A doomed affair lingers in historyBUSAN
Once upon a time, there lived a young couple, in this port city on the southeastern coast of the peninsula. They fell in love, and they believed the power of their passion was strong enough to surmount any obstacle.
It did not take them long, however, to realize the cruel truth that they weren’t in a fairy tale. The love between a Korean man and a British woman was not welcome in the late 19th century.
It was more of a taboo and even a cause for shame, especially for the woman’s father, Jonathan Hunt. Appointed by the king of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty, Mr. Hunt was the head of Busan Customs. Mr. Hunt never dreamed his only daughter, Elizabeth, could fall in love with his servant, Gwon Sun-do. The couple could never live happily ever after.
More than a century later, few are left to remember the love affair. Lee Yong-deuk, the head of the Busan Customs Museum, is one of them. A history buff, Mr. Lee discovered the story when he took the post at the museum.
For many years, Mr. Lee has gathered records and documents about the couple, a task that turned out to be much more demanding than he expected. Having no official historical records of the affair, Mr. Lee talked to the descendants of Mr. Gwon and asked the British government for help.
The more Mr. Lee digs into the story, the more he is drawn to the love affair.
“Love stories between a Korean woman and a foreign man are not so hard to find,” Mr. Lee said on a recent weekday afternoon at his office. “But the story of Mr. Gwon and Ms. Hunt is unique, probably as the first love affair between a Korean man and a foreign woman.”
Mr. Lee is not the only one who finds the affair compelling. Hur Jong-sik, a movie director based in Busan, has made a romantic film based on the affair, titled “Liz Hunt.”
Without support from mainstream film production companies, Mr. Hur used expatriates in Busan to star in his film. An English teacher who is married to a Korean man plays the heroine, while the director of the European Chamber of Commerce’s Busan branch stars as Mr. Gwon. The principal of Busan International School plays Mr. Hunt.
“I was enchanted by the story the moment I heard about it,” Mr. Hur says. He has finished filming and is now in the editing process.
Though the film is not likely to open in mainstream theaters, Mr. Hur says he wants to keep alive the memory of a doomed love affair.
Opening up Busan
Established in 1883, the Busan Customs Office was run by foreign commissioners the first two decades. After many years of isolationist policies, Korea’s Joseon Dynasty was forced to open the port in 1876 after an unfair treaty with Japan. King Gojong of the dynasty did not want to see the Japanese rule Busan, so he invited Europeans based in China.
With the help of Moellendorf, a German diplomat endorsed by a Ching Dynasty official, appointed foreigners to run the customs office. Mr. Hunt was one such British official, going to Korea on a Chinese customs steamer in order to be the 3d acting commissioner on July 27, 1888, following the British Nelson Lovatt and the French T. Piry.
With his wife and daughter, Mr. Hunt lived in the official residence on a hill in central Busan. Mr. Hunt is also known as Ha Mun-deok, a Korean name given by King Gojong.
Mr. Hunt as a commissioner made quite a few notable achievements, according to Mr. Lee. To enlarge harbor facilities, Mr. Hunt moved the port near Mount Yongmi to make today’s Busan Port, the biggest and the first of its kind in Korea.
King Gojong was not willing to shift around major landmarks because of a foreigner, but Mr. Hunt persuaded the king. Mr. Hunt’s construction company is the predecessor of today’s Busan port reclamation company, according to Mr. Lee.
Mr. Hunt also enjoyed an active social life, hosting parties and making friends with American diplomats in Busan. On June 20, 1897, Mr. Hunt threw a party celebrating the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria at the garden of the customs office. Fireworks, a piano performance by Mrs. Hunt and boat races were part of the party.
Mr. Hunt’s happy family life, however, began to unravel when he employed Gwon Sun-do, a native of Yangsan, a small farming town north of Busan. As a 23-year-old, Mr. Gwon worked as a servant, taking care of house chores, from horse feeding to gardening.
For Ms. Hunt, a 19-year-old with no close friends in a foreign country, Mr. Gwon was the only person she knew who was about the same age. Mr. Lee found that Mr. Gwon was an open-minded person, willing to learn new cultures and English.
Gwon Jeon-ja, Mr. Gwon’s great-granddaughter who lives in Busan, is one of few who remembers the romance. As a little girl, Ms. Gwon saw a black-and-white photograph of the couple in her grandfather’s album.
“Ms. Hunt, in a lacy dress and a hat, was smiling, riding on the horse guided by my great-grandfather. He was wearing a Western-style hairstyle and riding breeches. The two looked so happy in the picture,” Ms. Gwon recalls.
However, the photograph is nowhere to be found. Mr. Lee at the customs museum assumes that the photograph might have been burned when Ms. Gwon’s grandfather died of pneumonia. “It was a local custom back then to consume any remains of the person dying of the disease,” Mr. Lee says.
The happiness of the couple did not last long, when Mr. Hunt noticed his daughter’s pregnancy about one year after he hired Mr. Gwon. To Mr. Hunt, it was unacceptable as well as unimaginable for his daughter to fall in love with the servant of the house, especially because he was a local.
The couple planned on eloping to Mr. Gwon’s hometown of Yangsan. Under the cover of night, the couple sneaked into the village. Mr. Hunt, upset and enraged, asked the local government to search for his daughter.
It was only a matter of time before the couple was discovered. The searching squad upset the small farming village, which had been surprised to catch a glimpse of a Western woman.
Back in Busan, the only thing that the couple could do was say farewell. After imprisoning Mr. Gwon, Mr. Hunt wanted only to leave Korea. He soon transferred to Hong Kong, where Ms. Hunt reportedly gave birth to a son. She is known to have sent letters and books to Mr. Gwon, who started a drapery business in Busan after his release from the prison.
The couple never met again. Nothing is known about the baby, despite Mr. Lee’s best efforts.
Mr. Gwon’s business, meanwhile, prospered, with a shop in downtown, today’s Dongwang-dong 3d street in central Busan. Mr. Gwon got married to another Korean woman and had children.
After Japan colonized Korea in 1910, Mr. Gwon went back to Yangsan and died there. In Yangsan, Mr. Gwon set up a stone monument that says “segye-in hwanyeong” in Chinese characters, meaning “welcome, foreigners.” The monument still stands by the valley in the town, which is now almost deserted. The monument was about to be destroyed during a construction project, but Mr. Lee managed to save it.
“It’s a precious experience for me to be of help to revive the fading memory.” Mr. Lee says, “This love story means a lot to us in that it’s also a record of history that covers how Korea met the foreign countries.”
by Chun Su-jin