In many ways, Bok Won Kang’s immigration story is like that of many Korean immigrants to Philadelphia.
Kang, who is now the officer of civil affairs for the Korean American Association of Greater Philadelphia, first came to the United States as a student in 1968 during his high school years. Kang liked his experience in America so much that he eventually immigrated in 1979 and made his permanent home in Philadelphia.
Like Kang, many Korean immigrants first started coming to the Greater Philadelphia region during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s.
Why did Korean Immigrants Come to the U.S.?
This burst in migration was the result of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that ended the U.S. immigration quota system which was created in the 1920s and limited the number of Asian immigrants to America.
During the 1960s and ‘70s, young Korean families began to immigrate to the U.S. because they couldn’t find work in Korea. Many of these immigrants were young professionals with entrepreneurial dreams and hopes that their children would benefit from America’s free public education system.
Michelle Myers, an adjunct assistant professor of Asian Studies at Temple University, added that the Korean War was influential in many Koreans’ decision to immigrate to the U.S. In the decades following the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, many Koreans struggled economically and emotionally, she said.
South Korea’s post-war relationship with the U.S., however, offered the perfect opportunity for those seeking work and a new life to take a chance by coming to America.
“I think any of the trends or the movement toward economic stability or progress for Koreans, especially in terms of immigrating to the United States, I think it’s all been a result of the Korean War being an impetus,” Myers said.
Korean Immigrants by the Numbers
- By 1970, Koreans were one of the top 10 new immigrant groups to Philadelphia.
- By 1980, Koreans were the group with the eighth highest number of foreign born people living in Philadelphia with 2,484 people, according to a Brookings Institute analysis of U.S. Census data.
- A decade later in 1990, Koreans were the fourth largest group of foreign born people with 5,286 immigrants in the city, according to the same analysis.
- In 2000, Koreans were the 10th largest group of foreign born people in the city with 5,200 people, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data.
- By 2016, Koreans were no longer in the top 10 for number of foreign born people living in Philadelphia, according to the same analysis.
Where did Korean Immigrants Settle in Greater Philadelphia?
- West Philadelphia
- Cheltenham Township in Montgomery County
- Cherry Hill, New Jersey
Struggles of the Korean Immigrant Experience
When the first Korean immigrants came to the U.S., they faced incidents of racial and cultural prejudice.
White Americans in Olney felt excluded by the business signs that sprung up in Korean around Fifth Street and ripped them down. But civic response eventually led to more understanding and cooperation between Korean business owners and white neighbors.
Korean immigrants also experienced tensions with African-Americans living in Philadelphia. Many African-Americans felt like Korean immigrants stayed to themselves and didn’t give back to the surrounding community, Myers and Kang said. And Korean immigrants were wary of African-Americans following the 1992 Los Angeles Riots in which Korean business owners were targeted, Myers added.
“It had to do with a lot of misunderstanding,” Myers said. “I think the language barrier had a lot to do with it, too.”
In the 1990s, Korean business owners made an effort to hire African-Americans and various intercultural and church collaborations improved the relationship between the two communities.
Today, the main struggle for most Korean immigrants centers around language. This is the case for new immigrants and those who have been living in the U.S. for years, Kang said.
Kang said some Korean immigrants can read English because of the exposure they had to the language in the Korean school system before immigrating to the U.S. However, speaking and understanding conversational English presents more challenges.
Many organizations and churches throughout the city offer English classes, Kang said, including The Nest Korean Presbyterian Church on Cheltenham Avenue, where Kang serves as co-pastor. However, immigrants struggle to attend classes or become frustrated when they don’t pick up the language quickly, he said.
“Most of them have their own business so they are so busy doing that they don’t have time to come over there and learn English,” Kang said. “We still ask them to learn English.”
Kang’s work with the Korean American Association of Greater Philadelphia mainly centers around helping with language translation so Korean immigrants can navigate legal matters, he added.
“They think they didn’t do anything wrong and then somehow they got fined or sued,” Kang said. “Sometimes because of the language barrier that’s what happens. Most of the time that’s the problem. They misunderstand each other.”
The Working Experience of Korean-Americans in Philadelphia
Kang’s experience echoes that of many Korean immigrants to Philadelphia in other ways, too. When he arrived in the city, he became a business owner, opening his own dry cleaning business where he worked 16 to 18 hours each day.
“At the time, the economy was good in America, and dirty jobs, American didn’t want to do that, so that’s what Korean-Americans took over,” Kang said, adding that many Korean immigrants opened dry cleaners and grocery stores. “A lot of people worked really hard.”
Many Korean immigrants opened up businesses along Fifth Street in the Olney neighborhood of the city. In the 1980s, some in the Korean-American community hoped to establish a Koreatown there, based off of the model in Los Angeles. This formal model never took off. However, Korean-Americans still own many business along Fifth Street today and many advertisements are even written in Korean.
More recently, Korean immigrants have moved their homes and businesses out into the Philadelphia suburbs and into areas like Lansdale because of better educational opportunities for their children, Myers and Kang said.
And while the first wave of Korean immigrants made their living as business owners, they have encouraged their children and grandchildren to go to college and pursue professions, like being a doctor or pharmacist.
The Importance of the Korean Church
For Korean immigrants struggling with a language barrier and missing their homeland, Korean churches became, and still remain, cultural homes in the U.S. and throughout Philadelphia.
“The only pleasure they had was going to the church and [to] meet other Koreans so they can speak Korean and then they feel home,” Kang said. “I think that did really good things for the Korean community.”
Immigrants come to church to speak Korean, make friends and practice English, Kang said. In addition, many churches also offer Korean school on the weekends, where children can learn Korean cultural practices and the language.
Some Korean immigrants to Philadelphia have also been Buddhists. They’ve found a home at the Won Buddhism of Philadelphia Temple, which sits in Glenside and opened in 1995. However, most Korean immigrants came to the U.S. as Christians due to the history of Christian missionaries in their country.
“The Korean churches play a very significant role in trying to maintain a community cohesiveness,” Myers said.
Korean-American Leaders in Philadelphia
- Dr. Philip Jaisohn was the first Korean Immigrant to receive an American Medical degree and to become a naturalized U.S. citizen in the 19th Century. He was a medical doctor and also a political organizer, founding the League of the Friends of Korea.
- Helen Gym is a Korean-American member of city council. She was seated in 2016 and became the first Asian-American woman of Philadelphia’s city council. She also previously served on the board of Asian Americans United and is one of the founders of the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School.
- David Oh is also a Korean-American member of city council. In 2012, he was the first Asian-American elected to office in Philadelphia. His parents immigrated to Philadelphia from Korea, and he was instrumental in bringing Korean American Day to Philadelphia in 2014.
Korean-American Associations in Philadelphia
- Korean American Association of Greater Philadelphia
- Korean Community Development Services Center
- Korean Cultural Association
- Philip Jaishon Memorial Foundation
- Korean Adoptee Association of Philadelphia
-Text and images by Jennifer Roberts.