UH Hilo English professor’s new book explores the history of Korean immigrants to Hawai‘i Island

Seri Luangphinith’s new book unveils past mysteries about the island’s Korean immigrants.

By Mikayla Toninato.

Seri Luangphinith in Korean traditional clothing (red). Scrolls in background.
Seri Luangphinith

A professor of English at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo has written a book about the history of Korean immigrants to Hawaiʻi Island.

The making of The Paths We Cross: The Lives and Legacies of Koreans on the Big Island (Ka Noio ʻAʻe Ale, UH Hilo Independent Press, 2018) was a long and arduous journey taken by Professor of English Seri Luangphinith to unveil past mysteries about the island’s Korean immigrants. She started six years ago with an unexpected beginning.

When the last French professor left UH Hilo six years ago, there was debate over what languages should be continued. Luangphinith, as humanities division chair, surveyed students to find which language they would most like to take. The answer was unexpected — Korean was the top choice.

Luangphinith began working with a private Korean language teacher and uncovering more about local Korean history. The teacher had a classmate who did calligraphy in Korea, which sparked the idea to create an art exhibition.

“Most exhibitions publish a catalog and that’s all we were going to do,” says Prof. Luangphinith.

She explains as to how this exhibition catalogue became so much more.

“My job was to put all of it together, but the more I dug the more stuff I found. This led to more people and more stories. So, what we had originally envisioned to be just an exhibition catalogue turned into this book. Now it’s about 200 pages worth of history.”

The initial intake of information came through word of mouth, talking to people and listening to their stories. Luangphinith explains how when she first started digging for information, she had tapped into a gold mine of knowledge. “You meet one person and they send you to three. Then those people send you to three more. It just kept growing and growing.”

Waves of Korean immigrants to Hawaiʻi Island

Luangphinith’s interest in Korean immigrants has a personal component. Her mother’s family is originally from Japan. They emigrated to Hawaiʻi Island around 1910 to work the sugarcane fields in Keaʻau and Kurtistown. Her father’s family is of Chinese extraction from Laos. “They were forced to flee when South East Asia became a mess during the Vietnam War,” she explains. “That’s why the stories of Koreans resounded with me — they remind me of what my father’s countrymen suffered.”

The history of South Korea’s relationship with Hawaiʻi dates all the way back to the first president of South Korea, Syngman Rhee. He had a charcoal factory up in Mountain View on Hawaiʻi Island and was sending money back to the resistance against the Japanese occupation of South Korea.

“Nobody knew about that,” exclaims Luangphinith. “Here was a major historical figure being on the Big Island and nobody knew about it.”

Immigrants to Hawaiʻi Island from South Korea go back as far as 1905.

“People just assume they’re local, but they actually have this huge history,” Luangphinith says.

Seri and Mrs. Lauder who wears an orchid lei. The two are holding each other's hands and touching foreheads.
Prof. Luangphinith and Mrs. Keum Soon Lauder who witnessed the occupation of Korea by Japan. Mrs. Lauder’s story is in Chapter 1 of Prof. Luangphinith’s new book. Mrs. Lauder now lives in Kurtistown, Hawaiʻi Island. The photo was taken opening night of the 2017 Art Exhibition at the East Hawaiʻi Cultural Center, Hilo. Courtesy photo.

The first wave of immigrants came from 1905 through the 1920s. The second wave came during the Japanese occupation, then the next came because of the Korean War.

“You have all these different people who made up these different waves and then they all started inter-marrying and it became this really big web,” the professor explains.

Amidst oral interviews, Luangphinith began digging through old newspapers and public records of Koreans in the Lyman Museum archives.

“Then, on a hunch I started looking at Korean cemeteries because I knew that Japanese and Chinese immigrants recorded hometowns and families on their graves and sure enough the Koreans also did the same thing.”

Seri is doing a rubbing of the words on a tombstone using a large sheet of paper and a charcoal pencil, which she holds in her right hand. She is turned, looking up at camera.
Prof. Luangphinith did research for the book in local cemeteries. Here she is tracing a relief of the Chinese characters on a grave in Pahala. Courtesy photo, click to enlarge.

The next part of the book became trying to track down as many Korean graves as possible. Luangphinith and her team began indexing graves to show the name, hometown, dates and any family they had. She then journeyed to South Korea for an entire summer tracking down hometowns and taking pictures.

Prof. Luangphinith stands at a large stone marker with Lorean calligraphy. The sea is in the background.
Prof. Luangphinith at the southern most tip of Korea (noted on stone). She came here in search of Haenam County, one of the hometowns listed on the graves at Alae Cemetery, Hilo. Courtesy photo.

When asked about the hardest part of producing the book, Luangphinith replies in two parts.

“First, the hardest was the lack of support. There weren’t many people interested on campus with helping to see this through. But the hardest was trying to negotiate the very different understandings of history.”

Luangphinith explains the previously held biases by everyone living on the island: “There’s a big anti-Japanese sentiment among some Koreans, but there were also Koreans who benefitted and profited from occupation. The Japanese went in and they oppressed and exploited people and forced them into manual labor — many thousands of women were forced into sexual slavery as ‘comfort women,’ but at the same time the country undertook rapid industrialization and there were Koreans who benefited from that.”

“Also,” she adds, “because of what happened during the ensuing civil war there are people who are very anti-North Korea. But the South Koreans apparently were also guilty of atrocities. There were about 200,000 that the South Korean government killed, among whom was the father of a prominent doctor here in Hilo.”

Putting history into perspective

In sum, there was a delicate balance to be found trying to move past the various and sometimes conflicting experiences.

“It was hard trying to achieve a delicate balance between respecting strong opinions and truthful reporting,” Luangphinith explains. “It’s not the job of this book to say what’s right or wrong but rather to put that history into perspective of how it affected people here,”

After publishing, Luangphinith sent a copy of the book to the president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in. His office responded expressing their gratitude for light being shed on the history of Korea and United States relations.

Letter in English and Korean.
Letter to Prof. Luangphinith from the Office of South Korea President Moon Jae-in, click to enlarge.

Part of the need for a Hawaiʻi Island-centered book is because researchers on Oʻahu tend to tell the Koreans’ story believing that most immigrants left the outer islands for Oʻahu, when in reality, Luangphinith found, many stayed.

“It was important to tell the Big Island story because the Big Island is different,” she says. “A lot of people tend to romanticize the first wave of immigrants who came here. I think part of the pain may be in understanding that not everybody who first came may have been good. We may have had a criminal element seep in. Immigrants did what they had to do to survive and those were hard decisions that they had to make. And that is true for the more recent waves.”

She adds, “The division will remain as long as people are not able to move forward. Maybe people won’t be able to forgive each other until they can forgive themselves.”

The hope for this book is to be able to connect Koreans with a hometown they never knew. Trying to give the history back to a largely overlooked ethnic group, this book aims to make that history accessible for people who can no longer read or speak the language.

But this amazing journey that Luangphinith and her colleagues ventured on is only just beginning. The history of Koreans that lies within Hawaiʻi Island has only just been tapped into and there is much more to uncover. Luangphinith is continuing research at the archives hoping to uncover court documents for other cases; she and her colleague Bela Conley-Ramsay in the English department will be undertaking further explorations of forgotten plantation graves this coming year.

The book, The Paths We Cross: The Lives and Legacies of Koreans on the Big Island, is now available for purchase at the UH Hilo Bookstore and the East Hawaiʻi Cultural Center.

Mikayla Toninato, a junior completing a semester at UH Hilo through the National Student Exchange program, is a writer for UH Hilo Stories. She is majoring in journalism with minors in graphic design and digital media studies at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

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