Unflattering views of Fusan in 1917 - The Korea Times
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Unflattering views of Fusan in 1917

Boats in Fusan's harbor in December 1918.  Robert Neff Collection
Boats in Fusan's harbor in December 1918. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

Ray Jerome Baker, an American photographer and lecturer, traveled to Japan and Korea in the summer of 1917. After a short stay in Japan, he traveled by train from Kobe to Shimonoseki where he caught the steamer/ferry bound for Fusan (modern Busan) ― it was his intention to catch the train in Fusan and take it to Seoul and then travel on to China.

Generally the worst part of the voyage seems to be the stretch of water between Tsushima (Daemado) and Fusan. Many of the early Western visitors to the peninsula described with exaggerated misery the bouts of seasickness they suffered from the storm-driven swells ― even now the passage can be rough. Last year, while coming back from Tsushima on the small ferry, I spent most of my time in the restroom praying to the porcelain god Ralph.

Baker, however, seems to have been blessed. The weather was good and the only thing he had to complain about was his two Japanese roommates ― they insisted on sleeping with the lights on and one of them, a sumo wrestler, snored loudly throughout the night.

Along the wharf at Fusan in the early 1900s.  Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection
Along the wharf at Fusan in the early 1900s. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection

Upon arriving at Fusan in the morning, Baker immediately went to a nearby "scrupulously clean" Japanese hotel where he was shown to his room and given a kimono which they wouldn't let him put on until the servants had thoroughly bathed him. Whatever modesty he may have possessed in Hawaii (probably very little as he was fined in California for "taking obscene photographs" in 1908) seems to have disappeared through his earlier experiences in Japan.

Baker proudly declared, "They scrubbed the cinders of the Imperial Government Railway out of my hair and when the job was finished I felt like the product of one of my young son's efforts ― a polished kukui nut." Baker and his family lived in Hawaii so he was probably aware that the Hawaiian demi-god of fertility, Kamapua'a, was able to transform into the kukui nut tree (also known as the candlenut tree).

After his bath, Baker went to the dock area to watch the laborers unload the ships. His descriptions of the port are sparse and are mainly about the inhabitants he encountered:

"Korean women squatted at the side of the street, sometimes under giant umbrellas, more often in the broiling sun, and offered for sale boiled rice and other articles of Korean food to the men who worked."

One of the streets in Fusan in the early 1910s.  Robert Neff Collection
One of the streets in Fusan in the early 1910s. Robert Neff Collection

While he was busy watching them, he was also being observed ― by a curious Korean gentleman who quickly befriended him. This provided Baker with the opportunity to study Korean clothing ― his descriptions are rather simple and unflattering.

"[The Korean's] hat was of black horsehair, woven with a mesh resembling mosquito netting. In shape it was like a tomato can inverted on a rim the size of a pie tin. It was held on his head by a beaded cord tied under his chin. His hair which was long was tied up in a little knot on the top of his head, plainly visible through the loose meshes of his hat."

His jacket and pants were loose-fitting ― as if "the tailor who made them had lost the pattern and never found it ― and the trouser legs were tied down at the bottom over socks which were partially hidden by the straw sandals on his feet. For adornment, the Korean gentleman had a large massive silver chain that was attached ― presumably ― to a pocket watch. A very human aspect was added by the fact that there was visible between the vest and the trouser, three or four inches of a perfectly round abdomen."

A man with his ox cart circa 1900s.  Robert Neff Collection
A man with his ox cart circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection

Soon, another young man caught Baker's attention and he offered to assist him in getting subjects for his photographs. He managed to snap pictures of a woman with a bundle on her head, a man with an ox and cart and especially of some Korean laborers ― each with a jiggy (A-frame) on their back and piled high with farm products. It was this last group that he encountered some problems with for they were not eager to be photographed but, through the efforts of his young Korean assistant and a handful of copper coins, he eventually managed to snap a few photographs.

No longer having any blank photograph plates, Baker bid farewell to his assistant (paying him the princely sum of ten cents) and set off to explore the streets on his own. Once again, he wasn't alone.

"My progress was much impeded by a crowd of youngsters who went always before me bowing and begging. I drew a handful of coppers from my pocket and threw them as far as I conveniently could. I have seen hungry, half-famished dogs struggle for food as these children struggled for the coins."

A man with a load of firewood in the early 1900s.  Courtesy of Diane Collection
A man with a load of firewood in the early 1900s. Courtesy of Diane Collection
His attempt to appease them with his rudely-thrown coins failed and "only aggravated the nuisance." He described the children as scarcely wearing any clothing with only a few dirty rags covering their nakedness.

Baker, in desperation, ran down the side streets and soon made his way up to a park on the hillside where he could enjoy the beautiful view of the city while seated upon a rustic bench under the trees.

His peace was short-lived. The beggar-children could not be lost so easily and had quickly discovered his location. "They fought with each other to get near me. They clawed the ground, threw rocks at each other, and gibbered with one another."

Baker and his descriptions of the Korean people were far from flattering ― describing the children as so ferocious, so animal-like and so primitive." His views on the political situation in Korea were equaling biased claiming that "the testimony of old residents of Korea" all claimed without exception that Korea was improved under the Japanese occupation. He snidely wondered, considering what he had seen in Fusan, what the country was like when Korean kings reign.

Unfortunately, Baker ― despite the many slide-show lectures he gave ― did not publish much about his short trip through Korea (he probably only stayed a day or two in Fusan and a short time in Seoul before taking the train to China) but I guess, considering his rather narrow-minded views, less is best in this situation.

The view of Fusan harbor from the park on the hillside in December 1918.  Robert Neff Collection
The view of Fusan harbor from the park on the hillside in December 1918. Robert Neff Collection

Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books including, Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters.




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