For more than 50 years, immigrants from Korea have been settling in Memphis and contributing to the growth of the city. According to the Korean Association of Memphis, the first Korean to move to Memphis was Kim Yeon-ok, who arrived in 1962. Since then several thousand Korean Americans have lived and worked in Memphis. Their story reflects one of Memphis’s most enduring traits - the acceptance of those who come from other places.
In the late 1960s, Memphis economist Kurt Flexner and his family were living in South Korea where he served as America’s chief financial advisor to the Korean government. While there Flexner became acquainted with Jin Byong Kim, a champion skeet-shooter who coached his son Tom. At the same time Kim’s six-year old daughter Bok Hwa, a piano prodigy who had toured South Korea and appeared on national TV, performed for Kurt’s wife Josephine, a noted Memphis piano instructor.
“I went to play for her and she was very pleased. She told my father I had a bright future. She asked us to consider coming to the United States for further study,” Bok Hwa remembered. Armed with the Flexner’s sponsorship, the Kim family immigrated to Memphis in the spring of 1970. While Bok Hwa studied with Josephine Flexner, her father Jin Byong Kim established a successful heating and air conditioning business. Bok Hwa Kim earned a master’s degree from the Julliard School and a doctorate in musical arts from the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University and became a noted performer and teacher.
While Jin Byong Kim was building his business and his daughter was studying piano, the number of Korean Memphians grew to more than 700 residents during the 1970s and by 2015 there were 3,000 Memphians of Korean descent in the Bluff City. Many of them operated small neighborhood grocery stores like Sam H. Kim, who owned the Barton Heights Market at 178 W. Mitchell, while others were physicians and academics such as Dr. C.S. Pyun, chair of the department of finance, insurance and real estate at the University of Memphis. Perhaps the most celebrated Memphian of Korean descent was Kang Rhee. Born in Seoul to Sang-Chul and Soon-Pyo Rhee in 1938, Kang graduated from Yonsei University with a degree in business administration and was captain of the martial arts team. From 1958 to 1960 he was the head instructor of martial arts for Korean Army Intelligence.
In 1964 Kang moved to Memphis and opened a studio where he taught the Pa Sa Ryu style of martial arts to many Memphians, including Elvis Presley. Kang Rhee’s influence went far beyond Memphis; in 1991 he was named to the President’s Advisory Council on the Democratic and Peaceful Unification of the Republic of Korea. Looking back on his arrival, Kang echoed what many immigrants felt. “When I came here, everything I saw shined and just seemed golden. I loved Memphis and it has been my home ever since,” the martial arts expert, explained.
Rhee, who died on Aug. 16, was also a deacon at the Korean Baptist Church, which remains at the center of Korean life in Memphis. In March of 1977 the Korean Baptist Church was established in the chapel of Union Avenue Baptist Church under the leadership of Dr. Dan Moon who explained, “Language and culture are inseparable in the worship experience.” In 1986 the church moved to 3706 Clearbrook Street and in 1993 a new Korean Baptist Church was opened in Collierville.