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Forum revisits lives of first-generation of Koreans in Hawaii

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Participants of the World Korea Forum make the Shaka sign, a Hawaiian hand greeting, during the World Korea Forum held at the Center for Korean Studies at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa in Honolulu, from June 29 to 30 (local time). The event was held to commemorate the 120th anniversary of the arrival of first-generation Korean immigrants in Hawaii. Korea Times photo by Lee Hyo-jin
Participants of the World Korea Forum make the Shaka sign, a Hawaiian hand greeting, during the World Korea Forum held at the Center for Korean Studies at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa in Honolulu, from June 29 to 30 (local time). The event was held to commemorate the 120th anniversary of the arrival of first-generation Korean immigrants in Hawaii. Korea Times photo by Lee Hyo-jin

Scholars, experts discuss first-generation Korean immigrants to Hawaii, marking 120th anniversary of their arrival

By Lee Hyo-jin

HONOLULU ― It was on Jan. 13, 1903, when the first organized group of Koreans arrived on the shores of Honolulu. Numbering slightly over 100, they became the first-generation Korean immigrants in Hawaii. Over the next two-and-a-half years, nearly 7,400 Koreans immigrated to Hawaii in search of a new future, escaping famine and the turbulent political climate in their home country amid imminent Japanese colonization.

But life wasn't as glorious as they had expected. They worked in sugarcane and pineapple fields from early morning to sundown, earning about 60 cents per day.

Despite the hardships, the immigrants stayed on and continued living in Hawaii. After their contracts on farms ended, many Koreans left for better jobs in cities, where they formed families, established schools for their children and built churches to fulfill their spiritual and communal needs.

Since then, throughout the last century, Korean Americans in Hawaii have greatly contributed to the diversity and vibrant culture of the island state. Currently, about 50,000 residents in Hawaii consider themselves ethnically Korean.

A recent forum held in Honolulu brought together scholars, lawmakers and civic activists to shed light on the lives of the first-generation immigrants in Hawaii, and explore how the Korean government might build relations with the 7.5 million overseas Koreans living across more than 180 countries.

The participants also discussed other pending issues such as emerging threats on the Korean peninsula amid the intensifying U.S.-China rivalry and Korea's role in establishing peace and prosperity in the East Asian region.

Panelists at the World Korea Forum held from June 29 to 30 at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, in Honolulu. Korea Times photo by Lee Hyo-jin
Panelists at the World Korea Forum held from June 29 to 30 at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, in Honolulu. Korea Times photo by Lee Hyo-jin

The World Korea Forum, hosted by the Korea Global Foundation (KGF), took place at the Center for Korean Studies in the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, the oldest and largest research center dedicated to Korean studies in North America, from June 29 to 30 (local time).

The foundation has been organizing the annual forum since 2000 in different cities around the world, including New York, Sydney, Berlin, Moscow and Brussels, inviting various opinion leaders and prominent figures to exchange ideas on pending issues.

This year's event took place in Hawaii to mark the 120th anniversary of the arrival of Korean immigrants to the archipelago.

The forum was attended by Rhee Tshang-chu, head of the KGF, David Lassner, president of the University of Hawai'i, Baik Tae-ung, head of the Center for Korean Studies, Hong Seok-in, the consul-general of the Republic of Korea in Honolulu, Joseph Detrani, the former U.S. special envoy to North Korea, Lee Duk-hee Murayabashi, head of the Korean Immigration Research Institute in Hawaii, among others.

It kicked off with an opening speech by Rhee, the organizer of the forum.

Rhee Tsang-chu, head of the Korea Global Foundation, delivers an opening speech during World Korea Forum in Honolulu, Hawaii, Wednesday. Korea Times photo by Lee Hyo-jin
Rhee Tsang-chu, head of the Korea Global Foundation, delivers an opening speech during World Korea Forum in Honolulu, Hawaii, Wednesday. Korea Times photo by Lee Hyo-jin

"Korean history encompasses the achievement of independence from Japanese colonization, reconstruction (after the Korean war), industrialization and democratization. All of these would have been impossible without the efforts and contributions of Koreans living in the country and abroad," Rhee said.

"At this point of time when the country is facing various challenges fueled by inequality and polarization, I hope this forum will become an opportunity to promote peace, harmony and prosperity," he continued.

The opening speech was followed by a commemorative speech from Lassner, who said, "Hawaii is a special place where the East meets the West, serving as the gateway of the U.S. into the Indo-Pacific and Asia. The themes of this forum illuminate the compelling and challenging issues in Korea and Asia at this time."

On the first day, panelists engaged in discussions about new challenges related to the economy and diplomacy in East Asia following the recent launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) from the Quad strategic security dialogue. They also looked into the roles of international organizations in establishing peace on the Korean peninsula.

The second day of the forum focused on recent studies of first-generation Korean immigrants in Hawaii and the current situation of the Korean diaspora around the world.

In his keynote speech, Mitch Roth, the mayor of Hawaii County, analyzed the characteristics of the Korean diaspora in Hawaii.

"I don't think that the first-generation Korean immigrants moved to Hawaii just for work. They merged themselves into the melting pot looking for a new future for themselves and their families," he said.

"Immigrants from Korea, Japan, China and the Philippines who worked together on plantations were segregated at first. They stuck to themselves. But over time, they gradually learned to live with each other. Now, almost all the residents of Hawaii come from mixed heritage, and they are proud of it," Roth said, expressing gratitude to the early Korean immigrants for greatly contributing to the peaceful coexistence of different ethnicities and cultures on the archipelago.

Lee, the president of the Korean Immigration Research Institute in Hawaii, gave a presentation about the history of Korean immigrants in Hawaii. "Although the immigrants initially came to Hawaii to escape from starvation in their home country, they successfully found new homes here thanks to their hard-working spirit, which still remains as a big motivation to their descendants."

Moon Kyung-hee, a professor of international relations at Changwon National University, shared the results of her studies on the analysis of gravestones and epitaphs of Korean immigrants. Along with Kim Joo-young, an archaeologist, she visited over 160 gravestones in Hilo and Kona on the Big Island, many of which were neglected.

Kim Joo-young, an archaeologist at Changwon National University, gives a presentation about the results of his study analyzing the tombstones of early Korean immigrants in Hawaii. Korea Times photo by Lee Hyo-jin
Kim Joo-young, an archaeologist at Changwon National University, gives a presentation about the results of his study analyzing the tombstones of early Korean immigrants in Hawaii. Korea Times photo by Lee Hyo-jin

"The epitaphs told us many undiscovered facts about early Korean immigrants," said Kim. "In addition to basic information about their name, religion, occupation, age, they identified their hometown in Korea, which reflects a sense of longing for their home country."

Some panelists shared insights on how the government can increase ties with overseas Koreans.

Yang Hyang-Ja, a member of the National Assembly, said the government should increase efforts to embrace and empower young ethnic Koreans residing overseas, through the launch of a Korean version of "Birthright Israel," a program partially funded by the Israeli government inviting young Jews on free trips to Israel.

Lawmaker Yang Hyang-ja speaks during the Korea Global Forum held at the Center for Korean Studies at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, Thursday. Korea Times photo by Lee Hyo-jin
Lawmaker Yang Hyang-ja speaks during the Korea Global Forum held at the Center for Korean Studies at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, Thursday. Korea Times photo by Lee Hyo-jin

"Through cooperation with civic groups and private companies, we have recently launched a project inviting young overseas Koreans aged between 9 and 24 to the country, providing them with education programs, history and culture, to help them bolster their Korean identity," she said.

Meanwhile, some panelists shared insights on how the Korean government should carry out multicultural policies, so that the country can help integrate people of other cultural backgrounds into Korean society.

Chung Ji-yoon, a professor at the graduate school of industrial technology at Myongji University, said that the values of a multicultural education should be expanded beyond school to everyday life, saying, "When it comes to multiculturalism, Koreans know very little of other lifestyles and cultures, although foreign nationals have already become our neighbors living right next door."


Lee Hyo-jin lhj@koreatimes.co.kr


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