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(Author’s Note: I am grateful to Edwin Lee, the youngest son of Lee Bum Young and Kim Hey Soo, for the many hours of interviews, for providing the NARA files and other family documents, and for the inspiration his family history gave me to write about Korean immigration.)
About 1,000 Koreans are believed to have arrived at the port of San Francisco during the 30-year period that the Angel Island Immigration Station was open.1 Of those, some 650 Koreans arrived between 1910 and 1918.2 These were the early years of the Japanese occupation in Korea, and the Japanese government had a strict prohibition against Koreans leaving the peninsula. As a result, many of these early Korean immigrants are known to have fled Korea secretly, and traveled to the U.S. by way of China or Manchuria under assumed names and identities.3
Edwin Lee’s parents were two of the 650 or so Koreans who were admitted at Angel Island between 1910, when Angel Island opened as an immigration station, and 1917, after which security measures during World War I shut the door to Korean immigrants without visaed passports. His father, Lee Bum Young4, was admitted in 1913, and his mother, Kim Hey Soo, who came as a single woman, was admitted in 1917. They fell under the two narrow exceptions for admission of Koreans after the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907: he claiming to be a student, and she as the bride of a U.S. resident.
Neither of Edwin’s parents is a famous figure with a household name like Rhee Syngman (a leader in the independence movement against Japan and the first president of the Republic of Korea) or Ahn Chang Ho (a respected patriot known for his leadership in the independence movement as well as in the early Korean immigrant communities), and in many ways that’s what makes their story so intriguing. Their journey reveals the little known stories and experiences of common ordinary Korean citizens who arrived at the port of San Francisco in the earliest years of Korean immigration and provides a rare window into their immigrant lives.
On July 9, 1913, a young Korean man by the name of An Chang Da arrived at the port of San Francisco aboard the S.S. Mongolia.5 He was just 21 years of age and was traveling with five other young men all requesting admission as students: Yi Chi Ham, Chung In Kooa, Cho Hin, Lee Chang Soo and Kim Lyul.6 All six were Korean by birth but they had no country to call their own since Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910. None of the six Koreans carried passports or documents to prove that they were bona fide students.
An Chang Da was Edwin’s father. His real name was Lee Bum Young but he was traveling under an alias.
Lee Bum Young was born on May 23, 1892, in Gimpo, Korea, to Lee Byung Dae, his father, and Chung, his mother. He came from a wealthy landowning family but lost both of his parents in 1895 during the cholera epidemic in Korea. According to tradition, his uncle became his guardian upon his parents’ death.7
He was known to be a hardworking student and for four years during his teens, he enrolled in the National English Institute (now known as the Foreign Language Institute). Upon completing his studies at the Institute, he worked as a tutor and later as an English teacher at Jin Myung Girls’ Middle School and also at Joong Hwa Institute in Inchon.
Lee Bum Young was inspired to study in America after delivering a lecture at a Seoul church in late 1912. He was 20 years old at the time. The people in the audience were so impressed by his lecture that they collected $100 and gave it to him, encouraging him to go study in America and then come back to contribute to his country. He went to Hong Kong from An Tong City in Korea, then eventually got himself to Shanghai where he boarded the S.S. Mongolia to travel to the U.S.
How Lee Bum Young left Korea when the Japanese colonial government had in place a strict ban against Korean emigration remains a mystery. His biography does not provide any information on this and Edwin never found out from his father. The following is the only information about his departure that An Chang Da himself provided in his interview before the Board of Special Inquiry at the Angel Island Station on July 12, 19138:
Q: When did you leave Korea?
A: About four years ago.
Q: Where did you go from Korea – what place?
A: To Nanking.
Q: Why did you go there?
A: I went there to come to America.
Q: Four years ago?
A: Yes, — but I couldn’t come
Q: So you stayed in Nanking?
Clearly, his statement that he left Korea “about four years ago” was not true as we know from his biography that he was inspired to study in the U.S. in late 1912, less than a year before his arrival on July 9, 1913. One thing we know is that he traveled under an alias and without a passport. This fact strongly suggests that he left Korea through illegal means. Many students and political dissidents were known to have fled Korea secretly, assuming the name and identity of another person to avoid detection by the Japanese police.9 As explained more later, An Chang Da was probably prepped by the Korean National Association (the “KNA” or “Kuk Min Hui” in Korean) to say that he left Korea “four years ago”. This would allow the KNA to argue to the authorities that An Chang Da was not a subject of Japan requiring a Japanese passport since he left Korea in 1909 before Japan’s annexation of Korea.
An Chang Da and the five Koreans had boarded the Mongolia from Shanghai on June 14, 1913.10 Many Korean students and political dissidents are known to have been in Shanghai in the 1910s waiting to find a passage to the U.S. with the assistance of American missionaries as well as the KNA, a leading Korean American organization that was established in San Francisco in 1909 for the mutual assistance of Koreans as well as to fight for Korea’s independence from Japan.11
When the Mongolia docked at Pier 42 on July 9, 1913, the passengers would have been screened by the immigration officers on board and either permitted to land immediately or directed to take the ferry to the immigration station at Angel Island for further questioning.12 The young Koreans fell into the latter group. The detention and questioning at Angel Island were mainly designed to exclude Chinese laborers under the Chinese Exclusion Act but anyone who traveled by steerage with questionable qualifications to land were automatically sent there.13 An Chang Da and the other Koreans were traveling in second class but were still detained because they did not carry passports or any documents to prove their student status. Thus, the immigration officials could turn them back. Many Koreans claiming to be students were not allowed to land because they were not able to convince the authorities that they were bona fide students, and in particular, that they had the financial means to pursue their studies.14
Upon completion of the initial questioning, the Board of Special Inquiry (BSI) at Angel Island recommended that all six Koreans be “excluded”, without appeal.15 Their affliction with an infectious disease called hookworm was the official reason for the exclusion. This was a harsh decision. The parasitic disease was quite prevalent among immigrants from the rural parts of Asian countries. By then, the immigration service was allowing immigrants found with hookworms to be treated at the immigration hospital at their own expense. However, An Chang Da and the other five Koreans were not initially granted such a treatment option.
Two factors were critical to their eventual medical treatment and admission. First, a number of U.S. officials were reputed to be sympathetic to the plight of the Koreans, and in particular Koreans fleeing from Japanese-occupied Korea, and were inclined to treat them not as immigrants but as “refugee students” subject to more lenient standards.16 And it just so happened that four of the students (other than An Chang Da) were in fact political dissidents allegedly involved in the assassination plot against the first Japanese Governor General of Korea, Terauchi Masatake, commonly known as the “105 Person Incident”.17 While there is no definitive evidence, the immigration officials may well have looked at their case with greater leniency.
The second and the most significant difference was made by the KNA of San Francisco and its then president and activist minister, Rev. David Dae Wie Lee. Rev. Lee also served as the port interpreter at Angel Island at the time An Chang Da and the five Koreans arrived.
The KNA was particularly focused on helping Koreans who fled from Japanese-occupied Korea to find a safe passage into the U.S. The KNA intervened aggressively in advocating for the entry of Koreans, mostly students, at the port of San Francisco, making travel arrangements for refugee students in Shanghai and even sending them money to meet certain immigration requirements and at times posting bonds for students as assurance to the immigration department that the students would not become a public charge.18The San Francisco KNA even owned and operated two boarding houses, one in San Francisco and another one in Claremont, where recent arrivals could stay for three months for free and up to nine more months with a $100 deposit.19 And starting in 1913, with Rev. Lee as the chief editor, the KNA published a Korean language weekly newspaper, Shinhan Minbo (“The New Korea”), through which the KNA could communicate with the Korean community, as well as provide updated immigration requirements to the Korean students abroad who were preparing to come to the U.S.20
Upon BSI’s decision to exclude the six Koreans with no right of appeal, Rev. Lee immediately wrote on behalf of the KNA to the Secretary of the Department of Labor and Commerce and pleaded that, “. . . these young students to be cure this disease and land as the same privileges of the Japanese and Chinese. . .”21 Rev. Lee also explained to the Secretary that these Koreans did not carry passports because they left Korea before the Japanese annexation of Korea and therefore did not have an appropriate jurisdiction from which to obtain passports. This explains why An Chang Da had to say he left Korea “four years ago” before Japan annexed Korea. Last but not least, Rev. Lee on behalf of the KNA vouched for the six Koreans and promised to provide financial oversight if requested.22 Such commitment of support was critical at a time when immigration officials were most suspicious about new immigrants not being able to support themselves and “likely to be a public charge” was a common ground for exclusion and deportation.
BSI’s decision to exclude the students was reversed soon after Rev. Lee’s letter and all six Koreans were allowed to get treated for hookworm after depositing $300 to cover the costs.23 After almost one month of treatment at the hospital on Angel Island, all of the students including An Chang Da were cured of hookworm and allowed to land. Although none of the Korean men had written proof of their student status, the BSI believed their story based on their “general appearance” and “intelligent” responses to their questions. In the case of An Chang Da, his ability to speak English helped his case. Lee Bum Young (under his alias An Chang Da) was officially admitted on August 11, 1913.24
Edwin believes his father lived in San Francisco for a little while after he was admitted, perhaps at a boarding house run by the KNA. Then his father moved to Dinuba, a small farming town near Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley. There, he worked picking grapes for a brief period. He also joined the Dinuba chapter of the KNA which was established in 1914. He enrolled at the Pacific Union College to pursue his studies briefly but dropped out because, according to his biography, “he was not satisfied with the progress he was making.” He then went back to Dinuba and started making money selling grapes to raisin companies. He was soon elected to be the president of the KNA in Dinuba.25
Lee Bum Young’s initial settlement in Dinuba is not surprising as many early Korean immigrants lived and worked in Dinuba starting in 1909.26 By 1919, the largest Korean community in the mainland U.S. is believed to have been in Dinuba.27 According to Dinuba: A Place of New Beginnings, the official book of the 2006 Dinuba centennial, over 500 Koreans are known to have settled in Dinuba. For many years Koreans were the “largest ethnic group in the city [of Dinuba]” with Hispanics “a relatively small part of the population”.28 Many of the laborers picking grapes on a vineyard in several old undated photos in the centennial book are identified as Koreans.29
Edwin’s mother, Kim Hey Soo, arrived at the port of San Francisco on the S.S. China on October 1, 1917.30 She had boarded the S.S. Chinafrom Shanghai. She was just 17 years old, the daughter of a wealthyyangban (upper-class) couple, Kim Sun Myung and Chung Chum Soon, and a student at the Kijeon Missionary School in Jeonju, Korea.31 She had a thirst for learning and wanted to continue her education in the U.S., contrary to her father’s wish for her to become a traditional Korean wife and mother. Edwin was told that his maternal grandmother, being more sympathetic to her daughter’s ambitions, arranged for her first-class passage to the U.S. without her father’s permission.
Like her future husband, Lee Bum Young, she traveled under an alias, Kim Bok So. She also listed an alias, Yu Chi Won, as her father’s name in the passenger list.32 Edwin did not know that his mother traveled to the U.S. under an alias until after his mother passed away, when his sister Rose discovered in their mother’s petition for naturalization that she entered the country as “Bok So Kim”. Edwin presumes that his mother traveled under an alias to leave Korea without being discovered by her father.
According to the passenger list of the S.S. China, Kim Hey Soo (under her alias Kim Bok So) came to the U.S. to be married to a prospective husband by the name of “Oh Nam Sick” (correct spelling, Oh Nam Sik) and her final destination was “Dinuba”. The passenger list also states that her passage was paid by, and she was going to join, “Oh Nam Sick – Prospective Husband, P.O. Box 54 Dinuba, Cal” and that she was traveling with a chaperone by the name of Kim Tak, a “Preacher”, whose passage was paid by “self”.33 However, the fact that both Kim Hey Soo and Kim Tak were traveling in “First Class” seems to suggest that Edwin’s maternal grandmother paid for both of their passages as she was the wealthy one. Apparently, Edwin’s mother, in order to be allowed to study in the U.S., agreed to an arranged yangban marriage to Oh Nam Sik. Arranged marriages were common in those days, especially within the yangban class. Under the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 signed between Japan and the U.S., being the bride of a U.S. resident was one of the few ways that Korean women could come to the U.S.
Unlike An Chang Da and the other Koreans who arrived in 1913, Kim Hey Soo appears to have had no problem entering the U.S. as a bride joining a prospective husband in 1917. Upon the arrival of the S.S.China at the port of San Francisco on October 1, 1917, all thirty Koreans on board were detained for questioning. On October 2, 1917, just after one day of detention, 27 of the 30 Koreans on that list were admitted into the country, including Edwin’s mother and her chaperone, Kim Tak.34
Sometime after her landing, Kim Hey Soo married Oh Nam Sik but the marriage was cut short by a tragedy. According to Oh Nam Sik’s death certificate, he died in a tractor accident on January 18, 1919, while his wife was pregnant with her first child, George. George was born in Sacramento later that year on July 25, 1919.
Kim Hey Soo’s petition for naturalization shows that she married Lee Bum Young on September 7, 1919, in Sacramento, California. Edwin does not know how his parents met. They might have met in Dinuba since his father was living and working there around the time that his mother went to marry Oh Nam Sik in Dinuba. Edwin was told by his sister Rose that their marriage was greatly influenced by the fact that both came fromyangban families and their father agreed to raise George as George Lee. “My mother was very class-conscious, and my father came from a very highly regarded yangbanfamily,” explains Edwin.
1919 was also the year of the March First movement in Korea. On March 1, 1919, the Korean leaders of the movement formally declared Korea’s independence from Japanese rule. Immediately after the declaration, a series of demonstrations with massive turnouts were held throughout Korea. Although intended to be peaceful, the demonstrations ended in violence and the tragic deaths of many innocent Koreans at the hands of the Japanese police.35 Lee Bum Young was the president of the Dinuba chapter of the KNA at the time. The news of the March First tragedy ignited a lifelong dedication to Korea’s independence movement for Lee Bum Young and his young new wife, Kim Hey Soo. The fight for Korea’s independence united the early Korean immigrants from all walks of life and across class boundaries and thrust them into political activism in the U.S. in ways never seen before or since.
1 Lee and Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, 177.
2 Lee and Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, 181.
3 Lee and Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, 177-178.
4 All Korean names are written in the order they would be written in Korean, with the family surname first, followed by the individual’s unique name which is typically composed of two syllables.
5 Transcript from a Meeting of a Board of Special Inquiry (BSI), Angel Island Station on July 12, 1913, In the Matter of the Application of An Chang Da, Korean, Ex. S.S. Mongolia, for Admission to the United States, File 12777/18-1, National Archives at San Francisco (San Bruno). The name “An Chang Da” is misspelled in a variety of ways in the transcripts, appearing as “On Chung Sa”, “On Cang Da”, “Ng Chung Sa” or “An Chung Sa”. An Chang Da appears to be the correct spelling based on Lee Bum Young’s petition for naturalization and thus used here.
6 Lee Bum Young’s NARA immigration documents (under the name An Chang Da), File 12777/18-1.
7 All biographical information about Lee Bum Young, unless otherwise noted, is based on an interview of Lee Bum Young by newspaper editor, Min Pyong Yong, which was later published in “President of Dong Ji Hui: Lee Bum Young”, Miju Imin Baek Nyun Cho Gi In Neruk Kwen Da (1986) at 53.
8 File 12777/18-1.
9 Lee and Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, 178, 190.
10 File 12777/18-1.
11 Lee and Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, 183-192.
12 Barde, “The Scandalous Ship Mongolia”, 112-113.
14 Lee and Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, 191-195
15 File 12777/18-1.
16 Lee and Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, 177-178, 187-193.
17 Shinhan Minbo, November 11, 1944, Section 3. According to the Korean Encyclopedia Britannica, the Japanese, based on rumors of an assassination attempt, alleged that a Korean anti-Japanese group by the name of Shin Min Hui conspired to assassinate Governor General Terauchi. Some 600 men were initially apprehended and, under involuntary intoxication and torture, forced to confess. Many of these men were eventually found not guilty, and upon release, fled from Korea.
18 Lee and Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant 18 Gateway to America, 183-193.
19 Transcript of BSI interview of David Lee on August 16, 1914, in File 13734/15-5, National Archives at San Francisco (San Bruno).
20 Lee and Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, 191.
21 Letter dated July 1913, to the Secretary, Department of Labor, Washington D.C., from David Lee, as President of KNA, in File 12777. The date of the letter is not legible due to its poor copy quality but it was probably written soon after the conclusion of An Chang Da’s interview on July 12, 1913, as the content of this letter is referenced in the letter from the Office of the Commissioner at the Angel Island Station dated July 14, 1913.
22 File 12777/18-1.
23 Memorandum dated 1913 from acting Commissioner-General of Immigration to acting Secretary of Labor, and Letter from Commissioner of Immigration at the Angel Island Station to the Medical Examiner of Aliens at Angel Island Station, dated July 28, 1913, all in File 12777/18-1.
24 File 12777/18-1.
25 Min, “President of Dong Ji Hui: Lee Bum Young”, 53.
26 Cha, Koreans in Central California (1903-1957), 40-42.
27 Dial, Dinuba: A Place of New Beginnings, 74-75.
28 Ibid., 74.
29 Ibid., 50-51.
30 List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States Immigration Officer at Port of Arrival of S.S. China, in File 16553, National Archives at San Francisco (San Bruno).
31 All biographical information about Kim Hey Soo is based on oral interviews of Edwin Lee and family documents supplied by Edwin Lee.
32 File 16553.
35 Kim, The Quest for Statehood: Korean Immigrant Nationalism and U.S. Sovereignty 1905-1945, 46.
Rosemarie Nahm is a real estate attorney and board member of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.
AIISF also appreciates Judy Yung’s editing assistance on this story.
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