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Hawai‘i Koreans celebrate 100 years
in the islands

by Kim P. Robson, staff writer


Korea—both North and South—has been in the news a lot recently. What many at HPU may not know is that the people of this divided Asian nation have a long and productive history in the islands.

The story of Korean Americans mirrors the story of all immigrants: hopeful souls in search of a land of opportunity where they can live in freedom and peace.

This year marks the centennial of Korean immigration to Hawai‘i. On Jan. 13, 1903, the steamer SS Gaelic pulled into Honolulu Harbor with the first major wave of Korean immigrants. The 102 people aboard the ship included families, students, and farmers. The majority of them—single and unmarried men—came to work on the islands’ sugar plantations.


Koreans were known as hard workers, but they were paid very poorly, only 69 cents a day for working 10 hours from dawn to sunset. Adding to these hardships was the struggle to adapt to cultural differences.


Between 1903 and 1905, when exclusionary laws began to restrict Asian immigration, more than 7,000 immigrant workers arrived in Hawai‘i. The Russo-Japanese War ended in 1905 and so did Korean immigration to Hawai‘i when, at the Portsmouth Peace Conference, Japan was allowed to declare a protectorate over Korea.

Japan’s annexation of Korea attributed to tensions between the Koreans and Japanese in Hawai‘i. By 1910, about 1,000 immigrants had returned to Korea, many ill and going home to die.

A few years later, the immigration ban was lifted, allowing more Koreans to leave their homeland. Many of them were the wives and children of laborers. On March 1, 1919, Korea was proclaimed an independent nation.


The Korean War in 1950-1953 prompted a second wave of immigration to Hawai‘i, consisting mainly of Korean women married to American servicemen. Hundreds of orphans were adopted into American families and certificates were issued to children born here, in support of their desire to be considered American.

The Immigration Reform Act of 1965 allowed people from around the world to join their families in America with four ranks of preference: (1) persons whose skills would be considered an advantage to the United States; (2) unmarried adult (over 21 years of age) children of American citizens; (3) spouses and unmarried children of aliens living permanently in the U.S.; and (4) other relatives of persons living in the U.S. and workers who could fill special labor needs.

The new law resulted in the Korean migration boom of the 1970s, and paved the way for the third and largest wave of Koreans in 1980. This flood of Korean newcomers included relatives of people already living in America.

The influx of Koreans to the United States continues to this day. Nearly two million people of Korean ancestry reside in the United States, including an estimated 41,350 in Hawai‘i.



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