All posts by Audrey Ryu


The Faces Of L.A.’s Skid Row: A Powerful Photo Project By John Hwang

John Hwang makes friends with some of society’s most invisible members: the people living on L.A.’s Skid Row. Many know his face and name, some have his number. He knows their stories and, with their permission, shares them with the world. “Everyone has a story,” he says. Here’s his.


This piece elaborates on an audio profile produced by this writer and broadcast on Southern California Public Radio/89.3 KPCC’s “Off-Ramp,” in March 2014. Listen to it here.

It’s a damp, late afternoon in January. John Hwang, still in scrubs from his occupational therapy shift in Monterey Park, California, is about to hit downtown Los Angeles. But he’s not headed to a hip rooftop bar on Broadway or a new gastropub in Little Tokyo. He’s going to Alameda and 4th Street—roughly the northeast corner of L.A.’s Skid Row, which some call “the homeless capital of the United States”—to start one of his many check-ins with old friends and, very likely, make new ones along the way.

This Friday evening, he spots a familiar figure on T Avenue. “Hey, Richard,” he says, crouching down to touch the shoulder of an African American man in his early 50s staring down into his lap. “How are you today?” Richard looks up from the kids’-sized yogurt he’s nursing and, recognizing Hwang, smiles. His arrestingly light eyes brighten as he returns a quiet salutation. Just a few sentences pass between them: “How have you been? Have you been all right through the rain the last couple nights? Do you have enough to read?” Richard responds by nodding his head, moving his shoulders. He’s a man of few words, Hwang explains, as the latter continues walking through Skid Row. “People who stay on this street mostly keep to themselves. … They don’t want any drama,” Hwang says. “Every street has its own personality.”

As he continues toward San Pedro Street, Hwang meets others he knows—and who know him well enough to call when lonely. One such man, a white Vietnam war vet called Bob whose PTSD makes living anywhere with a roof unbearable, is setting up for the night near the Downtown Women’s Center when Hwang stops to say hello. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you,” Hwang says, extending a hand to Bob’s arm. Bob’s been in the hospital recently, though “I’m OK, now,” he says. He’s tried calling Hwang a couple of times, but couldn’t reach him. “Oh, yeah, I got a new phone,” Hwang tells him as he pulls out his cell. He hands it to Bob to input his number. “I’ll call you, so you have my info.”


Hwang met Camha just outside Skid Row last October. “She was barely coherent. Often mumbling words silently under her lips, as if she was chanting a prayer. When there was food around her mouth, I got a napkin and gently wiped her mouth and face. Tears began to well up in her eyes. No words were needed then.” 


Such sharing isn’t something he does with everyone, says Hwang later. But with some he’ s met downtown, he’s open to that contact. “I just have a feeling. I know it’ s OK.”

Based on what happens the rest of the visit, it seems that Skid Row feels Hwang is OK, too. Tonight’s walk is a short one compared to the many others he’s made over the last two years or so. In the span of just a couple hours, Hwang greets and points out a half-dozen Skid Row residents who have told him their stories; he even has his portrait crayoned on the sidewalk by someone he’s met for the first time, a new friend who shares a stick of chewing gum along with his back story. Hwang’ s gentle manner and capacity for fast connection—the bonds he forms are often quick and firm—draws people hungry for interaction. And it’s meaningful connection that keeps Hwang coming back. “Everyone is unique,” he says. “Everyone has a story.”

Hwang’s own story features elements at once familiar and unusual. Like many ethnic Koreans in the U.S., his start came outside the States. Born in the Canary Islands in 1974, Hwang lived in Panama and Mexico before his family immigrated to Southern California when he was 7. And, like a vast swath of Korean Americans, he spent a good part of his youth and young adulthood at Protestant churches that included urban ministry.

An outing with an Orange County-based church back in the 1990s—long before downtown became “DTLA”— occasioned Hwang’ s first direct contact with the homeless of Skid Row. Nearly all his fellow volunteers focused on distributing food. “I was more intrigued by the people,” says Hwang, who spent the afternoon talking with street residents instead of handing out sandwiches. “One man in particular, his intelligence just struck me. He was so different from the stereotypes about the homeless … that they’re all addicts, or mentally ill.”


John Hwang shares the pictures and stories of his friends on Skid Row, with their permission. He wrote this about Richard: “His eyes lit up when I handed him the National Geographic magazine. Richard loves to read. ‘It takes me to places I’ve never gone,’ he told me. … Richard was in a car accident that left him disabled. Confined to the streets. However, reading set his mind free.” 

Many years elapsed between that visit and Hwang’s next one. In 2011, he was one among many looking into lofts in Little Tokyo, an area adjacent to a cluster of homeless service centers. Juxtaposing the lofts’ price tag with Skid Row next door jarred him. It also recalled his years’ -back conversation with a street resident. Soon enough, he ended up back downtown—not to live, but to learn.

“I’ve always been very intrigued by people living on the street,” says Hwang, “because if you live in L.A., you see them all the time.” He had no plans to document his visits when he started going to Skid Row about two years ago. Yet as he met more people, and heard more of their stories, he felt he needed to share them somehow.

So Hwang started taking photos.

With his subjects’ permission, Hwang posted their portraits to Facebook, pairing the images with simple descriptions or anecdotes. Melody’ s picture, for example, presents a young woman holding her head high, with this: “She hears voices. … She shared with me stories of her life, her family. … I asked, ‘Do you still hear voices now?’ and she responded with ‘I can hear yours …’” A color and black-and-white diptych of a gently smiling Benito, who “has the kind of voice that would make for a good storyteller or narrator for a movie,” shows images of a man who imparts “the wisdom that comes with age and living on the streets. He likes to spend his time reading. … When he feels down he just thinks about how there are many others who are less fortunate than him.”

And then there’s Tracey in a black cap and white undershirt, standing in a graffitti’d tunnel near the L.A. River. A former singer with a beautiful voice, seven years on the streets, and both AIDS and prostate cancer, Tracey “survives by finding food in the dumpsters of restaurants, markets and produce vendors, [and] makes an effort to care for other homeless people around him, including helping feed them.”


This is a shot of the blanket that Sam, a 21-year-old Korean American living on Skid Row, was carrying when Hwang took him to the home of a pastor who does homeless ministry. Hwang wrote of their first encounter: “So we sat there together at Subway. Quietly, he ate. As I watched him, I started to think back to when I was his age of 21 and what I was doing with my life. I couldn’t understand how he ended up on the street or begin to imagine the reality of his life. … Then he looked up at me with teary eyes and said, ‘thank you, hyung.’” 

The combination of striking photos and narrative elicited immediate response. Likes, comments and shares reached scores of people he’s known over the years. They also made the news feeds of those he didn’t know at all—people who’ve reached out to offer Hwang help with funds, food, clothes, even a collection of National Geographic magazines. “It’s been amazing to see [how the posts] move people,” Hwang says.

For all the engagement he seeks with others, and for all the attention he’s gotten, Hwang remains independent. This is especially evident in his approach to Skid Row and its residents. His early exposure to downtown L.A.’s homeless may have come through a faith community, yet his work, so to speak, is not affiliated with any church entity or motivated by conventional religious mission. While Hwang speaks about “praying for direction” when he sets out on his visits and posts stories about the work of ministries serving the downtown homeless population, his sensibilities run more to the spiritual than the religious; he is compelled by what he can contribute to effecting kindness to others anyplace, not just in Skid Row.

There’s also no secular agenda driving Hwang. In the last two years, he has been solicited or advised by readers working in homeless outreach. He understands where such response comes from, especially given the degree and scale of issues he sees among those he engages on the street. But he is quick to assert that what he does “is not advocacy. I’m not trying to join a cause,’ he says, “or rescue anyone or solve anyone’s problems. [Homelessness] is complicated.”

Two cases in which Hwang’s lent more than a listening ear and a hot meal point up the complexity of what puts— and keeps—people on the street. The

first, involving a Vietnamese senior named Camha, shows what can happen when a person ends up far from home but cannot return on her own. When Hwang met her just outside Skid Row last October, she “didn’t have shoes [and] was wearing hospital-issued socks that were blackened from the dirtiness of the street. All she had was a small bag and a blanket she sat on. She was barely coherent … mumbling words silently under her lips, as if she was chanting a prayer.” As Camha had a California state senior citizen ID card, Hwang shared a photo of it on Facebook, asking, “Does anyone have any connection to the Vietnamese community up in the Bay Area?”

Friends, contacts and even strangers responded immediately to the post with offers of help and useful tips. Less than 24 hours later, Hwang spoke with someone who knew the lost woman, who’d “been reported missing for some time.” Just a couple of hours after that, Camha was on a Greyhound bus headed back to her home in San Francisco.


Walter is one of Hwang’s oldest friends on Skid Row. “He frequents all the local recycle centers, going 5-6 times a day,” wrote Hwang. “Sadly one recycling center he often goes to mistreats him. … He is talked down to and treated like he is dumb or crazy. When actually he is a bright, hard working and sensitive man. It hurts him deeply. I can see it in his eyes. Walter grew up in rural Texas, during the time of segregation. So it brings back some painful memories. But Walter refuses to feel sorry for himself. He refuses to feel bitter. He knows his worth as a human being.”  

What happened with Sam, a 21-year-old Korean Hwang tried to help off the street, provides a counterpoint to the “success” of Camha’s story. Hwang’s first encounter with Sam started with a sandwich and some basic background (“He said his mother was killed when he was a young child, and he hadn’t spoken to his father for a long time.”) and ended with a “thank you, hyung.” The next time they ran into each other, Hwang took Sam to a Korean pastor who runs a homeless ministry. Although Sam had been on the street for just four months—a stint much shorter than the years Tracey, Benito and Bob have spent on Skid Row— Hwang says he had a hunch this dongsaeng would end up back where he first saw him.

“It seemed like he didn’t really want to be helped,” Hwang says in retrospect. He concedes he was initially disappointed to see Sam among the homeless on subsequent visits downtown. It was a reminder, nevertheless, of a reality Hwang understands more deeply as he spends more time in the rougher parts of Los Angeles: living on the street is a choice some make, even if a way off is within reach.

Despite (or, perhaps because of) the sheer magnitude of what it would take to eradicate homelessness, Hwang’s focus remains fixed on what he can do. Make eye contact and say hello, offer a meal and some company, share photos and stories that impact others where they are. And what he does isn’t so much about the homeless specifically as it is about “connecting with the humanity” in people. A midspring post about Cora, a woman Hwang met on an unusually quiet night downtown, captures this:

“The empty street felt lonely last night. There [were] no cars or traffic. Only a few people walking by … while I was waiting at an intersection … [t]his sweet lady started making random conversation with me so I asked her to dinner. We sat at a small family-owned pizza place on that empty street. Cora lives alone in a low-income housing unit downtown. She says she doesn’t really have any friends, and that she was coming home from a karaoke bar by herself. Singing and dancing makes her happy. She slowly ate her French fries she drowned in ketchup and her chicken wings, as if to savor the time we have together. We talked about all kinds of things; childhood stories, favorite foods, our travels, what makes us happy, to what’s important in life. I told her she is my new friend, and she smiled and gave me a warm hug. That street didn’t feel so empty to me anymore.”

A Facebook stranger who shared Hwang’ s post included a note saying, “This is what we should be doing … sharing our time and listening … We ALL just want to know we matter.” Another wrote, “So many lonely, invisible people out there, and he stops and reaches out to them.”

Hwang readily admits the personal gratification he derives from his “work” on Skid Row. “It’s an amazing thing to be able to connect so deeply with a stranger so quickly. It’s an incredible high.” He also says, introspectively, “Ultimately, this is something I do for myself.” The response his efforts have drawn makes it clear, nevertheless, that he’s making some kind of difference for others. If for no other reason than sharing stories that somehow move people, it’ s likely Hwang will continue making after-work trips to see friends downtown and, as he puts it, to “be the change [he] wants to see in the world.”

Top photo courtesy of John Cha.

This article was published in the July 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).

MJ Kim in is Hollywood Studio with his portrait of Paul McCartne

The Life And Art Of Sir Paul McCartney’s Personal Photographer

MJ Kim captures and creates stunning images of some of the world’s biggest stars—the biggest, of course, being Sir Paul McCartney.

story and top photograph by MARK EDWARD HARRIS

Gracing the walls of MJ Kim’s Hollywood photography studio are images of the “who’s who” of the music and entertainment industry: Sting, Johnny Depp, Natalie Portman, Victoria Beckham and Justin Timberlake are among the many framed pictures. And, then there’s a larger-than-life portrait of Sir Who’s Who himself: the legendary Paul McCartney.

Kim began working with McCartney in 2008, and then became his personal photographer the following year. In addition to documenting all of the singer’s personal projects, he follows the former Beatle as he tours the world—including on the current “Out There” tour, which kicks off its U.S. leg this month. “It is quite amazing to see 50,000 multi-generation people—I mean from 3 years to 100 years old—just enjoying the same music together!” said Kim, referring to the crowds that the 72-year-old McCartney commands. “It is such a pleasure to witness, and capture the love and harmony.”

You might say it was a long and winding road (shameless Beatles reference intended) that brought Kim, a native of South Korea, to his current position as an international photographer who has worked with some of the biggest names in the arts. The lensman, who moved to L.A. in 2010 after 15 years living and working in London, sat down with photojournalist Mark Edward Harris last month to elaborate on that eventful path.

Paul McCartney Out There Tour 2013ON THE RUN tour

MJ Kim follows Paul McCartney around the globe, documenting the legendary singer as he entertains his crowds (top) in Regina, Canada, and (bottom) in New York. (Photos: © MJ Kim.)


How did you end up working with Paul McCartney?
While I was a senior entertainment photographer for Getty Images, I covered a lot of international events, such as the Cannes, Venice and Berlin film festivals and many movie junkets. I built a lot of relationships with public relations and artists’ management companies during that time. That helped when I went freelance at the end of 2007.

The first assignment I got as a freelancer was to photograph the Spice Girls for four months on their reunion tour. The publicist working for the Spice Girls, Stuart Bell, was also Paul McCartney’s publicist. So after the tour, he had Paul look at my work. He liked it, and we’ve been working together since 2008.

What have been some of the highlights of working with Paul over the last six years?
There have been so many. Paul and the crew, we’re like a family. I went with Paul to the White House when he was given the Gershwin Award by President Obama in 2010. We had a little concert in the White House. The guests included Obama’s family, congressmen, about 200 people. It was an amazing show and an amazing experience. Another one was the London Olympics [in 2012], where Paul closed the opening ceremonies with “Hey Jude,” and I was on stage with him. He was very excited. I was very excited. The world was very excited.

What’s your favorite McCartney song?
“I Saw Her Standing There.” I love, love, love that song. It’s so fun. It’s got such a classic rock ‘n’ roll rhythm and the story is really cute. The story reminds me of my youth in Korea. “Well she was just 17, you know what I mean, and the way she looked, was way beyond compare …”

As for an album, I love Abbey Road. Some of the songs were by Paul, some by George Harrison, some by John Lennon. Every song has such a beautiful character.

What would you say you’ve learned after many years of documenting this one person—essentially, a living legend?
One, nothing is more important than family. Two, be humble. Three, keep pushing yourself and never compromise.

What attracts you to photographing musicians?
On stage musicians produce amazing energy, which you cannot expect from a studio session. It only comes out on stage. During the live performance, you can capture that energy, but you don’t have any control. In that situation, I’m a photojournalist using my Canon 5D Mark IIIs to capture what’s happening in front of my lens. In the studio, I can influence the image by my lighting and my direction of the person. Both approaches are very different, but equally fascinating.

 Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp (© MJ Kim)

Johnny Depp & MJ KIM
MJ Kim, with Jonny Depp. (Photo Courtesy of MJ Kim)

Where does your dramatic use of light for studio portraiture come from?
There’s an expression in Italian, “chiaroscuro,” which means the use of strong contrasts between light and dark. I start in the darkness and build the light, bit by bit. I use light-modifying tools, such as beauty dishes with grids. An early inspiration for lighting for me was not a photographer, but the 16th-century painter Caravaggio. It’ s similar to Rembrandt lighting, but more dramatic. I like a bit of dark, moody lighting.

You also on occasion use the larger 8-by-10 camera that takes a prominent position in your studio. It’s almost an objet d’art.
I’ve been using the 8-by-10 Kodak Eastman 2D view camera for shooting a new series with wet plate Collodion. Part of the reason I like it is because it is bloody hard. When I first started school in London, I shot film. When you shoot film, it’s money. You have to buy film, paper and so on. Every shot is important. I love the technology of the digital revolution but everything is so easy—it’s too easy. Too many images. So when I discovered this 19th-century wet plate process, I fell in love with it. You have to prepare the chemicals and put them on the plate, then expose the image, then process it. You do everything. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I love this analog process. I love the texture of it. The originality. Once you make a plate, that’s it. The color is in-between black and white and sepia, and the edges have a very mysterious look to them.

What took you to London to study photography?
In 1995, at the age of 22, I went there to study filmmaking, actually—not photography. When I was in Korea, I worked in the TV industry a little, but never thought about being a photographer. While I was studying film in London, I was aware of the many similarities between film and still photography. So I bought a couple of books on photography to study on the side and borrowed an old Pentax camera from my roommate that he had sitting in the closet. The more I took pictures, the more I fell in love with still photography.

Matthew McConaugheyMatthew McConaughey (© MJ Kim)


Paris HiltonParis Hilton (© MJ Kim)

Victoria Beckham
Victoria Beckham (© MJ Kim)

Studio at the MTV EMA 2006
Justin Timberlake (© MJ Kim)

Diane Kruger
Diane Kruger (© MJ Kim)

David & Victoria Beckham
David and Victoria Beckham (© MJ Kim)


How did that evolve into a career?
While I was in London, there was a huge economic crisis in Korea in 1998, so my parents couldn’t support my studies any longer. I stopped my film studies at the university and started working as a photographer trainee at a small news agency in London. I was just trying to survive in the U.K. There were four trainees in the agency; I was the only foreigner. At the end, they hired a British guy and me as full-time photographers. The agency specialized in court cases. In the U.K., you cannot take cameras inside the courtroom by law, so our agency was photographing people involved in big cases going in and out of court.

I worked there about a year, then got a freelance job shooting for the Daily Telegraph also for about a year, then went to work for the Press Association, which is like the Associated Press in the U.S. Eventually Getty Images in London offered me a position as senior entertainment photographer. I was with them in that position from 2004 to 2007. In 2008, after years of working in the photography field and after recently starting to work with Paul, I went back to school to get a master of arts degree in fashion photography at the London College of Fashion. I did not have to first finish my B.A. because of all my practical experience in photography.

By that time you had an amazing gig and had already achieved so much in your career. What made you feel you needed additional time in school?
Definitely not the technical fundamentals. I was seeking the answer to the question of what I was taking pictures of, and what was the definition of a beautiful picture. I was becoming more and more interested in portraiture.

I knew how to do live action shoots because I was a news photographer. That was good, but at the same time, I wanted to create my own images, but I didn’t know how. So I decided to go back to school and learn. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I was in school and working at the same time.

I think you can learn technique, such as studio lighting, fairly quickly. But I think the more important thing to learn is the understanding of what’s behind the images, why you think this image is beautiful, why you want to create these kind of images. I had a lot of why’s, question marks in my head. That’ s why I decided to go back to school.

And did the experience in school answer most of them?
Yes, and maybe the most important one: getting a reference before the shoot. When I did a portrait session with someone before I went back to school, I just wanted to create a beautiful image, but didn’t really appreciate what a beautiful image was. I didn’t know how to prepare a shoot. I learned that in school. I also learned to look at not just photography, but painting and architecture as visual inspirations. It was in school that I learned about Caravaggio. I could then apply this awareness to the images that I wanted to get. I gained much more depth in photography at the London College of Fashion.

For my final project for my master’s degree, I asked [Paul’s daughter] Stella McCartney if I could use some of her dresses. She’s a great designer. The series is on the resurrection of the fashion soul. The concept was that the girl was laying down wearing a white plain gown representing her death in real life. But when she’ s resurrected, she’ s wearing Stella’s dress and has full makeup and hair. She’s resurrected with a fashion soul.

Paul McCartney - Up and Coming tour

Paul McCartney - Up and Coming tour

Photos: © MJ Kim

A more recent collaboration has been with your wife (with whom you have two children). What’s that about?
My wife Jessica is an illustrator. She got a lot of inspiration from the Grimm Brothers and their stories and suggested that we re-create classic storybooks with personalized photos. Children come to our studio and pick costumes we have here from their favorite classic stories—Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, The Little Prince, Jack and the Beanstalk. They are copyright-free. I photograph the children dressed in character, having them pose in positions that relate to the story. Once the pictures are done, Jessica and her team create the illustrations and then have books printed. We can also make canvas prints.

Working with Paul and other celebrities is an amazing thing, but it’s a totally different joy. Making a book for people’s children, the pure joy and happiness [the families] get from the book, and the experience, make my wife and me really happy.

This article was published in the July 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).


Asian Americans: The New White?

Asian Americans are held up as the great success story, on the fast track to assimilation. But this has put us at the center of the debate about fairness in this country, raising the question: Are we becoming white?

story by Eugene Yi
photo illustration by SUEJEAN AHN
photo by MIKE LEE

In 1922, Takao Ozawa, a Japanese man who had lived in the U.S. for decades, sued the federal government to be considered white. His application for citizenship had been rejected, as naturalization was only offered to “free white persons,” “aliens of African nativity” and “persons of African descent.” In his case, Ozawa mentioned the similarities in skin tone between his and a white person’s, as well as his loyalty. He wrote, “In name, Benedict Arnold was an American, but at heart he was a traitor. In name, I am not an American, but at heart I am a true American.”

Ozawa’s case wound up before the Supreme Court, which did not, in the end, think Ozawa could be considered white. The result must not have been a surprise, coming as it did during the age of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the yellow peril and Yellow Peril, an influential 1911 book which argued that, in fulfillment of the Book of Revelations, Jesus Christ would descend from heaven to protect the “Occident” against marauding hordes of Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Korean people.

Ninety-two years later, the boundaries of whiteness appear to have grown more generous. A few months ago, the Washington Post ran an op-ed called “How the Asians Became White.” UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh opined on coverage of the diversity numbers of the employees at Google. The New York Times had earlier written that Silicon Valley remained a “white man’s world.” But, Volokh noted, while there is a lack of black and Latino employees, Google was actually less white than the American workforce as a whole, and far more Asian, with about a third of the employees of Asian descent. Volokh sagely wrote that he’d been observing that type of oversight for some time, and quoted himself from something he’d written prior on the topic. This one, from 1998: “To some extent, this sort of mistake is funny and even a bit heartwarming. The racial divisions between white and Asian, once so stark and to many almost unbridgeable, are quickly fading away.”

To have one’s ethnicity, one’s race, stripped away is nothing short of a provocation, even if it is “heartwarming.” “So what?” one might think. It’s the kind of provocation one should expect on the Internet, which runs on cats and outrage. And the “Asians becoming white” headline is nothing new. Coming from the other side of the political spectrum, ethnic studies scholar Scott Kurashige wrote in 1992 that Asian Americans were like Casper the Friendly Ghost: seen as either white or invisible. Other left-leaning columnists have made similar observations.

CS-Minority-0714-1harvardScreenshot of a website set up by the Project on Fair Representation, which seeks testimonials from people who think they were rejected by a school over race. 

So apparently, Asian Americans are basically white, or at least “honorary whites,” next in line to “become” white, a model for other minorities to follow. A comparison to European ethnic groups is often made, usually the Jews. It is, on the face of it, not an unconvincing argument. Asian Americans are immigrants also, stereotyped for having great success in this country. So great is the desire to succeed that Asian Americans are supposed to embody every stereotype of assimilation: educational attainment, loss of foreign language, intermarriage, what have you. For that, Asian Americans are noticeably overrepresented in higher education and in technological and scientific fields.

Thanks to people like Volokh, the occasional overrepresentation of Asian Americans has been cast as a question about the basic fairness of this country. It’s rare for Asian Americans to be at the center of an issue of such import; we are still often invisible, after all. But whiteness has so many connotations that it’s difficult not to be disquieted by this type of talk. More than just a political question, at its root, it is a more personal matter, one that touches on the very nature of being Asian American itself.

* * *

We all knew what the acronyms meant. Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s and ’90s, I heard it plenty. UCLA: University of Caucasians Lost among Asians. Or U C Lots of Asians. UCI: University of Chinese Immigrants, or University of Civics and Integras (To the millennials, those were popular with the rice-rocket set back then). A ton of Asians went to UCs, and multiple acronyms existed, which speaks to both how obvious this phenomenon was, and to the endless creativity of procrastinating students.

When my high school class started hearing back from colleges, one of my Latino classmates received acceptances from a few schools that I had not gotten into. His application essay had been a gritty account of growing up in a tough part of town, errant bullets embedded in the drywall in his childhood bedroom. Mine was an existential deconstruction of Alphaville’s 1984 new wave hit “Forever Young,” a 500-word cri de coeur set to sighing synths. Though one might be tempted to pin his better fortunes on his race, I think the essays probably say it all.

I remember we all compared admissions letters, and shared in the realization that it would be a different letter—the financial aid package—that would determine where we’d end up. The aforementioned classmate mentioned how much money he’d received in financial aid, and boasted that he could lend us some. In a fit of adolescent pique, I blurted that he shouldn’t be proud of the fact that his parents hadn’t worked as hard as mine had.

A file photo from Oct. 23, 1996, when UCLA students, surrounded by Los Angeles Police officers, staged a sit-in in West Los Angeles, during a protest against then-ballot Proposition 209, which ended many aspects of affirmative action in California. 

It was a brutish outburst, a dumb thing for a kid to say. I didn’t know anything about his family or their story. I certainly didn’t know anything about affirmative action. And I cringe at the memory now, because I am dismayed that it sounded so much like a talking point for anti-affirmative action activists. They argue that success is being penalized, and Asian Americans are proof of the need to do away with the consideration of race. Some cite studies remarking on the difference in average SAT scores between the races, or talk about suspiciously consistent percentages of Asian Americans in Ivy League student bodies. One recent example is a set of websites seeking testimonials of people who believe they have been rejected from a school because of their race. Set up by the Project on Fair Representation (essentially a one-man operation helmed by Edward Blum, a former investment banker and fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute), the goal is to gather enough potential plaintiffs to challenge universities that use applicants’ race and ethnicity as admissions criteria. Many of the pictures used by the websites, despite denials from Blum, feature Asian or Asian-looking people. Smelling a rat, Julianne Hing, who wrote about the effort for the progressive news website Colorlines, pointedly asked, “How do you know when you’re a pawn in someone else’s race war?”

All of this pits Asian Americans against underrepresented minorities, and is a continuation of the history of weaponizing the model minority myth. Sociologist William Petersen coined the expression “model minority” in a story he wrote in 1966 for the New York Times Magazine about the success of Japanese Americans. Indeed, it was called “Success Story, Japanese American Style.” But he didn’t evince an obvious agenda, and approached the topic with the mannered caution of a trained academic. He goes through the litany of crimes committed against Japanese Americans: discrimination, suspicion, internment, deprivation of basic rights. He allows himself to drop his objectivity only when marveling at their success, at how far they had come, “by their own almost totally unaided effort.” Petersen contrasted the Japanese American experience with that of other groups, including, interestingly, the Chinese, whom he did not see as being successful.

Kurashige, the ethnic studies scholar, wrote about the ways that the African American and Japanese American communities interacted in Los Angeles following World War II in his book, The Shifting Grounds of Race (2008). Japanese Americans returned to L.A. after the internment, and initially struggled to get back on their feet. Alliances formed between the Japanese American and African American communities to fight for common goals. But as Japanese Americans’ lot improved, tension between the two communities emerged, he argued.

“The ideological characterization of Japanese Americans as a ‘model minority’ to be integrated served to stigmatize the others as ‘problem minorities’ to be contained,” he wrote.

Criticisms of the model minority myth generally mention the widely divergent outcomes for different groups of Asians. While some groups are doing well, others lag behind, with educational outcomes and household incomes at the bottom end of the spectrum. Much academic work has been done adding needed nuance, yet the impression still exists. Sociologist Nadia Kim took her stab at trying to complicate the picture in her drily titled 2007 paper “Critical Thoughts on Asian American Assimilation in the Whitening Literature.” The paper reads like the academic equivalent of a diss track. Asian Americans, she wrote, “do not desire a white identity.” A sense of mission is readily apparent, and her language is often accusatory, full of italics and verve.

CS-Minority-0714-3saynosca5AP Photo/FRANK WIESE
Asian Americans protest a Senate Constitutional Amendment in California that would have asked voters to consider eliminating California Proposition 209’s affirmative action ban.

Regarding the 1965 law that opened up the country to immigration from Asia, and its policy of favoritism for educated professionals, she wrote it had been enacted “as if to engineer a model minority.”

Regarding intermarrying: “[C]ontrary to popular wisdom, the second largest proportion of marriages is not Asian-white couplings but interethnic marriages, that is, marriages between different Asian ethnic groups.”

Regarding financial success: Asian American poverty is at “a rate considerably higher than for white Americans.” And individual income lags behind comparable whites.

And regarding the idea “that European immigrants were once not white but later became white. Such a claim has not been conclusively supported by historians themselves.” Their whiteness was never questioned, she argues, citing a study showing that Italian Americans, unlike Takao Ozawa, were never denied citizenship. Additionally, Kim brought up the history of European ethnic groups shoring up their whiteness by literally attacking African Americans. More recent history provides troubling parallels. The tensions between Korean Americans and African Americans in the leadup to the L.A. riots in 1992 may not have been about shoring up whiteness, but it certainly created tension between Korean Americans and African Americans, adding another example to an established pattern. Proximity to whiteness is often affirmed by distance from blackness.

* * *

Affirmative action again stirred controversy in California earlier this year. I watched with great interest. Usually, it’s the white conservatives using Asian Americans to make an argument against the policy. This time, it was Asian Americans making the argument themselves.

A bill, known as Senate Constitutional Amendment 5, would have put the issue of race in college admissions back in front of the voters. The use of race has been illegal since 1998. After the ban of the use of race went into effect, admissions rates for black, Latino and Native American students dropped precipitously across the University of California system. White and Asian American rates remained largely unchanged. Student enrollment for fall 2013 in the UC system showed Asian Americans made up 40 percent of the undergraduate population, a massive overrepresentation for a group that makes up about 14 percent of the state’s population. Depending on one’ s political persuasion, one could see this as either cause to unite to increase diversity and opportunities for underrepresented minorities, or, just rewards for hard work, something to defend. It was a classic wedge issue.

An ad hoc group of mostly first-generation Chinese and South Asian Americans waged a fierce online campaign against SCA 5, full of hyperbolic language and rumors about the bill. One op-ed on the website Siliconindia called it “The Most Racist Bill in the History of California.” SCA 5 became “Skin Color Amendment 5” in other tellings. Crude pics repurposed the “I Have a Dream” speech and the image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to have him make the case against affirmative action from beyond the grave.

Polling data generally shows that Asian Americans strongly favor affirmative action. This had put Asian Americans in alliance with other communities of color. But in this case, these new activists’ voices were louder, and it was enough to compel several Asian American state lawmakers to back away from what they initially thought was an uncontroversial bill. Asian American Republicans sought to capitalize on the split, announcing their opposition to affirmative action.

Conservative students at the University of California at Berkeley staged this “protest” of affirmative action on Feb. 26, 2003, holding a bake sale with treats priced according to the buyer’s ethnicity, gender and social status. 

I’d always wondered if or when this particular shoe would drop. Amy Chua recently made herself a celebrity as the Tiger Mom, raising model minority cubs. But she’s not stumping for education reform, or denying pee breaks in public schools to keep kids on task, or whatever. But with the protesters in California, a new reality seems to have emerged: There are Asian Americans who are willing to take the model minority myth, and march in the metaphorical streets. And if that means scuttling political orthodoxy and solidarity with other communities of color, so be it.

Instructive parallels exist in other communities. Historian Sonia Song-Ha Lee, of Washington University, wrote about the activist history of New York’s Puerto Rican community in her book, Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement. African Americans and Puerto Ricans activists often fought alongside each other until the ’70s, when the coalition started to fray. Several factors contributed to an eventual split, including the growing political influence of Puerto Ricans who had entered the middle class. Fissures started to form along class lines, according to Lee.

“The middle class was able to dominate the conversation by the ’70s. A lot of these middle-class Puerto Ricans started to prioritize job security, and started to choose narrow political goals, versus broader visions of rebuilding a new society,” she said. Some middle-class Puerto Ricans even trotted out a familiar argument: that they shared a common path with earlier waves of European immigrants, overcoming prejudice to reach an attainable American dream through bootstrapping alone. But at that point, entry into the middle class had proven elusive for the overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans.

There are echoes of this line of thinking when Asian Americans take up the argument for merit in education. For some, status in the middle class is a birthright rather than an aspiration. Much of the SCA 5 activity was focused in the ethnic suburbs around Silicon Valley and Los Angeles, well-off parts of town with more recent immigrants from China and India who might be less interested in broader messages of solidarity. This, despite the fact that the majority of Asian Americans still support affirmative action, and that, importantly, some Asian American groups are lagging far behind others.

“I think for better or worse what we were seeing in the SCA 5 battle is … Asian Americans expressing a greater sense of agency for their own purposes, which are moving in contradictory political directions,” said Kurashige. “Therefore, we ought to expect not a simple shift in any specific direction, but some heated debates and struggles to define Asian American politics in the 21st century.”

Outside of education and the tech industry, though, the issue is not as contentious, according to Vincent Pan, of the advocacy group Chinese for Affirmative Action. “Nearly all Asian Americans agree with affirmative action in employment hiring and promotion, public contracting, judicial, media and political representation—and so we can appreciate the need and benefit for affirmative action,” Pan said. “It is highly inconsistent and detrimental to abandon it with respect to higher education admissions.”

* * *

One hundred years ago, it would’ve been difficult to imagine Asian Americans having this place in the racial hierarchy to even prompt such conversations. For most of the history of Asian Americans in the U.S., violence and xenophobia ruled. The biggest mass lynching in American history happened in Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1871, where anywhere from 15 to 21 Chinese people were killed, depending on the account. Anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II led to the internment of more than 100,000 people, mostly American citizens. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was murdered during another rising tide of anti-Japanese hysteria. More recently, South Asians have been targeted and murdered following the 9/11 attacks.

“History tells us that anti-Asian discrimination won’t go away so quickly. Just because right now, we find ourselves in a semi-white position, it doesn’t mean we’ll be here forever,” said Lee, the historian. “We still hold a fairly precarious position.”

It seems anytime an Asian country becomes the enemy, Asian Americans become the target. Being an “other” in America is never far from having violent consequences. How many of us second-generation Asian Americans have held our breaths and waited for potential fall-out with every ominous “China Rising” headline or when it’s revealed that the perpetrator in some heinous crime in the U.S. is Asian? Or, for that matter, recent mass shootings that seem to be partially inspired by some very twisted neuroses rooted in being Asian?

Amy Lee places flowers at the gravestone of her nephew, Vincent Chin, at a 20th anniversary memorial at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Detroit on June 23, 2002. Chin, a Chinese American, was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two unemployed autoworkers who mistook him for Japanese. 

This push-and-pull at the core of Asian American life—white/not-white, and foreigner/native—seems to have cycled over the course of American history. No matter how close to white Asian Americans might become, this perpetual foreigner status remained. For most Asians in America, after all, the experience of other-ness is seared into us. When you walk into a room, you look around and count the Asian people. It’s a defining experience for people of color in this country. And it helps explain some of the curious political behavior of Asian Americans.

Generally, one of the best indicators for political allegiance is income. By that metric, Asian Americans should be pretty Republican. But instead, Asian Americans have shown the greatest shift to the Democratic Party of any group in the last 20 years. More than three-quarters of Asian Americans voted for Obama in the last election.

“Asian American political behavior is counter to what traditional political science research would predict,” said political science professor Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, in an email interview. “Further, wealthier Asian Americans are not any more likely to vote Republican than poorer Asian Americans.” She and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments where two groups of Asian Americans were asked about their political allegiances. One group, though, was primed with what they called “racial microaggressions,” where a white lab assistant would say something all too familiar to any Asian American: “You speak good English.” “Where were you born?”

Asian Americans who had been primed with a microaggression allied themselves significantly more strongly with the Democratic Party, 87 percent to 76 percent. The results seem to indicate that not only are Asian Americans aware they are still considered to outsiders, but that one of the two political parties is perceived not to welcome outsiders. Which, incidentally, is the party most associated with xenophobia, exclusivity and a certain strain of American whiteness.

* * *

I recently attended a panel where one of the panelists, an Asian American businessman who’d worked for some of the largest firms in the country, said that if one believed in a bamboo ceiling—a limit to how far an Asian American could rise—then one must believe in the existence of a “short” ceiling, an “ugly” ceiling, a “fat” ceiling. Being Asian is, according to this telling, an overcomeable condition—nothing that a diet or some platform shoes couldn’t help with.

Many would respond by pointing to the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in the upper echelons of corporate America. But the businessman’s words make it seem as if it’s just a matter of time. As Asians, as perpetual foreigners, as “others,” we might still do our little headcounts when we walk into a room. But the rooms, for some, are getting fancier.

The criticisms of the model minority myth are myriad, and valid. But what truth there is to it must be reckoned with. If whiteness can be defined, at least partly, as the lack of impediments to success, then it might be hard not to find this aspect of whiteness readily present in the Asian American community.

Two different Time covers that are essentially making the model minority argument—(left) the infamous 1987 “whiz kids” cover, and (right) the 2011 “tiger mom” cover. 

There is another aspect to this lack of impediment, though, one that has nothing to do with whiteness. The non-European wave of immigration that started in 1965 scrambled America’s racial logic, forcing new lines to be drawn beyond the old black/white and foreigner/native. We live in a country that’s, really, just starting to contend with the second generation of this wave of immigrants. Even though Asian Americans make up only 4 percent of the population, there are times when I marvel at how accustomed I’ve become to seeing faces that look like mine. Any reader of this publication is familiar with the ways Korean Americans are contributing to popular culture and mainstream society. There are moments when I just scratch my head in amazement, wondering, “What aren’t we doing?” There are still things to fight for, of course. Asian American men are still emasculated, as evidenced by any of the seemingly annual studies on how poorly they do in online dating. In popular media, there’ s still more Mr. Chow from the Hangover movies, than Glenn Rhee from The Walking Dead. Asian women continue to be exoticized. The consequences of “otherness” will linger, publicly through discrimination, hate crime, violence and privately, in undiagnosed ways.

There is a real phenomenon at work: the normalizing of people of color. But far from making the country post-racial, it seems to have grown hyper-racial. Two conversations are happening simultaneously: both whether, and how, race matters. The success of a person of color means either the proclamation that race doesn’t matter in American life, or the argument that one is ignoring the myriad ways it still does.

There is a reading of this phenomenon that could see this period as birth pangs of some society that is closer to some inclusive ideal. But as this post-’65 generation ages and assimilates, there is a different aspect of whiteness that comes to mind: whiteness as lacking a culture. As being “merely” American. The fear is that something essential is being lost, a sense of self and identity that goes beyond advice on Korean restaurants and maybe a word or two in the native language. The single largest ethnic group in America is from Germany. There once were literally hundreds of German-language newspapers circulating in the U.S. Now, there are barely any, and few really even think of Germans as anything but part of the white spectrum.

But different facets of whiteness don’t just fall like dominoes. Whiteness is an ill-defined complex of traits and tendencies. And it’s an actual field of study, with many universities offering classes in whiteness studies. Oft-quoted is W.E.B DuBois, the first African American to earn a Ph.D., from Harvard, and one of the foremost minds on race relations in the era just after slavery. He wrote, “The discovery of a personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing—a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed.” The author James Baldwin, another masterful commenter on race in America, wrote in his essay “On Being White … And Other Lies,” “No one was white before he/she came to America.”

Evelyn Yoshimura, the community organizing director at the Little Tokyo Service Center, a nonprofit in L.A., told me a story once about Harry Kitano, an old lion of Asian American studies at UCLA. He used to rail that Japanese Americans were not going to be around for long. Because of their economic success, because of their assimilation, because of their rate of intermarriage, they would just be gone, integrated into the white mainstream.

At first, she said, that seemed to be the case. Japanese Americans intermarried at high rates, assimilated quickly and left Little Tokyos and Japantowns for the suburbs. Community organizations limped along, hosting their events for a dwindling number of people.

Then, some hapa kids started showing up at the annual 3-on-3 basketball tournament. Then more. Enough so that the tournament started to grow. Soon, other programs grew as well. And now, the community’s leadership programs, training sessions and their basketball leagues are bigger than ever.

No one was Asian American before they came here. Someday, Asian Americans may exist in a space independent from notions of whiteness or non-whiteness. But for now, Asian America is something being invented, every day, bit by bit, 18 million people engaging in a collective act of creation. There is yet, it seems, further to go.

Correction added: The previous version left ambiguous the degree of middle class attainment among Puerto Ricans. The wording has been changed to clarify that only a small percentage of Puerto Ricans entered the middle class and helped divide African American-Puerto Rican political alliances.

This article was published in the July 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).

(Above photo: The Kim Sisters (left to right: Mia, Sue and Aija) pose for a photo shoot at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago, 1961.)

Before K-pop Hit U.S. Shores, The Kim Sisters Were An American Musical Sensation

A visit with a member of the Kim Sisters, the singing trio who rose to fame in the U.S. long before K-pop hit these shores, leaves an indelible impression.

(Above photo: The Kim Sisters (left to right: Mia, Sue and Aija) pose for a photo shoot at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago, 1961.)


November 2009. Las Vegas, Nevada. I claim my baggage and wait eagerly outside the airport for Sue Kim to pick me up. I’ve never met this member of the Kim Sisters, the singing trio from South Korea who earned notoriety in America in the 1950s and ’60s; the only image I have of her is from the YouTube videos I’d watched over the years. As I look at my watch, I grow anxious and wonder, “How will I recognize her?” Then, I notice a silver Mercedes SUV slowly drive by, with a license plate that reads: SOOK-JA, Sue’s Korean name. Phew. One problem solved. We make eye contact, and she seemingly knows to pull over for me. I get in the car quickly. Seated next to her is her husband, John Bonifazio. We stop at a cozy Korean restaurant, and as I browse the menu, I wonder if Sue still speaks Korean fluently. As soon as she orders bibimbap in perfect Korean, I have my answer.

Over the next two days, I would visit Sue’ s home and conduct extensive interviews with her. As a scholar working on my doctoral dissertation, I was seeking to unearth the history of Korean Americans in early American television. The Kim Sisters were pioneers in this regard, appearing on such popular TV variety shows hosted by the likes of American legends Ed Sullivan and Dean Martin—long before “Gangnam Style” made its way to these shores.

But my time in Las Vegas talking with Sue would turn out to be more than just a research trip; it would be a revelation for me.

As a Korean American myself who grew up in four different countries—the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Indonesia and the United States—I always struggled with identity. When someone would ask me, “Where are you from?” I would hesitate to answer. While I can speak English, Korean and Spanish fluently, I am not a native speaker in any of these languages. In the three days I would spend with Sue, I would feel a deep bond with her. Despite us seemingly having very little in common, and being decades and generations apart, she would become the role model that I had been searching for since I left South Korea at the age of 7. As someone who challenged the racial status when it came to representations on American television at that time, she would become a source of inspiration for me, someone who tries to challenge the black-white paradigm in academia.

I first heard about the Kim Sisters while a graduate student at the University of Southern California studying media. I was already familiar with Asian American actors like Sessue Hayakawa and Philip Ahn. But then, someone mentioned the Kim Sisters to me one day. I asked my parents about the group, and my dad explained that they were really popular in Korea back in the day.

F-Kim-0614-MOTHERThe Kim Sisters with their mother, Lee Nan-young, at the Palmer House in Chicago in 1963.

Later, as a doctoral student at NYU, I started seriously researching the Kim Sisters and managed to find a Las Vegas mailing address for Sue on the Internet. At that time, I had no clue whether she was still residing there, but I drafted a formal letter and mailed it. A few weeks later, I received an unexpected phone call from Sue, and I still remember vividly the first question she asked me: “Why are you interested in my story?” After I gave her a detailed response, she then asked my age. “Twenty-eight years old,” I answered. She was surprised that I was so young. I kindly asked her if I could fly to Vegas to interview her, and she eventually agreed.

Later at an event at the Korea Society in 2010, Sue shared with the audience how she was hesitant to reach out to me when she first received my letter, but it was her husband who convinced her to respond. She ultimately agreed to the interview, she says, because I had told her, “I want to tell your story.”

Sue was one of seven siblings born in Korea to a very musical couple. Their mother, Lee Nan-young, rose to stardom prior to the Korean War with her sentimental ballad “Mokpo Tears.” Their father, Kim Hai-song, was a well-respected composer and orchestra conductor who produced a number of popular musical shows. Thanks to this parentage, the Kim children naturally would become quite musical themselves—but it was also, in part, out of necessity.

After the Korean War broke out in 1950, Kim Hai-song was captured and murdered by the North Korean army, and Lee had to find a way to take care of her family. So she sang for American troops as a way to earn money. Soon, her children would learn how to sing American tunes like “Candy and Cake.” Eldest daughters Young-ja (Jane), and Sook-Ja (Sue) would eventually join their mother performing in the nightclubs of Busan. But being an entertainer was not the life Jane wanted. That’s when their youngest sister Ai-ja and their cousin Min-ja (Mia) Kim joined Sue, and together they formed the Kim Sisters in 1954.

The Kim Sisters performing with their brothers (the Kim Brothers) at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas in 1970.

Despite the negative perception of Asians as the Yellow Peril—an image often perpetuated by Hollywood movies with conniving “Orientals” as the antagonists—the Kim girls established a rapport with the Americans GIs stationed in Korea, and the latter, in turn, taught Sue, then 13, 12-year-old Ai-ja and 11-year-old Min-ja pop stan- dards and, later, rock ‘n’ roll.

“The GIs would go crazy when we sang rock ‘n’ roll songs, even though we didn’t pronounce the lyrics correctly for ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘St. Louis Blues,” remembered Sue, now 73. “They were pounding their feet and say- ing, ‘More, more!’ … They would give us cases of whiskey and beer, and we would exchange them for rice.

“Without the GIs, we didn’t perform. I don’t know where we will be today. That’s how I feel, how grateful I am. Without them, we couldn’t have survived.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, there was a flourishing Chinese nightclub scene with the establishment of the Forbidden City and the Chinese Sky Room in San Francisco. A club owner by the name of Tom Ball was the force behind the production of “Oriental” shows, such as the “China Doll Revue” and the “Geisha Revue,” which were performed regularly at the Thunderbird Hotel and Desert Inn Hotel in Las Vegas, respectively. Ball told his friend Dan Sawyer, an owner of an entertainment production company in Japan, that he was searching for another Asian act to headline one of his shows. GIs in South Korea who had seen the Kim Sisters’ act told Sawyer to check out the talented trio. One soldier, Bob McMackin, who was also Sawyer’s friend, arranged an audition for the Kim Sisters in front of Ball in Yongsan, South Korea, in 1958.

“[Ball] liked the fact [we] could sing a lot better than the Happy Tokyo Coats,” recalled Sue, referring to the Japanese performers in one of Ball’s shows.

After the Kim Sisters’ successful tryout, McMackin became their personal manager. “We respect McMackin a lot,” Sue said. “He used to take us to all these clubs and give us fried chicken.”

F-Kim-0614-STAGE2The Kim Sisters playing the banjo in a concert in Hawaii in 1963.

F-Kim-0614-STAGE3The Kim Sisters performing at the Latin Quarter in New York in 1963.

F-Kim-0614-STAGE4The Kim Sisters playing the marimba at the Palmer House in Chicago in 1965.

F-Kim-0614-STAGE5The Kim Sisters playing the violin at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas in 1965.

When the young ladies, who had never before been anywhere outside of Korea, arrived in Los Angeles in 1959, the experience was a bit anti-climatic at first. “Someone told us when you go to L.A., you open the hotel room window, you look out, and there is a movie star walking around,” said Sue. “All day we waited, and nobody showed up. [So] our agent Tom Ball put us in his 1959 Cadillac and drove us to Las Vegas.”

While there, the Thunderbird Hotel signed the Kim Sisters for a four-week engagement with a four-week option as part of the “China Doll Revue.” After a successful eight-week run, the group was signed to perform at the Stardust Lounge, where the Sisters would remain entertainers for eight consecutive months.

It was at the Stardust where they captured the attention of legendary TV host Ed Sullivan. In 1959, he was in town to broadcast The Ed Sullivan Show live from Vegas, and after a successful audition, the Kim Sisters made their debut on the variety program on Sept. 20, 1959, performing a cover of the hit song “Sincerely.” They would go on to make 22 appearances on the country’s most watched program, known for bringing American families together every Sunday night. While the trio was able to sing renditions of American popular songs in perfect English, Sue said they had just memorized the lyrics phonetically. She said their struggle to master the English language hindered them somewhat because they could not interact easily with other guests on American shows when they made appearances.

Meanwhile, many newspapers at the time highlighted their assimilation into American society, yet the Kim Sisters always thought of themselves as proud Koreans, said Sue. She described the time when they wore traditional Korean clothing out on the streets, expecting Americans to recognize the hanboks as Korean. “Everybody says, ‘what a beautiful kimono.’ We get so angry—‘this is not a kimono!’” said Sue. “‘This is a Korean outfit!’ I told Ai-ja and Mia: ‘We have to become successful. That’s the only way they are gonna know we are from Korea.’

“As young as we were, we had strong patriotism in our heart,” added Sue. “If anybody said we are from China, we used to get angry. They couldn’ t tell the difference between Japan, China and Korea.”

The Kim Sisters with Dean Martin on the set of his show in 1967.

While different Asian ethnicities were not distinguishable on American television, what was anomalous about the Kim Sisters’ appearances was the fact that Sullivan often introduced them as performers from Korea. As Sue explained, “Absolutely, we are from the Republic of Korea. They couldn’ t tell South or North. So our manager told Ed Sullivan, ‘It’s gotta be the Republic of Korea.’ ”

My days spent with Sue were filled with unforgettable anecdotes. She recounted giddily the time a container filled with kimchi sent from their family in Korea exploded in the lobby of a New York hotel where they were staying. Then, there was the time the king of rock ‘n’ roll himself, Elvis Presley, came to the Stardust and told the Kim Sisters’ drummer that he would like to take them out. The sisters’ response: “We are not dating.”

The Kim Sisters perform on the variety show Hollywood Palace:

As Sue drove me around Las Vegas, each hotel on the Strip that we passed seemed to conjure vivid memories from her past. She played the Kim Sisters’ songs on the car stereo as she shared her thoughts about each recording. As I observed her face, she looked like a grandmother finding renewed vigor and enthusiasm in telling bedtime stories to her grandchild.

But I had a burning question, one I was initially hesitant to ask: Why would the Sisters often wear the traditional Chinese costume, cheongsam, if they were so self-conscious about their identity as Koreans? I couldn’t leave Las Vegas without getting an answer, and the opportunity came while discussing how Asians have been victims of Orientalism in America. “The act we were doing, there is no way we are going to move around the stage with a Korean costume. It is too much material,” Sue answered matter-of-factly. Also, their agent, Ball, wanted the performers to showcase their beautiful straight legs, she said. Sue, however, did note that the Sisters would also open their act wearing hanboks and singing “Arirang,” the beloved Korean folk song.

The Kim Sisters with Frank Sinatra at the Harrah’s Club (Lake Tahoe) in 1976.

As for responding to critics who could read the Kim Sisters perfor ances as self-Orientalism, Sue said that the Kim Sisters knew what the industry wanted, and therefore that meant they had to sometimes perform songs like “China Nights” (or “Shina No Yoru,” a Japanese song), the most requested song by GIs in the U.S. Army clubs. But the Sisters also often switched into different costumes—including Western dresses, heels and sometimes top hats— and played a variety of musical instruments (clarinet, xylophone, drums, trumpet, etc.) and genres of music within the same act. As the women took command of the stage, showing off their considerable talent as entertainers, period, this was arguably an illustration of how they were subverting stereotypical representations of Asians in America. Who could forget their 1963 Ed Sullivan performance, in which they sang a song in English paying homage to their mother, singing lyrics like, “Mother taught us all we know in Korea”? In the same performance, their mother joined the Kim Sisters on stage and sang her lyrics in Korean. Again, this happened in the 1960s, on the most popular American TV show at the time.

Throughout the ’60s, the Kim Sisters would enjoy tremendous visibility and success, also appearing on the shows of entertainers Dinah Shore and Dean Martin. Ai-ja was even offered a role in the all-Asian cast for the musical Flower Drum Song. However, she turned down the offer because she thought her English was not fluent enough to play the role.

In 1970, the Kim Sisters returned to Korea for the first time since they left in 1959. They had been cultural ambassadors on behalf of Korea to the United States for years, but upon their arrival, they did not receive a warm welcome. An interpreter was waiting for them at the airport because the Korean government thought they had not only lost touch with their native country, but also lost the language. When the Kim Sisters showed they could speak Korean just fine and had their cultural pride still intact, Koreans embraced them. Their concert at Sejong Center sold out quickly. During their short stay in Korea, they recorded a song titled “Kimchi Kkakdugi,” (Cubed Radish Kimchi) that described their experience as diasporic Koreans:

Our home is far away Memories of yesterday
Now we found the other way We are in the U.S.A.
We will rock some songs today We must eat the American way

Just like there is an ending to every great film or novel, there is an ending to the extraordinary story of the Kim Sisters. As each member found her life partner and started her own family, the siblings’ career as entertainers slowly came to an end. Ai-ja passed away in 1987 due to lung cancer; Mia went to Hungary to relaunch her music career; and Sue settled in Las Vegas with John, her husband of 45 years, giving birth to a son and daughter and now with five grandchildren. Sue continued to perform with her brothers, the Kim Brothers, in different venues throughout the United States and Korea until 1994.

F-Kim-0614-suekim2Sue Kim, in a photo taken this past April.

March 2014. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Four years after my visit, I receive a phone call from Sue. She can’t hide her excitement as she shares the news that she will become the first Korean to be inducted into the Nevada Entertainer/ Artist Hall of Fame on March 27.

After the Hall of Fame event, I speak again with Sue. The Korean American Women’s Association attended the event to honor her, she says, but not a single Korean newspaper showed up to cover the story. Even former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung once promised that the country would host a celebration to commemorate the trio’s contribution to South Korean cultural diplomacy, but that promise was never fulfilled.

I hope articles like this one help make people more aware of the Kim Sisters’ incredible journey as some of the earliest Korean entertainers to be embraced by mainstream American audiences. I hope their story inspires younger generations, as it has me.

Sue tells me that, as a young child in Korea, she used to look at the stars in the sky, pray and hope that she would go to America someday. Her childhood dreams have been more than fulfilled. “Dream big, never give up,” said Sue. “Work at it, and your dream will come true.”

This article was published in the June 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).

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Kore Ionz Frontman Daniel Pak Talks About His Musical Roots And Identity

Come Together
Singer Daniel Pak of the Seattle-based reggae band Kore Ionz traces his musical roots and identity to his native Hawaii.


When plans to play a wedding gig in Hawaii fell through for Seattle-based reggae band Kore Ionz, the band members saw an opportunity instead of a setback. Their flight already booked, its members decided to go ahead and make the trip and film a music video for one of the band’s new tracks during the weekend visit to the island. For lead singer Daniel Pak, a Korean and Japanese American and native of Hawaii, it all felt right. He was going home.

The track for the music video they planned to make, “Feels Good,” is part of Kore Ionz’s new work, an EP of the same name, that the group just released in April. It marks the third album for the band, which, though based in the grunge capital of Seattle, carries relaxing island sounds and vibes that are central to Pak’s identity.

“Feels Good,” in particular, captures the nostalgia Pak felt when returning to the sandy beaches and sunbathed warmth of the Hawaiian Islands. He moved to Seattle in 1998, and penned the song one cold and rainy night while feeling particularly homesick. “I just kept thinking about the island that I was born and raised on, and the song came to me in, like, five minutes,” said Pak.

The planning behind the song’s music video was almost as fast, and involved hopping into the back of a pickup truck with three different weather apps, and the crew literally chased the sun all over Oahu amid sporadic rain showers. Despite the chaotic process, the resulting video proved a perfect tribute to the island where Pak grew up. The Hawaiian native says he knows the mountain trail featured in the opening scene like the back of his hand; he used to walk up it from his childhood home built by his grandfather, along the bay.

“I spent so much time on that mountain,” he said. “And we finally got to kind of immortalize it.”

Born in Honolulu, Pak, who very much identifies as an “island boy,” grew up on the windward side of Oahu, in an area called Kaneohe. As a fourth-generation Korean American and a sixth-generation Japanese American, he comes from a family that has lived on the island for over 100 years, and throughout the generations, has adopted a “melting pot” of languages and cultures, including those of Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Samoan and Portuguese. Yet, in the midst of all of this, there were still deep roots of Korean culture instilled in his family.

“At all of my family’s parties, my grandma, every other week, she would make her own gochujang, she’d make her own kimchi. I learned how to make kimchi at a very young age, and every New Year’s, we’d make hundreds and hundreds of mandu,” recalled Pak. “We celebrated our Korean history very much through a more local style.”

What else did this “local style” entail? Aside from enjoying the paradise that is his home, it meant hours and hours of kanikapila. The Hawaiian term for an impromptu jam session, kanikapila is what paved Pak’s path toward a career in music. These casual sessions would take place at beaches or family gatherings—whenever friends were gathered and a guitar or ukulele was at hand. But one particular kanikapila dramatically altered the course of Pak’s career.

“We were just doing [kanikapila] at USC, during that spring break,” says Pak, recalling a trip he took as a college student to Los Angeles where he reunited with old high school friends. “These folks came up to us, and they said, ‘Hey, do you guys have a CD?’” When Pak and his friends revealed that they weren’t in a band and didn’t have a CD, the passersby replied, “Well, you guys should, you guys are so good.”

“It was that very moment, that in my mind, it made the shift, like, I could really do this. People really appreciate it,” said Pak.

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The Kore Ionz band, with lead singer Daniel Pak’s sons, Asa and Jahyoo, after performing for their fans for the Lively Mobile App (

And as soon as he returned to Seattle, that’s exactly what he did. He and his friends started a band and called themselves INIzeysion. Later, he was asked to be in another band called Mystic Rising. But as his bandmates’ paths began to diverge toward law schools or programs abroad, Pak was the only one who stuck with the music, and that’s when Kore Ionz was born.

Strangely enough, Pak originally pursued a degree in metallurgical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, and was even offered a job as a nuclear engineer upon graduation. Amid the objections of many of his family members, he turned it down. Coming from a family very much rooted in education, with an English professor dad, a sister with a master’s degree, and a brother pursuing his Ph.D., Pak felt somewhat destined to stay on the academic path. Even after he began pursuing a music career, doubt crept into his mind, and he considered earning a teaching certificate.

But his mother calmly advised: “Daniel, don’t be a teacher. Just stick to your music. Pursue your art.”

And as the saying goes, mother knows best. Now, several years later, Kore Ionz is a staple reggae band in Hawaii and Seattle, and is continuing to garner reggae fans all over the country. Their recent performance in April at The Crocodile, a legendary venue in Seattle famous for early performances of Nirvana, was a sold-out show. While the band underwent many personnel configurations over the years, the current members represent a widely talented and multicultural group of individuals, some of whom have shared the stage with Grammy Award winners. Members include: Thaddeus Turner on lead guitar, formerly of Digable Planets; keyboardist Greg Fields; trumpet player Owuor Arunga, who just so happens to be the trumpet player for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis; saxophonist Darian Asplund; bass player Masa Kobayashi; percussionist Ahkeenu Mysa; and drummer and co-producer Teo Shantz.

Before the most recent EP, the band released Half-Hour Revolution in 2008 and World War Free in 2011.

Although creating music is Pak’s passion, the singer-songwriter’s larger goal is to contribute to making the world—which he calls a “bipolar mess” with “the red party, the blue party, the left wing, the right wing, the haters, the lovers”—a better, less violent and more accepting place. That’s the meaning behind the name Kore Ionz. Well, second meaning. What actually started out as a joke name for a punk rock band later took on something more profound. The name draws inspiration from the very building blocks of the world: molecules, which are formed by atoms that have either neutral, positive or negative charges. (Remember, Pak has an engineering background.) These positively and negatively charged atoms, called ions, attract each other to form something stable.

“So you only got two kinds of energy: you got positivity, or you got negativity. And everywhere you go, it’s gonna be one or the other,” Pak explained. “And the only way we can reach something stable is when positive and negative come together and compromise, you know what I mean?

“So that’s just how I see Kore Ionz. Whenever we play in front of a crowd, I just want to connect. Whatever we can do to connect with as many people as we can, to pass on this love, to bring people together.”

 Photos courtesy of KORE IONZ

This article was published in the June 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).


World Cup 2014: Your Guide To Team Korea

Ready to Daehanminguk?

Here’s your guide to World Cup 2014’s Team Korea, which will head to Brazil this month with a team full of both youth and experience. 


The countdown is on for World Cup soccer, the heavily anticipated quadrennial showdown of the world’s most popular sport. With the 2014 FIFA World Cup set to kick off in Brazil on June 12, expectations are at an all-time high for Team Korea. Drawn in Group H, South Korea begins its campaign on June 17 versus Russia, followed by Algeria and Belgium.

In Brazil, Korea will make its eighth consecutive World Cup appearance, a feat accomplished by only five other teams—Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Germany and Spain—all of which have previously won the World Cup. The odds are stacked against the Taegeuk Warriors, as the team is nicknamed by its fans back home. Ranked 55th in the FIFA World Rankings, Korea is only ahead of Australia as it enters this year’s competition. However, the last three tournaments have proved relative successes for Korea: it made a historic and magical run to the semifinals as co-hosts in 2002, won its first World Cup game away from home in 2006 and advanced to the round of 16 in 2010 on foreign soil for the first time. This summer, the team’s goal is to reach the quarterfinals.

This year, Korea will take its youngest World Cup team to Brazil. Its average age only at 25.9, Korea may even be the youngest team of all 32 teams at the tournament by the time every team finalizes its roster in early June. Despite its youth, Team Korea coach Hong Myung-bo said at a press conference at the National Football Centre in Paju last month, “Compared to any of the previous sides, the squad we’ve just announced has a lot of experience for their age, and they’ve also performed well.”

Korea has 17 of its 23 players on the roster who are currently playing professionally abroad, more than any of its previous World Cup rosters. Most of those players are playing in Europe, which is considered soccer’s equivalent of the NBA in the basketball world, where the best of the best play. That means, despite its youth, Korea will head to Brazil with players with more international experience than ever before.

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Hong Myung-Bo: From Captain To Coach
While many of his teammates from the successful 2002 World Cup team started signing lucrative deals with European clubs after the tournament, team captain Hong Myung-bo took the road less traveled by joining the Los Angeles Galaxy that year and became the first Korean to play in Major League Soccer.

By then, “The Eternal Captain” had earned the respect to write his own future without anyone questioning him. When he arrived in Southern California, Hong had played in four World Cups, including the 2002 tournament in which Korea sent powerhouses from Portugal, Italy and Spain packing. He received the 2002 World Cup’s Bronze Ball and was later selected in the FIFA 100, a list of the game’s all-time greats, by global soccer icon Pele.

Still a California resident, Hong retired in 2004, but his post-playing career has been just as successful as his illustrious days playing the game. His first head coaching job was with Korea’s under-20 national team, a group that consisted of many who have developed under his wing and will represent Team Korea in Brazil this summer. He took that youth team, led by Koo Ja-cheol who will captain the Korean team in Brazil, to the quarterfinals of the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup. Then Hong was promoted to lead South Korea at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. He took the nucleus of his promising under-20 team, groomed those players and guided the team to win Korea’s first ever soccer medal, a bronze.

So when the Korean Soccer Association had to find a head coach last year, it was a no-brainer for them to choose Hong.

In recent months, however, Hong has taken a great deal of heat from Korean fans, who have accused him of favoritism.

Some of the players from the core group of his under-20 and Olympic team have either struggled to perform or have rarely played for their respective European teams, such as Yun Suk- young of England’s Queens Park Rangers and Park Chu-young, who only played twice in the last six months after joining Watford on loan from Arsenal. Yet, Hong controversially selected both of them at the expense of those whose recent performances were probably more deserving of a call to the national team, but have never played a role in Hong’s previous teams. Park Joo-ho garnered Team of the Week honors three times at his German club Mainz this past season, and the up-and-comer Lee Myung-joo is considered the best midfielder in the domestic K-League, but they were both dropped. Park eventually earned a late call to the team only after it was revealed that another leftback Kim Jin-su wouldn’t be able to recover in time from an ankle injury.

Despite the criticism, Hong insists that the results will show that he is taking Korea’s best team to Brazil, where the 45-year-old will seek a final coronation in his already legendary career.

7 Players to Watch From Team Korea

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Age: 21
Club: Bayer Leverkusen, Germany
Position: Forward
When South Korean soccer icon Park Ji-sung retired from the national team in 2011, no one doubted that Son would assume the role of Korean soccer’s next poster boy. Son is only the second Korean player in history to score more than 10 goals in a top-flight European league in two straight seasons since the legendary Cha Bum-kun became the first to achieve that feat in the 1980s. Currently playing at Bayer Leverkusen of Germany, Son will spearhead South Korea’s attack in Brazil with his dazzling runs and thunderous shots.

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Age: 28
Club: Watford (on loan from Arsenal), England
Position: Forward
The talented Park Chu-young is quite possibly one of the finest goal scorers the country has ever seen. But he can’t seem to escape controversy off the soccer field. Criticism began swirling in 2011 after Park took up residency in Monaco, where he was playing professionally at the time, freeing him of South Korea’s mandatory military service. Angry fans hurled jabs at Park for working around the system, calling him a “traitor.” A year later, though, he seemed to win over critics when he scored Korea’s winning goal against Japan at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London in the bronze medal game. But he’s now back in the center of controversy after he was selected to represent Korea on the world stage, despite his rare playing time at three different clubs in Europe over the last three years.

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Age: 25
Club: Sunderland (on loan from Swansea), England
Position: Central midfielder
Precise, clever and stable in midfield, Ki Sung-yueng is the lynchpin of the Korean team; whether the team will achieve its goal in Brazil will hinge heavily on his distribution. After two years in the English Premier League, Ki finished in the top-10 in pass completion rate in both seasons in arguably the most competitive league in the world. The playmaker came under public scrutiny back home last year when it was revealed that he had been posting vitriolic comments about Korea’s ex-head coach, Choi Kang-hee, on his secret Facebook account, but Hong Myung-bo still decided to make him the centerpiece of the team. Ki, who spent his formative years in Australia and speaks English, also made gossip headlines last summer after marrying actress Han Hye-jin.

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Age: 26
Club: Bolton Wanderers, England
Position: Winger
Liverpool, one of the most storied teams in the world, was inching closer to signing Korea’ s high-flying winger Lee Chung-yong in 2011. That’ s when Lee, playing for Bolton Wanderers in an exhibition against a fifth division team in England, suffered a career-threatening double fracture in his leg after a vicious tackle by the opposing defender. The Liverpool deal was taken off the table immediately, and it took Lee almost a year to return to the field. Agonizingly, Korea’ s best dribbler is now playing in England’ s second division. The World Cup in Brazil could be Lee’s last opportunity to showcase his talent and earn a deserved move to a bigger club before it’s too late.

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Age: 24
Club: Guangzhou Evergrande, China
Position: Centerback
While Korea has produced its fair share of rough and rugged defenders, an elegant ball-playing defender has been a rarity since Hong Myung-bo’s retirement. So when Hong became head coach of Korea’s under-20 team, he handpicked Kim Young-gwon and Hong Jeong-ho to become his successors. While Hong Jeong-ho’ s dream of playing European soccer was granted last summer with a move to German club FC Augsburg, Kim, who’s playing for mega-rich Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande at the moment, will look to impress in Brazil in the hope of following in the footsteps of his partner in central defense.

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Age: 25
Club: Mainz, Germany
Position: Central Midfielder
A do-it-all midfielder and a leader, Koo Ja-cheol is the creative spark and the attacking thrust on head coach Hong Myung-bo’s tactically conservative team. Many who aren’t familiar with the inner workings of the Korean team may question his leadership because of his relatively young age, but the nucleus of the current Korean team is from the under-20 side from 2009, which Koo captained exceptionally well. Gifted with skills on the ball and tireless work rate off it, Koo plays an integral role in Hong’s 4-2-3-1 formation.

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Age: 26
Club: Ulsan Hyundai, Korea
Position: Forward
Kim Shin-wook, coming from Korea’ s domestic K-League, remains one of the last bastions of hope for the league, as its presence is diminishing at an alarming rate. At 6-foot-4, Kim is the tallest player who has ever represented Korea. Last year’ s K-League MVP will likely be used as a second half substitute in Brazil, but he will still play an important role in changing the complexion of the games with his physical presence when Korea’s attacking players become stagnant or tired during games.

Top image is the ESPN Fifa World Cup 2014 official team poster design for Team Korea

Player photos by Lee Jin-Man/AP

June 17: South Korea vs. Russia (6 P.M. ET)
June 22: South Korea vs. Algeria (3 P.M. ET)
June 26: South Korea vs. Belgium (4 P.M. ET)

This article was published in the June 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).


University of California, Merced

UC Merced opened Sept. 5, 2005, as the 10th campus in the University of California system and the first American research university of the 21st century. Situated near Yosemite National Park, the campus significantly expands access to the UC system for students throughout the state, with a special mission to increase college-going rates among students in the San Joaquin Valley. It also serves as a major base of advanced research, a model of sustainable design and construction, and a stimulus to economic growth and diversification throughout the region.