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Koreans in America in the late 1800s
Kim Young-sik, Ph.D.
8/16/2003



Photo: A 1915 Korean newly wed (Korean-American, 2003)

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[This is an excerpt from A Brief History of the US-Korea Relations Prior to 1945.]

While American evangelists, diplomats, consultants, military advisers, educators, and businessmen flocked to Korea, a tiny group of Koreans managed to go to America. They were mostly political and social reformers expelled from Korea following an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the government. They arrived in San Francisco in 1885.

Among them was Suh Jae-pil (aka Philip Jaisohn). He was the first Korean to become an American citizen and the first to receive an American medical degree in 1892. Four years later, he returned to Korea to establish the first Korean newspaper, the Independent, in 1896. It was bilingual and its Korean name was Tongnip Shinmun, whose first issue appeared on April 7, 1896.

The Koreans in America found a hostile environment. The yellow-man was not welcome to the United States and there were many laws that worked against the Asians at the time. Thus, the Alien At of 1798, the 1862 "Act to Protect Free White Labor Against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor and to Discourage the Immigration of the Chinese into the State of California", the Page Law of 1875, Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited immigration of Chinese contract laborers for ten years; subsequently renewed; prohibited naturalization. The yellow-man were forced to work menial jobs regardless of their professional qualifications. Koreans with college degrees had to work as houseboys, cooks, laundrymen, coal-miners, and so on. The total number of Koreans in the United States before the 20th century was estimated at fewer than fifty. (Randall, 1997)

On November 2, 1886, the US government officially approved Korean immigration, which was previously agreed to in the 1882 Chemulpo Treaty. On January 18, 1888, King Kojong appointed Park Jung Yang the Korean ambassador to the United States. Park succeeded Prince Min Young Ik.
The First 'Mass' Immigration of Koreans

Commercial sugar plantations in Hawaii began in about 1850. As the business expanded, the local labor force could not keep up with the rapidly increasing demand for farm workers, and the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society began to import Chinese workers in 1876. By 1886, there were more than 5,000 Chinese in Hawaii. Many of the Chinese left the plantation as soon as their contact ran out and moved to towns and cities, which the Hawaiian natives saw as threats to their way of life. Consequently, a law was passed to stop importation of Chinese workers in 1897, by which time the Chinese population had grown to about 46,000 in Hawaii. (Lee Man Yul, 2003)

The plantation owners began to import Japanese workers in 1885 and by 1902, more than 60,000 Japanese lived in Hawaii. The Japanese workers had organized numerous strikes against the farm owners, and they, too, left the farms and moved into native towns, just as the Chinese had done. It was under these circumstances that the plantation owners decided to try out Korean workers.

Hawaii became a nation in 1810 when King Kamehameha I united the islands after a bloody war. In 1898, the royal family was removed from power and a republic was established under Richard B. Dole, a plantation owner. In the same year, it became part of the United States. The Hawaiian royal court approved importation of Korea workers on November 2, 1896, and sent an invitation to King Kojong to send his subjects to the Kingdom of Hawaii, and King Kojong gracefully accepted the invitation.

Dr. Allen, the US minister to the court of King Kojong played a key role in the first 'mass' immigration of Koreans to Hawaii. Dr. Allen was on his way back to Seoul from a vacation when he ran into William G. Irwin of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association in San Francisco in February 1902. Irwin told Dr. Allen that his association was in need of foreign workers. Upon his return to Seoul, Dr. Allen pushed King Kojong to expedite the immigration process. (Lee Man Yul, 2003)

A famine hit Chosen in 1901 and the people were starving, and King Kojong saw the Hawaiian immigration as a way to help out and also to bring home Western ways of life. In 1902, King Kojong created a new government organ for immigration and placed Min Yong Ik in charge. The Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association contracted with David W. Deshler, the American owner of the East-West Development Company and the Deshler Bank in Korea, to recruit Korean laborers for Hawaii. (Lee Man Yul, 2003)
Deshler promised ten-hour workdays with Sundays off and a monthly wage of 15 dollars. His initial effort, even with King Kojong's enthusiastic backing, failed because few Koreans were willing to leave their ancestral homeland. Deshler turned to American missionaries for help and they were able to persuade some of their Korean flocks to sign up. For this reason, most of the early immigrants were Christians. The Methodist Episcopal Church in Seoul, under Rev. George Heber Jones, played the key role in recruiting Korean Christians for farm work in Hawaii. Several Korean ministers who spoke English were among the immigrants to Hawaii and they acted as interpreters and social leaders in Hawaii. (History, 2003)

On December 22, 1902, the first group of Korean emigrants, 56 men, 21 women, and 25 children, left Chemulpo (Inchon) for Hawaii aboard the SS Gaelic and arrived in Honolulu on January 13, 1903. The men were assigned to work at a plantation in Magalia on Oahu Island. The plantation owners were satisfied with the hard-working Koreans and asked for more. Consequently, by the end of 1905, when the Japanese government stopped the flow, a total of 7,843 Koreans (6,701 men, 677 women, and 465 children) had come to Hawaii in 65 trips.

The Korean immigrants stuck together and lived in self-governing Korean "villages". The men worked ten hours a day earning only 69 cents per day - the lowest wage paid to Oriental workers at the time. In a few years, many of the Korean migrants lost their initial pioneering spirit and began to rebel.

Some managed to save enough money and moved to the US mainland. Many could not stand the harsh life in Hawaii and returned home. Some began to drink heavily and some became thieves and armed robbers.

They began to fight amongst themselves. Their work productivity dropped alarmingly, and the plantation owners looked for remedies. The Koreans used to be better workers than the Chinese or the Japanese - now what happened?
It became clear that those Koreans who brought their wives and children caused few problems. It was the bachelors who caused problems and so, the plantation owners decided to import Korean women for the old bachelors - since these men were unlikely to attract women of other ethnic origin. Many women in Korea wanted to start a new life in Hawaii, and about the only way open was to marry men living in Hawaii - sight unseen.

The US Immigration gave the permission to import mail-order brides in 1910, and the first mail-order bride, Sara Choe, arrived in Honolulu on December 2, 1910. She married Lee Lae-Soo. Rev. Chan Ho-Min presided over the matrimony at the US immigration office. Lee picked Sara to be his wedded wife from a catalog of pictures of Korean women wanting to come to Hawaii. He mailed her US$200 to cover her travel expenses.
About 1,000 mail-order brides came to Hawaii and the mainland from 1910 to May 15, 1924 when the Asian Exclusion Law put an end to this form of immigration. Most of the brides were better educated than the men, but they endured and persevered, and became the foundation of the Korean community in America.

By 1910, when Korea was annexed to Japan, the Korean population in America had grown to 5,008. Under the Japanese rule, few Koreans were allowed to migrate to America, and there were only 7,030 Koreans in America in 1950, when a second wave of Korean immigrants began to arrive in America in the aftermath of the Korean War. Today, over one million Koreans live in the United States.
It should be noted that from 1910 to 1943, by and large, the US government treated Koreans as citizens of Japan. However, this changed on December 4, 1943, when US Military Order No. 45 granted Koreans in the United States non-enemy alien status. Thanks to this change, Korean-Americans were spared of life in concentration camps - unlike many of the Japanese-Americans.

Koreans and other Asians in America had limited career choices. Oddly, one of the few careers open to them was acting. The Hollywood needed Oriental actors and many Asians made a career out of working as extras and playing some minor roles. Pil Lip Ahn (Americanized as Philip Ahn) was born on March 29, 1905 in California. He is believed to be the first Korean to be born in America. His father, Ahn Chang Ho, came to America as a farm worker and became a noted Korean nationalist. He left his young family in America to fight for Korea's independence and died in a Japanese prison. Philip Ahn worked odd jobs to support his mother and siblings, while attending high school.

Pil Lip Ahn became the first Korean actor in Hollywood and played key roles in movies such as Anything Goes, The General Died at Dawn, The Story of Dr. Wassell, Daughter of Shanghai, Love Is A Many Splendored Thing, and Thoroughly Modern Millie. He also played in several TV dramas. He is best remembered as the wise Master Kan, leader of the Shaolin Temple in the ABC TV series, "Kung Fu", for uttering "Grasshopper, as soon as you are able to grab the rock from my hand you may leave the temple . . . ." (Cuddy, 2003)

* Kim Young-sik is editor of Korea WebWeekly.

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