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Documentary on first Korean immigrants to Hawaii celebrates difference

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Journalist-turned-director Lee Won Jin-young interviews writer Gary Pak, a third-generation descendant of Korean immigrants to Hawaii, in this scene featured in the documentary project,
Journalist-turned-director Lee Won Jin-young interviews writer Gary Pak, a third-generation descendant of Korean immigrants to Hawaii, in this scene featured in the documentary project, "Words of Wisdom from the Rainbow State" / Courtesy of Now Production

By Park Han-sol

The official poster for the documentary,
The official poster for the documentary, "Words of Wisdom from the Rainbow State" (2021) / Courtesy of Now Production
On January 13, 1903, a ship with 102 Korean passengers landed on Hawaiian soil so that they could work on sugarcane plantations, marking the start of the first wave of Korean immigrants to America.

Many members of these first-generation immigrants ― who initially hoped to return home with money in a few years ― eventually began to settle down, after toiling in plantations under the grueling heat, as they formed families and established schools and churches on the islands. Some even supported Korea's independence movement during the 1910-45 Japanese colonial era from afar.

Today, 118 years later, more than 50,000 Koreans living in Hawaii continue to carry on their legacy.

The documentary project, "Words of Wisdom from the Rainbow State," whose 20-minute-long prologue has been invited to this year's Hawaii International Film Festival for its world premiere, looks back on the lives of these immigrants and asks what drove them to leave their homeland.

The documentary is the debut work of journalist-turned-film director Jin-young Lee Won, who moved to Hawaii 15 years ago and has worked as a news anchor, writer and editor on the islands. The film aims to touch upon not only the general history of Korean immigration, which is full of twists and turns, but also the underexplored history of the national liberation movement carried out by Korean women in Hawaii.

The project's upcoming episodes will feature in-depth interviews with the local descendants of the first-generation Korean immigrants. These interviews include conversations with Harry Kim, the former mayor of Hilo; Ronald Moon, the former Chief Justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court; and writer Gary Pak, whose grandmother Lim Ok-soon was a so-called "picture bride" ― Korean women who married immigrant workers in Hawaii after seeing each other only through photographs via a matchmaker.

"The wisdom of the first Korean immigrants, our ancestors in Hawaii, has helped me to understand how differences and love do not have to be disparate, but can and have worked together in the Rainbow State," Lee wrote in the director's note.

All episodes of the "Words of Wisdom from the Rainbow State" will be released next month on the official website of the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Honolulu.


박한솔 hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr


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