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'Buried past' of America's first Koreatown uncovered in California's Riverside


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A new exhibit in Southern California showcases an integral part of Korean-American history that was only uncovered a few years ago.

Stephanie Sy shows us the decades-long path to discovering the nation's first Koreatown, as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Stephanie Sy: Edward Chang, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California at Riverside says the accidental discovery of America's first Koreatown began with a little map from 1908.

If you look closely at the tiny script, it says Korean settlement where you did not know there was a Korean settlement. Is that like striking gold?

Edward Chang, University of California at Riverside: Yes, it is. It's just amazing to find out that actually there was a Korean settlement in Riverside in the early 1900s.

Stephanie Sy: It turns out, it was the largest enclave of Koreans on the U.S. mainland at the time, way before Koreatowns sprung up in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Chang knew that early Korean immigrants to the U.S. had worked in Riverside's once bountiful orange groves, including Korean independence Ahn Chang Ho, also known as Dosan. But he had no idea that Ho had founded a whole community of Korean immigrants here. He credits two graduate student interns for their translation of old Korean newspapers to confirm what historians had previously overlooked.

So, it turns out you find a newspaper article where it actually describes this Korean village in Riverside as the first Koreatown in the United States?

Edward Chang: Yes, a Sinhan Minpo article, October 14, 1910. It said Riverside, Pachappa Camp. It is the first Korean settlement in the United States.

Stephanie Sy: Newspaper articles, archival photos, and a few precious records are on exhibit at U.C. Riverside's art museum through January. They are the only physical evidence of the unique community called Pachappa Camp.

Edward Chang: In not only Korean settlements, but a majority of Asian American settlements at the time is known as a bachelor society, whereas, in Pachappa Camp, it was family-based community, with women, children, and working side by side with their husband.

Stephanie Sy: Chang says up to 300 people lived in Pachappa Camp in the early 1900s. What also made it different was that the founder wanted it to be a model community, with an emphasis on so-called positive virtues.

Edward Chang: All the women were -- have to wear a white dress. And the men were forbidden from drinking, smoking, gambling.

Stephanie Sy: Dosan hoped to garner respect in a society hostile to Asians.

Edward Chang: Back then, the Asian American, the Asian immigrants, their life was a second-class citizen. By law or by culturally, in every -- each way, it was legal to discriminate against Asians, until 1960s civil rights movement.

Stephanie Sy: Pachappa Camp was also, critically, a living experiment that coincided with the growing movement in Korea and among Korean Americans to calling for independence from Japan, which ruled Korea starting in 1905.

Edward Chang: So, it was experimentation of a democracy, truly representing for the people, by the people.

It's Evergreen Cemetery.

Stephanie Sy: In his research, Chang found the gravestone of the community pastor, who he learned was also a pro-independence activist. In fact, Korean immigrants were organizing for independence right here in Riverside, California, another piece of history long buried.

A photo from 1911 Chang found showed political delegates gathered for a convention. Riverside's Gage Canal is in the foreground, proof, Chang says, of the location's significance in the independence movement.

Edward Chang: And at that convention, they passed 21 articles of governance.

Stephanie Sy: One reason historians may have previously overlooked the Pachappa Camp is that it was short-lived, lasting less than 15 years. A deep freeze hit the orange trees of Riverside in 1913, and most of the citrus workers fanned out to other California farming towns in search of work.

But the previously unknown significance of the Pachappa Camp may also have to do with the erasure of Asian Americans' contributions in U.S. history. It's why Chang calls this research the most important of his career.

Why was it gratifying?

Edward Chang: Because it filled a void of -- a vacuum of Korean American history, modern Korean history, Asian American history, uncovering the buried past of our legacy.

Stephanie Sy: So, this is it.

Edward Chang: Yes, that's the designation. City of Riverside designated this area as a point of a cultural interest.

Stephanie Sy: Pachappa Camp may have been a blip in history, but, Chang says, a pivotal one.

I have to say, as an Asian American, there is something empowering about seeing some of these photos. Did you get that sense when you discovered this?

Edward Chang: Yes.

Despite all this hardship, they were willing to not only devote themselves for the betterment of their community they belonged to, but also independence of Korea.

OK, This is a statue of Dosan Ahn Chang Ho.

Stephanie Sy: Chang says the exhibit has attracted the interest of Korean scholars, who are now reexamining their nation's early independence movement.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Riverside, California.

Judy Woodruff: Another important part of our history.

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