Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Fire in Joseon

Firetruck in Seoul circa 1925
/ Courtesy of Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

Fire has always been one of the greatest threats to city residents in Korea — especially during the Joseon era. The homes —especially those of the lower classes — were built close to one another and covered with thatch making them extremely combustible.

There were a number of fires in 1892. In Seoul, a fire near the South Gate, described as “the largest the capital in quite a number of years” destroyed a number of homes. About two weeks later, a huge fire in the Japanese section of Fusan (modern Busan) destroyed 60 to 70 buildings and could have been much worse if the weather had not been so calm. A broken kerosene lantern was to blame.

The port city of Jemulpo was not immune to such dangers either. In May 1892, a fire broke out in a rice-hulling warehouse near the Japanese consulate just after midnight. The fire bell at the consulate was sounded and a Japanese fire brigade promptly responded. They were assisted by “two Japanese fireengines of rather primitive construction,” manned by Korean fire fighters and by the fire brigade from the Chinese warship, Chin Hai. The fire was brought under control after several hours and with the loss of only five buildings.

Korean fires rarely claimed many lives — even in huge fires such as the one that occurred in the final days of the Joseon era. On March 5, 1907, a large part of Jemulpo was destroyed in a fire caused by a young Japanese woman named Tsuneno Takahashi. Tsuneno worked as a maid for her uncle but soon grew disenchanted with her work and wanted to go to China and seek other employment. Her uncle, however, would not allow it and kept her on a tight leash so that she could not approach her friends for assistance in obtaining money for tickets.

Her chance for escape came in the early hours of March 5 while her uncle was in Seoul on business. She got up before dawn and set up her anka (a small brazier) to warm her room and then went out to visit a friend who lived nearby in the hopes of borrowing some money from her.

According to Tsuneno, she was only gone about forty minutes when she suddenly smelled smoke and heard the sounds of bells. She quickly ran home only to discover that the entire building was on fire. She managed to rescue her aunt but could do nothing for her three young cousins who perished in the flames.

Korean and Japanese fire crews rushed to the building but a sudden shift in the wind caused the fire to spread. Even though the crews were augmented by Japanese soldiers and Korean laborers it took almost six hours before the fire could be contained. The loss in material damage was severe — 400 homes, most of them in the Japanese section of Jemulpo. Fortunately, the three young girls were the only ones to lose their lives.

Tsuneno knew that she was responsible and immediately ran away. She first went to the beach where she hoped to drown. But, because of the number of refugees fleeing the fire, she could find no desolate spot to commit her desperate act.

She then went to Seoul and stayed in a hotel but, tormented with guilt, she made her way into the mountains surrounding the city and prayed for an errant shot by a hunter’s gun to end her life. She endured the elements of the mountains for three days without food and water before she finally walked back down to the city and surrendered herself to the authorities.

Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.

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