Hawai‘i Koreans celebrate 100 years
in the islands
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
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.