For the Korean immigrants that began arriving to Hawai‘i in 1903, the church came to signify stability, camaraderie, and progress. Today, as the relevance of an age-old institution continues to wane, Korean devotees meditate on meeting the needs of an ever-changing community.
“Koreans, we go out punching, then think later,” says Tomiko Ok Lee, a Korean who moved to the United States in 1966. “I don’t know if by kimchi or what, but … we get so hot, sometimes it’s unreasonable. But we don’t even think about it. It’s kind of a character of Koreans.”
This spiciness makes sense in the context of Korea’s history. Known as Choson, or Land of Morning Calm, the mountainous peninsula of Korea has been anything but tranquil. Historically, it is a “sandwich nation,” according to Bong Rin Ro, Ph.D., a professor of church history at the Asia Graduate School of Theology on Makaloa Street in the area known as “Koreamoku.” It’s a term he uses to refer to a place squeezed by world powers fighting over control of the strategic region. Over millennia, rule of Korea has shifted from China to Japan in a perpetual game of tug-of-war. Other nations, such as the Soviet Union and the United States, have joined in the contest at various times. The rope frayed so much that the country has split in two.
Amidst all of this turmoil, in the late 1880s, Protestant Christianity—as well as capitalism and Western culture—came to the peninsula in the arms of American missionaries. Within a couple of decades, Koreans began immigrating to Hawai‘i. Churches became shared places of worship, marks of kinship, and outposts for Korean liberation in the years to come. Today, only about 3.5 percent of Hawai‘i’s population, or just over 48,700 people, identifies as full or part Korean, according to U.S. Census data in 2010. Despite this, Korean culture permeates island life.
In 1903, Kea Shin Whang set off from Korea aboard the Gaelic, which was bound for the territory of Hawai‘i. Nearly half of his 102 shipmates were from the congregation of American Methodist minister Reverend George Heber Jones, who had persuaded members, many of them impoverished, to give up cruel life in Korea for the golden fields of opportunity that could be found on Hawai‘i’s plantations.
“At that time, the social conditions [in Korea] were bad,” says Kea Shin’s grandson Dr. Edmund Soo Myung Whang, a retired nephrologist who grew up in Wahiawā. “So my grandfather immigrated with his whole family, just left with his four children and came to Hawai‘i to work on the sugarcane plantation in Kahuku.”
For Kea Shin and the roughly 7,500 Korean migrants who arrived in the islands over the next two years, before Japan, then a protectorate over Korea, banned such migration, churches became community gathering places and networks of shared culture. Small home churches were started on plantations, while larger churches began cropping up in the cities. Sunday services were “an almost universal feature of plantation life for the Koreans,” Arthur L. Gardner writes in The Koreans in Hawaii, “and the drift of non-Christian immigrants to these well-organized activities was so constant that through the years virtually all Koreans came to be identified with the Christian faith.”
Soon, the church became a place to combat not only spiritual but also literal warfare in the fight for Korean independence from Japan. In 1918, Kea Shin, along with a group of 30 Koreans, formed the Korean Christian Church in Wahiawā under the leadership of Syngman Rhee, a Princeton-educated nationalist who later became the first president of South Korea. Rhee, who had been imprisoned in Korea from 1897 to 1904 for his role in forming the Korean Independence Club, an organization that protested government corruption in its flattery of foreign powers (particularly Japan), had immigrated to the United States, where he became the spokesperson for Korean independence for the next four decades.
“The Korean Christian Church was established to pray for Korea’s independence,” Edmund says. “They also raised money from here [in Hawai‘i] to support the independence movement back in Korea. … The women would make kimchi and whatnot, have various sales and bazaars to generate money, and participate in war-bond selling.”
In 1945, it seemed that the prayers of the church were answered. Japan surrendered, World War II ended, and Korea was liberated for the first time in centuries (though the country was split along the 38th parallel of latitude—an arbitrary division made by U.S. officials to delineate the American occupation zone). The day of liberation was marked on August 15, celebrated simultaneously in the newly divided Korea as Gwangbokjeol, or “the day that light returned,” in the South, where the United States had installed Rhee as president, and as Chogukhaebangŭi nal, or “Liberation of the Fatherland Day,” in the North, where the Soviets appointed Kim Il-sung the first premier.
Peace, however, was short-lived. The region erupted into turmoil again in 1950, when troops from the Soviet-backed North invaded the U.S.-backed South, a conflict that marked the start of the Korean War. At its end, in 1953, 2.2 million military and civilian lives were lost. For the next decade, Korea remained one of the poorest countries in the world. “The Korean church is a suffering church,” says church history professor Bong Rin Ro, who became a Christian during the Korean War, when he was 15, and now resides in Hawai‘i. “It was a very difficult time. I lost my father, and we lost our house, and millions of Koreans died, [were] killed, or starved to death,” Ro says. Still, he acknowledges, “God used those experiences for me to know Christ.”
After the war, about 15,000 Koreans came to the United States, many as orphans adopted by families in America, war brides married to American GIs, or students seeking prestigious American educations. (Ro falls into the third category, having come to the United States in 1956 to attend Wheaton College, where he met his wife, a fifth-generation Chinese girl from Kaimukī, and where he received his bachelor’s in church history.) The greatest majority of Korean migrants, however, came after the Immigration Act of 1965 completely did away with an earlier ban on Asian immigrants to the United States, instead giving preference to those seeking family unification or political asylum. Koreans became the third largest group of immigrants to the United States, after Mexicans and Filipinos, with 660,000 Koreans becoming naturalized citizens between 1965 and 1990. In Hawai‘i, churches swelled with Korean immigrant populations, which grew from under 10,000 in 1970 to about 25,000 in 1990. By 1980, 14 new Korean Protestant churches opened; prior to 1965, there had been just three. At Ro’s count, just two decades later, in 2000, there were 70 Korean churches across Hawai‘i; today, he puts that number closer to 90.
This phenomenon in Hawai‘i mirrored that taking place in the motherland, where church growth was also accelerating rapidly. After Korea was liberated from Japan, the number of Christians in Korea nearly doubled every 10 years, going from 350,000 Christians in 1945 to 3.5 million in 1975. (Today, there are about 7 million.) In Korea, the Yoido Full Gospel Church, which began in 1958 as a series of backyard meetings led by Pastor David Yonggi Cho, swelled to become the world’s largest church, with half a million members by the 1980s. Now, the church counts more than a million in its congregation, despite Cho having been convicted for embezzling $12 million in church funds in 2014. The more you give to God, came the impassioned cry from behind the pulpits, the more you will be blessed. “Churches have not only put up large, impressive sanctuaries, they have purchased whole mountains on which to build discipleship training centers and facilities where people come, day and night, to pray,” Ro wrote in 1998 in an article for Christianity Today. The gospel of prosperity roared through church congregations, people emptied their pockets, and church coffers grew and grew.
In Hawai‘i, by the mid-1970s, blessings flowed abundantly. Koreans had the highest median family income compared to all other ethnic groups, including Caucasians, as well as the lowest unemployment rate. They had the highest representation per capita in the workforce, with nearly two-thirds of men and half of women older than 17 employed. In terms of occupations, Koreans were more likely to work in professional services than all other ethnic groups, with the majority working in management.
Like their peers advancing in white-collar jobs, tenacious women came to find success as business owners themselves. Among these was Tomiko Ok Lee, who migrated to Colorado in 1966 after marrying a sergeant she had met while working on a military base in Seoul. She became a burlesque dancer in Colorado, and when her husband wanted to move to Idaho to become a potato farmer, Tomiko decided she wanted her name in big lights instead. The couple split and she headed to Los Angeles, where she found success as a burlesque dancer at one of Hollywood’s most famous clubs, The Pink Pussycat. There, she was recruited to dance at Club Hubba Hubba in Honolulu’s Chinatown, where she performed until the owner began prodding her to go fully nude. “Myself alone is good article!” Tomiko recalls thinking. “I won’t do it.” At the same time, Korean-owned hostess bars began popping up around town, and the owner of Korea House, a bar on Kap‘iolani Boulevard, approached Tomiko to work in hers. “She told me, ‘I give you high-pay job, I treat you like a princess,’” she says. “That time [for] most Korean girls who kind of attractive, the fastest money they make is the bar.”
Back then, these bars were not unlike the kisaeng houses of centuries ago in Joseon-ruled Korea, where kisaeng, like Japanese geisha, employed charm, beauty, and a variety of talents (including singing and dancing, writing and reciting poetry, equestrianism, and even geommu, or traditional sword dancing) to entertain wealthy patrons, many of whom were influential government officials. “It was a big novelty in the ’70s and ’80s,” says Dennis Lee, Tomiko’s firstborn son. “Men, even if they’re married or not, would come to the bar, have a few drinks, sit next to a woman, talk story, and that was the big thing.”
Eventually, Tomiko worked her way to the top and came to own a total of five bars. In the industry’s heyday, she employed about 100 girls. Men from around the city piled into her namesake bar, Tomiko’s, which was located on the busy corner of Kalakaua Avenue and Kapi‘olani Boulevard, where Club Rock-Za exists today. Soon it became one of the city’s most bustling, where union bosses and blue-collar workers alike made small talk with Tomiko’s hostesses, buying rounds of drinks for both themselves and their pretty servers (although the girls’ drinks were watered down to keep them from getting too intoxicated). “She was even a good friend of Tom Selleck’s,” according to Dennis, who recalls the wealth that came from his mother’s bar work: “My mom would be up at like 3 in the morning after the bar, and I’d hear her for hours on the calculator going, tchk tchk tchk, because she’d be counting all these checks and cash. I would see piles and piles of all this stuff. … Sometimes these checks would be like two, three thousand. … This was making a lot of money, so that brought a lot of the women over from Korea.”
As the money rolled in, however, so did society’s dregs. Drugs, gambling, prostitution—“Korean bars became a haven for all these illicit things,” Dennis says. The bars became, as Tomiko puts it, “a playground for the syndicate,” and when one of her girls got caught up in a murder-suicide, Tomiko left it all behind. “The bar scene was a very booming business … but it had ramifications, too,” Dennis says. “A lot of fortunes were spent, and it disrupted a lot of families. … That’s one of the reasons I got into trouble.”
Like many kids who were born in Korea but moved to America at a young age, as well as children of post-1965 immigrants, Dennis felt halfway between Korean and American, isolated from his peers and unable to relate to his mother. “There was the generation that was kind of lost from the 1970s to 1980s,” acknowledges Dennis, who despite these challenges, found success in the film industry. His breakout film, Dragon Wars, which he co-produced, grossed more than $50 million. But wealth, Dennis found, was not so easy to manage, and his success sent him spiraling out of control in Los Angeles. “I ended up hanging around a lot of people who were in the Crips, the Bloods, some neo-Nazis, former prisoners who got involved with me because they thought I was this big Hollywood producer guy who could get them drugs,” Dennis says. “We ran around like that for a while, until money ran out, and then of course they turned on me and wanted to kidnap me, and hold me for ransom—all that kind of crazy stuff was happening.”
Dennis wound up homeless, and as can tend to be the case when people encounter hardship, Dennis found himself on his knees, hands entreating heaven. At the same time, back in Hawai‘i, Tomiko was also on her knees, praying for her son. “I prayed really hard for him every morning,” says Tomiko, who though she wasn’t a Christian, remembered going to church when she was young in Korea. “Please, God, use him for some good cause,” Tomiko pleaded. Dennis describes what came next as a “supernatural encounter” with God. Since then, he and his mother have been active churchgoers.
In the early 1990s, as Choson became one of the world’s 20 largest economies—a status it still very much enjoys today—Korean migration began to slow. In Hawai‘i, those formidable steeples under which spiritual immigrants used to worship en masse grew increasingly silent. “When a person gets rich and has all the material things needed, then he doesn’t need God,” Ro says. “This is especially true of the young people in South Korea.”
Dennis agrees, pointing to his own experience, as well as to the antics of the pudgy Korean rapper Psy, whose ostentatious hit song, “Gangnam Style,” was actually a critique of the excess happening in Korea, where youth are notorious for their worship of Korean rock and movie stars and highly value good looks (Korea had the highest rate of plastic surgery per capita in the world in 2015). “The sad fact is that Korean churches are dying,” Dennis says. “You see a lot of these churches all around in Hawai‘i, but the congregations are only like 10, 12, 15 people.”
Dennis is hoping the production company he started with his mother, Cornerstone Multimedia, which produces secular as well as Christian-based films, will be a catalyst to change that. “There are spiritual casualties of money and affluence … so what we’re doing now is using our elements of movies and media to help people to understand that it’s not just about money and material wealth,” he says. “It’s really about love, compassion, mercy.”
Though the many Korean watering holes and holy places in Hawai‘i today sit nearly empty, with only those of a bygone era trickling through their doors, Ro also remains faithful: “I’m still hopeful that God is reigning, and is working in the midst of the difficulty.” As Proverbs 18 warns, “Whoever trusts in his riches will fall.” When that happens, the bars and churches will be there to pick up the pieces, ready to serve all those who are thirsty.