(68) When tigers smoked
By Robert Neff
It is hard to say with any degree when cigarettes were first introduced into Korea. Early encounters with the crews of Western ships may have led to the exchange of cigarettes as gifts but more than likely the introduction of cigarettes began after the Treaty of Ganghwa (The Japan-Korea Treaty of Amity) in 1876.
At first, cigarettes were not very popular ― especially with the common people ― as they were difficult to obtain and quite expensive. In 1882, a small group of American naval officers aboard a Japanese merchant ship managed to sneak ashore at Fusan (modern Busan) for a quick but forbidden visit of that port. They noted that pipe smoking was prevalent amongst the people and that some Koreans smoked cigars of crudely rolled-up tobacco leaves.
In 1883, shortly after Korea opened to the West, an attempt was made to export cigars made from Korean tobacco into the foreign markets. A British diplomat noted that “the cigars which have been turned out on the first attempt are well made and of good tobacco.” However, this initial attempt apparently failed as there is no mention of tobacco being exported in the Reports on Trade.
Western cigarettes, at least in the palace, quickly became popular. In 1888, an American journalist visited the palace and wrote:
“The queen dresses, of course, in Korean costume. She wears fine silks and she has beautiful diamonds. She carries a chatelaine watch which is diamond studded and she smokes American cigarettes by the thousand. All Korean women smoke and the majority of them smoke pipes. The country is, in fact, a land of smokers and the boys and men are seldom seen without pipes in their mouths.”
As cigarettes became more available their prices dropped and their popularity with the common people grew. This led some unscrupulous merchants to try and make a quick profit by packing the once used boxes of American and British tobacco companies with inferior cigarettes. Horace Allen, the American Minister to Korea, urged the Korean government to punish the Koreans involved and was surprised to learn that the Korean Government offenders would be punished with death. Allen noted that the restrictions were effective against the Korean offenders but did nothing against “the Japanese merchants who were the chief offenders.”
The popularity of cigarettes also led to some enterprising Korean entrepreneurs to start their own company. In 1898, The Independent (an English-language newspaper in Seoul) reported:
“Enterprising spirit is slowly but surely permeating the hearts of Koreans. One of the latest indications of it is that a Korean company has been formed to manufacture cigars in Songdo and Seoul with Koksan tobacco. Koksan is a mountainous district in Whanghai and produces a considerable quantity of tobacco….The company ships on the average 10,000 cigars daily to various cities in the country and the demand is said to be increasing. They burn fairly well and considering the price (which is 34 cents per 100) it is a reasonably good smoke.”
The Koreans weren’t the only ones to take advantage of the growing market. By 1903 there were at least two foreign cigarette factories in Chemulpo but even they were not able to keep up with the growing demand.
A review of the customs reports indicate that 92,661,000 cigarettes were imported into Jemulpo in 1903. This number grew to 493,087,000 in 1904 ― undoubtedly due to the start of the Russo-Japanese War and the large number of Japanese soldiers in Korea. Even after the war, more than 395 million were imported.
According to one customs agent, the large import “shows clearly how cigarette smoking is growing in favor with the Koreans and displacing, at least among the working class, the cumbrous long pipe of former days.”
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times. — ED.