Brick, mortar and history in Incheon

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Brick, mortar and history in Incheon

The city of Incheon has been home to foreign settlements since 1883, when the city (then known as Chemulpo) officially opened as a port for international trade. By 1893, over 2,500 Japanese had moved into the area around the harbor, effectively setting up their own quarter alongside diplomats, missionaries and traders from other nations, including China, Russia, Germany and Britain.
Korea’s mornings were to be calm no longer.
Changes kept piling on. In 1885, the nation’s first telegraph service was set up in Incheon, connecting the city with major administrative offices in Seoul. Three years later, the first western-style public park opened in the city’s central district, and was later named Jayu (Freedom) Park. By 1902, a public phone line was set up in Incheon, a railway to Seoul went into operation and the first generation of Korean-American migrants left the city’s ports bound for Hawaii in December.
“There have been a lot of ‘firsts’ in Incheon,” says Lee Seong-ho, a guide at the Junggu District office. “It shows that the city has hosted some of the most critical moments of our history.”
These traces of the past are mostly gone today in Incheon, a city now under the control of one of the two Free Economic Zone authorities in Korea.
The war on the peninsula, which lasted for three years, left much of Korea’s historical monuments in ruin. The short but eventful history of the town’s early settlements came to a quick end when the Korean government tightened regulations on foreigners in the early ’60s. The number of Chinese living in the city dropped to 300, about one-tenth the number who lived there a century ago.
These days, however, Incheon’s mayor is trying to turn the city’s image from a straggling port town into a new hub of foreign investment; witness the use of the city’s international airport as a symbol of its global ambition in the slogan, “To the Sky, To the Sea, To the World.”
The city may be modernizing, but there’s one thing from the past it’s not trying to bury: its architecture.

Incheon already hosts many historical buildings, which serve as vivid testimonies to the nation’s modern history, but many others are planned for reconstruction, though more to attract tourists than to preserve history.
The city government recently announced that it would restore five “heritage buildings” in Incheon on their original sites by 2011: the first British Embassy in Korea; a villa that belonged to Horace Newton Allen (1858-1932), a medical missionary to Korea; the old Russian Embassy; a company residence of Edward Meyer & Co., a German trading firm, and the private house of James Johnston.
Both Johnston and Allen’s homes were built on a hill overlooking the harbor and were city landmarks until their destruction. Johnston’s four-story villa was bombed before the military landing in 1950; Allen’s residence was demolished after the war.
A private residence built by Edward Meyer & Co., based in Hamburg, was a two-story Italian-style brick house, one of the first western-style houses in Korea. It was built in 1884 by a German tradesman named Carl Walter. The building was turned into a municipal library under the colonial regime, after Germany’s loss in World War I forced it to make concessions in Asia to Japan.

Even before these structures are resurrected, though, visitors to the city can get a quick history lesson by walking the main streets of the old foreign area in Incheon’s Junggu District.
Near the old Chinese quarter, which was mainly set up around the Chinese consulate in Seollin-dong, an entire street is still lined with low-rise residential homes built at the turn of the century.
One of the villas just on the edge of the old dividing line on the side of the Chinese quarter is an exotic, dark burgandy wooden house with a balcony and arched eaves, typical of urban minimalism. The house is a two-story villa, built in the ’30s, and is still housing ethnic Chinese residents.
The highlight of Incheon’s central district is the Japanese colonial architecture evident on its “bank streets,” one of the busiest commercial sectors at the turn of the century. Each building epitomizes a style of western modern architecture from the late 17th to early 18th centuries.
One of the first buildings visitors see is Japanese Jeil Bank, a branch office of the bank’s headquarters in Busan, which opened in 1883 with the port opening. Sporting a domed roof, the building clearly imitates Renaissance architecture. They may be interesting to look at, but these Japanese-owned banks around the harbor are also clear indicators of how the country expanded its presence in Korea in the build-up to empire.
Seven years after Jeil opened, Japanese Bank 18 opened its doors nearby. Almost all the Japanese banks that were built during this period later facilitated the colonization of Korea. Except for Cheonil Bank, all of Incheon’s seven banks and 13 insurance companies in Korea at the time were Japanese.
In 1892, 18 years before Japan officially annexed Korea, Japan set up 58 Bank in Incheon, with its headquarters in Osaka. The bank was soon renamed Yasuda Bank. The building was renovated in 1939 for use as a branch office of the Red Cross.
The fancy, ornamental European style of architecture was quickly adopted by the Japanese. One old bank near the harbor is nicknamed “Juliet’s house” for its beautiful second-floor balcony finished with luxury stone panels in a French Renaissance style.

Perhaps some of the most revealing evidence of the nation’s early efforts at modernization can be seen in some of Incheon’s more social and religious buildings.
The Junggu Culture Center, built in 1901 on a hill overlooking the port, was a renowned social club for foreigners and a place where locals first learned about strange foreign activities; the place was originally equipped with a ballroom, a library and a billiards room, built in a western style. After 1913, however, the building was turned into the Japanese Soldier Association. After Korea’s liberation, it was used as an American officers’ club. Following the truce after the war, it was again remodeled, this time to became Korea’s first public museum: the Incheon Municipal Museum.
Religion, churches and cathedrals also played a critical role in the lives of the residents, spiritually and socially. George Heber Jones, an American minister at the Naeri Church in Incheon, helped send the first group of Koreans to work on a Hawaii sugar plantation in 1902.
Bishop Gourfet, a missionary to Korea from the Church of England who set up St. Michael’s Church in Incheon in 1890, also started a western hospital, St. Luke’s, in the city. The number of Anglican converts quickly grew, and Naeri Anglican Church, in the area now known as Nae-dong, was built in 1891. The building was burnt down during the Korean War and was reconstructed in 1956.
The Catholic Church also has a stake in Incheon: Father Villem, a French missionary to Korea, laid the cornerstone for Dapdong Cathedral in Incheon in July, 1890. Dapdong is a simple Gothic-style cathedral with a flat floor and a simple dome. The architecture of the building itself is uninspiring visually, but it was built two years before the start of construction on Myeongdong Cathedral in downtown Seoul, just one more of Incheon’s many “firsts.”


by Park Soo-mee

The Incheon city government runs guided tours of historic sites in the central district every Saturday from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.. English tours are available. Visitors are strongly recommended to reserve tours a week in advance. For more information, call 032-760-7553.
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