Uncovering the History of America’s First Koreatown

Uncovering the History of America’s First Koreatown

Originally Published in The New York Times

Jill Cowan - May 14, 2021

Friday: A Korean-American professor discusses the most gratifying research of his career, into Riverside’s Pachappa Camp.

Credit...University of Southern California, Korean American Digital Archive

Good morning.

It was 1904 when Ahn Chang-Ho, the revered Korean independence activist and Korean immigrant leader, left San Francisco for Riverside.

Drawn by the booming citrus industry that made the city one of California’s richest at the time, Ahn started an employment agency to help other Koreans find work nearby. Slowly, a settlement grew from a few dozen to a few hundred residents. At its height, almost 1,000 people were living in what was known as Pachappa Camp, named for the street where it was started.

Life there was difficult: The settlement was segregated. The wooden shacks that housed its residents had initially been built by railroad construction workers in the 1880s, and deafeningly loud trains would regularly rumble past. There was no running water or electricity.

Much of that wasn’t unusual in the communities where California’s first Asian residents lived. Japanese immigrants toiled in the fieldsand lumber mills of the American West at the turn of the 20th century. Chinese immigrant workers endured treacherous conditions as they built the Transcontinental Railroad through mountains and desert.

But Pachappa Camp was unique, said Prof. Edward T. Chang, a professor of ethnic studies and the founding director of the Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies at the University of California, Riverside.

For one thing, he told me recently, “it was a family settlement” — as opposed to the mostly bachelor societies formed by other immigrant laborers. Men and women lived together at Pachappa Camp.

Prof. Edward Chang.
Credit...Courtesy of University of California, Riverside

The biggest thing that set Pachappa Camp apart, however, was the fact that it was a distinctly Korean community — the first in the United States, predating the founding of Los Angeles’s Koreatownby the businessman Hi Duk Lee by more than half a century.

And while Ahn’s life and legacy have been deeply studied, extensively documented and honored, his role in founding a Korean community in Riverside was virtually unknown until about five years ago, when Chang stumbled across a 1908 map issued by an insurance company. It had a caption labeling a Korean settlement in Riverside.

“I thought, ‘Korean settlement? In Riverside?’” he said.

Chang said it was known that Ahn spent some time in Riverside. He had seen an image of Ahn picking oranges there. And a 1913 episode known as the Hemet Valley Incident — which involved Korean fruit pickers Chang later determined had come from Riverside — has been widely cited as a pivotal moment for the Korean national identity.

But what Ahn was doing in the Inland Empire for more than five years before he moved his family to Los Angeles in 1913 was a puzzle. That puzzle turned into what Chang described as the most gratifying research of his career.

“People said it’s like destiny,” he said. “I’ve been teaching in Riverside for almost 30 years, and I didn’t know anything about it.”

As it turned out, Pachappa Camp was also a place where Ahn honed many of the democratic ideas that he brought back to Korea, which had been a monarchy and was occupied by Japan.

“I was able to trace the birth of whole democratic institutions to here in Riverside,” Chang said. “I was uncovering all of this and I was so shocked.”

With the help of graduate student interns from Korea who translated documents from older Korean, Chang last month published a book of his findings, “Pachappa Camp: The First Koreatown in the United States.”

Chang himself moved to Los Angeles from Korea with his family as an 18-year-old in 1974. He enlisted in the Army in part to force himself to learn English, and eventually became one of the first scholars in the nation to get a Ph.D. in ethnic studies from U.C. Berkeley.

He said that it had been powerful for him to be able to help strengthen the historical foundations of Asian-American identity — and poignant to see parallels between history and the fraught present.

In Pachappa Camp, residents abided by strict rules: Women wore white. No smoking or drinking was allowed.

That kind of self-regulation, Chang said, stemmed from pride. But it also came from an impulse to prove worthiness of a place in America, to be “model citizens,” in the face of violence and discrimination. Ahn left San Francisco in the first place in part because anti-Asian violence and discrimination prevented him from making a living.

Chang said that it was frustrating that it took a surge in anti-Asian hate to bring the issue to the fore. Still, he said, “Asian-American invisibility in the national dialogue on race is finally being cracked.”


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