KoreAm Journal http://iamkoream.com Sat, 29 Aug 2015 03:47:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.4 Redemption Song http://iamkoream.com/redemption-song/ http://iamkoream.com/redemption-song/#comments Sat, 29 Aug 2015 03:47:21 +0000 http://iamkoream.com/?p=83345 story and photography by JIMMY LEE

Steven Kim begins his presentation with a question: What words do you associate with gangs? Even amongst this group of youth counselors and educators at the Koreatown Youth and Community Center during a gathering last May, the responses veer toward the sensational and stereotypical: criminals, drive-bys, drugs, violence.

It’s an obvious knee-jerk reaction, especially with the images of gang members with tattoos not just covering their bodies but also their faces, flashing signs with their fingers or posturing while holding guns, being projected via Kim’s PowerPoint. But for someone like Kim, these intensely negative perceptions are just a few of the many challenges he faces in his chosen field of gang intervention. It’s as if he’s on a Sisyphean quest to find answers to one fundamental question: How do you humanize someone who doesn’t seem human?

For Kim, it’s a deeply personal mission. As the executive director of the nonprofit Project Kinship, which works with the at-risk population and the formerly incarcerated, the 38-year-old Kim looks every part the respectable social worker, in his light blue dress shirt, navy-colored slacks and tan leather Oxfords. But the shaved head and the tattoos that completely adorn both arms hint at a far more complex identity.

Look even closer, and you’ll see three black dots inked just off his left eye. He got those in jail, after a prison riot broke out. “It’s just, on that day, I earned it,” by fighting on the side of the Mexicans, he would tell me later. “And it’s not like [I can tell them], no, I don’t want to get it on my face. [They’re] like, ‘You’re next.’”

But as his presentation continues, Kim elaborates on the factors that lead to young men and women joining gangs, and how more recent theories posit that early traumas are often key causes, not unlike post-traumatic stress disorder. It becomes clear that the knowledge he’s sharing has also been learned at the school of hard knocks. In fact, he’s been to the offices of this Koreatown social service agency before, but decades earlier, as a young teenager. He was mandated by a
juvenile court to attend counseling here, after breaking into a house.

At one point, the slideshow stops at a photo of a cherubic boy, holding his little sister. It’s Kim, at about the age of 9. He then asks, rhetorically, “How does a kid go from here, to here?” as the next image pops up, showing an older Kim, wearing a wife beater and long baggy shorts and standing in a defiant pose.

“There’s always a story,” Kim says.

Kim leads a support group where he mentors and counsels former gang members.

Kim leads a support group where he mentors and counsels former gang members.

At the Korean restaurant just across the street from KYCC, Kim starts to tell his story, though he warns some of the details of his past are sketchy. “My memory is not so good because I’ve damaged some brain cells,” he says—a consequence of heavy drug use.

Kim has a surprising affability and sense of ease about him that perhaps stem from someone who has hit rock bottom and then grew determined to crawl out of his own abyss. He speaks of gangs and the intervention work he does now with the clinical authority and confidence of a seasoned social worker; hearing himself talk sometimes surprises even him.

“In 2000, I couldn’t carry on a conversation like this,” says Kim.

He was intensely quiet back then in his early 20s, and when he did talk, imagine your stereotypical “gangsta” speak—the patois of a “cholo,” with lots of “ese” in the verbal mix. That was once his language. He first learned it on the streets of the Orange County suburb of Garden Grove, where his parents, who immigrated to the States before he was born, moved their family because of the sizable Korean population here. But on their particular street, the residents were mostly Latino, and an 8-year-old Kim had become the subject of constant bullying by the neighborhood kids. After years of subjecting Kim to abuse, one of the boys invited him over to his house. But when Kim arrived at the door, they threw balls of mud at him. It proved to be some initiation rite, and Kim finally had some friends. But in the process, as a member of this crew, the went from victim to victimizer.

You get bullied so much, Kim says grimly, that it’s not really an option not to beat up the weaker kids. “The feeling was that you get embraced,” he explains. “You’re part of the group.”

He adds, “When you grow up in that environment, with that peer group, you have to be hard, don’t let nobody push you around.”

Meanwhile, his parents, who both worked for the U.S. Postal Service at the time, were also getting harassed: Their house was graffitied and the windows of their cars broken. “It was bad, the race and discrimination they faced. I didn’t really understand that,” says Kim. Overwhelmed with just trying to get by, the couple worked long hours and therefore were often absent. So Kim found more and more ways to get into trouble.

When he was about 12, his parents were able to move to the upper middle class—and predominantly white—community of Anaheim Hills. “You take the kid out of the environment and you plant him in another environment, theoretically things should change,” says Kim. “But if [you] carry over the culture, and not have the same wealth as everybody else, then you know you’re really different.”

Even in this new setting, Kim gravitated to some of the Latino kids who were being bused to school. “Fights immediately occurred there between rich and poor,” he says. His parents started taking him to a Korean church in Irvine his junior year of high school, and it seemed to work. “Nice church kids, and they embraced me,” Kim says. “I was a church project, maybe.”

He graduated high school and then attended community college before transferring to the University of California, Irvine. He seemed to be on the right track, but Kim says he somehow didn’t feel at ease. He has trouble articulating why, settling on the words: “I never quite fit in.”

He contacted his buddies from his Garden Grove and Anaheim Hills days, some of whom had become gang members, and even invited his old best friend to move into his apartment and helped him get a job. “When I made that call to my old friends, I immediately fell back into this place of belonging and comfort,” says Kim. But they would introduce something new that would precipitate a whole new set of problems: meth.

“I tried it and got addicted, and got propelled back into, really this time, the streets and started to get involved with drug dealing, with serious violence,” says Kim.

That included running with a gang. And there would be the proverbial “drug deal gone bad,” with bullets being fired at him. “The worst was in 1999. I was completely addicted to drugs, weighing 120 pounds, and on the run from the police,” he recalls.

UCI kicked him out of college, due to failing grades; his parents kicked him out of their home. “I tried to burn the house down. All kinds of crazy sh-t,” says Kim. “Being a drug addict, I’m irrational; I’ve been up for 20 days.”

Plus, he wasn’t alone. He had met a Latina woman named Priscilla and got her pregnant. “We were homeless, living in motels, drug-addicted,” Kim says. “We were on welfare, we had no money.”

They also had no hope.

“That’s why we named [our daughter] that,” says Kim, “because literally we were so hopeless.” Hope Cheyenne Kim was born in 2001.

* * *

The moment when Kim realized his life had to change is seared into his mind. He was back in prison for about the 10th time—he’s lost exact count, but most stays were for drug possession and dealing-related charges. “My baby mama—she’s my wife now—and my daughter come in; she’s still a baby.

She’s looking at me and I’m looking at her, and she picks up Hope and pushes her against the glass. And I’m going, ‘Oh, man,’” says Kim, who was about 25 at the time.

“I remember that day I started … feeling,” he adds. “The whole name of the game had been not to feel; when you feel, it’s weakness. I go back to my cell and I start crying under my blankets.”

The court would eventually offer him, instead of prison, a six-month residential rehab program through the SalvationArmy.
He finished it. “I’m a person of faith, so I started connecting back with God and people who love God who were able to support me,” recounts Kim.

UCI took him back, too. But he was also in need of money to support his new family, and the only job he could find was as a janitor for the Salvation Army. “I sat in class and wrote every single word down. I got a tutor. I had no friends, so I would just go to the library, eat my sandwich. And at night I would pick up trash,” Kim says.

He would graduate from UCI in 2004 with a degree in criminology and then earn a master’s in social work from the University of Southern California two years later. Despite these degrees, he could only find menial labor work, primarily due to his criminal record. But he remained determined; he knew what he ultimately wanted to do was work with youth in a social service capacity.

“I just plugged away, and [met] some mentors and professors who took me under their wing,” says Kim, who was entering his 30s. “Still, I was real raw, and I just hustled, kept begging people for jobs. ‘I’ll clean your floors. I’ll do whatever.’”

A UCI friend named Jesse Cheng who was working on a doctoral dissertation about the death penalty recommended Kim for a job as a mitigation consultant. This is a role on the defense team of someone facing execution.

“Basically what a mitigation consultant does is understand mental health, understand culture, and is able to navigate into the world of the people you interview and research,” says Kim. “If they’re from a different country, I’ll go there and interview those families and come back and create a picture to explain what happened to that individual,” so that the convicted is ultimately not given a death sentence. He traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, for a case involving a member of a drug cartel. He went to South Korea as part of the defense for a Korean American man who killed his ex-wife, two of her children and her brother.

“His passion [for his clients] shows,” says Jennifer Chung, a deputy public defender who assisted Kim in the Korean American defendant’s case and made the trip with him to Korea. “He goes above and beyond the call of duty.”

Chung wasn’t sure what to expect when she first heard of Kim from her co-workers: a fellow Korean American who was once homeless, and a former gang member and drug addict? But her wariness soon changed to a sense of assurance and trust upon meeting him. “I respect Steve because—” and here Chung pauses to interject, “I’ve never been to jail, I never had a substance abuse problem. Would I be a lawyer if I went through all that? Probably not”—before continuing, “He’s been there. He took action and turned his life around. And he doesn’t apologize for his past. He’s become someone people look up to.”

Another admirer of Kim’s accomplishments is Robert Hernandez, who works with gang members in Los Angeles and is a professor at USC’s School of Social Work. The men were both graduate students at USC when they met, similarly interested in assisting vulnerable youth populations. And when Hernandez was tasked to create an undergraduate course on adolescent gang intervention, he immediately thought of Kim and got him on the phone. “I was like, ‘Would you like to work on this with me?” recalls Hernandez.

“Steve and I thought it was really important that we humanize [gangs] and not create just some Gangs 101 course, discussing deviant behavior,” he says. “The class is really going beyond the symptoms, the tattoos, getting beneath the surface, and really looking at the root causes of this challenging issue and attempting to look at solutions.”

The fact that Kim has lived the life also lends credibility to the lectures that he would give. “He’s able to add a whole other dimension to the curriculum that gets to some of the root causes, and by that we’re able to really delve deep and talk about a lot of the variables, such as trauma, grief and loss,” says Hernandez.

“And that’s based on anecdotal cases and scenarios that he would provide and share with the class.”

Hernandez adds, “He represents so much—that change is possible, that transformation is possible.”

Steven Kim 1

Here at a church in Santa Ana, the three females and seven men gathered on this Monday evening in June are holding on to that very idea: That change is possible for them, too. They are all former gang members, all Latino, ranging in age from their 20s to 50s, who come regularly to this healing circle, a kind of support group led by Kim, who is their counselor and mentor. They hope, as he did, they can also turn their past transgressions into meaningful lessons.

One of them is a 30-something Latina whose name we’ve been asked to withhold. Growing up without a mother, she recounts for the group the moment when her drug-using father pointed a shotgun at her head. She also describes how she ended up hanging out with a Crips gang in Orange County, smoking and eventually selling crack. “I ran amok in Santa Ana,” she says, a trip that ended in prison. Now she is involved with Project Kinship to help deter others from the gang life (she also works with the Orange County Department of Education as part of its gang intervention efforts).

“What’s so powerful is that we come from places without hope,” Kim tells the group. “And now we are all survivors. We hold an amazing power and privilege.”

Most of Kim’s energies are now being directed toward Project Kinship in his effort to change the lives of gang members in Orange County—and yes, there are gangs in the land of “real” housewives. His last mitigation consulting job, for the time being, ended earlier this year. He plans to return to USC this fall to teach a graduate course at the School of Social Work as an adjunct professor. Long term, Kim is committed to helping those “who are in a place of hopelessness, to find a place with a future worth living for.”

“I know that sounds cliché, but you really have to believe that in this [line of] work,” he says.

Started just last year, Project Kinship is a social service still in its infancy, offering traditional programs, case management and support groups such as the healing service, as well as outreach and tattoo removal for gang members. But Kim’s vision for the organization is to be like Homeboy Industries, the groundbreaking nonprofit founded in East L.A. by Father Greg Boyle. Homeboy not only provides standard services like counseling but also social enterprises, such as a café, catering and food products that provide jobs to help turn around gang members’ lives. “The way Homeboy views the demonized—that’s what makes them great,” praises Kim. “It’s their approach, the heart that they have for people. That’s why we went with the name Project Kinship, because we really value Father Greg’s belief in kinship.”

“I would say he’s trailblazing out there [in Orange County] in bringing in a whole other community-based intervention approach through Project Kinship, which they haven’t really seen before,” says Hernandez, of Kim. “I can’t even explain how valuable he is to the movement.”

It’s been a long, tumultuous journey for Kim, from “chubby wannabe Mexican kid” to anti-gang leader. Kim, who turns 39 in December, admits old temptations can still linger.

“Those wounds are still there,” he says. “They’re healed, and more harder to break through.”

He and Priscilla, who has undergone her own transformation and now works in banking, have had a second child, 6-year-old Noah. And they live a typical family life in Anaheim Hills, of all places, with his parents’ home close by. “I’m too far into it,” says Kim, speaking of this second-chance life that he’s built. “There’s too much at stake.”

But the empathy he feels for those entangled in the world that almost ruined his won’t go away. Kim says he knows of some reformed gang members who want nothing to do with their pasts. “But for me, to come through drug addiction and all that, and to have people help me, I knew I wanted to go back, because you have a lot to offer,” he says.

There will always be those who say gang members and criminals should be locked away or put to death. To them, Kim offers an alternative.

“Is there anything good about this guy that could grow into something better?” asks Kim. “Is there room for redemption? For me, I like that part of it.”


This article was published in the August/September 2015 issue of KoreAm.Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/September issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days.)


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No Fear of Beauty http://iamkoream.com/no-fear-of-beauty/ http://iamkoream.com/no-fear-of-beauty/#comments Sat, 29 Aug 2015 03:05:39 +0000 http://iamkoream.com/?p=83267 A father looks back on the life and career of his eldest son, photographer Stephen Han Stickler, whose iconic images of musicians graced the covers of major magazines in the mid-’90s.


Above photo: From left to right, Alexander Stickler, Soma Han and John Stickler, at Stephen’s memorial service, held July 5 in Los Angeles. The print on the left is a watercolor by Han intended to be Stephen’s 50th birthday present. At right is Stephen’s last creation as an artist, a Photoshop collage entitled “Free.” Photo by Gerard Shadrick.

The standing portrait of my son, Stephen Han Stickler, from the February 2008 issue of KoreAm epitomized him to a tee: formidable, sleek and in control.

Dressed in a V-neck pullover and slacks, both hands in his pockets, Stephen looks straight into the camera as he stands in a hallway flooded by natural light. Usually the person on the other side of the lens, my son appears stern-faced and imperious, a figure dressed in black.

Stephen was always in control—even when cancer took his life on June 26, four days shy of his 50th birthday.

A photographer who shot iconic album covers in the mid-’90s for the likes of Korn and Iggy Pop; photographed such groups as the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine and the musician Pink; and whose celebrity portraitures include William H. Macy, Milla Jovovich, Kate Winslet and Christian Bale, Stephen was an A-list professional who always took the celebrity around him in stride.

Whether it was racing around Ozzy Osbourne’s wooded Buckinghamshire estate on high-powered quad runners or mounting the stage at London’s Wembley Stadium in front of 80,000 people to photograph a rock group, my son knew how to take a good picture.

Stephen Han Stickler’s extensive personal work may be seen at StephenStickler.com and society6.com/stephenhan.


As his best friend of more than 20 years, Dante Ariola, said at his memorial service, held July 5 at the Self-Realization Fellowship Temple in Hollywood, “He was able to fit in with any group or social situation, no matter how extreme or eclectic.”

Stephen’s friends—and he had many—described him as angelic, silly, loving, and he was. With family, however, he was often remote, cool, dismissive. Stephen and I, by his choice, were not close. My wife Soma and I saw very little of him after his high school graduation in 1982. Here, I have an opportunity to hold him close one more time.

Stephen was born July 1, 1965, in Seoul, where I pioneered the advertising business, worked for the CBS radio network and met Soma, an artist. Stephen and his younger brother, Alexander, attended Sacred Heart parochial school and spent their childhood in the New Itaewon diplomatic housing compound. The kids got a head start on their education, attending daily the “Pooh Bear School”—the preschool run by Soma in our home—and were spoiled 24-7 by their halmoni.

Stephen always liked to draw; as a child, his favorites were superheroes. One picture showed a Spider-Man figure sporting a large belt with Stephen’s initials—SHS. As a teen, he turned to painting stark, symbolic images, using oils on Masonite. But it was a class Stephen took at the Athenian School in Diablo (we had relocated to Northern California when Stephen was 11) in high school that introduced him to his calling. His photography portfolios earned him a scholarship to a summer photo workshop at the University of Arizona and later, admission to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.

He quickly gained notice for his work, landing positions as executive editor and fashion and photo editor, respectively, of Bikini and Raygun, alternative music magazines since folded. At these publications, Stephen shot black-and-white portraits of actors such as Christopher Walken and John Lithgow and took the cover photos for Porno for Pyros, Morrissey and Perry Farrell, the frontman for Jane’s Addiction.

Stephen could also write, once penning a feature about a hurried trip to Paris to photograph the Beastie Boys in concert. Only a photographer with his kind of access could describe to readers how, backstage, he ran into Leonardo DiCaprio in the group’s dressing room.

In 1993, as Stephen’s reputation for imaginative portraiture grew, his freelance work expanded and appeared in the national publications LIFE, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Maxim and Spin. His work was awarded gold and platinum records—honors bestowed by recording companies.

When Stephen was interviewed by this magazine seven years ago, he was at a turning point in his career; he had shifted his focus to fashion advertising and stock agency work as the digital age changed the face of photography. It was, in some ways, a welcome direction for him. As he told writer Corina Knoll then: “I like the idea that my work is gonna be on thousands of phones. No one knows or cares where that picture came from. I like that anonymous aspect. It’s the total opposite of being a well-known photographer. In a way, it’s refreshing.”

Stickler ProfileStephen photographed in 2008 by Eric Sueyoshi for a profile in KoreAm.

In May 2013, at age 48, Stephen was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. Despite intensive rounds of chemotherapy and major operations, he showed courage and resolve, even rising from his recovery bed after a major procedure in April 2014 to attend an event in Los Angeles in which he was one of three L.A. rock photographers recognized for his 20th-century body of work.

A certified Kundalini yoga instructor and practitioner who was twice elected to his neighborhood council in L.A., Stephen refused to let his illness get the better of him. Two years ago, he started a Tumblr blog titled “Fear of Beauty,” in which he reflected on his journey through the pain and healing, and support of his family and friends, in candid detail.

He kept up his writing all the way up to June 2015, the month of his passing. Never bitter, but grateful for the remarkable journey that was his life—that was my son.

“I have no fear of beauty left, because my life, Life itself, is beauty, and I am a part of it,” he wrote in an entry dated May 20, 2014. “I have the good fortune to draw breath, to see the sky, to experience the wonder of being human. My life will end, so will yours, and all we ever have is the experiencing of it. Do beautiful things, assert your beauty, realize that you already are beautiful and do it now, because now is what we get to work with.”


This article was published in the August/September 2015 issue ofKoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/September issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days.)

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First-World Problems: Love Love and Porn http://iamkoream.com/first-world-problems-love-love-and-porn/ http://iamkoream.com/first-world-problems-love-love-and-porn/#comments Sat, 29 Aug 2015 03:04:50 +0000 http://iamkoream.com/?p=83336 by SUNG J. WOO

From time to time, at a slightly greater frequency than a visit by Halley’s Comet, people ask me what my second novel, Love Love, is about. I usually tell them it stars Korean American siblings in pre-midlife crisis mode. I also mention tennis, since the brother is an ex-professional tennis player. Then I say, hey, it’s about art, too, because the sister is a struggling painter.

At this point the person nods and waits because I’m not done.

“I also wrote about pornography,” I say. Although I mean to mention this without any added inflection or emotion, I usually find that my voice betrays me, so I end up with, “I also wrote about pornography?” Almost as if I’m asking for permission.

Let me just say up front that I’m not a prude. No childhood trauma of any kind, and I was brought up by neither Christian evangelists nor key-party swingers. When I think of sex, the word that comes to me is not embarrassment, awkwardness, shame or anything remotely negative. Fun. That’s my representative lexicon for the very natural coupling of two human beings.

Granted, pornography isn’t sex, nor is it particularly sexy. At least I’ve never found it so. In fact, I wanted to explore this sordid subject because of my rather strong diametrical emotions on the topic. The first is excitement: I am, after all, a heterosexual man, and I enjoy seeing attractive women in the buff as much as the next guy. But this euphoria is almost immediately obliterated when I find myself pulled into the actress’s point of view. It doesn’t matter whether there’s high production value, like some period piece that actually looks like the studio spent some cash making things look pretty; all I can think is, oh goodness, this poor woman. This is her job. This is what she has to do to have shelter and food. And I feel bad for the guy, too. How could having sex in front of a camera be a good thing? I suppose if one were an exhibitionist and a sex addict, perhaps then, being in adult films is the perfect profession. But I’d bet my last dollar that those people do not make up the majority of porn performers.

So, after I got my novel in decent shape, I sent it around to a few of my trusted writer friends for their critiques. One asked, Of all the occupations out there, why the hell did you choose pornography for these characters? He then pointed out, rightly so, that most fiction readers are women, so it probably wasn’t a swift move on my part to write about something that appeals more to males, and maybe not a huge number there, either. According to a recent Pew Internet & American Life project survey, only 12 percent of Americans watch porn.

So more likely than not, I’ve chosen something that appeals to a minority of the populace (if at all). Sigh. But I’m afraid this was the book I wrote. Whether I’m writing a short story or a novel, for me, it all starts with an image. For my first novel, Everything Asian, it was a pile of pills and a paring knife sitting on top of a toilet lid—a suicide attempt. For this one, it was my male protagonist, Kevin, opening up an old manila envelope. In it were two items: an unfinished letter from his mother telling him that he was adopted; the other was a tri-folded piece of paper, a nude centerfold of his birth mother that unfurls before his eyes.

Fiction, as we know, is made up of a whole lot of make-believe, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth involved. I don’t mean to describe my writing process as hoity-toity or artsyfartsy or an even more ridiculously sounding hyphenated phrase, but when that image came to me, I felt its validity. I knew that was the book I had to write, and because it had already happened, because it was as solid as a boulder of granite in my mind, I was able to believe in its essential reality to be able to go back to it day after day, year after year. After all, working on a long-term project like a novel is an act of faith, and faith originates from absolute immutability.

So to make a long story short, there’s pornography in my book. I think I should be proud of this. I sort of am. And I sort of am not.


Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 10.27.25 AMSung J. Woo’s short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times,McSweeney’s and Hyphen. His debut novel, Everything Asian, won the 2010 Asian Pacific American Librarians Association Youth Literature Award. He will read from his second novel, Love Love, on Thursday, Sept. 17, at 7 p.m. at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd. Los Angeles, Calif. 90069. For more information about the book and other stops on his book tour, click here.

This article was published in the August/September 2015 issue of KoreAmSubscribetoday! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/September issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days.)

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Remembering Luke Kim, a Community Activist and Pioneer in Cultural Psychiatry http://iamkoream.com/remembering-luke-kim-a-community-activist-and-pioneer-in-cultural-psychiatry/ http://iamkoream.com/remembering-luke-kim-a-community-activist-and-pioneer-in-cultural-psychiatry/#comments Sat, 29 Aug 2015 02:54:07 +0000 http://iamkoream.com/?p=83324 by JULIE HA

Dr. Luke Ik Chang Kim, who devoted much of his life to helping the disenfranchised and voiceless in society through his work as a psychiatrist and community activist, passed away on July 12 in Seal Beach, California. He was 85.

This past March, Kim, who bravely battled Parkinson’s disease for several years, appeared in his wheelchair at a Day of Remembrance gathering in Los Angeles to memorialize the passing of Chol Soo Lee, a wrongfully convicted Korean American death row inmate, whose acquittal and freedom Kim and his wife Grace worked hard to achieve in the 1980s. Kim, appearing fragile but still managing a gentle smile, sat quietly in the audience, as Grace addressed the crowd with her characteristic enthusiasm for social justice issues.

Indeed, it is difficult to talk about Luke Kim without mentioning Grace Kim—the first-generation Korean American duo stood out for their participation in civil rights protests in the 1970s, advocacy for such progressive causes as the defense of Chol Soo Lee and vocal support for LGBT rights.

The Kims always said that their dedication to social justice sprung from great hardship they suffered during their early years in Korea.

Luke was born in Sinuiju, in what is now North Korea, on April 22, 1930, two decades into the 35-year Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula. At age 14, he and hundreds of other youth were conscripted by the Japanese military and forced to work at a heavily guarded weapons factory in Pyongyang, an experience he described in his 2012 autobiography, Beyond the Battle Line: The Korean War and My Life.

Although Korea was liberated in August 1945 with Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, Kim’s family was soon forced to flee south as the North turned communist. “After we made the successful escape to South Korea, we cried with joy, kneeled down for prayer and kissed the soil,” Luke told KoreAm in 2002. “We thanked God and vowed dedication to God’s work.”

But turmoil would arise again, when on Aug. 28, 1950, during North Korea’s invasion of Seoul, authorities from the North kidnapped his mother, likely because of her leadership in the Presbyterian Church. At the time, the Communists were known to target and persecute Christians. That was the last time Luke saw his mother, and multiple attempts since then to learn of her whereabouts were unsuccessful.

Luke told KoreAm that he saw education as a weapon against this kind of oppression. He would go on to earn his medical degree from Seoul National University in 1956, and then, at the urging of his mentor, came to the United States to obtain his doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Arizona.

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 7.45.05 PM

In 1962, Luke married his longtime friend and fellow Seoul National University graduate, Grace, then a teacher and principal in Seoul. The pair eventually settled down in Davis, Calif., raising two sons. For three decades, Luke served as chief psychiatrist and chief of Research and Staff Development at the California Department of Corrections’ California Medical Facility in Vacaville. During that period, some of his high-profile patients included inmates Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan, Juan Corona and Timothy Leary.

Between 1973 and 2005, Luke also worked as a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California Davis School of Medicine. It was there where he made cultural psychiatry—or, taking into account a patient’s cultural background and values when diagnosing and treating psychiatric conditions—a key focus of his work and advocacy within the field. He would initiate and teach seminars for psychiatry residents about the relationship between mental health, culture and ethnicity.

“Culture makes such a big difference in mental health and illness,” he told UC Davis’ Psychiatry Magazine in 2008. “I find that when evaluating depression in the Korean elderly, results are more fruitful if one uses traditional folk concepts (like han) than asking directly if they feel sad or depressed. If a health worker were to explain that such [cultural] concepts are taught during medical training because the United States is a multicultural society, I am certain that Korean patients would respond more favorably.”

Longtime readers of KoreAm may recognize Luke’s name from the pages of the magazine: he was a contributor to the “Lonesome Journey” oral history series on Korean America’s earliest immigrants. He was also quoted from time to time as an expert source on Korean cultural ethos, discussing such concepts as face-saving (chaemyun), and was the subject of a few KoreAm stories, including a 2002 double-profile on him and his wife, as well as a 2008 Valentine’s Day feature paying tribute to the social justice-minded pair.

In the Valentine’s Day piece, Grace, noting the deep camaraderie the couple had, credited her husband for being her most ardent supporter. “He’s very positive and always gives me courage so that I don’t give up,” she said.

The couple’s older son, David, once recalled to KoreAm that his parents would host meetings in the family’s living room for the activists helping Chol Soo Lee. The Kims even mortgaged their own house to help pay for Lee’s criminal defense fees.

“Their living room was the 24-7 mecca for all sorts of Asian community activists on so many community service fronts,” said their longtime friend, veteran journalist K.W. Lee. In
an email, Lee praised Luke for “walking the walk” for the cause of “building a better life for the unseen, the unheard and the unrepresented from the four corners of the world.”

In addition to his contributions to the field of psychiatry and social justice causes, Luke leaves behind a legacy of philanthropy. In 2006, he and Grace donated $250,000 to establish an endowed professorship in cultural psychiatry at the UC Davis School of Medicine. Luke Kim is survived by his wife of 53 years, Grace; son David of Vienna, Virginia; son Danny of North Tustin, California; daughters-in-law Julie and Janet; grandchildren Tessa, Jaisohn, Jeffrey and Luke; and siblings Iknan Kim of Seoul, Korea; Iksung Kim of Bridgewater, New Jersey; and Paul Ikpoong Kim of Seal Beach, California.


All photos courtesy of the Kim family

This article was published in the August/September 2015 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/September issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days.)

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Return of the Underdog, Phillip Rhee http://iamkoream.com/return-of-the-underdog/ http://iamkoream.com/return-of-the-underdog/#comments Sat, 29 Aug 2015 02:45:13 +0000 http://iamkoream.com/?p=83269 Actor and filmmaker Phillip Rhee, best known for a series of popular martial arts films from the late ’80s and ’90s, is back with a family-friendly version.


Above photo: Rhee, right, with the actor Dallas Liu, who plays a younger version of Rhee’s character in Underdog Kids.

Phillip Rhee talks like a man who has tasted rejection. The 54-year-old actor, filmmaker and martial artist also talks like one who refuses to be defeated by it.

“Don’t take sh-t from anyone telling you you’re not good enough,” he says, with his signature deep rasp, in answer to one interview question. “If you knock on enough doors and show passion, then somebody is going to say ‘yes.’”

Perhaps, those are words the Korean American has used to coach himself over his storied underdog career in Hollywood. Before John Cho ventured to White Castle and Steven Yeun slayed his first zombie, Rhee graced the big and small screens in a series of popular martial arts films titled Best of the Best, which began with the 1989 original starring Eric Roberts and Rhee himself as American karate teammates up against a seemingly unbeatable South Korean team at an international competition. Though hardly a critically acclaimed film, Best of the Best and its three sequels—the first two were released theatrically with the latter two home releases—became martial arts classics, thanks to Rhee’s gravity-defying stunts and the story’s Rocky-esque never-give-up theme. In addition to starring in all of them, Rhee wrote and produced the first two and directed the third and fourth.

Rhee KnivesRhee in 1997. Courtesy of Phillip Rhee.

Rhee BoB2In this still from Best of the Best 2, Rhee, second from left, demonstrates a move during a fight scene to Master Myung Kim (second from right) and a student person (far left). Courtesy of Phillip Rhee.

When Fandango recently released its “15 Most Inspirational Sports Movies” of all time, Best of the Best made the short list.

Now, some 17 years after the original was released, Rhee hopes he can add another film to that inspirational sports movie canon, with the release of his latest, Underdog Kids. Again wearing multiple hats, Rhee wrote, directed, produced and stars in the family-friendly martial arts movie, which he dubs a “Best of the Best for kids.” In the movie, which also co-stars Beau Bridges, Tom Arnold and Ryan Potter, Rhee plays washed-up mixed martial arts athlete Jimmy “Lightning Bolt” Lee, who coaches a young, down-on-its-luck inner-city karate team that’s vying for the national championship title against a team from Beverly Hills.

The film had a limited theatrical release this past summer, and is now available on DVD and on demand.

Rhee set the story in Los Angeles during the 1990s recession, when many people were losing their jobs and families were struggling to survive. He wanted to convey to youth audiences that, even when their lives feel broken, “through tenacity, they [can] succeed,” he says, during a phone interview in July. “It doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you don’t give up, then you will hit your goal.”

Despite a clichéd quality to Rhee’s recurring cinematic message, the life experience that shapes it is genuine. After immigrating to the United States from South Korea at age 9, he and his family eventually settled in San Francisco, a city rife with gang activity in the 1970s. He witnessed territorial wars between the Latino gangs in the Mission District, African American gangs in Oakland, Wa-Ching and Joe-Boys in Chinatown and Filipino mafias in the Sunset District.

“As a teenager, I saw people get shot in the chest, throwing up blood. I saw a guy get shot in the side of his face with his teeth falling out,” describes Rhee. “I mean, it was horrific stuff.”

Martial arts helped him get his mind off all the “negativity in urban life,” says Rhee, who holds a sixth-degree black belt in taekwondo, third-degree black belt in hapkido and first-degree black belt in kendo. “Martial arts taught me discipline, humility and character. Those are the values I wanted to show in my films.”

It was in fact his real-life experience competing in taekwondo at the 1980 Asian Games for Team USA against the South Korean team that inspired Rhee’s screenplay for Best of the Best, in which he played the character of Tommy Lee, an unusually strong and humanizing role for an Asian American male at the time, notes Rhee.

The actor recalls that a Hollywood casting director once told him that his eyes were too small for the camera to pick up his emotions. That’s when he realized that, if he wanted to play strong Asian male characters, he needed to create them, and also often wear producer and director hats to make sure those movies got made. After producing, co-starring and doing fight choreography for the 1988 film Silent Assassins, Rhee was approached by Sony Pictures, which had lost in a bidding war over that movie. Sony wanted to collaborate on his next project, which would become Best of the Best.

After the film’s strong showing, Rhee became a sought-after martial arts instructor by many high-profile clients, including former President Ronald Reagan’s son Ron Reagan, Jr., Sylvester Stallone’s son Sage, and actors Josh Brolin and Heather Graham.

“I knew the movie was a hit when I was in Germany’s Frankfurt Airport, and all the security guards looked at me and said ‘Tommy Lee’ with a heavy German accent,” says Rhee, laughing.

His acting and moviemaking career seemed poised to take off. He was in talks to star in a big-budget film to be produced by Oliver Stone and directed by John Woo, and meanwhile, Best of the Best sequels were released in 1992, 1995 and 1998. By the late 1990s, he was also offered a $9 million deal to co-produce three films with Village

Roadshow Pictures, a major producer and financier of Hollywood films. Unfortunately, the Oliver Stone project got mired in what Rhee now calls “development hell,” and the Village Roadshow deal never materialized.

Rhee took a break from Hollywood in the early 2000s, focusing on raising his newborn son with wife Amy Rhee. When he returned to the entertainment industry in 2008, it was in a much different role; he started a Korea-based 3D film conversion company with Jim Miller, a then-Warner Bros. executive. After struggling in the early years, the company, now called Dnext Media, has been able to work on such projects as converting major films like Titanic and Transformers 3.

But Rhee was itching to return to his moviemaking roots. So, three years ago, during lunch with a writer friend, Fabienne Wen, he told her about an idea he had: the plot that would become Underdog Kid.

“I was telling her the story of the kids, and she started crying and said, ‘Phillip, this is a wonderful story and we need to make this movie and don’t worry about financing because I’ll find the money!’” Rhee says.

Wen kept her promise and became the film’s co-producer. Despite the independent film’s limited budget, Rhee found that many Hollywood veterans, including actor Beau Bridges, were happy to join the project because, he says, they “loved the story.”

Underdog BeachA scene from Underdog Kids, in which a washed-up mixed martial arts athlete (played by Rhee) coaches a young, down-on-its-luck inner-city karate team.

Rhee is equally proud of the young members of his multiracial cast, which includes Ryan Potter of Big Hero 6 fame, Disney Channel Shake It Up! star Adam Irigoyen and 11-time martial arts world champion Rayna Vallandingham, who makes her film debut. The director’s 15-year-old son, Sean, also appears in the film.

The only young female actor and taekwondo athlete on set, Vallandingham, 12, tells KoreAm that when she first heard about a casting call for a Phillip Rhee film, she knew she had to be in it. Though born in 2003, some 14 years after the first Best of the Best was made, she is a huge fan of the film series and considers Rhee a martial arts role model. Now, she also sees him as a mentor.

“He told me that taekwondo saved his life because he was a young immigrant in San Francisco with gangs telling him to join them, but instead he chose the path of a warrior, even though it was a difficult one,” says Vallandingham.

“He has always been the underdog,” the seventh-grader adds. “It made him the man he is today.”

That underdog filmmaker and actor shared some good news for Best of the Best fans. Rhee is working on a reboot of the entire series featuring new characters, and hopes to start production next year. Will such films with an oldschool message, sans dazzling CG effects, find a receptive audience today? Hey, it could happen.


This article was published in the August/September 2015 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/September issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days.)

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Dr. Esther Oh on the Hazards of Marijuana http://iamkoream.com/dr-esther-oh-on-the-hazards-of-marijuana/ http://iamkoream.com/dr-esther-oh-on-the-hazards-of-marijuana/#comments Sat, 29 Aug 2015 02:34:12 +0000 http://iamkoream.com/?p=83314 by DR. ESTHER OH

Recently, a 15-year-old male patient told me about his occasional habit of smoking marijuana with his friends. “Everyone uses it at my school. It’s not a big deal,” he said, shrugging. As a psychiatrist who treats children and adolescents, I’ve noticed that my patient is among an increasing number of youth using marijuana recreationally without thinking twice about its potentially harmful effects.

Marijuana is the most common drug used by teens in the U.S.: In 2014, 11.7 percent of eighth-graders, 27.3 percent of 10th graders and 35.1 percent of high school seniors reported using marijuana (Source: Monitoring the Future
2014). And as the culture around the drug shifts, spurred in part by its legalization for recreational use in Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Alaska as well as the District of Columbia, fewer youths believe weed, like any other drug, poses dangers.

Yet, recreational marijuana use can be especially harmful for adolescents, whose brains are not as fully developed as adults’. Smoking weed has been associated with various physical and mental health problems, such as stress, anxiety, depression and psychosis, while research shows it can serve as a “gateway drug” for other illicit drugs (Source: The Impact of Cannabis Use During Adolescence. California Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, August 2012).

Here are some basic facts about marijuana and its long-term effects:

How does marijuana affect youths differently than adults?

Research shows that our brains continue to form into our mid-20s. Marijuana use during this critical period of brain development can disrupt and physically change brain structure, leading to difficulty retaining information. It can negatively impact attention and memory, slow down processing speeds and increase impulsivity particularly dangerous when behind the wheel of a vehicle or test-taking.

Can habitual marijuana use as a teen affect me as an adult?

Yes. Studies show that earlier and more frequent marijuana use while the brain is still developing can lead to higher rates of marijuana abuse and dependence as an adult—or even psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression and psychosis. Frequent pot smokers can also develop chronic respiratory infection and inflammation and be at greater risk for lung cancer down the road.

Can marijuana cause emotional and behavioral problems?

Marijuana can make people hallucinate or render them temporarily paranoid, so that they hear or see things that aren’t real. Frequent use has been associated with psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia and can expedite the onset of psychosis in people genetically predisposed to the condition. (Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse). A 16-year-old star athlete and student I once treated had been using weed for several months when she became paranoid people were trying to hurt her. She had panic attacks and was hyper-vigilant wherever she went. I recommended she undergo treatment at a drug rehabilitation facility. She’s since quit smoking and no longer exhibits those symptoms.

Aren’t there benefits to using marijuana for medicinal purposes?

Yes. There is some evidence that cannabis helps mitigate pain for such conditions as nausea during chemotherapy, glaucoma and chronic pain. As of present day, there have been no conclusive studies proving marijuana is a viable, long-term form of medical therapy.

What are the side effects if I abruptly kick my marijuana habit?

As with any other substance, marijuana can be addictive. Withdrawal symptoms (especially with longer and more frequent use) can include disruption of sleep, anxiety/nervousness, excessive sweating, restlessness, irritability, body aches, nausea and cravings for the drug. I’ve known patients to head to the ER thinking they had a medical condition, when they were just experiencing marijuana withdrawal.

Can the casual joint here and there really do me much harm?

It depends. Marijuana is as habit-forming as any drug and has a stronger effect on some people more than others. Despite its widespread use, there is much that is still not known about its long-term effects on our bodies and minds. Although the short-term benefits of medical marijuana are promising for specific physical conditions in adults, there can be short- and long-term psychiatric consequences of recreational use we should all keep in mind.

For more information on marijuana and its effects, visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse website marijuana.

Dr. Esther Oh, a psychiatrist at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, writes a regular mental health column for KoreAm. If you have questions, please email her atdr.oh@iamkoream.com. All correspondence will be strictly confidential and only accessed by Dr. Oh. Opinions expressed here represent those solely of the author.


This article was published in the August/September 2015 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/September issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days.)


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The Immigrant Novel, 2.1: The Unforgiven Generation http://iamkoream.com/the-immigrant-novel-2-1-the-unforgiven-generation/ http://iamkoream.com/the-immigrant-novel-2-1-the-unforgiven-generation/#comments Sat, 29 Aug 2015 02:31:42 +0000 http://iamkoream.com/?p=83272 In her review of Sung J. Woo’s Love Love, Euny Hong describes the book as both “a dirge and a paean to the second-generation Korean American.”


Sung J. Woo’s elegant second novel, Love Love, was excruciating to read—and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. It asks the question: Why can’t second-generation immigrant children—in this case, Korean Americans—be happy? The grim answer: because living in a bright shiny new country does not erase the misery of previous generations. As a character in Woo’s book expresses, “Anger was more than just an emotion. It was also an unfortunate heirloom, a darkness passed down from parent to child.”

Koreans have a word for their culturally specific, genetic predisposition to misery—han. Many readers of Korean descent will find it hard to face the emotional truths Woo, a Korean American writer who lives in New Jersey (and also pens a column for this magazine), exposes in Love Love, which reads as both a dirge and a paean to the second-generation Korean American.

Love Love (release date Sept. 15, 2015, from Soft Skull/Counterpoint Press) is a joy to read, as it represents a sort of 2.0 release of the Korean American Immigrant Novel; in other words, it’s a chronicle of what happened to my generation after the glory days of academic accolades and model minority-dom became a distant memory. Ours is the generation familiar with a racist America until it became a “post-racial” America—with the unexplained absence of anything in between. When was that cross-over period of non-racial America? Did we blink and miss it? And if we are this confused, imagine how our parents must feel.

Woo, whose 2009 debut novel, Everything Asian, was a Korean American immigrant tale that was somewhat autobiographical, has accomplished something very significant with his latest work. In the tradition of such American classics as John Steinbeck’s East of Eden or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Love Love explores the impossibility of breaking free from patterns and the hopeless fallacy that, as our parents’ offspring, we will be able to start life with a clean slate. History gets in the way. Family gets in the way. And yes, race gets in the way.

At the onset of the novel, protagonist Kevin Lee has long since learned that his father is a scoundrel who can barely speak English after a lifetime living in the U.S. He is a mediocrity of a man who was so far surpassed by his wife both intellectually and morally that he couldn’t function as a decent human being, going so far as to having an affair with his wife’s best friend while his spouse was dying of cancer. Kevin, meanwhile, is a former tennis pro who is reduced to giving lessons to the rich and their hapless, often untalented children at a country club. He listlessly serves tennis balls “to nothingness.” He’s basically staring into an abyss and waiting for it to stare back at him.

Peter’s younger sister Judy, his counterpoint in the book, is a hard-drinking, depressive one-time aspiring artist who can hardly hold down an office temp job. She agonizes in the grocery aisle over whether it’s worth paying 20 cents extra for a name-brand can of black beans.

As Love Love opens, an already disillusioned Kevin learns something even more disillusioning: The man whom he’s called “father” his entire life is not his biological father, something Kevin discovers when he reluctantly gets tested to see if he is a viable liver donor for the cancer-stricken man.

Even in the wake of this shocking news, Kevin’s overachieving rearing takes over his conscience: “My father, not my biological,’ Kevin thought. ‘I almost failed biology in high school. Maybe if I had done better, this wouldn’t have happened. Maybe if…’” [p. 19, italics in original].

And that’s not all. Kevin’s mother isn’t related by blood, either. In fact, he was adopted as an infant. When he does eventually meet his biological father, he’s told something no one would want to hear: “I was a porn actor, and so was your mother. That’s how we met, and that’s how you came to be.”

These startling events draw into focus the book’s central question: What degree of closure is needed for a person to feel whole?

Once the Ivy League days are past, the Tiger Parent grip is released and reaction to the boring old wails about their parents’ frigging sacrifices stop, alpha Korean Americans must face their fates without anyone to blame. And that’s what Love Love does such a spot-on job capturing.

Euny Hong is the author of The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World through Pop Culture (Picador 2014) and the novel Kept: A Comedy of Sex and Manners (Simon & Schuster 2006). Follow her on Twitter @euny.


This article was published in the August/September 2015 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/September issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days.)

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Over the Moon with Dana Tai Soon Burgess http://iamkoream.com/over-the-moon-with-dana-tai-soon-burgess/ http://iamkoream.com/over-the-moon-with-dana-tai-soon-burgess/#comments Sat, 29 Aug 2015 02:26:21 +0000 http://iamkoream.com/?p=83279 In his new work, “We Chose to go to the Moon,” the acclaimed choreographer explores our relationship to the cosmos.


Above photo by MARY NOBLE OURS

As 2013 was drawing to a close for dancer and choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess, trips back to his parents’ home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, had become more frequent. His 89-year-old father was ill, and the Washington, D.C.-based artist wished to spend as much time with him as possible.

It was during one of these plane rides to the heart of the Southwest that Burgess happened to be seated besides

Barbara Zelon, the communications manager for the Orion Spacecraft at NASA.

“I’m sitting on the plane and had this stuffed Elroy from The Jetsons [the animated 1960s sitcom set in a futuristic wonderland] next to my seat and was taking pictures of it for Facebook and what not,” Burgess recalls to KoreAm, speaking by phone from his home in D.C. “The next thing I know, a woman shows up [to take her seat] and gives me NASA patches because she notices the Elroy doll.”

Zelon and Burgess began talking about their respective careers—hers in the space exploration field and his in modern dance and choreography. Zelon had also enrolled her daughter in dance classes and the pair found they had a lot in common. “We started talking about what NASA does, and I thought she was a great spokesperson for the organization,” he says.

Their conversation was still fresh in his mind when the artist later found himself sitting on his parents’ porch in

Santa Fe, gazing up at the stars, mulling over their beauty and contemplating the space pioneers from his father’s generation. The questions and concepts of the heavens and space occupied Burgess’ mind, and he found inspiration for his next project: a work about people’s relationship to space, the mystery of the cosmos and the fragility of life.

The choreographer contacted Zelon about his idea for the project—an artistic expression of humankind’s relationship to space, conveyed through individual stories—and a collaboration was born.

“She totally understood it because so much of what NASA is trying to do is disperse available information about the theories and concepts discovered about space,” Burgess says. “[NASA] is always interested in disseminating information through traditional ways and non-traditional methods such as art.”

“We Choose to go to the Moon,” the choreographer’s latest work, will make its world premiere Sept. 19 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in D.C. Its title is a reference to President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech to the nation about the space race. The work, which will travel around to NASA sites following its debut, is dedicated to Burgess’ late father, Joseph James Burgess, Jr., a visual artist who passed away on Nov. 1, 2014, at age 90, as well as his generation of fellow Americans who witnessed the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.

MoonFrom left to right: Dancers Kelly Southall, Alvaro Palau and Sarah Halzack in “We Choose to go to the Moon.” Photo by Jeff Watts.

“It’s very much an ode to [my father] and that generation; it’s nostalgic of that time period when we went up to the moon,” says Burgess, who, as well as being a mix of Scottish, Irish, German and English, is half-Korean. His mother, Anna Kang Burgess, is the granddaughter of Chin Hyung Chai and Man Soo Kang, who were among the first group of Korean immigrants to come to America in the early 1900s to work as plantation workers in Hawaii.

Throughout his professional dance career, the 47-year-old Burgess has explored the theme of cultural identity and the multifaceted American cultural landscape via the company he established in 1992—Moving Forward: Contemporary Asian American Dance Company, which later became the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company. His objective has been to relay larger concepts on an individual level in order to create empathetic dialogue. His 2003 work, “Tracing,” explored Korean immigration through the personal perspectives of his family’s journey to America. In Burgess’ mind, learning individual perspectives is key to understanding larger themes.

Burgess, a professor at The George Washington University and chair of its department of Theatre and Dance, received his bachelor’s degree in dance at the University of New Mexico and an MFA from George Washington

University. He has been honored by the Smithsonian Institution and recognized for his contributions to the Korean

American community, and serves as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department, traveling to various parts of the world to educate different countries about dance.

Although he officially retired from dancing in 2006 due to back complications, the choreographer is still putting his imprint on the dance world. “I feel blessed to be able to teach because it allows me to constantly be helping a new generation of dancers and choreographers,” he says.

“We Choose to go to the Moon” marks another step in Burgess’s illustrious career, though, due to its scope, was a daunting undertaking, he says. He started by interviewing past and present NASA employees, including a former naval aviator and former NASA astronaut; a senior technologist in high-energy astrophysics; a physicist working in gamma-ray astronomy; and a medicine woman from Santa Fe whose father was an electrician for the Apollo missions.

On a visual level, the work incorporates images by NASA, while the dancers—blending modern, ballet and some martial arts into their repertoire—don 1960s-inspired costumes. Additionally, the program interweaves sound bites from Kennedy’s speech and parts of the choreographer’s interviews with NASA employees with such ’60s pop songs as “Stairway to Heaven,” “Stardust” and “Fly Me to the Moon.”

“I didn’t want this to be a sort of college lecture,” Burgess says. “We need something on a human level that we can access because these stories and folks are the ones that we’re all fascinated by.

“On a personal level, it’s been a complete education and a sort of epiphany about how important creativity is,” the artists adds. “What we do as artists is applicable to all fields.”

Including space.


This article was published in the August/September 2015 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/September issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days.)


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