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Sepa Napoleon looks ahead
Vol. 5, No. 6
December 2002/January 2003


A Korean Century 


by Naomi Long

Images from Century of the Tiger
University of Hawaii Press 2003

On January 13, 1903, the transpacific steamer SS Gaelic pulled into Honolulu Harbor, carrying the first major wave of Korean emigrants to arrive in American territory—102 workers bound for the Islands’ sugar plantations. The majority who had made the three-week trip from Inch’on were unmarried men: soldiers, government clerks, students, farmers and a few Buddhist monks. With the late Yi Dynasty in decline, they had fled famine, disease and increasing oppression by Japan. Packed together inside the ship, they left behind family, friends and homeland in search of a better life in America.

The year before, King Kojong of Korea had granted his subjects the freedom to work abroad, and the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association had quickly set about recruiting Korean plantation workers—both to reduce labor shortages and to discourage strikes by Japanese workers, who demanded higher wages. Between 1903 and 1905—when exclusionary laws began to restrict Asian immigration—more than 7,000 Korean workers arrived in Hawaii, motivated by dreams of prosperity and adventure. After the laws took effect, the Islands’ Korean population remained virtually the same size for almost fifty years, even with the influx of more than a thousand picture brides. On the plantations, Koreans were known as hard workers, but they were paid poorly. The Honolulu Evening Bulletin reported soon after the first workers arrived that they worked "ten hours from dawn to sunset for sixty-nine cents a day." Adding to these hardships was the struggle to adapt in the face of cultural and linguistic barriers. In response, early Korean immigrants formed organizations that are still in existence today, such as the Korean National Association and Christ United Methodist Church, which have been instrumental in educating subsequent generations in Korean history, culture and language.


Following Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, Koreans world-wide rallied for freedom. On March 1, 1919, two days before the funeral of former King Kojong, Korea was proclaimed an independent nation. An important figure in the independence movement was Syngman Rhee, who came to the U.S. in 1905, later completing degrees at Harvard and Princeton. As a base for his political activism, Rhee established a church in Hawaii, where he served as pastor. After Japan capitulated to the U.S. to end the Pacific War and Korea separated into two states, Rhee became the first president of the Republic of Korea, but grew increasingly despotic until student protests brought down his regime in 1960.The Korean War (1950-1953) prompted a second wave of immigration, consisting mainly of Korean women married to American servicemen. According to a recent estimate, one in four Korean Americans can trace their family history back to a Korean War bride. After the war, hundreds of orphans were adopted into American families. Later, the immigration reform act of 1965 opened the way for the third and largest wave of Koreans, mainly relatives of people already living in America.


Today, nearly two million people of Korean ancestry reside in the U.S., including an estimated 41,350 in Hawaii. The local Korean community has produced many prominent citizens, including dance master Halla Pai Huhn (1922-1994), who promoted Korean dance in Hawaii; swimmer Sammy Lee, the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal, whose parents worked on a plantation; writers Gary Pak and Nora Okja Keller; and Ronald T.Y. Moon, the current Chief Justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court.

Throughout 2003, the Korean American community will be celebrating a century of Korean immigration in Hawaii and nationwide. Commemorations include a Bishop Museum exhibit, a documentary film and a full-color book of Korean art and literature, Century of the Tiger, as well as a Korean Centennial Festival in Kapiolani Park on Jan. 18. (For more information on centennial events, visit koreancentennial.org)

Until now, Korean American history has remained largely an untold story, but the events of the coming year will help to highlight a century of achievements by Americans of Korean ancestry. From the early, freedom-seeking pioneers through the men who serviced in the U.S. Armed Forces during both World Wars and the Korean War to the community leaders of today, 2003 will honor Korean contributions to America, the country novelist Younghill Kang calls the land of "tall dreams."




Korean Centennial Festival
Kapiolani Bandstand, Honolulu
Saturday, Jan. 18; 9 a.m. - 9 p.m.