Growing up in a port city
By Oh Jung-hee
(Jimoondang, 5,000 won)
Set in the port city of Incheon in the 1950s, author Oh Jung-hee’s novella “Chinatown” explores the theme of growing up in post-war Korea.
The narrator is a 12-year-old elementary school girl who has recently moved to Incheon with her family after the Korean War.
Her family settles in Incheon’s Chinatown, where the streets are surrounded by U.S. army base camps and shabby Chinese-style buildings.
At school, the protagonist becomes friends with a classmate named Chi-ok. Chi-ok’s older sister, Maggie, lives with an African-American military officer whom she met while working as a prostitute in one of the army camps in town.
Suffering from poverty and constant hunger, many young girls of the protagonist’s age admire Maggie and dream to become like her one day.
But Maggie soon gets murdered by the officer she’s been living with. Shortly after, the protagonist’s grandmother passes away.
After witnessing two deaths in a row, the protagonist strolls down Chinatown where the air is filled with the smell of seaweed. Then she happens to see a young Chinese man, whose face is painted with pain and sadness.
Seeing the man’s face, the narrator witnesses her own innermost desire and sorrow, which she has never noticed before. While still feeling helpless and confused about the real world, she gets her first period a few days later.
Aside from the main plot, the novella successfully portrays the harsh living conditions of Incheon in the post-war period, especially the life of prostitutes who worked at U.S. army bases at the time.
Since her debut in 1968, author Oh Jung-hee has been writing short fiction that often explores the effects of a rapidly modernizing Korean society on women and ordinary family life. She has won Yi Sang Literary Award and Dong-in Literary Award for her works.