A German journey into Asia’s past

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A German journey into Asia’s past


A century before Korea rose to become an economic powerhouse, it was viewed by most Westerners as a distant, obscure country fraught with conflict between its larger neighbors: China, Japan and Russia.
When Hermann Gustav Theodor Sander (1868-1945), as documents suggest, was appointed as a military attache to the German Embassy in Japan in 1905, he probably had no idea what he would bring home after his two-year stay in Asia.
Many of the souvenirs he brought back lay forgotten until six years ago, when his grandson, Stefan Sander, found boxes of old photographs in his attic in Konigstein im Taunus, southwest Germany. “I knew my grandfather went to Asia, but by looking at the photographs, I couldn’t tell whether they were Japanese or Chinese or whatever,” the retired bank executive said. “And when I met a Korean woman at a birthday party that weekend, I showed her some photographs and asked her if she could tell me more.”

What Hwang Kyung-sook, a former journalist in Korea, saw was none other than an astounding discovery illuminating her home country at the dawn of the 20th century. Those photographs, colonial postcards, letters and documents ― over 300 in all ― from one man’s journey to Asia in 1906 and 1907, are now on display at the exhibition, “A German, Hermann Sander’s Journey” at the National Folk Museum of Korea in downtown Seoul.
Acknowledging the importance of the items, Mr. Sander, who came to Korea last month to attend the exhibition’s opening, decided to donate to the museum most of his family heirlooms related to Korea. They chronicle life in the colonial era, and on display are prints made from 168 donated negatives.
Mr. Sander’s grandfather arrived in Tokyo in February, 1906, on a mission to collect information on the Russo-Japanese War. He started his journey in August, 1906, from Sakhalin via Korea in September, and on to Manchuria, Dalian, and Mukden, today known as Shenyang, in China. But he returned to Korea in March, 1907, and traveled around Seoul and down to Suwon, Gyeonggi province via Mokpo to Busan, then from Busan to Wonsan, Seongjin and Gilju in North Korea. Some of the souvenirs, such as brassware, hats, and paintings, that he collected during his travel in Korea were meant to be part of his museum in Mainingen, central Germany, but the mansion was bombed during World War II and many of the artifacts were damaged or destroyed. A handful of artifacts that survived the attack are at the Korea exhibition.
Most of the photographs come with dates, places and detailed descriptions, and often include Mr. Sander’s grandfather. Some are set up to show the size of the people, place and objects. Recording specimens in such a manner was a common practice then for souvenir postcards used in the colonial era. But, being a foreigner, he misinterpreted some of the Korean practices, according to Kim Jong-tae, the exhibition’s curator. For example, Mr. Sander recorded Seodaemun, or West Gate, as North Gate, and described the image of a Korean man at a banquet to celebrate his 70th birthday as a “cookie seller.”

Not all the images induce nostalgic wonder ― some depict Japanese soldiers executing Koreans in an open field. “Because they can be quite frightful, we’ve added them in the back of the book,” said Mr. Sander, going through the heavy tome detailing his grandfather’s journey.
At times sweetly nostalgic and at other times horrifying, the late German officer’s collection of freeze frames seems to magically wind the clock back to the time when Gwanghwamun stood in front of a vast open plaza where Korean women wrapped in chador-like coats (known as a jangot) walked past. Whether they’re depicting a fleet of boats docking in the port of Busan or young children rejoicing in the market street, the small black-and-white photographs appear almost surreal a few generations later, in contrast to the colorfully vibrant lives of modern Korea today.
An additional feature of the exhibition, a video show comparing before-and-after images of Seoul, shifts viewers through a century of time in the blink of an eye, bringing one to the blissful realization that the experience of the peninsula was, after all, only one man’s personal vision.

by Ines Cho

“A German, Hermann Sander’s Journey” runs until Aug. 28 at the National Folk Museum of Korea. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily except for Tuesdays. Admission is 3,000 won ($2.60) for adults; 1,500 won for youth ages 7 and 18, and free for children under age 6. For more information, call (02) 3704-3151 or visit the Web site, www.nfm.go.kr.
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