(65) Early Joseon bar room brawls
In the late 19th century, Jemulpo (modern Incheon), the main port of Korea, was an international city filled with merchants, traders, sailors from warships and steamers and various indigent riffraff looking for “a situation” (employment). Catering to this large transient population of men was a number of hotels and taverns that provided not only lodging but strong drink.
One of the most popular hotels in the late 1880s and early 1890s was Hotel de Coree. Isaak Kamerling Steinbeck, the owner of the establishment, was one of the earliest Austrians to live and do business in Korea. An early visitor provides insight into why his hotel was so popular:
Hotel de Coree is “a favorite resort for sailors of men-of-war when they called at that port, partly because a drinking saloon, well provided with intoxicants of all descriptions, was the chief feature of the establishment, and partly because glasses were handed over the counter by a very fascinating young lady, daughter of the proprietor, a most accomplished damsel, who could speak fluently every language under the sun — from Turkish and Arabic to Corean and Japanese.”
But drinks and conversation weren’t the only things these drinking establishments offered. Card games and pool tables provided the men with entertainment and some even provided female companionship.
Of course, with so many men drinking in such a confined area there was bound to be trouble. In December 1886, Walter Laws, an African-American described as “destitute,” was involved in an altercation at the Daibutsu Hotel — a Japanese-owned establishment.
Laws was drinking with a friend at a table and made a disparaging comment about the Chinese. According to Laws, a Chinese man overheard the comment and “felt aggrieved and dared me to repeat. I repeated it, he shoved me, I struck him. Feeling ashamed at the result of my hasty action, I apologized. He refused to accept the apology and caused me to be arrested.”
Laws was apprehended by the Chinese police and then — some twenty-two hours later — turned over to Commander Selfridge of the U.S.S. Omaha, an American warship.
A Japanese newspaper claimed that Laws had “committed a brutal and unprovoked assault on a peaceable Chinese storekeeper” and was part of the riffraff that had been dispelled from Nagasaki. Selfridge, however, felt that Laws was an “inoffensive young man” and the incident was nothing more than “a simple case of assault.”
But not all the incidents were so simple.
On Nov. 19, 1899, Frederick W. Richmond, a 23-year-old Canadian, met an “untimely and shocking death” after being involved in an altercation in a small hotel. Richmond was a relatively newcomer to Korea and had served in Tientsin (or Tianjin), China as a bandmaster before coming to Jemulpo to begin a new career as a member of the Korean Imperial Customs Service.
On the evening of his death, Richmond was in the Ryan Hotel with a friend when he apparently exchanged some harsh words with Cambas, a passenger aboard the Russian steamship Sungari. At about 6:30 p.m., Richmond left the hotel alone — possibly returning home — and “was found at 7 o’clock in an alleyway quite dead, with several wounds on the head and neck, supposed to be inflicted by a dagger.”
Almost immediately suspicion fell upon Cambas but the suspected murderer managed to get aboard his steamship as it departed and, judging from the lack of information, made good his escape.
Richmond was buried three days later; his grave — like many at the Jemulpo Foreigner’s Cemetery — unvisited and forgotten.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.