DEAN OF THE COLUMBO J-SCHOOL: Passionate and profane, K.W. Lee fights on at 90

JOURNALISM LEGEND — Asian American journalist K.W. Lee speaks at a Nichi Bei Foundation Forum and Fundraiser in November of 2009 at the Asian Community Center of Sacramento. file photo

By STEPHEN MAGAGNINI

Special to the Nichi Bei Weekly

RANCHO CORDOVA, Calif. — The man with nine lives has made his last stand in his bunker in Rancho Cordova, a pale green house filled with “a tsunami of boxes,” more than 100 cartons representing a fierce lifetime struggle for underdogs from Seoul to Sacramento, Mexico to Manila, Watts to West Virginia.

In the center of his detritus, framed by a wall size photo of his beloved late wife of more than 50 years, Peggy Flowers, sits the silver and pepper-haired sage, railing against the Internet machine and decrying the “ice age of primitive print people. We had a glorious golden age, where we would spend 12 hours a day reading, meditating, working and using our brain for a public that used to read. We are facing our Orwellian future created by Harvard dropouts who started Facebook and Google.”

On this Friday afternoon in late November, Kyung Won Lee calls to mind the old newspaper TV show, “Lou Grant,” where a reporter’s fate was to end up alone in a one-bedroom flat in Long Beach, Calif. surrounded by his clips. But K.W. still lives in the house where he raised his kids, a phone call and an e-mail away from his devoted grandkids and thousands of journalists, activists and students he has mentored with his potent blend of passion, profanity and purpose. “You young shit!” he’s screamed at me multiple times, blowing smoke in my face and bruising my shoulder with an overhand right to drive home his exposé of California Air National Guard generals’ taxpayer-funded hunting and fishing expeditions and other tales of journalistic derring-do.

K.W. was once aptly described as the only person who walks down Sacramento’s K Street Mall with his fly open and knows it. That stark image of naked irreverence is the essence of one of the most improbable, illustrious and enduring characters in American journalism. He hates fancy restaurants, where he’s likely to be escorted out following a barrage of high-decibel profanity directed at the injustice of the moment. His wardrobe of choice is an ill-fitting suit ringed with cigarette burns and coffee stains over a flannel shirt. In the late 1970s, K.W. was sent to interview Gov. Jerry Brown when his editor Ken Harvey — a man of infinite wisdom and patience — pointed out his badly stained tie. So K.W. washed it in the bathroom sink, wrung it out and put the wrinkled mess back on. So every Christmas thereafter, we would take our own thread-bare ties and drape them over K.W.’s cubicle.

He brought his coffee to work in a thermos and got his hair cut at barber college. “I’m just a poor gook,” K.W. says with just a trace of mock humility. He labeled himself The Sacramento Union’s token “yellow journalist” — the rest of us were “round eyes.” His own wife, an emergency room nurse at a West Virginia hospital he met while covering cops for the Charleston Gazette, he affectionately referred to as “white trash.”

But for all his political incorrectness, few have defended the rights of poor “gooks, chinks, wops, Jews and white trash” as fervently as K.W., who walked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when King was a backwoods southern preacher, and covered “Mama Rosa Parks.”

I passed up the chance to attend the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism to study under Lee, dean of the Columbo School of Journalism. As a reporter he effected a studied ignorance, a child-like innocence, a fawning deference that disarmed his journalistic targets. “Excuse me, how come that toilet seat cost $5,000?” Beneath his bumbling, disheveled exterior — a style employed by detective Columbo in the TV series of the same name — is a shrewd, bulldog of an investigator aflame with righteous indignation.

K.W. Lee, thought to be the first Asian American to work fulltime on an American daily newspaper, is considered the father of Asian American journalists. His pen of justice has also exposed the plight of poor blacks in the Jim Crow South, West Virginia coal miners battling black lung disease and boatloads of immigrants in California, where he worked for The Sacramento Union and went on to found Koreatown Weekly, a bilingual weekly in Los Angeles. Lee was the first to venture into Sacramento’s Oak Park and Del Paso Heights neighborhoods, the first to chronicle the Manongs, the underpaid, ill-treated Filipino farm workers who led Cesar Chavez’s famous United Farm Workers grape strike, the first to write about the Mexican Mafia and other Latino prison gangs that established an international crime network from their prison cells.

In 1997 K.W. was enshrined in the so-called Newspaper Hall of Fame, the Newseum in Arlington, Va., which in 2000 profiled him in “Crusaders, Scoundrels & Journalists: The Newseum’s Most Intriguing Newspeople.” The article notes that Kyung Won is Korean for “source of good news,” but K.W.’s brand of good news uncovering every wrong, every slice of corruption, self-righteousness and hypocrisy — he doesn’t spare the rod for mainstream media. The Newseum quotes from a May 5, 1997 Sacramento Bee op-ed titled “Into the Roman Arena” after riots swept South Central L.A. following the acquittal of police officers who violently beat black construction worker Rodney King in March 1991 — an act caught on video by a civilian journalist:

Even before Korean and African Americans had a chance to get to know each other through their common struggles and sorrows, both groups watched themselves tearing each other apart…Instead of fighting together their No. 1 tormentors — crime and poverty — they were dragged into the Roman arena (by)..media managers in pursuit of ever high ratings.”

In 1979, when he prepared to take a leave from The Sacramento Union to start Koreatown Weekly, a defiant K.W. told me, “The Asian American perspective has been that of minority’s minority that has little or no access to the media and they are at the whim of how American opinion leaders view them in times of stress. You know who advocated concentration camps for 115,000 Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor? American liberals, Water Lippman, Earl Warren.”

“Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans — we learned from our sweat and blood and tears in California that we only trust those who do something for us. We don’t believe in all this phony liberal rhetoric.”

Even today, he describes President Donald Trump as “an interesting character born of the failure of U.S. liberals to hear the cries of the unwashed.”

K.W. Lee was born in 1928 in Kaesong, Korea, which was under Japan’s rule at the time. The youngest of five sons, he and his family later relocated to the southern Korea city of Kwangju when he was six, joining his four older brothers. His employment application to The Sacramento Union lists the Japanese Imperial Air Force as a previous employer. K.W., 15, was forced to serve as a radio operator on Japanese war planes, narrowly escaping the fate of a kamikaze pilot.

After making his way back to Korea at age 16 after Japan’s surrender, he came to the United States in 1950 to further his education and enrolled in a reform school by mistake. His first job was as a towel boy in a Detroit whore house. He obtained his journalism degree at the University of Illinois, and in 1959 joined the Charleston Gazette. His publisher, W.E. Chilton, would enter the newsroom and bellow, “Lee, get out of here and raise hell!”

Raise hell he did. During his decade in West Virginia, he lived with poor whites in Appalachia, organized anti-poverty agencies for African Americans, had guns pulled on him by racist restaurant owners, wrote about black lung disease and exposed vote-buying by the Democratic machine in the 1960 presidential election. “I was their hatchet man,” K.W. said mirthfully.

His muckraking continued throughout his 10 years in Sacramento, where he wrote about welfare fraud, deadbeat dads, phony religious groups, parolees, rapists, corrupt doctors, lawyers, labor contractors and public officials and dozens of other transgressions. His “Golden Dome” series — 51 articles hammering away at fat pensions legislators quietly voted themselves when the world’s attention was diverted by the Apollo 11 moon landing — forced the legislators to reconvene after they had gone home for the summer and repeal the inflated pensions. A young lawmaker who lost his early pension confronted him, complaining, “I was screwed by your golden dome series.”

FREED MAN — The Sacramento Union minority affairs reporter K.W. Lee (L) with Chol Soo Lee after the latter’s release in 1983. photo courtesy of the K.W. Lee Center for Leadership

K.W. Lee is perhaps best known for his relentless investigation into the wrongful conviction of Korean immigrant Chol Soo Lee for the 1973 murder of San Francisco Chinatown gang boss Yip Yee Tak. Chol Soo Lee, the son of a Korean hotel maid and bar hostess, was sentenced to death row after he killed Morrison Needham, a white supremacist in prison in self-defense. K.W. tracked down a Chinatown witness who testified Chol Soo Lee didn’t kill Yip Yee Tak. K.W. enlisted my help, and the Sacramento Union series, “Lost In A Strange Culture: The Americanization of Chol Soo Lee,” galvanized what is said to be the first national pan-Asian political movement, raised money for Lee’s appeal, attracted the support of famed cause lawyer Leonard Weinglass and is credited with Chol Soo Lee’s eventual release from prison in 1983.

After reading the article, “Alice In Chinatown,” San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, then a college student at University of California, Berkeley, drove to his native Sacramento to meet with K.W. “He had a knack for telling people what they didn’t always want to hear but needed to hear — he used say `get off your ass and organize.,” Adachi said, a refrain K.W. has been telling Asian American students and others for decades. “I don’t think I would have become a public defender but for my involvement in the Chol Soo Lee movement and K.W. Lee’s writing, which sparked it.” Even when Chol Soo Lee was convicted of Needham’s murder and sentenced to death, “K.W. Lee remained firm and unrelenting and it helped us continue the work we were doing and stay focused.”

K.W.’s writings helped to inspire a generation of young Asian American activists, and the likes of East Bay Asian Youth Center Executive Director David Kakishiba, Asian Pacific Environmental Network founder Peggy Saika and would-be California state Assemblyman Warren Furutani became engaged in the movement to free Chol Soo Lee.

“Basically, without K.W. there it would have been very difficult to develop a movement to free Chol Soo Lee,” stated Bay Area Asian American activist Grant Din, who rode his bicycle down the West Coast from Washington to raise money for Chol Soo Lee’s defense. “Before K.W. started exposing the inconsistencies in the case, Chol Soo basically had only a few friends who believed in his innocence, including Reiko and Ranko Yamada. The Bay Area press didn’t cover his story much, once he was sent to prison. Once his many stories broke in the Sacramento Union … Koreans and young Asian Americans all over the country started the movement to get retrials in the Chinatown and prison murder cases.”

K.W. identified deeply with Chol Soo Lee’s sense of being a stranger in a strange land. When we walked past the San Francisco YMCA one night, K.W. said he’d spent his first night in America there. “I was crying all night.”

“Why, were you homesick?”

“No,” K.W. replied. “I was sick to my stomach because of some bad (Chinese) food I ate, so I took an Alka Seltzer and didn’t know you were supposed to take it in water, so I chewed it and it kept exploding in my mouth.”

K.W. Lee survived the Japanese Air Force, the Korean War, the Jim Crow south, L.A. riots, the Mexican Mafia, stomach and liver cancer. He has an L.A. gangbanger’s liver that’s kept him alive. He’s also survived a near fatal fall in his shower that resulted in brain surgery and a case of shingles that makes him scream with pain. His mantra? “Koreans never die.”

Stephen Magagnini, a daily newspaper reporter for 42 years, considers K.W. Lee his only mentor in journalism. He retired from The Sacramento Bee in May 2018 after 32 ½ years and teaches journalism and advanced composition at U.C. Davis. He can be reached at magagninreport@gmail.com.

Editor’s Note: This article was edited from a previously-run version in the Nichi Bei Weekly print edition.

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