How beautiful the world can be!
This article was published in the magazine Arirang early in 2001
Almost everyone in Seoul knows Insa-dong, the narrow street and web of narrow alleys that runs from Tapkol (Pagoda) Park on Chong-no to Anguk-dong Rotary. The street is sometimes called "Mary's Alley" but I don't know why. Visitors from abroad go there to buy souvenirs: Korean handicrafts, mulberry paper, brushes, pottery, to say nothing of a lot of imitation antiques imported from China! Other people go to visit the art galleries and antique shops. Many go to drink Korean tea in one of the many tea shops, or eat traditional Korean food in a traditional Korean house to the sound of traditional Korean music. For years now, Korean artists, writers and journalists have been going there to drink together until late at night. It's a very lively neighborhood, but with none of the rowdiness of Taehang-no with its masses of teenagers.
I want to tell you about a secret cafe in Insa-dong, called "Kwichon." It's secret because it's hidden up a very narrow passage and also because so far the sign hanging outside simply has the two Chinese characters pronounced "Kwichon" on it, nothing in Hangul, even, or in English. But I hope that by the time you read this, it will have changed, so that you can find it and go there too! Otherwise, just stand in the middle of Insa-dong and say "Kwichon" quite loudly twice; you will certainly find someone who knows where it is, eager to direct you. It's very well-known.
I had better warn you at once: this is no luxurious coffee shop with big, soft sofas, muted conversations, perfumed toilets. It does not serve twenty blends of coffee, or exotic cocktails, or lots of delicate Korean delicacies. It has been called the smallest cafe in the world, although it can hold 20 people if none of them takes up too much room. It has just four tables and the seats are rather hard. The toilet is as simple as could be, or more so. The carpet on the floor looks like a beaten-earth floor, thanks to the messy road-works that have made Insa-dong a chaos throughout the summer, although that too should have changed by the time you read this.
"Kwichon" is famous. Why? Because of Ch'on Sang-pyong. Ch'on died in 1993, he was a poet whose whole life was spent in extreme poverty. Today he is one of the best-selling and best-loved poets in Korea. His poem entitled, in Korean, "Kwichon" is in high-school textbooks. During twenty years of intense poverty and mostly very poor health, he was looked after by his wife Mok Sun-ok, the younger sister of one of his university companions. Mok Sun-ok opened the cafe "Kwichon" in 1985, thanks to help from friends, and since then it has never been closed for a single day. Her own life-story is worth telling too, and she has told it, in a book that is also a best-seller. The tale of their life together has been dramatized for stage and television, she is often interviewed, and she is recognized wherever she goes in Korea.
Ch'on Sang-pyong was born in 1930 and spent his early years in Japan, where his father had gone in search of work. After the Liberation of Korea in 1945, his family returned to their home-town of Masan, in the south-east and Ch'on began to attend school there. He was no ordinary schoolboy, it seems, his poetic sensitivities were already coming alive. One day, standing in the school playground looking out to the sea, he heard people weeping in front of a tomb on the hill just below him. That inspired him to write his first poem, "River Waters" that his teacher arranged to have published in a literary review.
The reason why the river flows toward the sea
is not only because I've been weeping
all day long
up on the hill.
Not only because I've been blooming
like a sunflower in longing
all night long
up on the hill.
The reason I've been weeping like a beast in sorrow
up on the hill
is not only because
the river flows toward the sea.
Ch'on Sang-pyong was a recognized poet while still only in high school! He loved reading, but his family had little money. He used to spend hours sitting on the floor of a little bookstore, reading the books, until the owner took pity on him and allowed him to use his shop as a library, taking the books home to read. When he was ready to go on to university, he did not choose to study literature, because he was already an established writer! Instead he chose business, a good preparation for someone who never had more than 10,000 Won in his pocket till the day he died!
When war broke out, Seoul National University was relocated to Pusan and Ch'on began his studies there before moving up to Seoul. In the 1950s and 60s, the main center for students, artists, bohemians, writers, and young intellectuals was Myong-dong, a very different place from today's glitzy fashion-shop inferno. It was full of tiny cafes, restaurants, bars, paduk-rooms, billiard parlors. Its gangsters and thugs were well-known. Everyone was always nearly broke; the cafes served as writers' offices, since they often had no room of their own, sleeping wherever they could and eating when they or a friend had earned a bit by publishing something.
Needless to say, the evenings were spent drinking, often some cheap makkolli with a bowl of kimchi or some ramyon (noodles) that might well be their only supper. That would usually have to be chalked up to be paid for later. Ch'on Sang-pyong became a familiar figure in Myong-dong. He was totally innocent, with a loud voice and a raucous screeching laugh. He enjoyed company, and everyone was fond of him but he was completely unable to live a normal life or hold a steady job. He lived by publishing poems and literary essays or book reviews here and there. Otherwise, when he needed money, he would demand some "taxes" from a richer friend. He was intensely sensitive and his poems often expressed a strong melancholy:
Under the bright moonlight
a reed and I
stood side by side in silence.
Anxiously we gazed at one other
calming our distress
in the gusting wind.
In the bright moonlight
the reed and I
were both drenched with tears.
Many of his university friends were working as journalists of various kinds and one of them invited his teenaged sister up from countryside one summer to see the sights. That was how Mok Sun-ok first met Ch'on Sang-pyong, who was some 8 years older. She and her brother had grown up in a suburb of Hiroshima, returning to Korea with their mother after the explosion of the atom bomb that killed their father. After finishing high school, she came up to Seoul to be with her brother and began to work for a review. She was very small, and very pretty, but she recalls that all the men used to consider her as their "kid sister." She sometimes used to go to the movies or to listen to classical music with Ch'on Sang-pyong, who loved music and would always weep on hearing anything by Brahms.
In 1968, after a group of young Korean intellectuals had visited the North Korean embassy in East Berlin, Ch'on was picked up on suspicion of spying, since one of them was a friend of his. The ensuing torture left him deeply traumatized, his health deteriorated, and in 1970 he thought he would perhaps soon be dead. He wrote a poem with that idea in mind, a kind of farewell message that has become his most famous work, "Kwichon" (Back to Heaven):
I'll go back to heaven again.
Hand in hand with the dew
that melts at a touch of the dawning day,
I'll go back to heaven again.
With the dusk, together, just we two,
at a sign from a cloud after playing on the slopes
I'll go back to heaven again.
At the end of my outing to this beautiful world
I'll go back and say: It was beautiful. . . .
The next year, he suddenly disappeared. At first, his friends supposed he had gone to stay with his brother in Pusan but then they realized he was nowhere to be found. Months passed, and finally they concluded he had died somewhere along the roadside. Since he never carried any papers, there would have been no way of knowing who he was. Sadly, they decided that his poems, that had been published one by one in reviews, should be collected in a memorial volume. The book had scarcely been published when they heard the good news that Ch'on was alive after all!
He had been found semi-conscious and raving, and had been taken to the Seoul City Asylum. There, all he had been able to say was his name and his occupation: "poet". A doctor recognized him, and made sure that he was looked after, but it was only after reading about the memorial volume in a newspaper that he realized none of Ch'on's friends knew where he was! Among the happy visitors came "Miss Mok" and although he was still deeply disturbed, Ch'on was clearly specially glad to see her, so she began to visit regularly. He slowly recovered but when he was ready to be discharged, the doctor pointed out to Ch'on's friends that he could never live alone; he was like a child. Someone would have to be with him all the time, making sure he ate properly. He needed a home and only Mok Sun-ok could provide him with that kind of loving care, if she was prepared to sacrifice her life to that extent.
So in 1972, Ch'on Sang-pyong and Mok Sun-ok were married; he was over 40 and she in her mid-30s, the sight of the two made everyone laugh. But life was not so funny. Where were they to live? Other husbands went out to a house-agent; Ch'on wrote a poem and waited for a miracle that never came:
Won't somebody give me a house? I roar to the heavens. Hear me, someone, to the ends of the earth. . . I got married just a few weeks ago, so how can I help but shout like this? God in his heaven will hear with a smile. The French poet Arthur Rimbaud put an ad in a London newspaper. "Won't someone take me to a southern country?" A ship's captain saw it, gladly took him on board and shipped him to a southern country. So I'm shouting like a giant. A house is a treasure. The whole world may crumble and fall, my house will remain...
Years passed and the two moved to ever smaller rented rooms in the north-eastern suburbs. Ch'on could earn almost nothing and his new wife's efforts to stop him smoking and drinking were doomed to failure. In the end she realized that all she could do was ration the intake and try to help him live happily. He had very few needs, despite the dream expressed in one poem:
I want wings.
I want wings
that will carry me wherever I want.
I can't understand why God
didn't give humans wings.
Being a pauper
the only trip I've ever had was our honeymoon
but I want to go any and everywhere.
Once I have wings I'll be satisfied.
give me wings, please. . .
While Ch'on could pray for wings, he could never earn much money and had no idea of the price of things. His wife sometimes had nothing with which to pay the rent, and at times they had no money for a bus fare. In 1980, Mok Sun-ok's brother suddenly died and they went to live with her mother, in a very simple house on the outskirts of Uijongbu. In 1985, after unsuccessfully trying various other ways of earning a living, Mok Sun-ok was able to open the cafe Kwichon in Insadong. At last, they had a regular source of income, however modest. Ch'on was duly grateful:
I'm the happiest man
in the world.
Since my wife runs a café
I've no need to worry about making ends meet
and I went to university
so there's nothing lacking in my education
and because I'm a poet
my desire for fame is satisfied
I have a pretty wife too
so I don't think about women
and we have no children
no need to worry about the future
we have a house as well
I'm really very comfortable.
I'm fond of makkolli
my wife always buys it for me
so what have I got to complain of?
I firmly believe in God
and since the mightiest person
in the whole wide world
is looking after my interests
how can anyone say misfortune's coming?
1988 brought new shadows. Ch'on's belly began to swell alarmingly, his liver was failing. For several years he had refused to eat solid food, drinking only a few bowls of makkolli and powdered milk, and this was the result! With nothing but debts waiting to be repaid, there could be no question of taking him for treatment in a big hospital. A doctor told Mok Sun-ok that she should prepare for the worst; it could only be a matter of days. Desperate, she phoned a doctor friend who had a clinic in Ch'unch'on, two hours north-east of Seoul. "Sure, bring him in." So they bundled the vast-bellied invalid into a car and gently drove him along the twisting road.
Mok Sun-ok had to come and go between the cafe in Seoul and the clinic in Ch'unch'on, riding the bus to and fro. She used to pray, as the bus trundled along: "God, not yet, please. Give him another 5 years!" Miraculously, the poet survived, recovered, and returned home. For another 5 years. On April 28, 1993, while he was eating his morning meal, the poet simply keeled over and died. Mok Sun-ok had already gone down to open the cafe, it was her mother who witnessed the end.
Ch'on Sang-pyong is buried in the Municipal Cemetery on a hillside outside of Uijongbu. Every year a large group of friends and admirers go up to pay tribute on the anniversary of his death, enjoying a simple lunch on the grass in the spring sunshine and admiring the blossom in the pear orchards below. A few may recall Ch'on's last poem, which was in the pocket of his coat when he died, ready to be mailed to a newspaper to welcome the month of May:
May's the month for greenery.
covering the world, Maytime's
literally the month for greenery.
Green light's very good for the eyes.
And not just for the eyes;
it whispers of hope.
So the month of May
seems much too brief.
All the world's Maytime!
A few months after he died, Mok Sun-ok published a book about their life together. That inspired a dramatist to write a play about them, which has been produced several times. A television production followed, and still now the books of Ch'on Sang-pyong are to be found among the "steady best sellers" in all the big bookstores. In fact, he is more popular and better-known now than in his lifetime.
That's why, when you enter "Kwichon" cafe, it's not like going to any other tea room. It's more like becoming part of Ch'on Sang-pyong's family. Mok Sun-ok serves fruit teas made by a group of neighborhood women under the direction of her mother; the most popular are "mokwa-cha" (quince tea) and "yuja-cha" (citron tea). Helping her are her brother's two daughters. On the wall above the seat he always occupied when he came down to Seoul are pictures of Ch'on Sang-pyong, Mok Sun-ok's mother, and their beloved dogs. The paintings on the walls are all by friends. Ch'on's books are on sale, as is Mok Sun-ok's story of their life.
When she first opened her cafe, lots of bohemians turned up, demanding makkolli because that was her husband's favorite drink. They were quite puzzled when she offered them tea instead! Nowadays, most of the customers are young couples. Sometimes a crowd of school children arrive, sent by their teacher to learn about the famous poet. Friends arriving from Japan or the United States head straight there from the airport. Admirers from the provinces ask for an autograph. Quite often there is a tall, rather fat English-looking Korean sitting there. He is the author of this article and he is only one of countless people for whom this tiny, rather shabby space is the most beautiful room in Korea. Because it is full of tales of love.