PARTING SHOTS: Unlearned Lesson of 4.29: The English Voice: The Key to Urban Survival

“Round up the usual suspects,” the corrupt Vichy French captain Renault tells his men at Rick’s gambling joint in the classic romantic drama “Casablanca.”

With the 18th anniversary of 4.29 (Sa-I-Gu) just around the corner, I can’t help but hearing his mocking order reverberated during the fiery siege of LA Koreatown in which Korean Americans witnessed their American Dreams go up in smoke overnight.

Have we learned anything from America’s first media-fanned urban pogrom, which gutted more than 2,000 Korean businesses and ruined 10,000 lives  — to the tune of nearly a half billion dollars in property damage alone in the City of Angels?

“Round up the usual scapegoats.”

Come the next fire, Korean Americans may end up as America’s favorite urban scapegoat.

Today, we number a million and a half, but cannot claim a single English-language daily or weekly or broadcast outlet — in stark contrast with our Chinese and Japanese American neighbors empowered with English papers for so many years. Without our critical, proactive English voice, we have been shut out of the news cycle with devastating consequences, in cases of fast-developing urban unrest or anti-Korean rumor — or race-mongering.

Koreatowns scattered across the country’s seething urban centers stumble along half-mute, half-blind and half-deaf — without the common English medium of communication in this nation of competing groups and interests.

How can we ever expect our Latino, black and other ethnic neighbors to get to know us as we really are — except through the mainstream media that has so often portrayed Koreans and Asians in general as strangers and permanent foreigners since the arrival of our pioneers in the rocky shores of California?

These are harder times with rising tension everywhere. Among the most misperceived and misrepresented minorities, our seemingly thriving tribe of voiceless newcomers is more vulnerable to potential flashpoints of ethnic conflict than ever before.

I ought to know. I’ve founded and edited two English weeklies: Koreatown Weekly, the first national English-language newspaper for the emerging Korean American community (1979-1982), and the Korea Times (English) Weekly (1990-1993) at a time of rising black-Korean tensions.

The Koreatown tabloid’s initial issues were produced in the newsroom of The Pacific Citizen, a weekly house organ of the national Japanese American Citizens League, thanks to the generous backing of its iconic editor, Harry Honda. The small multiethnic staff was run by my two partners, managing editor Steve Chanecka, former business editor of The Sacramento Union, and news editor Randy Hagihara, fresh out of a local community college. It folded due to a lack of ad revenue after gaining 3,000 subscriptions. Chanecka later became a founder of a regional chain of weeklies for senior citizens, and Hagihara the headhunter of Los Angeles Times.

The weekly English edition of the Korea Times daily served as the lone English voice for the Korean community before, during and after the 1992 riots, but this weekly, staffed mostly by second-generation reporters and interns, went down in its fiery 4.29 aftermath.

Media reports brim with spectacular individual successes of Korean Americans in government, media, medicine, academia and scientific research. But the disengagement of these American-educated professional elites from the struggling immigrant settlements — except for a splendid few — has left a huge leadership vacuum.  Their absence and silence in media, politics and coalition efforts is thundering.

No wonder. Today’s movers and shakers of Koreatowns have little understanding of the following:

Why Korean Americans were singled out from among 100 different ethnic-language groups as a convenient scapegoat for social and racial injustices that had tormented South Central LA for decades.

How to unite the increasingly diverse Korean community, consisting of monolingual first-generation immigrants and their English-speaking children, inner-city poor inhabitants and the suburban middle class, adoptive and biracial generations, Korean women married to former military servicemen, and descendants of the first-wave pioneers.

But not all is gloom and doom.

Two feisty, quality ethnic magazines — KoreAm Journal and the nonprofit Korean Quarterly — have thrived on nothing but adversity, sacrifice and physical exhaustion — a small miracle indeed.

They are our fragile but precious English voice.  Without them, Korean America will be invisible to the English-speaking world. I dare say these periodicals represent a rare window into our fast evolving body politic, beyond birth, geography, creed, border and even race.

KoreAm, founded 18 years ago by a remarkable father-son team (Publisher Jung Shig Ryu and Editor-In-Chief James Ryu), has elevated the local magazine to a national presence among the rapidly expanding ethnic media. Its writings have won top awards in the New California Media contest almost annually.

Ditto the 10-year-old Korean Quarterly based in St. Paul in Minnesota, a strictly independent publication, with a national reputation among independent media.

What’s unique is that it’s spearheaded by an American adoptive parent, who is as Korean American as any Korean American I know. It’s an all-volunteer operation, and many of its contributors are Korean adoptees from around the world.

It’s a special calling that demands a vow of poverty. Editor Martha Vickery, a veteran state worker, and her husband-partner Stephen Wunrow have run it without a hint of rancor. Nobody draws salary except expenses incurred in preparation.

In this digital era, like most print media, big or small, KoreAm is in its mortal struggle to keep alive as the last English monthly for Korean America.

Just imagine a global mega-metropolis like LA, boasting the largest Koreatown in the world outside Korea, without a single English periodical for its quarter million Korean inhabitants.

If we ever let our own investment in KoreAm go, we will surely have abandoned our medium of communication with our diverse neighbors.

For our own sanity and dignity, let’s google Koreamjournal.com and Koreanquarterly.org with our subscriptions and or donations.

K.W. (Kyung Won) Lee worked for 40 years as a reporter, editor and publisher in both mainstream and ethnic journalism. He is best known for authoring an investigative series on the 1974 San Francisco Chinatown gangland murder conviction of immigrant Chol Soo Lee. In 1979, Lee founded the first national English-language Korean American newspaper, the Koreatown Weekly.

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