Wednesday, November 18, 2009

UPDATED: A century of foreign guests behaving badly in Korea

Not long after the controversy over one German woman's book about Korea, we have the centennial of another German woman's book about Korea, this one being the memoir of one Fraulein Emma Kroebel, who "was the chief mistress of ceremonies at the Court of the Emperor of Korea in 1905."

This popped up in the NYT's "TimesMachine," a great feature for digging up old news stories about Korea from a century ago (this is what spawned my recent posts on Itō Hirobumi).

What's particularly interesting about this topic is the episode from the book that the NYT's decided to highlight back in 1909. It involves the striking young woman in the picture below, one Alice Longworth.
It seems that in 1905 the future Mrs Longworth was traveling through Asia with her husband-to-be, Mr Longworth, then a US congressman and future Speaker of the House. They were on their way to Japan, where they would have an audience with the Mikado, and when he heard about this, Emperor Kojong of Korea hastily put together a reception in their honor, which is how Fraulein Kroebel became involved.

The reception was held at the gravesite of Queen/Empress Myŏngsŏng, the assassinated wife of Emperor Kojong, a somber place to have a gathering, but nevertheless, the place chosen for the imperial affair.

It seems that Alice didn't take the gesture or the venue very seriously, writes the Fraulein:
Spying a stone elephant, which seemed particularly to strike her fancy, Alice hurtled off her horse and in a flash was astride the elephant, shouting to Mr. Longworth to snapshot her. Our suite was paralyzed with horror and astonishment. Such a sacrilegious scene at so holy a spot was without parallel in Korean history. It required indeed 'American ways' to produce it.
Ah, the more things change, the more they stay the same. We have an overseas guest behaving extremely boorishly, a European smugly looking down at the boorish visitor and condemning her Americanness, Koreans shocked at boorish barbarians, and all kinds of other silliness.

And if you want to draw parallels to our current century, there's more, because — and this is where I do a Paul Harvey "rest of the story" twist — Mrs Alice Longworth was at the time Miss Alice Roosevelt, then the First Daughter. The mischievous first child of President Theodore Roosevelt was a headline-grabber in those days, so it's hardly surprising that this kind of thing would pop up on her visit to the Land of Morning Calm (though at least some questioned Fraulein Kroebel's story). Indeed, one could make the case that daughters of presidents who are forced to grow up in the White House end up with a stunted childhood of sorts — witness the Bush twins, whose normal teenage exploits turned into front-page headlines.

Anyway, here is the article in its entirety:
BERLIN, Nov. 16.—Fraulein Emma Kroebel, a German woman, who was the chief mistress of ceremonies at the Court of the Emperor of Korea in 1905, appears as the author of a book, published here to-day, which contains a section dealing with the visit of the then Miss Alice Roosevelt to Korea in that year. In her account of the official reception to Miss Roosevelt she says:

"Learning that the Rooseveltian party had been invited to the Court of the Mikado, the Korean Emperor hastened to extend the hospitality of his modest establishment to the distinguished American travelers. Acceptance of his Majesty's invitation came with such astonishing promptness that the Court was in a dilemma how to get a suitable welcome ready in time.

"The Emperor finally decided to bestow upon the daughter of the President of the United States the highest honor at his command, namely, a reception at the grave side of his departed consort, the Empress. An imposing suite of dignitaries and flunkeys were accordingly dispatched to the grave in a picturesque and secluded spot a mile outside Seoul, with utensils for a state banquet.

"Shortly after the suite arrived a tornado of dust burst upon us, out of which a cavalcade of equestrians emerged. At their head rode a dashing young horsewoman clad in a scarlet riding habit, beneath the lower extremities of which peeped tight-fitting red riding breeches stuck into glittering boots. In her hand she brandished a riding whip; in her mouth was a cigar.

"It was Miss Alice Roosevelt. We were flabbergasted. We had expected a different sort of apparition. Everybody was bowing and scraping in the most approved Korean Court fashion, but the Rough Rider's daughter seemed to think it all a joke. As the mistress of ceremonies I stammered out a few words of greeting, and the guest of honor mumbled a word of thanks, but nothing more. She was mainly interested in the colossal figures of gods and the mammoth stone images of animals which hold watch over the graves of the departed members of the Korean dynasty.

"Spying a stone elephant, which seemed particularly to strike her fancy, Alice hurtled off her horse and in a flash was astride the elephant, shouting to Mr. Longworth to snapshot her. Our suite was paralyzed with horror and astonishment. Such a sacrilegious scene at so holy a spot was without parallel in Korean history. It required indeed 'American ways' to produce it.

"It was a critical moment. The suspense was relieved only by the passing of tea and other refreshments. Alice remained oblivious to what was going on around her. Not a word of thanks for her reception was forthcoming. She chatted casually with the wife of the American Minister, Mrs. Morgan, and partook bravely of the champagne and other delicacies.

"Suddenly she gave orders of the saddling of her horse, and galloped away with her male escorts like a Buffalo Bill."
Forget Lee Eun-ung of Anti-English Spectrum: this is why Korea wants to drug-test all foreigners.

At any rate, as I mentioned above, the story was apparently denied by Alice's supporters:

Congressman Nicholas Longworth was seen regarding the story of a German woman, Emma Kroebel, that Mrs. Nicholas Roosevelt Longworth, arrayed in scarlet riding habit and smoking a big black cigar, led a cavalcade to the brink of the late empress of Korea's grave.

"The person who wrote that story was either drunk or crazy, or both," said Congressman Longworth. "I refer, of course, to the specific story printed when I sum up the mental, physical or other conditions ofits author. I know nothing further of the book than this article, as I have niether seen nor heard of the volume.

"I, of course, have never seen nor have I heard before of the woman who is the reputed author of the book. The most charitable interpretation of this article in the newspapers was, as I said before, drunk, cray, or both. This is the only way in which I shall refer to that publication."
This is how celebrity scandals went down in the days before Oprah, tabloids, and TMZ.

There is one other Korea connection with Alice Roosevelt. During the peace talks in Portsmouth, New Hampshire — the ones for which Teddy Roosevelt would later win the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Russo-Japanese War — Alice Roosevelt reportedly used her charm, wit, and cunning to keep the press at bay. These were the same talks that essentially solidified Korea's subservient political position to Japan as far as the rest of the world was concerned, a situation that would last for the next four decades.

Alice Roosevelt would live another three-quarters of a century beyond that, passing away in 1980 a week after her 96th birthday.

Cornell University has a picture in their archives that apparently taken at the scene:

And here she is apparently at the same scene where she is "astride" a funerary figure, the aforementioned "elephant" (looks like she is wondering where to put the nickel):



  1. i thought i was reading 'gusts of popular feeling' for a second there - which i mean in the best way.

  2. I actually used to do a lot of these before I came to Hawaii. In particular, I liked to use archives from Time, but I usually provided less analysis than matt at Popular Gusts.

    I like his posts, which is why I link to his latest stuff in the sidebar, so I took that in the best way.

  3. It seems like the westerners in general had far greater interest in Korea at the start of the 20th century than they are now.

  4. Then as now you had a "We are your betters, we know what's best for you." mentality when westerners encountered those in the Orient paying no heed to the fact that China, Korea, and Japan were doing just fine from way before Europe climbing out of the Dark Ages! As for Alice, she was just a spoiled rich girl who thought she do whatever she wanted since her daddy was the President.


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