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An Early Case of Foreign Depravity in Asia
[Part 1] A look at late 19th century American businessman George W. Lake
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2008-10-16 17:38 (KST)   
One of Joseon Korea's most notorious Americans was undoubtedly George W. Lake.

Most of the non-missionary Westerners in Korea lived in the General Foreign Settlement in Chemulpo. George, too, dwelt in Chemulpo, but unlike his peers he chose to live in the much poorer Chinese Settlement. He lived in a two-story building -- the first floor served as his shop from which he "sold damaged groceries and other refuse," while the upper floor was used as his quarters.

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In the back there was a small sloped lot filled with tangled bushes and refuse; populated by rats and the few geese that he raised as watchdogs. The building was located in the worst part of the Chinese settlement in what William Franklin Sands, the American Legation Secretary, described as a "slum," nestled amongst a couple of small Chinese shops and abandoned opium dens.

George spoke Japanese fairly well, and yet he tended to avoid the Japanese as well as his fellow Westerners, and preferred the company of his Chinese neighbors. The few Westerners who he associated with were of the rougher class: seamen, and men of low morals who traveled from one port to the next seeking opportunities and trying to stay out of jail. It would be reasonable to assume that he met and associated with them in the few bars and Japanese brothels he was known to haunt.

While most of the Western community regarded him as strange and nothing more than a subject of gossip, his Chinese neighbors thought kindly of him. They described him as "a peaceful and inoffensive foreigner," "an elderly unamiable beachcomber," and "an unobtrusive man of most genial temperament and exceedingly popular among his circle of acquaintances and was ever ready to bestow charities upon the needy." It would not be improbable to assume that during the Sino-Japanese War [1894-95], George, like some of the other Western businessmen in Chemulpo, stored the goods and property of the Chinese who were forced to return to China due to the war.

All men have secrets and George Lake was no exception. It is, however, surprising that he was able -- especially considering how notorious he was in the United States and Japan -- to keep his past secret in the small community of Chemulpo. Even more surprising, the American Minister, Horace Allen, knew nothing of George's past despite having frequent contact with the American consul at Nagasaki, Abercrombe. Surely if Allen had known, he would have had George removed from Korea, and would have consequently saved George's life. We have to examine George's past to learn how fate brought him to Korea and his ultimate death.

New Bedford, Massechusetts in 1901
©2008 Courtesy of NOAA
The Beginning

George W. Lake was born in Topsville, Massachusetts, around 1844. We know very little about his family, but we do know for the first 15 years of his life, Topsville was his home. He probably spent his time like most boys did: hunting, playing games, fighting, and, of course, courting the opposite sex. During the conservative Victorian Era, relationships between boys and girls tended to be scrutinized much closer than they are in our modern age, and yet there were some women who enjoyed more freedom than the other young conservative ladies. Emma Sweeney was one of these freer women.

George was just 15 years old when Emma caught his attention. Although he was only 15, George was probably well-built and looked much older than his age. Emma was "many years" older than George, far more experienced, and she "was possessed of a limited amount of discretion." Flattered by George's boyish and clumsy attention, she encouraged his infatuation with her. George often visited her family's home, and despite the natural suspicions of her parents, they were able to steal away and find the time and place to be alone with one another. After several months Emma's lack of discretion soon became apparent as her belly swelled with pregnancy. Undoubtedly the small community was soon abuzz with gossip and whispers and there must have been some pressure upon George to make Emma 'an honest woman.'

Although physically mature, George was still mentally a boy and, unwilling to accept his responsibilities as a father, did what many young men did -- he fled. He went to the nearest port and sought a position aboard one of the many ships in the harbor. Ships were always in need of young, able-bodied sailors, even a 15-year-old inexperienced boy. George was hired as a sailor aboard a merchant ship that soon departed for China and the Far East. He had escaped to the Orient.

The baby, a girl, was born soon after George's sudden departure. With her ill-fated arrival into the world the scandal of Emma and George was once again on the lips of everyone in their community. Some claimed that George was the father, but others were convinced that the baby's father was another man that Emma was secretly seeing while dallying with George. Once again proof of Emma's "limited amount of discretion."

Life in Japan

The date of George's arrival in China has not been ascertained, but it was probably in early 1860. Apparently the hard work and dangerous life of a sailor did not appeal to him, and shortly after his arrival he quit his position with the ship, and began looking for other opportunities. By September, George had made his way to Nagasaki, Japan, where he began the next chapter of his life.

A Japanese port in the early 1890s
©2008 Story of China and Japan, James Hyde Clark 1894
Japan in those days was a dangerous place filled with people who were hostile towards the West for forcing Japan to open. On several occasions, foreigners were murdered by Soshi (former Samurai warriors), armed with double swords, for perceived insults or for merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps it was this danger that appealed to George. He was in his mid to late teens at the time, but looked older, and his time as a sailor must have hardened him, making him more confident. The American consulate needed a marshal and George need employment so he applied and smooth-talked his way into a position of respect and power. His charm and ability to learn Japanese also greatly aided him in his secondary venture: he founded the trading company, Lake & Co., which "exported fancy goods and bric-a-brac back to the United States." His company eventually became one of the most important companies in Nagasaki.

His tenure in Japan was far from peaceful and his position as marshal was no less than a hypocritical travesty. Although he was charming, his fiery temper often got the best of him and resulted in his own frequent brushes with the law. In 1862, he was arrested and charged with assaulting a fellow American and reprimanded. He managed to keep his position as marshal, but a couple years later he was again in trouble, this time for threatening a Japanese policeman with a revolver and for resisting arrest. The police officer had tried to remove one of George's servants from his home and George resisted.

Even though George "obviously possessed a volatile temper" and it was his second offense, instead of being deported was merely fined $200 [a considerable sum of money] and allowed to remain in Japan with a warning. In 1867 he was convicted of assaulting a Japanese Customs agent and once again fined, but this time only 25 dollars, but also sentenced to 10 days confinement at the American Consulate. George fled to Yokohama where he evidently got the sentence of confinement waived, paid his fine, and returned to Nagasaki. No longer a marshal, George remained in Nagasaki managing his extremely profitable business with the aid of his younger brother, Edward. Despite his efforts, George continued to run afoul of the law, but mainly in business related matters.

George tended to love the wrong type of woman. Shortly after arriving in Nagasaki, he obtained companionship in the form of a Japanese prostitute from a Nagasaki brothel. For nearly eight years she lived with him, possibly monogamously, but more than likely as a mistress who maintained her profession on the side. In 1869, George threw her out of his house, for reasons unknown. Circumstantial evidence indicates that she was pregnant at the time, and George, true to his past, upon discovering her pregnancy sought to avoid any responsibility.

The Japanese woman, upon giving birth, promptly declared that the baby girl was George's and demanded that he take financial responsibility for it. George, however, denied the child was his and refused to offer any support for the child. With no other option, the Japanese woman filed a complaint with the Japanese and American authorities. In July 1871, George's next serious run-in with the law in Japan was a paternity suit. Because George was an American, he could not be tried under Japanese law, and was subject only to a consular court. A Court of Inquiry was convened (made up of four Americans) and the child was declared to be pure Japanese and thus George could not be the baby's father.

George had won his paternity suit, but he had also gained the ire of the foreign community, not only because of the paternity suit, but also due to his earlier transgressions and violent nature. A few months after his paternity suit had been settled he was declared persona-non-gratis and was deported from Japan. He was forced to return to the United States leaving his younger brother, Edward, in charge of the company in his absence. George returned to the United States and trouble.

Related Articles
An Early Case of Foreign Depravity in Asia

An excellent site for life in Nagasaki during the late 19th and early 20th century is 'Nagasaki Foreign Settlement' by Profs. Brian Burke-Gaffney and Lane R. Earns. The site can be viewed here.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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