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Making a Grateful Pay-Back : Watts Market Customers Pitch In to Help Out Korean-American Merchant


The small Watts Market was one of hundreds of businesses destroyed in the riots, but it was special to the community that surrounded it.

"Sorry, Mr. Lee," reads a sign scrawled across the front of what had been a thriving market on 103rd Street.

Chung Lee, a Korean-American merchant, had operated the store for seven years and was known for his efforts to help his customers, many of whom live in the Jordan Downs housing project across the street.

So when his store was burned during the riots, his customers rallied to return the kindness.

Unbeknown to Lee, local residents donned hard hats two weeks ago, brought in a dumpster, and carted away the twisted metal and charred debris left when the store was looted and burned.

In gratitude, Lee donated $2,300 to the group that organized the cleanup, the Amer-I-Can program, a self-esteem course for current and former gang members created by former football star Jim Brown.

"We wanted to clean the store up without Mr. Lee knowing about it," said Charles (Chopper) Harris, 26, who accepted Lee's check in the group's behalf. "We were trying to show him there is a relationship between the black community and the Korean community."

Lee knew nothing of the cleanup until he sent a contractor over to look at the site and give him a bid for demolition. He figured the job would cost about $6,000, he said this week. When the contractor called him and said the rubble was already cleaned up, Lee was stunned.

Harris said the group wasn't looking to be paid for its effort, but wanted to let Lee know how much the community had appreciated his courtesy and generosity.

Lee, he said, was "a good man" who had provided jobs in the community and gone out of his way to help neighborhood residents. "He gave me diapers when I needed them for my baby," Harris said.

When several neighbors saw Lee this week, near the walls that frame the empty shell of his former business, they hugged him and his wife, Won Jo. They miss the store, they told him; the nearest market is now a 10-minute walk away.

Lee not only contributed to Amer-I-Can but also supported the local Little League, they said. They described Watts Market as the kind of place parents could send their young children alone to shop, confident they would be safe and receive the help they needed.

Chung Lee knew neighborhood families well enough to know which parents were using drugs, they said, and he would feed their children to make sure they had enough to eat.

"He treats us like people," Barbara Dumas said. Most market proprietors shy away from physical contact, even to the point of refusing to put change into a customer's hand, Dumas added. "Most of them throw it back to you. They--the Lees--hand it back. They give you respect."

Lee has long advocated better relations between Korean-American merchants and the African-American residents they serve, his son, Jin Lee, said.

A former tailor-shop owner in Korea who moved to Los Angeles in 1974, Lee has been a longtime leader in the local Korean-American community. He is chairman of the Assn. of Korean American Victims of L.A. Riot, and has been leading protests outside City Hall seeking better government response to their plight.

In the mid-1980s Lee helped found the Black-Korean Alliance, which sought to improve relations between the two ethnic groups. Lee is known for prodding his fellow Koreans to adapt themselves faster to American ways. But no one paid enough attention, Jin Lee said: "My father was fighting a very lonely battle."

If Chung Lee resents the destruction of his business, after all his efforts, he does not show it. "I don't think the people around here set the fire," he said..

Local residents said they weren't sure who was responsible and prefer to focus on the future. Harris said he hopes the cleanup will "be an example to others in the Korean community that we can rebuild.

"We're simply trying to reach out even more now to embrace Mr. Lee," Harris said. "We need him here."

Lee smiled. "I want to come back," he said.

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