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The San Francisco Bay Area Story

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.