In the Shadow of Sa-ee-gu : CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE: Korean Communities in New York and Los Angeles.<i> By Pyong Gap Min</i> . <i> University of California Press: 261 pp., $45</i>

<i> K. W. Lee, former editor of the Korea Times English edition, is a special projects consultant at KCRA-TV in Sacramento</i>

Koreans call it sa-ee-gu--a native term for April 29, commemorating the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which turned their American dream into a fiery nightmare.

But it’s not just an L.A. fixation. Thousands of Korean American mom-and-pop storekeepers in other cities live in the shadow of sa-ee-gu as well. And it’s troubling to think how many of the stubborn, mute, bedraggled newcomers from South Korea have been mugged, robbed or murdered in America’s violent inner cities.

These are anxious hours for those who run retail stores for nickel-and-dime profits in the bleak urban spaces of Los Angeles. Some fear another racial firestorm, this time from their Latino neighbors, in the aftermath of the Nov. 11 slaying of a 17 year-old Latina who was sitting in the back seat of a car and shot to death by a Korean American grocer from Highland Park. The shopkeeper, who apparently believed her companions had stolen merchandise from him, reportedly “snapped” under the strains of mounting store thefts and a mentally troubled wife.


Cool heads have prevailed thus far, and the 51-year-old immigrant remains in jail, charged with murder. Yet this latest incident can’t help but evoke memories of the 1991 fatal shooting of a 15-year-old African American girl by a Korean American female grocer during a scuffle in South-Central. The grocer was convicted of manslaughter but given probation by a white judge. That decision outraged many African Americans and, along with the subsequent Rodney King verdict, helped set off the three-day looting and burning of more than 2,300 Korean American-owned stores in South-Central L.A. and the adjoining Koreatown.

Five years later, the Korean American community remains exhausted in body and spirit--and largely unknown to outsiders. Who are these “trigger-happy” and “greedy” strangers, these monolingual “vigilantes” enshrined in TV news stereotypes?

In “Caught in the Middle: Korean Merchants in America’s Multiethnic Cities,” Pyong Gap Min, a sociology professor at New York’s Queens College, presents an authoritative look at one of America’s most misunderstood ethnic groups. He has compiled an in-depth account of Korean America’s shopkeeper class, based on extensive surveys, interviews with trade-group leaders and analyses of little-noticed ethnic newspapers in New York and Los Angeles over the last two decades.

Throughout, the author doggedly argues that because of their unique economic role, Korean Americans find themselves “caught in the middle” between white wholesalers, landlords and government agencies on the one hand and black customers on the other. Because Korean Americans are engaged more than any other immigrant group in middleman enterprises--grocery, produce and fish retail--Min concludes that they inevitably get involved in inter-group conflicts. As a result, they are compelled to protect their economic interests through an increasing ethnic solidarity.

Yet this middleman theory is time-worn, race-based and misses the real causes of black-Korean conflicts. The author virtually ignores the more statistically significant issue of Korean-Latino relations. In doing so, he echoes the insular mind-set of many Korean Americans, one that makes bridge-building difficult.

Still, Min’s work offers invaluable insights and experiences critical to understanding inter-minority conflicts. “Caught in the Middle” should be required reading for politicians, CEOs, preachers, cops, educators, journalists, bureaucrats, ethnic leaders and anyone else who cares about the Bosnia lurking in America’s volatile urban centers.


Min immigrated to America in 1972 and earned his doctorate while operating a retail store for eight years in Atlanta. He has been deeply involved as an observer and participant in the protracted black-Korean conflicts in New York, including the controversial black boycotts of Korean stores in Brooklyn. Indeed, he helped organize the historic Sept. 18, 1990, rally in front of City Hall urging New York Mayor David Dinkins, the city’s first African American mayor, to help end the boycotts.

Korean Americans have also learned how to reach out to black neighborhoods through food programs, community donation drives and scholarships. Min cites many role models, including Harlem merchant Won Duk Kim, a pioneer bridge-builder with African American neighbors. While urging fellow immigrants to hire blacks, Kim himself set an example, making his four-man work-force all black. He donated money and merchandise to the community, and he led a group of 37 black pastors to visit South Korea. On the day after the 1992 explosion in Los Angeles, most Korean American merchants in New York closed their stores early. Kim was the lone Korean American in Harlem who kept his store open.

While stereotypes abound, the perception that Korean Americans are business-oriented is accurate. In Los Angeles, Min reports, 35% of Korean American adults are self-employed, exceeding the 23.4% rate for the next largest group, native-born whites of Russian descent, who are mostly Jewish. Mom-and-pop stores have become synonymous with the Korean American immigrants’ way of making a living in America, but their American-born children have largely avoided such work. Only 11% of U.S.-born Koreans in Los Angeles are self-employed, a rate lower than their white counterparts.

“Caught in the Middle” yields other surprises. Few readers may know that changing black hair styles helped launch Korean American capitalism in the United States. In the early 1970s, Korean American newcomers to New York started peddling made-in-Korea wigs in Harlem to meet the demands of new African American hair styles. Their businesses expanded in New York and Los Angeles, with many peddlers earning several hundred dollars a day. Soon they used these profits to open gift shops, menswear stores, grocery stores, supermarkets and cleaning outfits. By the mid-1970s, when black hairstyles changed during a recession, Korean American wig importers turned to other fashions, including hats, leather bags, eyelashes and jewelry.

Grocery retailing, however, continues to be the single biggest trade among all Korean American businesses in the United States, Min reports. In Los Angeles County, Koreans own 34% of all independent grocery and liquor stores. But contrary to popular belief, Korean American businesses with one or more employees hired mostly Latinos, outnumbering Korean workers. Only 5% of such employees are blacks. Meanwhile, Korean American garment factories almost exclusively employ Latinos, nearly all Mexicans.

A key reason, Min reports, is that Korean American employers view Mexican workers as hard-working, dependable, inexpensive and generally compliant. But he cautions that “as long as Korean businesses in black neighborhoods hire more Latinos than blacks, they are open to the charge of bias.”


Korean American lives are increasingly entwined with those of their Latino neighbors. Even Los Angeles’ Koreatown--the biggest Korean settlement outside South Korea--is in a Latino district. Yet Min’s 261-page book deals mainly with black-Korean conflicts, devoting three pages to Korean-Latino relations. This reveals a classic blind spot in the ethnically insular Korean mind-set.

For there is a symbiosis developing between Latinos and Koreans Americans, based on a common devotion to family unity and the immigrant work ethic. Disadvantaged in the general labor market Latinos, Min suggests, have found sheltering jobs among Korean American businesses. “They help each other,” he notes, but cautions that “the relationship is problematic,” because “Koreans can be charged with exploiting Latino workers. . . . The future of Korean-Hispanic owner-employee relations is likely to be tumultuous.”

What’s missing in the Korean American community--and in Min’s book--is a sense of inclusion, an abiding American ethos. Ethnic solidarity often means ethnic isolation, and that leads to tribalism. Today, the Southland’s Korean American community remains fragmented, without a consensus or shared goal, as a recent Los Angeles Human Relations Commission study concluded.

For Korean Americans--and other ethnic groups in Los Angeles--it’s time to heed the plea made by professors Eui-young Yu of Cal State Los Angeles and Edward T. Chang of UC Riverside. In summarizing the Korean American perspective at a 1993 symposium on race relations in Southern California, they wrote:

“Ethnocentrism and race-based politics fill the air around city hall, South Los Angeles, East Los Angeles, Koreatown and the walled cities of the suburbs. Humanity, civility and a cooperative spirit must prevail if we are to survive and prosper in an increasingly multiracial living space.”