Saturday, April 4, 2009
Rhee Syngman house
It's a nondescript dead-end street in one of the valleys that form the tony neighborhoods of Honolulu on the mauka* side of H-1, the Interstate that runs parallel to Oahu's southern coast. The houses along this residential street include some brand new or recently renovated homes, but mostly it is buildings that appear to be from the 1940 or 1950s.
Like many or low-density older Honolulu neighborhoods, it has a rural feel to it. There are no sidewalks, there is loads of greenery, there are mountains on either side, and the quality of the road is rough. Lots of bumps.
And there, on the right, not far past the DEAD END sign, is what I am looking for.
If I hadn't looked up the address myself, I'd wonder if this really was what I'm looking for. At first glance, it doesn't look that old, but upon closer inspection this house on Makiki Street does look to be old enough to have housed South Korean President Rhee Syngman after he was ousted form power following a rash of student and citizen protests in April 1960.
By Honolulu standards, it's located on relatively spacious grounds, though my parents' own home in Orange County is probably just as large. This old and modest home is probably worth only a fraction of what the actual land would cost.
After a long day of classes and then taking my friend "S," who had just arrived back from a year of studying in Oakland, on a journey to Hawaii's first Target store and then WalMart and Japanese grocery chain Don Quijote, I finally had time to drive by the Rhee exile home in order to take a picture with my Nikon D60.
This was my second visit, the first being not long after I first arrived in Hawaii, when I actually set Makiki as a jogging goal one day. It took longer than I had planned, only because I got lost (Honolulu was laid out by the same drunken Mancunians who designed Seoul). Clearly when I first ran by here, I didn't have a camera with me.
When I approached the Rhee home at around 6 p.m., as the sun was starting to set, I saw someone drive their Volvo past me and into the Rhee home carport, located underneath the kitchen. Carports beneath the main house are a common feature in Honolulu's terraced neighborhoods.
I had planned to do a photographic drive-by, but I felt at least a little guilty taking pictures of someone's home when I clearly have an opportunity to first ask permission (I wouldn't want to steal the house's soul, nor would I want to attract unwanted attention to their home).
What do you ask in such a case? A middle-aged man came out of the to meet the person who had just parked; that person had gone inside, so I approached the man. Cautiously, "Excuse me, but is this by any chance the former home of the President of Korea." I hadn't even finished the sentence and he formed a knowing smile. "Yes."
I told him I didn't want to impose, but would it be possible to take a picture or two. Sure, he said. And then we talked. He knew little about Rhee, and when he and his wife had bought the home in 2005, they had no idea an exiled former head-of-state had lived here. Odd, I thought, that the previous owners wouldn't have mentioned that.
The owner, "M," said that tour buses of Koreans would come with some regularity and take pictures. He didn't seem to mind. In fact, if he ever got ready to sell the house, he would be interested in alerting a Korean organization that might want to buy it and turn it into a museum. At the very least, I said, it should be registered as a historic site.
I explained a bit about Rhee, his role in Korea's independence movement and in the foundation of the Republic of Korea in the late 1940s. I told of his vehement anti-communist feelings and how this led to a purge of North-leaning ROK citizens, though this was nothing like what the North had engaged in.
I explained how the octogenarian was ousted from power. We both wondered if his wife, Francesca Donner, returned right away to Korea or might have stayed in Hawaii after her husband died following a stroke in July 1965, five years into his exile. President Park Chunghee had planned to give Rhee a state funeral, but there was opposition to that, but Rhee was buried in the National Cemetery at Tongjak in Seoul.
As it turns out, Francesca Donner first went back to her native Austria, but in 1970 went back to Seoul, where she lived in the humble home she had shared with her husband, Ihwajang, in the Taenhangno section of central Seoul. If Rhee was corrupt, he certainly didn't know how to spend his millions, living in the average, everyday homes that they did.
Despite the controversy surrounding her husband's stewardship of South Korea, "Francesca" was a beloved figure, and many were saddened by her death in 1992. It's no surprised that she lived two decades as a widow when you consider that she was her long-lived husband's junior by a quarter century.
I promised "M" and his wife I would track down some links about Rhee that they might find useful and maybe some pictures of their home back when the Rhees lived there. We talked about reviving those with bad reputations; I mentioned Richard Nixon from my own hometown, while Mrs. "M" mentioned George W. Bush.
Who know? Maybe the current president's administration might take some interest in reviving the legacy of the Republic of Korea's first president. We shall see. In the meantime, "M" will wave politely to the tour buses that drive on by.
* mauka [mou-kah] is an adjective referring to a direction or some thing being located toward the mountains. It is commonly used as a direction or locator in Hawaii, where the most development is along the coast and inland mountain areas are sparsely populated or completely undeveloped. Its counterpart, makai, [mah-kī] means toward the sea.