Lee Geum-yi has published more than fifty books in her native South Korea, many of which have been adapted to film and stage, as well as into a number of languages. But it’s only now that one has been translated into English. That book is The Picture Bride, a story set mainly in a Korean enclave on Hawai’i in the 1910s. Lee’s stories often involve little-told pieces of history and The Picture Bride is no exception.
The story centers around three young women who sail to Hawai’i in 1918 to marry men they’ve never met. As the title implies, they are picture brides, or women who received a marriage proposal based simply on a photo. They are told that the men they’re to marry are landowners in Hawai’i and were part of an immigration wave that, according to the author’s note, began in 1903.
The central character, Willow, along with her two friends, Hongju and Songhwa, thought they were going to marry men not much older than they were. But as they found out after arriving in Hawai’i, none of these men was as advertised in the proposals that came through a matchmaker back in Korea.
But the stories of these women’s lives in Hawai’i and the sugar industry there becomes, in Lee’s skilled hands, a vehicle for a narrative about the Korean struggle for independence from Japan and how it was refracted through the diaspora. Although originally written in Korean for a Korean audience, one could well imagine a version of the story having been written by a Korean American author, given its Hawai’i and immigrant setting. (Korea is not the only country whose revolutionary movement intersects with Hawai’i. Sun Yat-sen also had a base in Hawai’i before the 1911 revolution in China.)
When the story begins, Japan had already subjugated the Korean peninsula and a nascent independence movement had found momentum in the Hawai’ian sugarcane camps in 1919.
On March 3, Youngman Park, who had heard in advance of the plans for the March 1 declaration of independence, held the opening ceremony of the Korean National Independence League with about 350 people gathered from each island of Hawai’i.
Park and Syngman Rhee had set up a provisional government in Shanghai. Rhee was named prime minister and Park foreign minister, but this partnership would not last long and soon the two were on opposing sides. This split also divided the Korean community in Hawai’i, including families.
A portrait of Syngman Rhee was hanging on the wall. When Syngman Rhee became president of the Provisional Government, portraits were sent out to every Korean family in Hawai’i. Taewan had folded their copy and used it to prop up one corner of a wobbly chest.
“Are you allowed to treat a portrait of the president like that?”
Taewan had laughed at Willow’s words. “A guy like that as president …”
Taewan would soon leave Hawai’i for China to work for Youngman Park. He had earlier trained at a Korean military school in Hawai’i founded by Park. Willow was not happy about Taewan’s new work in the movement, but also felt like she needed to keep quiet that he was a follower of Park while many of her friends supported Rhee.
Christianity’s relative strength in Korea even finds a reflection in the Korean community in Hawai’i. The two leaders found followings at two different churches in Wahiawa, an area in Oahu; indeed many of the Korean churches in the US, including Hawai’i before it became a state, were founded by Koreans, and prominent ones that at.
Dr. Rhee, who had first founded a Korean Christian church in Honolulu due to conflicts with the Methodist Church, had opened a church in Wahiawa, where many Koreans lived. Wahiawa was a place where the unity members of the People’s League and their devotion to Syngman Rhee were stronger than in Honolulu.
The story concludes at the time of the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack when Willow and Taewan’s children are adults and teenagers. More family secrets are revealed at this point, but just as with the other parts of this story, it’s difficult not to be more drawn to the historical and political elements of The Picture Bride.