Korean Immigration in America
by Choi Zihn
(introduction excerpt from EARLY KOREAN IMMIGRANTS TO AMERICA)
At the beginning of the 20th century, Korean laborers journeyed to the Hawaiian Islands in search of work on sugar cane farms. January 2003 marks the centennial anniversary of the first voyage, and it is fitting to recall the contribution those immigrants made to the Republic of Korea.
The Hawaiian planters welcomed Korean laborers, who were not only cooperative but were willing to be strike breakers against the Chinese and Japanese who wanted better work conditions and wages. Earlier, owners had depended mainly on Chinese and Japanese immigrants, but by 1902 the workers’ demands had increased to the point that it was difficult to manage them. The alternative was to hire more Koreans.
In November 1902, Hawaii’s sugar planters delegated David W. Deshler, an American living in Inchon at the time, to recruit more laborers. Meanwhile, in response to a recommendation made by the U.S. envoy in Korea, Horace N. Allen, the Korean government also established an emigration agency. Headed by Min Young-whan, the agency, People’s Comfort Agency (Suminwon), opened on November 16, 1902 to handle the issue of passports and emigration papers. And on December 22, 1902, Min Young-whan and others gathered at the Port of Inchon to bid farewell to the first ship bound for Hawaii. Of the 121 contract workers, 24 were refused entry because they failed the physical examination. On January 13, 1903, a total of 97 people finally reached Honolulu, Hawaii, holding the first English- language passports issued by the Korean Empire.1) Between January 1903 and April 1905, 65 different ships carrying a total of 7,026 Korean passengers, including 755 women, arrived in Honolulu.
Japan then, stopped emigration fearing that Korean dissidents would be able to gather more easily overseas. The workers lived in group camps segregated by ethnicity; Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Japanese and Korean. They would rise at 4:30 a.m. for a quick breakfast, meet at 5:15 and march to the fields to begin work by 6:00. After a thirty-minute lunch break, they would work until four. They were paid 15 dollars a month, half the average daily wage for workers in America. Although wages were later raised to 18 dollars a month, the workers imagined that much greater opportunities awaited them on the U.S. mainland. Between 1905 and 1907, 1,003 plantation workers fled to California to work in the rice fields, and by 1916, 1,136 Koreans had moved to the mainland.
Since 90 percent of the Korean immigrants were males, gender imbalance became a serious issue. Lonely bachelors resorted to the “picture-bride” match-making system, so named because photos of eligible Korean ladies were circulated and matches arranged. The Korean brides-to-be would then set sail to America to meet their husbands. From 1910 to 1924, an estimated 600 to 1,000 picture brides arrived in Hawaii with Japanese passports. Despite some disappointment and personal horror stories, virtually all of the couples married and settled down. Gradually monthly incomes rose to 26 dollars, they saved every penny they could, and by 1922, dozens were running businesses of their own.
The Necessity of Hawaii Korean Cultural Center
Despite Hawaii being a very important place of Korean immigration history, there is no Korean Cultural Center in Hawaii yet. However, we believe that the Hawaii Korean Cultural Center carries an important meaning not only for Koreans in Hawaii, but for all Korean residents in America.
Other nationalities in Hawaii have their own cultural centers. For example, the Chinese community have a cultural center in Chinatown, Honolulu. Filipinos have the Filcom located in Waipahu, Hawaii. The Japanese community have 2 cultural centers in Hawaii: the Hawaii Okinawa Center and the Japanese cultural Center.
A Hawaii Korean Cultural Center is a long-cherished wish of Koreans in Hawaii.
Goal and Plan of HKCC
The United Korean Association of Hawaii and other Korean associations have discussed about the Hawaii Korean Cultural Center several times. When the 100th anniversary of Korean immigrants to America was held, HKCC was organized to begin plans for the Korean Cultural Center. HKCC suggests goals and plans for the center as the following:
1. Promoting and assisting education of language and culture for the future generations
2. Promoting and assisting education for 1st generation immigrants
3. Creating one location for professional services (i.e. doctor, lawyer, CPA agent, etc.)
4. Place of Cultural events and assembl for the Korean community in Hawaii
5. Place of public information for Koreans about living in an American society.
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