Sun, Jan 22, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Little Korea in the big US

'Strange Future' is an academic work that looks at the Korean-American experience

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Strange Future
By Min Hyoung Songduke
285 pages
Duke University Press

This book looks at the 1992 riots in Los Angeles in which Korean businesses were frequently the targets of angry crowds, many of them consisting of African-Americans incensed by the "not guilty" verdict on the police officers filmed the previous year beating Rodney King (who had himself attempted to rob a Korean-owned store).

Korean immigration to the US increased dramatically following the passing of the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965. This abolished earlier laws that had restricted immigration by criteria of race and ethnicity, establishing instead generous quotas for Eastern Hemisphere countries (20,000 persons annually per country). In addition, new arrivals with family members already in the US could immigrate independently of these quotas. Special preference was also given to potential immigrants with needed skills.

Korean immigration peaked between 1985 and 1987, with some 35,000 individuals arriving annually. Many were able to claim family relation to brides of US servicemen who fought in the Korean War, or others who had come to the US as college students. Korea quickly became the third largest sender nation after Mexico and the Philippines.

A significant proportion of these immigrants settled in largely black inner-city neighborhoods, opening small businesses, frequently stores selling, among other things, alcohol. These in their turn became the targets of late-night robbers, and characteristically installed iron bars round the cash desks as a precaution against such assaults.

It's an interesting question as to whether the hostility that built up against these newly-arrived Korean store-owners was one of an often unemployed urban proletariat against hard-working small-scale entrepreneurs (who were enviously said to have mysterious access to capital from back home), or whether it was simply a matter of locations where money was stored inevitably attracting assailants.

The popular image, fostered by some sections of the press, of unemployed blacks and self-employed Asians was clearly an over-simplification at best, and a racist slur at worst. Even so, the fact of Korean diligence (plus a quickly noted success at college level, especially in the sciences, as was the case with so many other East Asian immigrants) led to an upwardly-mobile social group of relatively recent arrivals. With that new wealth derived, so it appeared, from deprived inner-city areas, fuel for resentment was there almost from the start.

Strange Future considers a variety of cultural products that reflect those troubled times. One is the much-praised novel Native Speaker by the Korean-American writer Lee Chang-rae. Lee was only 29 when this debut work came out in 1995 (incidentally the 50th anniversary of Korean independence from Japanese rule). His subsequent novel, A Gesture Life, a sensitive and sophisticated treatment of the subject of Korean "comfort women" during World War II, was reviewed in Taipei Times on Jan. 14, 2001.

Another item discussed is Dai Sil Kim-Gibson's Sa-I-Gu: From Korean Women's Perspective, a 1993 documentary that interviewed many Korean immigrant women dispossessed by the riots. In this chapter the important fact emerges that only 10 percent of Korean- American merchants in Los Angeles at the time served primarily African American customers.

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