In post-war Korea, there were a lot of children left orphaned and a lot of families separated. Many of the refugees that came south to the city of Pusan to escape the war ended up staying in Pusan after the war. People just lived to survive. There were many shanty towns, tent cities, and homeless beggars.
This is the city that I came to in 1954 as a little four year old son of a Presbyterian missionary. There were a lot of little kids begging in the streets every day. They would swarm around us begging for money. If you gave one some money, you would have twenty or thirty kids tugging at you within a minute. What to do? You could not feed them all. As a child, it was hard to sort through the mixed emotions of wanting to help but not being able to.
My father and mother tried to help the orphanages. There were many children orphaned by their parents dying in the war. We often made trips with a car load of MPF (Multi-Purpose Food) in cases of #10 cans filled with a nutritious powdered blend of grains and protein to help supplement their meager diets.
On Christmas Eve, all of our family would sit around the dining room table and put together small packets of goodies and wrap them with paper and a bow. The little packet contained an apple, some cookies and candy, and a Christian tract that told the Gospel of Jesus Christ. On Christmas day, after the traditional opening of presents and feasting, we would begin to answer the knocks on the outer gate. We spent the next few hours giving out Christmas packets to beggars until we ran out. Then we had to just shut the gate and ignore the repeated knocking on the door.
One Christmas, my older brother Sterling and I noticed that some of the beggars were the same beggars that had come to the door earlier. They would get their goodies, change clothes with each other, and then come back again. My father did not notice the deception but we kids realized what was going on and tried to put a stop to it.
The older young men could get pretty aggressive is they thought they weren’t getting their fair share. It got a little dicey a few times.
These teenage beggars and the young men in their twenties banded together for their own safety and welfare. They lived in a tent and shack city down by the waterfront. They built their shelters out of recycled trash. Tin cans were scavenged and were flattened out to make shingles for makeshift roofs.
The beggars typically traveled in groups of at least two or three and carried large baskets on their backs to hold their collected cans, card board, bottles, paper, and any other scraps of material that could be sold for food or recycled. Some had large tongs to pick up trash as depicted in the picture, but most used a tire-iron or a bent piece of metal rebar sharpened to a point to poke things and pick them up. These “L” shaped tools were also weapons of self defense for the beggars.
When I was about 8 years old, Sterling and I noticed that there were hundreds of beggars heading up the mountain above our house. They moved hurriedly up the road past our house with frequent, furtive glances behind them. They looked worried. We found out why when, soon thereafter, there were several hundred hoodlums heading up the mountain past our house in hot pursuit of the beggars.
The beggars got to the high ground first and set up defensive positions. There was a massive, bloody fight that ensued. Sterling and I watched in a mixture of horror and fascination as we saw the beggars roll rocks down on the attacking gangsters. The beggars used their metal picks and the hoodlums fought with knives. It was gruesome, and a lot of people got hurt.
At dusk, they started coming down the mountain past our house. Many wounded were being carried by their buddies, piggyback style. We saw a lot of blood and a lot of horribly wounded fighters straggling down the mountain.
We found out later through the grapevine that the beggars had been begging somewhat aggressively in the red light district of Won Uhl Dong next to our neighborhood. The hoodlums that ran protection for the prostitution houses tried to run them off and a fight ensued. This escalated into a full blown war of beggars vs. gangsters in all the neighborhoods of our area of the city. It culminated in the grand melee’ on the mountain above our house where they could fight without interference from the police.
Interestingly enough, Sterling and I noticed that there were a lot of policemen gathered at the bottom of the mountain watching the fight, but none of them went up to break it up.
Well, my brother and I just looked at it as another adventure we could talk about at the dinner table to our dumbfounded parents who were just hearing about it for the first time.
In post war Korea, life was tough for everyone, especially the women. I remember taking many trips with my father to small country churches where he was invited to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His saving grace. I remember seeing how difficult people's lives were and how hard a woman had to work just to maintain a household and take care of her family.
The wife got up at 4:00 AM in the morning and started stoking a wood or charcoal fire in the little stone and clay fire pit in order to start breakfast. The morning meal before farmers went off to work in the fields all day was the most important meal of the day.
When breakfast was ready several hours later, the man of the house would eat first. When he was finished and went off to work, the wife and kids would eat what was left over.
From: POEMS OF KOREAN REMEMBRANCE
By: Nelson Hard
Flattened tin cans
Shingle frail cardboard shanties
HONEY BUCKET BRIGADE
When we first moved to Korea, we had no indoor plumbing and no indoor toilet facilities. We had an outhouse in the corner of the yard.
Every several months, what we called the "Honey Bucket Brigade" showed up to dip out the human waste out of our outhouse. Several men would show up with a pony drawn cart that had a wooden tank attached on top.
They got out buckets which they carried two at a time at either end of a pole they slung onto their shoulder. They had a large can attached to a stick that they used to lower down and scoop out the night soil.
They loaded the "honey buckets" and carried them on their shoulders out to the tank on the cart. The whole process smelled up the neighborhood for several hours.
The interesting thing was that they did not charge us for the service. They would actually pay us for the night soil. They used it on the fields as fertilizer.
Several years later the city took over the process as a public service and upgraded to trucks with metal tanks on them. They did not charge us for the service, but they did not pay us either.
After several more years, the city upgraded to tank trucks with hoses with which to suck up the waste. That is when they started charging for the service.
By then, we had running water from the city but it only came on sporadically. My father installed a large tank on the roof to hold water and allow for steady water pressure in the house. Whenever the city water did run, we filled the storage tank on the roof.
So, we installed an indoor toilet and and put in sewer lines to a septic tank in our back yard.
KOREAN CUSTOMS AND HOSPITALITY
Growing up in far-away Korea as a missionary’s son exposed me to many interesting customs. The Koreans were very hospitable people and we were treated with great deference wherever we went.
You greeted people by bowing to each other. As Western dress and Western greetings started to take hold, it could get awkward and confusing, as seen in the picture below.
My father was very hospitable toward strangers also. He would meet a foreign traveler or a GI on a weekend pass and would bring them home for dinner and conversation. Many life-long friends and acquaintances were made that way.
The picture of my brother Sterling and a soldier my father brought home also shows how different a Korean dinner table was from ours in America. The main staple was a bowl of rice and a bowl of soup. All the little dishes in the middle were called “Bonchon”. These were spicy, pickled communal side dishes that everyone shared. You ate your rice and then reached over with your chopsticks and picked up a piece of Kimchee and put it into your bowl or directly into your mouth.
The Kimchee was the main Bonchon dish and there were usually several kinds on the table. The lady in the picture is making Kimchee with cabbage, hot red peppers, garlic, salt, and other spices. She is stuffing it into an earthenware jar to seal up and bury underground for many months until it ferments a little and has a nice “bite” to it.
I was the guest of honor at a dinner one time while in the military in Korea and I was offered the eyeballs of the broiled fish on the table because of my status. I could not refuse so I thanked them and ate them with a satisfied grin. Well, I actually just swallowed them like pills.
Even with a big feast before you, in a self-deprecating way, the host would usually start the meal by saying something like, “There is almost nothing here to eat but please eat a lot.” It was polite to burp after a meal because this was telling the host that you enjoyed the food. When the host would offer you food or a drink the polite thing to do was to refuse. They would ask you again and you would politely refuse again. Then they would ask you the third time and it was OK to accept.
The same thing went for after a meal at a restaurant with friends or acquaintances. The three time rule was taken to the extreme and you may argue over "who gets to pay for the meal" for five or ten minutes. Someone had to finally give in and let the other one pay. If you gave in too soon or gave in too many times at outings, you could get a reputation for being a stingy cheapskate even if you argued hard and long.
I remember the first meal we had in America when I came back to the fifth grade on Dad’s furlough. We were picked up at the dock and taken to the home of a preacher. A bunch of church members and families were there to greet us. I thought it was strange that many did not get up from watching television to greet us. They were too engrossed in the show. Greeting the missionaries coming back from overseas was why they were there, but the TV seemed to take precedent. I guess I was too used to Korean hospitality and being the center of attention.
The American food was awesome and I ate heartily. They had wonderful chocolate cake for dessert. The hostess passed the cake out for seconds and I eagerly awaited my turn to be asked if I wanted seconds. When the hostess asked me if I wanted another piece, I politely said, “No, thank you.” She moved on to the next person without asking again. “No!” I thought to myself. “You are supposed to ask me three times and then I will say “Yes”. That is when it struck home that American customs were not the same as Korean customs. Oh, and the custom of burping after a meal?
Growing up as a missionary's son in post-war Korea, I learned to become acutely aware of my surroundings and the people around me. One reason for this was because many people were hungry and desperate enough to steal other people's stuff. It was not uncommon to get your pocket picked while shopping in a crowded market.
The American soldiers on weekend passes with money-to-burn in their pockets were favorite targets of the thieves. The GIs called them “slicky boys” and would be pretty merciless with them if they caught the slicky boy in the act.
The pick pockets were very ingenious. One ploy was to put up a public sign in English that said, "Watch out for pick pockets." If you were a foreigner and saw this sign, you instinctively reached for the pocket and touched it to see if your wallet was safely intact. A pick pocket in the crowded market that was watching the foreigner would now be cued in to which pocket the wallet was in.
My father was once walking downtown in a crowded market place in Pusan when a wallet came flying through the air and landed at his feet. He picked it up and discovered that it was his wallet. The money was missing but all his cards and identification papers were still in it. The pick pocket evidently had a conscience and did not want to inflict unnecessary inconvenience on the foreigner.
The now ubiquitous ball point pen had not been invented yet, so, owning a nice ink pen was important. They were also costly. The pick pockets got adept at using a piece of wire or woven horse tail hairs to reach inside a victim's coat pocket and flick their pen out.
Another technique they employed was to use a very sharp razor blade to cut a pocket or the bottom of a purse and remove the contents. This was often done when you were distracted by the pick pocket’s cohort as he bumped against you in the crowd.
One of the missionaries, Bruce Hunt, had his leather briefcase slit open on a crowded boat and lost several expensive pens as well as many important papers. From then on, he carried an aluminum briefcase everywhere he went.
When I was about eleven years old, my older brother Sterling and I were walking in a bad neighborhood with a friend of ours, Robert Wright. Sterling and I suddenly took off running. We were chasing a young pick pocket that had just lifted Robert's wallet. As we gained on him, he got scared, so, he dropped the wallet and kept running.
When we returned to Robert, he asked us why we ran off. He was still not aware of the fact that his wallet was missing, and he was very bewildered and pleased to see it when we handed it back to him.
I was standing in a crowded bus when I was sixteen years old and felt a hand go into my pocket where my wallet was. I quickly grabbed the hand and was about to use a martial arts move to snap the person’s wrist when I paused. Somehow the hand and wrist felt awfully frail. I turned my head and visually followed the arm back to its owner. It was a frail little old lady in her late seventies and her eyes were wide with fear.
I released her hand and said to her, “If you are that desperately in need, why don’t you just ask?” I gave her a little money and I got off at my stop we had just pulled up to.
The memory of the fear and desperation in her eyes haunted me for many years. I can still remember that day like it happened yesterday.
After the Korean War was over, many entrepreneurs trying to earn a meager living started out with next to nothing, as street vendors, with just a cart and a few things to sell.
When I was just six years old, my mother would give me and my seven year old brother, Sterling, a big empty flour sack, a small bag of rice, and a few cents worth of “won” which was the Korean currency. She sent us to the market place down the mountain to get the rice puffed. We would find a vendor sitting on the ground along the street who had a little charcoal fire going with a pressure cooker system set up on the ground. For a few won, he would puff our rice for us and put it in our flour sack. We would carry that home and eat it as our breakfast cereal for the next few weeks.
My favorite vendor was the Yut Chang Sa (taffy candy salesman) who had a cart he pushed through the neighborhoods collecting tin cans, bottles, wood, cardboard, scrap metal, and just about anything that could be re-used or recycled. We could hear him coming from far off because of the giant scissors that he opened and closed repeatedly making a “clack, clack, clack” sound. It was sort of like here in America when the ice cream man comes with the bell on his truck chiming.
When we heard the Yut Chang Sa approaching, we would scramble for our stash of cans, bottles, and the like we had saved up for this eventuality. We would take the stuff to the vendor and he would figure out how much taffy he was going to cut off for us from the big, inch thick slab on his cart.
We happily ate the candy paying no mind to the probably unsanitary conditions in which the candy was made, to the flies that had landed repeatedly on the candy, or to the dust that had settled on the exposed slab all day as he roamed the streets. He put the traded items in a basket under his cart and off he would go.
In the cold of winter, I remember enjoying hot roasted chestnuts from the street vendors. The roasted sweet potatoes were also really good and doubled as hand warmers in the freezing cold until they cooled down enough to eat.
Nothing was wasted. After harvesting the silk from silk worms, the worms were sold to street vendors who roasted them for sale from their carts. We ate roasted silkworms with salt like you would eat popcorn.
Women, on the way to the market place to sell rice cakes, would often wake me up very early in the morning walking past our house with their cry, “chop sal duk, chop sal duk”, as they tried to sell their wares to neighborhood housewives who may want the rice cakes for their breakfast table.
While it was still dark outside, I could hear the haunting cry from far away up the mountain. The repeated cry got louder and louder as the vendor approached our house and then got more and more feint after they passed my window and continued down the mountain to market. It took me a while to get back to sleep after that.
CUTTING THE TAFFY CANDY. We would take the stuff to the vendor and he would figure out how much taffy he was going to cut off for us from the big, inch thick slab on his cart.
THE WATER LADY
We lived in a neighborhood called Nam Boo Min Dong which translated into English as South Rich People Town. Though the walled in houses in our neighborhood were relatively nice compared to what a majority of Koreans lived in, within a hundred feet of our house was a little one room shack where the water lady lived. Her two sons, Jong-Goi and his brother were our best friends and played with us all the time.
Nobody had indoor plumbing or running water. Our house was one of the few in the neighborhood that had its own well. One of the chores we kids had every day was to lower a bucket on a rope down into the well and bring up fresh water to carry inside. We had a bathtub in the house which we used for a cistern to hold water for cooking and bathing. We kept the bathtub filled every day.
All water that was use for drinking or cooking was first boiled vigorously for more than fifteen minutes to kill the organisms. The mountain above us from which the water came to fill our well was peppered with many rice paddies and gardens fertilized by human waste dipped from the outhouses. Both my parents contracted hepatitis during their stay in Korea.
The enterprising water lady made her living delivering water to the houses in our neighborhood. She started early every morning making repeated treks up the mountain to fill her tin vessel with water out of a community well and walk back down with the water on her head to deliver it to her clients. She made a meager living doing this day in and day out.
As you can see from the picture below, even when she got to the well, she had to wait in line to fill her vessel.
The water lady was very industrious and eventually cornered the market in our neighborhood by piping the water down the mountain. Once a week, she and her sons carried rubber tubing and hollow bamboo poles hundreds of yards up the mountain and cobbled them together with wide rubber bands made from old tire tubing. They ran the jerry rigged “pipe” down the mountain to our neighborhood so that gravity would bring the water down, siphoned from the well. Now the neighborhood ladies could bring their vessels to the road right outside our front door and fill their vessels without having to trek up the mountain themselves or have it delivered for a greater price.
One sad winter day, the water lady’s little charcoal fire that cooked their food and heated the “ondol” floor got out of hand and ended up burning their shack to the ground. They had no insurance, no relatives to help them, no government services to fall back on, and no place to live.
My parents took pity on them and invited them to stay at our house until their home could be rebuilt. They slept in Dad’s office on the floor and ate with us every day until the home was rebuilt with the financial help of my parents and some local Christian churches. The new home wasn’t any bigger, but it was definitely an improvement over the first house that you see in the picture.
I would like to think that the Christian charity and witnessing from my parents brought the hapless family to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, but, I don’t remember those details. I guess I will find out some day when I leave this world for my reward in heaven. I would like to see my friends again.
I did hear recently that the two sons eventually went on to finish school, graduate from college, and become successful businessmen today in modern day Korea.
KEEPING THE WINTER FIRES GOING
Our first house in Korea was heated in the winter by a fire under the house which heated the floors. The Koreans traditionally slept on the floor, but our family had traditional American beds with box spring mattresses.
Our house had no insulation and was very drafty, so, if you wanted to have even a modicum of heat in the house during the cold winters, you had to keep a good fire going in the "ondol". At our house, the firebox was down in a pit outside the master bedroom which was only accessible from the outside. When you had to add some wood and stoke the fire, you had to bundle up and brave the cold, the snow, and the wind. During the day, the maid would keep the fire going, but at night, somebody in the family had to keep it going.
One especially cold winter, when I was about age eleven, our parents were gone on a trip and it was left up to my older brother Sterling and me to keep the fire going. In the middle of the night we woke up to a freezing cold house. We had slept and let the fire go out.
Sterling and I went outside to try to start a fire. I held a flashlight while Sterling went down into the pit, opened the cast iron door, and tried to build a fire. It was so cold and windy that even down in the pit the wind kept my brother from being able to get a fire going. So, Sterling went and got what he thought was kerosene and poured it over the wood in the fire box. Well, unfortunately it was actually gasoline.
By this time, I had braved the cold long enough and had retreated into the house. After all, Sterling had the whole task under control, didn't he? He was my older brother. He could handle it. He didn't need me anymore. At least that is what I rationalized.
Sterling then hunkered down in the pit, looked inside the firebox, and threw in a lit match. KABOOM! The ball of fire from the combustion of the gasoline fumes blew Sterling back several feet burning his face. The blast burned off his eyebrows, his eyelashes, and much of the hair on the front part of his head.
He came running into the house screaming and crying while holding his face. He screamed for me to do something because he had burned his face. I ran into the bathroom and got some Vaseline jelly in a little jar and started rubbing it all over his face to try to stop the burning and hopefully have a healing effect.
There were no other options. We were home alone. There was no 911 call to be made in those days, and we did not have a phone anyway other than the army field phone hooked up by direct line to Bruce Hunt's house in the next neighborhood below us. It was 4:00 a.m. in the morning and there was a curfew. Nobody was to be out and about after midnight. Even if we could go out, we had no transportation and no public transportation ran after midnight. In the panic of this kind of emergency, I thought I was handling it fairly well.
Well, I thought things were under control to the best of my ability until moments later when Sterling started really screaming bloody murder with sheer panic in his eyes. The jar of Vaseline jelly I had hurriedly gotten out of the medicine cabinet turned out to be Vicks VapoRub and the camphor, eucalyptus, menthol, turpentine oil and other ingredients in it made his face feel like it was burning even worse.
To this day, my brother Sterling insists that I did that on purpose. I did not. It was an honest mistake in all the commotion. The jars were the same and they both had thick petroleum jelly in them with the same consistency. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
This video shows how the Ondol fire heats the floor of the house and how it is integrated into the kitchen fires.
This shorter video shows how the Ondol fire heats the floor of the house. The baked clay floors would sometimes get cracks in them and cause many a carbon monoxide death.
The Witch Doctor
When I was eight years old living in Pusan, Korea, my friend Chang-Oh got very sick. He was a Korean playmate of mine who lived three or four houses down the hill from us.
One day I had gone down the hill, stood outside the gate to his house, and called out, “Chang-Oh yah, nah wah suh nawl ja.” This can be translated as, “Hey, Chang-Oh, come out and let’s play.”
He did not answer. As I stood there, I realized that I was hearing drums and chanting coming from inside his house. I peeked through the knot hole in the wooden gate to their yard. The door to the house was open and I could see Chang-Oh lying on the floor with his parents and family gathered around.
The drums and chanting were coming from a Mudang, a witch doctor that the family had hired to scare off the evil spirits that were making their son sick.
The idea that evil spirits brought sickness or bad fortune was a common belief. I remember how aggravated my father would get when people would wait until the last second to run across the street in front of the car my father was driving. We had near misses all the time which would bring about a standard tirade from my father about how stupid that person must be.
It was several years into our stay in Korea before a Korean Christian minister finally told us why people were doing that. They were purposely creating a close brush with death in order to shake their evil spirit. They believed that the evil spirit would leave them the moment before they were apparently going to die in an accident. So, by almost getting run over, they were getting rid of the evil spirit that brought them bad luck and sickness.
The witch doctor was operating under the same idea. When she stopped drumming and chanting, she took up a bamboo branch and shook it all around my friend. Then she stood him up against a wall and threw butcher knives at him. The knives would barely miss him and stick in the wall next to his head. This was done to make the evil spirit leave him since it looked like he was going to die.
This is when it got even crazier. At the angle from which I observed this, I could actually see the trajectory of the knives that were being thrown. It appeared to me that a law of physics was being broken. It appeared that the path of the knife was directly toward my friend’s head, and then it veered off and stuck in the wall next to his head. How could this be? How could the knife change directions in mid-air? This is when I got very frightened and ran home.
When I told my father about my experience, he did not know quite what to think about the supernatural aspect of my story. Interestingly enough, over forty years later, while doing missionary work in India, my father heard drums and chanting down a back alley in a crowded village. He cautiously went down the alley and witnessed a guru chanting over a sick person as the sick person levitated into the air above his bed.
My father told me that as soon as the guru and the gathered people became aware of his presence, the chanting stopped and the levitated sick man fell back down onto his bed.
As for my friend Chang-Oh, he did get better and we played together as friends for many years. How did he get well? I really don’t know.
From my brother Nelson Hard's POEMS OF KOREAN REMEMBERANCE:
She shaman's shrill shriek