Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Bicycle fever

In the summer of 1896, Horace N. Allen, one of the earliest Westerners to live in Korea, described the country as suffering from an epidemic of “bicycle fever.” He was referring to the comparatively large number of bicycles that had suddenly appeared in the streets of Seoul. But 1896 was not the first year that bicycles appeared in Korea — the first one is believed to have arrived with a young naval officer in December 1884.

Following the Gapsin Revolt on Dec. 4, Lt. Philip V. Lansdale and 13 sailors and Marines from the U.S.S. Ossipee volunteered to go to Seoul and help protect the American legation and its small staff. The detachment — with the exception of Lansdale — marched the 26 miles from Jemulpo to Seoul. Lansdale rode his high-wheel bicycle.

According to romanticized accounts, as Lansdale rode through the streets of Jemulpo crowds of astonished Koreans “came running from all sides when they saw him pedaling through the streets of (Jemulpo) on his high machine.” Others, however, “fled at the first sight of the strange man gliding along on it.”

When they arrived in Seoul, things were no different. Horace Allen described a jaunt he took with the young officer: “We went through the crowded main street, he on his bicycle and I on a horse. As this appalling looking object came in sight, the throngs of people rushed to the middle of the street for a good view, and as it came nearer they fell back in unfeigned astonishment amounting to open-mouthed alarm, as the strangest thing they had ever seen glided through the narrow passage left for it. As the high wheel and its rider passed and was seen to be harmless...they fell into each other’s arms with laughter following the relief to their first surprised alarm.”

But the common Korean people were not the only ones who wanted to see Lansdale and his bicycle. King Gojong supposedly heard of the wondrous machine and requested the naval officer to appear at the palace where he, like his subjects, was amazed.

“Lansdale explained the art of riding, and under him the King took lessons with such good progress that he sent an order to America for a score of bicycles.” Undoubtedly this was an outright exaggeration, if not fabrication. As was the claim that the monarch and the naval officer “took many rides together (and) they grew to be excellent friends, and the young officer was always a welcome guest at the court. The friendship endured to the end of the life of the officer.” Lansdale died in Samoa in 1899.

According to Ensign Foulk, the American naval attache at the legation, the Japanese consul at Jemulpo was bothered “half to death” by Koreans asking for pictures or models of something they had only seen once and did not even know the name for it. It was only after speaking with Foulk that the Japanese consul had any idea what the Koreans were asking for.

While it is not clear when the word “jajeongeo” came into existence, we do know that in the late 1880s or 1890s that the Koreans had their own name for the bicycle.

When an American English teacher rode by on his bicycle, Horace G. Underwood, an American missionary, pointed to it and asked his Korean-language teacher the Korean word for it. The teacher, without hesitation, declared it the “bakwi” or the Korean for wheel. Although the name did not stick, Underwood was impressed that the Koreans apparently used the same nickname for the bicycle as was used in the United States.

Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.

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