Voices from the Very Edge of the Circle: Suburbia, Modernization, and People at the Fringe: People of Wonmi-dong by Yang Gui-Ja

  • onDecember 10, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • byMariko Nagai
ウォンミドンの人々 (People of Wonmi-dong)
Tr. Choi Jinseok

Suburb: the word itself carries modernity within its syllables because it has to, because without modernization and its need to urbanize, the suburb cannot exist. It connotes a particular space in which those who want to enter the city from the countryside and those who have not found home in Seoul collide with the locals; the city keeps expanding and crawling toward its outer areas, threatening to consume them, as the locals try to maintain their traditional ways of life while having to accept that their knowledge of the land is no longer the same. It’s not that Wonmi-dong didn’t exist before becoming a suburb of Seoul. The town itself existed but not as a suburb—it was on the fingertip of Seoul where people unable to afford housing in the capital would endure long commutes in order to live in an affordable house. It existed long before as a town on its own, separate from the identity of Seoul. However, that is no longer the case.

The Wonmi-dong we encounter in Yang Gui-Ja’s Wonmi-dong no Hitobito is portrayed as one of Seoul’s numerous suburbs in the 1980s. The setting is just prior to the Seoul Olympics taking place in 1988, a time when the Korean economy is about to assume its role as a major competitor in the global market. The capital city is expanding, engulfing neighboring towns within its borders with the help of train lines that are becoming longer and more complicated. Sterile apartment buildings are hurriedly built to accommodate the workers who are gravitating toward the city looking for better jobs, whose dreams are intimately connected with what they imagine their lives in the city will be, but who cannot afford to live in the city itself. Seoul in the 1980s is the place where people flocked but could not settle. Whether they are like the protagonist in “Tookute Utsukushii Tochi” (“A Distant and Beautiful Place”), who moves several times within the city but is unable to stay; or like Kyongho’s parents, who first worked as day-laborers in Seoul before moving to Wonmi-dong to open a rice shop in “Nichiyo no Kate” (“Our Daily Bread”); or like the unemployed and unnamed main character in “Hidane” (“The Spark”), or the man who is literally driven underground only coming up to the surface to defecate in “Chikaseikatsusha” (“The Underground Man”)—there seems to be no place for these characters in the city itself. The only place to inhabit for these people who do not belong anywhere—the locals, the outsiders, and the people in-between—is suburbia. However, this is not the Promised Land that Unhye’s grandmother thinks it will be in “A Distant and Beautiful Place.” The suburbia that Yang portrays throughout this interlinked collection of stories is one made of people, characters whose hopes are dashed and who discover new ones. These hopes are elusive to actualize as the characters go about their daily lives, which are both intimate like village life but, at the same time, are also colored by the mores of Seoul that unconsciously overshadow their expectations. Reading these stories took me back to my own neighborhood in Tokyo, which, although considered to be one of the most desirable suburbs to live in, was a complicated space where the locals both embraced and resisted newcomers. Like Wonmi-dong, my neighborhood became desirable right before the Tokyo Olympics took place in 1964 with the implementation of two major commuter lines. Many people moved in, especially those who could not afford to live within the Yamanote-line, because the new commuter lines provided easy access to the city without having to pay for expensive housing. My grandmother, like Old Kang, kept farming well into the 1980s, using night soil as fertilizer and, just like the story, the neighborhood complained that the land value would go down because of the unpleasant stench this fertilizer produced. Furthermore, just like Old Kang, she defiantly kept farming even though she was one of the largest landowners in the neighborhood and there was no need to live off farming. There are many such parallels between Japan in the 1960s and South Korea in the 1980s, and the characters that appear in this collection remind me of my own bickering and gossiping neighbors with their hopes and desires: small business owners struggling to keep their shops open in competition against chain supermarkets and the commuters with tired faces, the voiceless sadness we all carry inside because we hope, and yet it is the same hope that keeps us going.

There are many things I admire about Yang’s writing, but one technique that stands out more than anything else is her acute portrayal of human desires. In very understated sentences, she captures the essence of each character, each gesture presenting an unspoken yearning that betrays its everyday face: warming the cold feet of his wife in “A Distant and Beautiful Place”; Im pounding on the table during a moment of honesty in “Amefuri no Hi ha . . .” (“On Rainy Day . . .”); Old Kang, who defiantly keeps fertilizing his farm with night soil, refusing to hear the neighbors’ complaints that the land value will depreciate because of the smell in “Saigo no Tochi” (“The Last Land”). Choi Jinseok’s mastery as a translator becomes obvious when the humorous moments are conveyed both subtly and aptly in the translated version of the book. Yang’s writing comes alive in Choi’s translation—this fictional world in which the characters live is a complicated space where they must negotiate between the past and the present, the convenience of capitalism and the compassion of a slower way of life, the need for wish fulfillment and success, and the tenderness and indifference we show to each other. Minor characters in one story appear as major characters in other stories, so that each is given a chance to become a full and actualized character. At the same time, the backdrop presents the historical past—whether it’s the Occupation of the Japanese Empire, the Gwangju Uprising, or the rapid modernization and urbanization of South Korea—and yet these historical backdrops are depicted in such a subtle manner that they do not overshadow the stories but simply add to their dimension. These stories are, ultimately, the stories of very human characters trying their best to live their lives during a time of rapid change in South Korea’s modern history.


by Mariko Nagai
Author, Photographer, Irradiated Cities (2017)
Associate Professor of Literature, Temple University Japan Campus