Dancing geishas, ancient palaces, drifting over misty rivers in a houseboat. The adventures of a businessman traveling through China, Japan, and Korea in 1923 are captured within the detailed correspondence and ephemera saved by Myron S. Falk (1878-1945), an engineer from New York City who was sent on a trip to Asia with the American Silk Mission.
The American Silk Mission consisted of a group of businessmen and their wives who left the United States for months to visit silk factories and discuss the manufacturing and trade of silk in China and Japan. For many members, the journey began months prior to arriving in Asia as they would have to make a transcontinental journey from the East Coast to California, where they could then board the steamship to China. After traveling through China, the Silk Mission would journey by train through Korea to Japan. The itineraries indicate that a typical visit in each town would have the similar structure of a dinner, a dance, and a tour of the factory.
While similar in structure, these entertainments varied not only by country but also within each town. Dinners could range from wholly Japanese or Chinese cuisine, to a menu that was a mixture of Western and regional tastes. While visiting Suwa, Shinshu, Japan, a Japanese Kondate, or menu, written in Romanized Japanese was given to the Silk Mission, with two Western offerings of “Filet de Mignon” and “Sandwitch”. On the Kondate next to the Japanese words are English translation notes written in pencil by a member of the Silk Mission, such as alongside “Sashmi” is written “raw fish”.
Where the Silk Mission rested also varied by country. In China, they traveled and slept in houseboats, as well as hotels. In Japan, in addition to hotels, the Silk Mission stayed at traditional ryokans, which are small inns, and often relaxed at the end of the day by soaking in steaming bath houses.
However, while Falk describes the follies and delights of traveling in these foreign lands, he also writes about how the American Silk Mission interacted with real political and social movements occurring across Asia. For example, in 1923 the Republic of China held a presidential election. The American Silk Mission met and talked with the candidate which would ultimately lose, Sun Yat-sen, who was elected the first president of the Republic of China after the 1911 revolution.
Additionally, at the time of their travels, Japanese Occupation of Korea had been in place since 1910 and the first decade was filled with harsh military rule and cultural control. After the public resistance movement in 1919, called the March 1st movement, a period of cultural accommodation began in Korea, with the Japanese allowing for more freedoms in the press, education, religion, and other cultural institutions. Falk observes the changes made by the Japanese in Korea, such as the building of infrastructure and the use of Japanese currency, and takes note of the cultural differences that still remained, such as noticing the difference between traditional clothing of the Japanese kimono and Korean hanbok.
The Myron S. Falk papers are open for research use in the New-York Historical Library.
This post is by Alexandra Gomer, Archives Intern from New York University