Susie Younger: Never ending flower
Collins Harvill, 1967
To describe this book as a memoir of a Catholic missionary in South Korea in the early 1960s, while factually correct, undersells it. Yes, the author is a person of deep Christian faith, but her work in Korea is more that of a social worker than evangelist. And her observations are those of a highly intelligent, practical person armed with an Oxford PPE degree.
The book is in part a well-written account of the underbelly of Korean society at the beginning of the Park Chung-hee era. Younger works with the street gangs of Daegu who make small amounts of money cleaning shoes; she starts a home for teenage prostitutes; she helps develop some unpromising acres of hillside into a model farm, which is graced with a visit by the wife of Park Chung-hee. She has some moving and astute observations on the poverty in Korea, but she has things to say about a much broader range of topics.
Here’s Younger, for example, on the current state (early 1960’s) of the Korean film industry:
Stage plays don’t make money, so Korea’s leading actors, actresses and producers all make films. Koreans have a very acute sense of drama. They love good acting and are not disappointed — their leading tragic and comic actors give superb performances. For the last seven years Korea has won the ‘best actor’ award in the Asian Film Festival. The pity is that it is rare for any writer to give these actors a script that is up to their level; and though the poor photography of a few years ago is unrecognisably improved, direction still tends to lag behind.
Directing is far more difficult for Koreans than is acting. They say of themselves that they are like sand — each grain is sharp and glittering, but nothing can make the grains stick together. They are such individualists that all teamwork requires a tremendous effort from them. But recently their best directors, too, have had prize-winning films in Asian festivals; and better scripts are occasionally giving the actors full scope. (p99)
Some of the most interesting passages of the book are when history impinges on Younger’s life in Daegu. For example, the soldier who tried to commit suicide to try to avoid being sent to Vietnam:
Chu Ja is not a permanent member of the family; but had been sent here six days previously by a doctor at the university hospital, who begged us to keep her until she was strong enough to go home. She and her soldier lover had tried to commit suicide together, and had only just been snatched from death. He had been terribly torn between Chu Ja and his young wife and baby son, and the strain had been increased by orders to leave for Vietnam in three weeks’ time. In a fit of depression he had asked himself ‘Why wait for the Vietcong to kill me?’ and had suggested a suicide pact. (p189)
She comments on the sense of relief and optimism felt in the country at the overthrow of Syngman Rhee, and then the sense of grief and nostalgia felt when his body was brought back home five years later. She brings history to life with her very practical observations as to the economic successes of the first few years of the Park Chung-hee regime:
In the last four years Korean industrial production has risen by 80 per cent, and 64 per cent of her exports are now manufactured products. When I first came to Korea the electric current was cut off for long periods two or three times every evening, and nobody was allowed to use electric gadgets. Now, the power capacity having doubled, we use Korean-made electric irons, and no longer have to darn our socks by candlelight. These days we don’t even bother to keep candles and matches to hand. It can be imagined what such a power increase means in terms of factory output.
Instead of sending complicated orders to Japan, as I did when I first put up a building, I can now buy good quality Korean cement… Buildings, roads, bridges, new stretches of railway, and large factories with modern equipment are springing up all over Korea… Daegu’s show-piece of a factory, Che Il Wool Textile Company, imports wool from Australia and then sells its woollen goods abroad again. And of course all these activities mean more jobs. (p180-181)
And she has a thoughtful eye to the future as well:
But there is one black cloud hanging over this hopeful scene, and the test of the value of our progresswill be how quickly we can dispel it. The cloud is that the new prosperity has not yet even begun to be distributed fairly among the people. This is a stage in development that is difficult to avoid, but it is essential that it is overcome as quickly as possible. Since I have been in Korea I have seen the rich getting richer, and the poor poorer. Prices have rocketed but wages haven’t… When scandals involving high officials and big businessmen are brought to light, citizens who are usually benign are heard to say: ‘The only way to get a move on is to line several of the likes of those up against a wall and put a bullet through them.’ And this isn’t meant as a joke. (p181-2)
Those who think that there was never any anti-Americanism before Kwangju will be interested by a couple of passages. Younger describes (p90) the patronising isolationism of the army families in the camp at Daegu. The results, given the huge gap in living standards between the foreign army and the locals, are inevitable:
Walking alone near US Army compounds I have had stones thrown at me several times. And small children shout insults they don’t understand (or think I don’t) but which they’ve heard their parents use about foreigners. Having experienced something of the same feelings, I can hardly blame their parents. (p92)
I am tall, I have ‘yellow’ hair, I have a large nose, and I walk with the ugly, hurried stride that busy Western women learn so young that it’s impossible to get rid of. So the children yell ‘Hello!’, ‘Chewing gum!’, ‘Big nose!’, ‘Damn foreigner!’, ‘Yankee trash!’ and so on as they run after me pointing and staring. (p198)
Younger tries to give the girls in her care some skills which will enable them to earn a living — not as much money as they could make in their former profession, but still something. The skills are very much appropriate for the time — dress making and knitting (we find such girls exploited in the garrets in the garment district of Seoul) or hairdressing (still something in which Koreans excel). Younger mentions that even with hairdressing, her girls
can’t quite avoid a return to the schoolroom, as there is a compulsory state beauty culture exam to pass. (p124)
One of the things I enjoy when reading books of this nature is noticing links to other books I have read. On a couple of occasions things I found odd elsewhere are confirmed by this book. Thus, I was puzzled at reading about tinned kimchi in A Troubled Peace. And in Younger’s (p124) book a typical lunch for a factory girl would be cold rice and tinned kimchi. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised — I remember many of the vegetables I had as a child were tinned.
And again, I found the whole scenario in Your Paradise a bit odd: an offshore leper colony. Yet here’s Younger:
Five thousand of the country’s leprosy patients are confined to an island off the south coast whose idyllic scenic beauty contrasts sharply with the misery and degradation of those who live there. Not only is treatment perfunctory, but those who are cured find it difficult to secure their release. Patients are separated from their children, in spite of the fact that in good hygienic conditions the children of leprous parents can by protected from infection even while living with their families. (Sometimes they are inhumanly sterilised because this is easier than providing proper conditions for them to live with their children.) (p176)
I think Your Paradise is set a few years after Younger’s observation.
The book is now out of print, I think, and only available in libraries and second hand shops. I got my copy in Fine Books Oriental, priced at £20. An expensive impulse buy, but very much worth it. It’s a book which is well-written and full of humanity, with vivid characters and wise observations, and is highly recommended if you can find it.