As California becomes a Pacific Rim state with an increasingly large Asian population, the opinions and concerns of Chinese and Korean communities become even more important in the national debate over war in Iraq. In Chinatowns and Koreatowns, write PNS editor Pueng Vongs and contributor Terry Lee, support for the war is tempered by worries over the economy and concern over whether Washington will turn its sites next on North Korea.
On a recent Sunday in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a crowd of several hundred Chinese gathered under the shadow of the landmark Transamerica Pyramid building to voice their opposition to Iraq war. This was the first antiwar protest in Chinatown, a community that is typically silent in the national debate.
Fear that the war will worsen the economy prompted many low-income immigrant workers to join the protest that day, most of them demonstrating for the first time, according to Leon Chow of the Chinese Progressive Association, which organized the rally.
Unlike Chinese born here, “Chinese immigrants don’t have much experience at these types of protests,” says Chow. The crowd slowly marched through crowded Chinatown streets denouncing war in English and Cantonese while passing shops that were forced to close because of declining business and tourism after Sept. 11.
Business is bad and Ma Xiao Rong, originally from Guangdong province, says that she and her co-workers in a garment factory worry if it gets any worse they will lose their jobs. “It will be like adding frost to the snow,” says Ma, 35, using a Chinese proverb.
There are 2.7 million Chinese in the United States, 980,000 of them in California. Many U.S.-born Chinese also oppose the war, but for different reasons, according to David Lee of the Chinese American Voter Education Committee.
Nelson Tam, a senior history major at the University of California Berkeley, says he is afraid of a protracted war, which would result in a large numbers of casualties on both sides. Yet Tam and his Chinese American classmates have stayed away from mass demonstrations on campus partly because they feel out of place. “The demonstrations are disproportionately white, and sometimes I feel like this is not my cause,” he says.
Ellis Au, a junior at San Francisco State University says he is not sure why Chinese American student groups have been noticeably absent from campus antiwar protests. But while he does not agree with the war, he says if necessary he would fight to defend the freedoms of the United States.
Koreans and Korean Americans are less visible in anti-war protests than even members of the Chinese community, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worried.
Is North Korea Washington’s next target? Seung-Kuae Lim, chief editor of Korea Times of San Francisco, says this is what most Korean Americans are asking as the United States invades Iraq.
“If the United States launches an attack against North Korea after the war with Iraq then North Korea might retaliate against South Korea, where U.S. forces are present,” says Lim.
“We have to understand that Kim Jung-il, the leader of North Korea, will become desperate to maintain his regime, and he will not hesitate to turn the gun against his own race, the south.”
There are 1.2 million Koreans in the United States. Some 345,000 live in California. Lim says those who fled North Korea’s communist regime in 1950s are especially concerned. Large numbers of elderly Korean Americans in California were born in North Korea and reluctantly left their homeland over ideological differences with the communist regime. These members of the North Korean diaspora still have family members there, and fear that another war would mean the unbearable tragedy repeating itself.
Lim, who is in his mid-50s, says, “On a personal level, I agree and support President Bush on the need to disarm Saddam Hussein, but I do not think war is the answer.”
Many young Korean Americans show even less tolerance for the war. Andy Nam, 32, a San Francisco attorney, calls it plainly “a bad idea.”
“Look at the war logistics,” he says. “The military’s first and main task is to secure the oil fields, and that really shows what the real war is about.”
Nam also worries North Korea may be the next target, which he believes will lead to even more “bashing of Korean Americans, such as vandalism, which is already happening.” Nam, a naturalized citizen raised and educated in the United States, is looking ahead and fears Korean Americans’ loyalty will be questioned.
“I do not think there will be another internment camp as in World War II, but Korean American civil rights will be violated, such as mandatory fingerprinting, government supervision and racial profiling.”
Pacific News Service, News Feature, Pueng Vongs And Terry Lee Posted: Mar 25, 2003
Vongs (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an editor of New California Media, an association of California’s ethnic and in-language news media and a project of PNS. Lee monitors the Korean press for Pacific News Service.