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Pyongan, Korea to Oakland, CA

1926 | Ik Jun Whangbo | Male | 20-39 years old

by Janis Jin

Filed under:

Angel Island immigrant: Yes

Place of Origin
Pyongan, Korea

Place of Settlement
Oakland, CA

While the majority of Angel Island immigration narratives focus on Chinese immigrants during the era of Chinese exclusion, the histories of smaller-scale and lesser-studied Korean immigration certainly offer fertile ground for critical attention, as well as a lens through which to analyze the intersections of early Korean/American and Chinese/American immigrant stories. Over 1,000 Koreans are estimated to have immigrated to the U.S. through the Angel Island Immigration Station during the port’s operating years from 1910 to 1940.[1] These three decades, however, also span Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea, which placed heavy restrictions on Korean emigration out of the peninsula. Koreans who managed to flee from harsh Japanese colonial rule and make it to the U.S. did so by traveling across the northern Korean border into Manchuria, and sneaking onto steamships in Shanghai. From Shanghai, they headed for the San Francisco immigration port that holds a critical space in the history of Asian America – Angel Island.[2]

Many early Korean immigrants were young refugee students fleeing harsh Japanese colonial rule. In fact, from 1910 to 1918 alone, over 541 students fled Korea for the U.S. by way of Manchuria or Shanghai.[3] Though the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese laborers from entering the U.S., Korean students immigrated under Section 6 of the Exclusion Act, which granted exempt status to teachers, students, merchants, and temporary travelers. They disguised themselves as Chinese and claimed Chinese nationality in order to depart from Shanghai and evade Korean emigration restrictions.

Whangbo Ik Jun was among these Korean students who came to the United States by way of China. Born in Pyung Ahn, Korea (now either North or South Pyongan, North Korea), in 1904, he crossed Korea’s northern border into Manchuria at the age of 8, where he completed his elementary and secondary education. He studied in the Ming Dong School from 1912 to 1923, the Young Men’s Christian Association School from 1923 to 1924, and finally the Dong Ryung Institute from 1924 to 1925.  That year he boarded the SS President Taft as a Section 6 student, bound for California. At this point his father, CK Whangbo, was already in the United States. His mother, CS Park, however, was still in Korea.

Whangbo Ik Jun arrived at Angel Island on January 13, 1926. Upon his arrival, he underwent health inspection, as was customary for immigrants arriving at Angel Island. However, these health inspections were not simply neutral precautions. The racialized nature of medical treatment at Angel Island meant that corporeal anomalies found in Asian immigrants were often justified as grounds for deportation through a racist logic that was not extended the same way to European immigrants. Existing narratives portraying Asians as “filthy” and “disease-ridden” created conditions for military-like health inspections at Angel Island, causing some immigrants to be detained for months before being allowed entry into the U.S. Indeed, Nayan Shah has described Angel Island health inspections as “medical borders” that created further barriers to entry for racialized bodies in transit.[4] Jun was treated for trachoma, a deportable eye disease if not treated – but he was lucky to be treated in a relatively short period of six days and then allowed to leave the immigration station.

After being released for treatment of his eyes, Whangbo left Angel Island to live in Oakland and study at the Polytechnic College of Engineering. He studied there for the next two years, until 1928 when he suddenly dropped out of school and disappeared. Polytechnic was unable to locate him, leading to an extensive search for his whereabouts by the U.S. Department of Labor or the Bureau of Immigration. Under Section 4(e) of the 1924 Immigration Act, Korean students could be arrested and deported if they did not maintain their status as students. The reality was that Whangbo had moved from Oakland to Los Angeles and enrolled at the University of Southern California – but in the meantime, the Bureau of Immigration issued a warrant for his arrest. Korean students could be arrested and deported if they did not maintain their status as students. From 1930 to 1943, the San Francisco District Commissioner of Immigration communicated directly with the American Consul in Nanking, China, attempting to locate Whangbo Ik Jun’s whereabouts and set up the process for his deportation. For those years, Whangbo was in the precarious position of potentially being deported if found by immigration officials.

In 1944 when the authorities were finally able to locate Whangbo Ik Jun in Los Angeles, he applied for suspension of deportation upon the fact that he was the father of an American-born child, the result of his marriage to an American-born woman, whom he later divorced. Indeed, a clause in Section 19(c) of the 1917 Immigration Act granted legal stay in the U.S. to any parent who had an American-born child. After conducting various interviews with Whangbo and his father (who was living in San Francisco), the Department of Justice officially canceled the warrant for Whangbo Ik Jun’s arrest on October 24, 1950 and confirmed his lawful residence in the United States.

Though Whangbo Ik Jun’s whereabouts thereafter are unknown, his immigration story indexes the complex history of Korean refugee students who lived during the intersection of Chinese exclusion in the U.S. and Japanese colonialism in Korea. While his story is a rich point of entry into considering race, empire, and migration in transnational Asian America, there also exist multitudes of stories like his that have yet to be told.

File source: 24758/7-1, Whangbo Ik Jun, National Archives and Records Administration San Francisco Center, San Bruno, CA. Special thanks to Professor Judy Yung for editing assistance.

Yale student Janis Jin wrote this story based on a file at the National Archives in San Bruno, CA when she was an extern at AIISF in 2017. Janis is an English and Ethnicity, Race & Migration double-major interested in pursuing immigration or labor law in the future. At Yale she also serves as co-Head Coordinator of the Asian American Cultural Center.


[1] Lee and Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, 177.

[2] Ibid. 177.

[3] Ibid. 181.

[4] Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown, 179.

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