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A Hated Anniversary : Family Struggles to Get By 1 Year After Rioters Torched Business


HACIENDA HEIGHTS — One year ago today, the phone rang at Hi Soon Lee's swap meet business in South-Central Los Angeles. Lee's brother, a journalist with a newspaper based in Koreatown, was on the other line. Lock up and go home to Hacienda Heights, he implored. Not guilty verdicts had been announced in the Rodney G. King beating case, he said, and the streets were getting dangerous.

When Lee and her husband, Chung Won Lee, walked out of the swap meet at 5:30 p.m., they saw eight young men lounging in front of hastily parked cars, eyeing the building and speaking into cellular phones. The Lees, who had worked at the swap meet at Broadway and Manchester Avenue for six years, knew everyone in the neighborhood. These youths were strangers.

Soon after the Lees arrived in Hacienda Heights, the alarm company called. Thieves were ramming a vehicle into the entrance of their swap meet. They were smashing open the door. They were inside, looting the expensive leather jackets, the sleek suits and a variety of other merchandise.

"We asked if we should come out, but the alarm people said the police aren't even responding," she said.

Later that night, huddled in shock around their TV set, the Lees saw flames licking the walls of their building. For these Korean immigrants, the footage seemed grossly unreal, a nightmare devouring the American dream they had constructed slowly and painfully during 20 years of sweat and self-denial.

One year to the day after the nation's worst civil disturbances since the Civil War, hundreds of former Korean-American shop owners like Lee are still struggling to rebuild their lives and wondering whether they can ever rebuild their businesses.

Depression in this community is rampant, spousal and child abuse are on the rise, and marriages are unraveling as families grapple with emotional stress brought on by financial hardship, according to a survey by the Korean American Inter-Agency Council.

Only 28% of Korean-Americans have been able to rebuild their devastated businesses, the survey found. The Lees belong to the other 72%. For the past year, they have struggled to keep body and soul together as their debts have mounted.

In January, the family's federal emergency funds ran out. The bank is threatening foreclosure on their home because the Lees are four months behind on mortgage payments.

Chung Won Lee is mired in deep depression and rarely speaks to his family. The couple's 19-year-old daughter, Sarah, was forced to drop out of her first year at Cal State Long Beach this spring to look for a job that she hasn't yet been able to find.

And Hi Soon Lee, who also battles depression, nightmares, indigestion and heart palpitations, has taken the only job she can find--waiting tables in a Koreatown restaurant. She works six days a week, from 9:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., for $600 per month plus tips. On Sundays, she goes to church and tries not to think about the years of labor that were torched in a single night.

"I feel I'm losing my mind if I go back to that moment," said Lee, 45, as she sat down between serving customers at the Bab-Sang Jib restaurant and recounted her story through an interpreter.

"For 20 years, I worked on my American dreams," she said. "We saved money by not eating what we wanted to eat. By not spending our money. We worked even on Sunday. I had all that taken away from me in a matter of hours.

"Now I'm 20 years older and no longer have the motivation to try again. I have more obligations, responsibilities and debts than before. With all these pending payments, I don't have the energy to go on with life."

Lee speaks in spurts, in between scurrying off to deliver more rice to beckoning customers, pour cups of hot tea and bus dirty tables. The restaurant, located in a mini-mall, burned to the ground during last year's violence. The owner built it back, stick by stick, and reopened April 11. The chef is another riot victim. Her swap meet stall was destroyed in the riots, and with no money to rebuild, she has turned to cooking.

Their frustration permeates the place, as tangible as the scents of soy and garlic that waft from the busy kitchen.

One year after the rioting, "I see renewed interest in this issue but I haven't seen any help from anyone," Lee said flatly.

"People have forgotten the Koreans. It's not in their consciousness anymore. Society treats Korean-Americans like ants. People don't care what suffering ants go through."

Despite her troubles, Lee said she is more fortunate than many of her friends who have already lost their homes and cars on top of their businesses.

"At least I had friends and relatives who helped me out," Lee said.

Those close to Lee and her husband see less visible damage. Her brother, who didn't want his name used, said the couple fight over the smallest expenditures. He worries that their children feel neglected with their mother gone all day and their father retreating further into his own woes.

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