“Wings” and the Department Store

  • onNovember 16, 2014
  • Vol.9 Autumn 2010
  • byYi 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 Honmachi, the center of the Japanese area, Namchon, which also happened to be the commercial center of Kyeongseong. Honbura comes from the ginbura custom, which means to wander through Ginza, Tokyo. Yi Sang says in Tokyo that, “When women buy new shoes, they must tread the pavements of Ginza before they climb into an automobile,” and Yi T’ae-jun describes a female protagonist who spends “an hour on ginbura” in “Stars in Every Window.” The residents of colonial Korea adopted ginbura and invited each other: “Sister, won’t you go honbura?” (Park Tae-won, “Well-dressed Women”)

1. The Anthologized Yi Sang
Yi Sang, edited by Kim Ki-rim
Baegyangdang Publishers, 1949

2. The Complete Works of Yi Sang
Yi Sang, edited by Lim Jong-kuk
Taeseongsa Publishers, 1956

Mitsukoshi was a central part of honbura, which rose from a time when “Mitsukoshi things couldn’t help but appear attractive.” (Lee Kwang-soo, “That Woman’s Life”) The colony was the market of the empire where goods were “displayed disjointedly like the display windows in the consumption section of the paper” (Kim Ki-rim, Unfortunate Aspects of Joseon Literature), people “took the elevator to the top of the five-story building to look at the crumpled clouds instead of the blue ocean.” (Kim Ki-rim, “Yearning for the Sea”) The colony was thus completed in the “Oriental autumn of Coty” (Yi Sang, “Au Magasin de Nouveautes”). Mesmerized by the “beauty of the colorful tags,” “the hems of the pink skirts,” and “the scandalous calves” (Yi Sang, “Autumn of Promenades”), the colonial subjects could not tell the difference between aspirin and Adalin.

There is symbolic significance in the misinterpretation of “Wings.” People often believe that the protagonist is at the Mitsukoshi rooftop garden when he says, “Let’s fly. Let’s fly. Let’s fly. Let’s fly once more yet.” But the protagonist was not at the rooftop garden when he felt an itch around the armpits as he listened to the “noon siren,” but in the “streets of obscurity.” Nor did he shout, “Sprout, “wings!” He had already left the department store at that point, and felt like stopping in the street and shouting those words. But what is more significant is that the misinterpretation heightens the importance of “Wings” and Mitsukoshi’s literary significance. The misinterpretation came about because the protagonist’s desire for “wings” and flight fits in well with the height of the roof. The multi-story building that provides this height is the product of science and technology that grew on capital. In other words, Mitsukoshi alone embodied not just the industrial planning of a colony “whose benefit was the advancement of commerce and industry” (Lee Kwang-soo, “Heartlessness”), but also the architectural ambition of the colonial subjects who built slipshod western imitations of “three-story buildings” (Yom Sang-soep, “The Green Frog in the Taxidermy Room”). The building snuffed all possibility of other perspectives by limiting the vision to its own view. Thus, the misreading of “Wings” expresses the skyrocketing modernist drive that monitors from above and creates blueprints, and the concession and naturalization to this process. Behind all these was, of course, the empire.

Books by Yi Sang that have been published overseas

On the other hand, the high rise, “the first floor under the second floor under the third floor under the rooftop garden,” (Yi Sang, “Motion”), also symbolizes the danger and fear of falling. It symbolizes social stratification and its violence. For example, unlike Chun-sim who could beg for Yun Jik-won to buy her nanchi (lunch) at Mitsukoshi (Ch’ae Mansik, “Peace Under Heaven”), Shin-cheol comes face to face with “his own insignificance” (Kang Kyeong-ae, “Human Problem”) there. To Bong-ik, Mitsukoshi was “worlds away from him” (Yom Sang-soep, “Fig”).

In short, the department store open to all was also a place where people came to affirm the all-pervasive deprivation and poverty. The display windows showcased products and social inequality. Perhaps the penniless protagonist of “Wings” finding himself at Mitsukoshi was as great an inevitability as was this chewing and swallowing Adalin. Bidding farewell to all the aspirin and Adalin that deceived him, he arrived at a hodgepodge of modern issues. Your everyday department store was thus elevated to the status of a definitive literary backdrop.