Scholar Translates Korean Immigrant Oral Histories

Edward T. Chang’s translation of journalist K.W. Lee’s “Lonesome Journey: The Korean American Century” is published in Korea

Edward T. Change

Edward T. Chang has translated into Korean a collection of oral histories of Korean immigrants gathered by journalist K.W. Lee and Luke and Grace Kim. The collection was published in book form in Korea in May. Photo by Michael J. Elderman for UC Riverside

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Kyung Won Lee is a significant figure in American journalism – the first Asian American hired by a mainstream U.S. newspaper, an activist who challenged racism, and a chronicler of the lives of Koreans who immigrated to the U.S. early in the 20th century.

Lee gathered more than 70 oral histories of Korean immigrants – along with Luke and Grace Kim – in a collection of unpublished stories known as “Lonesome Journey: The Korean American Century.” Now, Edward T. Chang, professor of ethnic studies and director of the Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies at the University of California, Riverside, has translated the collection into Korean, and it was published by Korea University Press in the Republic of Korea in May.

“K.W. Lee is an important figure in Korean American history and American journalism because he represents minority inclusion in mainstream American media for the first time in U.S. history,” Chang explained. “His voice challenged racism and discrimination during the Jim Crow South era. He fought for the rights of minorities. This book highlights the struggles and hardships of early Korean immigrants and their fight for justice and survival. It chronicles the spirit of Korean immigrants who endured a lot for personal and family survival, and who also contributed to the independence of Korea.”

Lee was born in Kaesong, North Korea, in 1928 and came to the United States in 1950 to study journalism at West Virginia University. He earned a master’s degree from the University of Illinois in 1955. Soon after he became the first Asian immigrant hired by a mainstream daily newspaper, covering stories such as black lung disease among coal miners in the Appalachian Mountains and the civil rights movement in Jim Crow South for the Kingsport Times and News in Tennessee and the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia.

lonesome journey jacket cover

The Korean translation of a collection of 70 oral histories of Korean immigrants was published in Korea in May.

Perhaps his most well-known journalistic work occurred while Lee was a reporter at the Sacramento Union in the 1970s. A series of investigative stories into the incarceration of Chol Soo Lee, a Korean immigrant who was wrongly convicted in 1973 for a murder in San Francisco’s Chinatown, led to a Pan-Asian movement, mobilizing the Asian American voice, Chang said. K.W. Lee’s series of articles resulted in the retrial and acquittal of Chol Soo Lee in 1983.

Often referred to as the godfather of Asian American journalism, K.W. Lee went on to establish Koreatown Weekly, the first national English-language Korean American publication, and the English edition of the Korea Times in Los Angeles. He is the founding president of the Korean American Journalists Association and in 2000 was inducted into the Journalism History Gallery in the Neuseum in Washington, D.C.

“Lonesome Journey” is a significant book because most Koreans and Korean Americans don’t know much about the lives of early Korean immigrants, said Chang, who worked closely on the Korean translation with Lee and the Kims, who are editing the collection for publication in the U.S.

“It is important for them to understand and appreciate the struggles of early Korean immigrants, who helped to build the Korean American community. These stories need to be told and shared by many Koreans and Korean Americans,” he explained. “We hope Koreans in Korea will learn that K.W. Lee is an important figure in Korean American history because he is an activist, a leader, and a voice in the small Korean American community.”

Chang said he hopes that Korean readers will find the “Lonesome Journey” stories powerful, moving and inspiring, adding, “As a pioneer in Asian American journalism/Korean American journalism, we hope Koreans in Korea will recognize that he is an important role model and Korean voice. The book, we hope, will also shed light on the trials and hardships of Koreans who lived in America. The collection of oral histories documents the early wave of Korean immigrants to the U.S. and tells their stories in a raw and powerful way.”

The YOK Center at UC Riverside is dedicated to understanding what it means to be a Korean American in the 21st century, the history of Korean Americans, the Korean diaspora in the United States and globally, and the role of Korean Americans in the reunification of South and North Korea.

Media Contact

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Additional Contacts

Edward T. Chang

Carol Kwan Park
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