Wed. Aug 10th, 2022

Pachappa Camp in Riverside was far from the lively, busy Koreatowns we know today.

Founded in 1905 as the first Korean settlement in the United States, it was a small community of about a few hundred workers next to a heavily used set of railroad tracks, just down the street from Chinese and Japanese settlements. No alcohol, fights, games or drugs were allowed and everyone was encouraged to wear white.

The camp was named Dosan’s Republic after Korean independence activist Dosan Ahn Chang Ho, who was attracted to Riverside by the highly lucrative citrus trade.

Ahn founded an employment agency for Korean workers, which eventually became a very complex and self-governing settlement. Dosan’s Republic did not have running water or electricity, but the principles of governance that were refined became the building blocks of modern South Korean democracy, according to a forthcoming paper from UC Riverside Professor Edward Taehan Chang.

“Dosan Ahn Chang Ho had a vision to establish a modeling community. He experimented with it at Pachappa Camp, ”Chang said.

Chang encountered the previously undiscovered settlement on an insurance company card from 1908, a small dot marked “Korean settlement.” He found an archive for a Korean newspaper, Sinhan Minbo, which revealed aspects of life and suggested that Korean Americans at Pachappa Camp and elsewhere helped find South Korean democracy. The settlement is the subject of an exhibit at UC Riverside that opened Oct. 16, called “Pachappa Camp: The First Koreatown in the United States.”

The Republic of Dosan had elected representatives; taxation; a separation of powers between the judiciary, executive and legislative bodies, as well as two police officers with the power to search and enter private homes.

Life in the settlement was strict. Anti-Asian sentiment was a real danger, and the camp’s restrictions on alcohol, gambling, and drugs were an attempt to emphasize that Korean-Americans could contribute to a civilized society. Many laws focused on soundness. No Koreans were allowed to leave their houses unless they were properly dressed, and Korean women were not allowed to smoke in public. Those involved in drugs and alcohol were subject to a series of increasing fines.

At the time, Korea was under Japanese control, and Korean independence activists around the world raised funds, organized, and lobbied for political support. South Korea’s eventual democratic republic was organized in a series of meetings around the world. One of the most basic meetings took place in Riverside, Chang said.

In 1911, the third national convention of the Korean National Assn. met in the Pachappa camp and consisted of 21 articles of government that later appeared in documents central to South Korean democracy. The Convention elected a central council that would oversee the various chapters of the KNA around the world and advocate for Korean independence.

The Korean National Assn., A political organization with chapters in major Korean settlements around the world, served as a de facto government in Korea while under Japanese rule.

The KNA represented Korean Americans in international affairs and events. As an angry white mob chased Korean American workers from Hemet, U.S. officials reached out to Japanese consular officials to negotiate, prompting an outcry from Korean Americans. The KNA successfully lobbied Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan for Koreans in the United States to be recognized as Korean subjects, not Japanese.

After a cold spell, Riverside’s navel-orange crop decimated in 1913, leaving Pachappa Camp residents to seek work in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 1918, the Riverside chapter of KNA closed. In the late 1920s, Ahn was mistakenly accused of being a Bolshevik and deported from the United States.

Two memorial plaques are all that is left of the place that was once called Pachappa Camp.

Two memorial plaques are all that is left of the place that was once called Pachappa Camp. The site is now an oil pumping station.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Pachappa Camp was later settled by Japanese and Mexican immigrants, and in the 1950s the land was rebuilt by an oil company. Today, the land is primarily occupied by a Southern California Gas Co. plant. The nearby railway lines have come to a standstill, replaced by the muffled roar of Highway 91.

Pachappa Camp existed for just over a decade. So why does it matter? Why does the story of any immigrant piano matter?

To me, places like Historic Filipinotown, Pachappa Camp, and Chinatown are the most powerful and tangible reminders that the freedoms that Asian Americans have in this country were not gifts of political goodwill. They were the hard-won prey in a long struggle for civil rights of people of color in America. These stories of Asian American civic engagement may be buried in the archives of foreign-language newspapers, hidden in old maps, or converted into a gas plant, but they are there nonetheless.

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