- Purchase/rental options available:
Manoa 14.2 (2002-2003) 30-31
[Access article in PDF]
The First Wave Pioneers:
Esther Kwon Arinaga
At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was an air of uncertainty about Korea's future. The great powers of Japan, China, and Russia were threatening to take over the country. In several of the provinces, a severe drought had ruined crops, causing widespread famine. In the northern provinces, particularly around P'yongyang, stories began to circulate about Hawai'i as a place where a person could get rich quickly and where education was free. The adventurous among the Koreans began to look with interest at the land across the Great Pacific.
It was January 13, 1903. The SS Gaelic eased into her berth at Honolulu Harbor, carrying the first Korean immigrants recruited to work on Hawai'i's sugar plantations. There were 56 men, 21 women, and 25 children. In the next two years more than seven thousand others, including six hundred women, would join this small band of pioneers. In 1905, the Korean government—upset about the alleged mistreatment of Korean workers in Mexico and pressured by the Japanese, who controlled Korea under a protectorate treaty—stopped workers from going abroad.
The first leg of the ocean journey was a short trip from a Korean port city to Japan, where the immigrants boarded a large ship bound for Honolulu. During the twenty-two-day ordeal from Kobe or Yokohama, people were packed like cattle into a large cargo hold; bunk beds were stacked three high. The smell of vomit permeated the ship. Until 1924, picture brides made the same journey, and though conditions had improved, the seasickness and homesickness were the same. On many of the voyages, a minister or a so-called Bible woman accompanied the immigrants, giving comfort and spiritual sustenance to the weary travelers. By the time the ships docked in Honolulu, many immigrants had been converted to Christianity.
Upon landing, the travelers were divided into groups and sent to sugar plantations on various islands. Like the Chinese and Japanese immigrants before them, the Koreans were kept together in one camp, the bachelors living in dormitories and the families in one-room apartments. Cooking was done in community kitchens. Women who had never worked before now toiled in the cane fields with the men, and did the cooking and laundry as well.
Despite their poverty, the immigrants had dreams for their children. Steeped in Confucian tradition, they felt that only education would better their sons and daughters. With foresight and great sacrifice, they sent the children who were not old enough to work in the fields to private boarding schools for Korean children. These were established first by the Methodist Mission and later by the Korean Christian Church. At the beginning, only boys were sent to these schools, but later, girls also attended them. [End Page 30]
After 1910, the Korean immigrants started to leave the plantations for Honolulu, finding jobs in laundries, tailor shops, furniture shops, and shoe-repair shops. A few opened small businesses of their own.
A high-ranking Korean official passing through Honolulu had observed the loneliness of the bachelor workers, who spent their idle time drinking, gambling, and smoking opium. At his suggestion, the Korean government approved the emigration of young women who, after exchanging pictures with potential husbands, agreed to marry the men upon their arrival in Honolulu. Unfortunately, the men often sent pictures of themselves taken many years earlier, before the sun and years of hard work had taken their toll. To the young brides of seventeen or eighteen, the first meetings with their potential husbands at the Immigration Station proved a shocking, disappointing, and sometimes frightening experience.
A large number of the picture brides whose husbands had found work in towns like Wahiawa, Hilo, and Honolulu escaped life on the plantations. And though most of the women had come from the more densely populated areas of Korea's southern provinces and were accustomed to hard work, they still found life in Hawai'i difficult. Their husbands' wages often did not cover...