The impact of the 1992 Rodney King Riots on Korean shopkeepers was absolutely devastating. While “Sai-I-Gu” conveyed the severity of this physical and emotional aftermath extremely well, I feel that the three filmmakers’ most impressive feat was successfully addressing the tension-filled social context of the April 29 disaster. They provided a very rich and real depiction of the interracial discord that plagued Los Angeles, using only the words of Korean women. And through this, they offered an opening for productive, therapeutic ways to conceptualize the tragedy.
The interviewees covered a fairly wide range in terms of perspectives, experiences, and willingness to express personal opinions before the camera. They all seemed to share the narrative of coming to the U.S. with visions of clean streets, social harmony and abundance of financial opportunity for their future families. But as residents of Koreatown, Los Angeles, many young couples came to find limited options for employment and incredible financial difficulty. Using their savings to open shops was a way for Korean immigrants to empower themselves economically and socially, and it seemed as though banks were willing to provide the loans.
Meanwhile, a large black population had existed in Los Angeles for years but did not have the same kind of success in business or social mobility. Many interviewees in the documentary felt that anger of black rioters towards white people had been displaced and unleashed on innocent Korean shop owners. One woman’s response was that she wasn’t mad at black people, but at whites. Yet her rationale wasn’t that white oppression of the African American population caused the riots: “the Government should have watched over the Blacks better.” I understood this to mean that the white government should have contained the black population better, a rather racist view of the situation.
Another woman addressed the Korean/Black divide directly. She wished that Korean people would “treat blacks like their own children,” instead of assuming that black customers were coming in to rob them (she’d heard of storekeepers putting their cash and possessions on the counter as soon as an African American person would come in). Neighborhood children told her that they felt Koreans were “brainwashed by white people”, that Koreans were not treating them like human beings. So all parties bear responsibility here—Koreans are simply an extension of an entrenched black/white conflict.
I was reminded of previous cases in history that we recently discussed in class: the South Asian population in Uganda, the Chinese in Indonesia, and other situations where an outside group comes in and succeeds in a society dominated by whites (built on the oppression of a population of color). Maybe the major conflict is between two groups, Koreans (or Chinese or Indians) excluded, but the role Koreans play in the newer multicultural society in no way aids the plight of the oppressed. The controlling group favors the Asian immigrants, and/or the Asians assume prejudicial attitudes that further the racial divide. With evidence of this very real trend, perhaps the first thing to do is to share these lessons with minority communities. Working from the bottom up may be more effective than waiting for change at the top.