Activists help shape story in ‘Free Chol Soo Lee’

The first national pan-Asian movement. photo courtesy of Ken Yamada

Chol Soo Lee is a little-known icon of Asian American solidarity whose difficult life inspired many to action. The “Free Chol Soo Lee” documentary film tells his story, as well as the pan-Asian movement that it inspired. The film will be the closing night feature at the Sacramento Asian Pacific Film Festival May 22.

Lee, who passed away in 2014, was a Korean immigrant from war-torn Korea. He was falsely convicted of a 1973 gang-murder in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and later sentenced to death after stabbing a fellow inmate at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, Calif.

Sacramento Union investigative reporter K.W. Lee (no relation) learned about Chol Soo Lee’s case and published two front-page articles highlighting his plight, inspiring a pan-Asian defense committee to free him from prison in 1983.

Following Chol Soo Lee’s death, Julie Ha and Eugene Yi, two editors at KoreAm Journal, started working on the film as the magazine was folding. Yi, who was a contributing editor for the magazine, recalled Ha’s personal interest in the story and asked to work together.

“Sometimes I wonder, if it had been another time, maybe I would have said like, ‘No, Eugene, that’s not a good idea. I don’t know how to make a film’ … but at that time, when he talked to me about this, I couldn’t get the Chol Soo Lee story out of my mind,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

The story was personal for Ha in many ways. As an 18-year-old intern at the Korea Times, she worked under its editor and founder K.W. Lee., and learned about the Chol Soo Lee case. The experience inspired her to pursue journalism as a career. Years later, she covered Chol Soo Lee’s funeral for KoreAm, and felt the heaviness in the air.

“K.W. Lee, he was in so much anguish and he’s almost angry at that funeral. … (Chol Soo Lee) had suffered so much even in so-called ‘freedom,’” Ha said. “When Eugene mentioned making a film together, I just remember saying, ‘Well somebody needs to make a film about the Chol Soo Lee story.’”

Like the six-year pan-Asian movement it took to free Lee from prison, Ha and Yi’s film took another six years, in which they interviewed close to 40 people — some multiple times.

“I think Eugene and I being naive about how hard it was going to be to make the film is probably a good thing, otherwise we might not have,” Ha said. “… When we interviewed many of the activists, they would say like, ‘It’s good that we didn’t realize how hard it was going to be to overturn two murder convictions.’ Jeff Adachi told us that, … ‘If we knew that, maybe we wouldn’t have even tried.’”

Adachi, the late San Francisco public defender, was an ardent supporter of Chol Soo Lee’s case, memorializing him and playing “The Ballad of Chol Soo Lee” at his funeral. He and his college roommate David Kakishiba learned about the case and visited K.W. Lee.

Kakishiba, executive director of the East Bay Asian Youth Center and a former Oakland school board member, said he first heard about the case from fellow Sacramentan Peggy Saika while visiting home from college in the summer of 1978. He felt school was a waste of time and wanted to find a more worthy cause to participate in. Adachi and Kakishiba met with K.W. Lee, who in turn introduced them to activists Gail Whang and Ranko Yamada.

Saika said she had known K.W. Lee prior to the movement. She worked at the Asian Community Services and Japanese Community Center at the time. She met with K.W. Lee and JCC intern Jay Yoo after they returned from Deuel in 1977.

“When they came back, they came to JCC and they were visibly shaken and emotional,” Saika said. “They had … talked to him for several hours. They were so moved by his story and his plight, so to speak, and so out of that, … I worked on the first flyer that we put together to create awareness in Sacramento, and it was really a way to start mobilizing.”

“There happened to be this vibrant Korean immigrant community in Sacramento as well, led by Jay Yoo, who was a law student at the time, Grace Kim and Luke Kim,” Yi said. “And I think, one of the things that really strikes me about this movement, is that this sort of solidarity and this meeting of the immigrant community and these third- and fourth-generation Asian Americans, who, oftentimes, in a vacuum, their political views would be very, very divergent. … I think it just presents a really interesting case study in terms of how an Asian America that is inclusive and can include everybody along that spectrum can really exist.”

Yi and Ha went on to say that K.W. Lee’s reporting helped contextualize Chol Soo Lee’s case, both to himself and the broader community. Kakishiba recalled cases like Chol Soo Lee’s were routinely written off, noting his own parents felt the Korean immigrant was “guilty” and “had a hard time fathoming how tough it could be.”

“It wasn’t just about making sense of Chol Soo to himself, but also a little bit of making sense of Chol Soo’s life to the broader communities at large, because what we were told was that initially the case was not seen as a political case,” Yi told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “It was only once K.W.’s stories connected these dots to the war, to police misconduct, to the carceral state, to what — at the time were referred to as political prisoners — now referred to as prison liberation or abolition even, is the kind of thing where a lot of the younger people who joined the movement were able to see these connections between a lot of celebrated cases of the time, like the George Jackson case, San Quentin Six, the Los Siete, just a lot of cases which a lot of the younger activists had been working on, but now they could see this case of an unjustly imprisoned Asian American as part of that same series of systemic problems that they could join the fight against.”

Although the filmmakers lamented Chol Soo Lee’s passing, they felt his death was integral to film they made.

Stemming from the heaviness at his funeral, and his troubled life after winning his freedom, Ha and Yi said they felt Lee’s death enabled many of the former activists to speak frankly about their involvement.

After being freed, Chol Soo Lee struggled to reintegrate outside of prison and eventually became involved with organized crime, culminating in a 1991 arson case that left him permanently disfigured.

Ranko Yamada had been inspired to pursue a law degree while working in the Chol Soo Lee movement, but she said she also “burnt out” after helping free him.

“I thought, I cannot do this kind of criminal work without becoming truly alcoholic, a drug addict or whatever. It is so intense and always being on, and that’s not true to my own personality. I’m pretty much private and introverted in my life. So to do all of the work around the Chol Soo Lee case, I had to just push myself quite a bit,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Afterwards, I thought, ‘Well, you know, I’m a lawyer. I’m not going to do criminal work, if I want to have a long and healthy life.’”

Yamada went on to work 22 years in immigration law and an additional 18 years working on conservatorships as a lawyer.

Saika recalled her own friendship with Chol Soo Lee. She admitted the defense committee, focused on freeing him, had failed to address his re-entry.

“The ‘80s were those tough years for Chol Soo,” Saika said. “He was trying to … build relationships or stabilize, finding a job and stabilizing himself in terms of housing. And I think that we didn’t have a good plan for him, a re-entry plan and support that you need.”

While Chol Soo Lee was unable to directly lend his voice to the film, Ha and Yi found a way to embody Chol Soo Lee through Sebastian Yoon, the film’s narrator. Su Kim, their producer, connected the filmmakers with him after seeing him speak for another film. Yoon, a former prison inmate himself, felt Chol Soo Lee’s plight was relatable. Moreover, he knew of Ha’s work at KoreAm, having been a subscriber when he was in prison, and written a letter to the editor. She said collaborating with him allowed her to work on an angle she wished she could have a decade ago.

“He said, ‘I hope your magazine could help me spread this message that there are a lot of youth out there in our community like him, … we’re not all model minorities,’” Ha said. “I was almost in tears, because I thought about how guilty I felt back then, because at the time, KoreAm was really struggling internally. We didn’t have much staffing, and so I wanted to do the types of stories that he wanted us to do, and I felt like I never fulfilled that.”

“Free Chol Soo Lee” spans a legacy of activism that contextualizes one man’s plight in a larger Asian American story. Yi hopes that Asian Americans today will be inspired by their film in light of current day anti-Asian hate surging with the pandemic.

“I’m not an activist. Being able to tell the story was a way that I hope I can not only connect this moment to this history of resistance and this history of Asian Americans fighting, but to maybe inspire and push along even more what’s going on now,” Yi said.

“Free Chol Soo Lee” will screen Sunday, May 22, 6 p.m., at The Sofia,, 2700 Capitol Ave., Sacramento, Calif. as part of the closing night of the Sacramento Asian Pacific Film Festival. A panel discussion featuring filmmakers Julie Ha, Eugene Yi, Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee activists Ranko Yamada, David Kakishiba and Peggy Saika moderated by Sandra Gin and emceed by Tom Nakashima will follow the screening. For more information, visit https://sapff.org/2022.

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