Read Black Flower Online

Authors: Young-ha Kim

Black Flower (5 page)

The sailors did not descend to the cabin but called orders down from the top of the stairs, and the interpreter Gwon Yongjun conveyed their intent. He was the only authority figure among the 1,033 travelers. His father had been a member of the class of technical officials—higher than the commoners but lower than the aristocrats—and an interpreter who traveled between Qing China and Korea. The wealthy and those in authority bought from China most of the luxury items needed for marrying off their daughters or pleasing their concubines. Silk and jewels, tobacco and liquor came in along that route, and the interpreters made a great profit mediating these transactions. Scholars coveted Chinese books. Not only the classics but also books that introduced Western thought. Such books, though they were prohibited in Korea—or rather
they were prohibited in Korea—were extremely popular among the scholars. Books about Catholicism, which said that all humanity was equal before God; about the heliocentric theory, which stated that a round earth revolved around the sun; about the histories of the British Empire, France, Germany, and the United States, were packed onto ships and sold the moment they arrived in Korea.

Korean ginseng, in particular red ginseng, was very popular in China. The trade in women was not profitable, mainly because the Chinese valued women who bound their feet, and there was no such custom in Korea. Gwon Yongjun’s father was born into an interpreter’s family and learned Chinese at an early age. He passed the interpreter’s test with ease and went on to amass a great fortune, but he also knew that China was falling into sharp decline because of the Opium Wars. In Beijing, he saw with his own eyes the alarming arrival of the Western powers and the possibility that they might soon swallow all of Asia.

Of his three sons, he taught the first two Chinese, but he hired an English teacher for his youngest. The youngest son had been slow to start talking, worrying his parents. He was particularly poor at learning Chinese characters, and his skill did not develop beyond the elementary level. That being the case, his father felt it would be best to teach him an entirely new language. The sounds of a language that had not been heard for hundreds of years, even in the house of a storied interpreter, rang out. “I am a boy. I learn English. I am a student. I live in London.” The youngest son’s skill in English was not outstanding, but almost no one in Korea spoke English at the time. When America and England founded their legations in Seoul, his father’s foresight paid off. His youngest son, Yongjun, went to the American legation and said that he wanted to work as an interpreter. The diplomats, who had lived half mute on a linguistic island for several months, hired him on the spot. Gwon Yongjun had not been working at the American legation long when his father and brothers set sail from Tianjin, China, on a boat laden with silk. Gentle waves and mild sunshine seemed to bless their voyage. His father had said that when a route was created that would connect China, America, and Britain with Korea, their family would be able to stand side by side with any distinguished family in the nation. “The class system is about to disappear. The age when one’s status is determined by the size of one’s hat is over. Look at your hair. Now the day has come when no one will know you are the children of an interpreter.” His two sons awkwardly patted their oiled hair with both hands. They still felt that something was missing. There was nothing where there should have been a topknot. At a word from their father, after Gojong’s Hair Cutting Edict, they had snipped off the hair that had been growing their whole lives. “This is a good thing for us. Our hair would just be crawling with lice anyway.” With the characteristic decisiveness of a practical man, he had obeyed the Hair Cutting Edict before any other interpreter. Their heads did feel a little bare, but his two sons felt they had done the right thing in obeying their father’s decision. After this, their business flourished and the great wooden floor in their house shone with oil. “When we return from this trip to China I will see you married,” the father promised his eldest son. Perhaps that was why the eldest son kept looking off toward the Ongjin Peninsula and smiling, and in doing so he spotted a ship rapidly approaching. Its bridge was low and its hull was wide, making it well suited for sailing in shallow waters like the Yellow Sea. It was not a fishing boat, seeing as it had no nets, nor was it a diplomatic ship carrying officials.

The mysterious ship pulled alongside them and crewmen tossed over ropes and tied the two ships together. From the interpreter’s side someone shouted, “What are you doing?” but he was struck by several bullets and fell into the ocean. Ten or so sturdy men ran across the ropes to the interpreter’s ship, shouting. Armed guards on the interpreter’s ship met the invaders, but they had already lost the advantage. The attackers, Cantonese-speaking men, skillfully wielded their swords and began to take control of the ship. The interpreter calmly evaluated the situation, but it was hopeless. In less than five minutes the wounded or dead guards had become food for the fishes. Like expert fishmongers, the pirates carried out their work with blank faces. The interpreter and his two sons fell to their knees next to a Korean official on his way back from Beijing who lay with blood flowing from his head. The pirates grinned and marched the interpreter to the bow of the ship and then prodded him in the back with the tips of their swords. He closed his eyes and fell into the ocean. His two sons were taken to the pirates’ ship and thrown into the hold. The official who had been stabbed suffered the same fate as the interpreter. The two ships changed direction and fled to the south.

Gwon Yongjun heard the news a few days later, but he was not greatly saddened. He held a magnificent funeral with the elders of his family and greeted the guests. He, as the youngest son, had not expected any inheritance, because the custom of primogeniture had become firmly established, but suddenly he was rich. He was only twenty years of age. When he opened the doors of the family’s storehouses he found silks and rice piled up to a man’s height. The books written in Chinese characters, which he had difficulty understanding, were the first things he sold off. Then he put the rest of the valuable goods on the market. Even had he not intended to do so, traders somehow found out and came to him and offered to do business. One day a military officer dressed in fine silks and a high and splendid horsehair hat came to Gwon Yongjun’s house. The officer said that he kept three or four of the finest gisaeng in the city, and he requested the honor of offering the young nobleman a drink. There was no reason for Gwon Yongjun to refuse. The next day, the officer sent a palanquin for him. He sat haughtily atop the palanquin and was borne away to the gisaeng house at the foot of Mount Nam. There he enjoyed luxury like that of the emperor of China: white snake liquor and Chinese tobacco, the dancing of Pyongyang gisaeng who had been trained since the age of eight, musicians playing wind and string instruments who could easily surmise the next tune merely by exchanging glances, an old singer from Iksan in Jeolla province who was sightseeing in Seoul, and delicacies of land and sea on plates of Meissen porcelain. And when he grew tired of all that, the gisaeng offered him Shanghai opium. The days slipped by in a fog. After a while Gwon Yongjun didn’t bother to go home; he stayed at the gisaeng house. Little by little his servants sold off the silk and rice from the family storehouse, and the clever officer slowly raised the price of food and lodging for his long-term guest. Only when the season came for farmers to reap what they had sown before the first frost did the palanquin that had brought Gwon Yongjun there take him back home. It was a final thoughtful gesture by the officer: when Yongjun later returned to the gisaeng house, the officer didn’t even open the door. Gwon Yongjun’s house was chilly after his long absence. The market and the connections his father had established were cold to the son who had squandered his entire inheritance at a gisaeng house. The young profligate fought with withdrawal from opium, the cold, and uncertainty about the future, until finally he had no choice but to admit that he was penniless. The only asset that the gisaeng and the officer and his servants had not taken was his fluency in English, but he did not want to return to the American legation, which he had quit rather haughtily. Then he saw the advertisement in the
Capital Gazette
and went to the Continental Colonization Company and decided to start a new life in Mexico, the land of gold, where nobody knew him. He met John Meyers at the company, where filthy people stood in line. “Your English is good enough, but you will have to learn Spanish,” Meyers advised him. He gave Gwon Yongjun the Spanish textbook he had used. In a land without a single Spanish-speaker, Meyers had no other options.


his eyes. The ship was sailing without much pitching or rolling for the first time in a while. The
had tossed and lurched violently for days due to continuous storms, and the cabin was filled with a sour stench. There were those who tried to bear it by drinking the ginseng juice they had brought with them, those who had stuck needles in their forehead and palms, and those who pricked the tips of each of their fingers to let blood flow. All endured the harsh life at sea with their own remedies. Kim Ijeong was not free from this suffering either. He had no knowledge of acupuncture, nor had he brought any ginseng juice with him. He went up onto the deck. There he watched the German crewmen moving around. Because of their sharp noses, angular chins, and great height, he could not think of them as humans like himself. Unable to speak to them, he watched them from afar and then went back down to the cabin. He found himself walking along the labyrinthine corridor that led to the quarters of the German crewmen, the captain, and the ship’s mates. There was no one in the passageway, perhaps because they were all up on the bridge. He came to a flight of stairs and climbed down toward the savory aroma of food. The door was ajar, and he saw people working inside. It was, as he suspected, the galley. If there were a Christian hell, then surely it would look like this: the blazing fires, the cooking utensils that hung from the ceiling and clattered loudly, and the cooks shouting over the noise of the boiler room, their clothes filthy and their long hair hanging down in front of their eyes. The floor glistened with discarded food and grease, yet no one slipped. This was where the food had to be prepared for 1,033 passengers, the captain, the ship’s mates, the crewmen, and the galley workers themselves.

The ship listed to one side and Ijeong tilted that way as well, slamming into the wall with a crash. The sound was drowned out by the galley noise, so no one had yet become aware of his presence. Even as he fell he watched the cooks. They kept their balance by cleverly holding on to straps with one hand. They did not let a single piece of vegetable fall out of their frying pans.

A fat, bearded man saw Ijeong and shouted in Japanese. He approached with a knife in his hand, and Ijeong cowered. The man’s eyes flashed with unpleasant curiosity. He yelled the same thing again. But Ijeong could not understand him. Instead, he picked up a broom lying nearby and started sweeping up the cabbage leaves and potato peels that had fallen on the floor. The bearded Japanese shook his head. He didn’t need him for that. Ijeong continued to work without looking at him. The Japanese thundered at him before giving up and returning to his comrades. The men carried on in Japanese. Ijeong had heard the language spoken in the Japanese concessions at open ports when he was with the peddler, but he had never learned it. At any rate, Ijeong helped out with the cleaning, though no one had asked him to, and he got to know the cooks. And those cooks who at first only cursed at him, not even deigning to look at him, began to put him to work doing odd jobs. He brought bags of onions from the hold and cleaned up the dining hall after meals. During brief breaks, the Japanese cooks went up on deck and smoked cigarettes. One of the cooks was tall for a Japanese. His hair was short like a soldier’s and his body was slender. He taught Ijeong some Japanese after he was finished cleaning. He said his name was Yoshida. He first taught Ijeong the names of ingredients, like onions, potatoes, rice, and water, so that he could run errands for him. Whenever Ijeong forgot or confused a word, Yoshida rapped him on the head, but gradually that happened less and less often. Ijeong was a quick learner. After about three days, he at least did not confuse the names of food items. With that, Ijeong was given more work to do. The cooks shouted his name, like merchants at the market. He hurried back and forth from the hold, the deck, and the dining hall, and when night came he collapsed like a wet noodle. But now he no longer had to wait at the end of a long line for just a bowl of rice. Every night he returned to the cabin reeking of grease. Next to him, Choe Seongil pinched his nose shut. One night a young farmer from Pyongyang called Ijeong a Japanese dog and spit at him. Ijeong waited for him to fall asleep and then beat him with a club. “Owww!” The young farmer covered his head and curled up, but Ijeong wordlessly rained down blows on his body. Choe Seongil was the first to realize what was going on. As soon as he opened his eyes he grabbed Ijeong by the waist and pushed him up against the wall. A few more people who had been stepped on woke up and held Ijeong back. The farmer had been beaten nearly senseless. “How does it feel to be thrashed by a Japanese dog!” Ijeong screamed. “Haven’t you been wolfing down the food this Japanese dog has cooked for you?” The others calmed him down. The Pyongyang farmer, bleeding from his head, picked up his blanket and ran far away from Ijeong.

The commotion soon died down. Life in the cramped cabin led to frequent quarrels. It was amazing that there hadn’t been a knifing yet. The men brandished their fists over seating, over a spoonful of rice, over a pretty woman, or over an ugly look. “You’re a dead man. I’m going to throw you into the ocean!” This was the most common threat, but it never happened. Kim Ijeong lay down flat, trying to calm himself. He had grown up on the streets; this was nothing to him. Strangely, though, his rage did not fade easily. Suddenly he felt as if all the men in the world were his enemies. Seized by this unfathomable hostility, he angrily squeezed his hand into a fist. And with that fist he wiped away a tear that welled up in the corner of his eye.

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