This article was published in Asiana¡¯s in-flight magazine in 2001
If you venture down one very narrow passage in the middle of Seoul's Insa-dong, you can find a tea-room called "Kwichon," which has been described as "the smallest cafe in the world." It's a very special place, run by a very small, very special woman, with a very special story to tell. Alas, she does not speak English, so I'd better try to tell the story for her. Her name is Mok Sun-ok. She grew up in Japan, in a suburb of the city of Hiroshima, where her father was working.
On the morning of August 6, 1945, she had just arrived at school when the atom bomb exploded a few miles away. Her father, who had gone into the city, was never seen again. Her mother took her two children and fled back home to Korea. Their boat was caught in a tremendous storm, it nearly sank. Five years later, they were forced to flee from the North Korean army and were caught in a column of refugees that was being bombed by American planes! Unable to swim, they somehow managed to cross the Nakdong River without drowning and reach safety in Pusan. She then grew up quite normally in a small country town, having narrowly escaped death at least three times.
Her brother, several years older, had studied at Seoul National University and was now a journalist in Seoul. He invited his teen-age sister to visit him and introduced her to all his friends. One was a rather strange young man, with a very loud voice and a piercing laugh, jerky movements and no job. His name was Ch'on Sang-pyong. After living in Japan until 1945, he had come back with his family to their home in Masan. While he was a schoolboy there, he had written a poem that he showed to his schoolteacher, himself a young poet called Kim Ch'un-su. He in turn had showed the poem to Yu Chi-hwan, one of Korea's most famous poets, who was amazed: "A teenager who can write like this will never be able to live a normal life in society!" They decided to publish the poem in a major review; the schoolboy Ch'on Sang-pyong had become a poet!
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.
In the years after the Korean War and throughout the 1960s, Seoul had a full measure of nearly penniless writers, artists, would-be politicians, intellectuals and eccentric drop-outs. In those days, the Myong-dong area was full of small cafes and bars, all sorts of little rooms where such people could spend the day waiting for something to turn up, eating and drinking on credit, swapping stories. Ch'on Sang-pyong was a familiar figure there, a mildly eccentric fellow with a heart of gold and a great fondness for the music of Brahms and for drinking makkolli. He would earn a little by publishing poems or literary essays here and there, then drink it all with his many friends. He used to demand that his working friends contribute to his survival by paying him a small sum in what he called "taxes" each time they met. Nobody ever refused, he was so childlike. He was like a bird:
The day beyond
the day I die
lonely in death after lonely living
birds will sing as new day dawns and petals unfold
on my soul's empty ground.
I'll be one bird
alighting on ditches and branches
when the song of loving
is at its height.
Season full of emotion
week of sorrow and joy
in the gaps between knowing not knowing forgetting
pour out that antiquated song.
One bird sings of how
there are good things
and bad things too.
Then came 1968. In that year, a group of young Korean radicals made a secret visit to the North Korean embassy in East Berlin, filled with youthful idealism and exasperated by the dictatorship dominating life in the South. That illegal act was discovered, people were arrested, and the name "Ch'on Sang-pyong" was found written in the address-book of one of his friends. He was duly picked up, taken for interrogation and tortured cruelly. He emerged deeply traumatized, homeless and jobless. His health deteriorated, until he could hardly walk, and in 1970 he felt that he might be dying. So he wrote a poem, his greatest, called in Korean "Kwichon" (meaning "back to heaven" or "dying"):
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. . . .
Despite all that life had done to him, the only word he could find to describe life in this world was "beautiful"!
Then he disappeared. For months, Mok Sun-ok and all his friends wondered where he was. Finally they concluded he must have died somewhere, nameless and unknown. They decided to collect all his poems and publish a memorial volume. It duly appeared, newspapers reported the fact, and a phone call came from Seoul Municipal Mental Hospital: Ch'on was not dead, but confined there, virtually amnesiac. Mok Sun-ok and other friends visited him, he recognized them, seemed to revive, and some months later was ready to be released. But where was he to go?
The doctor and his friends agreed: Mok Sun-ok was the only person who could look after him. They duly held a marriage ceremony (at which everyone was laughing) and went to live in a rented room. That was in 1972. For the next 20 years, their life was an epic tale of survival in extreme poverty, in increasingly small rooms, often with almost nothing to eat. Yet they kept each other company and were happy in tiny things. Ch'on, too, realized how lucky he was, and wrote a poem that puts everything in its right perspective:
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?
Years passed, in 1985 a friend realized how hard a time they were having and provided the money with which Mok Sun-ok opened her tiny Insa-dong cafe. She gave it the name "Kwichon" after Ch'on's poem and at last they started to have a regular income. In 1988 another crisis came. Ch'on was diagnosed with severe liver failure. He was admitted to a clinic run by a friend in the city of Ch'unch'on, a two-hour bus-ride from Seoul. Day after day, after closing her cafe, Mok Sun-ok would ride the bus to be with her very weak husband, and on the way back, she says, she kept found herself praying, "God, give him another 5 years, please!" And a miracle happened, Ch'on was able to walk out of the clinic, go back to their little home on the outskirts of Seoul, and live another 5 years. He celebrated his 60th birthday happily with his many friends in 1990.
At last, on the morning of April 28, 1993, while Mok Sun-ok was preparing to open her cafe, the phone rang: "Come quickly, he's collapsed!" But by the time she reached his side, Ch'on Sang-pyong had "gone back to heaven." He is buried on a hillside not far from where they lived, and every year a crowd of his friends and admirers visit the grave on April 28th. Usually the pear orchards below are in full bloom, there is no sadness, only a sense of gratitude.
What more is there to say? Mok Sun-ok and her two nieces continue to open "Kwichon" cafe every day of the year without exception. It is just big enough for 20 people, not "customers" so much as "guests." There you can drink delicious Mokwa (quince) tea, Yuja (citron) tea and other fruit teas made by Mok Sun-ok's 90-year-old mother and her neighbors. It is now not just a cafe, but a memorial to the dead poet. Many foreigners, as well as Koreans of all ages come flocking there because they have heard his life-story.
It is a beautiful story, designed to remind us that, although there are many harsh and ugly things in the world, the world itself is beautiful when human authenticity expresses itself in poetry. While he was alive, Ch'on's writing was not always very highly admired by over-academic critics. Ironically, since his death his reputation has grown immensely and Ch'on's books have become some of Korea's best-selling poetry books. The poem "Kwichon" is printed in school textbooks as one of the great classics of modern Korean poetry and little groups of school children often arrive at "Kwichon" cafe, sent by their teacher to do a research project.
A few months after Ch'on's death, Mok Sun-ok published the story of their life together. Friends wrote the script for a play based on it and their own memories and it was performed in a small theater in Seoul's Taehak-no with great success in early 1994, then again, on a larger scale with more music in 1998. Both productions went touring to various parts of Korea as well. At Christmas, 1994, KBS television aired a dramatization of their life story in two hour-long episodes at peak viewing time.
Mok Sun-ok has promised to devote all her remaining life to promoting the name and reputation of her poet husband. In an alley in Insadong, she has bought a small house that she hopes will serve as the "Ch'on Sang-pyong Memorial Hall" and friends sometimes gather there for poetry readings or other special occasions. Later, it is hoped to find a more permanent way of commemorating the poet there. Most important, Mok Sun-ok has instituted the "Ch'on Sang-Pyong Literary Awards" as a prize to be awarded regularly to a Korean writer named by a jury. The prize money is not very much, but the writers honored by it know that it bears the name of a man who never had any money at all, but who, poor as he was, could write: "I'm the happiest man in the world."