Korean immigration to the US marks 120 years — and it started with Hawaii

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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – This year marks 120 years since the first Koreans arrived in Hawaii, laying the foundation for Korea’s historic relationship with the islands and the United States.

Their journey began in the port city of Incheon on the northwestern coast of South Korea.

In December 1902, more than 100 Korean men, women and children boarded the RMS Gaelic bound for Hawaii, where they would work on the pineapple and sugar plantations.

That first group sparked a wave of migration memorialized in the Museum of Korea Emigration History, near the pier where their story began.

On Jan. 13, 1903, 102 Koreans arrived in Honolulu — nearly 50 women and children, multiple generations who sought opportunity and escape from poverty and instability in Korea.

The majority — 86 of them — were from Incheon.

“Incheon was the hub of the Korean Peninsula, compared to the other cities in Korea, Incheon people were not fearful about something new and they have more curiosity about something new,” said Sang Yul Kim, director and curator of the Museum of Korea Emigration History, through an interpreter.

But it wasn’t easy to recruit farm workers.

Kim says Hawaii plantation owners asked Christian missionaries to find workers, which is why more than half of the 102 were members of the Naeri Methodist Church in Incheon.

The museum displays recruitment posters, passports and photos telling the stories of these trail-blazers.

In less than three years, more than 7,400 Koreans followed that first group. Their names are etched on a wall in the museum — the majority single men who came as laborers, students, and political refugees.

About 800 women were recruited as picture brides to marry the single men.

Unlike Chinese and Japanese plantation workers, Koreans were not locked into long-term contracts. Many left plantation life to open businesses or return to Korea.

What they earned they sent back home as investment for economic development and educational institutions like Inha University.

“The contribution from the expats in other countries was the must. Without the expats’ willingness and efforts and all the contributions to korea, the korea of today will not happen,” Kim said.

From 1910 til 1945, Korea was ruled by Japan, and the Koreans in Hawaii helped finance the country’s independence movement.

“They collected the money and send them to the homeland and with the nostalgia for the homeland and with the patriotism in their mind, they started the very meaningful history of the Korean immigrants in the U.S.,” said Incheon Mayor Yoo Jeong-bok, through an interpreter.

A history that’s also the backbone of Incheon’s 20-year sister relationship with Honolulu, Jeong-bok said.

“Incheon has become the capital for the all the Koreans living in other countries and also Incheon has become the hub for their activities, and also Incheon has become the very center stage for their future,” he said.

The Korean diaspora continues to grow — with 7.5 million people across 193 countries — an ongoing journey that started with that first group in Honolulu in 1903.

Among the diaspora is Honolulu-based independent filmmaker Jinyoung Won.

She directed a documentary series “Words of Wisdom from the Rainbow State,” which shares the inspiring stories of Korean immigrants in Hawaii, their sacrifices and contributions to their homeland and adopted country. To watch the series for free, visit theRainbowWords.com.

Won’s musical documentary “Songs of Love” about Korean American immigrants in Hawaii premieres at the Hawaii International Film Festival on Oct. 19 at 5:30 p.m. at the Consolidated Theatres in Kahala.

For tickets, visit hiff.org/events/songsoflove.

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