Pak T'ae-won was born in Seoul in 1909 and graduated from
high school there, then spent two years at Hosei University in Tokyo. In
1933 he and such literary luminaries as Yi T'ae-jun, Yi Hyo-sok (both included
in this anthology), Kim Ki-rim, and Yi Mu-yong formed the Kuinhoe (Circle
of Nine). Later Pak was active in the Choson Writers Federation and in
1948 he migrated to North Korea.
Pak's first published works were poems, but by 1930 and
the publication of his story "Suyom" (Beard) he had established himself
as a prose writer. His two best-known book-length works are Sosolga Kubo
sshi ui iril (A Day in the Life of Kubo the Writer, 1934) and Ch'onbyon
p'unggyong (Streamside Sketches, 1936-37), from which "The Barbershop Boy,"
which follows, is taken. The first, focusing on bargirls and out-of-work
intellectuals, describes poverty in Seoul in the 1930s. The latter is a
collection of vignettes set alongside Ch'onggyech'on, a stream (since paved
over and today a broad avenue) coursing through downtown Seoul. After Liberation
Pak began publishing historical novels such as Yi Sun-shin changgun (Admiral
Yi Sun-shin, 1948), in which he drew on earlier biographies as well as
contemporary newspaper accounts. Pak published at least two such novels
in the 1960s in North Korea.
Like other members of the Kuinhoe, Pak experimented with
form and technique. For examaple, the sentences of stories such as "Owol
ui hunp'ung" (The Warm Breezes of May, 1933) are economical in the extreme,
while those in "Chint'ong" (Labor Pains, 1936) approach two pages in length.
And in stories such as "P'iro" (Exhaustion, 1933) and "Ttakhan saram tul"
(The Wretched, 1934) we find numerals, symbols, and even newspaper ads.
Apart from these ongoing attempts to refine his craft, Pak will be remembered
for his camera-eye accounts of everyday life in Seoul during the occupation
period, of which "The Barbershop Boy" (Ibalso ui sonyon), is a delightful
The Barbershop Boy
Min Chusa was not pleased with the face in the mirror
that greeted his gaze. The gray that was less noticeable when his hair
was shaggy (the irony of this had not escaped him) seemed for some reason
to stand out as the barber's expert trimming proceeded in time with the
snip-snip of the shears. This was no revelation, of course. In recent years
Min had always felt this way in the barber's chair, but still the grizzled
hair reminded him of his years, however reluctant he might be to acknowledge
them; and the inescapable realization of the great age difference between
himself and the woman from Ansong, with whom he had begun living the previous
year, caused him plenty of suffering. For during the current year Min Chusa
had turned fifty-the age, according to Confucius, at which one comes to
know Heaven's dictates-and this young concubine whom he'd established in
Kwanch'ol-dong was precisely half that old.
The narrow cast of Min's face was accentuated by his
hollow cheeks, and as he looked morosely at the creases and the wrinkles
he so disliked and recalled that of late he'd been playing mahjong until
the wee hours practically every other night, he told himself that dissipation
was harming his health and that the first sure sign of this was his bad
complexion. "I'm going to have to limit myself with those games," he muttered.
On second thought, though, even if mahjong meant staying
up all night, there were times when he couldn't find a game for lack of
players, and then he had a bigger headache-trying to satisfy that young
bitch of his. This thought depressed him even more.
As the shears played above his scalp, Min kept looking
with a kind of envy at the face of the barber, who couldn't have been older
than twenty-five or so, a face so full of vitality, and he found himself
scoffing at the notion that modern medicine was much advanced-the mere
idea made him angry, though he didn't show it. He had religiously taken
the yohimbine urged upon him by the young pharmacist in whom he had placed
so much trust, and although the drug temporarily boosted his vigor, he
feared more than anything the characteristic unpleasant aftereffects-the
exhaustion and the more pronounced physical and psychological enervation.
He came to believe that instead of this temporary aphrodisiac, if only
there were a drug, or a technique, for enhancing the essence of one's spirit
and energy, he would gladly spend a thousand won for it. And Min Chusa
had the wherewithal to do so.
But he felt all the more keenly that finding such a drug
was no simple matter, and before long he had given up that notion, thinking,
"Oh, what the heck, I have money, though...."
But the truth of the matter was that such rationalizations
offered little comfort, because Min was not all that wealthy to begin with,
and besides, there were the expenses connected with the upcoming City Council
election: if he didn't set aside some two thousand won toward that end,
it would be a disaster for someone like himself who had taken such pains
to declare the candidacy he had had his heart set on. At this abrupt realization,
wealth and fame grew even more dear to him, for it seemed that the prospect
of attaining these, unlike youth, held out an inkling of possibility.
"Heck, it's money and status that come first."
Startled at how close he had come to mumbling this thought,
Min searched the other faces in the mirror to see if anyone had sensed
what he was thinking, and his eyes met those of the barbershop errand boy
sitting at the window that looked out onto the main street. Fearing his
expression had betrayed his thoughts to the rascal, Min grew embarrassed
in spite of himself and instantly adopted a solemn expression.
But the boy didn't show much interest in Min. His gaze
returned to the people visible through the window as they sauntered along
the stream in the waning sunlight.
The boy never tired of watching what went on outside.
Apart from neatly arranging the customers's shoes and offering them slippers,
and running little errands such as buying cigarettes and obtaining small
change, his only real duty at the barbershop was to wash the customers'
hair. Now who would stay on at a job like that that offered only room and
board, if you couldn't look outside from time to time as he did? Of course
that might be overstating the case, but in any event he enjoyed being a
witness to the outside world.
He found it the most fantastic thing that his daily spectating
revealed so much about the people who always passed by on both sides of
the stream; things simply became evident to him. And so when he heard a
customer speak up from behind him, as frequently happened, "Say, boy, what
are you gawking at?" he would answer, "Look at that," and as if he'd been
awaiting the opportunity he would point outside the window and say, "That
man there, coming this way along the stream, where do you think he's going?"
"Where? Who are you talking about?"
The hand knotting the tie would come to a stop and when
its owner looked to where the boy had gestured, sure enough, there was
a rough-hewn fellow in worn overalls and a dirty cap with no brim clumping
up the ladder from the streamside laundry area.
"That's the snake dealer, isn't it?"
"The beggar boss, boy."
"He's actually the second in charge. But where do you
suppose he's going?"
"You little imp-how should I know?"
And then, proud as could be, the boy would say, "Now
watch-he'll go to that shop stall near the bridge."
"Where?... Well I'll be damned. That's exactly where
he went. Is he buying cigarettes?"
"Nope. He'll come right back out. Watch him. See him
coming this way?"
"Okay, so where's he going now?"
"He'll go into that cheap drinking place near the stream.
"Where?... Well I'll be damned. That's right where he's
going. But the guy must have gone into that shop to buy something. Why
would he come out with nothing to show for it?"
"I can explain, if you'd like. Every once in a while
that man there goes down under the bridge and collects ten or twenty chon
each from a couple of beggars. He uses that money to buy liquor and food.
But since it comes from begging, it's all in coppers, the whole twenty
or thirty chon. But that man would never go into the drinking place with
coppers, no sir. Instead he goes into the shop and gets 'em changed into
But every time the boy carried on like this, obviously
enjoying himself, something was bound to come up, and then young Mr. Kim,
the barber, who had not worked there very long, would speak up in that
hectoring tone of his: "Boy, stop your blabbering and make sure there's
enough change." This would annoy the boy considerably.
Now the boy spotted Fathead, the shoeshop owner's brother-in-law,
leaving the streamside with two large canfuls of water loaded on a backrack,
as he always did after spending half the day baby-sitting.
"Looking after his nephew, packing water-I wonder if
he'll do that till the day he dies...."
Young as he was, the boy felt sympathy for the man, but
this feeling soon passed, and when he caught sight of a dignified middle-aged
gentleman strolling past the shop a cheerful smile crossed his face.
The first thing to notice about this gentleman was that
he was a corpulent sort, belly spilling out in front of him. His face was
correspondingly large and, to be sure, fleshy, and the eyes, nose, ears,
and lips of that face were likewise correspondingly large. The most spectacular
of those features was the nose, especially the large, rounded bridge characteristic
of a pug nose, and though the man had recently forsworn alcohol, there
remained that memento of the days he had been fond of drink, so bright
and red like a strawberry it almost made your mouth water. Atop that face
sat his beloved derby hat, and when he sauntered along in his slippers,
all who encountered him were secretly delighted, and why not? The more
dignified his manner and gait, the more the boy laughed to himself. For
he had learned from the barbershop gossip that although the watch the man
enjoyed looking at in public was genuine gold, eighteen carat, the watch
chain that he wanted others to believe to be also genuine was actually
no more than five carat.
But of course there was nothing spiteful about the boy's
smile. If anything it conveyed goodwill. The boy had no grounds for despising
or scorning this man who believed that his brother-in-law's being a city
councilman was an unparalleled honor, and who from time to time liked to
have lunch with his family, including his sixty-year-old mother, at a department
This gentleman lived in the central part of Tabanggol,
once the site of many kisaeng houses, and he operated a dry goods shop
on a main street near the Kwanggyo intersection, within hailing distance
from his home. He appeared at the shop in the morning and returned home
in the evening, and the route he took to the shop was always the same:
he would emerge from an alley and cross the makeshift pontoon bridge to
the north side of the stream and from there proceed to Kwanggyo. The barbershop
being on the north side of the stream, between the bridge and Kwanggyo,
the boy was able to observe the man morning and evening through the window.
And whenever the boy saw the gentleman he felt a secret delight. And along
with it a certain expectation. If it be known, this expectation that the
boy harbored toward the respectable-looking owner of the dry goods shop
concerned the position of the derby atop his head.
It was obvious to the boy that the man's hat was a good
fit. But the man never placed it firmly enough on his head so that it looked
secure to others. He just let it perch lightly there as he moved along.
Clearly if at some point the wind suddenly picked up, the hat in its present
position was vulnerable. It was this possibility that the boy anticipated
so cheerfully. But like most expectations, this one was not soon realized....
Once again the boy watched in vain as the gentleman crossed
the pontoon bridge and disappeared down the alley. The boy's gaze then
shifted to the bar named Peace on the far side of the stream.
Like most bars, this one looked unsavory, even unclean,
in the light of day. The windows, painted in red and blue, seemed all the
more tawdry when the lights were off inside, and the couple of token conifers
that had been squeezed into the tiny patch of ground outside bore a lazy
coat of dust and dirt.
These particulars, though, didn't draw much of a reaction
from the boy. He was more curious about the small, fiftyish woman who for
some time had been lingering outside the bar, peeking first through the
open window and then through the hole in the rice-paper panel that served
as a clumsy replacement for the broken glass pane in the door to the kitchen.
This woman was the mother of the bargirl who went by the name of Hanako.
"I just saw Hanako leave for the bathhouse," the boy
told himself. He felt sorry for the woman, who had a temporary servant's
job near the East Gate or some such place. She must have gone to some trouble
to make this visit, but sadly enough her trip was in vain.
The woman, needless to say, had no way of knowing this.
She paced back and forth anxiously in front of the door. By now everyone
in the bar knew who she was, and especially around this time of day, when
not a single customer had appeared and the barmaids hadn't yet put on their
makeup, no one would have minded had she slipped into the kitchen and asked
about her daughter. But she never did. Such was the diffidence she felt
about seeing her.
For the fourth time the woman stood on tiptoe and peeked
in through the half-open window. Just then the kitchen door opened and
out stepped a barmaid who must have been in her thirties. She wore a soiled
apron and no socks inside her white rubber shoes, and was not at all attractive
in either looks or figure. This was the woman called Kimiko. Instead of
descending to the streamside, she remained above, looking down at the stream
and spitting into it in a masculine way. And then she noticed her sister
"She just left for the bathhouse," she said curtly with
no change in expression. Her voice was so rough and loud, the boy could
hear it from the other side of the stream.
Those who didn't know better might ask what this woman
was doing working as a barmaid. After all, she was blunt-sounding, ugly-looking,
and too old. But such a question would only betray their ignorance. In
fact, it was rare to find a girl who could sell as many drinks for her
proprietor as she did. For one thing, Kimiko herself was a good drinker.
Oh yes, the customers assigned to her table would have to pay nearly double
the amount that their own drinks cost. A few customers disliked her, and
that was the main reason. You would think that in the absence of beauty
and most of all youth she might be an amiable talker and quite the charmer.
Well, that wasn't the case either. Not once, even by accident, had she
offered a pleasant word of greeting, or favored another person with an
amiable smile. That Kimiko, who seemed to have every sort of characteristic
that would estrange her from those who frequented places like bars, enjoyed
more loyalty and affection than the other women, was quite a strange thing;
or perhaps these times being what they are, her qualities were somehow
She did, though, have a strong point that others, understandably
enough, would have difficulty emulating, and that was her tendency to look
out for others. Here was a woman who by her own testimony had no kin to
speak of on the face of the earth, and had been forced since childhood
to live such a wearying existence, and yet, or perhaps because of this,
she went out of her way to be sensitive to those in genuinely difficult
circumstances; it really was remarkable....
The boy watched as the woman looked off in the direction
of Kwanggyo with a pained expression, seemingly lost in thought. Presently
she said a few words to Kimiko.
"All right, why don't you do that?" said Kimiko in the
same loud voice.
The boy watched as the woman took her leave with a slight
nod and set off toward the main street.
"Looks like she's off to the bathhouse. Suppose she'll
ask Hanako for money?"
With this thought he transferred his gaze to the home
of the herb doctor across the stream, where he saw a young couple emerging.
"Always together, those two," he said to himself, and
a broad smile broke out on his face.
The barbershop boy wasn't the only one to point out these
two as lovebirds. The man was the eldest son of the herb doctor and a graduate
in English literature from a private college in Tokyo. He and the woman
had been married going on three years now, and their habit of strolling
about, shoulder to shoulder, dated back a year earlier still, when they
had first met. That the herb doctor's son, having just returned from Tokyo,
was courting a "New Woman" Ehwa girl had been big news at the streamside
laundry site, and the neighborhood gossips awaited the outcome with a good
deal of curiosity, wondering what the stiff-necked herb doctor would think
about the match between the two young people. Well, the old-fashioned doctor
proceeded to confound everyone's expectations by hearing out his son, arranging
a formal marriage interview with the girl, and with no further ado consenting
to the marriage. For this the doctor was acclaimed enlightened by the neighbors,
but the young couple were for some time the subject of many neighborhood
opinions as to whether they were indeed happy: "People in a love marriage
have a worse relationship," and the like. Despite the occasional person
who made such remarks, the couple's love seemed truly sincere, and the
old-fashioned neighborhood crones who were frequently tempted to poke fun
at the "New Woman" ended up changing their tack: The young couple were
up to par after all. One couldn't help regarding this emerging consensus
as a blessing.
Through the barbershop door's glass panes, which the
boy had polished so well, he watched as the herb doctor received a visitor
in his guest quarters. The house was not that large and the family's standard
of living not so opulent, but if you were to believe what others said,
the doctor earned a thousand bags of rice a year. When the boy considered
that the doctor had amassed all of it single-handedly, risking all himself,
he secretly looked up to this man with the unprepossessing appearance as
he would have a great man.
The herb doctor finished what he had to say, and his
rustic visitor emerged. He wore a yellowish brown felt hat that should
have been sent to the cleaners long before, a silk topcoat the color of
dark copper that had probably been ironed especially for this trip to Seoul,
and a pair of white rubber shoes. A quick glance revealed him, unfortunately
enough, to be missing an eye. It had been a really long time since anyone
had seen a one-eyed man at the streamside, and the boy meant to keep him
in sight as he walked toward Kwanggyo. But then he spotted Mr. Hong the
clerk, who had emerged right on the heels of the visitor and entered the
storage shed beside the front gate, and was now hauling out some large
bags of herbs. His gaze turned toward Mr. Hong and almost without realizing
it he swallowed heavily.
"Boy, it's been a long time since I've had some cinnamon
bark," he thought.
It was close to ten days since Tol-sok had left the herb
doctor's. The barbershop boy had made friends with each of the last three
errand boys at the herb doctor's, but Tol-sok was the only one of them
who regularly brought him presents of cinnamon bark, only a tiny piece
of which would set your mouth on fire. This thought made him wonder what
kind of fellow Tol-sok's replacement was going to be.
"Dammit, he shoulda stayed on...."
He knew Tol-sok had left the herb doctor's because the
work was hard and the pay low.
"Well, what about me, dammit all? I don't get a single
Granted, other pharmacies supposedly paid better, but
at the herb doctor's you got your meals plus five won-that Tol-sok didn't
realize how fortunate he was!
This thought momentarily put the boy out of sorts, but
then he saw Kwi-dol's mother emerge from the herb doctor's gate with a
basket, on her way to market for dinner fixings.
"That's right, they don't have a new scrubwoman, so she
has to do the laundry and go out for groceries too.... She's probably up
in arms, having to do it all by herself...."
In any event, servants weren't known to be treated that
harshly or badly at the herb doctor's. It was just that it was truly difficult
to establish a cordial servant-master relationship-which might help explain
why the previous servant there had lasted only a year or so.
"She's one of a kind," thought the boy as he watched
Kwi-dol's mother. She'd been heard to say she'd stay at the herb doctor's
till the day she died.
Her husband had begun to abuse her after taking a mistress,
and finally she had lost her little boy-her only child. With no reliable
means of support, she had become the housekeeper at the herb doctor's in
the fall five years ago-the same time that the doctor's youngest daughter,
Ki-sun, now a kindergartner, had come into the world. As the boy reflected
briefly on how the neighbor women all praised Kwi-dol's mama as a good
woman, and watched her walk toward the grocer's near the pontoon bridge,
her head tilted slightly toward the left in that way of hers, three girls
in their late teens, their hair in braids, caught his eye as they walked
in step down to the south side of the stream, chattering and laughing.
They had fixed themselves up to look like schoolgirls, but you could tell
from their bento lunchboxes in cloth wrappers that they worked at the Monopoly
Bureau cigarette factory on uiju Boulevard, which had just closed for the
day at five o'clock. They were not at all plain, those three who radiated
such youth, and one of them in particular, the one with the ready laugh,
you could justifiably call a belle. First of all, her complexion was truly
appealing, not like that of most factory girls. Her jacket of blended fabric,
her dark crepe skirt, and her flats went well with her appearance. She
was the sister of the plaster worker who lived near Sup'yo Bridge, and
the barbershop boy had heard that she played fast and loose, showing off
her good looks.
But when it came to playing fast and loose, her older
sister was one up on her. Widowed, this sister now lived with their brother,
but even when her husband was alive it seemed she had taken several lovers.
The gossip that went on behind her back presented her in quite a light:
her husband had an illness, all right, but he was troubled in addition
by her misconduct, and he had died at thirty-eight, right in the prime
of life. The woman, approaching her mid-thirties, had lost all trace of
her youthful attractiveness, and whether or not she should remarry shouldn't
have been an issue. But her nature being what it was, keeping her at her
brother's would eventually lead to an outbreak of scandalous rumors. Here
was a real headache for the brother, who before long would have to marry
off the other, second sister, and as you might expect, he seemed willing
to hand over the widow to anyone who might come along and offer to take
Fathead finished unloading the water he had brought and
once more took his nephew piggyback, and as he emerged from the gate of
the shoeshop owner's house the sound of an organ could be heard from the
room of that man's second son, whose window faced the stream. The barbershop
boy, of course, didn't know the name of the tune, "The Chieftain of Baghdad,"
but just to hear this marching music, which the second son so delighted
in, conjured up images of a young hero chasing a rogue, and the boy was
easily enthused. But there was something about the mood of the organ player
that made you wonder if listeners would be as enthused at the tune as they
normally were. This second son, who would become a doctor if he finished
school that spring, had been fond of music since grade school and had learned
to play songs first on the harmonica and taejonggum and then on the organ,
mandolin, saxophone, and violin. He had had these and other instruments
and could play them after a fashion.
Chom-nyong's mother praised him to the skies: "He has
more talent than anybody."
But they were no longer at hand, those instruments. Consistent
with the decline of the family fortunes, such things had disappeared to
the pawnshop and the secondhand dealer's. The old organ, worth only a few
coppers, was all that remained to offer the young man solace from time
The boy moved his gaze to the shoeshop, two houses away.
Though it was February, and of course not the season for summer flies,
people referred to a slack business period by saying, "Only the flies are
moving." And in this lonesome shop, with nary a customer in sight, the
owner's eldest son, the one with the crewcut, had been leafing through
a newspaper. Probably yesterday's, obtained from the herb doctor's. The
shoeshop owner had stopped taking the paper months ago.
Those around the barbershop boy couldn't be expected
to know about his admirable trait of recognizing the difficult circumstances
of others, and they didn't hesitate to startle him from his reveries. As
Mr. Kim did now.
"Hey, you! Stop your daydreaming and wash the gentleman's
The shout came from right behind him, and before the
boy knew it he was angry with Mr. Kim. The man hadn't been working that
long at the barbershop, but there he was again riding his high horse and
lording it over the boy.
"My name isn't 'Hey,'" the boy said grouchily. "It's
Chae-bong, and it's a perfectly good name." And with that he followed Min
Chusa to the washstand.
Translated by Kim Chong-un and Bruce Fulton. This
translation first appeared in the April 1991 issue of the World &
I, a publication of the Washinton Times Corporation.
Kim Chong-un is former president of Seoul National
University and currently president of the Korean Research Foundation. He
is also the translator of Post-war Korean Short Stories(Seoul:Seoul
National University Press, 1983)
Bruce Fulton is co-translation with Ju-Chan Fulton
of Words of Farewell: Stories by Korean Women Writers(Seattle: Seal
Press. 1989) and Wayfarer: New Fiction by Korean Women(Seattle:
Women in Translation, 1997) and, with Marshall R. Pihl, Land of Exile:
Contemporary Korean Fiction(Armonk, N.Y: M.E Sharpe 1993)