Sung Kang has made some great memories in Koreatown. As a struggling actor in the 1990s, living on the 15th floor of an apartment building at Wilshire and Irolo, he'd throw eggs at the drunks who started loud fights as they spilled out of the club on the corner. A few years later, he met his wife in a Koreatown karaoke room when she mocked him for butchering Prince's "When Doves Cry."
"I don't sing well," Kang admits. "And I had this long hair, and she looked at me and said, 'Where do you get your hair cut? You need to get your money back because you look like the Korean Dutch boy.' "
Kang won her over, and then won over audiences with his cooler-than-cool performance as drag racer Han in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Although his character died in a fiery wreck at the end of the film, fans were so devastated that the Fast & Furious producers decided to rewind time and pretend that the next three movies took place before Han's death just so he could get more screen time.
When Fast & Furious writer Chris Morgan, the chronology-bending wizard who brought Kang's character back to life, would go drinking with the actor in his old Koreatown hangouts, he realized he'd made the right call. "People always get so excited," Morgan says.
Morgan's next project, the whiz-bang one-hour ensemble drama series Gang Related, which premieres May 22 at 9 p.m. on Fox, was the perfect excuse to hire Kang again. "The first thing when I started doing this show was I was, like, 'Listen, do you think you would ever do TV?' "
Kang plays Tae Kim, an officer assigned to an LAPD gang squad headed by Ramon Rodriguez, who plays a double agent secretly protecting his underworld family. Kang's character has yet to do any fancy driving — not that the series itself holds back. (The opening action sequence involves a police car, a semi and stickable mines.) He's also had to crop his signature, chin-length hair. "You don't want those line to blur and go, 'Oh, that's Han,' " he shrugs.
Although he comes off like a soft-spoken, tie-wearing geek, Kang's Kim is still a badass. In the pilot, he intimidates a K-town gang operating out of a mechanics shop by grabbing a searing-hot lug nut to prove he's tough. It's almost enough to make you forgive the way that, in the next scene, his female partner Tases a tagger in the nuts and threatens to go "Gangnam Style" if he doesn't talk.
More importantly, Gang Related's Koreatown scenes are actually shot in K-town, with other scenes shot everywhere from Boyle Heights to the Long Beach shipyards. Initially, Morgan and the other producers thought they'd have to save money by filming in San Francisco, but the studio decided that staying authentic was worth the cost. When they fell in love with La Descarga, the crammed Cuban speakeasy in East Hollywood, they filmed there as much as they could and then built a more spacious set to duplicate the rest.
"Because L.A. is so stretched out, the pockets of cities and cultures, it's almost like they burn on a hotter temperature," Morgan says. "It's a huge, wide canvas with a lot of colors that other cities don't have."
Gang Related isn't the worn-out, Crips-versus-Bloods battle that was dated long before Snoop Dogg cameoed in Training Day. On any given episode, you'll hear lines in Russian, Spanish or Korean, a mash-up that could have co-star RZA cracking skulls off Cesar Chavez Avenue and Kang wading into South Central.
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"Any Latino or Asian or African-American neighborhood that would have that gang element, we actually got to go to a lot of those places," Kang says. Between takes, he met kids who grew up sleeping three to a bed in a studio apartment. Still, they were proud of their neighborhood and asked him and the rest of the crew not to perpetuate negative stereotypes in the media.
Kang understands. After all, before turning to acting full-time, he and his wife exhausted themselves working 16-hour days trying to keep their Asian-fusion restaurant afloat. During breaks, they'd nap in their car. "Never made a dollar," he chuckles.
"Being in L.A. for a while, you get all the lowdown," Kang says. "Koreatown has all its dark secrets in the closet." Though he stresses that he's too old to party himself — next year, he and his wife will celebrate their 20th anniversary — he still knows all about the illegal taxi services that will not only pick you up drunk but also send a second guy to drive home your car. He knows about the karaoke bars that, after the economy took a hit, quietly began doubling as brothels. "In a way, now they're the foundation of most of the criminal activity in K-town."
If Gang Related manages to score a second season, Kang may get to make new memories in Koreatown's karaoke bars. Let's just hope he doesn't sing any Prince.