Monday, March 24, 2008

Sneak Preview: A Yankee in the Land of the Morning Calm--The Northern Frontier

I'm mid-way writing my new book ( number 8). It's third in the Yankee in the Land of the Morning Calm series.

From time-to-time, I'd like to share a draft of the book with my Blog readers--chapter by chapter. Please feel free to post your thoughts and comments. 

A Yankee in the Land of the Morning Calm:
The Northern Frontier

A Historical Novel

Book Three 1900-1905

Donald G. Southerton


In the closing years of the nineteenth century, East Asia saw traditional institutions erode under the weight of modernization, westernization, and imperialism. Unlike Japan, which by the late 1860s boldly embraced western thought and technology, Korea’s orthodox Neo-Confucian elites resisted change. Trade agreements signed in the 1880s led to some reforms and the “opening” of Korea to the West. Soon Chinese, Japanese, Russian, French, German and Brits vied for economic opportunity. Significantly, a core cadre of American missionaries and traders also ventured to the Hermit Kingdom.

Meanwhile, open conflict erupted on the peninsula between rival Japanese and Chinese forces. The outcome was substantial socio-economic transformation. By 1895, the Korean monarch King Kojong looked to align with the West to thwart ever-growing Japanese imperialism. King Kojong pursed a strategy of granting trade concessions to westerners in hopes the investors would pressure their governments to support the monarchy and contain Japanese imperialism.

The most successful of these concessions were granted to several Americans. By the early 1900s, the American-run Northern Frontier mine was among the richest in Asia. It is here, in the North that Connecticut-born Josh Gillet ventures and Book Three of A Yankee in the Land of the Morning Calm saga continues….

Chapter 1: Shanghai, Treaty Port

A beam of morning sun broke though the ocean layer of clouds covering Shanghai. Tracing its way across the hotel room, the sunlight soon found Connecticut Yankee Josh Gillett’s face. Pulling a goose feather pillow over his head, Josh’s skull pounded. Talking to himself, Josh mumbled, “Go away sun.” The evening before he’d downed more rye whisky than prudent. A desire to cloud the demands made by his mentor merchant Walter Townsend and his daughter Margaret still loomed. The once friendly business relationship had soured over the months—not to mention Josh little tolerance for Margaret’s constant nagging. Culminating in a heated argument months earlier, Josh jumped at an opportunity to travel to China, even under the threat of a Chinese peasant rebellion.

Following a near life threatening escape from Peking, Josh’s colleagues, entrepreneur Henry Collbran and chief foreman Philips, returned to Korea by steamer. Josh opted to stay in China. Days turned into weeks, as Josh contemplated his future.

Soon street noise added to the June sunshine. The combination made Josh’s attempt to stay in bed futile. The thought of a strong cup of black coffee to temper his hangover seemed a good alternative. Moving slowing, Josh dressed and headed down to the hotel lobby. Like scores of other Anglos displaced by the Boxer Rebellion and the havoc in the northern provinces, the hotel was packed with construction workers, miners, engineers, missionaries, and merchants. Shanghai, a treaty port, provided safe haven.

The importance of Shanghai grew radically in the 19th century, as the city's strategic position at the mouth of the Yangtze River made it an ideal location for trade with the West.

In the 1860s a self-governing international settlement was formed. It included the British enclave, located along the western bank of the Huangpu river to the south of Suzhou creek (Huangpu district), and American settlement, located on the western bank of the Huangpu river and to the north of Suzhou creek (Hankou district) The French conclave was just south of the Brits and Americans. With Japan’s victory over Chinese forces in the 1895 Sino-Japanese war, Japanese merchants now looked to secure a strong presence in the city. Most notable were several Japanese manufacturing endeavors.

After downing two cups of black coffee, curiosity drew Josh out onto the streets of Shanghai. Unlike most expats, especially those recently displaced by the Boxers, Josh ventured outside the international settlement. For the most part, his presence drew little interest from Chinese. Sketchbook in hand, Josh spent the better part of the morning drawing scenes of street scenes including the ancient gate to the city.

Meandering down Fangband Street, Josh found Shanghai as a city where east met west. Shops with elaborate wood shutters and upturned roofs were next to red brick buildings of western design.

By mid-afternoon, Josh returned to the international settlement, noting with some disdain signs prominently posted outside many establishments declaring "No dogs or Chinese permitted.” Like his experience in Korean and Japanese ports, Chinese were subject to the humiliation of being barred from free access to their own country. Josh knew that such discriminatory policies only added to widespread anger among many locals. It was no surprise that an uprising like the Boxer Rebellion was directed at foreigners.

Sitting in the lobby of the stately Astor Hotel, Josh was soon drawn to conversation among a group of Americans. Eavesdropping in it become apparent that the men were headed to Korea, the Oriental Consolidated Mining operation, and Un-san. Waiting for a break in the conversation, Josh walked over to men and introduced himself. “Couldn’t help but overhear, you men are off to Korea and the Northern Frontier.” Eyes turned toward Josh, the men curious asked him to join them. After a round of greetings and formalities, one by one the men gave their background. Two of the men, Ross and Thomas, oversaw operating and maintaining the huge stamps and chemical processes that extract metals from ore; Collins and Ackermann were geologists hired to prospect for new ore veins; and Red was a veteran mining construction and safety engineer. Hoping to gain some insight into life on Korea’s frontier, Red, the group’s elder invited Josh to diner.

Over a steak diner, Josh told of his travels and exploits in Korea. With some detail Josh recalled the December 1896 expedition with entrepreneurs Leigh Hunt and Henry Collbran to explore the Un-san concession. Following the High Road to China, the group spent weeks on the frontier, before heading back to Seoul. Following this first visit Josh escorted the key shipments of goods and supplies to Un-san. More recently, Josh shared that the Oriental Consolidated Mining Company had acquired their own vessels to handle the local transportation of supplies and people.

Later that night with drinks in hand, Josh learned that Hunt and his partner Senator J. Sloan Fassett had recently engaged Henry Cleveland Perkins, an eminent American mining engineer to evaluate the mining operation in Un-san. Subsequently, Hunt and Fassett reorganized a corporation and transferred their holdings.

Capitalizing at $5,000,000, shareholders included Americans most wealthy mining magnates and financiers, like the Hearsts, Mills, and Haggins. Red noted that as the details in legal and financing were worked out plans were to immediately expand the Un-san area mining operation including opening additional mines and increasing ore processing capacity. Since the area was so isolated, the OCM, as the miners called it, was more and more self-sufficient. This meant a hospital, machine shop, foundry, and school were planned. Future projects might include a hydroelectric power plant to replace steam power with electricity and a local rail line to provide timber to the mining operations.

Coming away from diner, Josh realized the OCM was no longer a risky short-term venture. In fact, it seemed that without much fanfare Hunt had expanded its operations well beyond anything many in Korea had realized. More relevant to Josh’s needs were the wages that attracted experienced American miners to Un-san.

Climbing into bed that night Josh pondered if he should consider job opportunities in the Northern Frontier. Seeing no reason to stay in Shanghai and China with the rebellion stalling any business opportunity, the frontier offered potential. And, it was far enough from Chemulp’o that Josh would not have to deal with Margaret. He would however have to meet with Townsend and offer to make amends.

The next morning Josh joined the American miners for breakfast. Seeing no harm in asking, Josh inquired, “I wonder if my skills might be valued by OCM. If so, who’s the right person to talk with?” After a short pause, consensus among the men was that OCM’s General Manger H.F. Meserve was the man to talk to…. In fact, Red knew H.F. Meserve well. Red remarked, “And, I put in a good word for you,” adding with a chuckle, “but, it might cost you a beer or two.” The men felt that knowing Hunt couldn’t hurt either. Over breakfast, they saw no harm in Josh accompanying the miners to Un-san. In fact, they would welcome his help on the final leg of their journey.

That morning, Josh stops by the offices of the Nippon Yusen Kaisha steamship line. There he booked traveled on Friday’s steamship to Chemulp’o, a short voyage across the Yellow Sea. Seeing little else to do, the trip two days away, Josh wandered down The Bund with its Trade House and found a quite spot near the wharf, and pulled out his sketchpad. After an hour of drawing, he turned thoughts toward how to deal with the Townsends, surely a sore issue.

En Route
As Josh had experienced in Bridgeport, San Francisco, Yokohama, and Chemulp’o, wharfs buzzed with a ship’s departure. The Shanghai-to-Chemulp’o leg of the Nippon Yusen Kaisha Hong Kong—Vladivostok steamship line would depart with the tide mid day. On board, Josh stored his belongings in a small low ceiling cabin. Joining Red and the other miners on deck, the men watched as the last pallets of cargo were secured for the voyage. Reflecting Asia, passengers included Chinese migrant laborers, Japanese merchants, and a dozen or so westerners. Once clear of the Bund wharf, the ship steamed out to the Yellow Sea.

En route Josh and the men amused themselves with poker until dark. Over diner conversation that night, Josh’s previous travels to Korea drew considerable interest among the other westerners on board. Questions ranged from what drew a Yankee from Connecticut to the Orient, why was Korea nicknamed the Hermit Kingdom, Japan and Russian colonial aspirations, and if Josh knew many in the Protestant Church—the later question from a new Canadian missionary assigned to Seoul.

Beginning with his first trip to Korea in the early 1890s, Josh recalled how the country after it opened to the West served as a chessboard for Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and European imperialism. Rather boldly he told that American interests tended to support Korean sovernity, while helping to modernize Korea. Serving a key role was the Protestant mission, which promoted hard work and service to God—and Christian ideology or God and mammon. With some embellishments, Josh told of his early travels to the Pyongyang in the Northern Frontier prior to the 1894 Sino-Chinese War. With some modesty, Josh told of his time in Seoul working with the early founders of Protestant mission, the Underwoods, especially time spent at the royal palace before the brutal assassination of Queen Min in 1894.

Josh explained that two years later, he again returned to the frontier. This time escorting capitalists Henry Collbran and Leigh Hunt. Collbran, Josh explained, built Korea’s first railroad, electric system, and trolley. Hunt, as they knew, was the driving force behind Korea’s most successful mining concession; now called the Oriental Consolidated Mining Company. In the years that followed Josh noted he’d spent much of his time working in Chemulp’o for Walter Townsend, perhaps Korea’s most successful merchant.

More recently, Josh had accompanied Collbran to China. Poorly timed, Collbran was looking for additional construction project. Luckily Josh and Collbran escaped Peking hours before the Boxer siege. With few prospects in China, Josh was now on his way back to Korea. Seeing it was late, Josh remarked, “Nuff said about Korea for tonight. Time for me to turn in. Gonna be a busy day tomorrow.”

After wishing each other good night, Josh returned to his cabin. There, Josh smiled. Like his mentor Townsend who for years told others of Korea, Josh had now assumed a similar role.

The next day with the Korean coast in sight, eager passengers lined the steamer’s observation deck. Josh very familiar with Chemulp’o’s radical low tides, stressed patience. With mud flats extending miles, only at high tide could their steamer move close to the port. Even then, the ship’s size required they drop anchor off shore and board a smaller dingy before setting foot onshore.

Return to Chemulp’o
Three hours later, Josh, Red, and the other miners arrived at the Chemulp’o wharf and the foreign settlement. Josh’s anxiety grew, knowing Walter Townsend made it a habit to greet all steam ship lines. So, it was no surprise when dockside, Josh saw Townsend peering through the crowd. Eye contact made, Josh waved to his mentor. Having prepared Red, he'd have some personal business to take care upon arrival, the miners planned to wait for their gear and supplies to be off loaded. Meanwhile, Townsend motioned for Josh. Taking a deep swallow, Josh approached. “To busy here. Let’s find a better place to talk.” Townsend said. As they walked down the wharf, Townsend not one to stay quiet long noted. “You have had us worried, not like you to keep us in the dark.” “Sure you had your reasons, but not very considerate for those of us who care about you.”

Once at Townsend’s office, the elder merchant motioned to the office and closed the door as the men sat down. Wasting no time, Townsend asked, “So, what the hell is going on?” Looking down for a moment, Josh cleared his voice. “I know you are mad. I apologize for not writing. Things got complicated and I needed some time to think,” Josh explained. “To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure Korea was the best place for me. Still not sure.” Clearing his voice again, Josh continued, “ I want you to know, you have always been fair, I hope you will see I need to follow my own path—where ever it takes me.” Pondering for a moment, a somewhat calmer Townsend then asked Josh, “Think you are staying put in Chemulp’o or headed elsewhere?” “Un-san and the Northern Frontier,” Josh quickly responded. “ I'm traveling with a group of Oriental Consolidated Mining engineers. Hunt and Senator Fassett have restructured the company and formed a corporation backed by folks like the Hearsts. They plan to expand the mines and I’m hoping for a job.” Ever the businessman, Townsend noted he had heard rumors of the mining operations expanding more that most folks thought. Some felt Hunt had downplayed his good fortune, to keep others from seeking concessions. “ Never got along good with Hunt, although better with his partner Senator Fassett. And, you know I’ve been their Agent in Chemulp’o since ’97,” Townsend reminded, “With Hunt back to the states the mines gonna be managed by H.F. Meserve, a likeable guy. And, you working there can’t hurt. When are you headed north?” Sensing Townsend’s amiable mood, Josh responded, “ With the next tide.”

Hoping their meeting was finished; Josh began to get up when Townsend said, “ We have one other matter that needs to be addressed--Margaret.” Before Josh could respond, Townsend noted, “I once had high hopes for the two of you. Though you should know she was steaming for days when you left and then didn’t return with Collbran and Phillips. I don’t have to tell you, she’s a headstrong woman. But, lucky for the both of us she’s spending hours at the new Club House with its tennis courts. In fact, she’s started playing tennis. Not half bad I’m told.”

“Which bring me to something else you need to know. I’m sorry to tell you Margaret has other suitors. Two in fact, one’s a Scot named Mac Connell. You know the other--young Atkinson. Hope you aren’t upset. But, there was little I could say or do.” Josh acknowledged Townsend with, “ Not surprised. I’m sorry it didn’t work out, too. It’s probably for the best. ” While not trying to sound to relieved.

Walking Josh to the door, Townsend hoped they could remain friends. “I’m not one to hold a grudge. Life’s to short,” the elder merchant said. “ Josh, you will always be family. Although Margaret’s forgiveness may take more time.”

Parting Josh and Townsend shook hands. In typical Townsend style, the merchant asked where Josh and the miners were lodging for the evening. Then, said he’d try and stop by to meet the men and share some libations.

Walking down the wharf to join the miners, Josh felt the tension in his shoulders relax. Townsend was a reasonable and honorable man. And, thank God, Margaret was not an issue. Smiling, he felt a little sorry for the guy who ended up with her.

Turning the corner, Josh saw Red and the other men. Soon they would be headed by ship to the Northern Frontier and adventure.

END OF CHAPTER 1  Look for Chapter  2 in future BCW Blog postings

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