After 100 years in U.S., many Koreans hold prominent positions

HONOLULU -- A century ago, Ronald Moon's grandfathers arrived here from Korea facing a future of working in Hawaii's sugar cane fields.

Like others in those first waves of Korean immigrants to America, they carried little more than their culture, their values and a strong work ethic, qualities that descendants like Moon, the chief justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court, credit for helping shape their lives today.

"They were true pioneers, and it took a great deal of courage, motivation and sacrifices to come here," Moon said. "I have no reservations in saying that if not for their teachings and values, I certainly would not be here."

Today, exactly 100 years after the first documented group of Korean immigrants set foot in Hawaii, those first Korean immigrants to America will be honored by the Centennial Committee of Korean Immigration to the United States.

Honored guests

Among the 1,600 people expected to attend the gala are diver Sammy Lee, the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal, and retired Col. Young Oak Kim, recipient of 19 military medals and the first Asian American officer to command an American infantry battalion in combat.

"There's no question the Koreans in Hawaii, and in many parts of the United States where they have settled, have done a great deal," Moon said. "When we speak about 100 years here, I think the Koreans have gone very far."

Arrived in 1903

The first Korean immigrants to America arrived on the morning of Jan. 13, 1903, when the SS Gaelic pulled into Honolulu Harbor, delivering 86 men, women and children to the U.S. territory.

About 7,000 others arrived in the islands over the following two years, recruited to work on the sugar plantations across Hawaii. By 2000, the U.S. Census put the country's Korean American population at over 1 million.

What set the Koreans apart from other Asian immigrants was their Christian faith and their desire to take their homeland back from Japan, which had annexed it, said Edward Shultz, history professor at the University of Hawaii and director of the university's Center for Korean Studies.

"In terms of material possessions, they brought very little," he said. "But it's the nonmaterial things that were so impressive."

Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim, a descendant of the earliest Korean immigrant, remembers growing up with seven siblings in a house that didn't have running water or electricity.

"Life was of survival and dreams of tomorrow," he said. "The kind of sacrifice they made is something almost incomprehensible for people of today."

Despite poverty, language barriers and new surroundings, many immigrants managed to provide a better life and education for their children.

They also often sent clothes, food and money to their former countrymen, to help those back in home deal with the Japanese annexation and rising military tension.

"They became really imbued with the idea of having to get their country back," Shultz said. "So they had a very strong nationalist bent to them and went almost on a mission to recover their country."

Some of the men trained to one day fight for Korea, before it was divided into North and South. Today, both Koreas are in the headlines -- the North in an escalating conflict with the United States, the South struggling to ease tensions in region.

The second wave of Korean immigrants was a result of the 1950-53 Korean War, mostly brides of returning American soldiers. The current and largest Korean immigration wave began with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, Shultz said. That act repealed the national origins quota system, giving people from all nations equal opportunity to immigrate.

The largest Korean communities today are in major cities of California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Washington, Texas and Virginia. Southern California had the highest concentration of Korean Americans, with 241,923 in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

The Census reports 23,537 Korean Americans in Hawaii, but there could be as many as 100,000 if people of part Korean ancestry are included, Shultz said. In addition to state Supreme Court chief justice and the Hawaii County mayor, Honolulu's police chief, Lee Donohue, and the state's schools superintendent, Patricia Hamamoto, are Korean American.

"If you look at Hawaii, you can see what the mainland is going to be like in 50 to 100 years," Shultz said. "It's a vision of the future."

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