“Wings” and the Department Store

This year marks the 100th commemorative anniversary of Yi Sang’s birth. Yi Sang, whose life was difficult and work was complex, is one of Korea’s most loved writers. Through the use of stories particular to a space (department store) in his most famous short story “Wings,” we can rediscover Yi Sang.


Yi Sang (1910-1937)

Yi Sang’s “Wings” has turned the Mitsukoshi Department Store into one of the most notable places of colonial Korea. The protagonist finds himself on the roof of the Mitsukoshi Department Store after wandering aimlessly around. There, he watches goldfish or looks down on the streets.

These episodes embody profound social and historical meaning. The protagonist wanders the streets here and there like someone who has lost his bearings because he has no money. He had originally intended to drink coffee at Kyeongseong Station, but he could not get in without money. Without a destination, his wandering was inevitable. Until he reached the roof the Mitsukoshi Department Store, he had no idea where he was. When he notes, “Even if I had five won on me, I wouldn’t have been able to make my way home before midnight,” it reveals the fundamental principles of a modern city. In modern society, one needed five won to stay out in the city past midnight. He can buy himself a place in modern society as a consumer. A member of a modern society thus becomes part of time and space through exchange and consumption.

It is then ironic that our layabout of a protagonist went to Mitsukoshi. It doesn’t make sense for him to be at a department store when there’s nothing he can buy. However, one thing to take note of is that department stores are open to everyone, rich or poor, to encourage and promulgate exchange by advertising products and creating the desire for consumption. In addition, as a spectacular Renaissance-style building by the standard of the period, Mitsukoshi enthusiastically embraced the role of a fairground and an expo hall, drawing in potential consumers. One can imagine its popularity by the fact that Mitsukoshi was part of a Kyeongseong city tour bus route, which included the Joseon Shrine, Bakmun-sa (temple), Changgyeong-won (garden), and the Imperial University. Mitsukoshi had its groundbreaking on March 17th, 1929, and was completed on October 21st, 1930. In addition to boutiques, display windows, and a tourist bureau, the Mitsukoshi Department Store also included the Mitsukoshi Hall (theater space), a food court, a rooftop garden, a gallery, a shrine, a greenhouse, a soda fountain, and an observation deck. The fact that one could enter a department store without money must have dominated the protagonist’s subconscious, which led him to Mitsukoshi.

In short, it was the Mitsukoshi’s management policy that made it possible for the protagonist to watch the goldfish. “The canary in the cage at the rooftop garden, its wings limp, closes its eyes like a nihilist,” says Kim Ki-rim in “Rooftop Garden.” The aquarium where the protagonist watched the goldfish was, like the birdcage, part of the department store’s facilities. This is also related to the scene in which the protagonist looks down on to the street below or says, “Let’s fly. Let’s fly. Let’s fly. Let’s fly once more yet.” This is reminiscent of an ad for the department store that claimed that looking down over the city from the rooftop garden was as fun as “a bird looking down from above” (Hatsuda Touru, The Birth of a Department Store). The rooftop garden, in other words, gave people artificial “wings.” The things they bought at the department store also “gave them “wings.”

Through the description of the goldfish fins and the view from the rooftop, Yi Sang’s vigorous depiction of the modern system comes through. The protagonist refers to the streets as the “streets of obscurity” and said that “there a life of fatigue waved about languidly, just like a goldfish fins.” He discovers people who “were bound by invisible, sticky ropes.” At the department store, he meditates on the “merciless dynamics” of modern society “seeping in through the walls” (Yi Sang, “Spider Meets Pig”).

  The Complete Works of Yi Sang 1, Poems
Yi Sang, edited by Kwon Young-min
Literature Edition Ppul
2009, 404pp., ISBN 978890109393
The Complete Works of Yi Sang 2, Fiction
Yi Sang, edited by Kim Ju-hyeon
Somyong Publishers
2009, 407pp., ISBN 9788956264400
The Complete Works of Yi Sang 2, Novels
Yi Sang, edited by Kim Yoon-shik
Munhaksasangsa Co., Ltd.
1991, 404pp., ISBN 8970122184
The Complete Novels of Yi Sang
Yi Sang, edited by Lee O-young
Gabin Publishers, 1977

The protagonist’s stroll to Mitsukoshi is not unrelated to honbura, which means to wander (burabura) through Ho...