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Streetcars: The curse of Western modernization

A streetcar passing through the West Gate, circa 1900.
A streetcar passing through the West Gate, circa 1900.

By Robert Neff

The introduction of streetcars to Seoul was declared "the first step towards civilization in 'the Hermit Kingdom,'" but many within the kingdom viewed it as an affront to their beliefs and a threat to their livelihood.

The Korean Repository ― a staunch supporter of the streetcars ― claimed that in everyone, "from His Majesty [Emperor Gojong] down to the coolie, excitement runs high" in anticipation of the Seoul Electric Railroad Company (SERC) beginning daily operations. All members of the public, nobles, laborers, men, women and children, were allowed to ride.

Of course, there was some separation in the seating, depending on the class of ticket one could afford. The five ordinary cars ― used for regular traffic - were divided into closed and open compartments. The Korean Repository explained that the closed parts were for first-class passengers, while the open parts were for second-class passengers. Each car could seat eight first-class passengers and 25 second-class passengers.

There was also a closed car that could be "reserved for special occasions and 'trolley parties'" and was comparable to first-class cars in the United States, save that it was a little narrower.

Korean linemen, circa 1899
Korean linemen, circa 1899

Finally, there was one car for the exclusive use of the emperor. It was "richly upholstered, with the windows emblazoned with the Korean ensign [and] large platforms at either end furnished ample room for the accompanying guard." It is unlikely Gojong ever utilized this decadent form of transportation but it surely must have pleased him to know that he had it at his disposal.

It was also quite lucrative to work for the SERC. The handful of Korean conductors were given Western-style uniforms and paid a princely sum of $7.50 a month for relatively light work.

The streetcar fares were comparably inexpensive: between two and 15 cents ― depending on the distance. As noted by a member of the SERC, this was cheaper than hiring a sedan chair to convey one across the city on the shoulders of coolies ― it was also more fashionable and cosmopolitan. By the end of 1899, the company averaged 2,068 passengers daily.

But the company's success was resented by the operators of an earlier modernization introduced into Korea ― the jinricksha. Their resentment was motivated by their own economic status but others resented the SERC out of spiritual belief.

The destruction of a streetcar, circa May 26, 1899.
The destruction of a streetcar, circa May 26, 1899.

Throughout the spring of 1899, the country suffered a severe drought. Farmers were concerned that they would lose their crops and famine would plague the peninsula. Wild rumors circulated among the frightened and superstitious population. Some claimed that "the streetcars sucked away all the clouds." One rumor claimed that the company's power plant, near the East Gate, was built on hallowed ground and that the rain would not fall until it was removed.

Another rumor claimed that the power lines interfered with the spirits that governed the rain. Perhaps this accounted for one of the early setbacks the SERC experienced ― a large amount of cable was stolen by five Korean thieves. The cable was quickly recovered and the thieves were beheaded.

Perhaps the most infamous of the rumors was that of the dragon. One early visitor, Constance J. D. Coulsin, wrote:

"The people of Seoul believe that underneath the city sleeps a great dragon, its patron and guardian [… and that the Korean …] people decided among themselves that the dragon was annoyed because the tram-lines recently laid down were pressing upon his tail, and so disturbing his sleep." In anger, it deprived the peninsula of the much-needed rain.

As each day passed without rain, the tension in the city grew. All it took was one spark to set off a volatile explosion of violence and destruction. That spark was the death of a small child.

Putting a streetcar back on its tracks, circa 1899.
Putting a streetcar back on its tracks, circa 1899.

According to The Korean Repository, on May 26, the SERC's president, along with a few invited guests ― Korean and foreign ― formally opened the streetcar system with a short excursion to the end of the line.

"[The] car was running along at the usual slow rate of speed. A child, between probably eight and 10 years of age, ran across the track some distance ahead of the car. He got safely over and the car continued to move on. The father on the other side of the track called the child to come back to him. The child became frightened, ran into the car, was caught under the wheels and killed almost instantly."

The editor claimed that the SERC was not at fault. He laid the blame on the father. However, the crowd of people who witnessed the accident and viewed the mangled body of the child could restrain themselves no longer and attacked the car. The passengers and crew fled.

A streetcar with foreigners, circa 1900. Note the cowcatcher placed on the front as a safety measure.
A streetcar with foreigners, circa 1900. Note the cowcatcher placed on the front as a safety measure.

The mob then burned the offending car and the one following it. It was only through the intervention of authorities was the crowd dispersed before they could destroy the power plant.

Until new safety equipment could be installed on the cars and American motormen brought in from the United States, the SERC suspended its operation.

It is interesting to note that on June 1 it began to rain ― the drought had been broken. The editor of The Independence ― an English-language newspaper published in Seoul ― mockingly wrote:

"According to an able authority, the rain dragon, after infinite exertions, had extricated his shining, scaly length from beneath the power house of the Seoul Electric Railway: but how so experienced and astute an old gentleman as the rain dragon had ever gotten his back beneath the power house of the electric railway was a problem that these ancient literati failed to explain."




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