the jewelry store operated by Jung-Sil's brother and saved their money for three years before opening a business of their own: a gift shop in Los Angeles' Koreatown. They bought a home in Canoga Park and eventually sold the gift shop to open a one-hour photo store.
In 1986, the Kims and their three young daughters--Teresa, Julia and Carol--moved to a new home in Northridge and sold the photo shop to open Video Max in Hawthorne. Four years later, they pooled their savings with Kang's to buy Giant Video in Inglewood.
Because Kang had other employment, it was left to Kim to make sure the Inglewood store was well-managed. While his wife cared for the children and worked part time as a receptionist at another business, Kim divided his waking hours between the Inglewood and Hawthorne stores, spending 16 hours a day stocking the shops and balancing the books.
There was no time for vacations or holidays. And there probably won't be any for some time to come.
Since the fire, Kim has had no choice but to cut some of his employees' hours. He is making up the difference himself.
So far, he and his wife have ignored the pleas of family members to leave Los Angeles and return to Korea. After 15 years in this country, they have too much at stake here.
They hope they can rebuild the Inglewood store soon. If they get their way, it will be in the same location, serving the same customers they had grown so fond of over the past two years.
"We have three children who grow up here," Clara Kim said. "It (may be) a long way to wait, but because of them, we have a hope."