Editor’s Note: Jin Yoo-Kim is the Co-producer of K-TOWN ’92 Reporters and Coordinating Producer on the CAAM-funded interactive web documentary K-TOWN ’92 directed by Grace Lee. Here, Yoo-Kim writes about working on the interactive documentary that took her back to childhood memories of the LA Riots/Uprising/Sa-I-Gu.
How does the 1992 LA Riots/Uprising/Sa-I-Gu affect a ten year-old Korean girl from Bolivia living in West LA? I had just celebrated my birthday when Sa-I-Gu struck Koreatown. I remember seeing it unfold on TV, first on the Korean media outlets and then on U.S. news channels. While Koreatown burned, I was scared and nervous, but a small part of me felt a little excited. It was the first time I saw the American media say anything about Koreatown. It was the first time I felt like we existed outside of the Korean/Koreatown bubble.
In 1992, my parents were still living and working in Bolivia while my brother and I lived in LA under my grandmother’s supervision. I remember asking her if we were in danger and she told me that the fires wouldn’t reach our area. Right after that, she called my aunt, who lived in the heart of Koreatown. My grandmother didn’t know how to drive, and I wondered what we were going to do that week for groceries. We depended on our Koreatown relatives to drive us back and forth for Sunday errands. Did we have to get groceries from more expensive American supermarkets? Did we have to change churches? Would the kids at school treat me differently? It was nice being invisible at school. Now I felt like there was a spotlight on me, the community to which I belonged, and the people that looked like me.
They say Sa-I-Gu shaped the Korean American identity in LA. By the second or third weekend after the LA Riots/Uprising/Sa-I-Gu, I was somehow swept along with my relatives in the clean-up effort. I remember wearing a free shirt from a church group as we repainted a wall along Olympic Boulevard. That was the first day I saw the aftermath and all the destruction in real life. It was devastating to see the holes where buildings used to be. There were too many places we used to frequent that weren’t there anymore. I wondered what would happen to the people who worked there. I was surprised that people weren’t crying — just so many strangers coming together and talking to each other. Suddenly, I felt like people around me were bonding, and there was a sense of awakening. I wondered if this was what hope looked like.
After the Uprising, I grew up with the interests and opinions that one would expect from any angst-ridden teenage girl trying to navigate the rough terrain of one’s identity. I returned to Bolivia to finish high school and felt the culture shock of yet again having to fit into a society that I did not understand. Despite my love for Tupac, Nirvana and getting in trouble, I graduated and went on to college.
At Wellesley College, I took an Asian American film studies class, where I was introduced to a growing wave of emerging Asian American filmmakers, including Grace Lee. For the first time, it felt like my voice as a Korean-Bolivian-American mattered. It was inspiring to see that there was a space in American cinema for Asian American storytellers, and it galvanized me to pursue my own MFA at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Since then, there have been many moments when I was the only Korean American in a room, and sometimes the only minority. It has made me question whether there really was a space for me and the stories I wanted to tell… about our ancestors… for our descendants… and across cultures.
It’s a bit surreal to work on a project with someone I once studied in college, and even more surreal to work on an interactive documentary that takes me back to my childhood. From the moment I joined K-TOWN ’92, it was clear that the team’s vision for the project was to tell the untold stories of the LA Uprising, with a commitment to diversifying the narratives and community sources. This was a departure from other media retrospectives.
As I reviewed hours of archival footage, it became clear that the mainstream news media back in 1992 pushed the same narrative forward with the same media images: riots, violence, and Koreans shooting at looters. We were watching a city being torn apart by violence without much information. Looking back, I see an uprising, but that is not how it was portrayed on TV.
For this project, I sought out new, more dynamic stories. There were Koreans who didn’t wield guns. Those that carried them did so after a series of events, such as seeing police flee the unrest or 911 responders encouraging people to protect themselves and their businesses on their own. It was not a spur-of-the-moment violent reaction as seen on the news. Afterwards, there were peaceful protests and community dialogue. We met journalists of color, who said they couldn’t tell the real stories they were witnessing on the streets. As other media networks have focused on and regurgitated the same riot porn of the last 25 years, we had a passion to tell stories in the voices of the people themselves.
Through this process I’ve learned to be confident and unwavering in the desire to tell stories that I care about, because if I care about it, I now firmly believe that the story might matter to someone else, too.
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