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Posts Tagged ‘Hollym’

Chinatown‘ by Oh Jung-hee was the first ever Korean story that I read. I got it many years back as a present from one of my favourite friends who worked in South Korea as a teacher at that time. I can’t remember much of the story now, but I remember it didn’t create much of an impact then. This time around, the reading experience was very different. I loved it. I found it very fascinating.

The story told in ‘Chinatown‘ happens just after the Korean war in the ’50s. The place where the story happens is just hinted at, but it is revealed in the short essays at the end of the book as Incheon. The story is narrated by a nine year old girl whose family moves to this coastal town from the north. The experiences she has, the good times she has with her best friend, the poverty that her family and others experience, the happiness they manage to find inspite of life being hard, the bleakness of the post war years, how children growup very fast and get thrust into the adult world suddenly, the presence of American GIs and the adverse impact of that on Korean life – these and other things are explored in the book. The narrator’s voice is fascinating and real.

The illustrations of Nam Joo-hyun are charming and bring alive the Korea of that time. I have shared some of the illustrations below so that you can get a feel of their charm.

The essay at the back of the book says this about the illustrations –

“The streets and rooms are often drawn out of proportion, but somehow the perspective reflects the way childhood scenes are remembered. Actual places are invariably much smaller than we remember them. Without explaining whether the reason is a slip of the memory or a false rendering of time, Nam Joo-hyun renders the curious wonders of our childhood memories in her own, personal style.”

This book is classified as a short story, but it is more a long story – it is 65 pages long with 17 pages of illustrations (it is in bilingual format – so it is 65 pages of English and 65 pages of Korean) – longer than a short story, but shorter than a novella, the kind of stuff Stefan Zweig was famous for.

This book is published by an indie publisher called Hollym which has published other Korean stories in this series in book format with beautiful illustrations and has tried bringing out Korean literature to an international audience at a time when Korean literature was not famous as it is today. I want to read more books from this series, but unfortunately they seem to be hard to find.

I loved ‘Chinatown‘. I want to read more stories by Oh Jung-hee and more stories in the Hollym series.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“Dad was constantly fixing up the house. It was as if he was trying to make up for the days when we had to live in a rented room as refugees or stay up all night huddled together under a bridge or in a tent. The yard was small enough as it was, but Dad was adding rooms and putting in floors like little girls learning to sew sometimes add hidden pockets to purses and clothes. The house became riddled with narrow, tangled passageways that seemed to appear out of nowhere. There was always at least one place where you could hide and not be found.”

“An almost endless toiling of a bell came from the chapel at the back of the park…It continued steadily in measured waves and intervals. A radically restrained sound, it reduced all kinds of desires and feelings into a single ring of sound. It was like waking up from a dream and hearing a distant birdcall made on a summer night or the sound of a train passing wearily in the middle of the night. There was something fearful and secretive about the sound. “A nun must have died,” someone concluded. We knew that when a church bell rang continuously in that way, it meant that a nun was quietly dying.”

Have you read ‘Chinatown‘? What do you think about it?

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