of the Early Korean Immigrant Community and Its Independence Movement
“At 2 p.m. Saturday, March 1st. 1919, the Independence of Korea was declared . . . at Tai-Wha-Kwan in the City of Seoul, and the Independence Proclamation was read to the expectant public gathered at Pagoda Park, while the old liberty bell in the heart of the city broke its long silence.”
- Warren Kim, Koreans in America
As we observe the centennial of the March 1, 1919 Movement (aka “Mansei Movement” or “Sam Il Undong” in Korean) this year, it is a timely opportunity to study the critical role that San Francisco played in the early Korean immigrant community and its independence movement in the mainland U.S. The fight for Korea’s independence from Japan and early Korean immigration history are inextricably connected, and San Francisco was at the heart of that history for a number of reasons. Most early Korean immigrants to the mainland U.S. starting in the late 1800s, including many political exiles and student activists, first landed in San Francisco. The immigration station at Angel Island was the main port of entry on the west coast starting in 1910, the same year Japan annexed Korea. About 1,000 Korean students, family members and “picture brides” landed at Angel Island during the 30 years that it remained open. Having fled the oppressive life under the Japanese, these “Angel Island” Koreans were consumed by intense anti-Japanese sentiments and a longing for Korea’s independence. Last but not least, as a port city, San Francisco was a convenient, centralized place for the leaders to meet as well as to organize the early immigrants who were small in number and spread out widely across California and the western states. By virtue of geopolitical events, location and timing, San Francisco was where Koreans in the first two decades of the 1900s began the work of organizing a new immigrant community and their independence movement from America.
A Tale of Two Places
When Korean Americans think of early immigration history, the first instinct is to think of Hawaii and not California. In actuality, early Korean immigration history is a tale of both places. Whereas Hawaii had the larger Korean population through the 1950s (see table below), California and in particular San Francisco had the key infrastructure for leadership, organization and communication in the early 1900s that would shape the beginnings of both the independence movement and the early immigrant community. By “early Koreans” or “early Korean immigrants”, I refer generally to those who landed in the mainland U.S. from the late 1800s until 1924. The peak period of early Korean immigration was roughly from 1903 to 1917. Korean migration to the U.S. became increasingly difficult as U.S. entered World War I and required all aliens to carry passports visaed by a U.S. consul on national security grounds.¹ Then the Immigration Act of 1924 established immigration rules based on a national origins quota, which by design placed severe numerical restrictions on immigrants from Asian countries. As a result, from 1921 to 1940, only 289 Korean students were able come to the U.S. with valid passports issued by the Japanese government.² Table below.³
It is also important to note that the momentum of Korean immigration shifted away from Hawaii and to the mainland quite early in the history. The first large wave of Korean immigrants came to Hawaii starting in 1903 to work at sugar plantations and the Korean population in Hawaii reached a high of about 7,200 by 1905. However, such migration was short-lived and stopped abruptly in 1905 when Japan, having declared Korea as its protectorate that year, placed a ban on further emigration of Korean laborers to Hawaii. The purpose of the ban was to protect the interest of Japan and the Japanese in America. The influx of Korean laborers in Hawaii had kept wages low and had caused Japanese laborers to migrate to California, which in turn fueled strong anti-Japanese sentiments in the mainland. The Japanese government feared that such sentiments would lead to the passage of a Japanese Exclusion Act similar to the Chinese Exclusion Act and believed the best way to stop that from happening was to prevent Korean laborers from coming to Hawaii altogether. With no new Korean laborers coming to Hawaii starting in 1905, combined with thousands of Korean laborers who either returned to Korea or remigrated to the mainland U.S., the size of the Korean population in Hawaii was stuck at around 4–5,000 for the next 50 years.⁴ In contrast, Korean migration to the mainland U.S. through San Francisco increased starting in 1905, albeit gradually.
Note About Independence Movement in America v. Korea
The independence movement in America and Korea took different paths from the very beginning. Given Japan’s comprehensive repression of social and political life in Korea starting as early as 1905, including travel restrictions and ban on public assembly, Koreans in Korea had a much harder time than Koreans in America in mounting an anti-Japanese movement. The independence movement that started in Korea on March 1, 1919, was possible only because Koreans were allowed to gather freely for the first time since the annexation to grieve for their late King Kojong in a public funeral set for March 3.⁵ In contrast, Koreans in America were free to organize their anti-Japanese movement from the moment they arrived in the U.S. As early as 1905, San Francisco Koreans in particular were methodical in organizing, strategizing and engaging the community, to respond to the fateful events that were unfolding in Korea.
According to Warren Kim (Korean name, Kim Won-yong), an early Korean immigrant and community historian, the anti-Japanese and independence movement in America can be divided into three core phases, each corresponding to a pivotal event in Korea.⁶ The three phases with the corresponding events are listed below, followed by a detailed discussion later in the article. San Francisco Koreans were most influential in laying the groundwork in organizational infrastructure and communication network in the first two phases.
Phase I: Japan’s declaration of Korea a protectorate in 1905
Phase II: Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910
Phase III: March 1, 1919 Movement in Korea
San Francisco Koreans: Who Were They?
A large majority of the early Koreans who landed in San Francisco came between 1903 to 1917, which years coincided with Japan’s increasing aggression in Korea, starting with Japan’s unilateral declaration of Korea a protectorate in 1905 and throughout the 1910s when Japan legitimized its occupation of Korea through oppressive means. In fact, many Koreans who landed in San Francisco were fleeing from the intolerable conditions under the Japanese. Kim Suk-Eun came to San Francisco in 1913 as a picture bride because, in her words, “The Japanese controlled education, and Koreans were forced to learn, use and speak Japanese. Day by day, no more freedom — that’s why I wanted to leave Korea.”⁷ Many were inspired by the American missionaries stationed in Korea and wanted to study in the U.S. with plans to return to Korea to help their country.⁸ Irrespective of class or profession, all of the early Koreans in America were united in their determination to overthrow the Japanese. “. . . Korea’s loss of national sovereignty to Japan between 1905 and 1910 would soon become the single most important issue for Korean immigrants.”⁹
According to community estimates, over 2,000 Koreans arrived in San Francisco by 1918 and lived in the mainland U.S., with over half of that number living in California, and the rest spread out in the western states working on farms, railroads and mines.¹⁰ Memoirs and newspaper articles from that period confirm that Korean settlers lived as far and wide as Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Nebraska.
The early Koreans who landed in San Francisco can be divided into three distinct groups: Korean laborers remigrating from Hawaii, a small group political exiles and student activists who came before 1910, and a larger group consisting of students, family members and picture brides who landed after Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910.
Laborers Who First Went to Hawaii
About 1,000–2,000 of the Korean laborers who initially went to Hawaii remigrated to San Francisco between 1903 and 1907. These laborers came from a wide range of social and educational backgrounds but about 60% were illiterate. The main reason for such secondary migration was the desire for better working conditions. Working a 10–12 hour day on the Hawaiian sugar plantations was grueling and the wage was terribly low at about 50 to 70 cents per day. In comparison, they heard that one could earn $1.00 to $1.50 per day working in California. Others wanted to continue their education or simply wanted to experience life on the mainland U.S.¹¹
Mary Paik Lee and her family were part of this remigration to California. She writes: “Father was desperate, always writing to friends in other places, trying to find a better place to live . . . he heard from friends in Riverside, California, who urged him to join them; they said the prospects for the future were better in America; that a man’s wages were ten to fifteen cents an hour for ten hours of work a day. After his year in Hawaii was up, Father borrowed enough money from friends to pay for our passage to America on board the S.S. China. We landed in San Francisco on December 3, 1906.”¹²
Easurk Emsen Charr, who wrote a detailed memoir of his immigration experience in The Golden Mountain: The Autobiography of a Korean Immigrant 1895–1960, initially travelled to Hawaii as a ten year old, without his family. Then he remigrated to San Francisco in 1905. Charr had always set his eyes on the mainland and had gone to Hawaii as a stepping stone to reach the mainland. His opportunity came when his cousin gave him enough money to buy the $31 steerage ticket for a ship bound for San Francisco.¹³
Thus the Korean laborers remigrating from Hawaii constituted a big proportion of the Koreans who landed in San Francisco. However, such secondary migration came to an abrupt end in 1907 when President Theodore Roosevelt issued Executive Order 589 which prohibited Korean and Japanese laborers from reusing passports that were used to go to Hawaii to migrate to the mainland. The Japanese government had agreed to limit the migration of laborers to the mainland U.S. under the Gentlemen’s Agreement, as part of a negotiated settlement to address a school segregation plan in San Francisco. In exchange for Japan’s agreement to limit the emigration of laborers, the San Francisco school district rescinded its plan to require Japanese students to attend segregated schools. Japan was a dominant international power after its decisive victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese war and the Gentlemen’s Agreement was President Roosevelt’s way of keeping peace with Japan.¹⁴
Small Group of Political Exiles Arriving Before 1910
The other small but distinct group to land in San Francisco were political exiles and student activists who came before 1910.¹⁵ In contrast to the wide range of social and educational backgrounds of the Korean laborers from Hawaii, this group consisted mostly of educated, young men. Many in this group knew each other in Korea, coming from the same town or attending the same school. For example, according to Korean pioneer Easurk Charr, many of these earliest arrivals were classmates at Soongsil Hakdang (aka Soongsil Academy) in Pyongyang in the north near his hometown.¹⁶ Baejae Hakdang (aka Bae Jae Academy) near Deoksu Palace in Seoul was another missionary school known for its famous graduates including Rhee Syngman. Some, like Seo Jae Pil, had participated in domestic reform movements in the late 1800s. When those reforms failed, they were forced to leave Korea as political exiles. Others were part of the underground resistance movement against Japan’s dominance in Korea. Many of these activists sought refuge in the US as they faced imprisonment, torture or death for their anti-Japanese activities. These political refugees and students became the early organizers and leaders of the Korean community, at times living in different parts of California to support the scattered Korean population. Referring to them, Charr writes, “This group of earlier arrivals in this country was destined to become the nucleus of the Korean settlement in America and the leaders among their fellow-countrymen newly arriving from Hawaii, Mr. Ahn [Chang-ho] in the south [in Riverside California], Mr. Kim [Sung-moo] in the north [in Sacramento] and later David Lee in San Francisco.”¹⁷
The five best known leaders among Koreans in America all fall into this group:
Seo Jae Pil (aka Philip Jaisohn) is one of the earliest students on record to have landed in San Francisco as a political exile, arriving in 1885. Two other student exiles Pak Yong Hyo and Seo Kwang Bum accompanied him to San Francisco but left for Japan soon after.¹⁸ Seo Jae Pil had been involved with the Gapsin coup, a failed coup attempt of 1884 which was part of a reformist movement that sought to end Chinese domination of Korea and put in place a progressive agenda for the country.¹⁹ No official record of his arrival was found but Seo and his fellow activists reportedly landed in San Francisco sometime in 1885 and lived at a boarding house run by a certain Kate Johnson a few blocks from the pier where they landed. He attended a college preparatory school in Pennsylvania with the help of a wealthy patron, William Hollenbeck, then earned a medical degree from George Washington University in 1894. He also became a U.S. citizen around this time, a source of mystery as only white or people of African descent were eligible for naturalized citizenship at that time under the Naturalization Act of 1870. For a brief period after the Sino-Japanese war, Seo returned to Korea and started the first bilingual newspaper, Tongnip Shinmun (aka The Independent), and founded the Independence Club, a reform party which soon became the target of a government crackdown.²⁰
Ahn Chang-ho (penname “Dosan”), landed in San Francisco with his wife Hye-Ryun Lee (Helen) in October 1902.²¹ Like Seo Jae Pil, Ahn was a seasoned activist leader in Korea. He left Korea to study Western thoughts so that he can return and help to reform his country. In his memoir, Easurk Charr recalls, “Ahn Chang-ho, the young silver-tongued orator of Pyeng Yang and a great patriot, delivered a stirring oration at the Qai-ja-dyung Pavilion gathering.”²² Ahn founded the two earliest Korean organizations in San Francisco: the Friendship Society and Gongnip Association, which later folded into the Korean National Association. Around 1906, Ahn and his wife moved to Riverside, California, where they established a small settlement of Korean laborers called the Pachappa Camp. Ahn is perhaps best known for his lifelong mission to achieve peace and prosperity for the Korean people through self-cultivation of the mind and spirit. He believed that Korea could not be a great country until its people were enlightened through self-cultivation. Heung Sa Dan (Young Korean Academy), which he founded in 1913 in San Francisco, embodies his gradualist educational approach to cultivating future Korean leaders.²³ While making a living picking oranges alongside his countrymen in Riverside, he is known to have said, “Koreans picking just one orange diligently in an orchard in America is an act of patriotism for Korea.”²⁴
Reverend David (Dae Wei) Lee, who became a tireless leader in the local immigrant community, landed in San Francisco as a student on April 22, 1903. We know from his ship manifest that he came under the name “Lai Tai Wha, Age 22”, as a “student, from Korea”, with “2 baggages”.²⁵ Rev. Lee juggled multiple roles as an activist minister, president of the Korean National Association (“KNA”), port interpreter, newspaper editor and publisher and even as an inventor of the first Korean alphabet keyboard for use with the intertype printing machine. Unlike other early Korean leaders, his community work was almost exclusively in San Francisco until his premature death at the age of 50 in 1928. He was the first Korean to receive a degree from U.C. Berkeley in 1913.²⁶
Pak Yong-man arrived in San Francisco sometime in 1904, lived in Denver, Colorado, then moved to Nebraska to study at the University of Nebraska. He was a student activist and had been Rhee Syngman’s prison mate in Seoul. Pak’s core belief was that Korean independence could only be achieved through military means. In 1909 he established the Korean Youth Military Academy in Hastings, Nebraska, and started training the first 27 young Korean cadets. Over time, more training centers opened in California, Kansas City, Kansas, Superior, Wyoming, and in Hawaii. Pak eventually consolidated all cadet training in Hawaii and established the Korean National Brigade in Kailua, Oahu, where he had 311 cadets in 1914. While Pak spent a few years in San Francisco as the chief editor of Shinhan Minbo, much of his time was spent in Nebraska and Hawaii. After the March 1, 1919 Movement, Pak left for China to be part of the Korean military training operations in Manchuria and Siberia.²⁷
Rhee Syngman, who became the first President of the Republic of Korea, landed in San Francisco in November 1904. He had been imprisoned in Korea for his anti-government activities as a member of the Independence Club that Seo Jae Pil founded.²⁸ Official record of his first arrival was not found but he is known to have landed in San Francisco, then continued his journey to the East Coast to study. He graduated from George Washington University, received his masters from Harvard and a doctorate from Princeton around 1910. Rhee was first invited to work in the Hawaii Korean community by the KNA at Pak Yong-man’s recommendation. Rhee would go onto serve as the president of the Korean Provisional Government starting in 1919. However, he clashed with both Pak Yong-man’s military approach and Ahn Chang-ho’s gradualist self-cultivation approach to achieving independence. Rhee promoted negotiation and diplomacy as Korea’s best chance for independence. Rhee’s authoritarian style and demand to control all of the funds raised by the KNA caused much division and factionalism in the Korean community in the 1920s.²⁹
“Angel Island” Immigrants: Students, Activists, Family Members and Picture Brides
The third and last group to land in San Francisco was a mix of Korean students, mostly young men in their twenties, family members and picture brides, who all came after Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910. This group constituted the 1,000 or so “Angel Island” immigrants who were administered at the Angel Island Immigration Station (AIIS) which had just opened in the San Francisco bay. The AIIS served as the main port of entry and migrant detention center on the west coast from 1910–1940.³⁰
Because the Japanese imposed a strict travel ban on all Koreans except for those few with official passports, many of these “Angel Island” Koreans had to flee Korea secretly. They first traveled to China, Manchuria or to Europe, and waited until they were able to get on a passenger ship bound for San Francisco. Woo Myong-won who came to San Francisco in 1914 as a picture bride describes her journey after she had to “sneak out” of Korea, “I had to go to Sinuiju, then to Andong-hyon, and then finally to Shanghai, then America.”³¹ Many also traveled with false identities or disguised themselves to look Chinese or Russian during parts of their journey to evade detection by the Japanese police.³²
According to Erika Lee and Judy Yung, who did extensive research into the immigration files of Korean immigrants who landed on Angel Island, about 80% of the Koreans who landed between 1910 and 1918 came with no passports. Despite this and the fact that many traveled with fake identities, such “undocumented” Koreans were admitted at a surprisingly high rate in the early years from 1910 to 1914. The immigration officials were sympathetic to the plight of the Koreans after the Japanese annexation and often treated them as political refugees. Based on the immigration records at the National Archives, Koreans were detained at Angel Island for only about one week on average and less than 5% of the Koreans were deported.³³
Koreans traveling without passports argued at Angel Island that they did not carry passports because they were stateless. They had no “country” to ask for passports since Japan annexed Korea and they were not Japanese subjects either because they left Korea before the Japanese annexation. This argument was applied successfully for the first time by Rev. David Lee, as the port interpreter, in the case of Lee Bum Young, a student traveling under the alias On Chung Sa, and five other students, who all landed in San Francisco on July 9, 1913. The statelessness argument was used successfully by a number of Koreans at Angel Island to gain admission.³⁴
Immigration officials at Angel Island started clamping down on the admission of “undocumented” Koreans, however, as they noticed the number of such arrivals jump from 12 in 1912 to 67 in 1913. The Japanese government was also angered that so many Koreans were breaching the travel ban and pressured the U.S. to deny admission to Koreans who did not carry a Japanese passport. In October of 1914, the Acting Commissioner-General of the Bureau of Immigration issued a directive warning port officials about the increasing number of Koreans who were arriving without passports and asking that their application for admission be reviewed with greater scrutiny.³⁵
The Korean National Association (discussed in detail below) became ever more involved in the admission process at Angel Island as the immigration officials started to demand that Korean students prove their student status and the ability to support themselves. Rev. David Lee often appealed the officials’ initial decision to deport Korean students, vouching for the students’ true status and offering to serve as guarantors of their financial well-being. Eight Korean students who arrived on August 21, 1914, from Shanghai, would have been deported but for such intervention and appeal by Rev. Lee; all eight students were eventually admitted. Seeing the tougher admission standards being applied at Angel Island, in January 1915, Rev. Lee put out notices in the Korean weekly newspaper, Shinhan Minbo, for those waiting to come to the U.S. with practical guidelines about what documents to bring and to carry a minimum of $200. Investigation by immigrant inspectors later revealed that Rev. Lee and the KNA had gone as far as to arrange for the transportation of some Koreans to San Francisco and provided them with cash to satisfy the minimum port entry requirement. Immigrants being assisted by others was a violation of the Immigration Act of 1907.³⁶
For some time after 1916, however, some Koreans continued to gain admission without too much hardship, especially wives and children of Korean residents already in the U.S. For example, Bok So Kim arrived in San Francisco aboard S.S. China on October 1, 1917. She had come to join “Oh Nam Sick — Prospective Husband” in Dinuba, California.³⁷ Daisy Kim and her two young daughters Dong Ok, age six, and Chi Sun, age four, were also aboard the S.S. China that day. Daisy had come with her daughters to join “H.S. Kim Husband” in Los Angeles, California.³⁸ Kim Bok So and Daisy and her two daughters were all admitted as of October 2, 1917, just one day after arriving in San Francisco. In fact, according to the Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry, 27 of the 30 Koreans who arrived on S.S. China on October 1, 1917, were admitted as of October 2. Only three Koreans, all male, were ordered to be deported, one for being “illiterate” and the other two for having “hookworm”, a contagious but treatable disease.³⁹
Between 1910 and 1918, 541 students and 115 picture brides are known to have arrived on Angel Island. Between 1921 and 1940, only 289 students were able to come because of restrictive immigration laws against Asians.⁴⁰
Irrespective of their background or education level, most early immigrants made a living as migrant laborers, moving from town to town and season to season for work. In his memoir, Charr provides a richly detailed account of his immigrant life. “During that summer , I picked peaches in Ontario and grapes in Cucamonga. And in the fall, I was in the Longfellow School at the west end of Fourteenth Street in Riverside. I was in the Seventh Grade there for a few weeks before I was invited to come to Salt Lake City . . . to go to school there . . . [In spring 1909] I quit school and went to work again. Following a group, I went up to the sugar beet fields in the southern part of Idaho, to a place called Whitney, a few miles east of Preston . . . In the sugar beet fields I worked only a short time before I went back to California . . . From then on, I fell back into the rut again. Now equipped with somewhat better English, I ventured into the ‘white collar jobs,’ such as busboy and waiter jobs in many of the hotels and cafes . . .”⁴¹
This transient lifestyle seems to have been true for most early Koreans in the mainland U.S. except for perhaps the most privileged students like Seo Jae Pil and Rhee Syngman who studied in the East Coast and the few political leaders based in San Francisco. Most students worked as laborers during vacations to support themselves. And even many community leaders had to take on odd jobs to support their families. For instance, aside from picking oranges in Riverside, Ahn Chang-ho and his wife worked as a “school boy” and “school girl”, terms used for domestic servants with room and board, in San Francisco soon after they arrived in 1902.⁴² Working as a “school boy or girl” was popular for Korean students as the job required working early in the morning and in the late afternoon, allowing them to attend school during the day and study in the evening. They were able to make $2.00 per week and also get free room and board.⁴³
Organizing the Immigrant Community from San Francisco
As mentioned earlier, while Hawaii had the larger population, San Francisco was the hub of the community in the mainland U.S. throughout the early 1900s. San Francisco was not only the port of entry for most Koreans arriving in the mainland, but it was where all of the early organizations were founded and where the Korean National Association, the leading voice of all Koreans in America, was headquartered. All of the San Francisco organizations, with perhaps the exception of the Friendship Society, had a dual mission: to support each other in America and to fight against Japan’s aggression in Korea. All of the organizations also had publications that played vital roles in communicating news about the community as well as about Korea with the scattered population. Collectively, these organizations and publications became the building blocks for growing the nascent immigrant community and its independence movement in America.
- The Friendship Society 1903
The very first Korean organization, the Friendship Society (official Korean name, Chin Mok Hui), was a true community organization in its initial years. The Friendship Society was founded in San Francisco in 1903 by Ahn Chang-ho, Rev. David Lee, and a dozen or so Koreans in San Francisco at the time, to promote the fellowship and mutual assistance among Koreans in the San Francisco area.⁴⁴
- Gongnip Association 1905
In 1905, the Friendship Society expanded into the Gongnip Association (official Korean name Gongnip Hyup Hui meaning Mutual Assistance Association), the first Korean political organization on the mainland U.S. Its first office was located at 938 Pacific Avenue in San Francisco. The founding of the Gongnip Association was in direct response to Japan’s declaration of Korea a protectorate in 1905 and its express mission was to resist against Japanese aggression in Korea.
Gongnip Association quickly expanded through six regional centers in Los Angeles, Redland, Riverside, Oakland, Boise, Idaho, and Rocksprings, Wyoming. Expanding through regional centers was a method that was commonly replicated by other early Korean organizations to effectively connect its immigrant population that was scattered throughout California and the western states. In 1908, two representatives traveled as far as Manchuria and Russia to set up regional centers in areas known to have a large Korean population, including Vladivostok and Chita, Russia.⁴⁵
Gongnip Association’s earliest action was to publish the first Korean newspaper in America, the Gongnip Shinbo (literal translation, The Korean News). The first issue of Gongnip Shinbo was published on November 20, 1905. Initially, it was a biweekly, then converted to a weekly starting in 1907. The organization had no access to a printing facility until 1907, so for the first two years, each issue was handwritten by a contributing member. 117 issues of Gongnip Shinbo were published over the course of its short life of three years and two months.⁴⁶
In less than six months of its inaugural issue, Gongnip Shinbo would become a vital source of community news following the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906. Through its reporting, the newspaper was able to keep the community up-to-date about the extent of the damage and the situation of the evacuees. Although no Koreans died in the disaster, the community suffered a great deal of property damage. The San Francisco Korean United Methodist Church building was spared but the office of the Gongnip Association was completely destroyed in the fire. About 40 Koreans evacuated to Oakland and 7 Korean orphan children who were living at an orphanage in San Francisco were also safely evacuated.⁴⁷
- First Christian Church 1905
The first Korean Christian church on the mainland U.S. was established in San Francisco in 1905. The early establishment of a church is not surprising as many Korean immigrants had attended American missionary schools, converted to Christianity in Korea, and had come to the U.S. with the missionaries’ encouragement and help. Starting in 1903, Ahn and other Korean Christians started holding Sunday services in community member’s homes. This group evolved to become the first Korean Mission or the San Francisco Korean United Methodist Church (SF-KUMC) in July of 1905. According to the report of Rev. H.B. Johnson, the director of the Pacific mission of the Methodist Church, the first church building was a residential home at 521 Page Street where they used two main rooms for church programs. The church had a total of 55 members: 17 from San Francisco, 23 from Vacaville and 15 from Sacramento. The church building might also have served as a boarding house as the report mentioned that it had 13 beds and some simple furniture.⁴⁸
In December 1908, the SF-KUMC started publishing a monthly magazine called Dae Do (The Korean Evangel). Although the church published the magazine with Rev. David Lee as the lead writer and editor, the contents of Dae Do was not for Christians only.⁴⁹ Articles ranged from everyday community news about newly arrived students, hospitalizations and announcements of marriages and deaths to international news about world events and of course about the political situation in Korea. The magazine’s goal was to be read throughout the U.S., China and Korea so that Koreans on both sides of the Pacific can get news about the other. In the first issue, the editorial board wrote, “. . . it occurred to us several months ago that a monthly magazine in the Korean language containing a few items of important news from the homeland would be welcome. We also believe that there are many Koreans living in the homeland who will be glad to read a periodical which keeps them informed as to the condition of their countrymen here and the evangelistic movement in this country.”⁵⁰
The challenge in staying connected with the small, scattered and transient population of early Korean immigrants is also expressed in the first issue of Dae Do. “In 1906, we started a mission [reference to the Korean United Methodist Church] in San Francisco. We tried to expand but we have had to contend with a grave difficulty growing as a result of the condition of Koreans in America who have to constantly change their location in order to follow their work, which is at one season in the orchard, at another in the vineyard, and at another in the hopyards. There are about 2,000 Koreans widely scattered over the Pacific Coast and how to keep in touch is a problem we are ever trying to solve.”⁵¹
- Daedong Association 1907
In 1907, another political organization called the Daedong Association (official Korean name, Dae Dong Bo Kuk Hui) was established in San Francisco and headquartered on Webster Street. Daedong Association had five regional offices in Stockton, Fresno, Collin, Denver, Colorado, and Salt Lake City, Utah. Daedong was established as a rival organization to the Gongnip Association after Chang Kyung, one of the co-founders of the Friendship Society, ran into conflicts with Ahn Chang-ho. Eventually, the two groups consolidated into the KNA.⁵²
For a brief period from 1907 to 1908, Daedong Association published a newspaper called the Daedong Gongbo (literal translation, The New Korean World). It too was handwritten initially, then switched to printing with a movable type in late 1907. Unfortunately, the newspaper quickly ran into financial trouble and had to stop publication altogether by April of 1908.⁵³ Interruption in publishing due to financial issues was a common problem for all Korean publications.
The rapid establishment of community, religious and political organizations by the early San Francisco Koreans reflected their pent-up desire to do what they could not do at home: organize and disseminate news without censorship. Upon declaring its protectorate status over Korea in 1905, the Japanese government immediately resorted to repressive means to quell Korean opposition by banning the publication of Korean newspapers, disbanding all political organizations, forcing political organizations to go underground and prohibiting public gatherings.⁵⁴ The ability to organize, together with the freedom to publish in the U.S., became the two greatest weapons with which the early Koreans could pursue a coordinated anti-Japanese movement not only in the U.S. but also in coordination with the diaspora community around the world including, Manchuria, Siberia, Hawaii, Mexico and Japan. The culmination of these organizational efforts was the establishment of the Korean National Association in 1908, an organization whose role in the community as well as the independence movement was so vital that it deserves a separate section.
The Korean National Association (“KNA” or “Kuk Min Hui” in Korean): A United Front
The Korean National Association, which became the leading organization for all Koreans in America, was formally established in San Francisco in February 1909. The KNA resulted from a rapid consolidation of small community groups with duplicative goals and functions starting in 1908. First, in October 1908, Gongnip Association of San Francisco merged with an umbrella organization for all Korean organizations in Hawaii called the Han-in Hap-sung Hui (literally meaning Korean Consolidated Association). Then in May of 1909, Daedong Association of San Francisco became the last organization to join the coalition, at which point, there was no Korean organization in all of the mainland, Hawaii and Mexico that was not part of the KNA.⁵⁵ The initial impetus behind the rapid consolidation was the need for an effective legal defense for two Koreans, Jeon Myeong-un and Jang In-hwan, awaiting trial in 1908 for the murder of an American diplomat (discussed below). The long-term significance of the KNA was in being the united voice for all Koreans in America. As mentioned above, the KNA under the leadership of Rev. David Lee also played critical roles in advocating for Korean immigrants seeking admission at Angel Island. After the KNA was established, from 1909 to 1922, the community experienced what Warren Kim calls the “golden age of the Korean community in America”⁵⁶ when all Koreans united under the leadership of the KNA. “The [Korean] people were united and able to support the movement for the freedom of Korea while maintaining collective welfare for themselves and promoting education for their children.”⁵⁷
The KNA grew quickly through the establishment of regional headquarters and local chapters in the U.S. and around the globe. The San Francisco office served dual functions as both the central headquarter as well as the regional headquarter for North America. Hawaii was a separate regional headquarter.⁵⁸ Soon after its establishment in 1909, the KNA sent representatives to start local chapters in several regions of Mexico and also to set up regional headquarters in Siberia and Manchuria, the two areas known for their large Korean diaspora communities. By 1914, the North American regional headquarter had over 38 local chapters under its wing, including several in Mexico, and about 850 members; the Hawaii regional headquarter had 73 local chapters and about 2300 members. According to the January 28, 1915 issue of the Shinhan Minbo, the KNA had local chapters as far and wide as Dinuba, Los Angeles, Riverside and Claremont, California, Vladivostok, Russia, Merida (Yucatan), Oaxaquena (Vera Cruz) and Hermosillo (Sonora), Mexico. The KNA was managed by a Central Committee composed of leaders of the central headquarter in San Francisco and the regional headquarters in Hawaii, Siberia and Manchuria.⁵⁹
The KNA’s office in San Francisco was first located at 2928 Sacramento Street. In 1910, the KNA purchased a building at 232 Perry Street and relocated there. In 1914, the KNA moved to a building on Oak Street. Then around 1936, the KNA moved its central headquarter to Los Angeles, moving to a building at 1368 West Jefferson Boulevard, which building is now a historic landmark.⁶⁰
Unfortunately, in January 1922, factionalism within the organization caused KNA’s central headquarter to be dissolved and reorganized.⁶¹ Although the KNA went through internal strife and reorganization, it continued its operation and served the Korean community until 1988.
The Shinhan Minbo (literally meaning people’s newspaper for a new, revitalized Korea), was the official newspaper published by the San Francisco KNA starting in 1909. Rev. David Lee was one of the leading editors and contributing writers. The Shinhan Minbo was a weekly Korean newspaper focused on news and editorials about the political situation in Korea and the world as well as stories of interest in the local Korean community such as recent arrivals and those returning to Korea, illnesses and deaths, and labor recruitment notices by employment brokers.⁶² One consistent focus of the newspaper, in the words of Professor Richard Kim, was “to link the welfare and well-being of Koreans abroad with the struggle for the independence of their homeland.”⁶³ According to Professor Kim, editorials were often addressed to “my fellow people of America and Hawaii,” reminding them that Korea’s future depended on them and declaring “an almost providential mission to aid their homeland.” The Shinhan Minbo always had several columns dedicated to news from the various KNA local chapters and listed contributions made by individuals by name and amount. It had a circulation of about 3,000: 700–800 in the mainland U.S., 500 to 600 in Hawaii, 400 in Mexico, and the balance in Manchuria and Siberia.⁶⁴ The Shinhan Minbo would become the longest circulating Korean newspaper, lasting through the 1970s.
The KNA’s critical role in the early Korean immigrant community cannot be overstated. It had a highly organized structure that allowed for efficient administration of the scattered population through its regional headquarters and numerous local branches. It was also a vital training ground for Koreans in America to learn how to advocate for themselves and fundraise before the independence movement went into high gear starting in 1919. Most importantly, the KNA’s greatest strength was in its ability to respond to local events that amplified the geopolitical situation in Korea in a way that gave voice and structure to the anti-Japanese sentiments of the Koreans in America. Some of its key involvement in the community are discussed below.
Trial of Jeon Myeong-un and Jang In-hwan.
The murder trial of Jeon Myeong-un and Jang In-hwan for the assassination of American diplomat Stevens was the catalyst for the consolidation of multiple Korean organizations into the KNA in 1908. This was a high-profile event that happened right here in San Francisco. More significantly, it was the first time that Koreans in America galvanized around the defense of their countrymen against those who they perceived as agents of Japan.
Stevens had been appointed by the Japanese government to be an advisor in Korea following Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese war in 1904. While Stevens’ nominal role was to serve as a third-party foreign affairs advisor to the Korean king, in effect he was a Japan loyalist. During Stevens’ tenure, he infuriated the Koreans with his public denigration of the Korean government and his support for Japan’s protectorate over Korea.⁶⁵
During Stevens’ visit to San Francisco in March of 1908, he repeated his defense of Japan’s protectorate to the press. On March 22, Several Korean community representatives from Daedong and Gongnip Associations confronted Stevens at the Fairmont Hotel demanding that he retract his statement. When he refused, the Korean representatives started to physically assault Stevens but the fight was quickly broken up by bystanders.⁶⁶
Then, on the morning of March 23, 1908, Jeon and Jang were at the Ferry Building as Stevens was arriving with the local Japanese consul. At approximately 9:30 am, three shots were fired. Stevens was hit in the right shoulder and his lower back and died two days later.⁶⁷ Jeon was a Gongnip Association member and Jang was a Daedong Association member. The two men had gone to the Ferry Building separately and apparently did not know each other. While Jeon was known to be the one who openly volunteered in community meetings to confront Stevens, Jang had fired the fatal shots that killed Stevens.⁶⁸ In prison, Jang proudly defended his action as an honorable act of patriotism in a statement which was translated and published in the March 25, 1908 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. It read in parts:
“Why would I not kill him [Stevens]? Thousands of thousands of people have been killed through his plan, and as much will be killed if he returns to Corea . . . So I shot him for the sake of my country . . . What is life? . . . if I kill him and die it will be glory to my country and happy to the people.”
The Korean community was not only moved by the selfless patriotism of their fellow countrymen but saw the trial as having a larger significance: a trial of the Koreans, the oppressed, against Japan, the oppressor. The consolidation of the community groups (which became the KNA) established a Jeon-Jang legal defense team in charge of all aspects of the trial including raising the legal defense fund, hiring of lawyers and the selection of translators. At one point, Rhee Syngman, then a graduate student at Harvard was asked to be the translator but he turned down the offer because as a Christian, he did not want to serve as a translator in a murder trial.⁶⁹ Support for the legal defense fund came from a broad coalition of Korean communities in the mainland U.S., Hawaii, Mexico, Japan, Manchuria and China, raising in a very short time a total of over $7,000, a significant sum given that Korean laborers in the U.S. were making only about 70 cents a day.⁷⁰ As a result of the legal defense work, the Korean community was able to secure a team of well-respected defense lawyers. Jang’s lawyers put forth “political insanity” as his key defense.⁷¹
Jeon was released in June of 1908 on grounds of insufficient evidence for conspiracy. The trial of Jang concluded in January of 1909, with Jang being found guilty of second degree murder and sentenced to 25 years at San Quentin maximum security prison. While this was a long sentence, Jang was spared from the death penalty.
Jang was released in 1919 for good behavior after serving just 10 years. He struggled with poor health for many years and committed suicide in 1930.⁷²
Anti-Japanese Movement from San Francisco
The early Koreans were beginning their lives in the mainland U.S. as pivotal events were unfolding in Korea from 1905 to 1919. Much as the establishment of the KNA was a direct response to the Jeon-Jang murder trial, the organizational efforts and anti-Japanese activities of the San Francisco Koreans directly correlated to the events in Korea in three core phases. The organizational work of the San Francisco Koreans were particularly significant in the first two phases.
Phase I: 1905 when Japan declared Korea a protectorate
When Japan unilaterally declared Korea a protectorate in 1905, the San Francisco Koreans’ immediate response was to establish its first political organization on the mainland, Gongnip Association. One of the Association’s earliest actions was to work in concert with a Hawaiian Korean organization to adopt a joint resolution protesting Japan’s aggression and refusing to recognize Japan’s authority over the Koreans in America. The Association also launched a public relations campaign by sending delegates to national, religious and international conventions to expose Japan’s aggression and to seek support for their cause for independence.⁷³
Then in 1906, when Japan took over Korea’s diplomatic functions and advised all overseas Koreans to submit to the jurisdiction of the Japanese consulates, the San Francisco Koreans used a controversy that arose after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to insist on their independence. Following the earthquake, the Japanese consul in San Francisco had sent false reports of numerous Korean casualties and injuries to the Japanese Resident-General in Korea when in fact there were no Korean casualty or serious injuries. Based on the false report, the Resident-General caused the Korean government to send $4,000 in relief funds to be distributed by the Japanese consul to the San Francisco Koreans. The local Koreans saw the Japanese consulate’s involvement in the relief effort as a ploy to legitimize its role in the Korean community. Despite great hardship after the earthquake, including the complete destruction of their office building, Gongnip Association resolved that “we shall not accept any relief fund distributed through the Japanese consul” and published the resolution in their newspaper Gongnip Shinbo on June 24, 1906. They also sent a letter to the Korean government explaining the same. Later, when Gongnip Association learned that a missionary at the Korean Mission had accepted some money, rice and soy sauce from the Japanese consul, the Association went as far as to publicly denounced him as a pro-Japanese traitor who misappropriated relief funds for himself. The incident forced the missionary to flee San Francisco.⁷⁴
Phase II: 1910 Japan’s annexation of Korea
The news of the annexation was received by the San Francisco Koreans with immense grief and sorrow. The headlines and lead sentences of articles in the September 21, 1910 issue of the Shinhan Minbo capture their sentiments:
“On August 29, 1910 we bid farewell to our country. Now we are a people with no country, no history, no freedom and no sovereignty”
“Alas! My Korea is Gone”
“Alas, fellow Koreans, our country that has lasted for 4,000 years has been destroyed today”
The KNA, having been formed in San Francisco just a year before, immediately adopted a resolution that declared the annexation as “null and void” and committed to “oppose the annexation until the independence of Korea be restored”. A copy of the resolution was sent to the Japanese emperor and all treaty nations of Korea.⁷⁵
The Koreans in America were disciplined and united in refusing the help or representation of any Japanese organizations. During the Hemet incident in 1913, the KNA was able to convince the U.S. government that Koreans were not Japanese subjects and establish itself as the representative voice of the community.
In June of 1913, a crew of Korean fruit pickers were recruited by apricot farmers in the town of Hemet in Southern California. When the workers arrived at the Hemet train station to report to work, however, they were physically threatened by an angry mob of anti-Japanese residents who mistook them to be Japanese and the workers were forcibly sent back on the same train.⁷⁶ “LITTLE BROWN MEN ARE ORDERED BACK: Korean Fruit Pickers, Mistaken for Japanese, Are Sent Away from Hemet” read the title of a June 27, 1913 article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Disturbed by the incident involving mob violence against Koreans mistaken to be Japanese, the Japanese Association of Southern California (JASC) tried to intervene on behalf of the Korean workers explaining that “Corea is a Japanese dependency”.⁷⁷ Under Japan’s terms of the annexation, Koreans were Japanese subjects. The KNA and the Korean workers themselves, however, denounced the “Japanese dependency” statement, forcefully asserted their independent identity from Japan, and refused the help of the JASC. A spokesman for the fruit pickers stated, “We are Koreans, not Japanese, and Japan has no reason to protest at Washington because of our troubles.”⁷⁸
Rev. David Lee, as president of the KNA, took the matter directly to Washington D.C. by sending an urgent telegram to the U.S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan arguing that the Korean fruit pickers were not Japanese subjects because they had left Korea before the Japanese annexation of Korea and therefore, neither Japan nor Japanese organizations had any right to intervene on their behalf. On July 2, Secretary Bryan, responded to Rev. Lee’s telegram affirming that Koreans in America were not Japanese because most of them had left Korea before the annexation and that the U.S. would deal with the KNA on all matters relating to Koreans.⁷⁹ From then on, the KNA became the representative of all Koreans in America.
Phase III: March 1, 1919 Movement Begins in Korea
Even before the news of the March 1st Movement, the KNA leadership had renewed hopes for their campaign for independence after hearing President Woodrow Wilson’s 1918 Fourteen Points speech and his doctrine of self-determination.⁸⁰ This was the same speech that inspired the leaders in Korea to organize the March 1st Movement. To the Koreans, President Wilson’s doctrine of self-determination for the former colonies in Europe was validation of Korea’s right to independence from Japan. Believing that the Korean case would have a receptive audience at the upcoming Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, the KNA appointed three delegates including Rhee Syngman to attend the conference. However, the delegates were not able to attend because the State Department in Washington D.C. would not issue them the required passports. Koreans were subjects of Japan and had to get passports through the Japanese consulate.⁸¹
For most Koreans in America, the March 13, 1919 issue of Shinhan Minbo was the first time they received news of the March 1st Movement. The entire paper was filled with news about the Movement, both hopeful and disturbing:
The Call for Independence is Shaking Heaven and Earth
Korea’s Independence Mansei! God help us!
Under the Threat of Guns and Knives, Declaration of Independence is Proclaimed Widely
Several Thousand are Apprehended and Subjected to Cruel Punishment
With the start of the March 1st Movement, the independence movement in America entered a whole new phase in which its role shifted from responding primarily to local and regional issues to one that was supportive of a worldwide coalition of Koreans fighting for independence. The KNA, with its vast organizational network that was built over a decade of strategic leadership, played a critical part.
Soon after March 1, there was a flurry of meetings in San Francisco and the KNA promptly passed a resolution officially organizing the independence movement in America. A key part of the resolution provided that:⁸²
- The expenses of all Korean [independence] movements in America and Europe shall be met by the patriotic contributions of Korean residents in the U.S., Hawaii and Mexico.
- The voluntary patriotic contributions shall come from every Korean resident in America and are to be paid at the offices of the Korean National Association in San Francisco and Honolulu.
The “patriotic contributions” (“Aigukgum” in Korean) were collected in the form of a pledge equivalent to 5% of a person’s income. While it is not clear how strictly the KNA enforced the pledge requirement, it is well-established that the patriotic contributions constituted the primary source of operational funds for the Korean Provisional Government that would be established in Shanghai a few months later.⁸³
In fact, from 1919 on, fundraising was the greatest contribution to the movement by Koreans in America. Even though the size of the Korean population in the U.S. was far smaller than that in Manchuria and Siberia, the Koreans in America, and particularly those in the San Francisco area, provided the bulk of the financial support. In 1919 alone, the KNA collected over $88,000 from Koreans in America with more than half of that amount coming from Korean farmers in the Sacramento Valley who had done especially well during the boom years of World War I. The Koreans in Hawaii contributed only about one-fifth of the amount collected from the mainland.⁸⁴ In a time when workers made just $1.00 to $1.50 per day, every contribution, big and small, was a great sacrifice. Lee Bum Young, an Angel Island immigrant and a devoted activist in the independence movement, once told the poignant story of that certain Mr. Kim, an illiterate, who would “empty out all the cash saved in a red coffee can and give it to him without hesitation. It was about $50 at a time.”⁸⁵
From April 14 to 16, Seo Jae Pil (aka Philip Jaisohn) led the Korean Congress (also referred to as “Liberty Congress”) in Philadelphia modeled after the Continental Congress that met during the American revolutionary war. More than 200 delegates from the Korean diasporic communities around the world attended before prominent American guests and the media. The Korean Congress had two key goals: to mobilize the Koreans in the diaspora to reaffirm their commitment to the independence movement and to draw American attention to Korea’s cause for liberty from Japan’s repressive regime. Particularly aware of the second goal, the Congress was carefully orchestrated to make it friendly and appealing to the Americans. For example, all speeches and discussion at the Congress were in English and all resolution of the Congress was prepared in English. The Congress was also disciplined in reaching all decisions through a democratic process with opportunities for open discussion, debate and amendments. Last but not least, the Congress invoked American principles of liberty and democracy in drafting the two key resolutions: “An Appeal to America” to support the independence movement, and “Aims and Aspirations of the Koreans”, which set the guiding principles of the independence movement.⁸⁶
To conclude the two-day meeting, the Korean Congress invited all of the attendees to join them in a symbolic parade from the meeting site to Independence Hall where Rhee Syngman reportedly read the Proclamation of Independence of Korea.⁸⁷
The Korean Congress was followed by a period of heavy lobbying efforts in the U.S. to get the support for the independence movement and recognition of the Korean Provisional Government. Around this time, Seo also started serving as the head of the Korean Information Bureau in Philadelphia, which was the diplomatic and propaganda branch of the KNA. This Bureau organized the League of the Friends of Korea composed of more than 100 prominent Americans who sympathized with the independence movement and sought to increase public awareness of the issue. The League had strong support from Protestant missionaries in Korea.⁸⁸ According to Warren Kim, the League “helped the Korean movement tremendously.”⁸⁹
In September, 1919, a consolidated Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea (“KPG”) was established. It was headquartered in Shanghai, China, with Rhee Syngman as the president based in Washington D.C. The KPG was a presidential system of government, governed by a constitution, and with a 39-member national assembly representing 13 provinces of Korea and those overseas Koreans living in China, Siberia, Manchuria, Hawaii and the U.S.⁹⁰ The “patriotic contributions” that the KNA collected was the main funding source for the activities of the KPG.⁹¹ The control and use of the that fund, however, became the source of bitter factionalism within the Korean community in the U.S. in the 1920s between Rhee and his loyal followers on the one hand, and the KNA leadership on the other, causing a permanent rift in the community. Finally, in March 1925, Rhee was impeached and removed from his post as the president of the KPG.
Upon his impeachment, Rhee continued his political activities through Dong-Ji-Hui, an organization and fundraising organ he established in Honolulu in 1921. Dong-Ji-Hui expanded in the mainland U.S. through regional chapters.⁹² Support for the independence movement by Koreans in America from this time on was permanently split into two: one that was composed of loyal followers of Rhee and those who chose to support the KPG through the KNA.
The rift in the Korean community notwithstanding, the accomplishments of the San Francisco Koreans, in establishing the earliest political organizations, publishing the first newspapers and magazines, and in advocating for their rights as a community despite their small number, were truly admirable. As new arrivals in the U.S., facing daunting obstacles and many barely speaking English, the San Francisco Koreans dared to embark on not just one but two uncharted paths: as immigrants and as political activists fighting for independence from Japan. Slowly but readily, as they worked through these challenges over the years, the San Francisco Koreans and their fellow early Koreans in the mainland became “Korean Americans”.
On March 1, 1920, exactly a year after the March 1st Movement started, Koreans in a small California farming town of Dinuba, observed the anniversary and paid respects to the numerous patriots of that movement.⁹³ A small community of Korean families and migrant workers was starting to take hold in Dinuba as well as the neighboring town of Reedley by 1920. Many of these Dinuba Koreans had landed in San Francisco and over time had migrated to central valley for work, so they were all an extension of the community with San Francisco beginnings. The day started in a somber tone with a prayer meeting in the sanctuary of the Dinuba Korean Presbyterian Church followed by a reading of the Proclamation of Independence of Korea, the same text that was read by the brave patriots on March 1, 1919, in Korea. Then the event turned celebratory. With the popping of firecrackers and the Dinuba marching band playing, the 300 or so Korean dignitaries, guests and local residents lined up to reenact the 1919 protest, marching through downtown Dinuba, waving Korean flags and shouting, “Daehan Dongnip Mansei!” (translated, “hurray for Korean independence!”). The tradition of commemorating the March 1st Movement has been an annual event in Dinuba since then and will be observed again on March 2, 2019.⁹⁴
To the reader: The endnotes for this article are provided as a separate publication. I extend my special gratitude to Dr. Kenneth Klein, the Head Librarian, and Ms. Joy Kim, the Curator of the Korean Heritage Library, of the East Asian Library at U.S.C. They were both incredibly generous with their time and assistance whenever I needed help with this research. Thanks to decades of their hard work, the East Asian Library at U.S.C. has one of the best archival collection of historical documents, periodicals and books about Korean immigration history.