T.S. Chung : Seeking to Coalesce the Korean-American Community

Steve Proffitt is a contributing reporter to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." He interviewed T.S. Chung at the attorney's home in Hancock Park

He calls himself a "one-and-a-half" generation Korean-American. Tong Soo (T.S.) Chung was born in Korea, and came with his parents to Los Angeles when he was just a few months shy of 15. Now 36, he is a founding partner in the city's largest Korean-American law firm and finds himself in a position to speak for both first-generation Korean immigrants, who identify with their homeland, and second-generation Korean-Americans, who have taken on much of this country's culture as their own.

Barely able to speak English, Chung enrolled, in 1970, at Hollywood High as a sophomore and made such quick progress that he graduated a year early. He then attended the Phillips Academy at Andover, where he polished his English skills before attending Harvard. Chung earned a master's degree at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and then returned to Los Angeles to take his law degree at UCLA.

While still studying law, Chung helped found the Korean-American Coalition, a group that included among its initial goals the fostering of understanding between the generations in the Korean-American community. Since then, Chung and the coalition have made attempts to draw the often isolated Korean-American community into the political process. It is a difficult task--until recently, most first-generation Korean-Americans may have followed political events back home, but they often ignored them here in their new home. The vast majority of Korean-Americans--some 80%--were born in Korea and at least one-quarter speak little or no English.

Chung, the father of two young daughters, is clearly worried about the future of Korean-Americans in Los Angeles. He believes if his community is to survive, it will need to overcome its own generational rifts and begin to form strong coalitions with other ethnic groups in the city. He was instrumental in organizing the Saturday peace march after much of Koreatown was torched in the wake of the Rodney G. King beating trial. Like many in his community, Chung responded to the events with a mixture of outrage, sadness and guilt--a sense that in their single-minded struggle for economic survival, he and his fellow Korean-Americans may have neglected to take action that might have prevented the widespread damage his community suffered at the hands of arsonists and looters.

Question: Some people in the Korean-American community are saying they don't know who their leaders are, that there is no consensus about who speaks for Korean-Americans in Los Angeles. Is that part of the problem?

Answer: Well, I don't think our problem is any worse than any of the other communities. . . . In every ethnic community that I know of, there are many different leaders. In ours, it is compounded by the fact that we have a generational gap that is also a cultural gap. The majority of Korean-Americans in this country are Korean-born. They typically came here after finishing their education, and most have served in the Korean army. Most were probably married when they came to this country. So their roots and their way of thinking are Korean.

Then we have the increasing number of second-generation Korean-Americans, many about college age or just a bit older. They identify much more with America, and there are great cultural gaps between them and their parents. These second-generation children can speak a little Korean, enough to order food--but they probably can't read a Korean newspaper.

Living through the riots, I kept wondering, as one-and-a-half generation Korean-Americans, where we had failed. What could we have done better to protect our parents' generation? Could we have done more with the power structure to get the police and National Guard into our community earlier? Should we have done a better job of community relations so that we might have prevented this from happening? There is a sense that we failed.

Q: What was the relationship of the Korean-American community and the LAPD before the riots, and how has it changed since?

A: Blacks complain about treatment by the LAPD, but Korean-Americans were treated pretty shabbily by the Los Angeles police, even before the riot. The nature may be somewhat different--primarily unresponsiveness. Much of Koreatown is in the Rampart Division, and, for a long, long time, they didn't even have a Korean-speaking police officer. There are at least 100,000 Korean-Americans living within the city boundaries, about 3% of the total population. Within the LAPD, there are something like 7,500 officers--3% would be about 225 officers; I think we actually have about 25.

For years, many people who live in the Koreatown area have felt that they just haven't gotten adequate police protection. But during the riots, it reached gigantic proportions. There is a great deal of bitterness and a tremendous amount of distrust.

I think it will be a great number of years before we can create a feeling of trust toward the police in our community. Many merchants and property owners are concerned now that the National Guard has pulled out of the city. We have been assured by the mayor and the police that they can control the situation, but, given their performance during the riots, many of us are very skeptical. Many have come to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that they have to protect themselves. And that's a sad situation, because that is one function that government is supposed to undertake.

Q: Let's move to the relationship between the African-American and Korean-American communities. Are Korean-Americans ready to make a step to try to heal the wounds, or is it just too soon?

A: What's been missing, and I've been waiting to see this, is any of them coming up and saying, "I'm sorry." Everybody is talking about healing, but how can the victims begin to heal without some words of apology from the victimizers. And that's where I have been really disappointed at some of the black leadership. Not that they did it themselves, but I think that on behalf of some members of their community, black leaders have to come out and say, "I'm sorry." Not just to Korean-Americans--but to all of us in Los Angeles. And I'm still waiting.

Q: You've heard the charges that Korean-American shop owners are cold, arrogant, insensitive--that they don't give anything back to the community in which they operate their businesses. How do you respond to that?

A: Like all accusations, I'm sure some of them are true. But certainly not all the Korean merchants who did business in the area are the type who have been accused of those things. Personally, I know of merchants who had exemplary relationships with their customers, and still their stores were burnt down.

But even assuming that all their accusations are true, you still can't burn their stores down and try to shoot them. That is just not the way things should be done. That's total anarchy. We don't live in that way--at least that's what I thought, that's what Korean-Americans thought.

Another thing makes me angry. There are a good number of wealthy and middle-class black Americans, and they don't live in South-Central. Why should they expect Korean-American merchants to live in that area? Just because they do business there? Black merchants who do business in that area, they don't live their, either. They don't have any right to expect what they don't do themselves from somebody else.

Q: A lot of the businesses torched in South - Central sold liquor, and a lot of people in that community think it is good that those liquor stores are not there anymore. Do you think Korean-Americans shouldn't attempt to rebuild a lot of those liquor stores--given the animosity?

A: Very few liquor stores in that area were built anew by Korean-Americans. These are stores that were transferred to Korean ownership in recent years.

As a person concerned about social well-being, there probably are too many liquor stores. But how do we go about eliminating undesirable businesses? I think we are talking about competing interests here. The way things are going, it makes Korean-Americans victims two times. By having the mob come and burn down the store first, and then having people saying, "Good riddance, don't rebuild it."

If you want to get rid of those businesses, do it legally. Buy them out! Pay them to leave. These people invested money to buy their businesses. If there is a better way, we should try it. But these special ordinances--singling out liquor stores and swap meets and requiring a public hearing in order to allow these businesses to reopen--the Korean-Americans feel they are being victimized again. And here again is an example of why, as a community, we have to organize for our own political representation.

Q: You've suggested that one way to improve relations would be the establishment of jointly owned Korean/African-American businesses. And yet there has been so much damage and so much pain. How would you even start?

A: You know, all this talk about black-Korean tension--it really wasn't that bad before the riots. In my opinion, most of the problems were few in number and isolated exceptions. There were many successful businesses run by Korean-Americans in South-Central--and if you treat your customers badly, you won't stay in business. So that tells me that the problem was not that bad. Before the riots, we had begun work on some jointly owned projects. And I just think that if the people in the neighborhood know that such projects are owned by both Koreans and blacks, they will be much less likely to destroy those businesses.

I know many shop owners personally, and they are in a hurry to rebuild, because they have lost their source of income. But if we just hurry up and rebuild physically what we lost, I don't see that there is any guarantee that in another few years another eruption may not take place and destroy what they have rebuilt. So the choice is a mass migration from that area--just concluding that we can't do business there safely--or trying to do business better.

Q: The damages to Korean-American businesses were staggering--something like $350 million lost, hundreds of businesses burned out. How effective will the government programs be in helping these people rebuild their firms?

A: From our informal survey, the majority were not insured. If we are really lucky, insurance will cover maybe one-third of the damage. The next source of assistance is the Small Business Administration. But the SBA provides loans, not grants. What these people lost was equity--net worth. That cannot be replaced by loans.

People seem to think that government programs will pay for the damage. But most of these programs were designed for natural disasters, not man-made ones. The disaster-relief programs are geared toward getting people's homes back in shape, so they have grants to replace personal effects, to refurbish your home, for example. But for businesses that have been damaged, there are no grants. Only loans. So unless something changes, the victims are not going to be adequately compensated at all. Especially those business owners whom I consider to be part of the working poor.

If you own a home, no matter how modest, you don't qualify for food stamps, for AFDC, even though you don't have any income. If the current rules are not somehow modified, many of these business owners will lose their homes, and they will end up qualifying for this welfare six months down the road, rather than being able to get assistance now. These victims are not statistics--they are people with families and children, and their needs are simply not being met.

Q: You have a family--two young daughters and a wife . How are you feeling about the city? Are you optimistic, or are you thinking maybe I should take my family and get out of here?

A: My wife and I have had periodic discussions about leaving L.A. over the last several years--before any of this happened. . . . Still, before the riots, I never feared for my physical safety. But on that Thursday, Friday and Saturday, I was out in Koreatown, organizing, and I was really afraid. I thought someone might shoot me, just because I am Korean.

But I am still here, and now I am involved in the rebuilding, both the physical and the spiritual. I went to the First AME Church a couple of Sundays ago for the first time. I had always wanted to go to a black church--just to see what it was like. But after the riots, I finally went ahead and did it. And I was worried about what the congregation might think; but they are Christians and I'm a Christian--so I just decided to go. And it was a great experience. I went back last Sunday, and I am going to go as often as I can so that I can try and understand where they are coming from. I'm still hopeful. There's still idealism left in me.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World