Filmmaker celebrates 120 years of Korean American immigration to Hawai‘i with Harry Kim, Iggy Jang and Gary Pak

Born and raised in Seoul, Korea, Jinyoung Lee Won moved to Hawai‘i with her Korean American husband in 2005, intending to stay for a year. Working as a writer for a Korean newspaper, then as a news anchor for KBFD, “I got to learn this beautiful history of Koreans in Hawai‘i that I didnʻt know about,” as well as the other ethnicities who came to make the islands home. “I came for the nature, but now I really feel Hawai‘i has become my home because of this history.”

On May 21, during Family Sunday, HoMAʻs Doris Duke Theatre presents “Beyond the Horizon: Celebrating 120 Years of Korean Immigration,” which includes a screening of Won’s films Words of Wisdom from the Rainbow State and Songs of Love, followed by a panel discussion with local luminaries of Korean heritage—violinist Iggy Jang, County of Hawai‘i mayor Harry Kim, and writer and musician Gary Pak—who appear in the films. Songs of Love co-producer Michelle Goodin will moderate. Entry is free, but registration is required. Register here.

After meeting Korean Americans like Kim and Pak, “I realized they have special wisdom that ran in their family,” says Won. “It’s a real legacy that we should share with the next generations. Through their eyes I wanted to explore the history of Hawai‘i’s first Korean immigrants and preserve their words.” The result is Words of Wisdom, which was an official HIFF selection in 2021.

Weaving archival footage of early Korean arrivals in Hawai‘i with contemporary interviews, Won paints a picture of hardship, resilience and achievement. During his poignant segment, Kim says if he could talk to his parents again, he would ask, “How did you do it mom? How did you give birth to eight children in a home with one bedroom and a wood stove? I cannot imagine the pain they must have suffered, the responsibility.”

Won reveals that when she first moved to Hawai‘i, she didn’t know anyone. “Whenever I was homesick or had a conflict with my husband, I would go to HoMA to find some peace. It was a refuge for me.” So she is grateful to show her films at Doris Duke Theatre, especially during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

“Hawai‘i has so many diverse communities that coexist with aloha,” says Won. “I wanted our film to be a success story, not of financial success, but about how Korean Americans and others in Hawai‘i have tried to live with aloha for each other while maintaining their cultural identity.”

Pictured above: Harry Kim visits his mother’s grave at Homelani Memorial Park with filmmaker Jinyoung Lee Won.