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  • Doing Korean American History in the Twenty-First Century
  • Lili M. Kim1

"If you want to change history, become a historian." This was the proclamation conspicuously displayed on my undergraduate history advisor's office door. It would take many years before I could fully appreciate the radical humor of the statement, but now that I have been part of the profession of researching and teaching history for a half-dozen years as an academician, this quote has a newfound meaning for me. Those of us teaching and writing Asian American history, in a sense, have changed history—or, more precisely, changed the kind of history that gets taught in colleges and universities. Begun as a marginalized, activist effort in the late 1960s by students demanding an inclusive curriculum that reflected their experiences, Asian American history courses steadily (if too slowly) found their way into course catalogs at some colleges and universities. Almost 40 years later, the field of Asian American history has become a bonafide field of inquiry and has enjoyed something of an explosion of scholarship in recent years.2

Despite this welcome and much needed proliferation of knowledge production in Asian American history, Korean American history has remained a relatively uncharted territory. One of the challenges facing Asian American history is how we address the common, shared historical experience of Americans of Asian descent without diminishing or neglecting the real ethnic differences and particularities that stem from the varied geopolitical and economic histories of the ancestral homelands [End Page 199] that intricately shape their experiences as Asian Americans. Under the preponderance of scholarship on Japanese and Chinese American history, Korean American history has not enjoyed the same kind of attention from historians.3 A number of factors may account for this. The first and most obvious is that there simply were not many graduate students entering Ph.D. history programs with an interest in writing a dissertation in Korean American history. But, even students with the desire to study Korean American history may have been discouraged by the seeming difficulty of finding primary sources as well as not having mentors—not necessarily Korean Americanists, specifically, but any U.S. historians—who would encourage and supervise a dissertation in Korean American history. But as new generations of scholars are coming of age and more historians of Asian America are being tenured, the possibilities of pursuing Korean American history have opened up much more than in the past. The maturation of Asian American history as a field has necessarily laid the groundwork for more scholarship in Korean American history to come.

The History of Korean American History

Koreans immigrated in large numbers to the United States—or, more accurately, to the Territory of Hawai'i before it became the 50th state—beginning in 1903, and the number of Korean immigrants has grown dramatically since the 1965 immigration reform. The most well-known and the single most thorough work on the history of pioneer Korean immigrants is by Wayne Patterson, a historian of Korea by training. In his book, The Korean Frontier in America: Immigration to Hawaii, 1896–1910, Patterson examines the public events as well as the behind-the-scenes work of politicians and businessmen who made possible the recruitment of Korean laborers for sugar plantation owners.4 Utilizing important sources in English, Japanese, and Korean, this study contributes significantly to our understanding of the circumstances under which the first wave of major Korean immigration began. As historian Ji-Yeon Yuh has pointed out, however, the focus of Patterson's work is on the American players, such as Horace Allen, the American minister to Korea, and David Deschler, an opportunistic businessman turned recruiter for the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association, rather than the Korean immigrants themselves.5 Published in [End Page 200] 1988, Patterson's book remained one of the few monographs in Korean American history for more than a decade until his second book, The Ilse: First-Generation Korean Immigrants in Hawai'i, 1903–1973, was published in 2000.6 Patterson's follow-up book addresses the criticism by Yuh and "picks up the story where the earlier book ends, covers a longer period of time, and employs...


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