Korean History: Entrance to a Great Adventure

Sailors, adventurers, diplomats, and businessmen made up the initial foreign community in Chemulpo, known today as Incheon.

Words by Robert Neff

Chemulpo in the 1910s

In 1896, William Franklin Sands, a young American diplomat newly assigned to Korea, described Chemulpo (modern Incheon) as “an unattractive entrance to a great adventure.” His initial impression of the city’s appearance was somewhat harsh but accurate. Because of the exceptional tidal difference of 30 feet, at low tide the port was seemingly separated from the sea by a vast expanse of mud. This dismalness was further compounded by the bare slopes of the surrounding hills.
But Chemulpo had a charm that we are able to glean through some of Sands’ and other early Westerners’ accounts. Chemulpo was full of contrasts and the melding of Eastern and Western cultures which now form the foundation of modern Incheon.
First opened to the West in 1882, Chemulpo began as a small Korean village consisting of “about two dozen straggling huts” but by 1886 had grown into a full-fledged open port. The Korean community consisted of over 120 houses and some 700 people, in addition to the three foreign settlements: the Japanese, Chinese and others. These made up a permanent population of about 200 Chinese, 240 Japanese (112 of them women) and a handful of Westerners including French, Russian, German, American, British and an elegant Spanish woman married to a former Chinese diplomat she had met while she had graced the stage in Paris in the late 1870s.
Entrepreneurs – mainly Chinese and Japanese but also a few Germans, Americans, British, and other Westerners – established their stores along the long streets that graced the city. Much of their business dealt in supplying the Western naval vessels that, as the years passed, visited the port more frequently. They also sold merchandise, generally American and European goods, to local Korean merchants. Chinese and Japanese tailors kept the merchants well-dressed, a couple of Japanese banks protected their profits, and a few small churches protected their souls.
Like most port cities in the world, Chemulpo had a rough side to it. Large transient populations of merchants, sailors, and even vagabonds seeking “opportunities” frequented the bars, tea houses and houses of ill-repute. The earliest hotels catered not to tourists and their families (there were few tourists prior to the early twentieth century) but rather to the sailors, offering them a large selection of cheap alcohol and billiard tables and female companions for entertainment.
Surprisingly, crime was not as bad as one might imagine. According to Sands, Chemulpo’s “whole constabulary consisted of one very old and respectable Chinese night watchman with a huge sleep-dispelling wooden clapper.” The watchman wandered the streets at night announcing his approach with a clap-clap-clap sound. As the foreign population grew, residents began to complain of the sound, and the hapless Chinese watchman was fired and replaced with a recently discharged Western sailor.
Almost immediately, a crime wave rocked the community. According to the Chinese consul at the time, when a Chinese “thief goes out to steal he knows that Heaven is watching him. If, then, he hears the voice of the wooden clapper approaching, it is the voice of Heaven to his guilty conscience and he flees the spot.” The Western constable, however, was so quiet that the thief did not realize he was near and thus became emboldened. The Chinese consul further noted, “It is not Europeans who are doing these burglaries.” After a little deliberation, the Chemulpo Municipal Committee quickly agreed to rehire the Chinese night watchman and, sure enough, the crime wave ended.
There were, however, crimes committed by Westerners – generally sailors and transients – though they were often nothing more than simple assaults or petty thefts (often influenced by the constant presence of alcohol). These criminals were often apprehended by the constabulary and, if members of the navy, taken to their ship’s commander for punishment. Non-military offenders were transferred to the appropriate embassy in Seoul or one of the three consulates in Chemulpo.
The Japanese, Chinese and British all maintained consulates at Chemulpo (whereas the Americans built one but never used it and eventually sold it). While the Japanese and Chinese consulates were fine buildings, they perhaps lacked the character of the British consulate.
The Royal Oak, a large saloon in Nagasaki, was purchased by the British government, dismantled and then shipped to Chemulpo where it was reassembled and put to use as the British consulate. It was a less-than-ideal building and was described by an early visitor, the elderly but intrepid English explorer and traveler Isabella Bird Bishop, as “comfortless and unworthy”—harsh words from a woman who often slept in the most severe wilderness. Her observation, however, seems to have held some truth. When British consul Henry Bencraft Joly died there in 1898, his death was partially blamed upon the draftiness of the old building.
Although more than a hundred years have passed since Chemulpo became an open port, many of the late Renaissance-style churches and banks yet remain. Even the Chinese and Japanese settlements still retain much of their original charm and provide an interesting contrast of the different cultures.
If Sands could see Chemulpo now, he probably wouldn’t describe it as “unattractive,” but he would no doubt still insist that it is the “entrance to a great adventure” in Korea.

Chemulpo in the 1880s