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From Korea to Big Island: UH-Hilo professor publishes book on immigrants

  • Courtesy photo
    Seri Luangphinith, a University of Hawaii at Hilo English professor, visits Gayasan National Park in South Korea while doing research for her book "The Paths We Cross: Lives and Legacies of Koreans on the Big Island."

The eyes of the world are on Korea in the wake of the historic meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In.

And while the world watches with at least a glimmer of hope for the future, President Moon’s office took the time to acknowledge a historical book recently written by Seri Luangphinith, a professor of English at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, “The Paths We Cross: The Lives and Legacies of Koreans on the Big Island.”

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Luangphinith, of Laotian-Japanese descent but conversant in Korean language, spent more than a year doing research. That included interviewing Big Islanders of Korean ancestry, scouring newspapers, libraries, archives and museums, transcribing information on headstones of Koreans buried in local cemeteries, and visiting the Republic of Korea at her own expense to find hometowns and families of those who ventured across an ocean to forge a better future.

A letter to Luangphinith from Moon’s office extended its “gratitude and respect” to her “for documenting the history of Koreans on the Big Island and publishing a book which sheds a new light on their lives.”

“The stories of those Koreans who arrived in Hawaii in 1903 and their descendants give us great inspiration and pride,” the letter stated. “The hard work and dedication of those first-generation immigrants enabled Korean Americans to make significant achievements in all areas, laying the groundwork for further development of Korea-U.S. relations.”

Luangphinith’s research started relatively modestly, but evolved into a 201-page book in English and Korean with numerous historical photographs, published by UH-Hilo.

“The more you dig, the more you find. We started uncovering all kinds of things. That’s what led to the book,” Luangphinith told the Tribune-Herald via phone from San Francisco. “We decided to have an art exhibition to showcase a local Korean artist who died on the Big Island, Byoung Yong Lee, and then putting it together with an artist that does traditional calligraphy, but who also rendered scenes from Hawaii Korean history into calligraphy. Bringing those two people together just led into this bigger essay, and, wow, there is a huge history of Koreans on the Big Island that had never been documented, had never been talked about.”

The first wave of Korean immigrants, like Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos, came to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations. Like the Chinese, many didn’t remain there long, deciding they could do better by starting their own businesses.

“Their creative entrepreneurship really gave birth to a culture of independent small businesses — from groceries to flower farms to private medical practices — that is the backbone of this island community,” Luangphinith added. “This work ethic is what drives people like Mayor (Harry) Kim and inspires many people today. I also think the larger history of the Korean Peninsula can teach us about the larger resiliency of a culture which has had to suffer many, many foreign invasions and occupations over the last 1,000 years.”

Those entrepreneurs included Kim’s mother, who made and sold kimchi, and the grandmother of attorney and Hawaii County Councilman Aaron Chung, who ran a downtown Hilo boardinghouse. The two women were “very close friends,” according to Chung.

“They are buried next to each other, actually, and I think it was by design, not by accident,” Chung said. “My grandmother, Harry’s mother and another of her friends are buried next to each other.”

“I grew up knowing only Korean ladies because I would hang around with my grandmother,” he added. “There was no such thing as preschool at that time. A lot of these ladies were picture brides. The husbands were all old, and a lot of them were gone by the time I was growing up. So all I grew up with was Korean ladies. I don’t recall any Korean husbands, quite frankly, for that generation.”

A picture bride whose image appears in the book was Ho Yun Chun, paternal grandmother of Hilo attorney Ted Hong, who, like Chung, is a third-generation Korean American. Hong, the son of former Hawaii Attorney General Tany Hong, said Luangphinith “did a great job to document the contributions of the Korean community on the Big Island.”

“To go to these graveyards and dig up these old dilapidated gravestones and to document where Koreans are buried and where we are on the island, I had no clue,” Hong said. “It’s really eye-opening to me, in terms of what’s happened.”

Luangphinith learned from a private Korean language teacher that Syngman Rhee, an ardent Korean nationalist who became the first president of the Republic of Korea, owned a charcoal factory in Glenwood. Rhee, a staunch anti-communist and authoritarian, was president from 1948 to 1960 and died in Honolulu in 1965.

“Somebody here in the 1930s was organizing businesses here to send money back to the resistance against Japan, because at that time, Japan had taken over Korea,” she said. “This is a history nobody knows about. Very few people on the Big Island knew about it. In fact, a lot of the Korean American people on the Big Island don’t even know about it.”

Predictably, many Koreans came here seeking refuge from the Korean War, including Hilo pediatrician Dr. Hoon Park, a graduate of Johns-Hopkins School of Medicine.

“His story was really, really sad because his father was picked up by the South Korean government and was never seen or heard from again. They’re assuming he died,” Luangphinith said. “I think there were about 200,000 people who disappeared. There were atrocities that were committed, not just by the North Koreans but by the South Koreans, too. His story forced us to address that. The war itself was just a horrible experience for both sides. That’s what led him to embark on his journey, and the fact that he was given the opportunity to study medicine fueled his drive to give back to the community, because a lot of (Korean children) growing up didn’t have opportunities.”

Another little-known fact about the Korean War: Many Korean Americans fought there, serving as many Japanese Americans had during World War II. That includes Chung’s late uncle, Tai Young Chung, an Army veteran who earned the Silver Star, and who is pictured in the book.

“We still call it the ‘Korean Conflict.’ For many years, it wasn’t recognized as a proper war, whatever that means,” Luangphinith said. “I guess, for me, the human story was that, regardless of what you call it, conflict or war, a lot of people suffered because of it. And I think what was most important was to really understand that this pain, which a lot of people still carry to this day, is what drove a lot of them overseas, but also drove their ambitions to be successful so these things would never have to be experienced again.”

Luangphinith, who produced the book on what Hong described as a “shoestring budget,” said she received a great deal of support from the university community, the local Korean community, the Korea Foundation and others in the research, writing and publication of “The Paths We Cross,” which she described as “not just my book.”

The book is available for $45 at the UH-Hilo bookstore and East Hawaii Cultural Center, and proceeds will go toward a second edition.

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“I am happy that I could be the conduit for meaningful work that gives back to the Big Island,” Luangphinith said. “… We still have many graves that need transcribing.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.