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Sunday, January 09, 2005

Grandfather Kwon: money

Previous entries:
Grandfather Kwon: family, marriage
Grandfather Kwôn

Of all the people I came to know during my research in Seoul, the most candid and interesting comments about money I heard from Grandfather Kwôn.
He never gave the impression of having desire (yoksim) for money himself, but he painted a picture of the modern Korea since the Japanese colonialism as a place where the power of money was overwhelming.
Even though he was born into a family which belonged to the lineage (Andong Kwôn) that had the second highest number of passers of the highest state examination during the Chosôn era, the high status of his birth in premodern terms was of no importance in comparison to the fact that his home was wealthy

The wealth of Grandfather Kwôn's home was based on enterprising: they had a large-scale rice mill (chŏngmiso) and a wine brewery (yangjojang). He mentioned also in passing that his father had been a "wealthy farmer" (taenong), but mostly he referred to the commercial enterprising as the source of their wealth. Despite of the death of his father to an illness even before he was born, the wealth of the household did not dwindle and the remaining members of the family were spared of economic difficulties. Kwôn was able to receive a good education in the standards of that time, and he was sent away from home to attend school in Daegu, which is the main city of the province. He graduated from high school, and had also elementary school teacher's qualifications, which made him in his own words an int'elli, an educated person, which with the wealth of the household made him popular among girls and a highly qualified bridegroom candidate.

The laundry keeper grandfather in his usual posture when telling of the escapades of his life. (March 20, 2000)

The periods of his life in the 1950s as a military police, 1960s as an entrepreneur in various businesses (taxi company, inn, movie theater etc), and 1970s as an owner of a big tailoring shop were marked with references to making and using of money.
His account of his time as an MP is perhaps quite fitting for the Syngman Rhee's South Korea of the 50s: "At that time military police was able to secure a good income if the checkpoint was in a good location. Money was flowing in for me."
Even though he was dishonorably discharged for irregularities of his subordinates, the connections (ppaek) he had developed as MP helped him to launch his entrepreneurial career first with a taxi company. He had relatives living in Japan, to which also had had contacts as an MP, and this presented him with additional earning opportunities. And here comes a very significant remark: "money earned this way was not real money" – it could not be used for a good purpose. "Not real money" had thus an innate property of being unable to produce anything good.
With my relations to Japan I could obtain all kinds of products which were not yet produced or were in demand in Korea: soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, (guess the adult films were also included). But the money I earned this way was not real money. One cannot use it for a good purpose. I drank a lot, and so on.
It may sound contradictory that at one occasion he talked of making a lot of money and at another of not knowing money well enough to have been able to make it, but to me it sounds like an account of the fact that despite of all the good earnings of his earlier life, he had not been able to build a lasting base but ended up as a keeper of a tiny laundry at the outskirts of town.
"I would have made a lot of money if I had known what money is. But I didn't know. I had enough money, and we had money at home. I didn't have a desire (yoksim) for money then, only for women. If I had had yoksim for money I would have made heaps of it."
Moneywise, the most prosperous phase of Grandfather Kwôn's life was the tailor shop (yangbokchôm) in downtown Seoul. In his accounts, the biggest number of his employees varied between 50 and 100 and the number of business location from two to four. "For example Na Hun-a was our customer." (Na Hun-a is a singer still quite popular.)
I made a lot of money during that time. I had a car and a driver, and I weighed 20 kilos more than now, the waist of my pants was 35 inches while it's 28 now. My suits from that time are hanging back there, I could show you. I can't wear them anymore. At the time suits were sold by monthly installment credit system.
As good as the suit business may have been, it all ended when he and his wife were cheated to guarantee a loan, after which the defaulter went over to North America. He lost his business and all his money, and came to the neighborhood in Southern Seoul to keep a laundry. But in contrast with the account of "not real money" of his earlier life, the money that he had been earning there in a hard way (kosaeng) was different: it was real money.

In a restaurant in Sillim 9-dong on June 15, 2002
An important facet in his talk about money, besides how he once used to make heaps of it, was its influence over people. Money traverses status distinctions, notions of propriety and gender roles, and has an immense power to influence people and make things happen. "What is there that cannot be done in order to earn money" (ton pŏlgi wihae mot hanŭn ke muŏ issŏ) was one of his blunt wordings concerning the subject. The power of money was especially poignant during the disorder of war and its aftermath: "girls rather gave up their chastity than starved." While Grandfather Kwôn was not without nostalgic views towards the past "when people had generous minds (insim)," he candidly portrayed the earliest decades of the Republic of Korea as an era ruled by the power of money. He accounted how people could become completely slaves in front of money, or that a person with money could do whatever he wanted. In an account of his time as a taxi entrepreneur in the 1960s, he stated that besides being physically healthy, "money was the most important thing; if one only had money everything was possible."
When I came to Seoul for the first time – country people always think highly of Seoul (sigol saramdŭl mujokŏn Sŏurŭl chon'gyŏnghagŏdŭn) – I learnt to know the power of money; even if one had killed one's friend one could get away with it with money, tonŭi wiryŏgi ŏlmana k'ŭnji arassŏ.

In the case of Grandfather Kwôn, the power of money and his possession of it often turned into taking advantage of especially women. "At that time there were a lot of hungry people. Women were selling their body, and military police had a lot of money at that time."
"Earlier, people really became slaves in front of money" ton ap'esŏ wanjŏnhi noyega toego.
I contacted her later [don't know how] that we should meet when she comes to the marketplace. She came, after all, with older women from the same area. I took her to a Chinese restaurant, which were popular and held in high esteem, and the food was very good. I had a taxi company at the time with four cabs. [So it was in the 1960s.] At that time a person with money could do whatever he wanted. She spent time with me and told she had been staying in her own home. She got pregnant (and bore a child), and the child didn't look like the husband of the woman. (…) We lived together for three years… we had arguments, for sure… she had a pretty face, and she had a lot of admirers… [What happened to her husband who went to the army right after the wedding and what happened eventually to their relationship and to her, that I don't really get…] At the time it was like that, marriages went like that, there were a lot of hungry people, it was possible with money (tonman issŭmyŏn toen kŏya.

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