[Century of Turburance] (49) Motion picture first came to Korea at turn of 20th century

2010-12-12 : 16:11

These two photos show Burton Holmes shooting scenes on streets in Seoul in the early 1900s. The American traveler and filmmaker (1870-1958) is known to have introduced a motion picture to the royal family during his vist to Korea. His lifetime achievements earned him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. / Robert Neff Collection




By Robert Neff

On a cool evening in October 1897, a crowd of excited Koreans gathered in front of a small dilapidated barn in the Jingogae (modern Chungmuro) area of Seoul. They all wanted to be the first to witness the latest modern technology to be introduced into Korea – the motion picture.


The barn had been rented from a Chinese man and, because electricity was apparently not available, gas lamps were used to facilitate the showing of several short films, manufactured by Pathe Pictures of France and portraying life in that country.


Admission was five cents in Korean coins or ten empty cigarette packs from a newly-established Korean cigarette company. An exorbitant amount of money considering the average Korean laborer was lucky o receive 20 cents a day.

The owner of these films and the pioneer of the movie industry in Korea was Esther House. House’s background is somewhat ambiguous. Some sources claim that she was an American who operated an oil company in Seoul, while others claim she was an English woman who traveled to Seoul for a short stay before returning back to her homeland. If the latter is true, it is unclear what brought her to Korea in the first place.



Although the introduction of motion pictures in Japan was met with success, House’s attempt in Korea was a failure. She was convinced that the Koreans were too poor to afford movies, and, to an extent, she was correct. But to claim that it would never be profitable to import pictures into Korea was wrong. Within a decade there were four movie theaters operating successfully in Seoul.

House’s opinion is not the only thing wrong with the above account. It seems very strange that none of the local papers – including the Korean English-language newspaper, The Independent – failed to mention this very unique event. There is no mention of the make-shift theater or of Esther House in any of the journals, diaries or letters of the Westerners residing in Korea at the time. Her name also fails to appear on any of the steamship manifests of passengers traveling to and from Korea. Even the date is in question as some sources claim it was 1897 and others 1898.

According to The History of Korean Cinema (Lee Young-il and ChoeYoung-chol – published 1998):

“This 1898 account has been passed down verbally through senior film makers in the early days of Korea’s motion picture industry and Japanese film historians. Even though there is no material evidence available to back up the 1898 story, it is accepted as fact by the industry today.”

But in 2002, a Korean researcher declared he had discovered material evidence. An article from a British newspaper, The Times, dated October 19, 1897, declared, “Motion pictures have finally been introduced into [Joseon] a country located in the Far East.” The article then went on to describe in some detail the House story as presented above.

But some historians are skeptical. In an email correspondence with Prof Brian Yecies, co-author of the forth-coming book, Korea’s Occupied Cinemas (Routledge Press, 1 May 2011), he said that he was unable o locate the article in the newspaper archives. He explained that he had even examined the paper several years prior to and after the date but had no success in locating it or any other articles pertaining to House and motion pictures in Korea.

He further went on to say:

“The story behind Ester House (if that is even the correct name) and the first movie being shown in 1897 in a barn in Korea is a myth.”

When was the first verified showing of a motion picture in Korea? It is a known fact that a motion picture was shown to the Korean royal family at the turn of the twentieth century when Burton Holmes visited Korea. It was well-received, especially by “the baby prince, youngest son of the Emperor and actual palace tyrant, [who] had been fascinated by [the motion picture camera] and had wept when they attempted to take it from him, falling asleep still gripping it firmly in his chubby hands.”

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that motion pictures became available to the average Korean. In the summer of 1903, an American tobacco salesman from North Carolina, James A. Thomas, approached the American-owned Hansung Electric Company in Seoul with an advertisement scheme. He was convinced that he could increase traffic on the company’s street cars and, at the same time, improve his own cigarette company’s profits, if he was granted the opportunity to induce the customers to ride the streetcars and reward them for their efforts. Those who bought a 5 cent ticket and rode the street car to the end were given a free pack of the company’s cigarettes and also a free ticket to the movie. Hansung Electric Company had tried other incentives, such as circus performances and plays performed by Korean actors and acrobats, but they had met with only a fair amount of success, and decided to give Thomas a chance.

Thomas had brought with him about a dozen motion picture projectors and built a small theater at the end of the street car line, just outside of the main city. The movie incentive was a fantastic success and patronage on the street cars shot up so quickly that the company was hard pressed to keep pace. Hansung Electric Company immediately bought all of the projectors from Mr. Thomas, and paid him an additional 10% over the $500.00 cost per projector.

So popular were the movies that in early July 1903, the Won-kak-sa, a Korean theater used for traditional dances, theatrical productions and musical performances, installed movie projectors. Despite an electrical explosion on July 7 in which several of the theater’s patrons were injured, the movies became extremely popular and a new industry was born.

By the end of 1907 there were four movie theaters in Seoul. Perhaps the largest was the “Motion Picture Theater” owned by Collbran and Bostwick, who also owned Hansung Electric Company, which not only showed movies but also “magic lantern shows”. Magic lanterns are large glass slides that were shown on a large screen accompanied by music or an orator. These were very popular and were a source of income for some of the missionaries and gold miners who rented their slides to the theater.

The owners of the other movie theaters are, for the most part, unknown, but one theater was owned by a French man identified only by the Chinese characters “Majon,” who screened recently-released French movies. Another movie theater owner was “Patch-eye” Peter Clapham from Columbia City, Indiana. Clapham first came to Korea in 1901 to work with the Oriental Gold Mining Company [OCMC] at the Unsan mines in the northern part of the country. After working with the OCMC for about five years, he then decided to try his hand at business and opened his own theater in 1906. It is unclear how long he operated his theater but by 1920 he had sold the business and returned to his first love – gold mining.

Over the years, especially during the Japanese occupation, movies continued to gain popularity. They “were the only place where Koreans could assemble as a group” and provided “great comfort, lasting impressions and a new sense of imagination for the future.”