Review: Kim Young-ha’s “Black Flower”

History and literature have recorded diasporas of over 900,000 Koreans in Japan (the so-called zainichi), 40,000 Koreans in the Karafuto Prefecture in Russia (now Sakhalin), almost 10,000 Koreans in Hawaii, and an unknown number in Manchuria. But partly due to its relatively small size (about 1,000 Koreans) the Korean diaspora in Mexico was relatively unknown. Kim Young-ha’s Black Flower, well-translated by Charles LaShure, is an entertaining, and sometimes appalling look at this little-known event in Korean history. When the book was published in Korea it won the prestigious Dong-in Literary Award in 2004,

The history is rather cut-and-dried (that’s a kind of horticultural joke, as you will see). In 1905 Koreans first arrived in Yucatan where they were used as labor to harvest henequen, a member of the agave plant which has a circular arrangement of leaves which are covered in sharp teeth and conclude in an equally sharp spine.

The Koreans had been rather spectacularly lied to in recruitment, with one advertisement stating:

“Located near the United States of America, Mexico is a civilized and rich country. It has warm weather, clean water and fertile soil. The world knows it is a place where no diseases exist. In Mexico there are many wealthy people, but few poor people, so it is very difficult to find laborers. Like many Japanese and Chinese who went to Mexico and profited a lot last year, Chosun (Korean) people too will benefit much when go there …

1. Farmers will have free access to medicine. 1. You will work 9 hours a day and will be paid from a minimum 2 Won 60 Jun up to 6 Won …
History of Korean Immigrants in Mexico pp.72-74; quote translated by Pyo, Jun Beom Korean Minjok Leadership Academy – International Program.


None of that, of course was true, and when the Koreans arrived, they lived in a state somewhere between sharecropper and slave. Over time the Korean community was eroded by death and intermarriage, and today there is no “Koreatown” or its equivalent in Mexico. This is perhaps another reason the diaspora is relatively unknown.

Kim himself heard of this story only through the most attenuated thread of international conversation. On a trans-Pacific flight from LA to Seoul there was a casual conversation between a researcher on the history of Korean emigration and a Korean-American film director.  They were strangers and started talking and the researcher told the director a bit of the story of the Koreans in the Yucatan. Later, Kim Young-ha was talking to the director, and the director passed the story along to him. The history was so fascinating, that Kim wanted to base a novel on it, and Black Flower is the result.

The story begins in Jemulpo as Koreans queue up to get on a boat going to Mexico. The story is told from several perspectives, but the main one is of Kim I-Jeong, a young boy. There’s a bit of historical background, and then we’re on the ship. “On the ship” does not mean on the oceans, as the  confusion of Japanese colonialization and the kind of red-tape any reader will be familiar with keeps the boat docked for two months. Here the Korean emigres first begin to taste the overcrowding, filth, disease, and social turmoil that will soon envelop them whole. Some of the scenes here are reminiscent of the “Long Passage” of Africans into slavery in the US, and Kim does a good job of expressing the claustrophobic nature of the passage.

There are some well-written scenes about culture clash, and not just in a predictable East-West way, but also in the clash between sailors, who are used to the sea, and landlubbers who are not. When the first Korean dies, for instance, there is much consternation between the groups on how to deal with it, as the seamen just want to toss him overboard, as is naval custom, while the Koreans want to carry out a full set of traditional rites. The Koreans win a partial victory, one of the few victories, partial or otherwise, that they will have in the next few years.

The love story that is partially at the center of the story also begins onboard as the peasant I-Jeong falls in love with the yangban (semi-noble) daughter Yi Yongsu.  This love affair, separated by circumstances, continues through most of the book.

When the Koreans get to Mexico they are sold off to different Haciendas, and life is, as I noted earlier, nothing like was promised. One or two of the Koreans more or less betray their comrades for money and social, religious and sexual friction is omnipresent in the new environment. Living at a subsistence level, particularly upon first landing, grinds everyone down.

During the auction to the competing haciendados, I-jeong and Yi Yongsu are separated, and one of the main threads of the book concerns their efforts to reunite. I-jeong and Yi Yongsu do eventually have provisional “happy endings,” but not in the way you expect and I-jeong’s does not last. Kim is always a writer who can whip out the unexpected and he certainly does that in this book.

Some of the Koreans rebel successfully against this, and some of the story is these Koreans working their way out of debt. Others become involved in the Mexican revolution, and some flee with I-jeong to Guatemala, where they found a short-lived “New Korea.”

The book concludes with an Animal House style appendix of the outcomes of the lives of all the main characters.

Some reviewers have complained that there is a lot of “data-dumping” of history in Black Flower, but my feeling is that it was necessary. Most Koreans and Mexicans don’t know the background to this story, so it is certain that most English readers  won’t. Without the historical background the story would make no sense.

The story also moves from narrator to narrator, though with I-Jeong and Yi Yongsu always at the center, and this has also been of concern to some reviewers who don’t seem to like that form of fiction. Yet, again, it seems necessary to me as there is no other way to tell the entire story – simply focusing on the love story at the center of the book would have substantially narrowed its scope.

My only concern with the book revolves around something that Kim loves to do, and that is include gratuitous, at least to me, sex scenes. They seem to be set-pieces in some cases, and some don’t do anything to advance the story, rather they seem placed in order to seem risque.  There is also one whopping coincidence near the end of the book, but it is not integral to the plot and one whopping coincidence per novel does not seem excessive to me.^^

Black Flower is a good book. It’s not as good, I think, as Your Republic is Calling You, but then again it was written before that book. It is one of the interesting things about translation that the English readers rarely get introduced to authors chronologically.  That can be good or bad, since failed works probably won’t get translated, but it also robs English-language readers of the chance to watch an author develop.

In any case, I’d pick it up, either now in hardcover ($14.75, so a relative bargain), or wait a few months for the inevitable paperback to emerge. Kim is an author with a wide range of skills (this is nothing like his other translated works) and one for whom the future seems wide open. If you’re a fan of history, Korean modern literature, or Kim Young-ha, this is a really good read.

NOTE: The book becomes available for general sale on Tuesday the 30th…