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The first member of the Shinn family to immigrate to America was Dal Yun (David) Shinn. He was born on February 24, 1883 in what is now North Korea, and sailed directly to San Francisco, California in 1907, the year after the great San Francisco earthquake. Dal Yun’s wife, Sun Hee Shinn, was born in Pyongyang, Korea. She came to California as a picture bride in 1916, where she married Dal Yun. The patriot Dosan Ahn Chang Ho introduced the couple through an exchange of photos. Sun Hee’s family owned a silkworm farm in Korea. As she was growing up, she had to nurse her uncle, who had suffered a stroke. She was the eldest of two children.
Both Dal Yun and Sun Hee were involved in the Korean Resistance Movement, which opposed the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 20th century. Dal Yun was forced to flee Korea in order to avoid persecution for his association with the resistance.
The spelling of the family name, “Shinn,” is somewhat unusual for Korean Americans because it has two n’s. That anglicized spelling was decided upon by U.S. immigration officials when processing Dal Yun Shinn’s arrival in San Francisco. At the time, there were Irish or Welsh immigrants in California with the name Shinn. In the 1950’s there was a Justice Michael Shinn of the California Court of Appeal, and Justice Clement L. Shinn, who served on the Bench from 1948 to 1966. They had no known relations to Dal Yun and Sun Hee Shinn.
Dal Yun and Sun Hee Shinn had six children, all born in California. In order of birth, their children were Helen (1916), Peter (1918), Ruth (1919), Richie (1920), Paul (1921) and John (1922). The six children were all born about a year apart, and Sun Hee was often nervous as they were active and rambunctious.
Dal Yun initially worked as an itinerant farmer in California’s Central Valley. His children were born in farm towns. Helen was born in Sacramento, Peter in Tracy, Ruth in Manteca, Richie in Maxwell, Paul in Sacramento. While Dal Yun worked in the rice fields, Sun Hee stayed home to care for the children, but sometimes worked in a cannery during the canning season. She was a hard-working woman, always knitting or sewing clothes for her children.
Eventually, the family moved to San Francisco and lived here during the Great Depression. Dal Yun and Sun Hee opened a pool hall and restaurant on Kearny St. in San Francisco’s Chinatown. They later opened a small restaurant called “Star Lunch.” It was located at 605 Jackson Street, near Kearny Street. The restaurant had a counter with 13 stools. Dal Yun did the cooking, Sun Hee did the shopping, and their children took turns washing dishes, peeling tomatoes and onions. They served breakfasts of ham and eggs, donuts and coffee. Dinner consisted of mackerel or pig’s feet, along with bread and butter and a bowl of soup, all for 25 cents. The children went early, from 6 – 8 a.m., to help out, and then went off to school. The brothers worked in the afternoon for a short while, and other family members worked in the evening until 8 p.m. Many of the restaurant’s patrons were Chinese and Filipinos, as well as visiting merchant marines from the Hawaiian Islands. San Francisco was still a major port for commercial shipping in those days.
Some of the restaurant’s patrons could not pay for their meals. Dal Yun and Sun Hee served them anyway. For years after the Great Depression, those patrons would stop by the restaurant to pay their tab.
Ruth, the second daughter, worked at the restaurant until she completed high school. She then went to beauty school because her mother believed that she had to have her own business to survive in this country. When Ruth was 19 years old, Sun Hee opened up a beauty shop for Ruth and her sister, Helen. It was called Helen and Ruth’s Beauty Shop and was located on Mason and Jackson Streets.
Before US immigration laws changed in 1965, there were very few Korean families in San Francisco. Most of the Korean families knew each other and congregated in and around San Francisco’s Chinatown. The Shinn family settled in the neighboring North Beach District. They lived for several years on Osgood Place, a side street off of Broadway Street. Eventually, the family moved to lower Russian Hill. Their grown sons purchased adjacent apartment buildings at 1637 and 1645 Hyde Street, SF, where Sun Hee lived for many years.
In the early years, the family faced discrimination in various forms, but the members found different ways to overcome it. When he first arrived in San Francisco, Dal Yun was picked up and thrown out of a restaurant simply for trying to have a meal there. Asians were apparently not allowed to eat in many restaurants in those days. Of course, Dal Yun later opened his own restaurant.
Perhaps the most pernicious forms of discrimination were the Alien Land Laws that prohibited Asian Americans from owning land. The laws were in effect until 1952 until they were invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court. Before the laws were repealed, the Shinns found a way to acquire a house with the assistance of a North Beach real estate agent, John Dito. He held title to the house in his agency’s name. When the Alien Land Laws were repealed, Mr. Dito deeded the house back to Dal Yun and Sun Hee. He became the family’s real estate agent when their children started buying their own properties.
As boys, the Shinn sons encountered neighborhood bullies, who did not take kindly to Asians living in San Francisco’s North Beach. A sympathetic priest at St. Peter & Paul’s Church on Washington Square taught the three oldest sons, Peter, Richie and Paul, how to box in self defense. They became proficient boxers, and the neighborhood bullies took notice. Some of the former bullies became their friends, even inviting them to their houses for their mothers’ home-cooked meals. Lifelong friendships were built.
The boxers in the family did very well. Two of them became Golden Gloves champions. Richie and Paul represented San Francisco in the US National Boxing Tournament in Washington D.C., where their delegation visited the White House. The oldest son, Peter, was said to pack the punch of a much larger man, and he doubled as the quarterback for the Galileo High School football team. All three boys boxed professionally, and Richie had a celebrated career as a boxer in Hawaii. He was the sparring partner of Ray Lunny Jr., who contended for the world lightweight title.
The San Francisco Korean Methodist Church was in many ways the center of San Francisco’s Korean American community. Sun Hee and Dal Yun were longstanding, active supporters of the church, which was the first Korean American Christian Church as well as the first to have its own facility on the mainland United States. The building was constructed in 1928 and stands to this day at 1123 Powell Street, although the church’s congregation has moved to a new facility in San Francisco’s Sunset District.
The Reverend Sa-Sun Whang, was one of the longest-serving ministers (1928-1942) of the San Francisco Korean Methodist Church. Rev. Sa-Sun Whang was the father of Paul Whang, husband of Ruth Shinn. Another pastor was the Reverend Doo-Wha Lim (1945-1948) whose son-in-law Lester Kim also became a pastor in Los Angeles.
For thirty six years from 1907 to 1945, Dal Yun was active in several Korean organizations in the US. Shortly after arriving in in 1907, Dal Yun became a member of the Relief Commission of the Riverside Regional Council of the Korean Kong Lip Association. In 1908, he became a member of the SF Regional Council of the same organization. This organization, founded by Ahn Chang Ho, supported the Korean independence movement to fight Japanese colonialism. Then in 1910, Dal Yun became the Vice President to the Sacramento Regional Council of the Korean National Association (KNA). The Korean National Association was a political organization supporting Korean independence along with representing the interests of Koreans in the US. Dal Yun also served as the Secretary and Treasurer of the KNA from 1913-1916.
Because Dal Yun worked in the fields, he followed the crops in order to make a living. Despite his changing living situation, Dal Yun became involved in the local Korean independence movement activities wherever he worked and lived. In 1919, when he moved to Manteca, he became the secretary of the Regional Council of the KNA there and in 1927 after moving to SF, he became the secretary there. He remained active in the KNA through 1945. During the period from 1905 to 1945, in spite of financial hardship and hard work to support his family, he made many financial contributions toward the Korean independence movement. He and his wife, Sun Hee, helped raise money to send to Korean patriots engaged in the struggle to regain national independence. They were followers of Dosan Ahn Chang Ho who was a leader of the movement.
The Hung Sa Dahn (members shown in photo above) is another organization founded by Ahn Chang Ho in 1913. This organization sought to create strong individuals, intellectually, spiritually, and organizationally, to eventually create a democratic Korea. It was based on principles of truth, loyalty, and courage and emphasized practice rather than empty words. They all wore a pin with a goose which represented that they needed to work together and support each other. The red and yellow banners they wore signified loyalty and courage.
Decades later, when World War II broke out, local Korean Americans formed their own military platoon in exile, hoping to join the war effort. By then, Dal Yun was in his 60’s, but there is a picture of him and his cohort in military formation, shouldering rifles. They clearly meant business, but Dal Yun was never sent to fight in the war.
Dal Yun’s and Sun Hee’s sons, however, did go to war. Their second son, Richie, served as a rifleman in the storied 101st Airborne Division. He was recruited by a major, who asked him if he wanted to be a “paratrooper.” Richie asked, “What is that?” A captain informed him that paratroopers jump out of airplanes over enemy territory, but that they get double the base pay. Richie signed up. Later, he learned that the major was a boxing enthusiast who liked to wager on sporting events. He wanted to have the best boxing team in the US Army, and had seen Richie’s background in a list of recruits.
In December of 1944, Richie fought with the 101st Airborne in the Battle of the Bulge, where he was wounded in the hand by shrapnel from a hand grenade. Just like the captain said, the paratroopers were surrounded by enemy forces in Bastogne. Their commander, General Anthony Clement McAuliffe, famously replied “Nuts!” when asked to surrender. General George Patton’s Third Army broke the siege of Bastogne, freeing the 101st Airborne. Years later, when people would ask him whether they had needed to be rescued, Richie replied that they would have been okay. He remembered spending Christmas Day of 1944 in a foxhole, drinking wine that one of his buddies had scrounged from headquarters.
The Shinns’ oldest son, Peter, and third son, Paul, had become marine engineers before the war broke out. In 1941, they knew that war was imminent. Paul volunteered to serve in the United States Navy, but was told that the Navy could only use him as a cook, not an engineer. By that time in his career, he was qualified to run a ship’s engines. Instead of joining the Navy, he and his oldest brother, Peter, volunteered to serve as merchant marines, sailing from the East Coast of the United States in convoys to Europe. Richie received the Purple Heart, and his division received a Presidential Distinguished Unit Medal for their service in the Battle of the Bulge.
In the early days of World War II, transports to Europe were under threat of U-boat submarine attack. 9,521 American merchant marines lost their lives in the war. One in 26 merchant marines died, which was the highest ratio of fatalities among all US forces. Peter and Paul survived. During the war, they were never allowed to serve on the same ship together, because one transport had gone down with two brothers aboard. Peter and Paul were honorably discharged by the US Coast Guard after the war. Richie fought in boxing tournaments all over Europe as a member of the US Army, then returned to the US and resumed his career as a professional boxer.
After World War II, Dal Yun, Sun Hee and their children returned to more or less normal life. Their sons, Peter, Paul and Johnnie, the youngest, shipped out as merchant marines, visiting ports of call all over the world. Among the three, Johnnie achieved the highest level as a licensed marine engineer. Dal Yun and Sun Hee’s daughters, Helen and Ruth, were in business together in their beauty salon.
Dal Yun and Sun Hee’s children married and started raising families. Their three seafaring sons eventually came ashore for good and worked as licensed stationary engineers with the landlubbers in San Francisco. From youngest to oldest:
Johnnie married a Japanese bride, Naomi, and raised fraternal twins, Walter and Helen Shinn. They lived in Yokohama while Johnnie shipped out, until re-locating to the Bay Area in the 1980’s.
Paul married a Korean national named Corona Hong. They raised three children: Phillip, Michael, and Linda Shinn. Phillip is a trial lawyer and law partner at the firm of LimNexus. Michael served as an officer with the Oakland Police Department, and became a special agent with the United States Department of Treasury.
Richie, the veteran of the 101st Airborne, became a devout Catholic and married Violet Cho. They raised nine children while Richie worked as a postman: Eddie, Teresa, Cissy, Vicky, David, Laura, Cathy, Sheila and Michelle Shinn. They all attended Catholic schools. Richie always enjoyed exercise, and into his 50’s he would spend New Year’s Day swimming across San Francisco Bay as a member of the South End Rowing Club. His oldest son, Eddie, served in the Submarine Corp of the United States Navy for 20 years, retiring with the rank of lieutenant, then served as a campus police sergeant for the University of California. His second son, David, became the Deputy Chief of Police of the San Francisco Police Department, overseeing all uniformed police officers in the City & County of San Francisco. He was the highest ranking Korean American police officer in the United States.
Ruth married Paul Whang, the son of one of the first Korean American ministers, and raised her own large brood of children and grandchildren. Her children were named Gail, Denise and Ronnie Whang. Paul used to dress up as Santa Claus, bringing gifts to his nieces and nephews every Christmas, until passing off his yuletide duties to his son, Ronnie. For many years, Paul was the director of the Chinese Playground in SF Chinatown, and later moved to the Chinese Recreation Center at Washington and Mason Streets. Along with being a recreation director teaching tennis, ping pong, chess, and basketball to hundreds of Chinatown youth, he was a father figure, social worker and guidance counselor. Many grown adults remember him from their childhood and credit him for “saving their lives” by keeping them out of gangs and encouraging them to pursue their studies. Paul’s son, Ronnie, volunteered to serve in the Peace Corps, and was sent to the Fiji Islands for two years.
Helen Shinn married and took the name Helen Pil, but was widowed. She took care of her brothers’ children while her brothers were at sea. In later years, Helen was the primary caregiver to SunHee Shinn.
Peter spent the longest time at sea, finally returning to settle in San Francisco with his wife, Tungja. Altogether, Peter had six kids: Peter Jr., Jerry, Margaret, Bobbie, Randy, and Petula Shinn. For years, Peter would return from “the Orient” to San Francisco, bringing back exotic gifts from far away lands: brightly painted ceramic elephants; elaborately carved wooden chests; and “Uncle Pete soup,” which turned out to be Ichiban Ramen.
Not to be outdone by her children, Sun Hee Shinn obtained her high school diploma from the San Francisco Unified School District. While she was working, she had attended English language classes at 4 p.m. She went to a Chinese church to learn English. After she retired in the late 50’s, she wanted to go back to school because she never had a chance to complete high school while caring for her sick uncle in Korea, then raising her six children in the US. In retirement, she became a full-time student. Sun Hee graduated with a high school diploma at the young age of 63.
In 2015, Dal Yun Shinn was posthumously awarded the Presidential award and ribbon for his great service to Korea’s independence and its rebuilding efforts by the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs of the Republic of Korea. Courtesy of Gail Whang.
Authors: Phil Shinn, David Shinn, Gail Whang and Michael Shinn are all third generation Shinns and grandchildren of Dal Yun and Sun Hee Shinn. They feel lucky to have had a chance to come together to remember their family history. They all live in the Bay Area.
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