INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Korean Americans 20 Years After the Riots

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By GUY AOKI

With the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots almost upon us, I’ve done several interviews with various outlets interested in hearing my recollections of the time and perspective on how Korean Americans were impacted by it (a documentary, directed by Christine Choy of “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” fame, is scheduled to air April 29 on the Korean Broadcasting System).

It’s ironic: The “last straw” that made me vow to form MANAA (Media Action Network for Asian Americans) in 1991 was the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I had been incensed that, rather than shedding any new light on the subject, the media had mostly rehashed old news, opened up old wounds, and renewed racial animosity toward Japan and therefore, Japanese Americans. By doing these new interviews, I was risking inflaming racial tensions once again between Asian Americans and African Americans.

But as an outsider, I believe I gave support to Korean Americans and spoke about issues that still plague Asian Americans in general like being misunderstood, being stereotyped, and not speaking up for ourselves.

Buildings go up in flames during the riots.

I remember watching coverage of the riots at home when I got a call from Jimmy Tokeshi, then-head of the Pacific Southwest District of the JACL. “You watching TV?” he asked. “You see those businesses going up in flames? They’re Korean-owned, dude!” Oh no.

Months and months of television news coverage of the Latasha Harlins/Soon Ja Du conflict culminated in blacks taking out their anger on Korean store owners. Whereas initial coverage showed security camera footage of the black teenager punching the Korean grocer in the face, walking out, then being shot by Du, subsequent stories only showed the shooting. It painted the impression of Korean grocers as mean-spirited and anti-black.

We should’ve done something about it, I thought. Now it was too late and all I could do was watch how it all played out. It was the strongest example of media portrayals affecting our lives directly and at a terrifying level.

MANAA had just held its first meeting earlier that month. At our next meeting, a lot of young Korean Americans walked through the door. They clearly saw a stake in what we were trying to do. I wanted to start a Korean Image Task Force where we would specifically address media-driven impressions of Korean Americans. But there was never enough interest in getting it going and a year later, all of those Korean Americans were no longer active.

Things got worse when Ted Koppel brought his “Nightline” show to Los Angeles and talked to various black leaders at the First AME Church. Asked if they wanted to resolve tensions with Korean Americans, John Mack of the L.A. Urban League said “Korean Americans are gonna have to stop blowing away black customers, for openers.” I was furious. More black customers shot Korean store clerks than the other way around.

L.A. Times headline of the riots.

At the time, we were still trying to determine if MANAA would only respond to news coverage and TV, radio, and movie depictions of Asian Americans or if we’d also go after individuals who said things that crossed the line. Some felt we shouldn’t do the latter. Others didn’t want to criticize an African American and make matters worse. All of which continued to keep our voices from being heard (in the end, I wrote a personal two-page letter to Mack lambasting him for his irresponsibility; he never responded).

Even more distressing is that even Japanese American activists I knew “sided” with the black perspective. “What’re they even doing in those black areas anyway?!” asked one. What, only blacks can live in black areas? Another said he grew up marching for civil rights with blacks and couldn’t relate to the Koreans. At the time, it was a mostly immigrant community and very insular. They didn’t seem to have many friends outside their community.

Slowly, things began to change. The shootings (on both sides) seemed to stop. In the fall of 1994, ABC premiered “All American Girl” with Margaret Cho. Although she was the only Korean person in the cast, it was a sitcom from the point of view of a Korean American family. When Greg Braxton of the L.A. Times asked me for comment, I said this was terrific because if there’s any Asian group that needs to be seen and understood more, it’s Korean Americans.

Since then, we’ve seen a parade of Korean American talent become regulars on television shows and movies:  Sandra Oh, Ken Jeong, John Cho, Tim Kang, Daniel Dae Kim, Grace Park, Lindsay Price, Moon Bloodgood, Sung Kang, Jenna Ushkowitz, Will Yun Lee, Bobby Lee, James Kyson Lee, Jamie Chung, Aaron Yoo, Rex Lee, Yul Kwon, Steve Park, Heejun Han, and well, Jon Gosselin. Their popularity has helped gain acceptance of Korean Americans (well, OK, maybe not that last guy).

These days, I’m told, when the Korean American community has events like a parade, they invite black groups and vice versa. Over the years, they’ve gotten to know each other, so these are not just obligatory gestures. Although racial riots are always a possibility (look at the Trayvon Martin shooting; all hell would’ve probably broken out had George Zimmerman not been charged) it seems “the danger has passed” and no Asian American community is in danger of being targeted.

Indeed, the L.A. Times reported that a poll conducted by Loyola Marymount University found 64% of L.A. Asian Americans believe ethnic groups are getting along (blacks agreed at 66%, Latinos, 64%, whites, 71%). Still, although 34% of Asians believed L.A. was safer than it was 20 years ago, 36% said it was not as safe, while 26% felt it was about the same (blacks believed, respectively, 29%, 40%, and 27%).

There You Go! Department: Regular readers of this column know I’ve been very critical of the rebooted “Hawaii Five-0” as the producers use more white guest stars than Asian/Pacific Islanders, a white cop usually tags along with the team (which gives even less screen time to the supposed regulars Daniel Dae Kim, Grace Park, and Masi Oka), and most of the victims and their families (and therefore, the ones deserving of our sympathy) are white.

So I welcomed news that star Alex O’Loughlin was going to be absent from a few episodes as he dealt with some problem with prescription drugs (an addiction?). Lo and behold, the first of them, which ran last week, put the focus on coroner Max Bergman (Oka).

He took a special interest in a woman found dead in the fields because he believed it was the work of a serial killer who also murdered his mom. We learned that his Japanese mother gave him up for adoption and before he even knew who she was, she was murdered along with other mothers who gave their children to St. Mary’s Church. Turns out the deacon had also been given up by his birth mother and resented those who didn’t keep their children. So, while seeming to welcome them with open arms, he killed them.

The deacon knocked out Max and tied him to a chair. As Chin Ho (Kim) and Kono (Park) entered the building, also realizing who their serial killer was, our villain left to confront them. Max toppled his chair next to some broken glass and freed himself of the ropes. When the killer returned, however, Max was right side up and seemingly still tied up. The deacon moved in to execute him, but Max stood up and stabbed him in the stomach with one of the broken pieces of glass, killing him. Whoa. Intense.

It was great that Masi Oka’s character was made to be sympathetic because in the past, he was written as a weirdo who played piano in an adjacent room to his morgue and talked in a sprightly, cocky way that made him almost impossible to understand (why is it I understood him better with a Japanese accent on “Heroes” than playing a Japanese Hawaiian on “Five-0”?).

Because there was no guest white tag-along cop that week, it was also great to feel a more Asian American presence with Kim, Park, and Oka, with Scott Caan the only haole in some of the scenes. This is more like how “Five-0” episodes should be, as it was in the ’68-’80 series. And close to a million more people watched this episode than last one. So take your time getting back, O’Loughlin.

The American Idol judges save Jessica Sanchez.

Holy Shocking Development, Batman! Department: Since she knocked out everyone by taking on Whitney Houston’s arrangement of “I Will Always Love You,” Jessica Sanchez has been considered one of the contestants who could win this year’s “American Idol.” Last week, the Filipino/Mexican 16-year-old sang a relatively unknown song but still got heavy praise from the judges.

So it came as a shock the following night when we learned she and two other singers who’d also received praise were in the bottom three while four others who hadn’t given their best performances were safe. And it was worse than that: Sanchez had received the least number of votes! Judge Jennifer Lopez was clearly shocked, as was the audience.

In the “old” days, this would’ve automatically booted Sanchez from the show. But in 2006, Chris Daughtry — who was expected to win the contest — was kicked out after reaching the Top 4, and the producers later decided they couldn’t put the fates of the contestants totally in the hands of the voting audience. So they instituted a “judges’ save” that could only be used once a season and before they reached the Top 5.  Since it was down to the Top 7, it was a no-brainer.

As is customary, Sanchez, as the singer in jeopardy, sang a song trying to remind Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, and Steven Tyler why she was worthy of that save. Shortly after she began performing, the judges walked up on stage. Lopez took the mic away from her and said, “Give me that mic. This is crazy. Yes, we’re using the save. Go sit down. You don’t have to go home, baby.”

Jackson was flabbergasted.  He addressed the audience: “Are you kidding me? America, vote for the best! This girl is one of the best singers in America … ever!”

Sanchez could’ve been the lowest vote-getter because the audience took it for granted that she’d make it to the next week and didn’t need a whole lot of votes to keep her in the running. It’s funny that after watching the show religiously for nine years, I’d seriously considered dropping it from my Wednesday/Thursday night routine because I realized I couldn’t stand half the contestants and the judges praised just about everything they did.

Last year, I did an “American Idol blog under the humble name “theonlyrealcritic.” I was appalled that they wound up with the worst Top 3 in the history of the show: two mediocre country singers in the top two slots and a girl who liked to play “dress up” by adding a growl while singing, which fooled most of the country into thinking it was a natural part of her voice.

So I guess I’ll watch at least another week? Go Jessica!

Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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7 Comments

  1. I understand you may not like alex O’Loughlin but to be happy he was in rehab so someone else could get more screen time says a lot about your character. You don’t have any. By the way, the show did good in the ratings because there was no regular competition that night and the last ep was a re-run. I can bet that more people watch Hawaii Five O for O’Loughlin. By the way I like Max character and the actor who plays him, but Alex, Scott, JKono, and Chin are the reason the show is a success.

  2. You’re an idiot. More people watch the show to see Alex, and that particular episode had no more viewers than usual. I repeat, you are an idiot !!!

  3. WOW! Are you seriously watching TV shows counting how many Asians, Americans, Whites or Blacks are on the show? They ALL deserve to be considered as human beings. And to say you welcomed Alex O’Loughlin to be on rehab is beyond repellent. That’s a lack of respect in every aspect! All of the regular characters contribute to the show’s success, no matter of what nationality, race or background they are.

  4. You really are clueless, aren’t you? There is no reason to wish ill on anyone just so some actors get more air time. What Alex went through was a serious matter and I applaud him for what he did. I hate to tell you, but I have to been to several events where all four actors were present. DDK and Grace couldn’t even spare a minute of their time for fans, while Alex and Scott spent a lot of time greeting fans and signing autographs. At least Alex and Scott appreciate the fans. Maybe DDK and Grace should take a lesson from them.

  5. U had me in your corner up until your delight that the white lead in a TV show entered rehab. Addiction is a life and death matter. Have some class. I’m sure fans of the show, no matter what color, are eagerly anticipating his return

  6. Pingback: Remembering the L.A. Riots | Asian Pacific Islander Democrats of Orange County

  7. previous posters need to calm down. yes, it’s not the best thing what mr. aoki wrote about alex, but it’s called schadenfreude. we’ve all done it. we’re human.

    to lovinalex: actors respond differently. some are shy and some are more gregarious. sometimes they are not in the best mood. hell, every time i saw barry bonds, he signed autographs and was incredibly nice to his fans. and bonds is notorious for the opposite!

    yes, people of color count those they see in the media who look like them because there are so few. i don’t expect there to be as many as the population, but it’s just nice to see one every once in a while, especially one who isn’t just a token. i nearly cried the first time i saw an asian person in a picture frame as the fake photo because it was the first time i had seen that in america. it was 1996. i never saw anyone who looked like me in a magazine growing up, never saw anyone on tv who looked like me. everyone in my neighborhood, everyone at church, everyone at school was white. i didn’t know what a good looking asian girl was supposed to look like. i had a “flat” face and i looked different. i thought i was ugly when in reality i’m actually pretty. i couldn’t read a normal american magazine to see how to use eye make-up. i knew that there was a population of people who would not date me because i am a different race, and a small population of people who targeted me because i am an asian female. i knew that most of my classmates had no interest in me because i wasn’t white because most people go out with people of their own race, which of course left me nowhere since there were no other minorities around me. so yes, even though i’m used to everyone around me being white, all my friends and colleagues being white, everyone i see in the media being white and a few black here and there, i notice when someone is asian. i am happy that there are different kinds of asians in the public now, not just doctors, but comedians and athletes and fashion designers and gays and bigots and skinny and fat and everything in between. well, i’m not happy there are some fat asians – lol. what is wrong with being happy to see that the media is becoming more representative of the greater country? diversity is a good thing – you don’t have to look further than the los angeles food scene to understand that 🙂

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