Thor's Korea Diary

Them andUs,
Pusan and The Rest of 'Em

@31 January 2001

go to end / go to Korea Index

Note 1: This is definitely a winter view of Pusan, a mood piece. For a sunnier recollection see a response from Whalen Wehry in Pusan was a Haven

Note 2 : Some propositions are made below about regional political divisions in Korea. These are strictly working hypotheses (in my learning process!) which might be unbalanced. I have begun to read an impressively coherent analysis of Korean politics called "Korea: the Politics of the Vortex" by Gregory Henderson (Harvard Univ. Press 1968). The author's thesis is that Korea has been remarkable historically for its absence of regional power centers and competing interest groups, that it is an atomised "mass" society where individuals in temporary alliances, not principled, stable groups, compete for real power only at the center, Seoul. This was the imposed pattern in politics to preserve power, especially under the Yi (Choson) Dynasty, but also since the end of Japanese rule. Public Offices were held so briefly that only extortion, not achievement or professionalism was possible. For example, the Lord Mayor of Seoul was changed 1375 times in the 518 years of the Yi Dynasty (Henderson p. 237). However (Henderson says) even at village and family level, the "sharing ethic" paroxically led to avoiding large stable group structures whose members would demand to "share the luck" of any other member who accumulated food, wealth etc. Life was (is?) more a matter of temporary aliances, a search for patrons, and shifting loyalties. Specialization (chaengi) was despised, so there emerged no strong guilds of skilled craftsmen etc., or consciously specialized towns for certain industries or other activities (unlike Japan). Under these conditions, regional loyalties were also weak.

Has there been any fundamental change since Henderson's book in1968? One can sense that in a different cultural context, Pusan might have become a great medieval maritime city-state, instead of the primitive little town of mud huts it still was by the 1870s. [TM 15 February 2001]


She is biting into a frozen raw fish as a child might bite at a flavoured ice block on a hot summer's day. Her mouth is wide, filmy with ice, implacable. I am fascinated by her teeth, which seem bluish, pointed and sharp, like an old wolverine. The temperature is one degree centigrade, and a Siberian wind is whipping down the the narrow backlane of little shops. The ajuma does not have a shop. She has an old door laid flat, tacked over with some yellow vinyl, and this makes her shop counter, which is propped on two bricks above the bitumen. It is always stacked with neat rows of slowly thawing fish. She sits behind the yellow vinyl, cross-legged on a flattened cardboard carton from daylight until long after dusk, swathed in shapeless bits of clothing, waiting, always waiting.

Each day, rugged up in a padded jacket and fur cap, I hurry past the fish seller several times, but she never meets my eye, never glances up with the slightest hint of curiosity. Her few customers are always women too, squat, heavy women with worn out faces. They ignore me also. For three months I have walked among them as a pale, voiceless ghost. But for millennia other ghosts have walked amongst them, capricious, ever present, to be cast out or mollified by the mu-tang, the shaman, when sickness fell upon one of the living. How will I be cast out when the time comes? For this is their territory, their village, now reached but not digested by the metropolis, impregnable in its own mountain valley. They will always triumph in its possession.

Lately I have been living in a small apartment on the fifth floor of a teaching block in my college. It is above the town, up against a mountainside of pine trees. By late morning, sun shines in the window, the sky is blue, I am at peace with the world. I fled the perpetual cold shadows, the narrow laneways of my old apartment down in the town. There, in "the foreigner's flats", one never felt quite welcome. Amongst all the alleys of blocky five storey apartment buildings, somehow the foreigner's flats -- only the foreigner's flats -- always had loose rubbish scattered outside, a sort of sign, like the mark of Cain, that all was not well with the spirits in this spot.

Rubbish collection in Korea is exclusively from small blue plastic bags upon which the government charges an enormous tax. The bags are picked up in handcarts at some unseen hour, hopefully before the dogs rip them apart. My fellow teachers tell dark stories of old ladies stealing the plastic bags... I still go back to the downtown apartment most days to have a quick shower after my ten kilometer run, and dry my gear on the flat building roof. At the end of my run, moist with sweat, I lean against the laneway walls for a couple of minutes, stretching Achilles tendons. A group of small children are fascinated by this ritual, and often three or four of them will lean against the wall next to me, shouting with delight. Yesterday they were absent, the laneway was quiet.

My run time hadn't been bad, a fraction over forty-nine minutes. I leaned against the brick, still breathing a little fast. Then a slight noise caused me to look sideways. Beside the doorway squatted an old woman in brown polyester pants, grunting softly. Methodically she ripped open the expensive blue rubbish bag, the teachers' rubbish bag, and dumped the dirty tissues, the jam tins, the vegetable peelings on the bitumen... Was it malice? Was it poverty? Who knows ... I was shocked into immobility, but she felt me looking at her. She glanced up, impassively, but I stared her down. Then she slowly stood up, all of four feet tall, and shuffled off to another building down the laneway.

Someone told me the story of a dentist who opened his clinic here in Bansong-Dong. An outsider, a man from Seoul. After eighteen months, not a single patient came; he got the message and left. Maybe this is Pusan's story too. There is a kind of sullen, unloved defiance about the human habitation in Pusan. It is a utilitarian, working class city. The buildings are functional, but never flamboyant. The shopping is adequate for daily necessities, but to my eye dull. With the priceless asset of a deep water harbour surrounded by an amphitheatre of mountains, its waterfront is a mass of container cranes, warehouses and chain wire fences.

Mere people, it seems come here on sufferance, to work, but not to play. Playing is only permitted in the electric glare of video parlours, or the oblivion of liquor. You will look long to find public evidence of indulgent living, of an al fresco lifestyle. The city's concession to affluence is the monolithic slab of the Lotte Department Store in Somyon, stacked solidly inside with all the de rigeur labels of high fashion at Japanese prices. For some reason this makes me think of the old Gum Department store in Moscow, for the privileged nomenklatura of the late, unlamented, dreary Soviet empire.

You will find few signs of the baroque or the eccentric on the streets, unless you count a national obsession with weirdly dyed hair. Pusan, or my winter sense of it, is that here is a house but not a home. A place of hard drinking men. My chilled mind scrapes at this grey pile of thoughts, grumbles that the city that has nothing feminine about it, unless it is an ancient ajuma waiting cross-legged forever on a squashed cardboard carton.

Logic, the visual reality, reasserts itself of course. Yes, there are women bundled up in coats all over the place, many stolid young women too with shapeless humps of quilting on their backs. You know that in the warmth of a bus these humps get unwound to show a baby inside. Thinking of the buses at midday, and of that handful of department stores, you know damn well that this feminine tide far outnumbers the old men and boys, the occasional florid workingman. ....

But the sense of a male ambiance persists. For a professed scoffer at the supernatural, I am too sensitive to spirits. Something whispers in my ear that this has always been a land of tyrants, of sudden, cruel and arbitrary punishment, of gaping inequality. For the moment the old harsh forces are beaten back into the shadows by the fashionable sound and light show of liberal democracy. Yet half-seen goblins nag me voicelessly, hint that in the backrooms of real power and privilege those old forces aren't yielding an inch.

These doubts are irrational, for I have no evidence at all, not even bar room talk. Still, this lens of coldness hangs in my outer vision as I look at the faces in the subway, the washed streets and bleak concrete walls. What is lacking here in the solid, sensible architecture, and the shops with what you need, sort of, at a high price, and with little competition? Warmth, humour, mischief, the quixotic, the foreign.... A hundred years ago Confucian scholars in Korea railed against foreign trade, or trade of any sort. They sneered at the "useless trinkets" peddled by merchants in exchange for life's necessities, like rice. Perhaps is is this old flavour of dour male orthodoxy that still hangs in the air, or perhaps, ghost that I am, reading faces in the subway carriage, my crinkled mind is just making it all up....

South Korea seems to be one of those countries where there is The Capital, and then all the other places, forever condemned to be branch offices and second-rate. The bright, the ambitious and the lucky head for fame and fortune in Seoul.... Yet it is more complex than that. In truth, the city as megopolis is as new to Korea as it is to, say, Australia. At the end of the nineteenth century both Seoul and Pusan were no more than squalid towns, almost devoid of urban services like water or sewerage management, and with no more than a rudimentary commercial life. The rivalries which linger today are not of the kind that existed between, for example, the great urban centers of Europe. They are more rooted in the immobility of old rural populations, separated by distance and mountain ranges. The shooting stars who blast off to Seoul nowadays leave all of this heritage behind them, but back in the provinces it doesn't go away.

Anyway, like the village of Bansong-Dong which I am assigned to haunt, Pusan is defiantly itself, and has no truck with interference by outsiders. In the last national election, 90% of Pusan voters voted against the current President, Kim Dae Jung. He comes from Cholla. He was therefore expected to pork-barrel the poor province of Cholla, and appoint cronies from his local tribe to all positions of power.

In fact, the elected margin of Kim Dae Jung's party was so tenuous, and the deals to secure power so byzantine, that the new cabinet was full of old faces from preceding dictatorships, past enemies turned opportunist for the moment. As always the court power brokers of Seoul were back, deceitfully bowing to a new master while he lasted. The citizens of Pusan could shrug; they had seen it all before, for a thousand years or more. Ancient tribal suspicions were scarcely diminished, old rivalries were left unchallenged. Cholla people are different from Pusan people, I've been assured. They think differently, have different values.They are not the same as us (in Pusan)...

Hmm, maybe this is the story of all of Korea too, or for that matter of old cultures the world over. In my own homeland, Australia of the New World, 20% of families move houses each year, and often go interstate. Even there regional xenophobia flickers from time to time, but it is shallow and easily distracted by a good game of football.

Come to think of it, football in its many flavours has been the nearest thing to tribal affiliation in Australia. But when a media mogul buys the TV rights, then a team itself, then hijacks the team, say interstate, by corporate whim, well there is a gnashing of teeth in many pubs. That lasts for a week, then the once loyal serfs switch channels. Gradually, bereaved of heroes and desperate, the loyal fans of Coburg will mix it with their old deadly match enemies from Brunswick, one train stop away... After all, it's only a game, isn't it.

How fortunate if Old World attachments were so fickle..., so susceptible to growth and change. In the Old World though, the fetishes that human imagination is heir to have had centuries, millennia, to weave an impenetrable web of hidden rules, prohibitions, whispered grudges, ancestral terrors and curses.

Communities that have retained their identities for a thousand years, not by glories of high culture, but by a dogged preservation of their bloodlines, their habits and their dialects, do not crumble at once when a television set is put into every home. They mutate, but they cohere. So the villagers of Bansong Dong may be stacked into eighteen storey apartments instead of tin shanties, or not so long ago, daubed mud huts with thatched roofs. They still know the dentist from Seoul as an interloper. And so it is with Pusan itself. Or Jerusalem, or Prague, or Urumchi...

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Them and Us, Pusan and The Rest of 'Em", copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
go to top