Sparkling water, punishing work

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Sparkling water, punishing work

OAHU, Hawaii

The Hawaiian sun shimmers like crystal. The serene, blue sky and fresh, clean air make this island a haven for tourists and a blessing from nature for the residents. But for the Korean immigrants who came here to labor in the sugar fields 100 years ago, the brilliant sun felt like a scorching fire.

Kim Seong-shil, 84, is a second-generation Korean immigrant to Hawaii, who was born and raised in the sugarcane fields of Wahiawa, 20 miles from Honolulu.

"When I was 3, my mother carried me on her back and went to the sugar plantation," Mrs. Kim says. "She then placed me on a blanket and worked in the fields all day." Mrs. Kim's father, Kim Heung-soo, a first-generation immigrant, came to Hawaii in 1904 at the age of 25. He ran away from home at 17 because of extreme poverty, and assisted Chinese medicine practitioners for several years before stumbling on an advertisement that promoted jobs in Hawaii. He leaped at the ad.

But Kim Heung-soo's "Hawaiian dream" quickly became a nightmare. As soon as he arrived, he was put to work in the Wahiawa plantation, where he toiled from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. under a broiling sun. It was an excruciatingly harsh lifestyle. The whip-wielding overseers saw to it that the Korean immigrants worked diligently. The sugarcane grew taller than an average man's height and the plants would scratch their eyes, but the pickers were so scared of the overseers that they carried on.

"In those days, the laborers couldn't dream of getting medical treatment for their eye sores," Mrs. Kim says. "All they got was monthly visits by nurses, who would give them medication." For working 12 hours, Mrs. Kim's father earned a meager 70 cents per day.

The brutal working conditions were enough to make many Koreans despair and give up. Before he died in 1958, another first- generation laborer, Lee Min-ho, told his family about his experiences. "In 1904," he said, "I started work at the Maoi plantation, along with 80 other Korean immigrants, but half went back home in less than four years. I worked 20 years because they said they would give me a pension. But in 1923 the plantation went bankrupt and so I was cast away without receiving a penny."

In 1913, Kim Heung-soo sent his picture across the Pacific Ocean. Soon, a 23-year-old woman from Busan sent her picture to Hawaii. This was the norm for "picture brides," a type of mail-order brides that Korean emigrants often found. Kim Seong-shil's mother, Park Yeong-jin, decided to move to Hawaii to marry Mr. Kim because she dreamed of going to school in the United States. But the thin, lanky man in the picture did not match the haggard, scruffy laborer that greeted her at the Honolulu port.

For days Ms. Park cried but could not imagine breaking off the engagement. As soon as the wedding took place, Ms. Park worked side by side with her husband. Their daughters Seong-shil and Gui-shil started working at the age of 12 in the nearby pineapple fields.

"To earn $1, we had to pick 1,000 pineapples a day," Seong-shil recalls. The family settled down more or less after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The demand for work suddenly increased, and her father got a job working in road construction, her mother cooking and cleaning for military personnel.

Seong-shil married a second-generation Korean, Lee Geun-wha, in 1941. Because Mr. Lee worked at a U.S. military base, the family was able to lead a stable life and there were no worries about putting food on the table. Seong-shil even went to a community college. Their family has been living in Hawaii for five generations now, with 16 descendants. Her grandson Brandon Lee, 29, jokes how lucky he is that he wasn't born during his grandparents' generation. All her children were able to go to college.

A 12-year-old girl who used to pick pineapples all day, Seong-shil now lives in a white house here that used to be the home of an overseer. About 5 kilometers away is the road that her father helped build as a construction worker nearly 60 years ago.

Seong-shil cannot speak Korean anymore. She's simply called "Rachel Lee."

To avoid extreme poverty and to get an education, her parents traveled thousands of miles by boat. And now their descendants are living their dream.

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Diligence and education shown early on the islands

The saying goes, "In Hawaii, money will come out of the floor when you sweep." In the early days, emigration to Hawaii meant escaping poverty and famine. In 1902, Emperor Gojeong granted emigration to Hawaii. That year, the president of Hawaiian Sugar Plantation Owners Association came to Korea to request Korean laborers be exported to the islands. At the time, Koreans had suffered from starvation for several years, and the government had to find ways to solve the growing discontent of the people.

The winter of that year, the SS Gaelic transported more than 100 laborers from Jemulpo, near Incheon. On the way, the boat stopped at Nagasaki, Japan, where the laborers underwent physical examinations. Nineteen were rejected and sent back to Korea. The following year, on Jan. 13, 1903, 102 people landed in Honolulu. Because the Japanese feared an anti-Japanese independence movement among those who went to Hawaii, the emigration ceased in April 1905. During that period, more than 7,226 laborers arrived in Hawaii aboard 65 ships (the figure comes from an estimation by the Hawaii Immigration Memorial Group).

From 1912 to 1924, the U.S. government banned Asian immigration altogether, but before that, 951 "picture brides" arrived in Hawaii. In the midst of severe labor and poverty, Korean immigrants were able to settle down and show their remarkable diligence and fervor for education. By 1910, most became teachers, owners of restaurants and motels. When the war in the Pacific started in 1941, Koreans relocated to bigger cities in Hawaii. By 1970, Koreans were among the highest income earners on the isalnds.


by Special Reporting Team
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