Making ‘Arirang: The Korean American Journey’

"Arirang: The Korean American Journey." (Photo: Tom Coffman)

As Cinema Asian America continues a focus on Korean American filmmaking this July, we are please to present the XFINITY On Demand® premiere of Tom Coffman’s celebrated – and epic – history of Korean America, “Arirang: The Korean American Journey.” Originally broadcast on public television when it was made in 2002, the film has been seen widely in classrooms, and is now being made available again to a broader audience. The film will be free for all Comcast digital subscribers, in partnership with the Center for Asian American Media. Made in two parts, the documentary traces the history of Korean Americans to 1900s Hawaii – where many Koreans migrated near the turn of the century:

“Arirang Part 1: The Korean American Journey” begins the story of how and why, in less than three years in the early 1900s, more than 7,000 Koreans left their strife-torn homeland for new lives on the sugar plantations of Hawaii. Yet just as they arrive in America, Korea is conquered by Japan, which attempts to stamp out the Korean language and culture and reduce Koreans to second-class Japanese citizens. As American settlers, the Korean sojourners organized around the cause of independence for Korea while simultaneously sinking roots deep into their new home.

“Arirang Part 2: The Korean American Dream” continues the story. The program explores the dramatic renewal of migration as a result of the Korean War and subsequent changes in U.S. immigration law. After 1970, the Korean American population expanded rapidly, at times perilously, to over one million today. This is a story about distances: from Seoul to New Jersey; from storekeeper to Harvard graduate; and from the devastating Los Angeles riots of 1992 to a heightened involvement in the American scene.

Coffman sat down to answer a few questions about the making of the documentary:

What drew you to making this large-scale, historical portrait of Korean America?

TC: Hawaii was leading the way in celebrating a hundred years of Korean immigration, and they invited me to make the film. Second, my wife, Lois Lee, is third-generation (1903-1905 arrivals) on all sides, so we had many questions and touchpoints. Finally, along with many other people, I was upset about the targeting of Koreans in the Los Angeles riots (Sa I Gu).

The Korean American community has been intimately connected to many defining moments of recent American history – to name a few: mass transracial adoptions from the 1960s-80s, the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, and today, a quite significant presence in the diversification of professional sports, food culture and Hollywood. How would you discuss Korean America within the larger history of Asian America? How might it be exceptional?

TC: Koreans have a deep history that is incomprehensible to most people — of fighting off the colonizers, and of struggling to find and express their true identity. Although the original Korean community was small, it was mighty because of its dedication to oppose Japan’s colonization of the homeland. With the opening of U.S. immigration in 1965, over two million Koreans gained entry to “the States” as a place of opportunity, however rugged the journey. Having faced calamities such as the Korean War, few things frightened Koreans in the new world. With the Korean democracy movement and the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Korea suddenly catapulted into an astonishing level of accomplishment and affluence. Suddenly a lot of people were running back and forth, stirring up the human stew.

Korea and Korean America have a lot of pent-up talent, passion, and creativity, and the stars were finally aligned — the talent is now pouring forth. Also there’s a great reservoir of angst and rage, which makes for high drama. Finally, in terms of show biz or any kind of setting where self-image matters, Koreans believe deep-down they are the best-looking people on the planet. And what if they are right?

Who are a few of the most memorable individuals whom you met and interviewed with making this film?

#1 — K.W. Lee, the brilliant, funny, profane, ever-challenging dean of Asian American journalism. He is the prophetic Korean American soul, the multi-generational memory and bard.

#2 — Angela Oh, the defense lawyer and L.A. activist whose interests turn out to be philosophy and spirituality.

There were many others, such as Young Ok Kim, one of the great heroes of the Japanese American 100th Battalion, pillar of the Korean community; David Hyun, L.A. Architect, torch bearer for the memory of the pioneer minister Soon Hyun, supporter of his writer brother, Peter, whose legacy included “Man Sei!” and “In the New World;” and Ralph and Susan Ahn, American offspring of the Korean patriot Ahn Chang Ho. The difficult circumstances of the Korean passage seemed to bring out great strengths in certain people.

As the Korean American community moves into its second and third generations in the US, the politics and culture of the homeland continue to have a presence in shaping it. What role do these forces have in forming Korean American communities and culture, from North Korea, to continued debate over Japan’s colonial history, to Gangnam Style to the mass appeal of Korean dramas?

TC: The unique, partially-formulated agenda is transnational: Focus attention on and further the unification of North and South Korea.

Second is the age-old challenge of success: In the tradition of K.W. Lee, who will synthesize the complexities of Korean American history into a call for social justice? In the tradition of Angela Oh, who will become a healer and servant-leader?

Korean American history does not start, as many might expect, in the later part of the 20th century, after the Korean War and the 1965 Immigration Act. Instead, it begins at the turn of the century when Korean migrants begin to make their way west, first to Hawaii. This history is a significant part of Arirang – why did you choose to focus on it?

TC: Only five thousand or so people escaped Korea before the encroaching Japan shut down the 1903-1905 out-migration. Yet this numerically small group kept the idea of a free and independent Korea alive. It developed leadership and carried on the exile movements that filled the breach when Japan finally was driven out at the end of World War II (1945). This was a considerable achievement by a few people struggling in a nominal hinterland, but one that made its way onto the world stage. Lois’s grandfather built a meeting house in the Palama district of Honolulu, where Koreans who worked in the pineapple canneries gathered to keep the fires of patriotism alive. Each family gave a dollar to the independence movement at the end of the month. During World War II, he actually stood up in a movie house and roundly cursed the Japanese Army when it appeared In “News of the World.” Man Sei!, grandfather, Long live Korea!

What are you working on next?

TC: A deeper version and variation — book form — of my 2006 film “First Battle: The Battle for Equality in Wartime Hawaii.” It will explore how and why people in Hawaii headed off a mass internment of the Japanese community, and what that has meant to the country.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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