Soo Woong Lee, center, and his students pose with their tournament trophies, circa 1968-1969. To the left of Lee is Phillip Cunningham, followed by Furman Marshall; this pair would found the Simba Dojang, which carried on Lee’s teachings. In the first row, second from left, holding a trophy is Itch Wilkinson, who would grow up to be one of the nation’s elite taekwondo fighters. Photos courtesy of the Lee Family.
Taekwondo grandmaster Soo Woong Lee and his students created a special kind of magic in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s a legacy that continues to this day.
Something Worth Fighting For
by JOHN CHA
It was 1968, when America was in the midst of racially integrating schools across the land. President Lyndon Johnson was touting his historic legislative coup featuring the “Great Society” and affirmative action, along with the “War on Poverty.” All of these momentous federal programs seemed to have skipped the southeast part of Washington, D.C., just a few miles from Capitol Hill. This impoverished, predominantly African American neighborhood was best known for drug abuse, more than anything else.
To say that it was desperate times is an understatement, according to community workers like Phillip Cunningham and Furman Marshall, who devoted themselves to keeping kids off drugs and avoiding the temptations of the streets. “We faced drugs, violence and school dropouts,” recalled Marshall. “It was hell for young people. Then, here comes an angel wearing a taekwondo uniform.”
That angel was Grandmaster Soo Woong Lee, then a young man of 26, who had just arrived from Korea. He was one of the first Korean taekwondo masters to arrive in the U.S. in the 1960s. One day, his mentor Ki Whang Kim took him to the “karate class” that Kim taught at the local YMCA (it was actually taekwondo, but the latter was not a household name back then) and introduced Lee to the youth. Lee didn’t say anything; he couldn’t speak English. But he proceeded to demonstrate his taekwondo form: leg splits high in the air, spinning kicks and punches so fast that his arms and legs blended into a blur, leaving the group of African American youth speechless. Continue Reading »
Roots Run Deep For Run River North
The indie rock band’s music and identity find inspiration in its immigrant heritage.
by STEVE HAN
As Daniel Chae tells it, he and his bandmates often liked to jam inside their cars while on their way somewhere. They all lived in the suburbs of Los Angeles, meaning these could be long drives. Lead singer Alex Hwang would start strumming his guitar from the backseat, while the others would start singing and harmonizing. So as they prepared to release their first single in 2012 and were brainstorming of unorthodox—and low-budget—ways to shoot a music video, the idea of performing their song, “Fight to Keep,” inside lead singer-songwriter Hwang’s Honda Fit naturally came up. That’s when Chae said, “Let’s just put drums in the car and actually record it.”
The resulting video shows the musicians, sometimes in the backseat, sometimes in the front, headphones on, Chae and Hwang playing guitar, Sally Kang on tambourine. John Chong, over 6 feet tall, is hunched over in the compact trunk playing the drums, with a small camera strapped to his head. They take turns at the mic, as the car is seen driving around town, including through a McDonald’s drive-thru, and their sound gradually builds—and builds. “Fight to keep the fire burning,” their voices boom to the up-tempo chorus.
Without a label or an album at the time, the band uploaded the video to YouTube, and it also found its way to some unlikely fans: Honda executives. So impressed by the video, they invited the band to perform for hundreds of Honda employees, only to tell the band members when they arrived that the concert had just been canceled. Continue Reading »
A look back at the incredible life of this Korean American glass ceiling breaker, who recently turned 100 (by Korean age reckoning).
Compiled by Julie Ha, with Philip “Flip” Cuddy and John Cha
Actually, the Korean American Navy officer and NSA code-breaker technically turned 99 last month, but about 175 of her admirers gathered Jan. 18 at the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles to celebrate her centennial birthday, based on Korean age. Cuddy grew up the eldest daughter of two of the most revered Korean independence patriots (and among the earliest Korean immigrants to the U.S.), Dosan Ahn Chang Ho and Helen (Hye Ryon) Ahn. The couple’s tireless work to liberate their mother country from Japanese colonization would play a crucial role in Cuddy’s upbringing, identity and values. At the same time, their heroic shadow didn’t seem to keep her from paving her own unique and trailblazing path. Here’s a look back at the incredible life of Susan Ahn Cuddy.
Susan Ahn is born in Los Angeles on Jan. 16, 1915, the third child of Ahn Chang Ho and Helen Ahn, the first married couple from Korea to arrive in America, in 1902. Their Korean passports were 51 and 52. Susan’s name—“Soo-san” in Korean—means “embroidered mountain.” In this photo, Susan is pictured with her parents, older brothers Philip and Philson and baby sister Soorah. The youngest, Ralph, was not yet born. Continue Reading »
New Girl in Town
Arden Cho has earned a loyal fanbase as a YouTube singer and performer. Now she’s winning over a new audience with her exciting (and a**-kicking) role on MTV’s Teen Wolf.
by ADA TSENG
For a good chunk of their childhoods, Arden Cho made life for her younger brother miserable. “Why can’t you be more like Arden?” their parents would constantly nag him. Cho was the seemingly perfect Korean American daughter: She earned straight A’s, dutifully learned everything from piano to cello, gymnastics to taekwondo, while also mentoring younger girls at her church and doing volunteer work. She never broke rules at school or home.
When it was time to go to college, Cho, born and raised in Texas before moving to Minnesota, studied psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the college her parents had wanted her to attend, and envisioned herself practicing law one day. While there, she even entered and won the title of Miss Korea Chicago. This gave her a chance to compete in the Miss Korea Pageant in Seoul and explore opportunities abroad. But that’s when her seemingly perfect life started to reveal its cracks. Even though she had just won a beauty pageant and was in talks for a television show in Korea, the work was contingent upon her agreeing to lose weight and “fix” aspects of her face. It was plastic surgery or nothing. She went home with nothing.
“I felt like if I ever wanted to stand in front of a group of young people again and tell them not to be afraid to be yourself, I couldn’t do it if I had cut up my face and changed who I really am,” says Cho. “After that experience, I had a really negative idea of the entertainment industry. I thought it was very superficial.”
That said, she couldn’t shake the fact that she loved performing. With people telling her that she had given up a great opportunity to work in Korea, she felt more and more insecure, both about herself and her future. Not knowing what she wanted to pursue and feeling less convinced she wanted to pursue a career in law, she went on a humanitarian trip to Kenya for a couple months after graduation.
Up In The Air
Young snowboarding star Chloe Kim is not old enough for this year’s Olympics, but has her sights set on Pyeongchang in 2018.
by STEVE HAN
Five years ago, Jongjin Kim spotted professional snowboarder Soko Yamaoka at a famous resort in the Swiss Alps. Chloe Kim, his 8-year-old daughter, had been competing for two years, and he wanted her to pick up a few tips by watching Yamaoka, who finished 10th at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.
As he watched Yamaoka riding, just one question came to mind: “That’s it?”
“Obviously [Yamaoka] looked great,” the 57-year-old father of three recalls in an interview with KoreAm. “But watching Chloe all these years, I expected something extraordinary since she was an Olympian. I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s all it took to compete at the Olympics. I really felt like my daughter would be just as good.”
In fact, many in the snowboarding community had already tagged 13-year old Chloe as a prodigy before she turned 10. The California native started competing at age 6 on a mini snowboard that cost just $25. Only a year later, she won two gold medals and three silver medals, finishing first overall at the United States of America Snowboard Association’s 2007 National Championships in the 6- to 7-year-old age group. Continue Reading »