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'April's Way' Captures Stories of Korean-American Merchants During L.A. Riots

A new crowdfunding campaign hopes to help tell the story of the impact the 1992 Los Angeles riots had on the Korean-American community.

L.A. riots, then and now

April 29, 201203:13

A new crowdfunding campaign hopes to help tell the story of the impact the 1992 Los Angeles riots had on the Korean-American community.

Launched by director Robert Nyerges, the Kickstarter campaign for “April’s Way,” a short film, began Oct. 20 and will end Nov. 20. The title “April’s Way” is a reference to the month of April, when the riots began following the acquittal of four LAPD officers in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King.

The short film follows the story of Sung-Min (played by Tom Choi from MTV’s “Teen Wolf”), a Korean-American merchant who struggles to protect his family and defend his market during the six days of looting, arson, and violence that spread from South Los Angeles (formerly South-Central Los Angeles) to Koreatown.

In researching the riots, Nyerges turned to film as an honest medium to reveal the Korean perspective—a perspective that he found had been repeatedly forgotten or not told in its entirety.

“The story line of many of these Korean store owners was often overlooked and undertold….when in fact they were a huge victim of the entire event," Nyerges told NBC News. "Close to 2,000 stores were burned to the ground and accounted for billions of dollars of damage, yet somehow their voice has been voiceless."

“These shops were all that these immigrants had."

Nyerges added that the violence that erupted in response to the recent shootings of unarmed black teens in Ferguson and Baltimore furthered his desire to direct a short film that would take a stand against racism and social injustice.

“With violence in Ferguson last summer, I was in a down period and knew this was something important. When it re-erupted, I was compelled to start a short film,” he said. “While we were making this project earlier this year, events in Baltimore unfolded and re-justified the means to make this project.”

During his research, Nyerges looked to filmmakers like David Kim for inspiration. Kim's 2012 documentary “Clash of Colors” took a deep dive into how the L.A. riots affected the Korean-American community in the years during and long after the riots.

Cinematographer Nicholas Wiesnet with "April's Way" lead actor Tom Choi.Courtesy of Robert Nyerges

“April’s Way,” which is based on a true story, was shot on location at Advance Food Market on West Adams Boulevard—one of the stores that had burned down during the riots.

"We believe, unless something drastically changes in spirit in this country, this all will come again, maybe soon, maybe worse," Buddy Lee, the late co-owner of Advance Food Market, told the Associated Press in 1992.

The Lee family had initially bought the store just a few years before the riots began. After their market burned down, Lee and his wife Betty spent two years battling insurance companies and collaborating with the local community to rebuild the market, Nyerges said.

With help from the Korean Churches for Community Development, Nyerges was able to connect with the Lee family, who revealed VHS footage of their market burning down, and provided insight into some of the discrimination and struggles they faced in the years during and after the riots.

“When we found this particular story line with the Advance Market, it reaffirmed that this is an important and topical event that is relevant to today’s events with social injustices that are happening,” Nyerges said.

L.A. riots, then and now

April 29, 201203:13

Shelley Lee, associate professor of history and comparative American studies at Oberlin College, says the events of April 29, 1992, are often referred to as “Sa-i-gu” in the Korean language—a reference to the date that the riots first took place.

“The fact that Koreans have a special name for what most Americans call the ‘L.A. riots’ underscores what a trauma it was at the time, what a turning point it since has been, and how it stands out in the collective immigrant and diasporic consciousness of Koreans in America and elsewhere,” Lee told NBC News.

“What’s important to me was to humanize each of these demographics and show that no one is directly to blame, but nobody is also innocent as well."

For many immigrants, “Sai-i-gu” symbolized the shattering of the American Dream, Lee explained, adding, “For some it was a wake-up call to be more civically and politically engaged and sensitive to the struggles of others in America. For other Koreans, the lesson was to leave the city and its troubles.”

Lee said that Korean-owned stores in Koreatown and South Los Angeles were targeted by rioters, as they were at the epicenter of the uprising. Some also suggest that the shooting death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, an African-American teenager who was fatally shot by Korean storekeeper Soon Ja Du, less than two weeks after the videotaped beating of King.

“Soon Ja Du thought she was shoplifting, but Harlins had money in her hand," Lee said. A jury found Du guilty, but was given what many believe was a light sentence.

“The killing and trial confirmed what many had been charging: that there was no justice for black victims and only preferential treatment for their assailants,” Lee said, adding, "The media played a large role in playing up interracial conflict and perpetuating this idea that members of the black and Korean communities were uniformly intolerant of and racist toward each other."

A close-up still of "April's Way" actress Somali Rose at a market on West Adams Boulevard in Los Angeles.Courtesy of Robert Nyerges

Lee explained that South Los Angeles and Koreatown received hardly any police assistance during the rioting. As a result, many Korean-American merchants were forced to take matters into their own hands by guarding their businesses with their own weapons.

“The faces of anguished storeowners watching their livelihoods burn to the ground, as well as gun-toting Koreans improvising their own security stand out as some of the most haunting and unforgettable images of the riots,” Lee recalled.

In the immediate wake of the uprising, there was a great deal of despair and hopelessness, as many Korean businesses were not insured. “These shops were all that these immigrants had,” Lee said.

Total property damage during the riots was estimated between $785 million and $1 billion, which included $350 to $400 million worth of damage to Korean-owned property. The riots left an estimated 2,000 injured and led to thousands of arrests. Approximately 55 people were killed during the riots.

In “April’s Way,” Nyerges says some of his characters react based on survival instincts and the need to protect one’s family from violence.

“What’s important to me was to humanize each of these demographics and show that no one is directly to blame, but nobody is also innocent as well," he said.

Actor Tom Choi plays the role of Sung-Min, a Korean store owner who defends his market during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.Courtesy of Robert Nyerges

As an example, Nyerges points to a scene where a young mother steals food in order to feed her young child while cradling her baby. “Not all Korean store owners were violent offenders. Not all African-American and Hispanic looters were malicious people, but rather acting out of need and survival,” he added.

Nyerges hopes his film will spark a larger discussion and raise questions about race relations. He has since been in close contact with Operation HOPE, the Korean American Chamber of Commerce in Koreatown, the Korean Cultural Center in Orange County, and various other organizations during the making of “April’s Way.”

"...this is an important and topical event that is relevant to today’s events with social injustices that are happening.”

“We hope that we can be one small part of the conversation that needs to continue happening to further develop race relations in our country and our world,” Nyerges said.

The feedback for the film so far, Nyerges said, has been hopeful. While promoting the Kickstarter across social media, Nyerges said he's received feedback and comments from people who want to share their own experiences.

According to 2010 Census data, more than 200,000 Korean Americans reside in Los Angeles County.

Today, Koreatown has bounced back, but the painful history still remains, Lee explained.

“You wouldn’t know from visiting Koreatown today that it was the scene for the most destructive riot in American history,” Lee said.