This 1910 photo shows the Sontag Hotel in central Seoul. Established in 1902 by Miss Sontag, a German woman, the hotel was regarded as the first modern, Western-style hotel in Seoul. / Robert Neff collection
By Robert Neff
Modern Seoul is filled with hotels. From no-frills inns that cater to budget-minded travelers to executive hotels that satisfy those with expensive tastes, accommodations are easy to find in this bustling city. But a little over a century ago things were much different.
In the early 1880s, visitors to Chemulpo (Incheon) and Fusan (Busan) could find lodging at Japanese hotels that catered to foreigners — including Westerners — but in Seoul were forced to stay in the homes of Westerners who resided in the city.
There were Korean inns but these were considered dirty and unsanitary by Western standards and were, for the most part, inaccessible due to the language barrier.
It wasn’t until 1884 that a hotel catering to foreigners was established in Seoul near the Japanese Legation. One of the first visitors to this hotel was Dr. Horace Allen, an American missionary who later became the Minister to Korea. It is from Allen’s diary that we have the first description of this hotel from a Western source. In September, Allen wrote:
“I am stopping at a new Corean hotel, the house that was fitted up to receive the men of the U.S. Flagship Trenton that brought home the Corean Embassy. Ensign John B. Bernadou of the U.S. Navy is also here; he is making a collection for the Smithsonian Institution and is a bright fellow. Walter D. Townsend with his Japanese mistress is also here. He represents the American Trading Company.”
With no other lodging options, Allen was forced to spend a month at the hotel while he made preparations to bring his wife and infant son to Korea from China. Allen was less than pleased with his sparse accommodation. His diary entry for Oct. 11 was:
“This past month has given me a new experience. Have had to sleep on a board with my shoes for a pillow, and no clothes but a big shawl to keep off the cold. The nights are very cold. I pay $1.50 a day at my hotel but yet nothing to eat unless I furnish it and no heat.”
Allen, however, was not the only one to visit the hotel and write about his experiences. In late October 1884, John Richard Wolfe, an English missionary, visited Seoul for a couple of days. His accounts of the hotel are probably the most informative.
“The Corean hotel, for which I was in search, was really non-existent, though it was contemplated, and the house for it engaged, but the people knew nothing of this. At length having accosted a Corean gentleman in the street, I endeavored to ask him in Mandarin Chinese to direct me to the hotel near the Japanese Legation. This gentleman very kindly tried to make out what I wanted, and most politely walked along with me to the Japanese Legation, where I found the very place I was in search of the incipient Corean hotel. An American officer of the U.S. Navy [Bernadou] made his appearance, to my great satisfaction, in the courtyard, and on inquiring of him whether this was not the Corean hotel, he replied, ‘No, sir, but I hope it will become so some day.’ This gentleman incited me to rest in his rooms, and showed me much kindness during my stay in the capital, and gave me much useful information about the country and the people.”
Eventually the Korean landlord, “a very intelligent and interesting man” but caustically referred to by Wolfe as “the future landlord of the future hotel,” arrived and conducted him to his room. The room was nice and clean with a well-matted floor, a small table, two chairs and a lamp but, shockingly to Wolfe, no bed! Not even blankets! He was even more dismayed with the hotel’s provisions and staff:
“I felt very tired and hungry, and after quite thirty minutes’ waiting, one of the most filthy, greasy-looking man I ever saw made his appearance with four eggs nearly raw, four persimmons, a bottle of beer, and some tea. The tea, though very bad, was very grateful; and as I had brought some bread with me from Chi-mull-poo (Chemulpo), I made myself comfortable. In about half an hour afterwards my greasy friend appeared once more with a beef-steak, horrid-looking, tough, and badly cooked. Of course I sent it away.”
Exhausted and somewhat hungry, Wolfe retired to his room but sleep did not come easily. Fortunately for Wolfe, prior to disembarking at Chemulpo, the steamship’s captain had insisted Wolfe take two of the ship’s blankets — just in case. And, like Allen, he was forced to use his boots as a pillow.
“The night was very cold, and the prospect of no bed was not cheering,” he despairingly wrote. “I did not sleep well; all my bones ached from the ride of twenty-eight miles in the pack-saddle, and the hard boards of the floor did not improve matters in this respect, and I arose early next morning not much refreshed.”
Despite his rough night, the new day looked far more promising. A “nice Corean boy” visited him in his room and provided him with a Korean language lesson. “I found it most interesting, and entirely free from the peculiar difficulties of the Chinese intonations, and I fancied that I could in a short time master it so as to be able to talk in it. Before I left I could manage to call for most things that I wanted at table.”
After a breakfast of fresh eggs and persimmons, Wolfe went out and explored Seoul. He was accompanied by the hotel owner who enthusiastically guided him around the city, “but of course all his descriptions of things and places were lost on me, as I could not understand scarcely a word of what he said.”
Unfortunately, Wolfe appears to have been the last known guest. The fate of the hotel is unclear. Perhaps it was destroyed during the Kapsin Revolt in December 1884 or abandoned due to the small number of foreign visitors to Seoul. It wasn’t until the mid-1890s that Seoul was once again graced with a hotel catering to Western guests.