Hubert Robert, detail from “Fire at the Paris Opera House of the Palais-Royal.” Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under CC0 2.0.
Yi Sang (1910–1937) was a writer in Korea during the thirties, when the country was under the rule of the Japanese empire. His poems, stories, letters, and essays, written in both Korean and Japanese, are celebrated as some of the finest Korean literature of his time, and bear wide-ranging influences: the Chinese classics, the general theory of relativity, and Dadaism and surrealism, both of which he is credited with introducing into the Korean literary lexicon. He wrote during a period when Koreans could be jailed without trial on the basis of mere suspicion of thought crimes, and, shortly after being imprisoned in Tokyo by Japanese authorities in 1937, succumbed to tuberculosis in a hospital at the age of twenty-seven.
Nearly ninety years after his death, Yi Sang is perhaps best remembered for his intricate poetry, which features striking, complicated images. In the poem “Crow’s Eye View: Poem No. 15,” he writes, “I sneak into a room with a mirror. To free myself from the mirror. But the me-inside-the-mirror always enters at the same time and puts on a gloomy face. He lets me know he is sorry. Just as I am locked up because of him he is locked up shuddering because of me.” Like many of his contemporaries, Yi Sang also contributed guest columns to newspapers. These writings, collected under column titles like “Early Spring Sketches” and “Miscellany Under the Autumn Lamp,” offered incisive, humorous, and compact observations of life in Seoul in the thirties. He captured the grace and chaos of urban existence among anonymous fellow city-dwellers going about their daily routines.
The pieces that follow come from the column “Early Spring Sketches,” which was serialized from early to late March 1936. Encountering Yi Sang through these sketches offers a glimpse into a luminous spirit whose disillusionment with the modernity of his era didn’t culminate in despair but rather, as the poet John Ashbery once wrote, “broke into a rainbow of tears.”
—Jack Jung, translator
Uninsured Fire (March 3, 1936)
The building next door is engulfed in flames. The sky above is murky, filled with furious flurries of snow and plumes of smoke that resemble blobs of ink vomited out by squids. It is rumored that the burning structure is a large factory that stored various chemicals. From the raging bonfire, rainbow-colored smoke billows out intermittently, akin to coughs. The chemicals are exploding.
It may sound mean, but I believe there isn’t a person in the world who doesn’t enjoy watching fire. So, I find myself in the backyard, arms crossed, enthralled by the fiery glow as its warmth caresses my face. It’s not entirely unpleasant; for a moment, I revel in this ecstasy.
The factory’s poorly constructed barracks ignite, rapidly engulfing the entire building. When the fire’s insatiable tongue begins licking at the neighboring slum houses, which resemble crab shells, the firefighters finally arrive. Their arrival brings entertainment. In a three-pronged attack, the firefighters direct their hoses at the fire, creating a grand spectacle atop the roofs. Their efforts seem futile. Helplessness permeates the scene.
Where I stand, the fire’s heat is barely tolerable. It must be much more challenging for those firefighters, who are so close to it that they appear to have entered the inferno. Yet the fire intensifies with each passing minute. After futile attempts to tame the flames with their hoses, the firefighters descend from the roofs, still gripping the tips of their hoses as if they can no longer withstand the heat. What did they hope to achieve with their feeble jets of water? Nevertheless, the firefighters redirect their hoses and begin spraying water on the slum houses near the fire. The residents, with their blackened laundry poles and chimneys, rush to salvage their furniture and belongings. The firefighters resort to tearing down the houses.
Presumably, their aim is to halt the fire’s path, which is fueled by the strong northwesterly wind. However, the unaffected slum residents likely feel victimized. They bear witness to their furniture and possessions being ruined through the demolition and water spray.
People hustle in the narrow alley near my home, bustling in and out. Curiosity piques my interest, and I decide to investigate. Drawer cabinets, coat hangers, tin spoons, tax-payment reminders, a violin, a fox-fur scarf, a worn-out mat, high heels, and a coal stove clutter the alley. These odd remnants have been discarded, forming a market-like pile. Bedclothes soaked in water lie ruined and unsightly.
It is then I realize the fire might reach my dwelling. I quickly return home, finding my mother trembling, clutching and pulling dirty blankets in confusion. A sudden laughter escapes me as I ask, “Where will you take that bundle after wrapping it like that?” We live in a small rented room, so even if everything were to burn down, our loss would be minimal compared to losing an entire house.
Through the western window of our room, I glimpse the fire’s bright light. It appears that this place will also succumb to the flames. Well, I think to myself, if it is meant to burn, then let it burn. Embracing my inevitable nihilism, I retreat to the backyard to continue observing the fire.
Despite this, I ponder what I should rescue from my home if the fire were to consume the entire neighborhood. I draw a blank. Does this imply that I am indifferent to everything that is going up in smoke? My mother, on the other hand, continues to hold sentimental value for her tattered baby quilt and the bug-infested cabinet.
I wonder if there is a place to go with these discarded rags and scraps once they are taken out to the street. Unfortunately, there is nowhere to go. Perhaps a family member or a friend could offer us shelter, but finding someone who would accommodate my entire destitute family without hesitation is highly unlikely.
Disappointingly, the fire is extinguished before it reaches our vicinity. I feel a sense of anticlimax after expecting such a grand spectacle. Simultaneously, an indescribable desolation settles within me. I later learn that the factory had fire insurance. Despite losing their alcohol bottles, they will receive substantial compensation. Fire insurance proves to be a more benevolent deity than any other.
Ill-tempered thoughts without any basis in reality emerge—“Damn it, everything should have burned down!” In such a mood, I don’t even consider the consequences for my mother. I yearn to be a bare-bodied individual with no possessions, not even a single penny to my name. Of course, there is no chance that the fire insurance god would compensate me in any way …
The Generosity of Cities (March 20, 1936)
The extent to which the generosity of cities will continue to dwindle remains uncertain. I once heard a disturbing tale. It was said that in Shanghai, deformed infants, often already deceased, are discarded into trash cans. Each morning, the sanitation workers arrive whistling. Upon discovering one of these grotesquely deformed infants, they never react with shock. They simply set the infant aside and proceed to collect the trash. To them, the sight of a deformed infant is not unusual, but they recognize that it is not waste. It is not within their job duties to care for it; whatever befalls it is not their concern. At first, I questioned the authenticity of this tale, but it seemed plausible enough. It’s challenging to fathom just how depleted and barren the generosity of cities has become.
It has been nearly a year since my family relocated to this row house. Under the same shared roof, multiple families reside in separate compartments. Mr. Park, Mr. Kim, Yi Sang, Mr. Choi—names inscribed on plaques of varying sizes that hang on each compartment’s front door. Yet no one really knows anyone else. Each person’s occupation remains a mystery to the others. Unmarried older individuals like me enter through the front gate, while wives and grown sisters use the back door. The husbands typically depart in the morning or midday and return in the evening or at night through the front gate.
Most of the women stay at home. In the evenings, they gather by the water pipe to wash rice. Unlike men, they’re not reticent around one another. They openly share stories, some revealing secrets best left untold. They chatter about the shortcomings of others and weave tales of domestic drama. This act of storytelling eventually discloses their husbands’ professions, subtly undermining their men’s dignity. Still, their air is eerily calm.
From my home’s restroom window, I can see Room No. X of the second row house, which was briefly occupied by a young couple last summer. They argued constantly. As autumn arrived, the husband abruptly left. The young wife subsequently became a favored hostess at a local café, a merry spinster. Perhaps realizing the row house wasn’t conducive to finding a new husband, she eventually moved on as well. The room now stands vacant. Unsurprisingly, there are no rules of etiquette in these row houses obliging residents to greet or bid farewell to neighbors when they move.
Upon the couple’s departure, the neighbor, who’d been subjected to their incessant squabbles, expressed relief, comparing it to having an aching tooth extracted. During that period, another young couple lived nearby. Both were overweight, and they’d lost their baby due to a miscarriage. They began to shed their excess weight, the loss of which surpassed the weight of their deceased infant. I later discovered they lacked the funds to raise the child had it survived and to maintain the mother’s weight during pregnancy.
When the weather turned colder, a family of four siblings moved next door to us. The two brothers attended B Technical School, and the two older sisters attended W High School. Each evening, the siblings’ popular music grated on my father’s traditional sensibilities. Oddly, I’ve never encountered the brothers, and my sister has never conversed with the sisters.
On New Year’s Day, the neighbors opposite us prepared white rice cakes. I hoped they’d share some with us, but we received not a single slice. We decided to keep our panfried leftovers to ourselves, having initially planned to share. We didn’t consider the household of siblings when cooking, because they hadn’t prepared any holiday food. We felt irritated, suspecting they anticipated receiving food from us and rice cakes from the other neighbors. Of course, I could have been mistaken about this. As winter gave way to spring, a young woman living at the end of our row house transitioned from being a primary wife to a concubine. Although no sympathy was extended to her, people still found it in themselves to scorn her potbellied husband. Yet nobody took any action. Debt collectors began visiting our home in growing numbers. One day, the landlord arrived with a bailiff and placed repossession notices on all our belongings due to overdue rent. Nobody witnessed it; the four siblings next door were at school, and the neighbors across might as well have been sightless. I thought it was a blessing in disguise; it would have been more humiliating if the entire neighborhood knew our plight.
“Who are you looking for?”
“Is this Mr. X’s house?”
“Then where is his place?”
“How should I know that?”
After this conversation occurred at our door between me and a stranger, my father advised, “It’s best not to inform them, even if you know.”
“They’re likely debt collectors, which would be a shameful revelation for Mr. X.” So, how much more will the generosity of this city wither and dry up?
Antique Obsession (March 24–25, 1936)
Some artifacts were excavated from a grave, apparently crafted and used by the peoples of the ancient Silla or Goryeo kingdoms. They were likely used to present food, such as bean sprouts and boiled beef, or to pour wine. In essence, these wares were probably instrumental in the everyday sustenance of these ancient societies. However, I struggle to understand the excitement surrounding their excavation. Why are these broken objects so highly valued? Watching the same fervor over wares from the Yi Dynasty, which only ended a few decades ago, is even more puzzling.
While we should respect the achievements of our ancestors, objects like these household wares seem worthless, yet people seem to crave them. Compared to the technical sophistication and progressiveness of a glass dish, this excavated earthenware appears to be crudely made. The obsession with antiques seems to me as an extreme form of laziness I wish to expunge from our society.
Occasionally, someone I know boasts about their acquisition. “Look, I’ve managed to buy a Yi Dynasty jar cheaply, come and see!” More often than not, they’ve overpaid for an object of minimal aesthetic value. It is indistinguishable from an item you might find in the kitchenware section of the Mitsukoshi department store. There might be some value in it, but it is inconsequential.
It goes without saying that jars and pots were not initially intended to possess aesthetic value. However, occasionally, an object emerges from a grave that demonstrates a blend of artistic elements, albeit being amateurish and likely crafted for practical use. After being buried for a long time, and as our times and cultures have drastically shifted, such an object may now seem remarkable, skillfully made, and even highly artistic. To mistake it as purely artistic and to rave about it demonstrates profound ignorance.
I once visited a museum where countless excavated artifacts were displayed chronologically and categorized meticulously according to their purpose, style, and other classifications. Seeing the clear and straightforward arrangement of the gallery, I could finally appreciate the beauty and value of such artifacts.
The value of antiques likely lies in archaeological interests. The sense of beauty one might feel for them probably stems from our deep longing for our ancestors. We must foster the study of history in order to understand our past. The significance of antiques truly shines when we use them to learn about the lives, folk culture, and folk arts of a certain period. However, when antiques are hidden away, their context obscured, their purpose ceases.
Viewing many artifacts from a similar period with a shared purpose and style allows us to gain concrete historical knowledge about that time. In contrast, examining a single artifact, like a bone fragment from a Pithecanthropus, only leads to vague speculations about the past. Some collectors obsessively gather antiques, storing them in their bedrooms out of fear that others might discover their value. In the context of archaeological interests, such behavior is detestable, and their stingy notion of private ownership of ancient artifacts is reprehensible.
However, collectors who hoard artifacts might be considered good citizens compared to those who purchase artifacts cheaply only to sell them for a significant profit. These individuals believe their actions to be virtuous, yet I believe it disrupts our currency system.
An acquaintance once told me, “I was recently deceived into buying this item. Nevertheless, I didn’t lose much because I managed to sell it off immediately at only a slight loss. I avoided disaster.” Essentially, he bought a forgery at a high price, discovered its inauthenticity, and sold it to someone else for a slightly lower price. He views this as a success story.
It’s hard to fathom the mindset of someone who intentionally forges an item of such little value that it wouldn’t even serve as an ashtray. It’s disturbing to think that such deceptions pervade the antique world. I’ve heard of a collector who bought a famous sword for a fortune only to discover it was a forgery and held a funeral for himself. A counterfeit jar or dish is passed from one deceived individual to the next, with each new victim becoming the next deceiver. This cycle could endure for centuries. Eventually, people might start valuing these forgeries as historical artifacts, saying their origins are in our ancestors’ days.
I would urge these eccentric collectors to shatter every insignificant dish they see (excluding those with genuine aesthetic value). Yet if I were to advise them to donate their antiques to a museum, they would likely berate me as a lowlife for my audacity.
From an Empty Space (March 12, 1936)
One cold day, when ice still held the world in its grip, I stood alone in the yard of Deoksugung Palace. In warmer weather, this place would be teeming with people lounging on the dry grass, but that day, there were none. I couldn’t fathom why this expansive area was left vacant. I contemplated the ground, imagining it might be bored. Perhaps it yearned for more than just blooming plants, trees, and peculiar rocks and stones. Instead, it might have preferred the company of houses and bustling crowds. It could have yearned to shape itself into long, thin, winding paths nestled between structures, transforming into streets bustling with life. It might have wished to feel the rhythmic steps of couples strolling hand in hand, the rumbling of vehicles traversing its surface. At least that was what I imagined the ground might desire on that winter day.
Then, it occurred to me that this ground might be a special restricted area during winter. In my embarrassment, I hurried toward the Daehanmun gate of the palace to leave. As I walked, I heard the distant murmuring of people. Yet the grassy yard was still empty, save for an old caramel wrapper tumbling in the wind.
Suddenly, I noticed numerous couples in winter coats, not on the barren ground but merrily skating on a frozen pond where goldfish usually swam. I marveled at this newly discovered gleaming space. Puzzled, I wondered about the fate of the goldfish. Could they survive in the freezing water beneath the ice? The countless scratches from skate blades obscured any view beneath the surface. If it had been transparent, I might have spotted a flicker of a goldfish tail. But how deep was this small pond? If it was completely frozen, the fish must have perished. If there was still flowing water beneath, how disturbed must they have been by the unfamiliar noise of the skaters, the source of which they could not fathom? The enjoyment of this wondrous space demanded that the skaters remain ignorant of any distress the fish might be experiencing.
Later that day, as I reclined in a chair on the second floor of my home, I surveyed the evening city and mourned the absence of empty spaces in this twilight world. Then, I spotted an impressive empty space far superior to the humble pond at the palace: a construction site encircled by wooden planks, each bearing a sign for “XX Insurance Company Construction Site.” Once overgrown with weeds, it had transformed into a true wasteland as they withered and faded to sepia. In the heart of this bustling city, where there’s hardly space enough to drive a nail, such a significant empty space seemed like a miracle.
Perhaps it had been untouched by human or animal footprints for a long time, or at all. A few dogs played there, their shadows stretching in the twilight. It was a genuine empty space. In truth, our world lacks such spaces. Paved roads, muddy fields, forests, and rocky mountains are not empty; they are properties owned by someone. If we follow this logic, we can’t even plant a single blade of grass without an owner’s permission. We can only enjoy leisurely walks because the world still generously grants silent consent. So, in a world devoid of empty spaces, I was thrilled to discover this construction site, imagining myself lying there, stretching my legs, and enjoying a cigarette. But then, I realized that it was merely a construction site awaiting development, for XX Insurance Company’s profit. Its unique feature was that, instead of having a bare concrete floor, the pavement was was carpeted in dried weeds.
Spring arrived. A solitary plant in a pot in my modest room greeted the season and began to blossom. I had used this little pot of dirt as a holder for my ink bottle throughout the winter. Seeing it bloom, I removed the ink bottle, cleared away the scattered dry leaves, and watered it with a jar of clean water. I felt a sense of joy, for in this world, this small patch of dirt was my only empty space. However, this round and flat space was far too small for me to stretch my legs and enjoy a cigarette.
Jack Jung, who translated these sketches, studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Truman Capote Fellow. He is a cotranslator of Yi Sang: Selected Works, which won the 2021 Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Literary Work. He teaches at Davidson College.
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