For Part 1, click here.
Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to Gongju yesterday. In the morning, I decided to make a quick visit to Gunsan’s old waterfront to snap a photo of the old Customs House, Gunsan’s most famous colonial-era building. When I arrived, however, I became so entranced by the neighborhood’s decrepit colonial charm that I spent half a day wandering around snapping photographs.
The old Customs House is Gunsan’s best known—and best preserved—building from the treaty port/colonial era. Completed in 1908, the charming European-style building was designed by a German architect and built of red bricks imported from Belgium. OK, as far as colonial customs houses go, it ain’t Dublin, but it’s still nice. After Liberation, the building continued to be used as the customs house for Gunsan port until a new building was built nearby. It now serves as a museum. When I visited, on display were a ton of terrific photographs of colonial-era Gunsan, a real treat for history geeks like me.
The old Gunsan branch of the Bank of Chosen, completed in 1923, once boasted of being one of the largest buildings in Korea outside of Seoul. After Liberation, the imposing red-brick structure was used as the Gunsan branch of Hanil Bank and later a nightclub before a fire gutted the building. Restoration work is supposedly underway, but it certainly doesn’t appear so, and if you look at the interior it seems the building could collapse at any moment. A sad state of affairs for a once proud landmark.
The story behind the building is quite interesting. Like the Customs House, it was designed by the Germans. Unlike the architect behind the Customs House, however, these Germans were brought to Korea as prisoners of war during WW I, presumably after the Japanese took Qingdao. The actual construction work was done by Chinese laborers.
The former Nagasaki 18 Bank (top) and its annex (bottom) were more fortunate in that their current owners, furniture and kitchen supply sellers, have maintained them much better. Built in 1907 (the first bank in Gunsan), the Nagasaki 18 Bank was established to facilitate Japanese trading operations and land transactions in the region (to put it politely).
Haemang-dong and Wolmyeong-dong are full of old Japanese administrative buildings and private residences. Some are obviously in better repair than others. Wolmyeong-dong is considered a particularly auspicious neighborhood in terms of feng sui, so it was a favored spot for Japanese settlers and wealthy Korean landowners. The city authorities offer tax breaks to owners of older Japanese homes, according to one local, but in the end, the homes are private property, so there is little the authorities can do to protect them should the owners decide to do away with them, which many have. There is a growing awareness on the part of national and local authorities that the legacy of Korea’s early modern history needs to be protected for both cultural and historical reasons, so we may see more resources devoted to protecting and maintaining historic homes in the Gunsan area, such as the 1 billion won restoration of the Hirotsu House.
Now, this building is a bit different. The area currently occupied by the Myeongsan Market was apparently the old Japanese red-light district—the largest such entertainment district in Jeollabuk-do at the time. The site where the ethnic Chinese school now stands used to be the finest geisha house in Gunsan, the girls brought over from Japan. The store/home in the picture above used to be a brothel as well.
Just outside of Gunsan’s “downtown,” in very rural Gaejeong-dong, is the former villa of Kumamoto Rihei, one of the largest Japanese landowners in the Gunsan region. He spent most of his time in Seoul, while his vast holding were worked by some 20,000 tenant farmers. His countryside villa was designed by a French architect and built by Japanese, with the floorwork done by Chinese. The architecture itself is just as international, a mixture of European, Japanese and Korean concepts—the door way and parlor are Western, the interior passageways and tatami living room is Japanese, and some of the rooms have Korean-style heated floors. It’s a very funky design.
In 1935, Dr. Yi Yeong-chun, the president of Gyejeong Hospital (which is right next door), was entrusted with care of the villa. After Liberation, Yi took possession of the residence, which has since been used for TV and film shoots.
In back of Balsan-ni Elementary School is a garden with, among other things, a five-story pagoda and stone lantern taken from Bongnim-sa in Wanju. Also back there is a three-story storage house–with heavy American-made steel doors—that was recently designated a cultural property. The farm, and much of the surrounding farmland, used to be the property of another bigtime Japanese landlord by the name of Shimatani. Mr. Shimatani founded his plantation in 1907. A brewer back in Japan, he came to Korea in search of the rice he needed to brew sake. A Gunsan City tourism official noted that when Shimatani came to Korea, not only was land 10 percent cheaper than in Japan, but yields were fourfold. Many Japanese apparently followed suit—some 31.6 percent of all land owned by the Japanese in colonial Korea was in the Gunsan area, and 93.4 percent of that was farmland.
Well, anyway, our Mr. Shimatani—gentleman farmer that he was—apparently developed a fondness of Korean art. So great was his love of Korean art, in fact, that he collected—or plundered—a great deal of pottery, calligraphy, paintings and masonry, which he stored in his obscenely large storage house (which, according to the information sign, was used during the Korean War by the North Korean army as a prison while they were in town. One might imagine it continued to be used as a prison once the North Koreans were kicked out, however). The stone pagoda and lantern, both of which have been designated “treasures,” were moved to his farm as garden ornaments.
When Life Imitates the Marmot’s Vacation
Seems I wasn’t the only one taking an interest in Gunsan’s colonial architecture. The Kyunghyang Shinmun ran a piece today on Gunsan’s imperial-era buildings. Took almost identical photos, too.
Oh Yeah, Japan had Foreigners, Too
Over at Mutantfrog Travelogue, Joe and Curzon (of Coming Anarchy fame) visited the foreigners’ cemetery in Hakodate, one of the first Japanese ports opened to American trade under the Treaty of Kanagawa.
Since You’re Already Here…
Be sure to check out Andrei Lankov’s look at the early Japanese settler community in Korea. This review of Peter Duus’ The Abacus and the Sword also discusses colonial Korea’s Japanese settler community.