Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

    Los Angeles Riots
April 29, 1992


April 26 - May 2, 2002

The Untold Story

by John Lee


SA-I-GU TRANSLATES LITERALly as "4-29," and is understood by Korean-speaking people to mean the Los Angeles riots of 1992, and follows the Korean convention of referring to historic events, both watershed and cataclysmic, by their numerical dates.

In the wake of the destruction caused by the riots, damage totals revealed that 2,100 Korean-American businesses suffered more than $400 million in damages, and about 350 stores were completely destroyed by fire. To this day, the unresolved bitterness and social reverberations of Sa-i-gu are still widely felt by Korean-Americans.

Not counting academic treatises or social-service assessments, little has been aired in English about the experience of Korean-Americans during the Los Angeles riots -- I mean the kind of stuff that reaches the popular consciousness through television, film, newspapers, magazines and books. Sorry to say but, of what little there is, not much rings true.

This is an issue for me because, back in 1992, I had the chance to write a definitive chapter in Korean-American immigration history. And I blew it. I came to the riots with all intentions of contributing something constructive through my reporting. And still, somehow, I feel responsible for there being next to nothing on record.

That chapter, if written during the riots, could have detailed Koreans' induction into American society. This, in the ascendant phrasing of veteran investigative reporter K.W. Lee, was "baptism by fire." Korean-Americans have been, according to K.W. Lee, "burned out of business, maimed, robbed and uprooted." Koreans have also been "blamed, harassed, and punished" for the maelstrom of destruction that landed squarely on their own backs.

Given the psychological trauma, material loss and language barriers experienced at the time, Koreans now shuffle somnambulantly through life, carrying with them a lingering stoicism. Perhaps also a product of the elapsed time, K.W. Lee says, Koreans suffer from what he terms "collective amnesia."

BY THE TIME I REALIZED I WAS headed down the hell-path to becoming a news writer, I was doing time in Koreatown at a community newspaper. But there were benefits to reporting in my ethnic enclave. Such as when I entered the Korea Times newsroom and, with few exceptions, felt like my colleagues and I were part of a community -- I had a sense of belonging.

In 1989, I went to the Los Angeles Times, starting as an entry-level reporter for the Metro section of the paper. I was 26. I had a lot to learn. Before the riots, my city editor observed in me a less than enthusiastic response to a dog of an assignment. One that ended up not panning out. The city editor told me I didn't appear to want the story, and that my demeanor revealed a lack of commitment or "heart" for the work at hand. That one comment stuck with me for the rest of my days at the Times, and I questioned myself often in moments of doubt. Was my heart in this?

As indecisive as I might have seemed, I think I really did know the difference between substantive story ideas and lame leads that assignment editors are known to pitch to the lower ranks of the pecking order. Before anyone had a handle on how widespread the rioting had become, merchants began calling Radio Korea, which responded to these distress calls by opening the airwaves and beseeching good Samaritans to help defend businesses that were being attacked. Even with my dodgy command of Korean, I could make out where the calls for help were coming from. If you were tuned in to Korean news, you knew Koreans were being hit all over town.

I relayed this information to the Times' city desk, but my comment was dismissed, if it registered with anyone at all. "Everyone in the city is affected," was the editors' pat response. For a long time, that answer stood as the reason why there was no point in pursuing a story angle that focused solely on Koreans.

I stopped working at the Times when I realized I was making a living off the misfortune of the embattled Korean shopkeeper. My beat was filled with stories about tragedies that befell these merchant-class immigrants, and I came to believe that the Times' publishing of these reports -- my reports -- directly contributed to the targeting of future victims. As this all played out during the riots, I finally made the connection. And then got the hell out of the news-reporting business.

I still write, but I no longer do those embattled-merchant stories. I just don't have the time. Or the heart.


Copyright 2002 All Rights Reserved.