▲ Koreans playing Janggi circa 1900. Photo courtesy Robert Neff Collection
During the New Year’s and Korean Thanksgiving (Chuseok), many Korean families like to play games and, to make them more exciting, make small wagers on the outcome. Gambling has always been popular in Korea, and for the most part illegal. But, only on rare occasions was the law enforced and in fact the government occasionally facilitated the habit.
One of the first pieces of machinery developed by the Joseon government’s modern arsenal was a tool of gambling – a “wheel of fortune.” According to one newspaper account in 1888: “A lottery has recently been instituted. The drawings are to take place near the Big Bell [Jongkak] and an elaborate machine consisting of drums, wheels tubes, wooden balls, and all has been constructed in the Arsenal for the purpose.”
But not all gambling required elaborate machines. One Westerner remarked that “Koreans learn the delights and pains of gambling almost from their mother’s milk. You see little fellows five and six years old pitching cash [small Korean coin] with an eagerness and untiring zeal which shows it is not simply the fun they are after.”
Adults often wagered on the outcome of brawls in the streets and especially on the large scale stone battles (seokjeon) that were held in the vacant fields and lots during the New Years.
Card games using Japanese flower cards were also extremely popular. According to a Canadian visitor in the early 1890s: “Card-playing though interdicted by law is habitual among the common people. The nobles look upon it as vulgar amusement beneath their dignity. The people play secretly or at night, often gambling to a ruinous extent.”
How ruinous? “Many and pitiful are the tales told of men who rob their families of the means of sustenance in order to satisfy the craze for gambling. Wealthy men have been beggared in a month, houses, lands, goods, clothes, jewelry, household utensils and all being thrown into the cauldron of their greed.”
While the nobles may have looked upon card playing as vulgar, they apparently had no qualms with dominoes. Four concubines of high government officials ran a gambling den near Namdaemun (South Gate, Seoul) and a Korean official openly gambled in his home in the winter of 1896/97. Because of their high social status they were not bothered by the police. But it wasn’t only noblemen playing dominoes.
One Westerner in the early 1900s wrote: “I shall not soon forget one night when a cautious tap at the window wakened me and upon investigation it proved to be the wife of the cook, who begged me to go and stop the gambling in the gate house where her husband was squandering his hardly(?) earned wages. I complied but as I drew near the place there was no ‘sound of revelry by night’ only a continuous clicking sound as the dominoes rubbed against each other. My appearance at the door had a singular effect. The entire company dove straight at me, as I stood in the only possible exit, and they went over me like a big wave and appeared to fill the whole yard. It seemed as if there were hundreds of them and they all went off in their socks, as there was hardly time to get into their shoes.”
The gamblers had been so surprised at his appearance that they had forgotten their money – some three dollars and 20 cents in nickels and most of it counterfeit. But using funny-money wasn’t the only trick up the gamblers’ sleeves.
“The method by which Koreans cheat in gambling are as many and as deft as those in use elsewhere. The Koreans can ‘stack’ cards and palm dominoes and ‘mark’ cards as successfully as anyone, more’s the pity; and they have the same tricks by which they egg on a likely victim to make a big stake.”
Some gambling dens were in the foreign legations’ compounds – places where no Korean police could go. William Franklin Sands, the secretary at the American legation in the late 1890s, recalled: “I was once informed by the governor of the city that our legation native servants had become a public scandal, for relying on the immunities of a diplomatic household, they had made their quarters a public gambling place, and the city police could not reach them. No warning from me had any effect on the hardened sinners, so I asked the governor what to do about it. If I let his police arrest them it would be a bad precedent and besides I would have to get others who would be no better.”
Sands finally decided on having his “hardened sinners” beaten with well-cut sticks and later noted with satisfaction that the switching had the desired effect and that his servants kept their gambling to themselves.
Western accounts of Korean gambling seem very sanctimonious when one considers that, except for the missionaries, the Westerners were doing more than their share. In fact, some of them were even teaching Koreans how to play cards – much to their own detriment. An English-language publication in Seoul in 1906 wrote: “Koreans learn to play poker with an astuteness surprising to some foreigners. One Korean who has now left his country for his country’s good is said to have ‘cleaned out’ more than one foreigner…”
As for Sands’ feigned indignation of his servants’ gambling, it might be interesting to note that he was a notorious gambler. Many of the other Western diplomats – including Sands – often gathered together and played cards for small amounts of money. Sands was such a poor player that he soon owed thousands of dollars in IOUs and the other Westerners refused to play with him. He had not only lost his money but his peers’ respect.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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