Japan annexed Korea in 1905 and stopped Koeran emmigration to America.

Flight for freedom

A KHET documentary airing Monday
captures the Koreans' quest for cultural
identity as isle immigrants and
in their occupied land

By Gary C.W. Chun

THERE'S a brief moment of archival film footage in the documentary "Arirang: The Korean American Journey" that is telling of the symbiotic relationship the two countries have shared since the early 20th century.

It's a grainy black-and-white shot of a group of Korean immigrants cheerfully waving small American and Korean flags during a mainland rally at the end of World War I, in support of United States president Woodrow Wilson's New World Order decree and the right of a nation's self-determination.

It's the latter that emboldened Koreans living throughout the U.S. to rise as one voice in lifting their nearly obliterated home country out of the oppressive rule of Japanese colonialism. They were bold enough to wave the flag they were forbidden to display back home.

Plantation workers pose for a picture.

Tom Coffman, a longtime documentarian and writer, producer and director of "Arirang," has helped bring to light a fascinating part of Korean and American history, and his work will be presented to a television audience Monday on KHET.

The airing of the documentary couldn't be better, in light of the current Hawaii centennial celebrations and the debate between North and South Korea, and the United States, over the Communist north's nuclear weapons program.

Coffman says he's optimistic that the newsworthiness of the two Koreas will spur other public television stations around the country to pick up the documentary for their own programming schedules.

"I've been working on this for three years now," he said, "and on a full-time basis over the past 13, 14 months."

Members of the Center for Korean Studies on the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus had been working with the Centennial Committee of Korean Immigration to the United States in planning to do some kind of film.

Tom Coffman's documentary captures the odyssey of Koreans in America.

"When I agreed to do it, I told them 'let's try and take this to the limit' -- in other words, to get it broadcast," Coffman said. "So I formulated this one-hour history, with a second part covering the additional wave of Korean immigration to the U.S. after the immigration laws were relaxed in 1965, up to the present."

THIS FIRST of two documentaries is a fascinating account of Korean immigrants first setting foot on American soil via the territory of Hawaii. Deftly mixing archival photos and film, interviews and historical re-creations, "Arirang" tells of the first arrival of immigrants on Jan. 19, 1903, aboard the S.S. Gaelic to Hawaii.

More than 7,000 arrived in the islands in less than three years, leaving the rule of Japanese occupation forces of their homeland for the promise of a new life, albeit under harsh working conditions in the sugar cane fields of the islands.

That immigration was halted when Japanese found themselves competing for the same plantation jobs as the Koreans. On top of that, when Japan compounded their control over Korea with a military victory over Russia, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt mediated a peace treaty in 1910 that annexed Korea to Japan.

"By and large, the beauty of Hawaii shone through, and the healing of the rift and putting aside differences began within those of the second generation." --Tom Coffman, Documentarian

The Koreans suffered a loss of both national and cultural identity, as display of the Korean flag was outlawed, their native language was squelched and they had to learn, in essence, "to become Japanese."

"Arirang," originally the name of a folk song about the laments of a girl trying to remain stoic as her lover leaves her, took on an added tragic dimension under the Japanese occupation.

But the Koreans who lived both here and on the U.S. mainland actively resisted for many years afterward, forming clubs and associations to continue the fight -- even to the point of training for armed resistance. Coffman's documentary notes that one of the largest training camps was located in Kahuku.

ONE OF the more colorful characters campaigning for Korean independence was Syngman Rhee, who stood in as a U.S.-educated symbol of change, after leaving Korea in 1913 and arriving in Honolulu.

"He had a powerful belief in himself," Coffman said of the headstrong nationalist. "Rhee felt it was inevitable that he would lead Korea as an independent country. But his lead, as well as the government-in-exile in Shanghai, China, could not develop under colonialism. The whole process was thrown out-of-kilter.

"Here was a man who got a Ph.D. in five years time, attending the best American universities, and a man who knew how to communicate with the West. He was not a puppet -- in fact, the American government was hoping to find someone more pliable."

He became president of the Korean Provisional Government in South Korea after Japan's defeat in World War II. He returned to Hawaii in 1960 as an exile after his corrupt government was dismantled.

"Both Koreans and Korean-Americans either loved or despised this tremendously autocratic figure," Coffman said. For the remainder of his life in Hawaii, he was tended by his supporters.

"I THINK THIS documentary is important in helping Hawaii realize its potential as a Western gateway for Asian nations, and that we have a repository of history because of that," Coffman said.

"It also shows that Korea is still an important part of local, national and international history, in spite of being constantly rebuffed in its efforts to be an independent country."

And, once again, Hawaii shows itself to be the model of tolerance, in spite of grudging relationships with the local Japanese community early on.

"There were some strained relations -- like if Korean children came home wearing zoris, or having a Japanese boyfriend or girlfriend, and papa would go through the roof because of that.

"But, by and large, the beauty of Hawaii shone through, and the healing of the rift and putting aside differences began within those of the second generation."

That period of time will be the subject of the second part of "Arirang," and Coffman has one more trip to the U.S. mainland to document a huge population of Koreans who settled in the Old South (2 million settled throughout the mainland compared to 40,000 or so here).

Coffman acknowledges that he's had "the best team ever working on this project," and said the documentaries are more creative thanks to the supportive work of associate producer-director Ryan Kawamoto, sound designer Robert Bates, editor Lisa Altieri, composer-arranger Stephan Fox and cameraman and Czech exile Jiri Dvorsky.

'Arirang: The
Korean-American Journey

Airs: 8 p.m. Monday on KHET

Screens: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Doris Duke at the Academy. General admission is $5; $3 for academy members. Call 956-7041.

Also: "Island Insights" host Dan Boyland speaks with Dr. Hong Koo Lee (former South Korea prime minister) and Georgetown University professor Victor Cha at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow on KHET.

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