Korean immigrant roots in the US are visible today in many ways, from the ubiquity of Korean barbeque and tofu houses at strip shopping malls to seeing Korean American stars like Daniel Dae Kim and Ken Jeong on the big screen. With over one hundred years of immigration history, Korean Americans are now the fifth largest Asian American group in the US with a population of about 1.8 million and they represent 9% of the Asian/Pacific Islander population in California.* When and where did Korean immigration to the US begin? Who were the Korean pioneers who first settled here and brought their unique Korean culture that has evolved to become a part of America?

The common belief is that Korean immigration began on January 13, 1903, when the first group of Korean contract laborers landed in Honolulu to work at sugar plantations. Over 7,000 Koreans went to Hawaii over the following two years, and Hawaii had the largest Korean population until the 1950s.

However, a closer examination of historical records reveals that Korean immigration was underway in San Francisco before Hawaii. A dozen or so Korean merchants and ginseng sellers were in San Francisco since the late 1800s. Then, political exiles and students came in the early 1900s and started to organize the small and scattered population on the mainland US. While Hawaii had the larger community, San Francisco was the organizational hub of the early immigrant society.

This exhibit focuses on the Koreans who embarked on their immigrant journey in San Francisco, starting with the arrival of the student couple Ahn Chang-ho and his wife Helen in 1902. Ahn, along with a dozen other early leaders in San Francisco, established the first organizations to support the needs of their immigrant community and to resist Japanese aggression in Korea. These events marked the San Francisco beginnings of Korean immigration.


*Sources: Pew Research Center Social and Demography Trends, “Koreans in the US Fact Sheet,” September 8, 2017, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/fact-sheet/asian-americans-koreans-in-the-u-s/.
Korean American Coalition-Los Angeles, “Demographics and Citizenship: Overview of Top 5 Korean and API State Populations (2010 v 2014 data),” https://www.kacla.org/census-demographics-and-citizenship.html.

Sites of Significance in Korean Immigration History

San Francisco and Vicinity

1. Angel Island Immigration Station, Angel Island

2. 938 Pacific Avenue, SF: Gongnip Association’s first office (1905-1906)

3. 521 Page Street, SF: residential home which served as the first meeting place for the Korean Mission, current day San Francisco Korean United Methodist Church (SFKUMC)

4. 2350 California Street, SF: meeting place of SFKUMC (1906)

5. 1944 Buchanan Street, SF: Gongnip Association’s second office (1907)

6. Ferry Building, SF: site of Durham Stevens’ assassination (1908)

7. 2928 Sacramento Street, SF: Korean National Association (KNA) headquarter (1908-1910)

8. 232 Perry Street, SF: KNA headquarter (1910-1914).  SFKUMC also shared this space for Sunday worship. This address no longer exists as it is now part of I-80.

9. 2123 Bush Street, SF: meeting place of SFKUMC (1911-1913)

10. 1914 Lyon Street, SF: Heung Sa Dahn’s first office in a residential home (1913)

11. 1053 Oak Street, SF: KNA headquarter (1914-?). SFKUMC also relocated to this building in 1914 and used two of the three floors for church purpose.

12. Webster Street, Oakland (grocery store/residence of Moon Chil Won): first meeting place of Oakland Korean United Methodist Church (1914)

13. 995 Market Street, SF (current site of David Hewes Building): KNA headquarter moved to this location, before relocating to Los Angeles in 1938.

14. 1123 Powell Street, SF: First church building built and owned by SFKUMC (1930-1994)

15. Cypress Memorial at 1370 El Camino Real, Colma: burial site of several San Francisco Korean pioneers

A Glimpse of the Past in Photos

Officers of the Korean National Association in front of their building at 1053 Oak Street, San Francisco, circa 1913. From L-R, Choi Jung-ik, Lee Yong-ha, Dosan Ahn Chang-ho, Whang Sa Yong, Rev. Moon Yang-mok, Park Sang-ha, Pak Yong-man, Kang Young-so, Rev. Yoon Byung Koo, Kim Hong-kyun, David (Dae Wei) Lee, Ryang Joo Eun, Ja Yong-bin. Courtesy of the Korean American History Museum, Los Angeles.

Rev. David Lee (far right) with his congregation of the San Francisco Korean United Methodist Church in front of the building at 1053 Oak Street, September 25, 1921. The church shared the building with the Korean National Association for several years.

San Francisco Korean United Methodist Church building at 1123 Powell Street. This was the first Christian church building to be built and owned by a Korean congregation in the US. The dedication service was held on June 2, 1930, under the leadership of Rev. Whang Sa Sun. In addition to its religious function, this building served as the center of patriotic activities as well as social, employment and educational activities for the local Koreans. The church moved in 1994 to its current location at 3030 Judah Street in San Francisco.

Rev. David Lee, as editor of the Shinhan Minbo , types a news article at the intertype printer with a Korean keyboard that he invented, circa 1915.

Photo of the Korean keyboard that was used with the intertype printing machine to publish the Shinhan Minbo. The keyboard was invented by Rev. David Lee and was used starting in March 1915.

Original intertype printing machine that was used to publish the Shinhan Minbo newspaper. The machine is displayed as part of the permanent exhibit at the Korean National Association Memorial Foundation building in Los Angeles.

The first issue of the Shinhan Minbo newspaper was published on February 10, 1909. The Shinhan Minbo was the official publication of the Korean National Association and served as an important channel to communicate local community news as well as news from Korea.

The first issue of the Gongnip Shinbo was published on November 20, 1905, by Gongnip Association. The organization had no access to a printer until 1907, so for the first two years, each issue was handwritten by a contributing member.

The Passenger List of SS Siberia shows Whang Sa Sun and Whang Tai Sun as passengers in Second Class. The ship arrived in San Francisco on April 21, 1913.



Copyright © 2020 by Rosemarie Nahm.  All photos in this exhibit were approved for use solely for this exhibit and may not be used for any other purpose.