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The story of the first Koreatown was lost to history 

Korean immigrants in the early 1900s formed their own community in Southern California, but their history is only just being uncovered.
Ahn Chang Ho, Kap Suk Cho, and other workers at a Riverside orange orchard in the early 1900s.
Ahn Chang Ho, Kap Suk Cho and other workers at an orange orchard in Riverside, Calif., in the early 1900s.Courtesy of Korean Heritage Library, University of Southern California

When the first Korean immigrants reached the shores of San Francisco in 1905, they sought to find home in a country that resented their existence. After years scattered as migrant laborers, they wanted a place where they could form a community of their own. 

Three hundred of them eventually found one, but it was farther south, in Riverside, California. There, the first Koreatown in U.S. history was born, and its residents spent almost two decades living, working and raising their families there. 

But by 1918, they were gone, and their stories were lost to history for a century. 

Researchers only discovered the settlement’s existence a few years ago, but since then, a book, a statue and a historical designation in Riverside have brought it to the public. Now, the University of California, Riverside is putting its artifacts on display starting Saturday.

Children from a Korean class stand for a photo at the Korean mission in Pachappa Camp in Riverside, Calif., in the mid-1910s.Courtesy University of California, Riverside

No textbooks or government bodies ever documented the existence of Riverside’s Koreatown, dubbed Pachappa Camp for the street it was built on, so when an old map found by an insurance company came across the desk of Edward Chang a few years ago, he didn’t know what to make of it.

“I was really puzzled,” said Chang, a professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside and the curator of the new exhibit. “There isn’t any other literature that talks about a Korean community in Riverside.”

The map of the area, made in 1908, shows a small delineation along a set of train tracks marked “Korean settlement.” What ensued was Chang’s passion project. And it “was like trying to find needles in a haystack,” he said. 

After years of digging, he “hit the jackpot,” finding what may have been the country’s first Korean-language newspaper, which told the stories of those who found their way to Pachappa Camp. 

Most of them started as sugarcane plantation workers in Hawaii, where around 7,000 Korean immigrants arrived by boat to escape the politics and famines in Korea. Seeking community and opportunity, they made the journey to San Francisco.

“At the time, San Francisco was a hotbed of anti-Asian violence, just like what we experienced last year,” Chang said. So the Korean immigrants had no option but to settle in Chinatown. 

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, passed as politicians fueled rampant anti-Asian sentiment, banned the recruitment of Chinese workers. So business owners began to hire Korean workers, instead, and they faced the same level of hostility.

“It was total segregation,” he said. “Chinatown was like a ghetto.” 

Unable to make a living in the city, many of them decided to make their way to Riverside, where the citrus industry was booming. One of the first was Ahn Chang-ho, a well-known Korean activist. Along with his wife, he turned Pachappa Camp into not only a home to many but also a hotbed for the Korean independence movement when Japanese imperialism was dominating the country. 

While the settlers made time for birthdays and community events, life was materially rough. Those who lived in Pachappa Camp didn’t have access to running water or electricity. The proximity to the tracks meant that “whenever a train goes by, you cannot hear anything,” Chang said. “Even today.”  

Ahn Chang Ho in the 1920s.Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Working on the area’s citrus plantations was just as bad, with low wages and dangerous conditions. 

But Ahn was determined to provide those who lived there with something greater than what they could find in the homes they left. He established a Korean labor bureau to match residents with jobs, and more immigrants began to flock to the camp.

The Great Freeze of 1913 devastated the crops, and living in Pachappa was no longer as fruitful as it had been. Slowly, people began leaving, and in 1918, the last of them was gone.

If Chang hadn’t come across the map, the settlement might have been lost, he said. So he hopes his exhibit, “Pachappa Camp: the First Koreatown in the United States,” and his book of the same name will bring its stories to many. 

“It was a hidden jewel,” he said. “It was a discovery of a buried past. As a member of the Korean American community, I feel very grateful for this.”