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Their L.A. story

Exhibit marks the centennial of Korean immigration to the area.

July 15, 2004|Duane Noriyuki | Times Staff Writer

Young Oak Kim grew up in the Bunker Hill area of downtown Los Angeles, never dreaming of the future, he says, because there were no dreams for Asians living in America in the 1920s.

But history proved him wrong. Col. Kim became one of the most celebrated heroes of World War II. And his accomplishments and those of many of the first Korean immigrants gave a legacy of hope to others.

It's just one of the stories in the Korean American Museum's show "LA Koreatown: Celebration of Continuity & Change," which marks the centennial of Korean immigration to the L.A. area. Virtually hidden on the fourth floor of an office building in Koreatown, the 1,500-square-foot exhibition includes about 280 images, many of them from the Korea Times and the Korean Heritage Library at USC.

The show highlights individuals -- the first Koreans to graduate in the United States, former Dodger pitcher Chan Ho Park, comedian Margaret Cho -- as well as institutions such as the Olympic Market, which opened around 1970 and served as one-stop shopping. The show is divided into five periods based mainly on the shifting core of the local Korean American community, such as Bunker Hill (1904 to 1929), Olympic Boulevard (1965 to 1992) and the present hub of Wilshire Boulevard.

Korean immigrants to the U.S. initially came to Hawaii in 1903 to work on sugar plantations. A year later, the first Koreans arrived in L.A., where most found work as laborers. A list of early immigrants in 1920 includes Harry Chung, who worked as a servant. Robert Kim was in vegetable sales. And -- because this is Southern California -- one person on the list, C.Y. Hong, gave his occupation as actor.

Like other immigrants, many Koreans early on came to America to escape oppression and find jobs. A photograph taken in the 1940s shows men in long coats, suits and ties protesting for Korean independence from Japanese domination. A small boy stands among them holding a sign that says, "Stop Japan's murder in Korea and China."

Despite historic tension between Koreans and Japanese, the Americanization of immigrants is reflected in a photograph of Col. Kim, who served with the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, both of which were made up almost entirely of Japanese Americans.

Kim had grown up with Japanese Americans, some of whom he would later visit at the Santa Anita Assembly Center and the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas, where they were interned during the war.

Now 85, Kim has said that soon after his arrival in Mississippi at Camp Shelby to join the 100th, the battalion commander offered him a transfer. "He said, 'I don't think you understand what kind of unit you're coming into. The men are Japanese and you're Korean, and traditionally Koreans and Japanese don't get along,' " Kim said.

His reply: "Sir, I think you're mistaken. They're Americans, I'm an American and we're going to fight for America."

Kim went on to earn more than a dozen medals, including the Distinguished Service Cross.

Also included in the exhibition is a photograph of one of Kim's childhood friends, Dr. Sammy Lee, shown poised to receive a gold medal in platform diving at the 1948 Olympics. Lee, who also won a bronze medal in springboard competition, was the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal. In 1952, he won gold again.

Amid the recurring images of triumph and prosperity, however, are moments of tragedy. One portion of the exhibition examines "Sa-ee-gu" (sometimes referred to as Saigu or Sa-I-Gu), which translates to "4-29," the first day of rioting in the aftermath of the 1992 acquittals of four white LAPD officers charged in the beating of Rodney G. King. The flames had been further fueled by tension resulting from the 1991 fatal shooting of a 15-year-old African American girl, Latasha Harlins, by a Korean American grocer.

According to Eui-Young Yu, sociology professor emeritus at Cal State Los Angeles and director of the Census Information Center at the Korean American Coalition, about 23,000 Korean-owned businesses were damaged during the riots.

"It really signaled a certain coming of age of Koreans," says Yong Soon Min, who chairs the museum's program committee, which organized the exhibit. "They realized that inasmuch as Koreatown had arrived at a certain amount of economic stability, they didn't have much political presence or voice. Most Koreans felt that they were very much abandoned by the city in terms of its police. When Korean businesses were getting attacked, no one was there to protect them."

It was in the aftermath of the uprising, says Edward Park, associate professor and director of the Asian Pacific American Studies Program at Loyola Marymount University, that Korean American leaders like attorney-activist Angela Oh emerged.

"I think the most important impact was that it served as notice that the Korean American community is not an island in the United States," Park says. As such, he adds, there was an "unleashing" of involvement as individuals and organizations took a more active role in the workings -- and the healing -- of the city.

There also has been an economic turnaround, evidenced by new buildings on Wilshire Boulevard. While most Koreatown businesses were renting space during the 1980s, Yu says, now they are the owners. In Koreatown alone, there are 37 Korean-owned banks, and 67 throughout the metro area.


'LA Koreatown: Celebration of Continuity & Change'

Where: Korean American Museum, 3727 W. 6th St., L.A.

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. Ends Aug. 31.

Price: Free

Contact: (213) 388-4229

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