‘Dreams as boundless as their potential’: Remembering the first Korean immigrants to arrive in the US

  • The U.S. celebrates Korean American Day every year on Jan. 13.
  • The first large group of Korean immigrants arrived in Honolulu on Jan. 13, 1903, but succeeding immigration was hampered by racist U.S. policies until 1965.
  • President Joe Biden recently recognized Korean Americans for their contributions in all aspects of American society despite the discrimination they face amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

On this day in 1903, the first wave of Korean immigrants landed on U.S. soil. Aboard the RMS Gaelic, 102 passengers arrived on the shores of Honolulu in search of greener pastures.

That fateful day would herald a century of immigration and diplomatic relations between the U.S. and South Korea. It would also be recognized as Korean American Day, which commemorates the contributions of Korean Americans in all aspects of American life.

The RMS Gaelic carried 56 men, 21 women and 25 children. Those able to work filled a labor void in pineapple and sugar plantations, which resulted after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese laborers from the U.S.

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Koreans arrived in the U.S. before 1903, but they were a small minority. Starting in 1884, these Koreans converted to Christianity and then immigrated after being influenced by American Presbyterian and Methodists missionaries, according to the Boston Korean Diaspora Project.

The RMS Gaelic, a passenger and cargo liner built for British shipping company White Star Line. The vessel transported the first wave of Korean immigrants to Honolulu on Jan. 13, 1903.

By 1905, more than 7,200 Koreans had immigrated to Hawaii, escaping famine and political turmoil in their home country. At the time, Korea had just become a nominal protectorate of Japan, which emerged victorious from the Russo-Japanese War — a 1.5-year-long conflict over rival ambitions in Manchuria (northeast China) and Korea.

The influx of Korean immigrants was largely credited to U.S. diplomat and Presbyterian missionary Horace D. Allen, who met officials of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association (HSPA) in 1902 to discuss the feasibility of importing Korean plantation workers. The proposal, however, had been laid out since 1896 by J.F. Hackfeld, president of a Bremen-based firm involved in underwriting the HSPA.

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The immigrants remained in agricultural work until other job opportunities developed. Recruiters promised them a daily wage of 69 cents, but barely anything was left after repaying loans, according to a historical review by Lee Houchins and Chang-su Houchins.

Those who managed to leave the plantations went on to work in mines, fisheries or railroad construction. Still, between 1905 and 1907, some 1,000 immigrants had fled to the U.S. mainland, many of whom sought to work on rice farms in California.

Raymond Song Herr, an early Korean immigrant, in his American football uniform for YMCA College in 1918.

With Imperial Japan tightening its control in Korea, immigration slowed in the next several years. By 1924, it came to a full stop after the U.S. Congress passed the Immigration Act, which banned all Asian immigrants.

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Despite the reduction in immigration, Korean culture thrived in the U.S. as those already in the country formed tight-knit communities. Some 2,000 Korean women who managed to immigrate before 1924 became “picture brides” of bachelors who arrived earlier, while students permitted to study in American universities, as well as political refugees, became the intellectuals who would campaign for Korea’s independence.

In November 2021, the documentary project “Words of Wisdom from the Rainbow State” by journalist Jin-young Lee Won premiered at the Hawaii International Film Festival. The film presents the history of Korean immigration and features in-depth interviews with descendants of the first Korean immigrants.

Lee moved to Hawaii 15 years ago, working as a news anchor, writer and editor. “The wisdom of the first Korean immigrants, our ancestors in Hawaii, has helped me to understand how differences and love do not have to be disparate, but can and have worked together in the Rainbow State,” Lee wrote in the documentary’s director’s note, according to The Korea Times.

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The second wave of Korean immigration took place between 1950 and 1964. The third wave began with the signing of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which revoked a national quota system and made family reunification possible.

President Joe Biden released a statement this morning in honor of Korean American Day: “Korean Americans have always embodied the values of the American spirit, and they are a living reminder of the courage and sacrifice of the generations of immigrants who come to the United States with dreams as boundless as their potential.

“Today, Korean Americans across our country enrich our Nation’s culture and contribute their knowledge and skills in every sector of our society. They serve in our military and create businesses and jobs. They empower immigrant communities and inspire generations of artists and storytellers. They are dedicated public servants, selfless first responders and Dreamers.

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“Despite enduring hardship and discrimination, including throughout this COVID-19 pandemic, Korean Americans have continued to help build our Nation into one of infinite possibilities.”

Featured Image via Wikipedia / Noblesavage (Public Domain)

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