Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Incheon: Korea's First International City

My contemporary writings center on modern Korean culture and business. However, as a historian and author, I focus on Korea as it opened to the West in the late 19th century. 

Incheon, once called Chemulpo, was the key port for most merchants wishing to trade with Korea. Located on the west coast of Korea, Chinese, Japanese, British, American, German, and Russians were among those who lived in Chemulpo. 

Chemulpo was Korea's  first international city.
(photo of Chemulpo Club, popular with 19th century Anglo expatriates).

Interestingly,  Incheon is soon to become a international business hub with the construction of New Songdo City. The development is being undertaken by an international joint venture led by US-based Gale International and Korea's POSCO. This 10-year development project is estimated to cost in excess of $40 billion, making it the largest private development project ever undertaken anywhere in the history of the world. The project aspires to make the city and South Korea the preeminent business hub of Asia. 

I found this Joongahn Ilbo article highlighting Chemulpo's rich international heritage.

Korean and Russian officials were listening to a traditional Russian folk song called kalinka inside a Western-style building in the port city of Incheon.

It's been a long time, but the Russians were back in town. In a building in Mount Eungbong overlooking Incheon harbor, the mayor, Ahn Sang-soo, and the Russian ambassador to Korea, Gleb Ivashentsov, were celebrating Russia Month. What's interesting is that the cultural festival was taking place in the refurbished Chemulpo Club, a popular watering hole among expats in the early 1900s.

The first Russian mission to Korea was set up in Chemulpo [now Incheon], said Ivashentsov at the start of the festivities. What's more, the Russian cruiser Varyag was scuttled off the Chemulpo coast after a fierce battle with the Japanese Navy. The crew sank the ship rather than surrender.

The Battle of Chemulpo Bay took place in 1904 and signaled the first exchange of fire in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).

The Chemulpo Club is where expats gathered to gossip about political and business developments during the turbulent days before Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910.

Restoration work on the club was finished last June, but not as a functioning bar. Instead, the former expat saloon has been turned into a story-telling museum where multimedia programs illustrate the history of the club.

Since it reopened, the museum has for three months held cultural events highlighting the nations that were closely connected to the club in its heyday.

Last September British Month attracted 15,000 people. Russia Month, which lasts through June, features exhibitions of artworks and artifacts as well as screenings of movies and documentaries about Russian culture.

The club dates back to August 1891. It was set up by diplomats and merchants from 11 countries. Initially they met at a Western-style building in Jung District, Seoul, but in 1901 Russian architect Aleksey Seredin-Sabatin built the two-story Chemulpo building.

Frances Ann Allen, the wife of the U.S. missionary and diplomat Horace Allen, attended the opening ceremony on June 22, 1901. She was given the honor of opening the doors to the main hall.

The club was taken over by various Japanese groups after Korea was annexed, including the Japanese Veterans Association. Russia Month at the club started March 17 and lasts through June.

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