Visitors walk in front of Jungmyeongjeon, one of the buildings at Seoul’s Deoku Palace. The building was used as a meeting place for the Seoul Club, which officially came into being under the support of King Gojong in 1904.
/ Courtesy of Robert Koehler
By Robert Neff
In the late 1880s, the Western community of Seoul was quite small. Although there are no exact records, it appears that there were no more than 150 people ― mainly Americans, and many of these were missionaries. Most of the community’s social activities took place in their homes, churches or, on occasion, at the various legations.
For the Western bachelors, there were few, if any, places that they could go and partake in the activities of men: drinking, smoking, playing cards, and later, billiards. This was even more of a problem for the married men who needed a place to escape the watchful eyes of their wives and the disapproving glares of the missionaries.
Thus the first gentleman’s club in Seoul, sometimes called the German Club or Seoul Club, was established in late June or early July 1889. This club was located in a building owned by Carl Andreas Wolter, a German businessman, just inside the Small West Gate. It isn’t clear how many or who the members were but undoubtedly ― as the name implies ― they were the handful of Germans residing in Seoul and some of the Western diplomats and their staff. Most certainly there were no missionaries. The alcohol, smoke and coarse language used amongst these worldly men would probably have disturbed their puritan sensibilities, but, even more than that, the likely president of the club and German representative to Korea ― Dr. Ferdinand Krien ― probably offended them the most.
Krien, the previous year, had fallen into disfavor amongst the pious missionaries for a rumor that circulated like wildfire throughout the small community claiming that Krien was having sexual orgies in the German legation. These rumors were later found to be untrue and the subsequent investigation indicated that the wife of the Russian representative to Korea, Karl Waeber, had maliciously started them because of her hard feelings towards Krien. Mrs. Waeber seems to have had problems with some of the younger Germans and Russians in Seoul and wasn’t above a dirty trick or two to drive them out of the country. This is also an indication of the atmosphere of the small Western community ― full of backstabbing and Machiavellian intrigue.
It is no surprise that there are few anecdotes from this club. More than likely the members of the club followed the unwritten rule of “what happens in the club, stays in the club” and refrained from writing about their exploits.
The German Club was relatively short-lived. Horace Allen, an American missionary who later became the American ambassador to Korea, states that it was only in operation from 1889–1890. The hard feelings that had developed in the German community over land issues in Jemulpo and in the operation of the Korean Customs Service may have caused the club’s demise ― at least under the name of the German Club.
On June 2, 1892, a new club, the Cercle Diplomatique et Consulaire, was established in a building next to the French legation. As there are no official records of club activities or officers until 1898, it is only speculation, but club members were apparently made to pay dues in order to finance the club’s activities as well as to purchase the land and build a new clubhouse.
On May 28, 1894, the cornerstone for the new clubhouse was laid in Jeong-dong. It is through William Franklin Sands, an American who served first with the American legation and then as an advisor to the Korean government, that we are offered a clue as to its location. Sands wrote:
“Over opposite the Russians lay the French legation, furnished with beautiful old things sent out from one of the historic chateaux of the Loire. Opposite the Americans lay the German consulate, and in the center at each end of the narrow walled legation street stood the American missionaries’ club and tennis courts (Seoul Union), and the shabby little diplomatic club (Cercle Diplomatique et Consulaire).”
Again, it is Sands who, while describing the life of a young diplomat in Seoul, provides us with a rare glimpse of the club’s activities.
“At five o’clock the juniors and most of the bachelor elders gathered at the club, for billiards, cocktails and our one card game, poker. Our poker games were continuous. In fact it was one long game, with interruptions; but it was innocuous as long as it remained among ourselves. We signed small notes for the amounts lost and once a month sent them through the clearing house. If one of us had notes that seemed too large, we held them back and waited till his winnings helped to balance, and cashed the little ones.”
Although Sands implies that these games were relatively small and friendly he conveniently fails to mention his own gambling debts that totaled in the thousands of dollars. His debts were so severe that some feared he would commit suicide ― after, of course, taking the lives of some of his fellow foreigners who he felt had maligned him.
As mentioned earlier, the first records of the club’s officers date to 1898 when, somewhat unsurprisingly, Dr. Ferdinand Krien is listed as the president. G. Lefevre, a member of the French legation, was named secretary.
Krien’s reign as president of the club is given in the records as starting from 1898 (most likely much earlier ― possibly from the beginning) until 1900. This, however, appears to be wrong. Krien’s penchant for theatrics and fiery temper was his undoing and probably contributed to his recall from Korea. Krien, like other foreign diplomats in Korea, was desperately trying to secure lucrative gold mining concessions in northern Korea. When the acting Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yu Kwi-hwan, refused to grant his request, Krien is alleged to have physically assaulted the Korean official at the German legation on June 29, 1898. This incident gained notoriety in newspapers around the world and on Dec. 5, 1898, Krien left Korea ostensibly on a much-needed leave. He was replaced at both the legation and in the club by Felix Ludwig William Reinsdorf.
Once again the club and its activities fade from the accounts of contemporary newspapers and publications, but it is clear that the club had lost much of its popularity and membership. At the end of 1902, G. Lefevre is not only the secretary but the president of the club as well. His reign as president was very short.
On Jan. 31, 1903, the Cercle Diplomatique et Consulaire’s charter expired and the club ceased to exist ― at least under that name. Despite the present day Seoul Club’s insistence that it was established by King Gojong in 1904, the true date of the club’s foundation is Feb. 5, 1903, and, although it is speculation, probably occupied the former Cercle Diplomatique et Consulaire’s clubhouse. But, as professor Andrei Lankov likes to say, that is another story for another time.