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  • Curating KoreannessMusical Activities of Elite Korean Women in Hawai'i during the Japanese Colonial Period, 1910–1945
  • Heeyoung Choi (bio)

During the early twentieth century, residents of Honolulu regularly witnessed multiethnic groups dressed in traditional costumes presenting music and dance of their own culture onstage for tourists and residents. Koreans were among such performers. Beginning in the late 1920s, an increasing number of Korean cultural organizations in Hawai'i prompted a surge of cultural interaction among diverse ethnic groups, including those from Japan, China, and the Philippines. At such multicultural events, where immigrant communities shared their traditional culture, Koreans frequently performed traditional dance, folk songs, and new dramatic plays incorporating Korean folktales. Traditionally in Korea, the works of preserving, adapting, and presenting Korean performing arts had been performed by "professional" female entertainers called kisaeng. And as such, the growing popularity and sightings of Korean cultural presentations in Hawai'i raise questions about who took the role of Korea's professional entertainers in Hawai'i far away from their homeland. This study examines women's status and their evolving role in music in early twentieth-century Hawai'i, identifying factors that motivated and contributed to their musical activities.

During this period, Korean Hawaiians were in a precarious position. Most first-generation Korean Hawaiian immigrants were legally considered Japanese nationals, as the Empire of Japan annexed Korea from 1910 to 1945. Furthermore, the Korean population in Hawai'i, although about five times as big (per capita) as that in the US mainland, was significantly less than that of other ethnic groups: Koreans comprised less than 5 percent of the Hawaiian population, while 40 percent of the total population was made up of those of Japanese descent.1 [End Page 110]

There is no record indicating that professional entertainers were among Korean immigrants in early twentieth-century Hawai'i. Instead, Korean women living in Hawai'i were mostly "picture brides" who came to the United States through a matchmaking system using photographs to match women in Korea and Korean men who were already resident in Hawai'i.2 Korean picture brides were often given a recommendation from a Christian missionary or pastor, and many opted for a picture marriage in order to pursue the dream of a modern education in America.3 The picture brides came to Hawai'i with the hope of living a better life, knowing neither the living environment in plantation villages nor (in most cases) English. By 1905 approximately 7,400 Korean laborers had immigrated to Hawai'i as contracted laborers in Hawaiian sugarcane plantations; most were single men in their twenties and thirties.4 An estimated 900 Korean brides who arrived in Hawai'i After the Empire of Japan annexed Korea had to go through the immigration process via Japanese authorities, and Korean laborers sending spousal permission to their future wives had to obtain a new passport from the Japanese consulate in Honolulu.5 Still, during the first two decades the cohort of married Korean immigrants grew quickly.6

Even though the Korean immigrants were legally Japanese, they enjoyed their own ethnic culture as a separate ethnic group within Hawai'i's multiethnic community. At this time, over 80 percent of plantation workers in Hawai'i were Asians from China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. Hawaiian authorities, including Hawaiian elites and American sugar planters, encouraged residents of Asian descent to maintain their own culture, promoting multicultural environments and events. They emphasized such efforts in order to instill a feeling of satisfaction and pride at living in a "democratic" society where people of different ethnic backgrounds could live in harmony.7 [End Page 111]

Using newspaper articles, interview resources, and archival documents, my research reveals that Korean Hawaiian women from the yangban class took the initiative to preserve traditional Korean performing arts.8 These women were highly educated prior to moving to Hawai'i; examples include Ha-soo Whang and Susan Chun Lee. Members of the younger generation, including Mary Lee and Sarah Lee Yang, presented performances incorporating Korean traditional music and dance as amateur performers. By covering these specific historical personages with a focus on their social and educational backgrounds, I argue that elite Korean women, despite...


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