A city of historic ‘firsts’Incheon, west of Seoul, is a city of firsts in Korea. As the first port in the “Hermit Kingdom” to open to the outside world, Incheon, also known as Jemulpo, became the first place in the country to undergo Western influence.
Even before the opening of the port in 1883, a British captain, Basil Hall, visited Baekryeong Island near Incheon, and later published a book about his trip titled “Voyage of Discovery to the West Coast of Korea.”
According to Kim Yun-sik, a poet, Mr. Hall, after his trip to Korea, visited Napoleon Bonaparte, who was then exiled on Saint Helena. When Mr. Hall spoke of Korea under the Joseon Dynasty as a country that had never invaded other states, Napoleon smiled and said that he wanted to visit such a good-natured place someday, Mr. Kim said.
Incheon also boasts the country’s first lighthouse, on the uninhabited Palmi island, off the Incheon coast. This rather small lighthouse, standing 7.9 meters (26 feet) high, holds sad memories from the time it was built in 1903.
The Joseon Dynasty was already weakened by the world powers’ struggle for influence, and it could not afford to build a lighthouse. Japan, one of the strongest such nations vying for control of the peninsula, however, pushed the Joseon court to build one.
Japan, which colonized Korea in 1910, needed a lighthouse to provide safety for its own warships and trading vessels. The Joseon court gave in to Japan’s persistence in the long run, and thus emerged a lighthouse, whose beacon assisted Japan’s invasion.
From then on, the lighthouse witnessed Korea’s modern history, including the voyage of the first Korean emigrants to Hawaii. During the Korean War (1950-1953), the lighthouse played a role in General Douglas MacArthur’s Incheon landing operation.
MacArthur’s headquarters sent a special intelligence squad to Palmi island and had them light up the lighthouse at midnight sharp on Sept. 15, 1950, which signaled the start of the operation. This storied lighthouse, however, closed last year.
There are many other firsts in Incheon, based on anecdotal evidence as well as official records. Not every story is academically acknowledged, but there’s no argument that Incheon is a place that cherishes the memory of the beginning of the modernization of Korea.
Here are some anecdotes, gathered with the help of historians who have specialized in the history of Incheon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
One of these firsts is a modern advertisement, published by a company called Sechang Yanghaeng, run by a German. Dealing with general goods, the store ran an ad in the Hanseong Jubo newspaper that read, “We, the Sechang Yanghaeng, opened a store with a group of products like alarm clocks, pumpkins, glasses and so on. So please come and visit.
“Even if our customers are children or the elderly, we will not fool them. We sincerely hope that you will check our brand name, Sechang, which guarantees almost no mistakes.”
Back then, the ad was called a “gobaek,” or confession. The company not only ran the first ad, but also built the first Western-style house in Incheon, which stands in Freedom Park in the city. A two-story building, the house is gray with a red-tiled roof.
Another Western product that allegedly arrived first in Incheon is soccer. The sport’s evangelists were a group of British sailors from the warship Flying Fish. Arriving in June 1882 at the port, the warship could not dock because of the Joseon Dynasty’s isolationist policy.
The sailors were bored, however, and allegedly sneaked off the ship onto land, where they played soccer, to the wonderment of the Koreans, to whom such sports, as well as Westerners, were completely new. The sailors left the ball behind when they returned to the ship, and it was the Incheon residents’ turn to play.
They soon started a league of their own, playing games in a vacant lot that today belongs to Jemulpo High School.
After the 1883 opening of the port, Incheon overflowed with foreigners, which led to the establishment of the Daebul Hotel, the first of its kind in Korea.
Established by Rigitaro Hori, a Japanese, the hotel is first mentioned in the memoirs of missionary Henry Gerhard Appenzeller, in which he describes his first day on the peninsula in 1885 as a sight full of Koreans, Japanese and Chinese endlessly crying out something.
According to Mr. Appenzeller, the service staff at the hotel spoke English, to his astonishment, and he could also eat Western style food. The hotel later became a fancy Chinese restaurant, Junghwaru. Today, however, only a vacant lot remains.
To Koreans, cider is not an apple beverage, but a soda, whose history dates back to 1905 in Incheon. According to “Incheon Busa” (History of the Incheon Region), a company named Incheon Tansan (Carbonic Acid) opened a business in 1905, using an American-made gasogene and a five-horsepower motor to provide carbonation.
After Korea’s liberation from Japan’s colonial rule in 1945, the company’s successor, Gyeongin Hapdong Eumryo (Seoul Incheon Joint Beverage), produced “Star Cider,” which gained tremendous popularity.
In 1916, an American monthly, “World Outlook,” ran a photograph of a train car whose exterior carried an advertisement for Star Cider in Japanese, which reads “The Star Brand Champagne Cider.”
It was not just the Korean version of cider that started in Incheon.
Korean matches were also first produced in the city, with the factories first mentioned in a 1900 historic record of the Russian Treasury Office. According to the record, the first match factory was built in 1886 but soon had to close down when matches from Japan flooded the market.
In 1917, however, Incheon recovered its reputation for match production, with factories springing up. The majority of the employees were young women in their 20s, who attracted a great deal of attention from the young men. No wonder the pop song titled “Match Girl of the Incheon Factory” was written right after the Korean War, although these ‘match girls’ are almost gone now.
Among the few things remaining in existence is the Aegwan Theater, which was first established in 1895. Used first as a theater for traditional performances, the theater burned down during the Korean War, but was rebuilt as a movie theater in 1960, screening such films as the now classic “Love Story.”
The theater also presented concerts by pop singers such as the legendary Na Hun-ah, bringing together hundreds of thousands of people, then considered an astronomical number, which led to accidents.
After the 1980s, however, the glory of the theater disappeared, giving way to multiplex film theaters. The theater’s current owner, Tak Gyeong-ran, is trying to adapt to the times by having four more screens installed in renovated facilities.
As the youngest daughter of the theater’s owner in the 1970s, Ms. Tak said she will never change one thing ― the name of the theater. “Some people urge me to change that old-fashioned name,” Ms. Tak said, “but it’s the last thing I’d do.”
by Namkoong Wook, Choi Min-woo
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