When my great-great Aunt Helen and her husband travelled to Korea in 1899, the country was almost unknown to tourists. Helen was an intrepid traveller, but in the end, the scarcity of clean accommodations got the better of her.
At the time, Helen Frances Bagg (1861-1935) and her first husband, Albert Edward Lewis (1861-1908), were living in Shanghai, where there was a large European community and they enjoyed a busy social life. However, Shanghai was very hot in the summer and Helen read that Korea was cooler, so that June, the couple left for Korea aboard an uncomfortable Russian mail ship.
In a neatly hand-written journal penned 25 years later, Helen noted that the day after they arrived in Chemulpo (now known as Incheon), Prince Henry of Prussia also landed there. A delegation of Korean nobles had been waiting for six hours for him near the landing area, dressed in gowns of spotless white, surmounted by sleeveless blue garments and small crowned hats fastened under the chin with ribbons and strings of amber beads. The prince took no notice of this welcoming committee, but immediately mounted a pony and left for the consulate.
Helen noted that the white garments so many Koreans wore were a curse to the women of the country. Poor people only owned only one such robe, and to ensure that their clothing was clean, women often stayed up all night to do the laundry, beating the garments with wooden clubs until they were dry and glossy while their husbands slept soundly.
After a week in Chemulpo, Helen and Edward travelled by boat to Seoul, the capital city, along with several other foreign passengers and their interpreters. They expected to stay at the British Consulate, but the consul was away so they had to find other accommodations. By the time they settled into the house of an English missionary, it was evening, so they went straight to bed by the light of a single candle. Later, Helen awakened “with the feeling that I was being devoured alive!” In the morning, they discovered insects hiding behind the numerous Bible pictures hanging on the walls, so they went out and bought soap, scrubbing brushes and several packages of Keatings Insect Powder, guaranteed to get rid of fleas, cockroaches and flies.
Despite the discomfort of their accommodations and the unstable political situation (the empress of Korea had been assassinated four years earlier and the emperor apparently feared a similar fate), Helen and Edward found Seoul to be interesting, and they met a historian who related many local legends and took them to see the city’s palaces and other landmarks. They both took many photos with their Kodak cameras, and later sold some of their images to newspapers and magazines.
After several weeks, Helen and Edward moved to a seaside town where they hoped to find some cool breezes. They rented a Japanese bungalow near the water, but it included only what Helen described as “the barest necessities of life.” They tried sleeping on the floor, but that was so uncomfortable, they ordered bedding from Shanghai and hired a carpenter to build a bedstead.
“Our only cooking was done on a tiny Japanese hibachi, which was, however, quite sufficient for our purposes,” Helen remarked. Meat and decent vegetables were scarce, so they usually ate canned food. They hired a servant recommended by another missionary acquaintance to do the housework.
The highlight of their stay was a three-day trip to a mountain Buddhist monastery, organized by a Scottish missionary named McRae. They set out on a suffocatingly hot day with three ponies, a stout ox, two palanquins (sedan chairs) borne by six men, a Korean guide and Mr. McCrae. At the entrance of the picturesque old monastery, a group of monks in white attire greeted them, and “their 90-year-old abbot stood at the top of a long flight of steps to greet us with offerings of cake and wild honey.”
Exhausted by the long trip, the visitors were escorted to a dimly lit corner of one of the temples, and they immediately fell asleep on the smooth clay floor. Helen awoke in the middle of the night, parched and drenched in sweat. They discovered that, in an effort to be hospitable, the abbot had ordered that an extra-hot fire be lit under the clay floor! Helen, Edward and Mr. McCrae gathered their belongings and tiptoed to a cooler temple. In the dark, they thought they spotted sleeping figures on some nearby tables, but when the sun began to rise, they realized these figures were not sleeping monks but dead ones, laid out on funeral biers! Soon, a bell began to ring and a group of chanting monks carried the corpses off to their funeral.
Hot and tired, Helen and Edward got another shock when they finally arrived home at their seaside villa: the servant’s wife and two dirty children were lying on their precious bed. Helen chased them down the road, the children shrieking at the tops of their voices, and the couple burned the mattress and pillows.
They spent the following week with an unpleasant European family while they waited for a ship bound for Vladivostok. “It was without an atom of regret that we watched the shores of the ‘island of the interrupted shadow’ fade out of our sight into the distance beyond,” she wrote.
Photo credit: Notman & Sandham 11-4197.1 copyright McCord Museum
Note: The widow of a distant cousin recently found this journal among many photo albums and other family documents stashed in a locker in her condo building. She did not know what it was or who wrote it, but I did! See Janice Hamilton, “Helen Frances Bagg; A Happy Exile”, Writing Up the Ancestors, Jan. 6, 2016, http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.com/2016/01/helen-frances-bagg-happy-exile.html