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Hunting tigers in Manchuria in 1912

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Sontag Hotel in Seoul, circa 1910. Robert Neff Collection
Sontag Hotel in Seoul, circa 1910. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

In March 1912, Sontag Hotel was the place to be in Seoul. Some described it as a place of political intrigue ― backrooms haunted with shady characters plotting anarchy and unrest. Others, like Roy Chapman Andrews, saw it as a place to begin a great adventure. It was filled with gold miners from the Western-owned concessions in the northern part of the peninsula. In fact, according to Andrews, "Seoul resembled nothing so much as an American mining town amid oriental surroundings."

Andrews was seeking adventure and had selected to stay at Sontag Hotel while he organized an expedition party to explore the Baekdu Mountain ― the tallest mountain on the Korean peninsula and one often associated with mysticism and adventure.

Andrews observed that "one did very much as one pleased [in Korea,] for the Japanese had taken over the country so recently that there were very few restrictions." Despite this claim, he still sought and obtained permission from the Japanese authorities. The Japanese government even provided him with a Japanese translator.

Unfortunately, he did not put down his first impressions of his translator, but one can imagine Andrews viewed him with some skepticism when he appeared at the hotel wearing a frock coat and a silk hat.

Andrews and his party in a Korean village in 1912. Robert Neff Collection
Andrews and his party in a Korean village in 1912. Robert Neff Collection

Andrews and his party (the translator and a Korean cook) soon found themselves on the northeastern coast of Korea near the Manchurian border. It was here that he had his next adventure.

The Korean villages in the region were being terrorized by the "Great Invisible," a name they bestowed upon a huge and deadly tiger. The Korean tigers were ferocious, almost mystical creatures, that laired in the mountains and forests, and occasionally hunted men, even to the gates of Seoul. The "Great Invisible" was no exception. "Already it had killed a half a dozen children and hardly a day passed that some tearful peasant did not report a new loss to the gendarmes." The people pleaded with Andrews to kill the tiger.

One of the Korean legendary tiger-hunters (famed for their bravery and shooting skills) was assigned to assist the foreigner. This tiger-hunter was an elderly man, but an excellent hunter with nerves of steel, who had in the past, killed two tigers by crawling into their lairs and shooting them with an old muzzle-loading rifle.

The "Great Invisible," circa the 1910s. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection

For nearly two weeks, the hunters played cat and mouse with the tiger. The tiger would strike in a village and the hunters would try to guess where it would strike next and wait for it. Finally they cornered the tiger in one of its lairs, and after waiting nearly a day for it to come out, the old tiger-hunter goaded Andrews into crawling into the lair. Fortunately for the tiger (or perhaps Andrews), it heard the hunters' approach and escaped out a rear exit.

The American was secretly relieved (although a little disappointed), but pretended to be angry that fate had deprived him of his tiger. They continued to hunt for the tiger for an additional week, but the "Great Invisible" eluded them, and worn out, they abandoned their hunt. They did, however, succeed in ridding the villagers of another threat: a huge wild boar that Andrews shot twice before it finally died only five feet away from Andrews' feet.

Westerners often heard tales of tiger attacks, usually from third or fourth parties, and some actually managed to kill a tiger themselves. Andrews summed up tiger hunting as, "one has to out-guess the beast or have luck very much on one's side." He may not have been lucky enough to get a tiger, but he did have the misfortune of viewing the remains of an unfortunate girl who had fallen victim to the "Great Invisible." It was a horrible sight and one that probably stuck with him for many years.

Stopping for a meal while hunting in 1912. Robert Neff Collection
Stopping for a meal while hunting in 1912. Robert Neff Collection

After the failed tiger hunt, he tried to hire Korean porters to accompany him to the wilderness region of Baekdu Mountain, but no one would accompany him out of fear. It was only through the efforts of the Japanese gendarmes ― who forced four men and their ponies to accompany him ― that Andrews was able to set out. Andrews, a remarkable and well-educated man, seems to have been fairly ignorant of Korea. He believed that he was the first to explore the region around Korea's highest mountain, but, in fact, several Westerners had already explored the region in the late 19th century, and had written about it.

The trip was anything but uneventful. There were no trails, and the ground was badly overgrown in some places, while in others it was swampy, making walking torturous and dangerous. For several days it drizzled, and the deeper they went into the forest, the fewer animals there were, and the quieter, more desolate the region became. The Korean porters soon became completely disheartened and threatened to abandon Andrews in the middle of the night, taking the ponies and supplies with them. Andrews and the translator were forced to take turns at watch at night to ensure that the porters did not abandon them, and Andrews warned the porters that if they tried anything, he would shoot them without mercy.

One of the deer killed by Andrews in 1912. Robert Neff Collection
One of the deer killed by Andrews in 1912. Robert Neff Collection

Finally they made it to the base of the mountain, but because of the deep snow drifts, they did not ascend the mountain. After spending several days in the vicinity of the mountain, Andrews and his party made their way towards the Yalu River. Here they discovered that the region was abundant with wildlife, and they spent several days hunting and relaxing. It was also here that he encountered a band of Manchurian bandits. These bandits, armed with flintlock rifles, preyed upon the Chinese and Korean merchants in the region, generally taxing them, but on occasion robbing and killing them. Andrews was able to make his way through the area by befriending these bandits (he fed them dinner), and they provided him with information to avoid the other bands of bandits.

When Andrews and his party finally arrived at a Korean settlement, they were treated as heroes. His porters bragged about his compass and how it had brought them through the dangers of the wilderness, and past the Manchurian bandits. It was here that he parted with his porters, after they built him a timber raft. By this raft, he sailed to the mouth of the Yalu River and made his way from there to Seoul, where he arrived at Sontag Hotel wearing ragged Korean clothing.

He wasn't surprised to discover that he had been reported dead. It would not be the first time that he was thought to have died while on one of his adventures, and later led him to say: "I have 'died' so frequently since, that I am quite accustomed to it; it seems to be the best little thing I do."

Junks floating on the Yalu River in 1912. Robert Neff Collection
Junks floating on the Yalu River in 1912. 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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