The First Koreatown in the US and the Activist Who Founded It

In 1905, Korean immigrant and activist Dosan Ahn Chang Ho founded the first Koreatown in the United States. Over the next eight years, Pachappa Camp in Riverside, California became the home of approximately 300 Korean American men, women, and children. Most of the adult residents were agricultural laborers who worked on citrus and other fruit farms in nearby towns. In addition to its approximately 20 single-story, wood-frame dwellings, Pachappa Camp had language schools, a community center, and a Presbyterian Church. Its residents enjoyed a lively social and political life until the Great Citrus Freeze of 1913, when families began moving to other California agricultural communities. By 1918, Pachappa Camp was no more. However, its legacy lives on.

A new exhibition, Pachappa Camp: the First Koreatown in the United States curated by Edward Chang at the Culver Center of the Arts, explores the history of the first Koreatown in the United States through archival photos, maps, newspapers, passports, and other documents. Central to the story of Pachappa is the fraught biography of its leader and founder, who was unjustly deported from the US in 1926, and later tortured in a Korean prison. But the exhibition also focuses on the children and descendants of Pachappa’s original inhabitants, and the ways that they preserved the community’s memory in the years after it closed.

Small numbers of Korean diplomats, students, and ginseng merchants arrived in the US in the late 1800s, but the first official wave of Korean immigration began in 1903, when 102 Koreans arrived to work on Hawaiian sugar and pineapple plantations. In search of better wages and living conditions — a typical sugar cane laborer made only about 50 cents a day in the 1920s — Koreans began moving to the mainland, especially to California. Early Korean immigrants left their homeland for work opportunities, but also to escape Japan’s intervention. In 1905, when over 7,000 Koreans immigrated to the US, Korea became a protectorate of Japan. By 1910, Korea had been annexed.

Dosan Ahn Chang Ho picking oranges in Riverside (circa 1904) (image courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)

Dosan and his wife Hye Ryon (Helen) Ahn were the first Korean couple to immigrate together to the US. They moved to Riverside in 1904, and shortly thereafter Dosan founded Pachappa Camp. A staunch advocate of Korean independence, Dosan integrated his politics into his sense of community. Over the following years, he established the Korean Labor Bureau, the Gongnip Hyophoe (Cooperative Association), the Korean National Association of North America, and the Heung Sa Dan (Young Korean Academy). As a result, Pachappa offered tools to empower its members, and was also a center for the Korean independence movement. Women figured prominently in this effort; the exhibition features a Sinhan Minbo Korean newspaper article reporting on a female Pachappa Camp resident giving a speech in Riverside for the Korean independence movement.

Unfortunately, Dosan was falsely named a Bolshevist in 1926 and deported from the US. In 1932, he was arrested and accused of helping to orchestrate a bombing in China that killed Japanese dignitaries. Japanese officials extradited Dosan to Korea, where he was imprisoned, tortured, and later died. His legacy — and his impact on the local Korean community — is remembered in a statue that was erected in Riverside in 2001, and in the lives and careers of his children and the other young people of Pachappa Camp. Dosan’s son Philip, for example, became the first Asian American actor to receive a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, while his daughter Susan became the first female gunnery officer in the US Navy. Other members of Pachappa Camp memorialized their experiences in newspaper columns and autobiographies, like Mary Paik Lee’s memoir Quiet Odyssey. Together, the exhibition shows that the story of the first Koreatown in the United States lives on in the descendants of the families who lived there.

Resident of Pachappa Camp. The back of this photo has the Korean Employment Bureau stamp, 1532 Pachappa Avenue. (image courtesy Special Collections & Archives, UCR Libraries, University of California, Riverside)Ahn Chang Ho, Kap Suk Cho, and other workers at a Riverside orange orchard in the early 1900s (image courtesy Korean Heritage Library, USC Libraries, University of Southern California)Group portrait of Koreans attending the 1911 Korean National Association of North American conference in Riverside, CA. The attendees are pictured near the Gage Canal. Dosan Ahn Chang Ho is seated fourth in the front row. (image courtesy Special Collections & Archives, UCR Libraries, University of California, Riverside)A class photo of children attending a Korean class at the Korean mission at Pachappa Camp (circa 1914–1917) (image courtesy of Special Collections & Archives, UCR Libraries, University of California, Riverside)

Pachappa Camp: the First Koreatown in the United States, curated by Edward Chang, continues at the Culver Center of the Arts (3834 Main Street, Riverside, California) through January 9, 2022. Chang’s book of the same name was published in April 2021.

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