Korea Times project: Honolulu, first home of Korean immigrants

December 30, 2015
Korean Christian Church, established 1918, near Honolulu, Hawaii (Korea Times)

Korean Christian Church, established 1918, near Honolulu, Hawaii (Korea Times)

By Lee Hae-gwang

Early Korean immigrants to the United States — including those who arrived in Honolulu onboard the SS Gaelic on Jan. 13, 1903 — worked on Hawaii’s sugar cane plantations as contract laborers for 69 cents an hour.

In 1910, Japan annexed Korea. Many of the immigrants dreamt of returning to a homeland free of Japanese rule; some contributed support funds toward the independence movement.

Three historic locations remain standing, remnants of a Korean American history that will meet its 113th year come January.

First, the church. Churches have always been more than religious spaces for Korean American communities.

Just outside Honolulu, the Korean Christian Church — founded by Syngman Rhee in 1918 and remodeled by first Korean architect Kim Chan-jae in 1938 to resemble the palatial Gwanghwamun in Seoul — fast became a political haven for independence supporters.

It housed a Korean language class to teach second- and third-generation Korean Americans and, until 1930, released a newsletter twice a year.

Korean Cultural Center of Hawaii (Korea Times)

Korean Cultural Center of Hawaii (Korea Times)

Within the city, The Korean Cultural Center of Hawaii is located in the former space of the local Korean National Association.

The KNA, founded by early Korean American immigrant leaders like Rhee, Dosan Ahn Chang-ho and Park Yong-man by merging other Korean organizations in San Francisco and Honolulu, would become one of the largest supporters of the Korean provisional government and the most prominent voice of the fledgling Korean community in the United States.

The Korean Care Home in Honolulu, also founded by Rhee, in 1924, offered elders, especially those who had been widowed, a place of rest.

About 20 seniors currently call the institution home, about 60 percent of them Korean.

Today, Hawaii is home to about 35,000 Koreans, who make up 2 percent of the overall population.

Kim Dong-kyun, president of the Hawaii chapter of the Korean American Federation, said the local community is in the midst of planning projects to spread the word about Hawaii’s role in the independence movement and as an early immigrant home.


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  40. Cierra Lovejoy

    June 15, 2017 at 11:45 AM

    Hello, I would like to know how can I search for a woman in her late 50s early 60s that relocated to Hawaii around 1979 to 1980 I have two photos of her and last married to the deceased Kenneth k. Whitson of the us army. She mothered two sons Kenneth and Fredrick. And desperately wants to know if she is still alive or deceased. Thank you