Land and property ownership in Korea between the 1880s-1900s was somewhat chaotic. Due in part to locals’ unpreparedness, the situation was brought on by opportunistic foreigners who pushed the limits of law and treaty regulations. The issue of foreigners buying up real estate was even a problem in the center of Seoul. By the 1900s, English-language reports show that the private sale or lease of real estate to Japanese, Chinese, and Western migrants outside of designated settlement treaty areas or treaty regulations had become rampant.
It was claimed that “if all the property bought by foreigners outside of treaty limits were to be taken back by the [Korean] Government it would keep the authorities busy for some time.”1 Though some locals were simply leasing their farm land to those in the Chinese community,2 for example, even Korean government officials participated in the illegitimate auctioning of properties. To be sure, a supervisor of Chemulpo (Yi Cha-jeong) was reportedly put on trial after obstructing the sale of tidal land to an individual pre-approved by the Household Department, instead allowing a Japanese person to buy the property.3 In 1903, it was discovered that a thirty year lease for an island off Jeollanamdo had been given to a Japanese individual in August 1899. The land, reportedly owned by a Korean military general who may not have had the authority to conduct such business, was leased by a representative for the sum of 33,200yen.4
Other foreigners attempted to dodge legal issues altogether by having properties bought in the name of a Korean assistant, as was the case in Pyongyang when a group of missionaries were paying for houses in the 1890s. The Korean men who sold two houses to missionary-doctor William James Hall were reportedly arrested for the transaction. Dr. Hall “bought nothing in his own name” and “all the transactions were in the name of Mr. You, their helper.” This particular case was made more complicated when Mr. You was “ordered by the [Korean] governor to return the deeds for both houses”. However, Dr. Hall had already left Pyongyang on a trip to Uiju, taking the deeds with him. With little other recourse, Mr. You “made out false ones” in order “to save himself.”5
In other cases, illegal purchases may have been driven by rising land prices, which were occurring in Chemulpo as early as 1890 as Chinese and Japanese settlers wished to expand their settlement zones.6 By 1892, housing value had reportedly increased to the point of homes being sold for three times their “real value” in Seoul.7 The value of one section of the Presbyterian mission compound in Jeong-dong, the property on which the boys’ school sat, was thought to have quadrupled since the time it was originally purchased.8
The Korean government issued a public proclamation, explaining that since the Korean people were “unable to purchase at such high rates,” such buildings were “drifting into the hands of Chinese merchants and foreigners from other countries,” and that further sales made outside of treaty sanctions were to first be reviewed by the government. They lamented, “Where shall the officials and merchants of Seoul reside if this continues?”9 By November 1901, a mortgage bureau had reportedly been set up by the Korean government in order to combat Koreans’ mortgaging their homes to “people of other nationalities”, promising lower rates to the Korean owners.10
Tong Shun Tai (同順泰), a Chinese trading company established in Chemulpo and Seoul from 1885-1886 by Guangdong businessman Tan Jie Sheng (譚傑生), was one of these merchant houses participating in real estate speculation in Jeong-dong.11 The company reportedly attempted to take advantage of the Korean government’s continuing expansion of Gyeongungung [Deoksugung] by constructing a building that authorities would feel pressured to buy. In 1901, the Korean government had reportedly asked the foreign diplomatic representatives not to build more structures above two storeys around Gyeongungung.12 As rumors spread in the 1900s that the emperor “tried to buy up all the Legation buildings nearest to his Palace”,13 the Korean cabinet did reportedly decide that “two-storey houses overlooking the palace must be bought” by the government.14 The palace grounds continued to expand as all of the property belonging to the Presbyterian Mission in the legation district was bought by the Korean government this same year.15
Unlike Korea’s Japanese merchants, who were typically small, independent business owners, Tong Shun Tai was similar to larger Chinese merchant houses in that it had business connections throughout multiple open ports in East Asia, seemingly having more than enough capital to make real estate investments in Seoul. The scale of Tong Shun Tai’s real estate investments is unclear, but evidence shows they reached as far as Mokpo, where the company purchased one of the lots next to the never-developed British consular site around 1899.16 By October of 1901, Tong Shun Tai had reportedly built a three-storey house overlooking the palace walls in an attempt to force the purchase of the property by the Korean government. The Korea Review wrote it “was rather evident that [the house’s] height was intended as an argument for its sale to the palace authorities, but the builders overreached themselves, for the Chinese Consul with great good sense refused to incur the ill-will of the Government by upholding any such imposition. The builders were summarily ordered to take down the third storey of the building. Of course everyone expects the Government will pay a good round price for property that it buys from foreigners, but that is a different thing from building in an annoying fashion for the purpose of forcing a purchase.”17
It’s likely some Western personalities were involved in a similar practice. According to the memoirs of diplomat and advisor to the Korean government William Franklin Sands, there was a case in which an “American missionary had built a house overlooking a very sacred spot. Once in a while some foreigner would do that, in spite of the violation it involved, both of native etiquette and actual law. The Korean authorities never dared apply the law to a foreigner, for it involved confiscation of the property to the Crown and heavy penalties, which no self respecting [foreign] legation would allow. The only remedy was purchase by the emperor for as much as the foreigner dared ask, and as his claim was generally supported by his legation, he dared greatly.”18
The house in question was the one the Korean government bought for Sands in the center of Seoul. The “American missionary” in question was Homer B. Hulbert, who was rumored to have a penchant for real estate speculation with property ownership issues going back to 1888.19
About eight months after Gojong took up residence in Gyeongungung [Deoksugung] and began expanding the palace, a report was published indicating another real estate issue involving the Korean government and the Qing community. The publication showed the (Korean) Chief of Construction in charge of supervising new buildings at Gyeongungung was disputing an unnamed Chinese person’s claim to land in front of the palace that the Chinese man was already building a house on.20 There were minor issues as well, such as reports of Chinese entrepreneurs trying to set up shops on main thoroughfares like Korean merchants had done before the roads were graded, cleared, and widened under the Korean government.21
“Chinese contractors and Chinese speculators” were not the only individuals looking to invest in the booming capital city.22 During the first construction boom following the Sino-Japanese War, a minor organization made up of Westerners known as the Seoul Improvement Company had two “fine brick business blocks” constructed at the eastern entrance of the legation district.23 Completed by the middle of 1896, the buildings were locally advertised in The Independent and The Korean Repository. The promotional columns and advertisements for the buildings frequently suggested the buildings’ potential use as hotel space. A notice published in The Independent on May 2, 1896, is particularly enlightening, describing these buildings in detail and indicating how far construction quality had come since Chemulpo opened to international Japanese commerce in 1883. To be sure, the brick buildings were perhaps even over-engineered with “concrete foundations of sixteen to twenty feet deep.”24 The writers of The Independent explained:
“We have made a visit to the two blocks of brick business buildings . . . at the Eastern end of Legation street, and find them a credit to the city. We inspected the completed part, each block being divided into four apartments separated from each other by a fire wall.25 On the ground floor the whole space is given up to one large store room with cement floor, well plastered walls and varnished wood ceilings. A neat and compact staircase leads from this store room to a commodious hall on the upper floor, which hall is lighted by a window opening upon the street. Off this hall are two neat rooms finished in the best foreign style and quite well fitted for occupation by foreigners. Owing to the low level of the surrounding houses the view is excellent. The eight up-stairs rooms and four halls of one of these blocks if joined by a verandah with a door from each opening upon it, would make a very neat and convenient little hotel – an institution even now greatly needed in Seoul and one that will be a necessity when the railroad opens. A hotel might open in one of these blocks in a small way and grow to greater pretensions as the trade increases.
We need a drug store here and hope some foreigner may start one in one of these apartments. He could very comfortably live over his store. Each apartment has a kitchen at the rear. Even before completion these apartments are in demand, Messrs Tsuji & Co having occupied one of them as a dry goods store for some months. Now that the whole is about completed we understand an agent will be appointed to attend to the renting of them.”26
Interested parties were directed to write to the Seoul Improvement Company at the time, but the first agent responsible for these buildings appears to have been military advisor Ferdinand J. H. Nienstead who was serving the Korean government at the time. The structures, built as investment properties for lease at 20-22 yen per month,27 were “placed in the charge” of Nienstead, who had become the manager of “all the business” of the company in 1897.28
This post-war economic boom was anticipated by Japanese merchants as they followed soldiers and coolies to Korean shores. “So great was the number of these newcomers” said an American consular report, “that each steamer entering a Korean harbor from Japan was literally laden with tradesmen and their goods, and on landing great inconvenience was experienced in procuring houses for personal accomodations and storage.”29 As the war came to an end, Korea’s construction industry boomed, and the Seoul-Chemulpo Railway offered new investment opportunities. Chemulpo was growing, with thirty-five homes reportedly being built in the month of July 1898 alone.30
Even people like Horace Newton Allen participated in real estate speculation during this time, capitalizing on the new railway enterprise by having a house constructed on the outskirts of Chemulpo. Presumably through his significant influence at the time, Allen was able to arrange for his own railway stop to be put in (known as Sopplekogai) next to the property.31 There, he found twenty acres of land “wooded [with] small pines” outside the port city for the purpose of building this summer home as an “[i]nvestment made for immediate comfort and future profit.”32
Allen was not the only Westerner with a holiday property. The Independent reported that Henry Appenzeller also had a “summer cottage” being built around the same area as Allendale during the same period.33 Both Horace G. Underwood and Dr. Oliver R. Avison had summer cottages on the Han River near Seoul, though Avison appears to have had his as early as 1895.34 Given the appearance of Underwood’s and Avison’s homes they may not have been intended as investments, but there were a number of Westerners with similar ideas.
At the General Foreign Settlement inside Chemulpo proper, despite thousands of Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans making up most of the boom town’s demographics, it was Germans who appear to have been “the most invested nation in the Settlement’s land development.”35 Buying up some 14 of the General Foreign Settlement lots as early as January 1886 (there were only 36 lots when they went to public auction in 1884), by 1899 it was just eleven German property owners that were paying forty-two percent of land taxes. In contrast, thirty-one Japanese landowners were paying far less – just twenty-three percent of land taxes – despite being the largest demographic to own property in the General Foreign Settlement.36 While it is unclear how many of these properties were owned by locally residing Germans – as opposed to absentee real estate speculators – such information offers clear evidence as to which people groups were investing in a newly open Korea.
In the 1900s, members of the Western community may have continued to go around the Korean government in some cases, taking minor liberties with property boundaries. Even the French consular staff were implicitly accused of illegally fencing in “about one half of the top of the [city] wall … as property of the French Government”,37 with real estate lot disputes involving French missionaries reported as early as 1889.38 However, disputes involving property boundaries and property use go back as far as 1888, when multiple house lots bought by the Methodist Mission in Seoul were walled in, preventing locals from using the small paths that were on these properties.39 If treaty law and real estate were difficult to control in the capital, they were even trickier to regulate in Korea’s interior. Missionaries in rural areas often went beyond treaty law by building or purchasing property, an issue that some local Korean officials attempted to keep in check.40 Others, particularly Japanese settlers, similarly ventured outside of treaty boundaries. The aforementioned issues at Pyongyang in particular were apparently so well known that they were summarily published in a public East Asian directory, making a point to include the fact that the “[Korean] government allowed the matter to slide.”41 This apathy, or tolerance, continued in other places as well. In 1903, it was reported that Japanese individuals were moving into South Chungcheong Province and that they had refused to return to within the 30 li of Gunsan that was stipulated in the treaty.42 Others who had begun residing on an island off Jeolla-do reportedly went so far as to setup “a post office of their own at that place.”43
The personal motivations of some foreign settlers’ moving away from Seoul’s urban centers is unclear. However, in some of cases, they may have been trying to escape Korea’s increasingly crowded city centers and ever increasing real estate prices. To be sure, a brief review of the year 1903 shows real estate values had continued appreciating, with construction projects on a “phenomenal scale” being “carried on in spite of soaring prices”. According to the editor of the Korea Review, these investments were driven by a “confidence in the future and a determination to take advantage of manifest opportunities.”44 In the General Foreign and Japanese settlements at Chemulpo, property values were then somewhere between 20-30 yen per square meter by the mid-1900s.45 At Namdaemun in Seoul, where much of the city’s commercial trade was said to have passed through, real estate prices were reportedly ten times higher than they were in the mid-1890s.46
Urban congestion was only intensified by a second economic boom following the completion of the Seoul-Busan railway and the end of the Russo-Japanese War. In anticipation, investments continued. Western business owners like W. H. Emberley reportedly attempted to get ahead of it by rebuilding his old Station Hotel as the Grand Hotel around the early 1900s.47
By the time Korea had become a protectorate of Japan in 1905, foreigners had been violating boundaries and venturing outside of zones regulated by treaties for years. The issue of Japanese settlers specifically not respecting property boundaries continued as Korea’s government “transitioned” to one under Japanese control. In a despatch filed by American consul-general Thomas Sammons, a reported case of a Japanese subject trespassing across private property to mine stone was said to have not been uncommon. Sammons explained, “The Japanese have been the trespassers in practically all instances and I have pointed out to Prince Ito and the higher protectorate officials that a continuance of such a policy would, no doubt, sooner or later, result in serious trouble.”48 Not only was it said that it was difficult for the (Japanese) protectorate government to establish titles and boundaries before annexation,49 but the Japanese settler community in Korea often acted in their own interests – interests that did not always align with that of the Japanese government’s.
The history of Korea’s early modern real estate market is perhaps sometimes conflated with property acquired through or supported by the Japanese government, the subject matter particularly overshadowed by the Oriental Development Company’s land-grabbing, for example. To be fair, representatives of foreign governments residing in Korea sometimes initiated, defended, and encouraged the various commercial endeavors of their countrymen, including the Americans, Chinese, British, and French. This extended to real estate and the ownership or leasing of property. However, some were independent players acting of their own accord. Instances such as these occurred regardless of nationality, where men of opportunity used the political clout of their respective countries to attempt to further their personal, business, or religious interests. Globally par for the course, with consuls and diplomats the world over often taking the side of their own, this extended to the real estate market in early modern Korea. This was made most visible, perhaps due to their sheer number, by Japanese settlers and enterprising tycoons who invested in Korea’s developing urban centers. Some did so for personal gain, others did so as agents indirectly aiding the Japanese government. As a group, however diverse in intent, their localized influence contributed to a greater urban change occurring on the Korean peninsula.
The chaos of Korea’s emerging early modern real estate market became tempered, more regulated, once annexation had fully set in. Some foreigners continued investing in the main cities, but with settler land ownership no longer restricted to exclusive settlement zones, others instead went into the peninsula’s interior, investing in new towns by laying more groundwork for what was increasingly becoming the Japanization of the Korean peninsula.
Update Sept. 4, 2021: Note that a paper by Sora Kim entitled “For Whom the Line is Drawn: Korean Indigenous Conceptions of Boundary in the 19th Century and Changes in the Colonial Period” greatly informs the socio-political context of the “real estate” situation discussed here. Available at DBpia. DOWNLOAD LINK
Footnotes and Citations
1 The Korea Review, Vol. 1 (Seoul: The Methodist Publishing House, 1901), 551.
2 Horace Newton Allen, Things Korean(New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1908), 51.
3 The Korea Review, Vol. 1 (Seoul: The Methodist Publishing House, 1901), 364.
4 The Korea Review, Vol. 3 (Seoul: The Methodist Publishing House, 1903), 314.
5 Graham Lee to Dr. Ellinwood, April 13, 1893. Transcript. Samuel Austin Moffett Papers and Letters, from the Moffett Korea Collection, Princeton Theological Seminary Library.
6 Corea: Report for the Year 1890 on the Trade of Corea (London: Harrison and Sons, 1891), 5. Myongji University Library.
7 The Korean Repository, Vol. 1 (Seoul: The Trilingual Press, 1892), 34.
8 Samuel Austin Moffett estimated the boys’ school property at being worth $2000, up from the $450 the Presbyterian mission originally paid for it. Letter from Samuel A. Moffett to Dr. Ellinwood, February 24, 1891. Transcript. Samuel Austin Moffett Papers and Letters, from the Moffett Korea Collection, Princeton Theological Seminary Library.
9 The Korean Repository, Vol. 1 (Seoul: The Trilingual Press, 1892), 34.
10 The Korea Review, Vol. 1 (Seoul: The Methodist Publishing House, 1901), 506.
11 Ryota Ishikawa, “Commercial Activities of Chinese Merchants in the Late Nineteenth Century Korea,” International Journal of Korean History, Vol.13 (Feb. 2009), 76.
12 The Korea Review, Vol. 1 (Seoul: The Methodist Publishing House, 1901), 558.
13 Constance J. D. Tayler, Koreans at Home: The Impressions of a Scotswoman (London: Cassell and Company, Ltd., 1904), 17. From the collection of An Sonjae.
14 The Korea Review, Vol. 1 (Seoul: The Methodist Publishing House, 1901), 552.
15 The Korea Review, Vol. 1 (Seoul: The Methodist Publishing House, 1901), 121.
16 A plan of the British consular site at Mokpo depicts the property’s labeled surrounding lots. One of these lots, labeled as “A 149”, reads as “bought by Messrs. Tong Shun Tai”. WORK40/460. Mokpo. British Consulate. Site plan., 1899. From the National Archives, Kew. A partial copy can be viewed at Room for Diplomacy.
17 The Korea Review, Vol. 1 (Seoul: The Methodist Publishing House, 1901), 461.
18 William Franklin Sands, Undiplomatic Memories (New York: Whittlesey House, 1930), 130.
19 Probably around the autumn of 1888, the Korean government asked American consul Hugh Anderson Dinsmore to destroy the deed to a house Hulbert had paid for and bought from a Korean individual. The reason for this is unclear. Dinsmore declined the request. Letter from Hugh A. Dinsmore to President of the Korean Foreign Office, October 3, 1888. Spencer J. Palmer, ed., Korean-American Relations: Documents Pertaining to the Far Eastern Diplomacy of the United States, vol. 2, The Period of Growing Influence, 1887-1895 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 217.
20 The Independent. Vol. 2, No. 130, November 2, 1897. p4.
21 Public infrastructure works occurred in the late 1890s under foreign advisor John McLeavy Brown and a number of Korean supervisors.
22 B. L. Putnam Weale, The Re-shaping of the Far East (New York: McMillian Company, 1905), 532.
23 This appeared as an advertisement without a page number, but was printed on the third advertisement page after the cover. The Korean Repository, Vol. 3, No. 8 (Seoul: The Trilingual Press, 1896), xx. The Independent reported on May 6, 1896, that one of these buildings was already occupied and in use “for months” prior to the publication. The Independent, May 2, 1896, 1.
24 The Korean Repository, Vol. 3, No. 7 (Seoul: The Trilingual Press, 1896), 301.
25 The “fire wall” was probably made up of fire bricks (brick tolerant to high heat) imported into China from the West and re-exported from Shanghai to Korea. Maritime trade reports show that fire bricks and clay were imported into China from Great Britain, the United States, and Australia as early as 1864, sometimes re-exported to other countries, including Japan, for decades to come.
26 The Independent, May 2, 1896, 1. Note that The Korean Repository ran a very similar column for July 1896, further suggesting that the “150 European and American residents in Seoul, and large numbers of western soldiers and marines spending their pay here” would support the establishment of a dentist’s parlor in one of these buildings. The Korean Repository, Vol. 3, No. 7 (Seoul: The Trilingual Press, 1896), 302.
27 This appeared as an advertisement without a page number, but was printed on the third advertisement page after the cover. The Korean Repository, Vol. 3, No. 8 (Seoul: The Trilingual Press, 1896), xx.
28 The Independent, February 6, 1897, 3. In addition to the dry goods store noted in The Independent, The Korean Repository claimed that a banking company, grocery, dry goods, and fabric store(s) had already occupied these buildings in 1896. The Korean Repository, Vol. 3, No. 7 (Seoul: The Trilingual Press, 1896), 301.
29 “Japanese Commerce With China and Korea,” Consular Reports, Vol. 49, No. 180 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1895), 34. From the larger collection digitized by Google within the Cornell University Library entitled Reports from the Consuls of the United States, No.104-149, 1889-1893.
30 The Independent, August 16, 1898.
31 The hill that Allen’s villa was built upon is still visible today, about a hundred meters northeast of present-day Dowon Station, in Sungeui-dong. A former church now occupies this space, its address being 인천광역시 미추홀구 우각로 134-9. The name of the railway stop at Allendale, Sopplekogai, was penned in the notes surrounding Allen’s photographs of the house, New York Public Library.
32 Notes on Allen’s photographs depicting Allendale, from New York Public Library.
33 The Independent, July 26, 1898.
34 The Korean Repository, Vol.2 (Seoul: The Trilingual Press, 1895), 396.
35 Harald Fuess, “E. Meyer & Co. at the Eastern Frontiers of Capitalism: The Leading Western Merchant House in Korea, 1884 to 1914,” Journal of Business History, vol. 61, no. 1 (2017), 16-17.
36 Harald Fuess, “E. Meyer & Co. at the Eastern Frontiers of Capitalism: The Leading Western Merchant House in Korea, 1884 to 1914,” Journal of Business History, vol. 61, no. 1 (2017), 16-17.
37 The Korean Repository, Vol.2 (Seoul: The Trilingual Press, 1895), 397.
38 While American consul Hugh A. Dinsmore was waiting for several deeds (to land bought by American missionaries) to be authenticated by the Korean government, he mentioned French missionaries being involved in a lot dispute. Letter from Hugh A. Dinsmore to Secretary of State. Spencer J. Palmer, ed., Korean-American Relations: Documents Pertaining to the Far Eastern Diplomacy of the United States, vol. 2, The Period of Growing Influence, 1887-1895 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 221-222.
39 In American consul Hugh A. Dinsmore’s opinion, the Methodists had bought and paid for the properties, and as such were free to use them privately as they wished, including fencing in the lots to keep others out. Letter from Hugh A. Dinsmore to President of the Korean Foreign Office. Spencer J. Palmer, ed., Korean-American Relations: Documents Pertaining to the Far Eastern Diplomacy of the United States, vol. 2, The Period of Growing Influence, 1887-1895 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 218.
40 Numerous missionary accounts discussing obtaining properties show this was probably a widespread practice. For example, an official at Daegu notified the Presbyterian mission of their breaking treaty law by building in the countryside, asking them to cease until the matter was settled. Letter from Edith Parker Johnson to Dr. Ellinwood, May 3, 1900. Transcript. Moffett Korea Collection, Princeton Theological Seminary Library.
41 The Directory and Chronicle for China, Japan, Corea, Indo-China, Straits Settlements, Malay States, Siam, Netherlands India, Borneo, the Philippines, and etc (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Daily Press Office, 1902), 120.
42 The Korea Review, Vol. 3 (Seoul: The Methodist Publishing House, 1903), 79.
43 The Korea Review, Vol. 3 (Seoul: The Methodist Publishing House, 1903), 559.
44 The Korea Review, Vol. 3 (Seoul: The Methodist Publishing House, 1903), 546.
45 Homer B. Hulbert, The Passing of Korea (New York: Doubleday, Page, and Company, 1906), 456.
46 Homer B. Hulbert, The Passing of Korea (New York: Doubleday, Page, and Company, 1906), 457.
47 B. L. Putnam Weale, The Re-shaping of the Far East (New York: McMillian Company, 1905), 528.
48 Despatch from Thomas Sammons to U.S. State Department. Copy of Department of State despatch No. 368, May 11, 1909. 2-3. Digitized microfilm roll 1082, microcopy 862. Numerical File: 20233-20272, General Records of the Department of State. Library of Congress.
49 Despatch from Thomas Sammons to U.S. State Department. Copy of Department of State despatch No. 368, May 11, 1909. 2-3. Digitized microfilm roll 1082, microcopy 862. Numerical File: 20233-20272, General Records of the Department of State. Library of Congress.