Q&A: K-Town ’92 Spotlights Unheard Stories of the LA Riots

Q&A: K-Town ’92 Spotlights Unheard Stories of the LA Riots

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Ed. Note: For Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Grace Lee, the 1992 Los Angeles riots marked the “birth of Korean America.” Lee’s latest project, K-Town ’92
, lets audiences experience the LA riots through a mosaic of stories. Lee spoke with NAM editor Peter Schurmann about her film K-Town ’92.

What are your memories of the 1992 Los Angeles riots?

In 1992, I was living in Seoul. My first experience of the riots was through television and Korean media. And that was really a shocking event for me. I didn’t grow up in Los Angeles. I grew up in the Midwest. At that time there were no images of Asian Americans in general, and Korean Americans in particular. Also, the understanding of what it meant to be Korean American, even in Korea, was still forming at the time. And so, to be in Korea and seeing Koreatown represented on television for the first time, but it was on fire and completely being destroyed, was a very profound moment for me in understanding what it meant to be Korean American.

How has the Korean American community changed since the riots?

A lot of people who were around at that time … have said that Korean America was born out of 1992. For the first time [Korean Americans] knew that it meant something to be Korean; not exactly what, but it meant something. There were so many labels and stereotypes of what being Korean meant at the time. And often in mainstream media … a certain story emerged, which was the Korean as merchant. Well, not every Korean is a merchant, just like not every Latino is a looter. But these were the kinds of stereotypes that came out. I think Korean Americans understood for the first time that they needed to be more active, more engaged … they needed to understand the role of race in determining where they stood in America.

Your project takes aim at the role mainstream media played in pushing stereotypes of LA communities. But what about ethnic media? What sort of role did they play?

I was really struck by the role of Radio Korea … they just abandoned all regular programming, they didn’t have any ads. It just became a hotline, like a call-in show where people were reporting what was going on, because there was so much chaos. And no one was responding, whether police, or the fire department, authorities. No one was paying attention.

There is another guy we interviewed, Ruben Tapia. He worked for Radio Bilingue. He lived in the neighborhood and went out and reported on what he saw. And he had the background to know about who the people around him were, that many of them were Central American refugees who had fled a war-torn country, and here they are in Los Angeles.

How have people who experienced the riots coped with the memory of it?

There were quite a few people we tried to speak to for their stories, and there were quite a few who just didn’t want to talk, even 25 years later. There was one woman I was really hoping to participate, she’s half Korean and half African American … she just sort of said, ‘I don’t really want to talk. It’s still too painful.’

I made a film a few years ago called American Revolutionary, about the activist Grace Lee Boggs. She was a Chinese American writer and philosopher, and very rooted in the black community. I had a screening in LA and a young Korean American woman came up to me afterwards. She said she’d never heard of the riots until taking an Asian American studies class at UCLA. She’d looked through the FEMA records of stores that were burnt down … and she found her grandparents’ store in the book. She said for the first time she actually understood what happened to her family, why she moved to Korea for a year while the family rebuilt the laundromat, and why her parents eventually divorced and she was raised by a single mom. We don’t speak about the things that are very painful, but maybe we should.

What are you hoping to get across with this project?

Over 25 years of watching anniversaries of this event … it’s always the same people that are interviewed, the same sort of spokespersons. That makes it such a static event that only has a certain perspective. And it doesn’t really reflect the kind of stories I was hearing. In particular, in mainstream media, the Korean American story often got overlooked, not to mention any stories of Latinos.

I personally have no interest in telling just a Korean American story because, if we learn anything from 1992, it’s that we exist in a society that is interconnected … we live side by side. And it would be wrong to focus on Koreatown as just a Korean community, because that’s not what it is. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for the past 20 years, and I’ve been living in Koreatown for the past eight or nine years … My reality is that when I look out the door it is a majority Asian and Latino city. To think about South LA as a monolithic African American community is just wrong. And to think of Koreatown as a monolithic Korean community is also inaccurate.

My whole filmmaking career has been built on trying to tell a different story, or questioning who gets to tell the story. And critiquing images that have come before, but also uplifting perspectives that have been overlooked. Those two principles guided the making of K-Town ’92.

What’s next for K-Town '92?

The nice thing about the site is that we can continue to add to it. It’s got 25 to 28 interviews now. But I’ve since met so many people. Hopefully it engenders more stories to come out. I would love for people to check it out and experience it for themselves.

Check out Lee's short documentary, K-Town '92 Reporters, which tells the story of the citywide civil unrest through the experience of four journalists of color who were there.