The Lives and Legacies of Koreans on the Big Island

This book is currently sold out; however, a second, expanded edition is being planned for release in 2025. Please direct inquiries to Seri Luangphinth of the UH Hilo English Department.

Prologue: The Journey So Far

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I couldn't imagine that they had to leave behind their loving families, hometowns, and country for this meager existence. Leaving one’s family, hometown, and country was often judged as shirking family responsibility and duty. Nevertheless, many departed from their homes and traveled via Japan, which was an enemy country at that time, and traversed the Pacific Ocean for Hawaii. I can’t imagine how difficult that decision was, to travel to a foreign land, with an unfamiliar culture, different language, and new people, so very far from home.

-- Gyo Mun Kim, “Joseon People Buried on a Coffee Farm in Kona” (2016)

It started with a simple plan to develop Korean language studies here in Hilo that led to the chance discovery of a charcoal factory, just one of several unassuming businesses run by Korean nationalists in the 1930s under the leadership of a man who would become Korea’s first elected president. Even more of a surprise was the location of this enterprise—Kurtistown, an old plantation village no more than a fifteen-minute drive from the UH Hilo campus. This came as a revelation to many of us, even to the local descendants of these very Korean immigrants. None of us would have suspected that such internationally important activities had taken place here in our own backyard. And as we pondered the importance of this particular fact, we started asking questions, searching for stories, and literally digging through many layers of weeds and brush and forgotten memories to find that there is nothing simple or modest about the Korean experience on this Island. Our efforts to document and celebrate this aspect of our Island’s heritage ended up growing into a major art exhibition, a multi-faceted cultural performance night, literary readings by local Korean writers, and this book—what could have been a simple exhibition catalog has blossomed into what we now believe to be the first major attempt to compile a comprehensive collection of the history and experiences of Koreans on the Big Island.

We have had a little less than a year to pull together a scattering of different materials and genres into this collection—scholarly articles and books, local community publications, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks and piles of old photographs, oral histories, archival materials, and even old gravestones. Working against our plans for a quick and concise essay was the sheer fact that the more we dug, the more we found. Interviewing local residents brought forth connections that were intricate and sometimes even contradictory—leading to more and more avenues to pursue in terms of the relationships between Hawai‘i’s Koreans (including Korean-Americans) and between our subjects and the sociopolitical developments of the Peninsula. A chance search of the internet revealed a long-lost criminal case that kept becoming more complex as we uncovered archival material in Hilo and in Honolulu; those documents, in turn, helped us to find business and educational records of many different generations, whose patterns of migration had become increasingly more circular in the flow between the Islands and between this Island, the mainland, and elsewhere.

Researching graves in particular gave us a glimpse into the past to a time when Korea was still a unified peninsula known as Joseon (朝鮮: 조선), when Jeju Island (濟州島: 제주도) was once still part of Jeolla Province (全羅道: 전라도), and when Seoul was called Gyeongseong (京城: 경성)—these became a starting point in our later quest to track down and photograph more than two dozen hometowns of the first generations of immigrants as recorded on their headstones to help us create links between homelands for this book.

And there is still so much more to uncover.

One example is we have only just started unravelling another interconnected story. A review of Aaron S. Y. Chung’s grandmother’s scrapbook brought forth an old envelope with an address that was still viable. That led us to find his extended family in Ulsan, Korea—two sets of people linked by grandmothers who were sisters more than fifty years ago. Where this will now go is anyone’s guess. We are also on the trail of another story of a grandfather who was “bought” as a child then transported here to serve as a house-boy during the plantation era. Yet another example is our need to further document some of the key leaders and voices in the Korean community. A few have retired and/or moved elsewhere, such as the mysterious Laura Kim (김경순), the author of “Alae Arirang,” who we were unable to locate. Others, like Professor Eric Im (임익순), unexpectedly passed on; we could not follow-up and complete his narrative regarding his father, one of a small handful of Koreans who were promoted to professorships in higher education under Japanese Occupation. We will continue our efforts to reach out and record as many stories as we can, but time is working against us.

Part of our scramble to produce this manuscript has been in response to the fear we are already many years too late. While many traces of the Korean experience have been preserved, there is much that has been lost to time. One example is the Hilo-based Korean language newspaper, the Hilo Sisa (힐로 시사), which ran weekly from 1924 to 1929; no copies of this publication could be found. Another is the estate of Syngman Rhee (이승만), which includes both his house and the original charcoal factory; the estate has since passed into private, non-Korean hands and it is unclear if preservation is underway to ensure the survival of the site. The graves of the first wave of immigrants—known as the Ilse (일세)—are also disintegrating. Many of the ones we located at ‘Alae, Hōlualoa, Pāhala, and Kohala have either been totally obliterated by the elements or are marked by stones so badly weathered that the wealth of information they contain—hometowns, birth dates, names written in classical Chinese, and lists of extended family members—has disappeared. More troubling was the discovery that a cliff-side plot that contained the remains of both Japanese and Koreans at Hakalau Point was relocated without any efforts to record the information on the gravestones; according to an archeological data recovery plan prepared for the Shropshire Group, “the graves were disinterred in the 1970s. The graves were disinterred by backhoe, and the gravestones were placed back into the excavation unit [sic] . . . The remains of the individuals were placed in a mass grave at Homelani Park.” We hope that this book will encourage further studies and conservation work; in particular, copies of the inventories of the graves we undertook for this project will be given to the Hawaiian Collection of UH Hilo’s Mookini Library and to the Hawai‘i Plantation Museum in Pāpaʻikou to encourage future scholars to carry on this important work. We, ourselves, look forward to producing a second edition in the future with updated research and information as they become available.

Nevertheless, we do feel it timely to publish more regionally specific studies of Koreans to show the complexity of different Korean communities around the world. Recent work by Korea’s National Museum of Contemporary Art established a much needed intellectual connection between Korean national consciousness and previously underreported histories of peoples overseas. Their Korean Diaspora Artists in Asia (아시아 이주 작가전) does an excellent job of pulling together contemporary art in conjunction with critical essays on the experiences of Koreans in Japan, in China, and in parts of the former Soviet Union in what is now known as the Commonwealth of Independent States (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan), for the sake of “reveal[ing] the life of the Koreans who proudly took root in other foreign lands and sublimated their trials into beauty and healthiness despite their seemingly fragile existence.” Part of the reasoning for our February 2017 exhibition was to similarly highlight the role of art vis-à-vis this Island’s particular narrative of history--we brought together a Korean artist, who spent the last ten years of his life here, with a traditional Korean calligrapher, whose work touches upon the local history of Koreans. Selected translations of works by Hae Kyung Seo (서혜경) from the exhibition represented key political and philosophical ideas that have been of major importance to the Korean nation. In addition, the event was also undertaken for the purpose of reintroducing the importance of that art in conjunction to struggles over language and sovereignty to Korean Americans on the Big Island, some of whom are many generations removed and for whom all connections to the culture have been lost. For outsiders to this community, this served as an introduction to a group of people whose unique national background and artistic contributions have gone underreported, locally and globally. These goals were even more visually targeted in the accompanying performance night as the interview with Trina Chinyung Nahm-Mijo and Bonnie Kim in Chapter Nine makes clear. We have since identified two other Korean artists who have been quietly practicing their craft—Kim C. S. Chang (김종숙) and Su Ok Kim (김수옥); they are also included in this book as an example of the fusion of Hawai‘i, mainland, and Korean sensibilities that are unique to this place. All of these events are simply more recent iterations of intersecting pathways. We knew that the East Hawai‘i Cultural Center, which hosted our exhibition, occupies the space once home to the Sheriff, just off “Jail Street” (now Kino‘ole). But who would have known we were on the same route between the courthouse and the Hilo Prison that respectively tried and held plantation Koreans for “rioting” in response to what appears to be a clash of cultural differences a little more than a hundred years ago.

This book culminates the first collection of these voices and crisscrossing pathways that are so unique to the Korean experience on this Island, and this collection speaks to how the global impacts the local. Hawai‘i Island’s Korean immigrants have included hardened laborers and maybe even more hardened criminals; there are “collaborators,” individuals looking to escape oppression, and others who went back to fight against it. There are those who lived quiet private lives, and many who have been completely forgotten-- and there are the ones who devoted themselves to active public service—doctors, ministers, business leaders, teachers, lawyers, and politicians. Some squandered their money on drinking and gambling; but many others sent monies home for the sake of their families and for the Korean Nation. There are those for whom Korea is barely a distant thought; and there are those who fully immerse themselves in the language, arts, and performances of their forefathers and foremothers. There are those who proudly revere the country now known as Daehanminguk (대한민국) and who worship figures like Syngman Rhee (이승만) and Chung Hee Park (박정희); and, conversely, there are those who hang their heads in shame and refuse to visit the Peninsula ever again. But whatever their persuasions and their beliefs, they all collectively make up the Korean experience on the Big Island. For better or for worse, their stories reveal how history is lived and endured on the level of the individual—and for this reason, there will always be contradictions in perspectives and interpretations of how that history has unfolded. Our job was to give all of them the chance to be heard so that not one voice would be silenced, regardless of how uncomfortable the conversation may become, because only in acknowledging the full realm of different experiences can we perhaps come to terms with the conflicts and the traumas that still linger. More importantly, this book stands as a symbolic testament to the contributions of many individuals to the larger narrative that make up the “Korean Diaspora”—it is our hope that such contributions are never forgotten or taken for granted despite our relative obscurity in the Pacific. Demonized and slandered by both sides of the Pacific, Koreans have much to be praised for in terms of their resilience, forbearance, and quiet dedication to our community and to their motherland.

The early Korean nationalist Kim Gu (김구) found inspiration from the following poem by an early Joseon monk, Hyujeong (휴정), who led an army against invading Japanese in 1592:

눈 덮힌 들판을 걸을 때
함부로 어지러이 걷지말라
오늘 내가 남긴 발자취는
후인들의 이정표가 되리니

When walking on the field covered with snow
Do not walk without thinking.
The footsteps that I leave today
Will be the milestone for future generations.

These words of wisdom reflect the importance of the individual—what he or she does, no matter how insignificant or fleeting the action may seem, can and will endure for others to find and follow. And even if we today do not know all of the names and faces of the Koreans of the past, their collective experiences intersect with our paths as we look to forge milestones for subsequent generations. Their stories are our stories for us to heed, to cherish, and to carry forth into the future.