At first, it’s easy for John Song to appear composed and to speak calmly about the night his printing shop was looted, vandalized and burned to the ground during last spring’s riots.
Song, a 57-year-old former college professor, explains how he has tried to rebuild but can’t because the government will not approve a loan large enough to cover the $200,000 in damage to his Crenshaw business. And he describes how he lies awake at night, worrying that at his age, he will not have the energy or confidence to bounce back from his misfortunes.
Suddenly, Song’s detachment gives way to rage. He stares with fire in his eyes, and begins to burst out in Korean even though he speaks perfect English.
“I just have one question,” he says, raising his voice. “What did I do wrong? I’m a law-abiding citizen who paid my taxes. What did I do to deserve this?”
Nine months have passed since the riots left Song and about 2,300 other Korean-American business owners reeling from more than $400 million in damage. But there is little sign that the scars are fading.
The riots devastated the Korean community--destroying more than 200 businesses, forcing families to scrounge money from friends and relatives, and shattering the dreams of many immigrants who expected better lives in the United States.
Korean-Americans acknowledge that the unrest, in some ways, has helped unite their community and has opened their eyes to the need for more political power and better relations with other ethnic groups. But their voices still are tinged with distrust and resentment, and they do not hesitate to say that they still feel angry and alone.
“The No. 1 problem is that many have lost the American Dream,” said Ken Roh, a counselor at the Asian Pacific Counseling and Treatment Center. “They’ve worked 16 to 18 hours a day to establish good lives for their children, and then they saw all of their achievements in the past 10 years disappear in two days.”
Young-Soon Han, who lost her liquor store during the unrest, said a certain camaraderie has developed among riot victims because they are the only ones who can understand the feeling that takes over when everything is gone.
“A lot of the victims come here and get angry because we can’t get along with other people--not even our relatives,” said Han, as she doodled on a piece of paper at the Koreatown office of the Korean-American Grocers Victims Assn. “Everyone who comes here is not normal mentally, and I can see it in their eyes.”
About 550 Korean-Americans have sought help at the treatment center through a program for riot victims, said Roh. They are experiencing all types of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, ranging from chest pains to insomnia to rashes.
Roh points to a box of tissues sitting on a table across his desk and says that his clients have gone through several boxes since the riots. But sometimes, Roh said, he is the one who needs to dry his eyes.
“As counselors we should behave with empathy, not sympathy,” he said. “But many times when we counsel the riot victims we feel sympathy because their stories are so sad.”
During a recent trip back to South-Central, Sung Ho Joo began having flashbacks of the night his market went up in flames.
The 40-year-old Korean-American envisioned the destruction that left him $160,000 in debt. And he thought of how stress has stripped 30 pounds from his once burly body and has turned much of his jet-black hair a snowy white.
“I think of how the store used to be, and I can’t look at it,” Joo said, as he turned his back on the empty lot. “I’ve had no income since May, and I can’t pay my rent or utility bills. But the worst thing is that my family is falling apart. I fight almost every day with my wife, and my boy kicks the furniture and doesn’t listen.
“That’s what I worry about the most because if families can’t hold together, then that’s the end.”
Many riot victims blame the government for their woes. They resent new restrictions on stores selling alcohol, and they say federal disaster relief has been inadequate.
Shortly after the riots, the Los Angeles City Council passed a law requiring store owners who sell alcoholic beverages to go through a public hearing process before rebuilding. Under the ordinance, city officials can impose conditions on liquor store owners, such as requiring them to shorten their hours or hire a security guard.
Although all 16 of the merchants who have gone through the process have received approval to rebuild, there is a feeling among Korean-Americans that the city has been dragging its feet by postponing several of the hearings.
“We have been beaten up to death, and we can’t stand up,” said Han. “City Hall keeps discriminating against us, and that’s very ugly and mean. We’re not supposed to be victimized again.”
Ted Stein, president of the City Planning Commission, said some cases have been delayed for further study by the city attorney’s office or for environmental review.
“No cases have been purposely delayed in any case, shape or form,” Stein said.
In addition, many Korean-American riot victims did not qualify for or stopped receiving Federal Emergency Management Agency money. Some victims also have been unable to secure large enough loans from the Small Business Administration to rebuild their businesses.
A survey of 150 Korean-American merchants by the Mid-Wilshire Neighborhood Opportunity Center showed that the average loss reported by merchants was $180,816, while the average SBA recovery loan was $136,894. The survey, taken by telephone and in person, also found that merchants received an average grant of $6,636 from FEMA.
As of last week, the SBA had given out $277 million in loans to all the city’s riot victims; FEMA has distributed $117 million.
While many Korean-American merchants blame the government for blocking their efforts to rebuild, Annie Cho, a Korean-American staff member of Rebuild L.A., said in some cases it is the riot victims who are delaying the process.
“There is a lot of hesitation because everyone is so worried about their safety and well-being that they don’t want to get out and reopen their businesses,” she said. “I think Koreans have to get over the obstacles. It’s time for us to assess where we’re going, and business owners have to decide what they want to do.”
Results of a telephone survey conducted by the Korean-American Inter-Agency Council found that only about 44% of the 322 Korean-American merchants surveyed have reopened. Of those who haven’t, 60% want to open another type of business and 71% want to move to another area.
While the rioting left its victims psychologically and financially scarred, the unrest has rippled throughout the entire Korean community, forcing Korean-Americans to acknowledge their political shortcomings, seek peace with other ethnic groups and try to come together.
Of the 167,000 Korean-Americans living in Los Angeles County, only about 21% are registered voters, said Robert Park, program director of the Korean-American Coalition. About 2,000 Korean-American voters registered after the riots, he said.
No Korean-Americans sit on the City Council, the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the county Board of Supervisors or in the Legislature. And while many speak optimistically of the recent election of Jay Kim, a Korean-American from Diamond Bar, to the House of Representatives, most Korean-Americans admit they wield little or no political power.
But Park believes that could change.
“Right before the June primary, we received 1,000 calls in one week from people wanting to register to vote,” Park said. “Many people were frustrated and they realized what kind of effect the lack of political power had on them. They now want to be part of the process.”
When it comes to race relations, there is a general realization among Korean-Americans that they could be targeted for more violence unless they build closer ties with other ethnic groups.
To bridge the cultural gap, the Rev. Hee Min Park of Young Nak Presbyterian Church said his church has awarded scholarships to black students, invited black leaders to address the congregation and has helped send a group of black students to South Korea.
“We realize that we can’t be an island,” said Charles Park, a Korean-American who owns a bakery in East Los Angeles. “Before we had tall walls around us because we had our own restaurants, stores and entertainment spots. Now we know we have to work with different groups.”
Despite these efforts, Korean-Americans still feel a backlash from the fatal 1991 shooting of African-American teen-ager Latasha Harlins by merchant Soon Ja Du during a dispute over a bottle of orange juice.
And teen-agers such as Thomas Suh, whose father lost his job as a gas station manager as a result of the riots, said some Korean-Americans have been subjected to more racism since the unrest.
“The riots, in a way, allowed the racism to surface,” Suh said. “In the bathrooms at school, I hear other people call us gooks. And in our buses, we have four sections--where Koreans and Asians sit, where blacks sit, where Latinos sit and where whites sit. If there is no room in your section and you try to sit in another section, they’ll say things like, ‘You ain’t sitting here, honey.’
“It made me angry that after the riots, everyone was saying we need to understand other groups when they don’t understand us.”
The riots also united, as well as created rifts, within the Korean community.
After the unrest, nine community organizations formed the Korean-American Inter-Agency Council.
“Prior to that, agencies were not working together,” said Roy Hong, director of Korean Immigrants Workers Advocates. “But we felt individual agencies could not effectively help the victims. This effort symbolizes the coming together in the community.”
But in nearly the same breath, Hong describes the tensions that erupted within the community over the distribution of $4.5 million in aid from the South Korean government and $6 million in donations raised locally.
“The money really split us,” he said. “There was bickering that some people were paid twice or three times and that some people did not receive any money. But the primary dispute was who was going to distribute the money. This is still the basic source of bitter feelings in our community.”
Likewise, the riots brought together different generations of Koreans, and then in other ways, pushed them apart.
Since the riots, several of the 1.5- and second-generation Korean-Americans have become active in the Korean community--starting up organizations, taking over leadership roles and representing the community in the mainstream media. Generally, those who place themselves in the 1.5 generation emigrated to the United States as children, speak fluent English and understand American customs.
Ryan Song, a 1.5-generation Korean-American who now serves as director of the Korean-American Grocers Assn., gave up his job as an attorney at a Downtown law firm to help Korean merchants recover.
“After the riots, there was a need to have a voice, and since many first-generation Koreans have language limitations, the 1.5- and second-generation were charged with bigger roles,” Song said.
Although first-generation Korean-Americans say they appreciate the involvement of the younger generation and believe the community can make gains only as a united group, there is still a feeling among some recent immigrants that the younger generation cannot represent their views.
“The first- and second-generation have different philosophies,” said David Kim, a first-generation Korean-American and chairman of the grocers association. “The second-generation doesn’t know much about what it’s like to do business in South-Central.”
Angela Oh, a second-generation Korean-American attorney who found herself cast in the role of spokeswoman for the Korean community after the unrest, said the riots threw together first-, 1.5- and second-generation Korean-Americans.
“But I already feel a drifting apart,” she said. “Someone once said to me, ‘You’re like a trout who was raised in fresh water, then thrown in the sewer and now can’t swim in the stream.’ I guess that means that maybe I can’t fully understand their issues.”
Still, many are hopeful that the community will regain its pre-riot prosperity and emerge wiser.
“I think they’ll experience hardship for some time,” said Eui-Young Yu, a Korean-American sociologist at Cal State Los Angeles. “But it was a very good learning experience, because people had expectations of the city and government and learned the reality that they can’t afford to depend on anyone.”