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The House with the Sunken Courtyard

by Kim Won Il November 14, 2014

Now, to enumerate the inhabitants of that house is no small task. They were legion. But I remember every one of them as distinctly as if they were items in my pocket.

The room right next to the city water bin was occupied by the Gyeonggi family who had fled the war from Yeonbaek, Gyeonggi province. There were three people in the family. The mother of the family was in her early fifties, and she was a graduate of a high school in Gaeseong, which means that she was exceptionally well-educated for a woman of her generation. Her son Heunggyu, a tall and thin bachelor, was a dental technician working at a dental clinic on the outskirts of the city. Like most tall and thin men, he was always smiling good-naturedly. His sister Miseon flaunted a buxom and sinewy body line and dressed stylishly. She was always chewing gum, and was constantly making small clacking noises from popping the bubbles against her teeth.

The room next to that was inhabited by a retired military officer who was a wounded veteran. That family also had three members. The veteran, who had two steel hooks attached to a rubber arm for his right hand, stared at people with hostility, as if he were looking at an enemy on a battlefield, and was a man of few words. His wife was in an advanced stage of pregnancy when I joined the house, so her belly was greatly swollen. Their only child till then, Junho, was five-years-old, about the same age as Boksul, the son of the Gimcheon woman who ran a snack store, so the two constantly quarreled and made up. My youngest sibling Gilsu tottered after them all day long and exhibited his low intelligence. This wounded veteran’s family was from Pyeonggang, Gangwon province, and joined the house last of all the tenants, moving in during the spring of the year I came to live in the house.

The room next to that was occupied by a family from Pyongyang. There were four in the family. The mother of the family, who was in her late forties, mended and sold old military uniforms on the black market. She had a daughter and two sons. The daughter, Sunhwa, had an oval face and attractive double-lidded eyes, and was of marriageable age. The eldest son Jeongtae, who was gaunt and always looked to be seething with fury, was loafing at home because of his bad lungs. The pimply second son, unlike the eldest, was stocky and was a senior at Gyeongbuk High School, located not far from the house.

So, the four families occupying the middle quarters knew each other’s circumstances just as if they were one family. Each family knew what the other families were having for side dishes at each meal, and what ratio of Vietnamese rice and barley the other families mixed with white rice for their staple diets. When dividing up the electricity and water bills there were disputes as to a fair division, but we were all families doing our best to make an honest living. There was gossiping, inevitably, and a little hypocrisy, but we all understood what hard work it was for refugees to keep alive, and did not stint emotional support to one another.

The landlords were a family of prestige originating from the Euiseong area of the North Gyeongsang province. The great-grandfather of the present owner had been a high-ranking official of the city of Daegu in the last years of the Joseon era. It was this dignitary who built the house in Janggwan-dong. The gentleman retired to his hometown after serving in the office, but the house in the city was used by his son, who was an important officer in the Orient Settlement Company, the Japanese outfit for land exploitation in Korea, and by his grandchildren who went to school in Daegu. The present landlord, who was the grandson of the officer of the Orient Settlement Company, was the lucky inheritor of the house. It was in the year of liberation that he became the owner of the house, and he was already a businessman of note by then.

The landlord’s family consisted of eight members. The head of the family was a very busy person, so we only caught glimpses of him when he went out in the morning or returned home in the evening. He often slept out, and when he returned home at night he was usually heavily drunk. He ran a textile factory in Chimsan-dong, on the outskirts of Daegu. His wife, our landlady, had a fair and glowing face and was well-built. She seemed to have no aptitude or taste for housekeeping, and her arena of activity was outside the home. With the help of her businessman husband she was able to open a shop near Songjuk Cinema selling jewelry and timepieces, and she also managed private mutual aid financial associations. As she added to the household income but neglected household management, her mother-in-law ran the house. The mother-in-law was in her seventies, but she was erect of stature and mentally alert, so that when going to the market she took the helper with her but made the purchases herself. The mother-in-law roundly abused her daughter-in-law behind her back for neglecting the household and paying scanty respect to her mother-in-law. The Gyeonggi woman, who did not have to work because her son and daughter earned their living, was her conversation companion. Owing to her educational background, the Gyeonggi woman was able to give the old lady appropriate cues and sympathetic responses.

The landlord and landlady had three sons. The eldest was a college sophomore, and the youngest was in the second year of middle school. Seongjun, who was rumored to have been admitted to the law department of a private university by making a hefty donation, went to school in a formal suit and tie, hair sleek with pomade oil. He was never seen to study, and when at home he always played the stereo at full volume and practiced dancing on the living room floor, so we tenants of the middle quarters nicknamed him “playboy.” The second and third sons of the house, a junior in high school and an eighth grader in middle school, were tutored by Jeongmin, the younger son of the Pyongyang woman, for two hours every day of the week. Of course, Jeongmin thereby earned money. There was also a high school girl in the family, a niece of the landlord, who came from Euisong to attend high school in Daegu and was in her senior year. Lastly, there was the helper, Mrs. An, who originated from Goryeong, North Gyeongsang province. Although she had her hair done in a bun like a matron, she was a young widow in her mid-twenties, and was diligent and kind-hearted.

So, this was the make-up of the inhabitants of that house—sixteen in the middle quarters after the baby was born to the military veteran and his wife, and eight in the inner quarters. Besides these, there were the two members of the Gimcheon family in the outer quarters. Twenty-two people preparing for the day in the morning created a bustling scene, just like a marketplace in the morning.

As there was some distance between the inner quarters and the middle quarters, of what went on in the inner quarters, we only heard the old lady waking up her grandchildren in the morning, but we could hear every small exchange going on in any of the rooms in the middle quarters. I can still vividly recall the mornings in the sunken courtyard. When the day began to brighten, the four households made fires in their portable stoves first of all. Smoke then veiled the front of the rooms, and the whirl of fans working at fires resounded in the courtyard. My sister Seonrye, who was in her final year of middle school, woke up early and began studying for the high school entrance exam, so I was the one who made the fire in my family. The Gyeonggi family was the latest to rise, so Miseon, their daughter, often went around the other rooms to exchange three or four pieces of unused charcoal for two lit ones. Miseon sometimes gave me a piece of American chewing gum as a bribe when she asked for a live piece of coal from my stove, smiling prettily and showing her dimples. I liked the chewing gum, but I liked the good trade in charcoal exchange even more. So, being anxious for Miseon to buy live charcoal from me, I sometimes made the offer on my part, saying “Miseon, my stove is lit.” Unlike Sunhwa, Miseon was sophisticated and always emitted a whiff of fragrance.

The most remarkable feature of the morning scene involved the use of the toilet. In front of the improvised toilet near the middle gate, built with pieces of planks stuck together, there was always a queue. The toilet was built for the tenants of the four rooms in the middle quarters and the family in the outer quarter, but some busy mornings the students of the inner quarters came across the courtyard to use it, too. Therefore, in the early morning there were always one or two people fidgeting in front of the toilet. Of course, the inner quarters had a clean tile-plastered indoor toilet, but it was not available to the tenants. So, the families in the middle quarters had chamber pots and used them in emergencies. The one most often seen fidgeting in front of the toilet was the Gyeonggi woman. Her sallow and puffy face indicated that she had digestive problems, and sure enough, she was the first to use the toilet in the morning. Then, within half an hour she had to use the toilet again. By then the toilet was sure to be occupied by someone or other, so she had to wait. At those times she would smoke, squatting in front of the toilet till the cigarette almost burned her finger, and complain about people who could stay so long in the toilet inhaling the stench of feces. She claimed to have begun smoking after she had her first child because she suffered severe stomach pain. She must have had grave digestive problems, for she not only used the toilet frequently but also broke wind a lot.

My mother wasn’t too happy about the Gyeonggi woman occupying the toilet so often. She muttered to herself that the Gyeonggi woman ought to pay a double portion of the sanitation fees. But ironically, the Gyeonggi woman insisted, at those times when the sanitation bill was divided up, that it was unfair for her family to bear an equal portion, as her son and daughter were absent from home all day, and only she herself used the toilet during the daytime. She insisted that her family and the wounded veteran’s family should count as half households, since her children and the war veteran couple were away from the house from morning till evening.

After breakfast was cooked and eaten, the students were the first to leave the house. There were four students in the inner quarters, and in the middle quarters Jeongmin, son of the Pyongyang woman, and Seonrye, my sister. Giljung, my younger brother who had just entered primary school, alternated between morning and afternoon classes from week to week.

Of the grown-ups, the earliest to leave the house was the son and daughter of the Gyeonggi family. As the mother of the family had to spend a good part of the morning inside or in front of the toilet, it was always her daughter Miseon who made breakfast. Heunggyu, her brother, was good at whistling, and when leaving the house in the morning swinging his lunchbox, often gave melodious whistling recitations of such popular tunes as “Parting at the Busan Terminal” and “Serenade at the Frontline.” He is said to have picked up dental skills in the army working as a medical aid at a dental clinic in Gaeseong during the Korean War years. The woman from Gyeonggi always referred to her son as “my dentist son.” Miseon left the house attired in a Western outfit, a purse slung on her arm and silky hair streaming in the breeze, making staccato sounds with her chewing gum. When she crossed the courtyard swinging her hips to the beat of her high-heeled shoes, all the young men of the house furtively eyed her figure. Miseon worked as a sales clerk at the Command Post Exchange of the Eighth U.S. Army during the day, and in the evenings she changed into a student uniform and went to night school to finish the schooling interrupted by war.

After the young people left, the head of the house and the wounded veteran left for work at about the same time. When the master of the house left for work, his wife came out only as far as the edge of the living room to see him off, but his mother followed him to the main gate to bid him good bye. And she always saw him off saying, “My dear, don’t go to a drinking party tonight, but come home early. Have mercy on your stomach.” Then the middle-aged son would try to placate his mother by saying, “You know business is just beginning to pick up after a long slump. Demand for textile isn’t constant. One must make money while the boom lasts.” That his business was thriving could be seen from his expanding girth and his sleek face. The landlord’s textile company Oseong Textiles had stopped operating for a long time due to low demand and the difficulty of purchasing thread. I suppose it was during that time that they took in tenants to earn tuition for their children and help with the household expenses, even though, having paddies and fields in their hometown, they had no difficulty finding enough to eat. But when the war entered the armistice phase, production of thread increased, so the thread supply could be secured, and with refugees shaking off poverty and beginning to look after their appearance, demands for fabric soared. The landlord’s factory produced textiles night and day. True to the precept that at the end of a war food and garment industries thrive, the master of the house was raking in money. He was expanding his factory, and it was rumored that with relatives in the government and the armed forces, he had no difficulty cutting through red tape and winning contracts.

Junho’s father, the wounded veteran, went out clad in a military uniform and an officer’s cap without the insignia, and carrying a small military duffle bag containing his lunch box. He was always neatly clad, as his wife laundered his garments frequently and ironed them neatly. “He’d better be neatly clad. Nobody would defer to a handicapped veteran in squalid clothes,” his wife would say. According to his wife, the veteran worked at the Veterans’ Relief Section of the Second Army Headquarters, but nobody in the house believed her. His wife always came out as far as the main gate and saw her husband off deferentially, then did the dishes, prepared a lunch for Junho, and afterwards went out to sell fruit. Her haggard face was tanned copper and her neck and arms were emaciated. I don’t think I ever saw a smile on her face which always looked fatigue-ridden.

How she came to be a tenant in this house was well known to the rest of us. When she showed up to rent a room, she was accompanied only by the real estate agent. She told the old lady of the house that she had only one child and that her husband had been a teacher in a primary school in her hometown in the North but joined the army as an officer when the war erupted and was now demobilized and working as a civilian in the Second Army Headquarters. The old lady liked her quiet demeanor and good-natured eyes, and decided to take the family in. As rooms were scarce, landlords could have their pick of tenants. But as most tenants had multiple children and no source of stable income, it didn’t seem a bad choice at all. When, ten days later, the family moved in, the father of the family had steel hooks for his right hand. Everyone in the house winced to see the hooks. Junho’s father had some bedding bundled on his back and a worn leather suitcase slung from his shoulders, and was carrying an urn in his arms. Junho’s mother was carrying on her head a big wooden tray with pots and pans stacked on it and a portable meal table in her hand. Little Junho was carrying a winnowing basket draped over his head. Those comprised all their belongings. Seeing their poverty, the old lady of the house regretted her decision to take them in, but it was too late.

Sometime after Junho’s mother went out with the fruit basin on her head, the Pyongyang woman and her daughter Sunhwa left to do their business. The Pyongyang woman, who lost her husband to American bombing while fleeing from the Communist Chinese intervention in the war, wore bloomers made from a military uniform and a loose military jacket. And she had a money pouch strapped to her waist. Like most women from the North with thick, husky voices and stocky figures, she was also very diligent and aggressive. She went out of the house carrying about fifty sets of military uniforms bundled on her head and with a portable stool in one hand. She sold the uniforms in the black market until sunset. She had no stall of her own, so she spread out her wares on the ground. Sunhwa went out with her mother carrying old military uniforms in a big laundry basin. She washed the uniforms in the Bangcheon Creek and came home around lunchtime. On reaching home, she hung the washed uniforms on a laundry line and spent the afternoon mending them. Then, she cooked dinner and afterwards went to the market to help her mother carry her merchandise home. Most of the time, the mother and daughter came back with an additional bundle, which contained soiled and worn military uniforms to be washed and mended for sale.

The lady of the house was the last to go out. After eating breakfast she put on elaborate make-up, donned a classy Korean dress, and went out with brisk steps. When she passed wearing a gold necklace and bracelet and carrying a beaded bag, the women in the neighborhood muttered, “There goes our lady.” When all those who had work to do or business to look after went out, the house sank into deep silence. Only the old lady of the house and the young helper remained in the inner quarters, and in the middle quarters there was only the Gyeonggi woman, the consumptive patient Jeongtae, and my mother and myself. The war veteran’s son Junho and my younger brother Gilsu played in the alley or made expeditions to the wide thoroughfares with Boksul, the Gimcheon woman’s son.


It was one spring day in early May, when a profusion of azaleas adorned the courtyard. My mother, myself, my younger brother Giljung, who was attending class in the morning that week and was back from school, and the youngest Gilsu had just finished lunch. My mother, sitting at her sewing machine, bade me come close to her, took some notes out of the drawer of the sewing machine, and handed them to me.

“See how much there is.”

When I counted the money there were eighty hwan, which was worth four packs of the “peacock” cigarette. I thought my mother was going to send me on an errand. But she eyed me keenly and said, “Listen, Gilnam. You are the eldest son in this family with no father. You have seen how the world treats people whose only crime is their poverty. I’m sure that, young as you are, you have experienced through grinding hunger the sorrow and bitterness that poverty causes. As you know, those who have nothing but their brawn to rely on must work twice as hard just to put food in their mouths. You must realize you are very differently situated than our landlords’ sons. Those boys have wealthy parents, an imposing house, and plenty to eat. So, they can go to college if only they study hard, and can get good jobs after graduating. And they can get on in the world easily. It’s true that even if you study twice as hard as those boys until you come of age there may be exactly the same gap between you and them. But you can’t just stand by and leave everything to fate. That’d be like a farmer doing nothing but praying in a severe drought. Rice doesn’t grow of its own accord. It’s true that even ten years later we may still have to look up at landlords from down below. But you must try as best you can to improve your lot. As for me, my mission in life is to support the four of you until you can become independent. I have no life of my own apart from raising you.”

Mother’s voice had become tearful. I raised my head and looked at her. Her eyelashes were wet. She was not yet forty, but she was talking like an old woman. As a matter of fact, from being a vigorous, blooming woman in her thirties in the days before the war, she had become a dry-skinned and tired woman, as if twice her real age. She blew her nose into her handkerchief and continued:

“Gilnam, you have your whole life before you. So, you must make up your mind very firmly to get out of this poverty. As I see it, there are only two options for you. One is for you to study very hard and become twice as able as the others. Look at Jeongmin. He has no father, either, and his mother sells second-hand military uniforms, but because he’s an excellent student, he earns money by tutoring the landlord’s two younger sons, and he does his own studies until midnight. So, he is the best student in his class and the class president year after year. I’m sure he is going to be a judge or a prosecutor or a university professor.

“Another option for you to make headway in this life is for you to master the ways of this world by plunging right into it. If you’re not very bright and you have no aptitude for study, you must work hard. Look at Junho’s father. He only has one arm, but he goes out every morning to make a living. A man has to go out as soon as he finishes breakfast if he’s to fulfill his duties as the head of a family. So even though you’re still a teenager, you shouldn’t be loafing at home all day every day. That’s why I’m giving you this money.”

“What do you want me to do with this money?” I asked, completely at a loss as to what Mother might have in mind.

“Gilnam, why don’t you try buying newspapers with that money and selling them on the street? It doesn’t matter how much money you can make. The important thing is for you to realize the value of earning money. That will give you a good sense of the hardships of making your way in the world. And that will be a valuable asset for getting on in this world. You know the proverb, ‘Invest in hardship early, whatever the cost,’ don’t you?” I dared not disobey such an earnest command from Mother.

In retrospect, I think it is certain that my mother meant to make me earn money when she called me up from our hometown. She left me alone to roam the streets for about ten days, to let me familiarize myself with the ways of the city, so that I could earn my tuition engaging in some trade. She must have thought ten days would give me sufficient time to get a good sense of the city’s layout and its ways.

I left the house with the money in my pocket, but with no plan in my head. As I was leaving, my mother said, “If you don’t think you can sell newspapers, you can use that money to go back to Jinyeong and become a servant in a tavern or a vendor in the market.” That was an ultimatum that spurred me to buck up with desperate courage. If I returned home in the evening after just roaming the streets, my mother was quite capable of making me skip dinner and even throwing me out of the house. She was a very stern and harsh parent. 


* Translated by Suh Ji-moon.


Kim Won Il has written extensively on the Korean War. This is related to the fact that his father defected to North Korea during the war. Kim was a senior in high school when the war started and broke his family apart, an experience that was to haunt him throughout his life and prompt him to write about the war and its aftermath for the greater part of his career. His novels include SunsetWind and River, Winter ValleyA House with the Sunken CourtyardEvergreenThe Way to Auraji, and The Rite of Fire. He is the recipient of numerous awards including the Hanguk Ilbo Literary Award, the Yi Sang Literary Award, and the Hwang Sun-won Literary Award.

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