‘Prison destroys every human dignity’: Free Chol Soo Lee and the miscarriage of justice that united Asian-Americans

·5 min read

On 7 June 1973, a 20-year-old man named Chol Soo Lee was arrested for a gang-related murder in Chinatown, San Francisco. Lee was – as he put it in his memoir – a “young street punk” working odd jobs across the city. He was the only Korean in his community: playful and charismatic, testifies a friend.

Lee was arrested and imprisoned, but within Chinatown he was widely believed to be innocent. By the time he was retried and released, 10 years later, Lee had become an international symbol, bringing together an unprecedented coalition of pan-Asian-American activists to campaign for his freedom. He was interviewed on television. Supporters wrote him letters. A record called The Ballad of Chol Soo Lee was released to raise money for his defence fund. Why were so many strangers from around the world so invested in his life?

“This was a landmark Asian-American social justice movement,” says Julie Ha, co-director of a documentary about Lee’s life and the movement to free him. “It has an almost mythical quality to it”: the battle for one man’s life spurring the burgeoning political consciousness of a generation. And yet, as with so many other stories in Asian-American history, the public soon forgot. Ha and her co-director, Eugene Yi, decided “we could not allow a story this important to be buried in history”.

Free Chol Soo Lee combines archive footage and present-day interviews, as well as readings from Lee’s memoir, to tell the story of the movement and its personalities. The Chinatown case soon came to the attention of KW Lee, a trailblazing Korean-American journalist; his reporting caught the attention of students at University of California, Berkeley, including future San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi, who would go on to be a leading attorney advocating for criminal justice reform. They met a group of lawyers and activists mobilising for the cause. Older first-generation immigrants heard of the case in local Korean churches.

By the late 70s, the Chol Soo Lee defence committee was formed. The collective solidarity was both conventional – hundreds would show up to Lee’s court trials with supportive posters – and overambitious: student-led fundraising dances offering “four hours of rock and disco” lost more money than they raised.

Ha and Yi first met as journalists at KoreAm, a Korean-American magazine based in Los Angeles. When the print magazine shut down in 2015, Yi started thinking about making a film that would “keep presenting these three-dimensional stories of Korean-American life and Asian-American life”. He put the idea to Ha, who thought of her time attending Lee’s funeral in 2014 as a reporter. The “depth and compassion was very moving,” she remembers: “People who had helped him during the Free Chol Soo Lee movement talked about how he did more for them than they did for him.”

Lee’s story is a distinctly American one. He was born in Seoul in 1952 during the Korean war, the son of a Korean mother and an American soldier. Initially raised by his grandparents in Korea, he was brought to the US by his mother 12 years later. There, Lee would come up, time and again, against the country’s policing and prison system and its attendant racial injustices. As a teenager, he struggled in school and was placed in juvenile detention, then later foster homes, as well as being briefly held in a psychiatric hospital. When he was arrested after the Chinatown shooting in 1973, Lee was often referred to as Chinese; the only witnesses who testified at his first trial were three white out-of-town visitors. After his release, he spoke passionately against the horrors of incarceration. “Prison,” he says in one clip, “destroys every human dignity in a person. It destroys your spirit and destroys your mind.”

Free Chol Soo Lee paints a portrait of California in the 70s, full of radical college students, but its themes feel pertinent today. “The violence that Asian-Americans have faced lately has been in the news so much,” Yi says (anti-Asian hate crimes have risen around the world since the start of the pandemic). He sees the film as a way to “present these images of resistance to inspire people”, as well as open up conversations on criminal justice reform within the community. Lee’s story challenges the “model minority” myth often associated with Asian-Americans: he struggled with institutionalisation and addiction, and after his release, was open about the difficulties of adjusting to life after prison and with his fame. For Yi, the story “presents this opportunity to ask what we expect of our heroes and our symbols, and the kind of perfection we expect”.

During the six-year making of the film, Ha was diagnosed with breast cancer, which, she says, changed her thinking on suffering, trauma and mortality. She thought back to the funeral in 2014, and the unresolved pain in the room: “I felt his spirit not at peace.” Perhaps making the film might deliver some sense of release.

Yi became a father, which sharpened his desire to root the Korean and Asian-American experience in a broader community and history. For him, “this film is a dialogue between generations. As Asian-Americans, because of our immigration history, because of language barriers, and because our history isn’t taught, we don’t have that sense of dialogue between generations.” That his daughter might “be able to see herself as part of a continuum has become so important to me, because that is something I lacked”: he hopes the film will help her feel that “she is in dialogue with her ancestors, the people who came before her and that there is a sense of rootedness for her and a sense of place.”

It is not just younger generations who see the film as a sort of spiritual homecoming. KW Lee, now 94, struggled with the fact that he outlived Chol Soo Lee, who became a close friend; Chol Soo once said he owed KW not just his life, but so much more. Ha was trepidatious about showing KW the final film. Happily, KW called it a “home run”. “At last,” he said, “Chol Soo Lee is finally free.”

• Free Chol Soo Lee is in US cinemas from 12 August and in UK cinemas from 19 August.

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