PARTING SHOTS: Names of coalition builders that glow in our memory


Once upon a Yellow Peril/Jim Crow time, as a young man from Korea with ink in his blood ? probably the first Asian immigrant to be hired by a white daily in the continental United States ? I boarded a slow boat to San Francisco.

And at my twilight year of 84, this aging FOB can’t help but indulge in welling admiration and nostalgia for a brave band of Sansei activists, along with a handful of their Chinese and Korean counterparts, from the Bay Area to Los Angeles and New York.

Almost overnight in the flaming ’70s, this youthful vanguard in their teens and 20s literally broke the ethnic barriers that had trapped the disparate Asian immigrant enclaves in their own tribal (nationality) boxes throughout their subterranean passage to the apartheid West.

For decades, this transplanted rivalry based on embedded nationalism among the isolated Chinese, Japanese and Korean settlements has stubbornly persisted, even to this day and age, in stark contrast with their black and brown neighbors who had learned to rally behind their common causes as people of color.

No matter.

Cosmic telepathy was at work as these American-born coalition builders expanded beyond their respective ethnic boundaries. Some historians call this the first successful pan-Asian coalition movement in American history to free a nameless street kid from prison for a Chinatown gangland murder he didn’t commit.

FREED MAN — Sacramento Union minority affairs reporter K.W. Lee (L) with Choil Soo Lee after his release in 1983.

One March morning, some 30 years ago in 1983, Korean immigrant Chol Soo Lee walked out of death row at San Quentin State Prison to the free world, after nearly 10 years mostly in solitary cells.

The year was 1977 ? three years after Chol Soo Lee was convicted of the 1973 killing of Yip Yee Tak, a San Francisco Chinatown gang advisor, in a Sacramento County Superior Court. Years later, my own investigation showed that all parties involved in that trial ? the judge, the jury, the prosecutor, the arresting cop and his own court-appointed defense lawyer ? had assumed that Lee was Chinese. He spoke no Chinese.

I was working at the now-defunct Sacramento Union, hired in 1970, as the first minority reporter with the minorities affairs beat among the California dailies.

Alerted to the case by Tom Kim, a legendary Korean American community worker in Chinatown, I went on a guilt trip to San Francisco, some 90 miles away

Lee ? a child of the violence-ridden Chinatown streets (there was no Koreatown then) ? had been abandoned to the whims and ignorance of California’s ethnocentric criminal justice system.

The tantalizing name of Ranko (Yamada) kept popping up in the Chinatown streets, as I began backtracking the case in the early summer of that year.

Why would a Japanese be interested in helping a faceless Korean kid with whom none of his own people would care to get involved? She may have been one of several Asian females Lee had encountered during his nomadic years as a street person, I thought to myself.

Hers was just a name, filed away in my piles of memos and notes.

My weekend forays from Sacramento to Chinatown had been triggered by pleading calls from Sansei kids who had known Lee. They had sought coverage by both the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle ? without success. Lee was the wrong guy in the assassination of the Wah Ching gang’s Tak in a crowded Sunday Chinatown street corner.

“To be sure,”? said the late Tom Kim, “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 Lee looming as a Kafkaesque figure in the murder case. Visits with Lee in the murderous prison-gang infested Deuel prison near Stockton followed. But I was still groping for hard leads in the shadowy Chinatown alleys.

Then came a note from Lee: “A young lady by the name of Ranko Yamada has been trying to do everything she can to help me since I was arrested in June 1973 and is still trying to help me.”?

She was in her last term in law school, he said. “I’ve turned her down on her offer to help me in this (prison slaying) case, but if she still wishes to help me, I won’t stop her … As you get to know her, I am sure you will see (what) a beautiful person she is, as I do.”?

In the following days and weeks to come, I did get to know her. So did many volunteers of the struggling defense effort.

Yamada was “the first person who started the Save Chol Soo Lee drive, until we Koreans got together to help,”? recalled then UC Davis School of Law student Jay Yoo.

Among those who joined the effort was Dr. Luke Kim, now a retired Vacaville prison psychiatrist, who along with his school teacher wife Grace, and the Hong brothers in San Francisco, founded a defense committee within the emerging Korean immigrant community: “Ranko has never given up the hope of saving Chol Soo, when the people in the Korean community were first not interested in getting involved with his case.”

The rest is history.

Above all, she was the single most important link to hope for the condemned inmate through the darkest years of his storm-tossed life.

COMING TOGETHER ­— The first meeting of the Chol Soo Lee committee members in Sacramento, courtesy of the K.W. Lee Center for Leadership
COMING TOGETHER ? The first meeting of the Chol Soo Lee committee members in Sacramento, 1976.
photos courtesy of the K.W. Lee Center for Leadership

During our 2005 reunion, Lee unerringly rattled off more than a dozen names of Yamada’s die-hard cohorts who were part of the arduous five-year Free Chol Soo Lee mission: Jeff Adachi, Peggy Saika, Warren Furutani, Jeff Mori, David Kakishiba, and Mike Suzuki, all Sansei whose families had spent the World War II years in the desolate concentration camps; Grant Din, Peggy Saika’s husband Dr. Art Chen, Susan Lew, Chris Chow, Esther Leong, Derrick Liem, and Sandra Gin, Chinese Americans; and Tom Surh, Gail Whang, Sook Nam Cho, Jai Lee Wong, Min Paek, and Han Yun, Korean Americans.

I asked at what point did he believe it transformed from a Korean community matter to a pan-Asian movement?

“I think it was due to Ranko Yamada, (who was) very active in the Bay Area, drew other Asians into this movement. They got to know each other; their commitment to community services was so strong,” Lee said.

Yamada, Adachi, Suzuki, Leong, Surh, and Cho all have been pursuing legal services careers. Surh since has retired as a judge in Alameda County.

Lee elaborated: “Adachi is elected public defender in San Francisco. Mori is the head of the Asian American Recovery (Services). Furutani is a California state assemblyman. Chen is an Alameda County medical board member. Din, who rode his bike from Seattle to Oakland to help raise money for the defense committee, has been the executive director of the Asian Neighborhood Design. Kakishiba ? I love him to death ? has been director of the East Bay Asian Youth Center for some 20 years. Now he is running for empty seat of Oakland City Council.”?

An early Asian activist in the state capital, Saika has directed the Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy. Paek, who came to California at age 21, founded the Korean American Women Artists and Writers Association (KAWAWA) in San Francisco. Han has been with the Asian Community Mental Health Services. Suzuki has served with the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office.

Sandra Gin, then an anchor/reporter at Sacramento’s Channel 3, a local NBC affiliate, produced an Emmy-winning documentary on the Free Chol Soo Lee movement: “A Question of Justice.”? Long in charge of neighborhood development for the City of Sacramento, Liem has authored a master’s thesis, “Learning from the Past: A Retrospective Look at the Chol Soo Lee Movement.”? Chow also has pioneered the Bay Area’s broadcasting with an Asian American perspective.

Over the years as editor of three English-language newspapers (Korean Messenger, 1951-1955; Koreatown Weekly, 1979-1984; and Korea Times English Edition, 1990-1993), I have become discouraged and stoic by recurring divisiveness among my fellow Koreans in many community undertakings.

On such a melancholy occasion, my thought would turn to Yamada and her pan-Asian coalition warriors, and my spirit seems to grow a lot lighter.

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. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

One response to “PARTING SHOTS: Names of coalition builders that glow in our memory”

  1. […] To read K.W. Lee’s reflections on the Chol Soo Lee case from a January 2013 column in Nichi Bei Weekly, click here. […]

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