Historians Lili Kim and David K. Yoo: Video and Transcript

Lili Kim in conversation with David K. Yoo, a historian and vice provost at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has written extensively about religion in Korean American history. Listen here as Kim and Yoo discuss a range of topics: how Korean churches became a social hub for Korean Americans in the early twentieth century; how interconnected religion and politics were in Korean American anticolonial movement in Hawai‘i and the continental United States; and how like all good “families,” the congregation members formed a strong connection with one another against the backdrop of their transnational fight against Japanese colonialism, even as they navigated difficult and complicated conflicts as a community.


>> LILI KIM: So David, as I mentioned to you before, we’re doing this project on home and one of the photographs I’m using is a picture of a congregation of Korean Presbyterian Church in Dinuba, California in early 1940. What struck me about that photo is how well dressed people were. So is this how people usually dressed to go to church during that time? Or is it sort of  a staged photo where you know women are wearing these beautiful hanbok and you know men are dressed in their Sunday best, and yet you know as far as we know, they were migrant farm workers, right? — day laborers, so it’s not as if they had these prominent positions or a lot of money.

>> DAVID YOO: Yeah, I mean I think it’s without knowing more about the particular–I saw the picture–but without knowing more about the context–but I think as you know, a lot of times churches would do, they might do like an annual photograph, like for the membership, and so for those events typically people would dress up and would you know wear their best clothes. And that would mean a lot of times for the women and sometimes the children wearing hanbok and things like that. Because sometimes it was done around New Year’s and things like that. Or the holidays–so there would have been some of those things. So I think it’s not, I mean obviously that’s not the way most people dress every day, but I think because those kind of photos, especially, I’ve seen a lot of those kind of photos and that’s normally the context, so that’s probably why they were wearing the clothes that they were wearing. 

>> LILI KIM: Yeah and you know, I mean I grew up in Minneapolis but my dad was an atheist, my mom was Buddhist who converted to Christianity eventually. But needless to say, I didn’t go to a church growing up, let alone a Korean church. And you, on the other hand, you grew up in a church, right? Your father was a pastor, you end up writing about Korean American religious history, so could you just give us a little context of how important Korean churches were to Korean immigration history?

>> DAVID YOO: Sure, and yeah my father was not a pastor but he was an elder, within the Presbyterian Church and came fairly early and so was more established by the time more people started coming from you know the post ‘65 period. But my book is obviously about an earlier period between really the first half of the 20th century. But in that book I really make the argument that Korean American churches and specifically Protestant churches really were the single most important institution in the Korean community. And I think that that’s been true for well over a hundred years. I mean the contexts have changed so I think that clearly you know what the churches kind of represented in the first half of the 20th century versus say the second half of the 20th century, you know there were shifts of course, but I think that the institution itself really was and has continued to be the most important or central gathering place for Koreans in the United States. And that was certainly the truth for me when I was growing up in southern California and I think that it’s still the case. I think it’s harder to know what the future will be–once I think–because Korean immigration has slowed to some extent and I think that with the passing of the first generation of the current kind of first generation, even though that’s kind of extended out over time, it’s not clear what role the church will continue to play. But I think historically, certainly, and for well over 100 years, I think it really has been the most important institution.

>> LILI KIM: Yeah, so I’m really interested in the early 20th century as you know, of Korean immigration history and particularly when Koreans came to Hawaii as plantation laborers and they were able to establish churches and you know at a furious rate.  So how were they able to do that? And maybe talk a little bit about how the anti-colonial movement sort of figured into the space of church as well. 

>> DAVID YOO: Yeah. I mean I think what’s interesting is that you find that on the plantations and then eventually later in places like Honolulu, Koreans gathered and whenever they gathered they formed churches. And in part, that was a very local expression of what was happening on a particular state plantation or in the city. But those churches were really linked to these much larger transnational networks and some of that was really, it’s kind of was very layered, but if you think about it, the whole passage of Koreans to Hawaii was in some ways facilitated by those church networks and those religious networks because the Methodist Church that sent that first group of laborers to come really had ties, for example, to missionaries that had gone to Hawaii and to establish missions there. So if you think about it, the networks, these transnational networks, really facilitated the movement of people and in ideas and other things across really vast spaces. And I think that you know in a way today, we think about the internet and how quickly we can be connected to things going on all over the world. Obviously it wasn’t as fast but in those earlier days they really had these kind of networks that really connected really vast amounts of territory. So what’s happening in Seoul or in Shanghai or in Honolulu or in Los Angeles, there are these kinds of connections and networks that really are at work.

>> LILI KIM: And how much did their sort of gathering involve their involvement in anti-colonial movement during the 30s and 40s and up until really the liberation of Korea?

>> DAVID YOO: Yeah, I mean I think that’s a complicated question in the sense that I think that people came into those church spaces for lots of different reasons. And I think that for some clearly the church was a place where nationals and independence kind of movement politics were very much a part of what they understood their faith to be, or what they understood the church to represent. For others it was less so. And I think they had kind of a whole spectrum or a range of people. But clearly I think that Korean independence was something that Koreans in the United States were obviously very much supportive of. How that mixed in with religion and with Christianity is kind of more of a mixed bag, and so obviously you know a lot about some of this too, but I think like for example the Syngman Rhee’s Church that broke off from the Korean Methodist Church in Hawaii, for them I think independence and politics was very much at the heart of who they saw themselves as a congregation. Whereas I think for some of the other churches that had stronger ties say to American Protestant missionaries, that relationship between religion and politics was a little bit trickier, right? But nevertheless, I think that for, I would say that for you know most Koreans, their commitment to Korean independence was pretty fierce, right? And so I think that worked its way out in church context in different ways.

>> LILI KIM: Yeah, and did women play a strong leadership role within the church or did  they defer to their male counterparts?

>> DAVID YOO: Well, I think it’s– that’s again a complicated answer because I think officially you would see that really it was really the men who had leadership roles and who had the titles, but if you actually think about the work that the church, that the churches did in terms of the support and a lot of even the fundraising and a lot of the other things, women were really the backbone I think of those efforts, and in many ways I think they were the glue that really held those institutions together. And so as usual, in some ways, I think Korean women can be overlooked because if you just focus on the pastoral leadership you get one picture. But I think if you really look underneath and see what was happening on the ground, it was really women’s networks and their leadership that really fueled a lot of the work that the churches did.

>> LILI KIM: Yeah, and you know like the fundraiser is like, you know, making Korean soy sauce and boycotting Japanese soy sauce and all that, like you think about how you know it’s seemingly sort of what we might consider a feminine role but that, as you say, it sort of provided the backbone of the independence movement and contributed to the funds needed for anti-colonial work, which is–

>> DAVID YOO: Yeah, and I think that women–I mean it was hard you know, I think the hard part about my book is that there weren’t a lot of sources of any kind to find but I think that where you could find glimpses, you could also see that women were very actively involved in thinking about and talking about what independence really kind of meant, and I think a lot of that was because of those networks that we were talking about earlier because of the networks that they were also part of as well, right? So I think for both the men and the women, those transnational networks, whether it’s family or through the church networks, those were really important. And so these, it was, independence wasn’t just simply kind of a notion or a concept but it was linked to communities and it was linked to families and it was linked to you know people back home, right? And so there I think it was very powerful in that way.

>> LILI KIM: Yeah, and which is sort of going back to my own experience. I really missed out on being able to be surrounded by other Korean Americans because I didn’t attend a Korean church, I feel like. And so in that sense, it’s not just a place of worship but it’s really essentially a social hub for Koreans.

>> DAVID YOO: Yeah. I mean it’s really I think it’s a really comprehensive space for Koreans, especially in that earlier period and even you know post-war, too.

>> LILI KIM: Yeah. So would you say then so– yeah, so one of the things that’s kind of striking to me, and just going back to the period that we’re talking about, the early 20th century. Given these sort of harsh conditions under which Koreans worked, either on you know sugar cane plantations or as migrant workers, or other menial jobs that they held, this is really the place that they could be themselves, right? I mean I’m just trying to imagine what kind of space, how important that community was in the space of church.

>> DAVID YOO: Yeah, I think it really was, especially if you think about those early years. The life that most Koreans led was extremely difficult in terms of labor and just kind of the– I mean if you think about like Mary Paik Lee’s book “Quiet Odyssey,” and it’s one of the rare you know kind of firsthand experiences that spans most of the 20th century. But especially that earlier part, even for her experience as a child, and then growing into adulthood, you just see how difficult their daily lives were, in terms of like doing farm labor and moving constantly with the crops and things like that. So I think that the church was really a day and a space that could provide a break from that kind of grueling kind of existence. And it was a time when people could gather and be able to meet with friends and neighbors, to be able to share food and to, you know. So I think I try to talk about, not just the–I mean there’s also the sense in which I think for those people who were there, maybe for social reasons but also for religious reasons, there was kind of a nourishment and a sense of community and a kind of a sense of meaning that was very, that was hard to find in other parts of their life, and so. And then even being able to just be able to speak Korean to one another, I think, also helped you know work against that feeling of isolation or you know being kind of alone, which was true for a lot of those folks.

>> LILI KIM: And then you know, I could imagine in that sort of close-knit community there was also conflict. And like you said, there was this political conflict, you know depending on which independent leader you supported. But have you read, in your research, a lot of sort of different ways of, you know, people like being in conflict, as if they were a family, as you can imagine?

>> DAVID YOO: Yeah. And I think that’s been true and that’s why I call the book “Contentious Spirits” because I think there was a lot of you know, I don’t know, it’s kind of a running joke I guess, but like you know Koreans will form a church but then a lot of times the reason why there are so many churches is because people–because they can’t get along. And of course you know churches split a lot and that certainly was part of my growing up experience as well. And so I think at least in those early years, there were lots of different ideas about how–I think everybody agreed that Korea should be independent and should be free but I don’t think there was a lot of, there wasn’t always a lot of agreement about how you did that. And there were different kinds of ideas. And then I think also when you’re in very difficult economic circumstances and you don’t have a lot of stability, it puts a lot of strain on people as individuals and as family units. I think that those things are going to naturally kind of spill out in those contexts. So I think that because the church was such the center of the community that it makes sense that those tensions would come out there as well.

>> LILI KIM: Yeah, and which is all the more remarkable that you know those Koreans gave so much of their money, you know their hard earned money, to support the independence movement.

>> DAVID YOO: Yeah.

>> LILI KIM: Yeah, I find it just incredible. 

>> DAVID YOO: It is.

>> LILI KIM: Was it–yeah. So does it speak to their patriotism, their nationalism, or is that sort of peer pressure? All of the above?

>> DAVID YOO: Well I think it’s, I mean I think there was a certain sense in which Koreans who were here felt, like they–I mean I think that certainly when I talked to some, mostly now I was talking to the very elderly children of the first immigrants when I was doing the research for the book, and they themselves were quite old at that point. But I remember when I was talking to some of them that what kind of came through consistently was how much that some of their parents felt like they were kind of caretakers of Korea, while they were–because Korea was under Japanese rule, that in some ways they felt this kind of, you know, this responsibility to kind of keep Korea, you know Korea, independent Korea, really alive. And I think that so there was kind of that urgency, and as I was saying earlier, it was not just an idea but it was connected to their families back home and others that they were connected to from their home regions and their areas. So that you know they understood that those folks were really facing really difficult times. And so I think that that was a lot of it and I think that there was a lot of passion for that. And so I think they did sacrifice quite a bit to try to keep that alive. And I think what’s interesting about it is that you know we, you know, you and I have spent a lot of time thinking about these things, but at the time you know Korea was a very small country that most people had never heard about and this notion that, of the free Korea, even in the United States with those Protestant networks, most people weren’t thinking about it, right? And it was really not an issue, not a geopolitical issue that even the United States was really thinking that much about. And so I think a lot of these Koreans in the United States felt like it was–they really had to keep that dream alive. 

>> LILI KIM: Yeah, absolutely. And then, you know particularly after Pearl Harbor attack, you know this is what I write about, which is that you know Koreans were sort of lumped together with Japanese as enemy aliens when the U.S. went to war with Japan because Korea did not exist as an independent nation. And part of their strategy to say, look we’re not Japanese, was to talk about how close to America they were or how they wanted America to win because U.S. victory meant, you know, liberation of Korea. So in that photograph, you know for example, there is a, you know, Korean flag and an American flag. And I keep finding this common theme of American flag being deployed as a way to sort of state their loyalty to the United States and also to say that they’re not, their opposite of the Japanese, right? So particularly during World War II, there’s this idea of using a flag to denote their loyalty to the United States. So can you speak to that a little bit—about how churches also adopted using American flags at their place of worship during that time?

>> DAVID YOO: Yeah, I mean I think that it’s a tricky relationship because I think if you think about the power differentials at the time, then clearly Korean churches were employing the American flag in part to try to, in some ways claim a certain kind of relationship with the United States that would be to their own benefit, but also to really to the benefit of, you know, a free, you know an independent Korea. And so I think that there was a lot of that and I think that was certainly one of the visions of how you achieve independence was kind of through diplomatic or through state-centered kind of approaches to how you might achieve that. And since the United States was obviously kind of a close connection in many ways through those church networks and through American missionaries, that was clearly one way to think about it. I think the other dimension which is probably true also is I think that Korean immigrants like many other immigrants who come to the United States, whereas they might have really seen their identity primarily as Koreans, I think as they started you know to the extent that they were able to have children. I mean, those children really are U.S. citizens because they’re born in the United States and increasingly, you know their futures are going to probably be here, not in Korea. And so, that also starts to affect the thinking of those Koreans who have children and families.

>> LILI KIM: Yeah, which I think is one of the points where Koreans, as much as they despised Japanese as their colonizers, could empathize with Japanese Americans and what they were going through during mass incarceration during World War II because they too realized that this could have been the fate of their U.S. foreign children, which is interesting, yeah. 

>> DAVID YOO: Yeah.

>> LILI KIM: Definitely. Great, well on that note, thank you so much.

>> DAVID YOO: Sure, thank you. Good to talk to you.