Monday, December 12, 2011

Book Review: Pioneer American Businessman in Korea

Title: Pioneer American Businessman in Korea: The Life and Times of Walter D. Townsend
Author: Harold F. Cook
Softcover: 104 pages
Publisher: Royal Asiatic Society Korean Branch (July 20, 1981)
ISBN-10: 8993699119
ISBN-13: 978-8993699111

Harold Cook's final publication reads more smoothly than his exhaustive exposé Korea's 1884 Incident: Its Background and Ok-kyun's Dream. As an adaptation from his doctoral thesis, suppose it should be massive. However, Pioneer American Businessman in Korea was published almost ten years later and is much more pragmatic without compromising Cook's trademark investigative writing style.

As the title suggests, this is a thorough biography of occidental businessman Walter Townsend (1856-1918). Like Dr. Cook, Townsend was a successful businessman in both Japan and Korea. Packed into this slim book is the definitive story of Townsend's successes and failures which are intermittently woven into pertinent members of the foreign community in Korea of the time. From his meager beginnings as a wristwatch salesman for an American trading company in Yokohama to setting up his own import and export business in Chemulpo (present day Incheon), Townsend's tale is truly remarkable. Cook pulls no punches as not only to dig into Townsend's documented past but goes further by including an appendix of the extended Townsend family heritage.

Among the author's admirable writing qualities is his frank honesty. When certain holes of data were regrettably not available or could not be clarified, Cook openly admits their absence and instead allows the reader to speculate. These courteous gestures appear often and are appreciated. Considering that Townsend left only two remaining pieces of personal correspondence, Cook likely had a difficult time telling his tale, however this comes off as of no consequence. The portrait Cook paints is remarkably extrapolated considering his limited resources of the time. Keep in mind that this book was conceived well before the convenience of having readily available research on the Internet. Ironically, this book, which claims to follow the life of a single overseas businessman, is more detailed and varied than Intrepid Americans, Bold Koreans, a book with a similar premise written decades later that claims to cover several early entrepreneurs.

Another intriguing writing quirk Cook employs is a frequent use of French and Latin phrases. Many of these sparingly sprinkled phrases are charming cognates such as "laissez-passer" and "chargé d'affaires" while others such as "sine prole" and "inter alia" are not sufficiently identifiable without proper context. A Latin ignoramus like myself was left begrudgingly scratching my head and mumbling mea culpa.

Sadly, this book is increasingly difficult to obtain outside of Korea. Reprints are fortunately available from the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch, with whom Cook was actively involved in during his time in Korea. Also, save for one slightly overexposed portrait of Townsend, this book contains no illustrations. This is a shame because seeing early Chemulpo would have been an appropriate visual treat.

Harold Cook surely felt an entrepreneurial instinct to pen a book about a captivating businessman who braved cultural misunderstandings and financial roadblocks only to emerge as a long-standing, successful foreign resident in Korea. Townsend was truly a pioneer and could not have asked for a better biographer.
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I seldom do this, but I contacted the author's family in hopes of understanding the brilliant man that Dr. Cook was. It seems that this obituary notice is the closest thing I can find online about his life. I hope that through correspondence, I can find more about the man who left such an indelible mark on Korea's history.


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