Introduction to the San Francisco Korean American History 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 History Museum
The SF Korean American History Museum (SFKAHM) 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 immigrant’s artifacts but also to mediate the cultural exchanges between Korea and the United 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 SFKAHM’s inauguration, is doing now and plans to do in the future.
SFKAHM: What we have done
02/19/2014 SFKAM Committee
08/27/2014 Entity ID 47-1287078
06/20/2015 Inauguration of SFKAM
12/15/2015 501(c) (3) Nonprofit Organization
06/18/2018 SFKAM Office Open House: 1805 3rd Avenue, Oakland, CA 94606
10/02/2020 Change Name (SFKAM SFKAHM)
Lecture Series on Korean Culture and Immigration History
06/03/2014 “Korean-American Immigration History: Perspective and Preparation” by Hong Seon-pyo, Chief Research Fellow, Research Institute for Korean Independence Movement, Korea Independence Memorial Hall
07/10/2014 “Forebears’ Contributions and Descendants’: Succession and Development” by Kim Young-ran, CEO, Booksanchaek publishing
06/20/2015 “A Museum to Show the Diverse History and Culture” by Laura Nelson, Chair, Center for Korean Studies, Institute of East Asian Studies, U.C. Berkeley
06/20/2015 “The Necessity and Importance of Ethnic Museum” by Lee Chung-hee, Prof. Portland State University
08/08/2015 “The Direction of San Francisco Korean American Museum” by Clare You, Senior Advisor, Center for Korean Studies, Institute of East Asian Studies, and U.C. Berkeley
05/21/2016 “Memory and History” by Kwon Young-min, Visiting Professor, Dept. of East Asian Languages and Cultures, U.C. Berkeley
11/12/2016 “A Rich Man with A Big Dream: Kim Jong-lim” by Lee Yeon-taek, journalist, President, Seoul Book Center
11/11/2017 “A Great Leader Rev. Lee Dae-wi” by Lee Jong-hyok, President, Lee Accountancy Group
04/07/2018 “Modern and Contemporary Korean History and Northern California” by Lee Seong-do, Consul, SF Consulate General, Republic of Korea
02/16/2019 “The patriotic act of Chang In-hwan and Chun Myung-won in the context of the armed struggle for independence” by Cha Marn J, President, Central California Korean Historical Society
06/26/2015 Painting and sculptures donated by local Korean-American artists and artwork depicting immigration experience by the students of the Korean Language Schools
11/11/2017 Photo Exhibition I (Immigration History)
09/29/2018 Photo Exhibition II (Immigration History)
04/06/2019 – 05/31/2019 Fiber Art Exhibition – Newtro by Bay stitchers
05/21/2016 Korean Art and Life
09/28/2018 Map of Korean-American Historical Sites (Korean) – “SF: A City of Korean-American History”
11/09/2019 Map of Korean-American Historical Sites (English) – “SF: A City of Korean-American History”
11/09/2019 Map of Korean-American Historical Sites (Y-tube)
Currently, 28 video interviews have been compiled and are available from the Museum website, SFKAHM.org
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.
11/01/2019 First Fundraising Dinner (Honored Guest Speaker: Dr. Steven Choi, California State Representative)
12/01 ~ 12/31/2020 Second Fundraising (On-Line) (“Independence movement in America” by Dr. Hong Sun-Pyo)