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May 2, 2022

Mary Paik Lee

Mary Paik Lee (Paik Kuang Sun) was born in the Korean Empire on August 17, 1900, and was baptized by American Presbyterian minister Dr. Samuel Austin Moffett, one of the first American Presbyterian missionaries to come to Korea. In 1905, her family left Korea for Hawaii, fleeing the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula. Late in her life, Mary wrote a memoir, recounting her family’s struggles in Hawaii and then California, where they faced discrimination and poverty, all while striving to make a better life and holding firm to their Presbyterian faith.

I’m joined in this episode by historian Dr. Jane Hong, author of Opening the Gates to Asia: A Transpacific History of How America Repealed Asian Exclusion, who helps contextualize Mary’s story in the larger story of Asian immigration to the United States in the 20th Century.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. Image Credit: “Mr. and Mrs. H. M. Lee with their first son, Henry, in Anaheim, 1926,” from family photo albums. 





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Kelly  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. And please, tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  0:37  
On today's episode, we're discussing Korean immigrant and writer, Mary Paik Lee. Mary Paik Lee, then called Paek Kuang-Sun was born in the Korean Empire on August 17, 1900. She and her older brother Meung were both baptized by American Presbyterian minister Dr. Samuel Austin Moffett, one of the First Presbyterian missionaries to come to Korea. In 1904, Japan and Russia went to war over Manchuria and Korea. Japan had offered to recognize Russian dominance in Manchuria in exchange for their recognition of Japanese dominance in Korea; but Russia refused. Surprising the world, Japan won the war by 1905. During the war, the Japanese military had occupied Korea, and following the war, with Japanese troops surrounding the Korean Imperial Palace and stationed throughout the Korean peninsula, former Japanese Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi arrived in Korea and forced the Korean cabinet to sign a treaty making Korea into a protectorate of Japan and stripping Korea of its sovereignty. Five years later, in 1910, Japan would annex Korea, which remained a Japanese colony until 1945. In the midst of the Russo-Japanese War, early in 1905, Japanese soldiers came to Mary's house, telling the family they had to move out so that their home could be used to house Japanese troops. Mary's family fled by foot from Pyongyang, which is now the capital of North Korea, to Incheon Harbor, over 100 miles away. In Incheon Harbor, Mary's dad signed a contract with the sugarcane plantation that promised that in exchange for his agreement to work for them for a year, he and his family would receive free passage to Hawaii. On May 8, 1905, Mary and her parents and brother arrived in Hawaii aboard the SS Siberia. After the year was up, Mary's family moved to Riverside, California. Mary's dad had heard from friends there that prospects were better in America. Hawaii at the time was a territory, but not yet a state. Upon landing in San Francisco, and disembarking from the SS China, Mary's family immediately faced harassment as a group of white men laughed at them, spat in their faces, and called them names. In Riverside, the family lived in a one room shack, and Mary's mom cooked breakfast and dinner and packed lunches for 30 single men who worked in the citrus groves. On Saturdays, Mary and her brother went to a slaughterhouse to scavenge for the animal organs that butchers discarded, scrambling with the Mexican children while the butchers laughed at them. The family stayed in Riverside for four or five years, and the children started school there; but it was a tough life, especially for Mary's mom.

When she was expecting her fifth child, the family moved to Claremont, where another family friend lived in search again of something better. It was just the first of many moves in California for the family, constantly in search of somewhere where they could make enough money to get by. But everywhere they went, they faced discrimination and crushing poverty, despite their eagerness to work any jobs they could find. By age 11, when they were living in Colusa, California, Mary was working as a house cleaner to help out the family with her $1/a week wage. It was the first of many jobs she would work. As they moved, Mary's dad worked any jobs he could find, from janitor to potato farmer to mercury miner. Working in the mercury mine was so detrimental to his health, that he eventually had to give it up and switch to another job at lower pay. Instead of going to high school, Meung had to quit school after eighth grade, and work full time to support the ever growing family. Mary did leave home to attend high school in Hollister, California. There were no high schools where they had been living in Indria. Mary had to support herself through school, doing house cleaning and yard work and cooking in exchange for lodging. After a year, Mary was able to rejoin her family when they moved to Willows, a town that included a high school. In Willows, Mary met HM Lee, who had also left Korea in 1905, but who had gone from there to Mexico instead of Hawaii. Mary and HM were married at the American Presbyterian Church on January 1, 1919. Despite continuing discrimination and health problems, HM and Mary were usually able to make a decent living, running a fruit and vegetable stand and farming and they helped support Mary's family whenever they could. The couple raised three sons in California, and eventually settled in Los Angeles. Their oldest son Henry earned his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and worked for the Federal Reserve Bank, the State Department, and the Treasury Department. Their middle son, Alan worked in real estate. Their youngest son Tony faced several health challenges, including post polio syndrome, which weakened his spine. HM died on June 29, 1975, in Los Angeles, after which Mary moved to San Francisco, where she volunteered as an interpreter at a Korean senior center for a decade. In 1986, Alan asked Dr. Sucheng Chan, who was teaching at the University of California, Santa Cruz at the time, if she would like to meet Mary, who had recently completed her memoir. Dr. Chan interviewed Mary and realized what an important story it was: a rare life history of an Asian American woman, and one that covers much of the 20th century. Dr. Chan edited the text and framed it with contextual essays, publishing it in 1990. Mary died in 1995, at the age of 95. Joining me to help us learn more about Mary Paik Lee Is Dr. Jane Hong, Associate Professor of United States history at Occidental College, and the author of "Opening the Gates to Asia: the Trans-Pacific History of How America Repealed Asian Exclusion," and of an upcoming book chapter on Mary Paik Lee. Hi, Jane, thank you so much for joining me today.

Dr. Jane Hong  9:57  
Thanks for having me.

Kelly Therese Pollock  9:58  
Yeah, I am really excited to talk about Mary Paik Lee, who, admittedly, it's another one of these that I had not heard of before, but I'm so thrilled to have learned about her. So I wanted to start by talking a little bit about how you got to know about Mary Paik Lee's story. What drew you to her?

Dr. Jane Hong  10:20  
Yeah, so I learned about Mary Paik Lee in an undergraduate Asian American history class. I think it was my sophomore or junior year in college. You know, a new faculty member had arrived who taught this Asian American History class and she assigned Mary Paik Lee's autobiography, "Quiet Odyssey." And reading this, I mean, it was one of the first autobiographies written by an Asian American woman in English. And the book had been published in the 90s. And you know, I was in college in the late 90s, early 2000s. And so she had just passed away a few years before we were reading the book. And, you know, I'm the child of Korean immigrants. My parents came to the US from South Korea in 1975, under the 65 Immigration Act, so that class in general was like a revelation to me, because I really hadn't ever seen my own family's history reflected in anything I learned during high school, and even through most of college. So that class was a revelation, and that book in particular, you know, it was striking because it was the first time I had learned about Koreans living in the US before the 1960s, so before the wave that included my parents. And the other thing I was really struck by is, you know, Mary Paik Lee, she was female, and she was a child when she immigrated, and she also, and her life really reflected the centrality of religion, and specifically Protestant Christianity. And you know, I had grown up in a Korean immigrant church. Lots of folks in my generation had also grown up in Korean immigrant churches. And so I think that book really showed the the importance of Christianity in shaping Korean immigration to the US historically, but also Korean Americans experiences once they were in the US.

Kelly Therese Pollock  12:10  
I've read a lot of autobiographies. And it's a little bit of a different structure than you might see in other autobiographies, because it's not just she didn't just go find a publisher and get it published. But it's actually bookended by this introduction by a historian, and then a follow up by like the historian saying, "Well, here's what I was able to find or not find to sort of corroborate her story and her sources, you could look for more information." Could you talk just a little bit about that? It's such a sort of unique piece because of that.

Dr. Jane Hong  12:43  
Yeah, no, I agree. I think so Sucheng Chan, I believe was a historian who wrote kind of the framing essays and the foreword, and as you noted, the epilogue. You know, I think having a historian kind of contextualize Mary Paik Lee's life was really valuable, because I think most folks, even folks who studied Asian American history at that time, so in the 90s, when it was published, this book was published, there really wasn't much known about that very early period of, of Korean kind of American immigration. You know, Mary Paik Lee, she's born in 1900, I think, as you mentioned, and she she dies in 1995, so her life really spans almost the entirety of the 20th century. And she comes to the US at age five. So she literally spends 90 years in the United States, and she lives through some of the most kind of formative periods. You know, when I'm a 20th century US historian, so I mean, she lives through, you know, wars, World War I, II, Korean War, Vietnam; she lives through the New Deal. I mean, she lives through kind of big milestones. And so having a historian who can kind of contextualize and help the reader understand, I think, is really useful. I also thought, you know, the framing pieces that Sucheng Chan contributed, were useful, because, you know, women aren't, there really just aren't as many women migrating, Asian women migrating to United States before the 1960s. And a lot of that has to do with exclusion laws. And I think folks might be more familiar with Chinese exclusion. And, you know, I think after the Atlanta shootings in 2021, some folks might have heard of the Page Law of 1875, for the first time. The Page Law was really gendered. I mean, that law specifically targeted Chinese women and tried to bar them from entry on the assumption that they were coming for, "lewd and immoral purposes." So the assumption was, you know, all Chinese women being brought in were being brought in for prostitution or being trafficked. And I think folks might also know that after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, I mean, Chinese migrants, you know, are heavily restricted, but you know, it's it's a highly gendered migration there as well, because most folks are coming in for labor purposes, folks coming to work on the railroads, so folks coming in the Gold Rush, folks coming to work on the railroads and later and folks coming in. I mean, these are majority men and folks might have heard of the kind of bachelor communities of Chinatowns and the ways that Chinese men in the late 19th and 20th centuries were feminized, and kind of a lot of them worked in laundry and kind of traditionally feminine or feminized industries. And so there aren't that many women. And I think that's true for most Asian migrant groups. The one exception is Japanese immigrants. So a number of picture brides come in. And so those numbers are a little more balanced. But for most, yeah, for most Asian immigrant groups, women are just not, there aren't as many of them. And so I think having the voice of someone like Mary Paik Lee was really valuable. And Sucheng Chan does specialize in women's history. So I think her her perspective is really valuable. The last thing I'll say is, I also think it's hard to kind of even know where to begin with looking into, you know, people like Mary Paik Lee. She actually has some papers at USC, she has a series of oral histories, which again, because she lives into the 1990s, you know, there are actually recordings of her. And so these are incredibly valuable. But I think, you know, it's wonderful having you know, a book like this, and then a kind of ready made list of places you can, you know, you could look to to find out more.

Kelly Therese Pollock  16:24  
Yeah, it's funny, when I first started this podcast, I used to joke that, you know, I wanted to get just sort of get get to real history, get to get to the stuff that's not covered. And I was like, I want to know what people ate for lunch in Kansas in 1920. And she's not in Kansas, she's in California, but like, whoa, do you get daily life in this! It's really incredible. Let's talk a little bit about the circumstances in Korea at the time that she left and the the reasons that her family go on this journey, first to Hawaii, and then to California to make what is a really hard living in in both Hawaii and California. So, so what is going on in Korea at the end of the 19th, early 20th century?

Dr. Jane Hong  17:11  
Yeah, I mean, the really big piece of Mary Paik Lee's story, and she really starts with this in Chapter One is Japanese colonization is beginning. So the Japanese are beginning to encroach on the Korean peninsula. This is a longer story and longer history. But it really kind of Japanese encroachment ramps up in the early 1900s. And so, you know, Mary starts or she really starts the her story by talking about the appearance of these Japanese soldiers at her front door at her house in what is now right Pyongyang, the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Now it's North Korea, but at the time, it was just the northern part of Korea. And the soldiers demanded that her family leave. And this was a very common thing happening in the early 1900s, as the Japanese were growing in terms of kind of the economic control over the peninsula military. And I mean, over the course of the following years, I mean by by 1907, 1908, Japan has taken Korea as a protectorate, and by 1910, they formally annex it. And Korea stays under Japanese colonial rule until 1945, the end of World War II. And that whole story really, essentially shapes Korean migration to the US because for Lee's family, I mean, it displaces them, along with many other Koreans; it displaces families from their hometowns. And for I think it's about  7200 Koreans migrate to the United States, so in particular, Hawaii, between 1903 and 1905. And what's really interesting is that many of these folks are actually already Christians, identify as Protestant Christian before leaving, and many of them were recruited by missionaries. So US missionaries, you know, Horace Allen is one Presbyterian missionary who becomes a liaison between Hawaiian sugar planters who are looking for, they're looking for other Asian labor to replace the Chinese who were now excluded under US exclusion laws. And so Hawaiian sugar planters are looking to, you know, the Philippines; they're looking to other parts of Asia. And so Horace Allen kind of enters this conversation and creates an agreement, fords an agreement between Hawaiian sugar planters and the Korean King Kojong. You know, up until that point he had not really been as enthusiastic about emigration, right and letting Koreans leave. And so it's really through the direct efforts of US, particularly Presbyterian missionaries, that these Koreans came to United States. And so there's a really interesting mix, or this interesting entanglement between US capitalism, Christianity, and kind of the growth of what historians would call, right, US Empire, during this period. And so Mary and her family are caught up in that. The last thing I'll say here is that Mary, again, she's quite unusual because even among the 7200, Koreans, only about 600 are women and like 400, or something are children. So she's really, and she is a, you know, child and a girl. So she's really unusual, because she comes with her parents and with her brother. So she comes as part of a nuclear family, which was not the case for a lot of folks coming. And folks stopped coming from Korea in 1905 because the Japanese essentially,  they stopped the flow of Koreans leaving the peninsula because by that time, they have the ability to do that, even though they didn't formally annex Korea until a few years later.

Kelly Therese Pollock  20:46  
Yeah, and I hadn't realized, I think until reading this, that there were Koreans who were immigrating to Hawaii. You know, I knew a lot about Japanese immigration to Hawaii, but not so much about Koreans. And so that was sort of a really fascinating piece. And it's interesting that they were, you know, sort of specially targeting Koreans to recruit them to come to Hawaii. Uh, but Mary's family doesn't stay in Hawaii very long. They they go then to California, and they go to California, sort of without a plan. They just sort of get there and go, "Okay, now, what?" That's sort of the story of Mary's family, right, is they just keep going sort of from place to place and trying to figure out, "How can we make a living here? How what what can we do to survive to support the family?" So is this is this story, do you think sort of representative of not not all immigrants to the US, but of Korean immigrants to the US at this time? You know, is that the kind of life, you know, as you mentioned, Mary's a little bit odd, because she's a girl and she's a child, but this sort of what what the families are going through?

Dr. Jane Hong  21:55  
Yeah, I would say so because there really aren't that many Koreans entering. So this 7000 plus group of Korean migrants, they're some of the only Koreans living on US soil before the 1960s. And a lot of the folks, you know, a lot of the pre 1965 Korean community descends from these folks. There are some more elite Korean figures who are able to come to the US. And this is a general trend. You know, I do US immigration and under Asian exclusion laws, so Chinese exclusion gradually gets expanded to apply to other Asian groups. So Chinese are targeted first, then it's Japanese, then it's Indians. And later, it's Filipinos by 1924. And by 1934, basically, all Asians are barred from long term immigration. Koreans are kind of kind of thrown in there thrown in the mix, because there aren't that many of them. But eventually, after Korea comes under Japanese colonial rule, for the purposes of US immigration law, Koreans are effectively Japanese. So they're also restricted under under those policies. So I mean, I think that, you know, for these, for the small group of Koreans, a lot of them do end up so some stay in Hawaii, and there's a thriving, there is a an ongoing Korean community that continues right? Even folks now who live in Hawaii, there is a group of folks who can trace their lineage directly back to this this first migration wave. And they did celebrate the centennial right in 2003. So I remember seeing pictures and kind of volumes from that celebration. But you're right, many folks do come many Koreans do come to the mainland through California. And yeah, most of these folks, they're just picking up whatever jobs they can because, you know, the first half of the 20th century in particular, you know, anti-Asian racism is it's pretty virulent. People might be familiar with the anti-Chinese movement of the late 1800s into the 1900s. Obviously, a lot of this violence continues. And, you know, folks who are targeting Chinese later, you know, some folks target Japanese, Indians, right? The " tide of turbans" that folks talk about, as I mentioned before, right, these exclusion laws they become Congress broadens exclusion to bar all Asians, and it's in response to exclusionists on the ground, right. So organized labor initially, and then, you know, agricultural interests, white workers, I mean, there's various groups that really mobilize to get first Sacramento and then Washington, DC on board in terms of excluding Asians. Koreans, you know, people don't really know what that is. Right. And they're, like, people literally don't know what Korea is. And, you know, Mary tells these stories of going to school in various parts of California, I think her family, as you mentioned, they move around a lot. They settle in places like Riverside, which is one of the first kind of Korean settlements in the US, Pachappa Camp. There's actually a book that recently came out about that group. So Riverside, they lived in, you know, different cities across central California. They really just move around, you know, wherever her dad can get a job. So he works in the fields. He works in factories. And oftentimes, you know, he works in these jobs that take a huge toll on his health. So by the time, right, he's even just in his 40s, or 50s, he's already like pretty worn down in pretty bad health, because of kind of working conditions at different places. I think I believe he worked in like a glass factory, you know, there's all kinds of hazards associated with those kinds of jobs. But they were really at subsistence level, or sometimes not even at subsistence level. And so there is literally an entire section of the book where Mary talks about just like the hunger, the hunger that she experienced as a child, and just the the kind of experience of poverty. And what's interesting is that throughout those discussions, like the fact that she is Christian, so there's two themes that I think run through the book. The first is, is her Christian faith. And that kind of goes hand in hand with the second which is, Koreans at that time what a lot of them share in common, regardless of class or educational background, they're all fighting for Korean independence. And so a lot of early Korean American history is is really focused on kind of Koreans in the US as a diaspora that's extremely kind of committed to collecting money, sending money, sending funds, doing all that it can to support Koreans who are trying to liberate the peninsula from Japanese colonial rule. And that literally lasts throughout the entire Japanese colonial period. And I've written about this in my own work. And Korean churches, here in places like California, Hawaii, and across the US, they become some of the central kind of organizing sites, where folks gathered together. They're praying, not just for, you know, their families and for salvation and right and all the things that folks are associated with Protestant Christianity. But they're, you know, they're, they're praying for the liberation of their homeland. And that's a huge kind of like a guide. It's like a North Star for many of these early Korean migrants. And for Mary too, even though she's really young, she still had lots of family in Korea. And there are stories and reports that US missionaries are sending back to the US of persecution, right, and of the atrocities committed by Japanese colonial officials in Korea, during this period. And so like, these things are all tied together very much and you can see them, I think what's really valuable about the book is, you see kind of these broader kind of, you know, transnational, geopolitical, right, kind of movements through the eyes of like a young Korean girl living in California, who's also just trying to eat, go to school, find a church and not, you know, she's dealing with, like, everyday racism. And she talks about those experiences, too, of going to, if there weren't that many Korean churches, even in California, at that point, only in places where Koreans lived, were their Korean churches, so often, she would find herself at white majority of white churches, even Presbyterian churches, and, you know, she had some really, you know, very kind of traumatic experiences in these in these white church, Christian spaces. That I think really, she remembers these because, you know, they were Christian communities. And so that's another kind of piece of the book that I that I find really interesting. And that I think I've thought a lot about, you know, it's just kind of what does, what does racism look like anti-Asian racism look like? But then, what does it look like among Christian communities in particular?

Kelly Therese Pollock  28:36  
I want to come back to the discrimination and racism in a minute, but I'd like to sort of understand a little bit more about the centrality of Christianity to Koreans and Korean Americans. I think this is something that, at least to my sort of superficial understanding seems to distinguish Korean Americans from maybe Japanese Americans or Chinese Americans. So what is it about either Christianity and its relationship to Korea or the people who come from Korea that makes Christianity just a little more of a sort of central feature for this group of immigrants?

Dr. Jane Hong  29:14  
Yeah, I mean, as I mentioned, US missionaries, particularly Presbyterian missionaries, but also Methodist missionaries, they were some of the main recruiters of of Korean migrants to the US during this period. So something like 40% or more of these early Korean migrants identified as Protestant Christian. Many of them had direct ties to Presbyterian missionaries like Horace Allen as I mentioned earlier, Samuel Moffet was the one that Mary Paik Lee's family was connected to, although to be clear, or Samuel Moffet was a little more ambivalent about Koreans, leaving the, leaving for the US. So not all missionaries were on board, but I think the prominent role that missionaries played in this labor migration is really pivotal to this kind of early migration. And then, you know, I think generally even with people like Syngman Rhee, so Syngman Rhee, a Korean migrant. He later becomes the first President of the Republic of Korea, South Korea under US, in partnership with the US after World War II. Syngman Rhee, probably the most prominent Korean to come to the US, he comes through missionary and religious connections as well. So lots of folks, even elite folks who are not coming, you know, as labor as laborers, they're coming through Salvation Army, you know, they're coming through kind of denominations, missions boards. And so there's that piece of it. And to be very frank, even later, so there's kind of a lull in Korean migration, where you just have not many folks coming between really 1905 and the 1960s. There aren't that many folks. But when Korean migration, when Korean immigration picks up again, after the 1965 Immigration Act, a very high percentage of those folks also identify as Protestant Christian or later become Protestant, once they are in the United States. And that's, that's a really, you know, so it's not just a historical phenomenon. I think it continues to shape Korean American experiences today. I think something like a few years ago, someone, Pew did a study and something like 70% of Korean Americans identified as Protestant. And a majority actually are Presbyterians with PCUSA, or PCA, I guess by today's standards, and a lot of those folks have actually, you know, they're second wave Christians. So they had actually been exposed, oftentimes to US evangelicalism before migrating to the US. So I mean, my uncle is an example. He became Christian, through Campus Crusade for Christ Korea in the 1970s, and then migrated to the US to join my parents in the 80s. So I think that kind of experience is not actually uncommon.

Kelly Therese Pollock  31:52  
As you've mentioned, and Mary and her family faced all sorts of discrimination, and it's both this sort of structural discrimination and racism and the laws that were put in place. But it's also you know, as you said, this sort of everyday thing, that that they're just facing, sort of everywhere they go everything they try to do. So I want to talk about that some and then maybe connect that to really ways that it's still happening. So I think maybe one of the most sort of striking times in her life that this happens is around World War II, because as you mentioned, you know, people are sort of seeing Koreans and just thinking, "Oh, they're Japanese," you know, and so she's facing this racism. You know, what, what are the things that sort of stand out in her story to you about this discrimination that she's facing sortof everywhere she goes?

Dr. Jane Hong  32:48  
Yeah, World War II is a really interesting moment. And Mary Paik Lee tells this story about how right after the, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, she remembers going into a local store, owned by former President Richard Nixon's mom. I guess they're, you know, they're part of the same kind of general community in Southern California. And the Nixon's of course, were Quaker. And  so Nixon's mother, you know, who he's often described as like the most lovely woman, gentle and all these things. She actually, so Mary Paik Lee is in the store, she's an adult by this time with her own children, she had left her son in the car to wait for her. Her son was very young at that time. And so when she was in the store, just going about her business, she had been in the fields all day because I think her she and her husband, eventually they they become farmers, and they sell produce, and that's how they make their living. But she begins to hear, some people begin to, some people are out there talking about it. They're talking about Pearl Harbor, and there's this kind of growing sense of hostility, and she feels it in the store. She doesn't know what's going on initially. One person actually starts verbally, kind of attacking her and Richard Nixon's mother, who's manning the counter, owns the store, kind of steps in and defends and just is, "Of course, you know, of course, you know, Mary, you know, she's, she's, she's been shopping here for years, how could you claim to not know her?" And then Mary leaves the store, she goes back to her car where she's left her son, which again, you could do in the 1940s. And you can't do that today. And she finds the this young group of boys at the window, taunting her son and kind of threatening to attack him. I think he's like two or something at this point, or three, he's very young. And so she hurriedly gets out of there. She She's She yells at the boys, the young boys and then gets out of there. But I think you know, it kind of her experience is really interesting because she's not ethnically Japanese. And so it, her experience underscores how anyone who can even vaguely be kind of seen as Japanese like, so Chinese folks, Chinese Americans at the time, Korean Americans, even Filipino Americans. There are reports of folks being beaten, harassed. Mary tells the story of different, there's a couple in her community, a Korean couple, you know, they're driving down the street and they're stopped. And then the husband is dragged out of the car and beaten, you know, because folks think he looks Japanese. And so I think, again, that kind of blanketed, you know, anti-Asian discrimination that doesn't really distinguish between ethnically Japanese folks and other folks. I mean, that's one parallel, you can see, I think, many kind of episodes of anti-Asian racism in the United States. It's like, you know, maybe during the anti-Chinese movement, the Chinese were targeted, maybe during World War II Japanese were targeted, obviously, they were incarcerated. But other folks who looked vaguely Asian, were still targeted, even after Japanese Americans were literally in camps for most of for all of World War II. And you can see this kind of pattern, you know, into more contemporary histories, you know, obviously, even today. One of the first incidents I can remember being reported at the beginning of the pandemic, kind of early 2020, kind of March, I believe, was like a Burmese family shopping at a South Texas, I think it was a Sam's Club. It was a Burmese family that was targeted. I think the father had his face slashed and, and his son had his face slashed with a razor by a fellow customer. You know, so it's it's people don't really distinguish, right, when it comes to this kind of racism. And I think that's kind of another commonality or theme, right, that I see from Mary's period that in many ways, you know, it still rings true in the present.

Kelly Therese Pollock  36:34  
Yeah, it seems particularly upsetting for Mary, who doesn't really like the Japanese, much at least, you know, toward the beginning, I think as as she went through her life, you know, that that maybe changed. But, you know, as she said, there were occupying her country to be confused with Japanese is particularly galling, I think, for her, but either way, she's facing discrimination, which makes her life harder.

Dr. Jane Hong  37:01  
Yeah. And that's something that I've seen, like scholars kind of tackle, like, what does it mean, once you have, you know, Chinese, Koreans, you know, Filipinos, Japanese living in the United States, like, what difference does it make that they're not in Asia anymore? Like, and how do how does Japanese Imperialism and Japanese oppression of groups, many groups in Asia, how does that kind of translate into inter-ethnic relations in the United States? And I think there are a number of historians who've done work on that. Mary's interesting, because this also kind of suggests some difference of kind of generational mindsets, because she knows she is a young child when she comes, she is deeply embedded in the Korean independence movement. And anti Japanese sentiment, as you mentioned, is like deeply built into, honestly a lot of Korean conversation and kind of Korean newspapers around this time, right? They're heavily anti-Japanese, for many reasons, obviously. But there's, it's interesting, because in her book, she does talk about that. She also talks about how, you know, she's a farmer. And her next door neighbor, some of them are also they're Japanese Americans who are also farmers. And so I think she also does this probably, in part because she's writing in the 90s, in the 1980s, 1990s, from a distance of many decades. But she talks about how you know, during the war, she actually protects, she she moves into a farm owned by a Japanese American couple of friends. When they were incarcerated, Mary's family promised to kind of watch over their farms and to make sure they didn't lose everything. And so there are those kind of moments where you see right, how once folks are in the United States, there is some distance and Japanese Americans are not necessarily always held to account for what Japanese people are doing. So at least, you know, even if other folks don't necessarily distinguish between Japanese and Japanese Americans, like the War Relocation Authority, like that, that at least people on the ground, like Mary could understand, to some extent the difference between Japanese Americans in the US and Japanese in Asia.

Kelly Therese Pollock  39:16  
So we've said this discrimination and racism, sadly, is still going on, and is actually according to reports picking up in this country. I think, you know, one of the things that strikes me is how little education in Asian American history students get. You said you you didn't get it till sort of later in college. This is certainly not something that I learned very much and my own kids who are in elementary school now, you know, they're getting increasing exposure to Native American history and Black American history, but, but really not as much to Asian American history. So I wonder if if you could just sort of reflect on how we could do better on on that front and  in ways to, you know, that alone won't stop discrimination and racism, but but it can't hurt.

Dr. Jane Hong  40:06  
So I've already seen some moves toward things that could be productive in terms of at least helping people understand what's happening, and hopefully reducing the likelihood of further violence going forward. You know, I think states like California, and then Illinois, and then most recently in New Jersey, have passed ethnic studies, requirements. And in particular, in Illinois and New Jersey, they've passed, those legislatures passed, resolutions or passed bills requiring that AAPI, or Asian American history is being taught in the classroom, in the K to 12 classrooms. And I've been doing some work with, I'm doing like a session on Monday, actually, with some teachers in New Jersey, because they're looking to implement those units in the following I think, in the next two academic years. I do think I mean, I'm a historian, so what else can I think but to, you know, but to believe that if folks understand that what's happening now is actually connected to a much longer history, where Asians have been targeted and racialized by not just by like, random individuals, like the person in Sam's Club, but that this history that kind of is violence ties to a much longer history of structural racism, and particularly legal right, like legal structures, racialized exclusion laws, that have effectively racialized Asians as foreign as like un-American, unassimilable, on the one hand, and then kind of model minorities, on the other hand model minorities who might not need any help whose lives are actually, you know, they're not actually targets of racism, because clearly, if they've been successful, then, you know, clearly racism is not necessarily a problem for them. So there's, there's been this dual racialization of Asian Americans through this longer history of structural racism. And I think I have to believe that if folks, you know, learn some of that history, there's a greater understanding of how Asian Americans are actually people of color that have a lot in common with other people of color. In terms of other I mean, in terms of other things. I mean, raising awareness in general is really important. I, myself, am still thinking through like, what are concrete kind of solutions? I think carceral options, right? Talk about greater kind of law enforcement, stronger hate crimes laws, can become problematic. So I'm, I think, myself and many other kinds of scholars who do this kind of work are kind of thinking through like, what are ways, right? What are ways to do this kind of work to raise awareness and to raise understanding, without always resorting to greater militarization, which has all kinds of other creates all kinds of other problems?

Kelly Therese Pollock  42:45  
Is there anything else before we wrap up that you would like to make sure we talk about about Mary?

Dr. Jane Hong  42:52  
So I recently wrote a chapter about Mary for a book that's coming out this year, with Eerdmans Press. It's looking at just 12 Americans of faith, who have engaged different struggles in their lifetimes. And in the process of writing that chapter, I was actually in contact with some of her her descendants, her nephew and her children. And I think I was just struck by the fact that this is this is very much living history, like people are literally, you know, Mary herself might have passed on in 1995. But her descendants are very much, her children are very much still alive. And the other thing is, and I write about this in the chapter, you know, I think Mary Paik Lee, some folks reading her autobiography have kind of framed her book as another version of a model minority story, because she does go from, you know, abject poverty in the early 1900s, to a place by the 1980s, where like one of her sons, you know, works for the World Bank, right. So she has successful children, her grandchildren are much more integrated, and they go to good schools. But she's really interesting because she spends she spent significant time in her last chapter is actually talking about one of her sons, who has all kinds of physical maladies that have really kind of restricted what he could, "accomplish" in his life. And she very much I don't know if she does this intentionally, but she, she, she kind of intentionally kind of writes against kind of model minority kind of trajectory. She talks about her son, Tony, and how proud she is of him and how much he's accomplished, quote, accomplished, despite all of his maladies. And she's not talking about his accomplishments in terms of where he went to school, or like, what kind of fancy job or you know how much money he makes, but just his perseverance and his persistence and his resilience over time. And I think that is a very, I found that just very humanizing. I found that very refreshing too. And I again, I think it really, she's writing against the grain of this kind of model minority trajectory, which I mean folks who do Asian American history I feel like most of our lives are just spent writing against the model minority trajectory. Because what that does is the model minority myth, it really kind of dehumanizes Asian Americans by flattening all them and weaponizing them against, against Black communities. And so folks like Mary, I think, are able to bring the humanity back in and to really kind of redefine, like, what matters and what values matter, especially for someone, you know, who's a person of faith.

Kelly Therese Pollock  45:28  
So I will put in the shownotes, a link for people to be able to get Mary's book, which they should definitely do, but I would also like to encourage them to look at your work as well. Can you talk about how people can find your work?

Dr. Jane Hong  45:40  
Well, I'm on Twitter, like many academics. You can find me @JaneHongPhD, where I tweet a lot about just various things. I'm writing a book about Asian American evangelicals. And so I've been thinking a lot about race and faith, particularly race and evangelical politics since the 1970s. And you can also find me just on the web, my personal website is, and I would love to hear from folks and engage further.

Kelly Therese Pollock  46:12  
All right, excellent. Well, Jane, thank you so much for speaking with me today. I loved learning about Mary's life and learning, frankly, this whole sort of chapter of history that I just didn't know that much about.

Dr. Jane Hong  46:24  
Thanks so much for having me. This was this was really fun.

Teddy  46:27  
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain, or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__history, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions or episodes suggestions, please email If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.

Transcribed by

Jane HongProfile Photo

Jane Hong

Jane Hong is associate professor of United States history at Occidental College and the author of Opening the Gates to Asia: A Transpacific History of How America Repealed Asian Exclusion (University of North Carolina Press, 2019). Drawing on archives in the US, India, and the Philippines, the book charts a transnational movement to repeal America’s Asian exclusion laws at the intersection of Black civil rights and Asian decolonization. It argues that repeal was part of the price of America’s postwar empire in Asia. Along with Japanese & Chinese Americans and their allies, the book centers the work of Indians and Filipinos in Asia and the US, tracing how their campaigns for repeal became entangled with anticolonial movements for Indian and Philippine independence.

Hong is currently writing a book exploring how post-1965 Asian immigration has changed U.S. evangelical institutions and politics for Oxford University Press. Based on archives and over 100 oral history interviews, the project connects two historical developments that have transformed racial and religious politics in America over the past half century: the rise of the Religious Right and the demographic transformations resulting from the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. Hong serves on the executive board of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society and the Gilder-Lehrman Scholarly Advisory Board. In 2021, she joined the editorial board of the Journal of American History, the flagship journal for historians of the US.

During the 2021-2022 academic year, Hong will hold a Visiting Scholar Fellowship at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and is the recipient of a sabbatical grant from the Louisville Institute. She is also a 2021-2022 Public Fellow in PRRI’s Religion and Renewing Democracy Initiative.

Hong is committed to bridging academic and public history. She has led K-12 teacher seminars for the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History, consulted for television programs including Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and American Idol, and penned op-eds for the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Hong appeared in two episodes of the Peabody Award-winning PBS docuseries, Asian Americans (2020), and the PBS World documentary Far East Deep South (2021). An active public speaker, Hong has presented at Uber, CohnReznick, Analysis Group, and the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, in addition to academic and faith-based venues.

Born in Brooklyn and raised in northern New Jersey, Hong earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard and a B.A. from Yale. She currently lives in Los Angeles.