Seoul / How the Japanese occupation shaped the city of Seoul – Henry Collbran (1852-1925)

the Great Han Empire employed two American entrepreneurs, Henry Collbran and H. R. Bostwick, to introduce new technology and to finance the construction of a streetcar system, power lines, street lamps, water pipes, and telephone lines […] these monarch-centered projects led to a series of popular riots among local Korean residents, who viewed this foreign technology, managed by American engineers and operated by Japanese conductors, as both a geomantic intrusion into their communal living space and a public threat to property-holding patterns.

in “Assimilating Seoul: Japanese Rule and The Politics of Public Space in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945

Until 1883, trade between Korea and the West was inexistant due mostly to the conservative leadership of Korea.
Henry Collbran (1852-1925) was a British entrepreneur, who first emigrated to USA where he was working in the railroad industry. He moved to Korea in 1896 where he was asked to build the first railroad linking Incheon to Seoul.
Following this, he and his associate Harry Bostwick were asket to electrify some districts of Seoul. Kyongbok palace was the first place in Seoul to be lighted with electric light at the end of the 19th century.

This constructions marked an important watershed since modernity is finally seen as way to maintain the national sovereignty. Even if these changes caused many popular resistance movements like the streetcar riot in 1899 they would permit the industrialisation and the urbanisation of the city of Seoul and were initiated before the occupation of the country by Japan, which in a way, question what would be Seoul today without the intervention of Japan. Indeed, it seems like they only continue the constructions started under the Great Han Empire.
As the occupation started, H. Collbran sold his shares, making important profits, to english and japanese firms.


Henry Collbran (1852-1925)
Henry Collbran (1852-1925)



Donald G. Southerton (2012) Colorado’s Henry Collbran and the Roots of Early Korean Entrepreneurialism
TODD, H. (2014) Assimilating Seoul: Japanese Rule and The Politics of Public Space in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945. Asia Pacific Modern. A Philip E. Lilienthal Book in Asian Studies

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