Chinatown by Oh Jung Hee

The Portable Library of Korean Literature • Short Fiction • 22 • Jimoondang Publishing • Seoul

The Portable Library of Korean Literatures’ twenty-second imprint is Chinatown by Oh Jung Hee (Also romanized as O chonghui, O Chong-hui). This contains three stories, the eponymous Chinatown, Wayfarer, and The Release. These stories have been translated by the reliable team of Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton.

Prior to reading these three short stories, Oh, was relatively unknown to me. The only story I had read of hers was the tragic Bronze Mirror in which an aging couple faces the legacy of their only child’s death in the Student Revolution. Bronze Mirror, which is available both in Land of Exile and another volume also confusingly named Chinatown (about which I will talk more, shortly), is along the traditional lines of post-war Korean fiction.

But Oh’s work in the Chinatown collection struck me as fresh and different from most of the other works in the PLKL in that they are not particularly concerned with political states, either the aftermath of the war, or issues related to historical Korean divisions.

Chinatown takes place, in Incheon’s (Once Chemulpo) famous Chinatown, a tourist destination in the modern era, but a slum at the time. Though the story is placed in the post-war era, and does feature the unavoidable fallout from the war, it is much more a coming of age tale than a tale about effects of the war.

Chinatown shares, with other works in the PLKL collection, descriptions of hardscrabble existences; the children scrounge from coal trains. Additionally, US servicemen are present, and portrayed as sexually suspect, a Korean categorization that to some extent lives on today.

However, the heart of the story is of a nine year old girl who comes to a greater awareness of sex and death. As the narrative moves forward, the girl observes the relationship, family, and eventual death of a prostitute named Maggie, as well as the sad death of her own grandmother. As backdrop to these events, Oh gives us the seventh pregnancy of the girl’s mother. Oh blends these stories into a collage representing the circle of life, and then drops a final graceful note in a one sentence paragraph with which the narrator concludes her story:

“My first menstrual flow had begun.”

Typically stories focusing on young girls coming of age are not my favored fictions. Oh, however, does such an excellent job setting the scene that when it became clear that this was a coming of age story, it was not only NOT a disappointment, but it came as a clever and happy surprise.

Wayfarer is the sad story of a woman who has been abandoned (in a cruel replay of childhood trauma) by her family and society. After killing a burglar, and spending two years in a mental hospital, Hye-Ja returns to a world that wants no part of her. Family and friends have reframed the killing of the burglar as the murder of a man who may or may not have been somehow related to Hye-Ja. In other words, Hye-Ja is suspected of having killed her lover. Oh cleverly weaves metaphors of blankness, coats of snow, and inaccessibility to paint a picture of Hye-Ja’s isolation, an isolation so profound that Hye-Ja is spurned even by beggars. At the end, drunk and staggering, Hye-Ja walks down a road that she knows will never end.

The Release
The Release portrays a mother and daughter united by a shared but separate tragedy. Both women have lost their husbands at an early age, and in a culture that is historically inimical to widows, this is a social kiss of death. The pain they share is exacerbated by the mother’s intimate knowledge of what her daughter must undergo. As in Wayfarer Oh is clever in her use of symbols – a toothbrush, Artemisia, and in the end, three unlikely carp, combine to make this very short story (a scant six-pages) touching and troubling.

Two Chinatowns
Internet research shows that there is a second volume titled Chinatown, also by Oh and published by Hollym Press, which is hardback and contains seven stories (with only the title-story being shared between the volumes). As noted above, this volume also contains the excellent Brass Mirror and as the only overlapping work is Chinatown it is probably worth getting both volumes.

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