LOOKING BACK IN AWE: Living dangerously in America’s own killing fields

With the 20th anniversary of the April 29, 1992 LA Riots just around the corner, it’s déjà vu again.

On sobering reflection, I dare say that our Sa-I-Gu (Korean for 4-2-9) didn’t explode on that date.

Long before the greatest urban upheaval in modern America, hardy Korean mom and pop storekeepers, along with their long-suffering and stoic neighbors, had been living dangerously every waking hour, seven days a week, all year-round in the seething inner-cities.

Only God knows how many of these bedraggled newcomers from Korea — some call them wannabe Kamikazes — have been mugged, robbed, maimed or slain in their dogged pursuit of an elusive dream in America’s own killing fields.

And how many widows and kids had to carry on with their existential days and nights and yonder.

The figures may easily run into the hundreds and even more. The open season on these mute and impassive merchants seemed without an end.

As the editor of their lone English voice — the Koreatown Weekly, 1979-1984, and Korea Times Weekly, 1990-1993, both based in LA Koreatown — I’ve covered too many hourly shootings and robberies and attended too many funerals not to be touched, outraged, awed and, above all, renewed by these newcomers from the war-ravaged peninsular who seemed to thrive on adversity even in defeat or death.

I remember a couple years before Sa-I-Gu, Rosemead grocery store owner Hong Sik Shin, the 44-year-old father of two, was gunned down by two robbers during the Christmas holiday season.

But still, I can hear him admonish his younger son, Simon, then 13, over and over again: “I’m not telling you to study hard for my benefit, but for your benefit so you won’t end up like me.”

The elder Hong was working alone that fateful night when the gunmen entered his LA store to rob him. He resisted their demands for money, police said. In moments he lay on the floor mortally wounded.

However inconsolable, his widow would take charge of the family’s future. She told friends she intended to reopen the store and run it on her own. No doubt, Simon and his older brother, Frank, then 16, would be right by her side.

It’s been years and years since Christine Choe’s brother was robbed and killed in the family’s hamburger stand in Southern LA. I still remember what she told a local reporter after she returned to work after burying her brother, only to find that their store had been burglarized again. “People don’t care,” she said. “They think we got money from God or something. My mom worked so hard for this.”

No matter.

Within a span of a month, her brother and three other fellow Korean grocers in LA were blown away during holdups. Only two weeks earlier, another Koreatown shopkeeper killed the same gunman who had robbed him six times in just 12 days.

As every Korean daughter would, Christine only thought of her mom. “The poor Korean lady who lost her only son, her first son, the one who is supposed to grow up to take care of her someday.

Come what may, the Choe sisters were going to take care of their mom. Drying her tears, as she excused herself from the newspaper interview to return to her battle station, Christine swore as a-matter-of-factly: “We are going to make it. I know that.”

I knew that too.

How can I ever forget a spunky grocery lady named Ihn Kang Kim in Chicago? She survived the March 25, 1979 nightmare in which she watched her husband murdered in the cold-blooded robbery of their Broadway store.

This story, as she told to a local reporter, ran in the April 28, 1979 edition of Koreatown Weekly, the first brutal murder piece in the English weekly I and teammates Steve Chanecka and Randy Hagihara had founded in LA Koreatown.

The couple had bought the store after six years of 24/7 hard work and penny-pinching, when a gunman came to rob and kill. The killer took $250 cash and watches from her husband, led them both into the store’s dank basement, shot him and then fired the gun twice more and stabbed her.

The killer turned out the light and climbed the stairs and nailed the basement door shut.

Her husband lay next to her, near death, gasping. Her hands reached out to cover his wound and stop the bleeding.

“Must we die like this? Must our dream end like this in ashes? I will not let my husband’s dream be broken for nothing. I will not.”

Step by step, she crawled up the stairs, to the door that was shut. She began to tear at the wall with her bare hands, scratching and ripping. Her skin came off her fingers, as she opened a hole and squeezed herself through it, to seek help from a passing car.

She lay in shock for weeks in the hospital. A month and a half later, she returned to reopen the store. “I will not go back to Korea,” she said. “I will not move away from here. This store was my husband’s dream. I will not let the dream be broken.”

In the beginning it was hard: “I was crying inside, but I sing song every morning to myself. One is a Korean hymn that says, ‘Soon the dark of night will come, while there is still light; don’t waste time, work hard and good things will come.’

“That makes me strong, and I say, all night, I am young. I am in America, and I am on my way.”

The survivors like Simon, Christine and Ihn Knag have given life and substance to that elusive thing called the Koreans-never-give-up Spirit, which seems to endure even in defeat and death.

In their darkest hours they have shown us that undying legacy.

As we silently grieve for our fallen dongpo (fellow countrymen) on this 20th anniversary of Sa-i-gu, we die a little but carry on with our daily life the only way we, the people of Hahn, know by heart.

Epilogue: For millenniums, Jewish people have wandered this earth as pariahs, but those who left Russia and East Europe to escape pogroms in the middle 19th century have achieved “a normal life” in the New World they had yearned for centuries.

It’s a beautiful ending to an ancient story — an epic with a great ending.

Ours is only a century old. However, at the risk of sounding biblical, I’m tempted to envision the beginning of a tribe of the latter-day Diaspora wandering this vast continent — the Korean Americans.

What matters is that our ancestral god called Hananim has taken pity on our collective wretchedness since time immemorial and endowed us with this heavenly gift for survival in our storm-tossed passage ahead: that Koreans-never-give-up spirit called Stamina.

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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