Introduction to the San Francisco Korean American Museum
The San Francisco Bay Area
San Francisco, discovered in 1769 by Spanish explorers, is considered one of the most desirable places to live in America. It is the fourth-most populous city in California, and the second-most densely populated city in the United States, next to New York City.
San Francisco was founded in 1776, when Spanish colonists established the Presidio and Mission San Francisco de Asis. Upon Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821 the area became part of Mexico, attracting American settlers who called the town Yerba Buena. Yerba Buena was claimed by the United States during the Mexican-American War and renamed San Francisco in 1847. The discovery of gold near Sacramento in 1848 sparked the California Gold Rush, drawing in a flood of treasure-seekers into San Francisco from all over America.
Although the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake leveled most of the city, reconstruction loans from what would eventually become the Bank of America funded rebuilding on a grand scale. The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad and the Panama Canal made San Francisco a great hub of trade, while farmers attracted to the fine weather and fertile soil flocked to the area. The completion of two great civil engineering projects – the Bay Bridge in 1936 and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 – provided the infrastructure for San Francisco to become the financial and industrial capital of the western United States.
The first Korean immigration to San Francisco began with the first 121 immigrants to America on the USS Gaelic. Departing from Incheon’s Jemulpo Harbor on December 22, 1902, their destination was Hawaii. This was made possible by Section 6 of the Korean-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce (1882) that granted Koreans reciprocal rights of residence, right to purchase land or construct residences, and to be “freely permitted to pursue their various callings and avocations, and to traffic in all merchandise,” and by the fact that Hawaii had become an American Territory in June 1900.
Korean immigration to America was the proposal of Horace N. Allen, the American ambassador to King Gojong. However, there were few volunteers due to Confucian traditions that demanded the duties of fulfilling ancestral rites, not to mention the uncertainty about when they would be able to return home. But as luck would have it, Ambassador Allen had a missionary friend, Pastor G. H. Jones of Yongdong Church (present-day Naeri Church) at Jemulpo. With the Pastor’s encouragement, about half of the volunteers for immigration came from members of the church: one of the reasons why the church became the center of much of Korean-American society later on. 101 of these immigrants, minus 20 that were disqualified at a stopover in Japan due to health reasons, arrived in Hawaii on January 13, 1903. By the cessation of official immigration in August 1905 as Korea was occupied by Japan (1910-1945), a total of roughly 7,300 Koreans had immigrated to the United States.
California’s economy was booming at the time, opening up various jobs: high pay and fair weather boosted the desire for Koreans living in Hawaii to move to the mainland. Finally an opportunity opened up: Union Pacific was hiring 20,000 laborers in 1903, drawing over 1,000 Korean volunteers to San Francisco from 1904 to 1907.
As the gateway to the mainland United States, San Francisco was thus the center of the history of Korean-American immigration. The traces of their lives and sacrifice still breathe within the city. Bobingsa (報聘使), the first Korean diplomatic mission to the West in 1883, had San Francisco as its first port of call: they stayed at the Palace Hotel. The city was where the assassination of Japan lobbyist and former American diplomat Durham Stevens by Jang In-hwan and Jeon Myeong-un took place, touching off the Korean Independence movement by various patriots including Ahn Jung-geun. The Korean National Association was founded in San Francisco, functioning as a government for Koreans rendered stateless by the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910; the Association’s newspaper Shinhan Minbo (The New Korea) provided knowledge and information to immigrants even after liberation from Japan in 1945. The oldest surviving civic organization in Korea, the Hung Sa Dahn (Young Korean Academy), was also founded here.
The Korean-American immigrants of the San Francisco Bay Area were thus led by pioneers who spent their lives carving out and maintaining a Korean community, establishing schools, and supporting diplomatic representatives to campaign for Korean independence.
Central California – Reedly and Dinuba Area
Reedly, Dinuba, and Delano are cities in the fertile Central Valley of Central California that were centers of early Korean-American immigration. The first Korean-American immigrants to Hawaii (January 13, 1903), when their labor contracts expired in May 1905, a number of them moved on to the western states including San Francisco and settled to form the famous Koreatown in the Central Valley – one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, growing fruits, vegetables, grain and cotton.
At first these Koreans worked as farmhands or railroads or road-building laborers, but soon moved to purchasing or leasing large orchards. Some amassed large fortunes through their orchards, such as Harry S. Kim (Kim Brothers Company) and Leo Song (Song’s Orchard and Packing).
The Korean-Americans of the Central Valley sought to unite their fellow Koreans around their farms and the church. They contributed greatly to the Korean independence movement after a regional office of the Korean National Association was established in Dinuba on May 1914. The Dinuba Korean Presbyterian Church held annual memorial parades in remembrance of the March 1st Movement in 1919 – one of the earliest public displays of Korean resistance against the occupation of Korea – while a coalition of Korean churches in the Central Valley held a great memorial service for the Movement in 1937. There are a number of Korean cemeteries throughout the area, signifying the vitality of early Korean-American settlement in the Central Valley.
The Objective of San Francisco Korean American Museum
The SF Korean American Museum (SFKAM) is the result of grassroots efforts to establish an archive that will eventually collect and house all available items that relate to Korean immigrants experience in and around San Francisco and the Bay Area. Its objective is not only to collect and preserve the immigrants artifacts but also to mediate the cultural exchanges between Korea and the Unites States through our work as well as mediating the past to the future life of Korean Americans.
Let us introduce what the museum has done since the SFKAM’s inauguration, is doing now and plans to do in the future.
Past Events and Projects
- Lecture Series
▪ “History of Korean Immigration in the U.S. – How to assess and prepare for it?” (Dr. Hong, Sun Pyo, June 3, 2014)
▪ “Our immigrant forebears’ accomplishments and the decedents’ continuation of/and progress” (Youngran Kim, July 10, 2016)
▪ “The museum that will show culture and history” (Laura Nelson, June 20, 2015)
▪ “The importance of and need for heritage museums” (Junghee Lee, June 20, 2015)
▪ “The direction of Korean American Museum” (Clare You, August 8, 2015)
▪ “Memory and History” (Kwon Youngmin, May 21, 2016)
- Exhibition: The art works of the Bay Area Korean American Artists and Korean School Students were exhibited and they were later made into an art catalog and postcards. (June 26, 2015)
- Publication: Korean Art and Life I (May 21, 2016)
- Video Interview: The aim of this project is to provide a vivid record of oral history through video interviews with Korean-American immigrants. The Korean-American community was built from the ground up by the individual efforts of each and every Korean-American in the space of their lives. The interviews will record not only the stories of community leaders or professionals but also the stories of everyday men and women. Initially, the interviewee will be the early immigrants who came to America before 1970 and residents in the San Francisco Bay Area. They will be the living eyewitnesses to Korean-American immigration history. It is all the more urgent and critical to preserve the memories and histories of these senior immigrants before they pass away.
By recording the oral histories, we hope not only to archive the lives of the trailblazing early immigrants but also relate the history of Korean-American immigration – a story that is still in progress – into a dialogue between the past and present. The recorded interviews will be edited, stored in the historical record, and made available to the public through the Museum’s website. This is not a task that can be completed in a year or two: it is an open-ended project that will serve as a living textbook for future generations. We therefore ask the support and cooperation of the greater Korean-American community in this endeavor.
- Preparations for a heritage visual & lecture series of the Northern California immigrant history
▪ Collection of immigrant history materials
▪ Continuation of the video interviews
▪ Exhibition of immigration history materials, art exhibits, musical recitals and lecture series
▪ Educational activities for Korean History and culture
▪ Fundraising for the museum building and operation
Tracing the early Korean footsteps in and around the SF Bay Area,
we list the following main interest points.
▪ Palace Hotel; now Sheraton Palace Hotel, 2 New Montgomery St., San Francisco, CA
The Bobingsa was the first Korean diplomatic legation to the west, sent in response to the appointment of Lucius H. Foote as ambassador to the newly established American embassy in Korea following the ratification of the Korean-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce (1882). The legation consisted of eight envoys, with Min Yeongik as its leader. On September 2, 1883, they became the first Koreans to set foot on San Francisco. They stayed at the Palace Hotel, met with both politicians and business leaders, and felt out the possibilities for Korean-American trade.
▪ Taedong Statue, Clay St. & Drumm St., San Francisco, CA
Taedong Statue is the work of Korean sculptor Choi Manlin. The piece was donated to the city of San Francisco by the government and people of Korea to commemorate the centennial of diplomatic relations between Korea and the United States in 1983. It is currently located at Susan Bierman Park (formerly Ferry Park) on the Embarcadero. To symbolize the bond between the two countries, two identical sculptures were commissioned; the other is at the center of the monument for the centennial of Korean-American diplomatic relations at Freedom Park in Incheon (Incheon, Jung-gu Songhak-dong 1-ga 11). The sculpture in San Francisco has been continuously maintained by volunteers from the San Francisco Korean-American Elders’ Association for the past twenty years, uplifting the status of the Korean immigrant community in American society.
▪ Ferry Building, Embarcadero St., & Market St., San Francisco
The Ferry Building is where the patriots Jang In-hwan and Jeon Myeong-un carried out their assassination of Japan lobbyist and former American diplomat Durham Stevens. The two, incensed by Stevens’ remarks glorifying and legitimizing the Japanese occupation of Korea in the American press, attacked Stevens around 9:10 AM on March 23, 1908, when Stevens arrived at the Ferry Building on his way to Washington. This act lit the flames of the armed Korean resistance movement not only in America but in Koreans worldwide, directly influencing the assassination of Ito Hirobumi, former Prime Minister of Japan and former Resident-General of Korea, by An Jung-geun, as well as the attempted assassination of Ye Wanyong, a pro-Japanese minister of Korea who signed the treaty for the annexation of Korea.
▪ San Francisco Korean United Methodist Church, 1123 Powell St., San Francisco, CA (Now 3030 Judah St., San Francisco, CA 94122)
The foundations of the San Francisco Korean Methodist Church (now named the San Francisco Korean United Methodist Church) were laid when 9 Korean immigrants, including Ahn Changho and David Lee, first gathered together for family worship in September 1904. On November 18, 1906, 20 founding members applied to become part of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The first acting minister was Rev. Yang Jusam; the publication of a monthly magazine written in Hangul, the Korean alphabet, began on December 21, 1908 under his leadership. From then on, the church supported the activities of the Korean National Association as both a center of the Korean independence movement and of the Korean Christian community.
Rev. David Lee was instrumental in leading the effort to construct the first Korean Church at 1123 Powell St in 1928. Although the building was placed on the National Registry of Historical Places, it was sold in 1995 in favor of a bigger location; although the building no longer retains its original form, it still provides a glimpse into early San Francisco Korean-American society.
The composer Ahn Eak-tai, who came to the United States to study music in the early 1930s, went to his first service at this church. During the service, Ahn saw the Korean flag and heard the Korean national anthem, which at the time was sung to the tune of the Scottish folk song ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ Inspired, he composed his first orchestral score, the Symphonic Fantasy Korea and performed it in Germany on 1936년 3월 26일. Ahn adapted the choral finale of the Symphonic Fantasy Korea into the Aegukga, the current Korean national anthem.
▪ Oakland Korean United Methodist Church, 737 E 17th St., Oakland, CA
The Oakland Korean United Methodist Church is a major Korean church of the San Francisco Bay Area that celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014. What began as a simple service held by Rev. Hwang Sayong on the invitation of Moon Wonchil and Cho Seonghak in 1914 developed into the framework of a church by the efforts of Rev. Yim Chung Koo, who served as pastor from 1915 to 1939. During the Japanese occupation (1905-1945) the church was a center for the Korean independence movement, in addition to the church mandates of tending to the needs of the poor and spreading the gospel. In 2013 and 2014, Rev. Yim Chung Koo and church member Roh Shintae received the Order of Merit for National Foundation from the Korean government, and church members Kim Jahye and Ahn Yeongho received the Medal for National Foundation.
▪ The United Korean Protection Society, 808 Webster St., San Francisco, CA
Moon Yang Mok (1869-1940) was born in Seosan, a town on the western coast of Korea in present-day Chungcheongnam-do Province. While teaching at his hometown, he joined the Donghak Peasant Rebellion (1893-1888) – an armed rebellion led by farmers and followers of the Donghak religion – and was arrested. Soon after however, he escaped prison and fled to Incheon.
When Korea was de facto occupied by Japan under the 1905 Eulsa Treaty, Moon followed a recruitment drive for laborers at a sugarcane plantation in Hawaii; the following year he moved to San Francisco. He formed the United Korean Protection Society on March 2, 1907, together with Baek Ilgyu, Jang Gyeong, and Bang Sagyeom, with the goal of restoring Korean sovereignty. Serving as both the President of the United Korean Protection Society as well as the Publisher of the Society’s periodical Daedong Gongbo (The Union Gazette), he oversaw the founding of 5 branch offices in America. The Union Gazette served as the voice for his strong anti-Japanese activism and struggle for the restoration of Korean independence.
The early members of the Society were conservative royalists whose aim was the restoration of the Korean imperial throne, placing them at ideological odds with Ahn Changho and the KongLipHupHoe (Mutual Assistance Society), who sought the creation of a republic. Nevertheless, the two combined efforts in the struggle for Korean independence. For example, Jang In-hwan and Jeon Myeong-un, the two patriots who assassinated Japan lobbyist and former American diplomat Durham Stevens, were respective members of the United Korean Protection Society and the Mutual Assistance Society. The Society also provided active legal and financial support for the two patriots, negotiating for a lawyer to represent them during their murder trial.
On February 1, 1909, the United Korean Protection Society joined ranks with the Korean National Association – of which the Mutual Assistance Society was its predecessor; it officially ceased to exist as an independent organization on May 10, 1910. The headquarters was located one block west of Buchanan St., the current location of the San Francisco Korean American Community Center, but the building has since been torn down and the site is currently a parking lot for the neighboring building.
▪ The Korean National Association, 1053 Oak St., San Francisco, CA
The Korean National Association was formed in 1910 by a merger with the Daedong Bogukhoe (The Great Eastern Patriot Association) to campaign for Korean independence and support the nascent Korean-American community; its original offices were at 232 Perry St. As the oldest and largest organization dedicated to Korean independence and the self-governance of stateless Koreans everywhere, it soon earned the distinction of becoming the first worldwide Korean organization: there were 5 regional headquarters in North America, Hawaii, Mexico, Siberia, and Manchuria, as well as 116 local chapters.
Although the construction of the Bay Bridge in 1935 near the site of the San Francisco headquarters forced the demolition of the building, the Association served as the center of Korean nationalist activism until the new headquarters was constructed at Los Angeles (1368 W. Jefferson Blvd., Los Angeles) in 1938.
Rev. David Lee (1878-1928), the President of the Korean National Association, oversaw the development of the Korean immigrant community through pragmatic and realistic initiatives, encouraging a sense of patriotism to Koreans living abroad. Under his leadership the Korean National Association received official designation as an incorporated association from the United States Secretary of State, thereby becoming the official agent for Koreans in the United States who had lost their homeland to the Japanese.
At the time, anti-Japanese sentiment was bubbling in California: Koreans were being lumped together with Japanese and were equally discriminated against. David Lee delivered a petition to the Secretary of State, William J. Brian, informing him that nearly all of the Koreans in the United States had immigrated before the Japanese annexation of Korea: thus, Koreans should be treated differently from Japanese and be freed from interference by the Japanese government. The United States government responded that matters regarding the Korean-American community would no longer go through Japanese officials or the Japanese government but through the Korean National Association, as the official representative of Koreans living in America. In effect, this guaranteed the rights and status of Koreans living in America under US policy. As it also provided a confirmation of Korean national identity, it opened up a channel for new immigration from Korea, including students and picture brides.
Rev. Lee also wrote numerous articles for the New Korea (Shinhan Minbo), arguing for improvements in the quality of life for Korean-Americans as well as anti-Japanese activism, and teaching others pride in their heritage as Koreans. In 1913, he was the first Korean to receive a degree from the University of California, Berkeley: his major was History. When the Japanese colonial government began its campaign to destroy Hangul, the Korean written alphabet, he recognized the need to preserve and promote the use of Hangul. In 1915, he invented an Intertype cast typesetting machine for Hangul, modernizing the publication of the New Korea.
The Daily Palo Alto Times of September 1917 carried an article originally published in the August edition of the Chicago Inland Printer by I. Hall William. The article mentioned that “Unlike Chinese pictographs, Hangul is a phonetic system of writing with an alphabet: it is easy to learn and disseminate. If the countries of Asia use systems of writing like this the East will soon see an educational awakening, just as the early development of printing brought a cultural awakening in Europe with the publication and distribution of books and pamphlets.” The invention of a Hangul typesetting machine in America contributed enormously to the preservation of the unique Korean culture.
▪ Hung Sa Dahn (Young Korean Academy), 1914 Lyon St., San Francisco, CA
The Hung Sa Dahn (Young Korean Academy) was founded in 1913 by Ahn Changho and others to cultivate new leaders of the Korean independence movement. Ahn Changho drew up the charter for the Young Korean Academy on May 13, 1913, in Kang Yeongso’s apartment; the founding members were eight representatives of the eight provinces of Korea (Heung Eon, Yeom Mansik, Cho Byeongok, Kim Hangju, Song Jongik, Jeon Doyeon, Kim Jongrim, and the aforementioned Kang Yeongso), Ahn Changho as chair, and Rev. David Lee as pastor. The Young Korean Academy is still an active international organization, with its current headquarters in Korea and overseas branches in 20 cities.
There are ten historical sites relating to Ahn Changho in San Francisco. While some buildings survive in their original condition, others have been lost due to the great San Francisco earthquake and redevelopment. In many other cases, the sites themselves are intact but the buildings have been newly built or renovated.
In 2014, on its 101st anniversary, the Hung Sa Dahn founded a branch in California’s Silicon Valley. It is planning history classes, leadership training, scholarship support, and other programs for second-generation Korean-American youth, with the objective of molding the next generation of leaders that will work towards Korean reunification.
▪ Willows Korean Flying School, 7233 Highway 162, Willows, CA
The Willows Korean Flying School was the first Korean flight school, established to support the Korean independence movement.
Kim Jongrim, one of the provincial representatives of the Hung Sa Dahn (Young Korean Academy) and a devoted supporter of the Korean National Association, was known as the ‘King of Rice’ because of the wealth he had amassed in rice farming. Kim focused on the fact that air power played an important role in the victories of World War I: he believed that with aerial supremacy the armed Korean resistance groups in Manchuria would be able to defeat the Japanese, whose air force was weak at the time. He invested all of his wealth to build a Korean flight school to train pilots for the resistance, leasing 40 acres of land on the site of the Quint School in Willows, CA.
The role of General Roh Baekrin was instrumental in the foundation of the Korean flight school. Appointed the Secretary of Defense by the Korean Provisional Government, General Roh visited San Francisco on January 5, 1920. Convinced that Koreans needed to rule the skies in order to face and defeat the powerful Japanese army, he began the task of building an airfield and training the first Korean air force under difficult conditions.
Furthermore, General Roh suggested the creation of a Korean military academy; when Park Yongman found the Young Korean Military School in Nebraska, Roh provided active support for armed resistance against Japan by training officers, writing notes recommending that volunteers sign up for the school. The Young Korean Military School was the first military academy of the Korean independence armies.
General Roh’s visit inspired Kim Jongrim’s financial support – together, the flight school was started in 1920 with two planes, one American technician, and six pilots as instructors. The six Korean pilots were graduates of the Redwood Aviation School who had learned flying since 1919 with Kim’s financial support. 19 students volunteered from all across the United States, with some sent by the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai, China.
As part of a March 1 movement commemoration ceremony on March 1, 1920, Lee Yongseon and Lee Cho took to the air in two JN-4D planes, carving a line in history as the first time a Korean had piloted an aircraft. The school produced 11 graduates in 1923, installed radio communication equipment, and expanded their stock of planes to five.
But with the end of World War I in 1918 came a plunge in demand for rice as countries who could not farm rice during the war started production again. To make matters worse, a great flood struck Northern California in November and December 1920. What rice had not yet been harvested was completely lost, and the Korean rice plantations all went into bankruptcy.
Although the school disappeared having never achieved its founding goals, the drive and passion of the Korean-Americans who tried to liberate their homeland through military air power wrote an important chapter in the history of the Korean independence movement.
Willows is a town of around 6,000, located on Interstate 5 about 140 miles north of San Francisco and 86 miles north of Sacramento. It is still a farming town, entirely surrounded by rice paddies, and rice farming still dominates the local economy.
There is a landmark at the former site of the Willows Korean Flying School that states, “Historical School, Glenn County, Quint.” The school building is currently being used as a storehouse.
▪ Korean National Guard of California: ‘the Tiger Brigades’
Headquarters & Education Center: De Young Building, 690 Market St., San Francisco, CA
Training Center: Armory Hall, 1800 Mission St., San Francisco, CA
When the Pacific War between Japan and America began in 1941, the United Korean Committee in America seized the opportunity as the best time for Korean independence through armed intervention. They therefore submitted a proposal to US Army command on the formation of a Korean unit on December 22, 1941, resulting in the Korean National Guard of California. In April of the following year, 109 volunteers in Los Angeles and 30 volunteers in San Francisco received training by the Army. In San Francisco they received education in room 312 of the De Young Building, and trained twice a week on Wednesday and Sunday at Armory Hall. The California state government granted official recognition to the Korean National Guard and dedicated a batallion flag, designating them the “Tiger Brigades.”
▪ Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in San Francisco, 3500 Clay St., San Francisco, CA
On June 4, 1949, one year after the foundation of the Republic of Korea, a Consulate General was established in San Francisco. The current consulate location was purchased on June 5, 1953. Choo Yeonghan was the first consul general; Han Dongman is the 23rd consul general at the present.
When the Korean War erupted in June 25, 1950, various social, political, and religious organizations that were unfamiliar with Korea flocked to consul general Choo Yeonghan – records indicate that at one point he was giving two or more lectures a day, along with TV and radio appearances. When President Harry Truman made a statement that war relief supplies should be sent to Korea for one month (from September 17, 1951 to October 16), Mr. Choo’s wife Ida Choo led the effort to coordinate the support of Korean-Americans across the country to this task. She wrote letters and drafted the paperwork to send to thousands of committees in America as well as to numerous politicians and church leaders, ran newspaper advertisements, and even oversaw the shipment of the relief supplies.
Before his appointment as consul general, Choo Yeonghan owned a restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1937 he started a boycott against Japanese products, raising awareness by distributing postcards to the public and hanging a large sign in the restaurant that said ‘BOYCOTT ALL JAPANESE GOODS.’
▪ Angel Island State Park, Tiburon, CA
From 1910-1940, Angel Island was the site of an immigration station where immigrants to the United States were detained and questioned. If the immigrant had a disease, they were deported or held long-term at the detention center. The immigrants who had to endure the station’s poor living conditions and the miseries of racial discrimination often turned to carving their emotion into the wooden walls or floors that held them in the form of poetry or prose.
When the immigration station closed in 1940 Angel Island became a California State Park, and the detention center is being used as a museum since 2009.
Choi Gyeongsik was detained by immigration authorities in 1925 when he came to America to study. He wrote a poem titled ‘One Night at the Immigration Station’ about his situation and his feelings of homesickness, which was published in the New Korea newspaper. Choi graduated from Joseon Catholic University in Korea and entered the United States at the age of 20 on April 3, 1925 in order to study English Literature at DePauw University, Indiana. However, little is known of his life after this time.