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Thursday, February 3, 2000


Photos courtesy of University of Hawaii Center for Korean Studies

Here is a family portrait of prominent Methodist minister
Chan Ho Min, wife Mollie, and their children.
It was likely taken around 1922.

a cultural identity

Korean Americans struggle
to create awareness of their
history and traditions

Coalition to highlight Korean Americans

By Susan Kreifels


FOR Koreans in Hawaii during World War II, it was a no-win situation. They deplored the occupation of their homeland by their old enemy, the Japanese. But because of the occupation, the military government in Hawaii classified them "enemy aliens" and subjected them to restrictions and curfews, even as Koreans on the mainland were exempt.

The treatment was "a humiliating fate," says Lili Kim, a University of Rochester doctoral student who researched the wartime history of Koreans in the islands. "Korea did not exist in the minds of U.S. officials. After over 30 years of harsh colonial rule and a long history of hating Japan, now to claim them even having remote loyalty to Japan -- who can imagine the enormous irony?"

Wedding photo of Yong Sun Choi
and his wife, Anita, taken in 1920.

As Koreans look ahead to the centennial of their arrival in Hawaii, they are also looking back. And they are searching within: to strengthen their sense of cultural identity, to fight misconceptions and stereotypes, and to redefine their place in the American landscape.

"We have all matured enough to know we are a pluralistic society," said Esther Arinaga, a Korean American whose father came to Hawaii in 1905 to work on the plantations. But she regrets Americans know very little about the history of Koreans in the United States. "Every group should have its traditional culture and history respected."

'I woke up in the 1960s, and discovered
I had lost my Korean-ness.'

Esther Arinaga


A recent two-day conference sponsored by the University of Hawaii's Center for Korean Studies focused on the Korean experience in Hawaii and included international and U.S. scholars, as well as local Korean Americans.

Center Director Edward "Ned" Shultz organized the Manoa event to help the local Korean community focus on its "Korean-ness" -- he thinks that is particularly important as members prepare for the centennial observance in 2003.

Although Hawaii's estimated Korean population of about 30,000 is small compared to California's, "we see ourselves as the center of the story, where the story began," Shultz said.

Competed for jobs

The first Koreans came to Hawaii in 1903, looking for work and opportunity like other ethnic groups. But by 1905, Japanese rulers who claimed Korea as a protectorate stopped Korean immigration here.

Koreans competed with the Japanese for jobs, Shultz said, and Japan worried they would undermine its position in the islands.

Koreans and Japanese shared a historic animosity that they carried to Hawaii. According to Wayne Patterson, a St. Nobert College history professor who attended the conference, first-generation Koreans "were opposed to the Japanese in everything."

By the 1930s, however, the second generation had dropped some of the historic baggage, even dating and marrying Japanese.

Photo courtesy of University of Hawaii Center for Korean Studies
The date of this photo is unknown, but the Americanization
of early Korean immigrants is evident here.

Some attitudes hardened during World War II. Koreans distanced themselves as much as possible from the Japanese by wearing "I am Korean" buttons, buying war bonds and wholeheartedly supporting the U.S. war effort, according to Kim.

But ironically, Arinaga said, the war eventually bonded the two races in Hawaii for her generation because they had a common enemy.

The Koreans' enemy alien status ended when the war ended, but they soon faced another battle -- a conflict that split their country and its people.

Shultz believes it's been more difficult for Korean Americans to establish a cultural identity than for other ethnic groups in the United States, primarily because of their home country's history: close to 40 years of Japanese occupation, followed by the devastating Korean War. "The international attitude was to deny Korea as a nation," Shultz said.

Negative associations persist

Even though Korean Americans hold prestigious positions in Hawaii -- among them Chief Justice Ronald Moon, Honolulu Police Chief Lee Donohue, University of Hawaii Board of Regents Chairman Donald Kim and Honolulu Councilwoman Donna Kim -- some still feel stigmatized by the association of Koreans with hostess bars and "other unsavory aspects of Honolulu life," Shultz said.

"Most people don't know they've (Koreans) been here so long, and they play an important part of the society," he said.

To raise that and other points, the Center for Korean Studies has applied for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to produce a video that will look at Koreans in Asia, Hawaii and on the mainland, which received the bulk of the second wave of Korean immigration starting in 1965.

'Double Identity'

In the end, the story is about people's lives. Arinaga, 71, who presented a paper at the conference titled "Double Identity: A Korean American Experience in Twentieth-Century Hawaii," said she became "more American" than Korean growing up in Hawaii.

Her generation was "turned off" by the local Korean political factions that grew out of the Japanese occupation and the Korean War, and she left the church -- a focal point of Korean life in the islands -- and married a Japanese man. She became more and more detached from the Korean language and culture, until "I woke up in the 1960s, and discovered I had lost my Korean-ness."

It was an enlightening moment. Now she understands and admires the strength and courage of young Korean "picture brides" like her mother, who came to marry plantation workers, and the efforts of local Koreans to support the independence and unification movements in their home country. She hopes others soon will share her feelings.

The year 2003, she says, "will be an important event to help people understand Koreans have a very rich history in America."


Approximate numbers of the major Korean population centers in the United States, according to 1990 U.S. Census figures provided by the University of Hawaii:

Bullet California: 251,000
Bullet New York: 90,800
Bullet New Jersey: 39,000
Bullet Illinois: 35,700
Bullet Washington: 28,200
Bullet Hawaii: 24,400


By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Janis Koh is president of the Korean American Coalition-Hawaii,
a nonprofit group that aims to draw attention to the needs and
accomplishments of all generations of Korean Americans.

Coalition aims to highlight
needs and deeds of
Korean Americans

By Susan Kreifels


JANIS Koh belongs to the "1.5 generation" -- the children who immigrated with Korean parents after 1965 and grew up in the United States.

It's also the group, scholars say, that has become the mediator between first- and second-generation Korean Americans, an ethnic community less visible than others in America.

Koh is president of Hawaii's chapter of the Korean American Coalition, organized here in November 1998. The non-profit, non-political advocacy group, founded in California 15 years ago, aims to draw attention to the needs and accomplishments of all generations of Korean Americans.

The Hawaii chapter, with about 50 members, was the first outside California and is now joined by groups in Alaska and Washington, D.C.

While Koh said mainland chapters are heavily involved in Korean civil rights, the coalition here works more on Asia-Pacific issues as a whole. For example, the coalition has collaborated with Filipinos and Samoans to help ensure those communities are more accurately counted in this year's U.S. census.

In November, the coalition joined Japanese and Chinese groups in a forum with mainland Jewish Americans to discuss racial issues.

Koh is a member of the centennial committee that is planning events for 2003, the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first Koreans to the United States as plantation workers in Hawaii.

"We want to highlight the pioneers who left a poor country behind and came with an American dream," said Koh, who also is the overseas researcher for the South Korean government's Disaster Research Institute.

"They built a new community here. We want the community as a whole to recognize their efforts and make a statement about who we really are. We have done so much. We have so much to offer."

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