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Korean picture brides of 20th century

In her 1951 memoir, nationalist Im Yong sin recalls meeting a man employed to arrange marriages between the first generation of Korean immigrants in Hawaii and young women from the homeland.
"He sat perfectly still for a few minutes then spoke in a voice both soothing and calculating. `You are all very pretty.` After a few seconds` pause he resumed. `You can all become picture brides.` This was strange talk. What could a picture bride be?"
From 1910 to 1924 an estimated 600 to 1,000 Korean women went to Hawaii to marry men they had never met. They were called picture brides because one member of the couple selected the other from a photograph.
"When the brides had the option to choose they had every reason not to trust the pictures," said Wisconsin based history professor Dr. Wayne Patterson in an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul.
"The men were among the 7,500 Koreans who went to Hawaii between 1903 and 1905 to work on the sugarcane plantations, so they were already older than these women," he said. "The hard work aged them and their skins were dark from sun exposure - a characteristic not considered to be genteel in Korean society. So in the photographs they resorted to all kinds of tricks to make the women think they were younger and wealthier than they really were."

Patterson pioneered research into the history of Hawaii`s earliest Korean migrants as a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1970s. He discovered that the men`s tricks included lightening their complexions with talcum powder, borrowing expensive clothes, and being photographed in front of houses and cars that did not belong to them.
"When the brides reached Hawaii and saw these bent over, wrinkled old men waiting for them on the dock, some were so disappointed they tried to get back on the ship. But their return passage wasn`t paid for, so they couldn`t," Patterson said. "The picture bride marriages were generally not happy and of the many divorces, almost 90 percent were initiated by the women." Fortunately for the picture brides, Korean men outnumbered Korean women on the islands, so there was an ample supply of eligible, if somewhat elderly, bachelors.
"The Koreans went to Hawaii to work on the sugarcane plantations, but of all the ethnic groups they were the quickest to leave and establish themselves in the cities," Patterson said. "The majority came from Korea`s urban areas and in their view even being a garbage man was better than working on a plantation."
Patterson learned that the plantation owners encouraged Korean immigration in order to counterbalance their largely Japanese workforce. The Japanese were skilled workers but often went on strike, and the Koreans were willing to be used as strike breakers.
When Japan established a protectorate over Korea in 1905 and officially annexed the country in 1910, relations deteriorated between the Koreans and Japanese in Hawaii. One Korean later told a researcher, "Koreans hated working with the Japanese on the same plantations, but occasionally the foremen ordered everybody to work together in order to get the work done at one time. Often, fist fights took place between Japanese and Koreans."
"Of course, the workers and their families who emigrated between 1903 and 1905 had no experience of direct Japanese rule, but the picture brides did." Patterson said. "Some of these women knew how to speak Japanese, and upset their new husbands when they used it in shops run by the Japanese."
"There were many reasons why women chose to be picture brides, and for some of them it was because they wanted to escape the Japanese occupation," he explained. "One important legacy of the picture bride system is that these women gave a boost to the Korean nationalist movement on the islands."
Patterson`s work on the Koreans in Hawaii focuses on the causes of migration and the social history of the immigrants` lives. His two books, "The Korean Frontier in America: Immigration to Hawaii 1896 1910" and "The Ilse: First Generation Korean Immigrants in Hawaii, 1903 1973," have become must reads in the field of Korean American studies.
He believes that the time is now right for scholars to begin research on Korean nationalism in 20th century Hawaii. "It would certainly be a good subject for a PhD thesis," he said. "The nationalist movement was internally divided, so feelings ran very high, but the emotions aren`t as raw now as they used to be."

By Claire George


Claire George is a summer intern at The Korea Herald. - Ed.