Free Chol Soo Lee – An American Tragedy and the Resurgence of the Asian American Movement
by Frako Loden. Posted August 3, 2022
Wah Ching. Joe Fong Boys. Reading the names of these Chinatown gangs in the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1970s, when they were shooting each other in the streets, I simplistically associated them with the “hatchet men” and “tong wars” of the 19th century and avoided the Golden Dragon restaurant, where a “massacre” took place. Even being part-Asian, my attitude was more “Forget it, Jake.” Chinatown, as the movie with that quote implied, was too violent and mysterious to understand.
So, when I first heard of Chol Soo Lee and his upcoming trial for murder, I figured even if he wasn’t the actual killer, he was a gang member and implicated in crime. Like others who swallow the conclusions of mainstream media, I didn’t know his story and didn’t really care.
Free Chol Soo Lee opens theatrically through Mubi at New York’s IFC Center on August 12, San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on August 19, and Los Angeles’s Laemmle Royal on August 26. Poster courtesy of Mubi.
That’s what makes the new documentary Free Chol Soo Lee such a revelation even for someone who now teaches Asian American Studies at two colleges and considers herself reasonably educated in Asian immigrant stories. When I dismissed Chol Soo Lee back then, I knew nothing about him and his ultimate importance to so many things: anti-Asian racism, the API community and the wretched California criminal justice system.
In the early evening of June 3, 1973, a young Chinese American was “gunned down execution style in front of hundreds of terrified witnesses” (to quote local TV news) at the intersection of Pacific and Grant Avenues by someone holding a Smith & Wesson .38 special. It just happened that, two days before, a self-described “young street punk,” on probation for theft, accidentally discharged a .38 bullet from a borrowed gun into the wall of his single-room-occupancy room. San Francisco Police said it was the murder weapon.
That young street punk was Chol Soo Lee, born out of wedlock in Korea and left behind by his disinherited mother, who followed an American GI to the States. Later she returned to claim him, and at the age of 12 he found himself in America, struggling to learn English, getting in fights at school and battling an abusive mother. After kicking a principal and being charged with battery, Lee first entered the US criminal justice system as a teenager. On his own living in San Francisco, he often thought he was the only Korean in Chinatown, quiet and well-regarded by the street gangs. He was not an established member of either the warring street gangs, the Wah Ching or the Joe Fong.
Then just short of his 21st birthday, he was picked out of a lineup by three White witnesses to the killing on Pacific Avenue, which he did not commit. Even if their testimony was flimsy (including one amazing coincidence), the supposed certainty that he had fired the murder weapon sent him to state prison for life. Four years into his term, he killed a prisoner affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood in self-defense and was sentenced to Death Row, prompting Kyung Won Lee, a Korean American journalist with the Sacramento Union, to start digging into Chol Soo’s case.
SF Rally to Free Chol Soo Lee, Aug. 9, 1982. Photo courtesy of Unity Archive.
UC Berkeley students and future activists Jeff Adachi and David Kakishiba, having taken Asian American Studies classes there, read KW Lee’s articles and contacted him. Soon a pan-Asian American defense committee, made up of friends, lawyers, activists and politically active Korean churches took shape. Expanding throughout California and then globally, a movement coalesced around Chol Soo Lee and started raising funds to support a retrial. To a newly reunified community he stood as a symbol of injustice against all Asian Americans, and his gratitude, good looks and hard-luck story helped galvanize their pursuit of justice on his behalf. Renowned attorneys such as Leonard Weinglass and Tony Serra were retained along with Ranko Yamada, who had befriended Chol Soo Lee in SF Chinatown.
What happened next is an emotional rollercoaster, a series of victories and defeats that severely tested the character of Chol Soo Lee and his defenders. This genuine American tragedy, an important part of Asian American history, has been rendered into a gripping documentary, six years in the making, by first-time filmmakers Julie Ha and Eugene Yi with outstanding help from Chol Soo’s own prison memoirs and many members of his defense committee. It joins the ranks of other films about the fight against racist miscarriages of justice such as Who Killed Vincent Chin?,Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story and Free Angela and All Political Prisoners. It’s a corrective to the happily forgotten 1989 film True Believer, starring James Woods as a ponytailed Tony Serra caricature leading a White crusade to save a helpless Asian population.
Chol Soo Lee and his friend and attorney Ranko Yamada. Photo by Eddie Wong, courtesy of Unity Archive.
Chol Soo Lee with his legal team and supporters minutes after his acquittal in San Francisco. Photo by Eddie Wong, courtesy of Unity Archive.
But just as importantly, Free Chol Soo Lee gives Asian Americans a vital chapter in their history, showing how their disparate communities can come together when one of their own has been beaten down by systemic racism. It’s also a poignant story of the friendship that formed when a veteran investigative reporter saw promise, and an unluckier self, in a rudderless young street punk. The film is dedicated to the memory of former San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who was himself a filmmaker on Asian American themes and advocated for immigrants, workers and the incarcerated before his untimely death in 2019.
Jubilant Chol Soo Lee supporters celebrate his acquittal in San Francisco. Photo by Eddie Wong, courtesy of Unity Archive.
There are still plenty of true, unflinching stories about Chinatown and Sacramento’s API communities left to be told, and Chol Soo Lee’s is just one of them. The film is being released to commemorate his birthday–he would have been 70 years old this August 15, which is also Korean Independence Day.
Alert: Free Chol Soo Lee opens theatrically through Mubi at New York’s IFC Center on August 12, San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on August 19, and Los Angeles’s Laemmle Royal on August 26. A special one-night-only screening event in movie theatres nationwide will take place on August 17; for tickets to that event and more information about the film, go to https://mubi.com/freecholsoolee.
Author’s Bio: Frako Loden is adjunct lecturer in film and ethnic studies at California State University East Bay and Diablo Valley College.
Rally to free Chol Soo Lee, Stockton, CA. Photo by Eddie Wong, courtesy of Unity Archive.
Bonus Feature Video: Interview with Julie Ha, Eugene Yi, and Sebastian Yoon by Shirley Li/Atlantic Magazine.