A Historical Profile of San Francisco’s Korean Community Development
by Youn-Cha Shin Chey, Ph.D.
September 25, 2002
San Francisco represents the most historic city for Korean–Americans in the United States, as it is marked by the historical events that laid a solid foundation for the future growth of Korean-American communities. The focus of this paper is to present the profiles of the San Francisco Korean community in four distinct stages of its development: the first period covers the years between 1883-1945, the second from 1948 to 1965, the third from 1965 to 1990 and the fourth from 1992 to present. The emphasis will be on the exploration of the characteristics of the activities, the locations, and the key individuals, organizations, and their achievements that made an impact on the development of the community in American society.
I. Koreans in San Francisco Chinatown: 1883-1945
The existence of the hermit kingdom, Chosun, was not known to most Americans before the end of the 19th century. In the post-Civil War era of the 1880’s, America was characterized by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration from Western Europe. Mark Twain has described this period as "The Golden Age", and California was considered an El Dorado.1 Americans began seeking markets for their industrial products and were interested in expanding American interests in the Far East. It was under these circumstances that the treaty of Amity and Commerce was signed between Korea and the United States on May 22, 1882 near Inchon and ratified a year later under President Chester Arthur. It was the first treaty between Korea and any Western power. The treaty had a proviso pertaining to the immigration of Koreans to the United States. (Article, IV, paragraph 1)
On September 2, 1883, the first Korean diplomatic mission, headed by special envoy Min Yong-ik and his four secretaries, arrived in San Francisco. This historical event marked the beginning of the Korean-American experience 2 and San Francisco has since played a pioneering role in the development of Korean-American communities in the United States. From the very beginning, San Francisco became a home for Korean intellectuals and political exiles. Three political refugees, So Jae-Pil (Philip Jaisohn), Park Young-Ho, and So Kwang-Bom arrived in San Francisco in 1885 after an unsuccessful political coup led by the leaders of the Korean Progressive Party in December 5, 1884. So Jae-Pil later graduated from medical school and became one of the most respected Korean-American leaders in the United States.3
Ahn Chang-Ho, a young reformer and patriot, arrived in San Francisco in 1902, followed by Syng-man Rhee (who became the first President of the Republic of Korea) and Park Yong-man in 1904 and 1905, respectively. According to Kim Won Yong, there were fewer than fifty Koreans living in San Francisco before 1904.4 After official immigration to the United States began in 1903, San Francisco served as a gateway to the mainland for those Koreans, 6,226 of whom came to Hawaii between 1903 and 1905 as plantation laborers. Between 1905 and 1907, before the passage of the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924, about 1,000 Korean plantation workers entered San Francisco. San Francisco was a temporary station for Koreans from Hawaii, where they could obtain job information to settle in the mainland. From San Francisco, they dispersed along the west coast to Sacramento and Riverside and became farm workers in California.5
Easurk Emsen Charr, the author of The Golden Mountain (The autobiography of a Korean immigrant, 1895-1960) describes his journey from Hawaii to San Francisco and compares it with the city of Pyung Yang, North Korea:
"It (Honolulu) was only my steppingstone to America, my aim was to be able to go to San Francisco as soon as possible….It took seven days to reach the mainland from Honolulu. On the morning of June 26, 1905,the steamer plowed through the Golden Gate Strait, the "gateway to America", into the San Francisco Bay. …Viewing San Francisco from where I was standing on the deck of the ship, I noticed a remarkable likeness in topography between this city and my native city of Pyung Yang. ... The Russian Hill to the north was comparable to the Jang-Dai-Jai hill,…the Twin peaks in the distance had the appearance of Sam-Gwang-san ,…there at last, I had come to the city of my dreams." 6
In 1905, the U. S. agreed to recognize Japanese occupation of Korea in exchange for U.S. sovereignty in the Philippines. Korean immigration was officially prohibited, as Japan assumed jurisdiction over Korea’s foreign relations. The actual number of immigrants between 1905 and 1945 cannot be determined, as Koreans entered the U. S. with Japanese passports. After the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910, many Korean intellectuals and patriots participated in the anti-Japanese movement and fled to the U. S. via China. Thirteen Koreans arrived in San Francisco from Shanghai without passports. The appeal for their entry was made by Rev. Lee Dae-Wii (David Lee) and was granted by the Secretary of State. 7
The pioneer Korean immigrants faced hardship, discrimination and loneliness. In 1903, Ahn Chang-Ho and Rev. Dae-Wii Lee, who invented the Korean type-setting machine, organized the first Korean social club in San Francisco. Chin Mok-Heo (the Korean Friendship Association) was organized for mutual help and fellowship. In 1904, a group of Koreans led by Do-San Ahn Chang-Ho started the church movement, with David Lee serving as its pastor. In 1905, the first political organization, Kongnip Hyop Hoe (Mutual Assistance Society) was formed and Kong Nip Sinbo, the first Korean language newsletter in the U. S., was published in San Francisco. The Korean Women’s Society came into being on May 23, 1908 in San Francisco. On February 1, 1909, all existing Korean social and politial organizations in San Francisco joined together, to form the Korean National Association (KNA) and began publishing the Shin Han Minbo (New Korea), a weekly Korean newspaper. The Korean National Association provided lodging, employment training, and loan assistance. The historic event of 1908 by the two patriots, Chang in-Hwan and Chun Myung-Un, which resulted in the assassination of Durham Stevens, a pro-Japanese American, took place at the Ferry building in San Francisco.8 Stevens was an advisor to the Korean king, who made a statement that Japanese control over Korea would benefit the Korean people. Chang inspired all Koreans who fought for freedom and independence and remains as the symbol of patriotism.
On May 13, 1913, Ahn Chang-Ho established the Hung Sa Dan (Young Korea Academy), a leadership training society aimed at non-political movement through four principles: truth, deeds, loyalty and courage, and three disciplinary measures: knowledge, virtue and health.9
Dora Yum Kim, a living witness who was born in 1921 and grew up in San Francisco describes this early period in her book, "Doing What had to be Done":
"most of my earliest memories are about living in Chinatown. We weren’t exactly immersed in the Korean community because there were so few Koreans around us. Korean activities were limited to the Independence movement and other church-related activities once a week or so. So growing up, our parents had to drill into us that we were Korean,… we didn’t think about the world beyond Chinatown because it just wasn’t accessible to us" 10
During this early period, when racial segregation was socially acceptable and legally supported the lone Korean church in Chinatown served as the center for all Korean activities.
The Korean United Methodist Church (KUMC) at 1123 Powell Street in San Francisco is the first Korean Church to be constructed in the United States. It was built in 1928 especially for and by Koreans.11 The site was purchased for $18,000 with funds raised from Korean laborers. This site served as the center of Korean patriotic activities for its first 15 years when the Koreans’ primary focus was to gain their homeland independence from Japanese occupation (1905-1945). Until the 1960s, the church was the only active social, employment and education center and a means of cultural identification for Koreans in San Francisco.12
Dora Kim describes in her book:
"I remember the church on the Powell Street. It was really much more thatn a church. It was a social center, it was the only place that the Koreans could get together for support or socializing. … At church, there seemed to be two topics of conversation. People talked about each other…. And told stories about Japanese occupation. And every March 1st, we had a huge gathering at the church to mark the Korean independence Movement…. We had one weekly Korean language school (kuko hakyo) at the church…When he (Ahn Chang-Ho) died in 1938 in Korea we had a memorial service for him at the Methodist church here." 13
It has to be noted that this church is the oldest Korean American monument, designated after a two-year campaign (1990-1992) as a California landmark eligible for the National Registry through the efforts and under the leadership of the Korean Center, Inc. in San Francisco, in cooperation with the Korean-American Heritage Foundation. The letter, dated August 30, 1994, from Maryln B. Lortie, State historian II, Office of Historic Preservation, State of California reads:
"The San Francisco Korean United Methodist Church has been officially determined eligible for listing in the National Registry of Historic Places. Because the church has been officially determined eligible, it is automatically listed in the California Register of Historical Resources. The California Register is the State’s authoritative guide to properties that are significant in our past."
The history of the "first Korean church in America, San Francisco Korean United Methodist Church established in 1904" is documented in the brochure published by the SF KUMC written by pastor Yu Seok-Jeong in 1988. A historic disgrace took place, however, in spite of the two years of efforts in achieving the landmark designation, Pastor Yu Seok-Jeong and his congregation disposed the KUMC to another ethnic group to relocate to a church of greater size and comfort on Geary Street. 14
The social, religious and political activities during this period had a common aim: the restoration of Korean independence from Japan, providing financial support for the provisional government in China, the restoration of Korean traditional values, and community improvement through educational and social service. These early "freedom fighting" immigrants never considered the U. S. as their permanent home. Most Koreans isolated themselves from mainstream America, which was enforced by the discriminatory laws practiced in the U. S. However, even under these difficult circumstances, in this isolated Chinatown, Koreans began to engage in such small businesses as selling ginseng, opening barbershops, cigar stands, restaurants and cleaning shops.
San Francisco’s early Korean pioneers led by the political, and religious leaders as DoSan Ahn Chang-Ho, Hwang San Sun, Lee, Dae Wii and others served as the nucleus of Korea settlement in the U. S. They were few in number until the end of World War II but provided the spirit for the foundation of the future development of the Korean-American community.
II. Koreans in San Francisco: 1945-1965
With its establishment of a new government in South Korea in 1948 after World War II, the first Korean Consulate in the United States was established in 1949 with the purchase of a building on 3500 Clay Street in San Francisco by Young Han Choo, a Korea-American who served as its first Consul General under President Syngman Rhee until 1960.
Between 1945 and 1958, the number of Korean immigrants to the United States annually was very small, consisting mainly of students, scientists, diplomats, and other professionals such as nurses and doctors who were able to immigrate by choice. They were a highly select group of people who settled in colleges and universities. This author was one of a dozen students at U. C. Berkeley between 1957-1960. Most of the graduates pursued advanced degrees and remained serving as the Korean intellectuals in the U.S. finding professional occupations in the academic field or science. Some of the trained graduates who returned to Korea made significant contributions to Korean economics, politics and academia. For example, Kim Pyong Hoon served as the chief protocol at the Blue House under president Chun Doo Hwan, Prof. Sohn Po Kee at Yeon Sei Univ., and Choong Kun Cho, became the President of KAL and others who joined as the government officials.
Almost 80% of the Korean immigrants arriving between 1954 and 1965 were housewives, and children, many of whom were dependents of American citizens who were in the military. Many of them who settled in Monterey, California were not immigrants in the genuine sense. However, the development of the Korean community in the Monterey area was possible due to these women who later were able to invite their relatives and families and they became productive entrepreneurs in the Monterey and Salinas Valley. As the US immigration was on a quota system based on the national origin favorable only to the Western Europe, the Korean presence during this period was limited by law.
III. The emergence of Korean community in San Francisco: 1965-1990
Unlike Chinese, Japanese and Filipino-American communities, San Francisco’s Korean-American community did not begin to emerge until the 1970’s after the United States replaced its national quota system which had been the base of American immigration policy since 1924. This drastic change in policy altered the patterns and characteristics of Korean immigrants. The new immigrants came to the United States to stay and to start a new life for themselves and their children, to join family members, to improve their standard of living, to educate their children or to obtain better jobs. With the opening of KAL, Korean Airlines, Korean immigrants began to arrive via air transportation and Los Angeles replaced San Francisco as the gateway to the U. S. for Koreans. San Francisco remained the second fastest-growing city for Koreans in California.
The 1970 Census reported that the Korean population in San Francisco numbered only 1,801, while the 1980 Census number numbered 3, 763, with an increase of 209%. The gross undercount in the census was attributed to various reasons: language and culture barriers, insufficient outreach, lack of funds, and no bilingual census-taking volunteers. One can only compare this census report with the statistical report on Koreans abroad released by the Dept. of Foreign Service in Seoul, Korea. According to this report, of the 270, 084 Korean-American residents in California in 1984, 37, 482 (14%) resided in the San Francisco Bay Area and 203, 327 (75%) in the Los Angeles/San Diego area. From the mid 1970s, the influx of Koreans was rated at 30,000 per year. 1980 Census figures show that the Korean-American population in the U. S. has increased by 559%, the highest rate of any Asian-American group during the time. According to this report, the San Francisco Bay Area had the fourth-largest Korean population in the U. S., the largest population being concentrated in greater Los Angeles.15
Unfamiliarity with American society, inability to use English, and the need for mutual assistance for job opportunities made the newly arriving immigrants settle in such urban areas as Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago and New York.16
Despite the dramatic change in the demographic composition of the city, no programs or facilities were available for the recent Korean immigrants. In 1965, the Korean-American Residents Association was organized (chaired by the late Kim Dong Woo) to seek solidarity and promote friendship among Koreans. As there were no public agencies and services available in San Francisco to assist them in their acculturation process, the Korean immigrants had to seek assistance from a Chinese –serving agency, CRDC (Career Resource Development Center).
In order to address these unmet needs, the Multi Service Center foe Koreans (MSCK) was founded in 1975 in San Francisco as a non-profit community-based organization by a group of concerned community leaders.17 MSCK’s mission was to assist Korean immigrants to become productive and self-sufficient members of society so that they could constitute a viable and productive force in mainstream San Francisco. The Multi-Service Center for Koreans (Hannah Surh as its first chairman) was the first Korean-run organization to participate in the U. S. revenue-sharing programs available through the Department of Labor to serve an ethnic target population, Koreans, who at that time were not formerly identified as an independent Asian group such as the Chinese and Japanese. Since its inception, MSCK has received close to $14,000,000 in federal, state and local government funding, and has provided services to over 18,000 Korean families as well as other ethnic groups including Russians from the former Soviet Union. MSCK continued to address the myriad needs of new immigrants in overcoming the language and cultural barriers. MSCK has offered classroom training to youth, adults and seniors in English, occupation-specific skills training, and other social services, counseling, and job placement assistance. 90% of MSCK’s program participants have entered the labor force in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Because of the need to provide more services to this ever-expanding community, in 1981, MSCK began to establish a permanent site in San Francisco. After three years of hard work by the Building Committee (chaired by Soon-Kyung Hong) MSCK purchased a Victorian building at 1362 Post Street from the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, renovated it and opened its new center in February of 1984. The establishment of this first community center organized by Koreans for the first time in the Korean-American history was possible through grants and support from many different sources, public and private. MSCK’s commitment to meet the community needs has strengthened its reputation as one of the most successful agencies in San Francisco, recognized by the California State Attorney General’s office.
The role of MSCK in the development of the San Francisco Bay Area Korean community has been two-fold. First, MSCK has made an impact on the economic lives of newly arriving Korean immigrants through job placement: many of whom later opened their own small businesses and contributed to the welfare of the growing Korean community. Secondly, MSCK’s contribution lies in solidifying Korean ethnic identity as distinct from Chinese, Japanese and other Asians. Guy Wright of the San Francisco Examiner reported:
"As a group the Koreans are an invisible minority. They get lost among Chinese, Japanese and other Asians. A minority that’s invisible has difficulty making others see its needs and aspirations."
Kevin Starr, San Francisco Examiner reporter wrote on the Bay Area’s Korean Community:
"…Asia with all its energy and high civilization, is challenging to become something more as a city: as Asian-Americans in our midst to include Korean community of San Francisco, asserting the notion that the best of San Francisco is not in the past but in the future". 18
In 1988, MSCK was renamed as the Korean Center, Inc. (KCI). In the dawn of the information age, KCI strengthened its technology program to meet the changing needs of the growing Korean-American community.
By the mid-1980s the Korean community in San Francisco has grown to be more visible with increased social and business activities. Within two decades since 1965, when there was only one Korean United Methodist Church on Powell Street, the number of the Korean churches grew to over 100, located not only in the city of San Francisco but also in the East Bay and San Jose area. Nearly 1200 Korean owned small businesses in about 30 different categories opened during this period. According to the Directory of Korean-American Resident Association of San Jose, published in 1988, the top five Korean owned businesses in the Bay Area included: food business, medical area, real estate, auto-repair and gift shops.19 Self-employment for most Koreans was out of necessity and due to language and cultural barriers and to avoid discrimination in the job market. New small businesses tend to be socially isolated from the mainstream economy.
During this period of community emergence, the Korean Language School in San Francisco was first established in 1973 and the total number of the Korean language schools increased to 64 at various locations in the Bay Area including Hayward, San Jose and Sacramento with a total of 4300 students at the present time. 20
Various associations by profession and affiliations also increased: the Korean Literary Association, the Korean Scientists Association, KAPE (Korean-American Political Empowerment), The Korean Chamber of Commerce, the Korean Roofers Association, and the Dry Cleaners Associations, Korean Grocers Association, Korean Athletic Association and others. It was during this period of the community growth that the Korean news media were introduced to provide the updated daily news from Korea. The Korea Times began its publication in the late 1960s, followed by the Korea Central Daily in the 1970s. There are a total of 12 media operations in the San Francisco Bay Area today including the weekly, the radio and TV. The role of the ethnic media in a mainstream society is especially significant as it provides an opportunity for the enrichment of the community activities and expression of the Korean-American perspective.
IV. The empowerment of the S. F. Bay Area Korean-American Community: 1992-present
After the devastation of the L. A. riots, the Korean community in the U. S. began to realize the importance of having its own voice in a multiethnic society. The lesson learned was the issue of empowerment. In the San Francisco Bay Area, this issue was addressed in three constructive ways: first, the growing number of Korean presence; second, education of Korean heritage and culture; and third, network building. The rapid growth of the community with the continued influx of the Korean-Americans has increased its visibility and presence in the American society of diversity.
According to the 2000 U. S. Census, the total number of Koreans in the U. S. numbered over 1,050,000, an increase of 76% from 797,304 in 1990. The Los Angeles/Orange Country population increased by 29% from 181,331 in 1990 to 234,435 in 2000, again making it the highest concentration of Koreans in the U. S.21 The San Francisco Bay Area Korean population was estimated at 150,000.
As shown above, there is a demographic shift of Korean-Americans from the City and County of San Francisco to Santa Clara and Alameda counties where the Korean population has increased. The largest concentration of Korean-Americans in the Bay Area is no longer in San Francisco. This increase is reflected in the composition of the Bay area churches: 89 (East Bay), 87 (Santa Clara), and 44 (San Francisco) churches out of a total of 210 churches (an increase of 100% since 1987). The number of small businesses also grew in San Jose and the East Bay. As the dot com businesses moved in to San Francisco, many small businesses could not compete with the high cost of rent in San Francisco and an exodus of Korean-owned small businesses took place to relocate in the East Bay, including Nara Bank and Asiana Bank, and two Korean newspapers, The Korea Times and The Korea Central Daily. There are about 110 small businesses centered around Telegraph Ave. in Oakland to facilitate the formation of a new Koreatown.22 The changes in the number of the Korean owned small businesses in East Bay and San Jose for the past 10 years from 1989 to 1999 show as following 23:
The other area of gaining empowerment is through education. The important realization is the importance of preservation of your own heritage but at the same time to educate others. African Americans and Korean Americans knew little of each other and ignorance above all bred fear. In 1995, the Korean Center established the Intercultural Institute of California (IIC) to provide cross-cultural educational programs facing these challenging times. The IIC received Approval from the State of California Bureau of Private Postsecondary Education to offer a Master of Arts degree in Korean Studies. This is the first educational institution in the U. S. to offer an independent graduate program in Korean Studies established under the leadership of a Korean non-profit organization. IIC is currently approved for WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges) eligibility towards candidacy and had produced to date six MA degree recipients. In 2002, IIC entered a partnership with CIIS (California Institute of Integral Studies) to offer an accredited MA in Korean Studies, and has a MOU signed with San Francisco State University College of Education, East Asian Library at U. C. Berkeley, and the Hoover institution, Stanford University. The IIC offers online distance education to reach students nationwide as well as globally. Out of 3,000 institutions of higher learning in the U. S. only a dozen universities offer the Korean language programs.
The empowerment of a community can be achieved by building a network within and outside the community. San Francisco’s rich cultural activities, art exhibitions organized by the Chong Moon Lee center, Asian Art Museum, traditional musical presentations, creative writings, cultural celebrations, forums, and research publications of scholarly works by Bay Area professors enrich the community as well as the general public.
The San Francisco Bay Area is also characterized by a rising presence in Silicon Valley, where approximately 150 Korean American businesses are active in hardware and software IT industry with a total of 3,000 Korean-American IT employees. The Korean IT Network (KIN) was established by the Korean government to expand the Korean market in the U. S. Some of the successful IT ventures include Televideo (Philip Hwang), Dialpad (Sang Su Oh), Silicon Image (David Lee), My Simon (Michael Yang), Oak Technology (Young K. Sohn) Inno Design (Young-se Kim), Altos Venture (Sang Baek Kim), O2IC (Choi, Kyu Hyung), AmBex Venture Group (Chong Moon Lee), and others as the pioneers of the 21st century.
Since the beginning of the 1990s, there is a new emergence of organizations founded by second generation Korean-Americans such as KAC (Korean American Coalition), KAPS (Korean American Professional Association), KABA (Korean American Bar Association), and KA CC (Korean American Chamber of Commerce). They engage in programs including voter registration, community services, and networking between different intergenerational and ethnic groups. This new phenomenon is supported by the data produced by Dr. Eui-Young Yu on the status of the growing number of Koreans with citizenship: 70% of Koreans are now the citizens of the U. S., and 35% of them constitute the second generation of Korean-Americans. 24
San Francisco Korean community has evolved from a community of 50 to over 150,000 in the Bay area. The early pioneers laid the spiritual foundation for the future development of the Korean-American community. Each developmental stage made its unique contributions to pave the way for the next stage of community development. With the changes in the U. S. immigration policy, Korean-Americans who began their first steps in San Francisco and moved on from the West to East were able to realize their potential and have become the instrumental constituents of America. Thus, the proud Korean-American history of sweat and struggle is a part of American history. The San Francisco Bay Area community carries on the legacy of pioneer Korean-Americans deeply rooted in Korean heritage and at the same time enriching the local community’s diversity and multi-culturalism. The challenges of globalization will now have to be addressed by all ethnic Koreans beyond the borders, to become once again contributing members in a newly emerging globalized society.
The Korea Central Daily News, 12/11/98
2003 by I.I.C. All Rights Reserved
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