Board proclaims Saturday, Jan. 13, Korean American Day in Multnomah County

January 5, 2024

At age 16, Tom Chong Hoon Kim was separated from his family after the border between North and South Korea was closed off in 1948. After the Korean War, he moved to New York City, where he met Pearl Chungbin Kim, who also left her family for the United States. 

They settled in Washington, D.C., where they had three children, including their son Roy Kim. Tom earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in international relations at George Washington University while working a full time job. He wanted a career in politics.

Tom eventually moved his family back to South Korea, after becoming disillusioned by the unfair treatment of Asians in the United States. But Roy, who was 4 years old at the time, moved back to the United States when he was 16. 

Members of the Korean American community attended the Thursday, Jan. 4 board meeting to celebrate Korean American heritage.

Nearly 50 years later, Roy is the general managing partner of Central Bethany Development Company, a commercial real estate firm in Portland. His parents are in their 90s and have moved back to America, too, settling in California. In 2018, they created the Tom and Pearl Kim Endowment to support the Institute for Korean Studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. 

On Thursday, Jan. 4, Roy Kim, along with his wife Francesca, were among a series of community leaders who testified in front of the Board of County Commissioners as they proclaimed Jan. 13, 2024 as Korean American Day in Multnomah County. Korean American Day is a nationally recognized day commemorating the arrival of the first Korean immigrants in 1903. The date also celebrates the contributions of Korean Americans in the United States. 

“I’m grateful for this opportunity I’ve been given to be part of this immigrant community of America, challenges and all,” Roy Kim said, “where we are able to share diverse perspectives and backgrounds and to be able to experience more meaningful moments because of that diversity.”

Commissioner Lori Stegmann sponsored the proclamation. “While Korean-American day isn’t until Saturday, Jan. 13, I wanted to ensure that we recognized it during a Board meeting ,which is why we are celebrating it early,” she said.

‘Fighting for our space at the table’


In 1882, the United States and Korea signed a treaty establishing mutual friendship and assistance. In December 1902, more than 100 Koreans set sail for Honolulu on the S.S. Gaelic. Over the next two years, 7,500 Korean immigrants arrived in the United States, marking the first wave of Korean immigration. Korean American Day commemorates their arrival.

“They came because they were looking for job opportunities and became sugar plantation workers like a lot of immigrant stories and not necessarily of people with a lot of means,” said Jenny Kim, the executive director of Partners in Diversity. “A lot of them struggled to find their identity and some of them actually made their way into the mainland and to Oregon.”

For the past century, Korean immigrants have played a major role in American culture, commerce and development. Korean Americans have made contributions in science, business, technology, arts and education. Many served in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and other wars. 

Commissioner Stegmann was part of the first wave of post-war Korean adoptees in the 1960s. She was adopted by a white American family when she was 6 months old after being abandoned in Seoul. 

At the time of her adoption, Commissioner Stegmann said, mixed families were unusual. She said she was taught to assimilate and blend in. “At the time, being different was not something I took pride in,” she said. 

Times have changed. Starting in the 1990s,Korean culture gained more prominence. K-pop music, and Korean cinema, entertainment, and foodall proliferated. “Finally, it is officially cool to be Korean,” Commissioner Stegmann said. 

While Korean Americans are an integral part of our community and have contributed greatly,  harassment, discrimination and anti-Asian hate are also on the rise today. Korean Americans also have relatively low homeownership rates, Jenny Kim said. Many struggle with food insecurity or have difficulty accessing social services. 

“We still have a lot of battles that we have as (an) immigrant community,” Kim said. “We are fighting for our citizenship, we are fighting for our space at the table in leadership spaces, we’re still struggling with discrimination based on the way we look and our names. As the mother of two girls who look like me, I do worry for their future.”

Building a new future


Peter Cho says his life is similar to most immigrant stories. He and his wife, Sun Young Park, own Korean restaurants Han Oak, Toki and Jeju, located in Portland. Through their food, they aim to represent Korean cuisine and culture.

Cho’s family immigrated to Springfield, Ore. when he was 7. After attending University of Oregon, he moved to New York City to broaden his horizons. For 10 years he worked for a high-profile restaurant group, until his mom was diagnosed with cancer.

He moved back to Portland, where his parents had settled and were operating a dry cleaning business. He took care of his mom, and he rediscovered his passion for cooking professionally. He and Sun Young opened their first restaurant — Han Oak — in a space where they were also able to create their family’s living space. 

“The bigger part of that story is desperation to just do what we wanted, represent Korean food and the culture and the way that we wanted,” Cho said.

Looking back on the past 10 years, Park said, they had to carve out a space for themselves — like many Korean American families. Now that they have established themselves, they’ve created a platform for people to gather and experience Korean culture. 

“What I love most about having built these restaurants, it wasn’t necessarily to put some sort of cultural imprint on Portland and Oregon,” she said. “But I see that that is something that we have done and I can really embrace that and use that as an opportunity and tool and as a platform to build and share and build community.” 

In celebration of Korean American Day, Cho and Park prepared traditional Korean cuisine for the community members who attended the proclamation. The menu featured dduk mandu guk — a Korean rice cake and dumpling soup that's traditionally served on New Year’s —  and kimchi. 

“I just believe in the kind of America that says ‘you belong,’” Commissioner Jesse Beason said. “The culture you are bringing belongs and you make this country stronger.”

Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards thanked those who spoke, as well as those “in the broader Korean American community for the contributions that have been made and are currently being made to Multnomah County,” she said. 

“This is such a strong statement of community and coming together,” Chair Jessica Vega Pederson said. “I’m so joyful that we have had this opportunity to really learn about, to share, to embrace and celebrate the Korean culture — Korean American culture.”