L.A. Riots: Goodbye Los Angeles, Hello Orange County

Over the years, KoreAm has documented the impact of the 1992 Los Angeles riots on ours and other communities, and urged an understanding of lessons learned. As we count down to the 20th anniversary next year, charactermedia.com will be running a riot article, image or testimonial in this space every week until April 29, 2012. Some will be taken from our pages, while others will be excavated from our own personal archives.

We welcome your submissions—first-person memories (no word limit), pictures, poems and (photographed/scanned) artifacts—for this project, too. Please email them to julie@charactermedia.com with the subject line ‘Riots Spot’. Many of us were mere children in 1992, but 19 years later, we have voices. We can speak now.

This article appeared in the April 2007 issue of KoreAm.

A Fresh Start

How the L.A. riots gave a former L.A. shopkeeper new wind in Orange County

by Ellyn Pak

Photograph by Eric Sueyoshi

By the end of the four days of violent rioting in South Los Angeles, one of Ellis Yunseong Cha’s friends had been shot in the head while trying to protect his check cashing business. A neighboring business owner’s hamburger stand was burned to the ground. Another friend’s store was also torched and destroyed.

“I never felt danger in my life,” said Cha, who owned a mattress factory and furniture store in the area since 1985. “But that was probably the first time, man, that I felt powerless.” The rioting and looting broke out April 29, 1992 — an infamous day dubbed “Sa-i-gu” by Koreans — after four Los Angeles Police Department officers were acquitted for the brutal beating of African American Rodney King. The day after, a nervous Cha returned to his factory on South Avalon Boulevard.

An angry mob was still there.

At one point, Cha went to the back of the building and peeked out to check out the commotion. More than 20 people were on top of their cars, yelling and shouting with their fists clenched.  “I got so scared. So I said, ‘Let’s go home.’”

Home was Anaheim, less than an hour south of L.A. Although his businesses were untouched, Cha decided to sell them and instead buy a liquor store in Orange, a quiet city in Orange County. He and his wife and two children relocated in November 1992.  Later, the memories of Sa-i-gu would push Cha to make changes in his new community.


Cha was not alone in his decision to leave Los Angeles. Thousands of Korean-owned businesses, estimated to be worth about $400 million, were damaged. Many shop owners attempted but failed to rebuild their shattered businesses or recover from their losses. Others, like Cha, decided to relocate to Orange County, which had existing Korean hubs and appealed to suburbia-seekers.

In 1981, there were 64 businesses along a four-mile stretch from Harbor to Beach boulevards in Garden Grove, a precursor to what is now the Korean District, home to more than 1,200 Korean-owned businesses.

By the early 1990s, thousands of Koreans had helped to expand an enclave dubbed “Little Seoul,” which boasts the second largest population outside of L.A.’s Koreatown.

The Korean population in Orange County grew to more than 55,573 in 2000, up 48 percent since the decade prior, according to the census.  In 2005, there were more than 75,000 Koreans living in the county and were mostly concentrated in the cities of Fullerton, Irvine, La Palma and Buena Park.

There are up to 3,000 Korean-owned businesses now in Orange County, though the surge has not affected a recent renaissance in L.A.’s Koreatown, said Jong Min Kang, president of the Korean American Business Association.

Kang said Orange County’s Koreatown is five times larger than it was in previous decades.

Eui-Young Yu, a sociology professor at California State University, Los Angeles (who helped found the Center for Korean American and Korean Studies), says this increase is mainly attributed to the suburbanization of communities.

“After Sa-i-gu, some people moved out from the area,” he said.  “Initially, the stores were broken into and burned down. They folded and left. But they were a small minority.”

“It’s a relocation and redistribution of population and businesses,” Yu added. “It’s a pattern of suburbanization of residential and business locations.”

Still, Cha noticed that despite suburban surroundings deemed safer than South Los Angeles, first-generation Koreans took little part in their communities, upholding misperceptions that they are aloof and only care about money.

“They are busy taking care of their businesses,” he said. “Mom and pop businesses are like that. They don’t understand American society. They don’t know about the rest of the community.”


Now 54 and residing in Fullerton, Cha has no regrets about leaving Los Angeles.  Even 15 years after the riots, he shudders thinking about the experience and shakes his head when he describes the fate of many of his friends.

The friendly Korean woman who owned the hamburger stand about a block away never rebuilt her business. When he checked a few months ago, the lot in which the stand stood for years remained vacant.  His friend Mr. Yoon, whose store was burned down, never recovered from the trauma.

“He was mentally disturbed after the riots,” Cha said. “When I talk to him, I can’t have a normal conversation with him.” The friend who was shot in the head survived but didn’t recover fully from injuries to his brain, Cha said. About four years ago, his friend walked into traffic on Olympic Boulevard in Koreatown and was fatally hit by a car.

Cha himself is a changed man because of the riots, but for the better.  He’s determined not to see the same thing happen in his new neighborhood and now feels the need to bring about change.  In 2002, during the 10-year anniversary of the riots, Cha was serving his last year as president of the Korean American Grocers Association of California. He attended meetings about the riots and participated in discussions about what could be done to forge ties between Koreans, blacks and Latinos.

The only way to change the perception of Koreans, Cha said, was to encourage people to get involved in their communities.  Since then he has encouraged business owners to get involved in their cities’ chambers of commerce and volunteer their time to public events. He makes it a point to tell first-generation Korean Americans that being politically active and voting for certain candidates is not a bad thing.

Most of the stereotypes that Koreans gained during the early 1990s —that business owners were insensitive and rude, barely spoke English and ripped off their underprivileged customers — can be slowly stripped away with civic participation, Cha said.  Now a member of a redevelopment committee in Fullerton, Cha started a nonprofit organization two years ago called YES (Youth Empowerment Scholarship) Soccer, which provides resources to underprivileged youth.

In conjunction with other community organizations and with the help of various grants, YES Soccer formed a league in the Richman Park neighborhood in Fullerton.

Cha is pictured here with co-organizers of a nonprofit for underprivileged youth.

“We don’t just sit down and talk about a soccer ball and how more children can play,” Cha said of the racially mixed organizers. “We become friends.”

He hopes to expand the program to underserved cities outside of Orange County, including the ones he was familiar with 15 years ago before the riots.