Listening to the Life Stories of Women Storekeepers, Listening to the Times
An Oral History of the Women Storekeepers of Mangwon Market: Introduction
Two Years in Mangwon Market
From January 2014 to March 2016, I lived in Mangwon Market. “Third floor of the Daiso building!” I’d say, and friends who knew the market would quickly figure out where I lived. Looking for a place I could rent just by paying a 100 million won deposit up front, I deliberated between two places: a clean apartment on a quiet street, or a humble space inside Mangwon Market. At the time, I was living with my younger son, so I needed two rooms.
The place I lived in previously did not have any stores within a 200m radius. I briefly felt conflicted about the market noises that would interfere with my writing, but I was also drawn to the bustle. My first childhood memory takes place at Noryangjin Market, and I spent countless early mornings during my tumultuous twenties wandering around Yongsan Vegetable Market and Noryangjin Fish Market. Since then, wherever I’ve gone, I’ve made time to wander around a market if I could find one. At fruit markets in India and amongst the vegetable stalls in Yanbian, I would squat down in a corner and lose track of time watching all the different faces and negotiations.
Besides, this was Mangwon Market: the place of my dreams. For the two years I lived in the market, I relished its energy, convenience, and joys. Only here could I place a pot on the stove with some water and doenjang, then run downstairs for some tofu and squash. Every day, I would walk around the neighborhood to exercise and see what was going on in the market. By the time I climbed the stairs to my apartment, I would always have a bag of tteokbokki and soondae in my hands.
I made a note on my calendar of every market event that was announced through loudspeakers, banners, and text messages. In the holiday traditional games event, I won a market coupon in the arm wrestling game. On Sundays, when the storeowners’ association hosted a first-come first-served sale, I would eye the specials, line up early, and beam when I won a coupon. When celebrations for Children’s Day or Parents’ Day were held in nearby Mangwon Park, I joined the festivities, becoming child or parent depending on the occasion.
Near closing time, I would make impulse buys and collect photographs and recordings. When I had writer’s block at 2 or 3 in the morning, I would settle on top of the display cases, cross-legged, and chain smoke. Sometimes, I wrestled with the manuscript for The Birth of Halbae with closed windows and earplugs to block out the voice of Mangwon Butcher Shop’s storekeeper below my apartment. But I would always run downstairs when I heard her shout, “Sale! Sale! Three geun[Approximately 600 grams] for 10,000 won!”
As I worked on the manuscript for The Birth of Halbae, I secretly chose a few storekeepers as potential oral history subjects and worked on leaving a good impression. I let my laughter linger as I bought sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds; I collected anecdotes while buying cigarettes and pigs’ feet. With the storeowners’ association members, I went out of my way to give out my business card and make my face familiar. Since my household was small, I never had much to buy. But I sung the praises of Mangwon Market as if I were competing for an advertising award. When the holiday season arrived, and the market became so crowded there was literally no room to stand in it, I leaned out of my third-floor window and had a great time taking photos.
In January of 2016, when I was wondering if I should extend my housing contract or not, the landlord raised the deposit to 130 million won. As I prepared to move, I felt disappointed about moving away from the oral history subjects I’d been hustling for. At the time, I was in the midst of a project interviewing elderly people who live alone near Daeheung Station, so I found an apartment nearby in Sinsu-dong. The deposit was 100 million won, as before, but this time it was a one-room apartment. My younger son had gotten married and moved out, so I only needed one room. The new place was just three to four subway stations away from Mangwon Market, so I felt that the storekeepers I’d chosen would turn up if I tugged hard enough.
At the end of 2016, when The Birth of Halbae was published, I became as busy as the Mangwon Butcher Shop storekeeper and had to use my voice just as much. In early 2017, I began teaching an introductory class on oral history, and decided to open a life history writing class as the follow-up intensive course in March.
In late February, Cho Yeong-kwon, who organizes all kinds of local activities centering on Mangwon Market, called me to arrange a meeting. “Leave me alone,” I said, trying to cut him short. “I’m too busy!” But Cho argued that he needed to see me anyway. I went to meet him with the intention of firmly declining whatever his offer was, but when I showed up, he told me that he wanted to begin an oral history project of women storekeepers in Mangwon Market. My goodness! The writers were already ready—my students in the intensive class. I chose nine writers, one for each of the nine subjects, on a first-come first-served basis. Many diverse discussions and countless interviews, writing sessions, and workshops ensued, and the work progressed smoothly. We must have been blessed by a grandmother spirit living in Mangwon Market.
Listening to the life stories of women living on their own and with each other
I hope that the readers will first pay attention to the list of women storekeepers. Only Big Sister, who owns a shop called “Hat Country”, was born in the 1950s; everyone else was born in the 1960s. Their places of origin are diverse, ranging from a mining town in Gangwon Province to an island in Jeolla Province. None of the subjects have attended university. The daughters of working class people who were born all over Korea in the same era, these women journeyed down their own paths and through their own circumstances, growing through joy and pain. Many quietly stifled the sorrow stemming from the expectation that even if a woman doesn’t go to college, her male siblings must. They came to Seoul for opportunities in employment; as they exited agriculture; and as they entered marriage. They survived the 1997 Asian financial crisis[Better known in Korea as the 1997 IMF crisis] and the 2008 global financial crisis; they worked in factories, street stalls, restaurants, or at other part-time jobs before arriving in Mangwon Market. Therefore, to listen to the life stories of these nine women storekeepers of Mangwon Market, whose ages in 2017 range from 49 to 67, is to look into people and an era, and to look outward into the world.
The twists and turns in the life of these women storekeepers overlap with and diverge from the ups and downs of their customers’ lives. Their histories of migration and making ends meet, memories about places and times, the history of Mangwon-dong and Mangwon Market, the joys and sorrows of salaried workers and business owners—these stories will lead the reader to ruminate on their own history.
One woman recounts how her place of origin, Ilsan, became a “new city” development site, which forced her family and other original residents to move out. Now, at nearly 70 years old, she is relocating to a small apartment in Ilsan because she has been pushed out of Seoul. One woman speaks of her parents-in-law who fled south from what is now North Korea during the Korean War. They worked as farmhands, then moved to Mangwon where land was cheap, and made a living selling garlic they grew in a small plot and salted shrimp made in an oil drum. Her husband, who was their pride and joy, quit his white collar job at Korea Telecomm because he “couldn’t take it anymore”, so they settled down in Mangwon and have been working hard ever since to keep the business going. The pig’s feet vendor speaks about how she misses her friend Yeong-sook, who handed her a roll of gimbap through the bus window in a time when hunger was a constant, and how displeased she felt toward her father when he bowed to her in-laws to apologize for his daughter’s first child being a girl. Then there are the memories shared by those who lived through the Park Chung-hee era:[Park Chung-hee was a dictator whose presidency lasted from 1963 to 1979] propaganda flyers and school supplies, collecting acacia leaves and grass seeds, anti-communism speech contests and Aehyangdan,[Aehyangdan was a village-level organization for elementary school students implemented in conjunction with the nationwide Saemaeul Undong or New Community Movement in 1970. All elementary school students were automatically registered as members of Aehyangdan, which directly translates to “Village Loving Organization”, and were encouraged to participate in village improvement activities such as tending to flower beds, cleaning village entrances and streams, and basic farming, as well as traveling to and from school as a unit. Nora Noh[Nora Noh founded the House of Nora Noh in 1950 and is thought of as Korea’s first fashion designer. Her Yangjae Academy taught dressmaking to its students.] Yangjae Academy and assistant sewers at the tailor’s, the water-carrying yoke and pump water filtered through charcoal, how people would end up marrying after living together.
The storekeepers also speak of surviving the Asian financial crisis, the 2008 financial crisis, foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks, the avian influenza epidemic, and the opening of a large supermarket nearby, only to get kicked out by the rising rent or the landlord’s demand, “Get out!” They speak of how they got by on daily installment loans, gye,[A gye is a rotating credit association common among Koreans. Members of a gye contribute a fixed amount on a regular basis, and each member then receives the “pot” on a rotating basis until all members have received it.] private loans, and bank loans. Stories about old Mangwon-dong are plentiful, too. “All that land used to be spinach plots. We didn’t have a bus back then, so we would walk all the way to Hapjeong-dong.” Once, the women tell us, there was a flood so bad that people rode in big rubber buckets to take refuge at Seongsan Elementary school. We learn how the street stalls that used to pack up and run from regulators finally got an arcade after the Mangwon subway station was opened, and registered as the Mangwon Market.
There are stories of achievements as well. After holding “full market shutdown” and “candlelit market” demonstrations in resistance to the opening of the Hapjeong branch of Homeplus supermarket, and a number of rallies that local residents joined in solidarity, the Mangwon Market storekeepers gained a half-victory—the first of its kind in Korea won against a distribution conglomerate. (The Homeplus Hapjeong-dong branch is currently restricted from selling 16 products; the Homeplus Express Mangwon Station branch was shut down; and the storekeepers earned funding support to purchase land for the Mangwon Market Customer Center.) The citizens also elected a city council member who represents the interests of small business owners across the country. Through these experiences, residents and shopkeepers came to appreciate the power of solidarity and gained the insight that “traditional markets are the cradles of economic democratization”, as well as a heightened awareness of themselves as rights-bearing citizens.
Every year, the Mangwon Market hosts Children’s Day, Elders’ Day, Chuseok, and Lunar New Year’s festivities to express their gratitude to the neighborhood residents. The storekeeper’s association makes a number of donations every year, and neighborhood residents can use its building for meetings and activities. The storekeepers are also pondering and strategizing responses to changing consumer practices, such as the rise of single-person households and store-bought meals. As Mangwon-dong becomes more popular, however, storekeepers lament that they feel as though “I am only helping the landlord by working hard at my store”. Some people envy storekeepers because they will not be fired by a boss or forced to retire early, but self-employed storekeepers do not have severance pay or a public pension like salaried workers do. The storekeepers’ struggles against distribution conglomerates Carrefour and Homeplus have thankfully passed, but now a Lotte Shopping Mall is being built in Sangam-dong.
The Mangwon Market storekeepers measure the passage of a year through the passing of two holiday seasons. Every holiday, their mothers, mothers-in-law, and children pitch in to help them with the store. The women take care of their families’ three meals every day and make preparations for ten ancestral rites every year. But if the women carried out these preparations behind the curtains in the past, they are now at the center of it all, directing the planning and teamwork. One woman overcame the depression she developed from living with her in-laws with the help of her husband and friends, and the cooking skills she gained from that difficult experience led her to become the owner of a banchan shop. These days, she says she keeps thinking of her mother, who she disliked and also pitied in childhood. This is because she now understands her mother’s life as that of a woman who walked this path ahead of her during an even more difficult era, and because she wants to live as the prouder, smarter woman that her mother hoped she would become. Living as daughter, mother, wife, and daughter-in-law, these women continue to build new selves and new ways of being women that go beyond anyone’s preconceptions.
All subjects say that their current life now as a woman storekeeper at Mangwon Market is the happiest that they have ever felt, a time when they have developed their confidence and are expanding their place in the world. They have fun in the women storekeepers’ organizations “Ten Sisters” and “Haedanghwa”[“Haega galsurok dangdanghan yeojadeul moim”. Haedanghwa is also the Korean name for the flower sweetbrier.] (“group of women who become more confident every year”), and make time to learn djembe, yoga, and dance together, later performing at the neighborhood functions. They participate in the Mangwon Market Storeowners’ Association, which has 88 members, take care of neighborhood politics as residents’ council members, and learn more deeply and widely about society and themselves through a business-focused “storekeepers’ school” operated by the local government.
We hope that similar activities take place at other markets, big and small. A much more extensive transcript of the countless subject-writer conversations was compiled, but just a few parts from that record were selected for the book due to limited space. I hope that other works can come about from those remaining stories that we could not include in Clear Skies Today.
Translated by Hoyoung Moon
Published January 29, 2018
*Original article: http://ildaro.com/8109
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