Saturday, November 12, 2011

Facts about Korea : "Felix Bijno" Seoul's first Western hotelier

Sontag Hotel is often said to be the first Western hotel in Seoul but there were others before it, including the Seoul Hotel owned by Felix Bijno.

Italian hotelier Felix Bijno is one of those characters in history who appears for a short time and then disappears without a trace.
We know that he worked with the Imperial Chinese Maritime Customs service from February 1887 until he was discharged in January 1894. It appears that Bijno, still a bachelor, took his severance money and eventually made his way to Seoul where he purchased a large two-story building and went into business in April 1897.

It was not easy for Bijno. Although he had purchased the land and building he had trouble obtaining the deeds and had to apply to the British consul for assistance. Despite the British government’s aid, Bijno was still fighting for his deeds in the summer of 1898.

The smallest of his businesses was a provision store that sold amongst other things, roll butter, cube sugar in bulk, the best Ningchow tea in tins and boxes, scotch whiskey, spirit of wine, creams, candies, other sweets and Egyptian cigarettes. But it wasn’t the provision store that Bijno is best known for — it was his hotel which occupied the entire second floor and part of the lower floor.

It isn’t clear what inspired Bijno to establish a hotel nor what earlier experiences he may have had that enabled him to run one with any success — especially alone. The advertisements describing Seoul Hotel (also known as Central Hotel and the Oriental Hotel) noted that it was located “within the Imperial Palace grounds” and was equipped with “spacious, commodious and well-fitted bedrooms.”

The food served in the hotel was “cuisine of the best French style.” It isn’t clear who was preparing the food but it was apparently quite good. It was popular not only with the small Western community but also with the Korean government which used it to cater for its international state dinners including Empress Min’s funeral on Nov. 21 and 22, 1897.

It appears that his success brought a greater desire for stability as evidenced by this notice in the Seoul-based English-language newspaper, The Independent:

“On Wednesday, June 22, 1898, Mr. F. Bijno married Mademoiselle Ravagot of Shanghai, China at the Roman Catholic Church in Seoul. In the evening of the same day the bride and groom gave a dinner party for a number of their friends of the Oriental Hotel, where an elaborate menu was set up for the occasion.”

The hotel continued to enjoy great success.

Horace N. Allen, the American minister to Korea, described it as “a stopping place in the foreign quarter, where four rooms over a dining room and provision store afford all the comfort that an accommodating Italian and his wife can furnish.”

Rooms were 4 yen or 2 dollars (gold) per night. But Allen noted that change was rapidly coming to Seoul with the construction of the Seoul-Chemulpo Railroad and it was “supposed that better hotel accommodations” would soon be provided.

Allen’s words were truly prophetic. By the end of 1899 there is no mention of Bijno’s name amongst the growing number of hotels in Seoul. What became of the hotel? It appears that Bijno and his wife sold their businesses to a Frenchman and moved back to China.

Their fate has been lost with the passage of time.

Source: The Korea Times

1 comment:

  1. This is a very interesting piece of history. Seoul Hotel contributed a lot in the development of South Korea during those times. It is sad that the stories of this hotel and Felix Bijno are mostly forgotten.

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