The Paths We Cross: The Lives and Legacies of Koreans on the Big Island ~ By Seri Luangphinith
(Ka Noio ‘A’e ‘Ale Press, Hilo, Hawaii, 2017, ISBN #978-0-6920-3348-7)
Review by Jennifer Arndt-Johns (Summer 2021 issue)
In December 2020, I traveled to the Big Island of Hawai’i. During my visit, I picked up a used book entitled Hawaiian Journey at the historic Spencer House in Waimea. This account by Joseph G. Mullins (1978 edition) summarizes two centuries of turbulent Hawaiian history. One section, Newcomers, includes a page allocated to the Koreans, with a black-and-white family portrait and a summary of Korean immigration to the Hawaiian Islands.
I was hooked. On previous visits to Hawai’i, I hadn’t seriously contemplated Korean immigration history to Hawaii, but after returning to Minnesota, I started researching the topic in my spare moments. The Big Island of Hawai’i is inarguably my happy place, so I typed into Google “Korean history Big Island.” This is how I discovered the work of Seri I. Luangphinith, an English professor at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo.
Luangphinith’s The Paths We Cross: The Lives and Legacies of Koreans on the Big Island is a well-researched and heartfelt exploration of ordinary and extraordinary Koreans who immigrated to the Big Island of Hawai’i in pursuit of a better life. Unlike the Mullins book, with its one page of Korean Hawaiian history, The Paths We Cross is 201 pages of detailed local Korean American history related to the Big Island.
The book is written in both English and Korean, to encourage connection, inclusion and generational continuity, Luangplinith reported. This decision demonstrates the editor’s understanding that in the generations succeeding the ilse, (first generation) few speak the Korean language.
As an adopted Korean who is not fluent in the Korean language, I appreciated the intention and sensitivity to the complicated issues surrounding the loss of language. While I could not read the pages presented in Korean, I was inspired to see the written Korean and English on facing pages. Interestingly, the idea for the book emerged from an effort to develop a Korean language studies program at the University of Hawai’i Hilo.
The book is written in a personal and organic documentary style that invites the reader to accompany Luangphinith on her journey. She details the early immigration history of Koreans to the Island, paralleling her own discovery, along with colleagues, of this little-known story. The project is believed to be the first major attempt to document Korean immigrants’ lives on the Big Island.
The book makes space for voices of those whose stories are significant, yet seldom told. In her research, the editor and her team discovered that a Kurtistown charcoal factory was operated during the 1930s by Independence Movement fighter (and later South Korea’s first president) Syngman Rhee. In an interview, Luangphinith said was surprising that even among the local community, this history has been relatively unknown to this day.
Rhee had a home in Mountainview (which still stands, but is now privately owned). He was also a major player in larger efforts dedicated to education. A collaboration between the Korean Christian Institute and Dongji Investment Company helped fund Inha Technical College that would educate Korean Americans. According to various scholars, it is believed that such pro-active commitment to education by the first generation enabled the second and third generations to rapidly advance in society. The book cites the work of scholar Yong-Ho Ch’oe citing that “By 1930, Koreans had one of the highest rates of school attendance, second only to Anglo-Americans and bypassing both the Chinese and Japanese.”
Early Korean immigrants endured extreme hardship starting in 1903 when they arrived as contract workers for the sugar plantations. Fleeing Korea and hoping for opportunity, they discovered a different set of challenges in acclimating to and finding belonging in a new land. From their humble beginnings as the lowliest laborers, immigrants raised up some of the first Korean American leaders. Ronald Ibarra emerged as the first Korean American administrative judge and Harry Kim emerging as the first Korean American mayor.
The book addresses the critical role of art in the community. Luangphinith acknowledges the “value of art in conjunction to struggles over language and sovereignty to Korean Americans on the Big Island — when all connections to culture have been lost.” The book includes prints of work of East Hawai’i Korean artists Kim C.S. Chang and Su Ok Kim. It also includes documentation of The Paths We Cross exhibition presented at the East Hawai’i Cultural Center in 2017. It included works from prominent artists of Korean Hawaiian artists Hae Kyung Seo and Byoung Yong Lee, among others.
The most compelling section of The Paths We Cross is the documentation the editor and her team of Korean immigrant gravesites on the Big Island, and the tracing of these names back to the unified Korea that existed prior to the 1948 division. It is a true work of heart that has entailed locating, transcribing, etching, photographing and archiving individual graves at sites throughout the island.
The effort has connected them with others who are committed to preserving Korean history on the Island. To date, the team has located 300 grave sites on the Big Island and transcribed over 150. The index sheets they have created are to be archived at the Hawaiian Collection at the University of Hawai’i Hilo’s Mookini Library and the Hawai’i Plantation Museum.
My son and I met Luangphinith on the Big Island in June. She invited us to join her for a short “Korean History Tour.” We met outside the historic Palace Theater in Hilo, where she detailed the locations and types of Korean businesses that used to be located there, and the history of various city blocks. We then ventured on to ‘Alae Cemetery, located just a few minutes North of Hilo, a beautiful landscape that overlooks the Hamakua Coast. There is a Korean section is set amidst the Chinese and Japanese sections. As we strolled by the grave sites, Luangphinith recited the stories of each one, as if she had known the individuals personally. She lamented that there were a few first-generation graves that they could not yet decipher due to the deterioration of the incised script over time. Her main concern is that “time is running out.” I resonated with both the beauty of the cemetery and the palpable energy I felt of disconnection that lingered in this sacred space.
Before we departed ‘Alae Cemetery, Luangphinith placed some potted plants upon a few of the graves and brought a small pinwheel to place upon a young child’s grave. I was deeply moved by her gestures. She said that when she once flew over the cemetery, she noticed that the Japanese and Chinese sections always had flowers and were apparently tended to by someone, but the Korean section was not. She said it saddened her and so she tends to the forgotten graves when she visits.
The Paths We Cross: The Lives and Legacies of Koreans on the Big Island demonstrates how the human spirit pushes individuals to seek new horizons, often with great sacrifice and loss that is difficult for succeeding generations to comprehend. In history’s honor, the following is from a book written by Hyujeong, a Joseon-era monk revered for leading an army in Korea against the invading Japanese in 1592:
When walking on the field covered with snow
Do not walk without thinking.
The footsteps that I leave today
Will be the milestone for future generations.
The Paths We Cross traces the footsteps of Korean American pioneers from generations before us. May we, as modern-day seekers have reverence for their journeys, as if they were our own.
(Author’s note: The Paths We Cross: The Lives and Legacies of Koreans on the Big Island can be purchased through the University of Hawai’i – Hilo Bookstore. Limited copies are available. A second edition is slated for publication and release in 2025.)