Early Pioneers

The history of Korean immigration to the U.S. has undergone various iterations attracting groups from different classes, educational backgrounds and economic conditions each with varying motivations for immigrating to the U.S.  Leaving Korea due to famines at the turn of the century, the first wave of Koreans came to Hawaii between 1903 and 1905 to work on sugar plantations.  This group of migrant workers immigrated due to the demand for cheap labor in Hawaii and due to the intermediary role of Dr. Horace Allen, an American Presbyterian missionary in Korea who was influential in making this first migration possible.  Beginning in 1884, when diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Korea were first established, American missionaries were actively involved in converting Koreans to Christianity.  It was through this influence that many early Korean pioneers chose to come to the U.S.1 Some of those early immigrants came to Los Angeles and formed communities around their shared Christian faith. 

By 1904, a regular gathering of Koreans met on Magnolia Avenue near the University of Southern California to worship and take English lessons together.  This gathering later became the Korean United Methodist Church, one of the many ethnic church communities in Los Angeles.  In 1906, another group of Koreans started a Presbyterian gathering in downtown L.A., later becoming the Korean United Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles.  This church stands to this day and is located on 1374 West Jefferson Boulevard near the University of Southern California.  One of the important foundations for spatial practice among Korean immigrants centered around the practice of faith as a form of community building.2

Korean church communities in America also became an influential political platform for the Korean independence movement during the Japanese colonization of Korea between 1910 and 1945.  By 1924 additional Koreans had immigrated to Hawaii and California.  Though the majority of these were “picture brides”–women sent from Korea to become wives of the earlier wave of bachelor migrant workers–some were political refugees and student activists involved in the anti-Japanese independence movement.  Many of these activists established the Korean independence movement in the U.S. not only providing voices of dissent against Japanese colonization but by funding the Korean Provisional Government in exile, which was engaged in diplomatic and military action both domestically and internationally in order to gain Korean independence.3 The origins of this political movement were started in San Francisco around 1903 with the establishment of organizations like the Korean National Association, but by the 1930s the leadership of the Korean American community had shifted to Los Angeles where more employment opportunities attracted Koreans to relocate to Southern California.  Moving the offices of the Korean National Association from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 1937 marked the emergence of Los Angeles as the new center for the Korean American community.4

The activities of the Korean independence movement in the U.S. exemplify another form of spatial practice, one that extends the boundaries of local space to global space.  In her essay “A Global Sense of Place” Doreen Massey states,

Instead then, of thinking of places as areas with boundaries around, they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings, but where a large proportion of those relations, experiences and understandings are constructed on a far larger scale than what we happen to define for that moment as the place itself, whether that be a street, or a region or even a continent.  And this in turn allows a sense of place which is extroverted, which includes a consciousness of its links with the wider world, which integrates in a positive way the global and the local.5

The movement for Korean independence created a network of activists whose commitment to nationalism extended their concept of the Korean community beyond their immediate immigrant space to a global space, encompassing a network of satellite communities in the U.S., Mexico, China and Russia.6 During the Japanese occupation the concept of Korea as an independent nation was kept alive in the imagination of Koreans living outside of Korea.  Their network of interactions expanded and destabilized the concept of nation as fixed within the borders of Korea.  This developing concept of nation has influenced different generations of Korean activists  whose concept of nation today rejects the division of Korea in 1945, striving instead for the reunification of the North and South.

Reflecting a fluctuating sense of place, the spatial boundaries of Koreatown have been multiple.  In the early 1900s a small group of four Korean families lived near Bunker Hill on the outer edge of the more upscale neighborhood along Temple Street between Los Angeles and Broadway Street.  Until the early 1930s Koreans owned a grocery store, a laundry and a shoe repair shop in the area.  By the end of the 1930s there were approximately 650 Koreans living in Los Angeles County.  By the 1940s the majority of Koreans had established their homes, community organizations, churches, restaurants and grocery stores in the southwestern edge of the downtown L.A. business district.  This early iteration of Koreatown was located near the University of Southern California and bounded by Adams Boulevard to the north, Slauson Boulevard to the south, Western Avenue to the west and Vermont Avenue to the east with Jefferson Boulevard providing the primary artery for Korean residents and businesses.  Housing laws based on racial discrimination during the 1930s and 40s forced the Korean community to establish themselves in this racially mixed residential zone where restrictions were not as strictly enforced as in other areas of the city.  Later as these housing restrictions toward non-white residents began to ease, second-generation Koreans moved out of this earlier iteration of Koreatown.7

Beginning in the late 1960s as the African-American population increased in the southern part of the city, the Jewish, Anglo and Asian communities began moving to adjacent neighborhoods.  The Korean settlement began to move north of Adams toward Olympic Boulevard between Crenshaw and Hoover.  During this time the next wave of Koreans came to the U.S. following the enactment of the 1965 immigration act abolishing national origins as a basis for immigration legislation.  Though the act was designed to reunite families separated during World War II and it was predicted that the primary immigrants would be coming from Europe, few expected the large influx of people arriving from Asia.  Just in the two years between 1968 and 1970 the Korean population in the United States had doubled from 25,000 to 50,000 with 8,811 living in Los Angeles County.  By 1980 the Korean population in the U.S. had grown to 354,000 doubling to 800,000 in 1990 and by 2000 there were about 1.1 million.  It is currently estimated that the annual number of Korean immigrants since 2000 has been 20,000 per year.8 Today Los Angeles has the largest number of Koreans in the United States living outside of Korea.

  1. Pyong Gap Min, Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues (Thousand Oaks, California: Pine Forge Press, 2006), 230-231. 

  2. Eui-Young Yu, Peter Choe, Sang Il Han, and Kimberly Yu, “Emerging Diversity: Los Angeles’ Koreatown, 1990–2000,” Amerasia Journal 30:1 (2004): 25-52, 26. 

  3. Myung Kun Kim, Samuel Sunjoo Lee and Tom H.J. Byun, Korean Centennial Pictoral Book of the North America: Rainbow over the Pacific (The Christian Herald U.S.A., 2006), 111. 

  4. Korean National Association website, http://koreannationalassn.com 

  5. Doreen Massey, “A Global Sense of Place,” Marxism Today (June, 1991): 24-39, 28. 

  6. Korean National Association website, http://koreannationalassn.com 

  7. Yu, Han and Yu, “Emerging Diversity,” 27. 

  8. Min, Asian Americans, 234.