Trains and Koreans on the bustling Russian Far East
Hungarian engineer writes of Tsarist railway to Manchuria
From 1897, a young Hungarian railroad engineer spent years in the Russian Far East and Manchuria and played an important role in the local railroad constructions. According to his reminiscences, many Koreans had worked on the Manchurian branching of the Trans-Siberian railroad, and he wrote interesting observations about them.
Karoly Gubanyi (1867-1935) studied at the Budapest University of Technology and started his career as a railroad engineer in Hungary. In 1897, he moved to Vladivostok and tried to show his talents to the Russian chief engineer who was responsible for the gigantic railroad project. The young Hungarian started his job the following year at the border of Russia and Manchuria, where he was responsible for marking out the track of the new railway.
At first, the workers were Russian soldiers and unkempt Russian exiles. After the construction started, a great number of Korean and Chinese workers came to the sites to look for job opportunities. At that time, thousands of Korean immigrants already lived in the Russian Far East, where they moved to from the Korean Peninsula in the hope of better living circumstances.
According to the Hungarian engineer, the Koreans were responsible for wood cutting on the construction sites and worked in groups of 12 under the direction of a Russian-speaking foreman. The Koreans spent the nights in their small wooden houses deep in the forests, but some of them used tents.
A Korean village near Ussuriysk
The Hungarian engineer described in his book that the Russian settlers who were mentioned as Cossacks, received their land from the state for their service at the military. All of the men in the Russian villages were soldiers. They had rifles and swords in their houses. The Cossacks hadn’t usually cultivated their land by themselves, because the Korean migrants in the Russian and Manchurian territories rented their lands and farmed very diligently with their traditional Korean tools. Half of the harvest was the rental fee, which was given to the Cossack landlords every autumn.
On the way to Nikolsk, today’s Ussuriysk, the Hungarian engineer observed a Korean village where his carriage had crossed. In the neighborhood of the town, he already saw some two-wheel carriages pulled by bulls. On the back of a bull rode a young Korean man holding a cord in his hand which was connected to the ring in the bull’s nose. Arriving at the village, Karoly Gubanyi had opportunities to observe the small traditional houses, or chogajib. They were made of boughs and mud. From the front of the houses, he saw smoking chimneys made of carved tree trunks. The engineer mentioned that the smoke from the kitchens went under the rooms of the house and escaped through the chimneys, which is the traditional Korean heating method, called ondol.
A shy girl in green hanbok
Karoly Gubanyi observed a great number of men and children in the Korean village, but he saw only a few women because they hid themselves from the eyes of foreigners. That kind of shyness had already been experienced once by the Hungarian engineer when his carriage approached a Korean town. At first glance, he just observed two persons on the road in the distance. The young man was wearing white cloth and the girl was in a bright green hanbok, or traditional dress. When the engineer’s carriage came close to them, the couple suddenly sat down on the edge of the road. The man nodded to greet the arriving foreigners while the girl hid herself behind the man and just looked in the direction of the meadows.
According to Gubanyi, the girl was pretty, but she was so shy that she faced their carriage only when it was already far away from the couple. The engineer wrote that he and his fellows were impressed with how the Korean man tried to cover his lover from the eyes of the foreigners with his shoulders.
In his book, Gubanyi described the dress of the Korean people in detail. He emphasized that both male and female clothes were white, but only the girls wore colorful skirts. He also wrote the jeogori (upper part of the hanbok) of women who had children was so short that their breasts were visible. Gubanyi also noted that unmarried men had a long ponytail, but married men put their hair in a topknot, called sangtu. It is interesting to mention that two years before the start of the engineer’s work in East Asia, in 1895, the Korean government announced a law for the compulsory hair cut of Korean men.
The regulation, called danbalryong in Korean, was very unpopular due to the Confucian thought which emphasized all parts of the human body, including the hair, were given by the ancestors and therefore was not allowed to be cut.
Railroad from Korea to Europe
Karoly Gubanyi finished his work in East Asia in 1903. However, he had an opportunity to briefly observe Korea: When he left Vladivostok by the Japanese steamer Kobe Maru, the ship docked at the ports of Wonsan and Busan. The engineer could look around the cities for a short time. In the following years, the railway connection between Korea and the newly built Trans-Siberian railroad was established.
When the famous Hungarian missionary, Count Peter Vay (1863-1948) arrived from Shimonoseki to Busan in 1914, he observed the sleeping cars at the railway station which came from Paris, Berlin and Saint Petersburg. The missionary traveled back to Europe on the Trans-Siberian railroad via Seoul, Pyongyang and Changchun, which was the border station between the Japanese and the Russian sphere of interest at that time. According to his reminiscences, on one side of the station building, the Tsarist Russian flag was waving while on the other side, the Japanese flag was. Beyond Changchun, the missionary observed thousands of Cossack soldiers all around the railroad.
However, the outbreak of World War I had stopped the international traffic on the Trans-Siberian railroad for a long time. It is sad that the war created the never-wanted opportunity for thousands of Hungarians to observe the territories of the Russian Far East, because many among the Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war were transported to the camps around Habarovsk and Vladivostok. In the memoirs of the prisoners, some interesting episodes related to Korea can be found.
Escaping prisoners of war
In January 1915, a Hungarian private, Lajos W. and his fellows escaped from their camp in Habarovsk during a blizzard of minus 42 degrees Celsius (minus 44 degrees Fahrenheit) in the cold. They asked two Chinese men to guide them to the direction of the Chinese border, and tried to walk as fast as possible. However, on the second night of the escape, two of the prisoners froze to death, and two other prisoners soon followed. On the morning of the seventh day, the survivors of the group reached a Korean house at the border. According to Lajos W., the heat of the Korean house was a life-saver for them. They cut out their feet from their frozen boots with knives, and the Koreans gave them some leather to cover their legs. The prisoners finally safely reached China where the Austro-Hungarian consulate helped them in the repatriation, which was solved via America.
Another Hungarian prisoner, Ferenc Barits, also mentioned the Koreans in his reminiscences. The Hungarian man visited the Korean town in the outskirts of Vladivostok which was located on a hill, where the Korean residents lived separately. Many Korean men worked at the local factories and the seaport of Vladivostok. According to Barits’s words, the seaport particularly needed workers who moved faster than the Russians and who were more reliable than the Chinese laborers. The Hungarian visitor emphasized the small hanbok dresses of the children were very colorful from bright green to pink and red like “the feather of a parrot.”
Ambassador of Hungary to Korea