CATALYST OF A MOVEMENT ? (Left to right): Ranko Yamada, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi and journalist K.W. Lee at a 2002 reunion. photo courtesy of K.W. Lee
It doesn’t take a village or a celebrity to launch a movement. It takes only a person.
In the 1950s, it took a humble, tired bus rider ? Mama Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Ala. ? to ignite the mighty Civil Rights Movement.
In the 1970s, it took a college kid named Ranko Yamada to launch what historians call the first successful pan-Asian American coalition movement to free an innocent Korean immigrant for a 1973 Chinatown gangland killing he didn’t commit.
In 1974, Chol Soo Lee was sentenced to life at age 21 for the contract murder of gang advisor Yip Yee Tak. While serving a life term in 1977, he was charged with killing a neo-Nazi inmate in a prison yard altercation. He claimed it was in self-defense, but was sentenced to death due to his prior Chinatown conviction.
In a 1982 retrial of the Chinatown case, however, the San Francisco jury acquitted him, and six months later Chol Soo Lee walked out of San Quentin State Prison’s death row free after serving 10 years in prisons, mostly in isolation cells.
Now in his 50s, Chol Soo Lee has been on a redemptive journey, sharing his death row experience with thousands of young Asian Americans ? especially those at risk ? in churches, classrooms, retreats and symposiums while seeking an apology from the City of San Francisco for his false incarceration.
She would be the person to take credit, but Ranko Yamada is the lone human being who had stood by convict Chol Soo Lee during the five darkest years of his 10-year ordeal.
Innately modest, the Sansei has steadfastly resisted the publicizing of her critical role in the movement.
No matter. Had it not been for Ranko and a handful of her fellow Asian American activists (mostly college and high school students), there would never have been the historic movement to right the wrongs committed by California’s criminal justice system, I dare say.
These unsung heroes have kept unbroken a precious human chain of supporters who have kept the flame for justice alive for the five-year drive mobilizing diverse ethnic groups, immigrants and the American-born, and old and young alike for a common cause.
The tantalizing name of Ranko kept popping up here and there in the streets of Chinatown, as soon as I began backtracking the “Alice in Chinatown”? case in the summer of 1977, three years after his 1974 conviction.
I was then working as the chief investigative reporter for the Sacramento Union (the oldest daily in the West) 90 miles away.
I was on a guilt trip. Chol Soo ? a child of San Francisco’s mean streets ? had been abandoned for the ignorance and indifference of the state’s ethnocentric justice system.
Why would a Japanese American kid be interested in coming to rescue a faceless Korean juvenile delinquent with whom none of his own people would care to get involved? Maybe, I thought to myself, she must be one of several Asian girls Lee had encountered during his nomadic years as a lone Korean youth in both Chinatown and Japantown.
My weekend forays from Sacramento to Chinatown had been triggered by pleading calls from third-generation Asian Americans who had known Chol Soo. He was the wrong guy in the Yip Yee Tak murder, they said, imploring, “Please do something.”
To be sure, said the late Tom Kim, then a pioneer social worker in Chinatown, Chol Soo was a messed up kid, but he would never gun down a human being in broad daylight in cold blood.
By October, I saw Chol Soo looming as a Kafkaesque figure in the Chinatown case. For whatever reasons, not one Korean soul had listened to his muffled cry for help. I had a sinking feeling. I was ashamed.
Visits with Chol Soo in the most violent state prison in Tracy followed. But I was groping for hard leads in the shadowy Chinatown alleys.
Then came a note from Chol Soo: “A young lady by the name of Ranko Yamada has been trying to do everything she can to help me ever since I was arrested in June 1973 and is still trying help me.”?
She was in her last term in law school, he said. “I wish to let you know I have turned her down on her offer to help me in this [prison slaying] case. I am going to court now, but if it’s still her wish to help me, I won’t stop her.”
Another letter followed: “She has made so many sacrifices on her term, work and money in helping me in any way she can … Even now she is still willing to help me after four and a half years of trouble that ended with the case. As you get to know her, I am sure you will see a beautiful person she is, as I do.”
In the following weeks, months and years to come, I did “get to know her.”? So did many volunteers of the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee. Chol Soo Lee was right. It’s difficult to single out any aspect of Ranko’s contribution to Lee’s struggles for justice because the level of her commitment had been so deep and varied, while she was also volunteering as a community lawyer for nonprofit elderly groups.
Raul Ramirez, a courageous former San Francisco Examiner reporter who himself risked a lot covering the Chinatown gang war scene, remarked, “She remained loyal to the case during those difficult months after his arrest, when few seemed to care and fewer were willing to help.”? I agree. Whenever occasions called for it, she was there to help, often at great danger to her life in the volatile streets of Chinatown.
Dr. Luke and Grace Kim, who have kept the faith with Chol Soo through ups and downs of the drive, recalled: “Ranko has never given up the hope of saving Chol Soo, when the people in the Korean community were not interested in getting involved.”
Getting to know Ranko has been a humbling experience for me. Above all, to the condemned man, she was the single most important human being who has nurtured his will to go through the earthly hell and back to precious ordinary life.
K.W. (short for Kyung Won) Lee worked 40 years as a reporter, an editor, and a publisher in both mainstream and ethnic journalism, and is best known for authoring an investigative series on the 1974 San Francisco Chinatown gangland murder conviction of immigrant Chol Soo Lee, upon which the 1989 film “True Believer” (starring James Woods and Robert Downey, Jr.) was based. His five-year-long coverage with more than 120 articles led to a new trial and an eventual acquittal and release of the prisoner from San Quentin’s Death Row. In 1979, Lee founded the first national English-language Korean American newspaper, Koreatown Weekly. In 1990, at a time of rising African America-Korean tensions in Los Angeles and other inner cities, he launched and edited the Korea Times English Edition based in Los Angeles, along with an internship program for both Asian Americans and other minorities.