Seoul rises above the Han River in a series of serrated terraces and winding streets that defy all the complexities of city traffic. Long lines of buses, looking for all the world like bright caterpillars, crawl nose-to-tail along the carriage ways, peeling off according to their allotted numbers. The streets hum with tourists, workers, traders, stall-holders, students and a range of public officials. Every now and then an underground stairway engulfs a portion of the population at one corner or disgorges them at another corner. Not only have they crossed the road safely, they have completed their shopping whilst underground, in a subterranean city of their own. The throb of the twenty-first century hums in its industries, in its neon-strobed marketplace and in the pushbutton technology that engages the head, hand, ear and eye of almost every person walking through its streets.
It is a long step back to recall the city as it was in the days after World War One, when foreigners were the Japanese protectorate forces, and buildings had either stout stone walls and tiled rooftops for the important and the powerful, or rubble walls rendered with mud, and thatched rooftops for the city’s poorer residents. From any vantage point, the rooftops revealed the lines of demarcation between the classes.
Misuk and her young daughter Suni had been abandoned by one class to fend for themselves in the other. The merchant dynasty of the House of Choi had disowned them. It had taken Misuk a long time to find even this work, of hand finishing piece-goods for a tailor. She was a competent needlewoman, but more importantly, she knew how to operate the new treadle sewing machines. She could stitch up a shirt and then hand-finish the details. It had been hard when Suni was little, but now Suni was older, and Misuk was able to leave her by day with the lady from the night-bakery. Sometimes Suni was not there when Misuk came to collect her, but she would not be far away. There was a market a short distance away, and Misuk would often find her there, trading small treasures with one or other of the stall holders.
“You should not go off on your own like that!” Misuk would remonstrate, but to no avail. Suni would hold up her latest treasure in defiant triumph.
“A candle- holder, when we have no candle. What good is that?”
“I will trade it for something better tomorrow,” said Suni, quite full of confidence for a child of her years. “It is much better than the ones near the station. I will make a profit there.”
Misuk would shake her head in resignation. She had to admit the child had a real trader’s nose for a bargain, but as her skill brought no money into their lives, she paid it little value. However, it did serve to make their home schooling relevant, and the girl, although quite rebellious, was an eager student. She delighted in numbers and combinations of all kinds, and could assess the worth of almost anything. Sometimes Misuk wished she had such skill herself.
Over the past few weeks there had been a lull in the pace of daily trade, and there seemed little demand for market goods. The stall-holders began to look anxious and press their wares on a reluctant public. Misuk was worried. If the shirt factory lost too many orders, they would dismiss some of the staff, and as she was the last to be employed, she would be the first to be laid off. The city seemed restless somehow.
Suni noticed it too. People who saw her would be quite eager to trade with her, even though she was a child. Mostly she traded in kind, but sometimes she had a few coins, and would actually buy things. She had already learned that thieves were hunted away, but swap deals were considered legitimate trade.
Misuk occasionally brought home a scrap of shirt material from a damaged pocket or a badly cut sleeve. They were small pieces, but with a trimming of ribbon or lace, they could be fashioned into bows and covered buttons, or with lace edging, even handkerchiefs for foreign travellers. Suni always knew the best places to move these, and on those occasions the money went into a special box, which was to pay for one year of proper school for the girl. Misuk’s own education had been a year and a half of preparation for her marriage at fifteen. She wanted her daughter to have the kind of schooling that would teach her to survive. Her lack of survival skills had nearly cost them their lives in that first bitter Seoul winter of hopelessness.
Suni was taking some lace-edged handkerchiefs to her special stall-holder when she met 'the boy'. She never knew his name, but his situation roused the anger in her rebellious little heart. Every day he worked at a rather shabby stall where vats of dye spilled rainbow coloured fabrics on to drying racks in the side lane. The boy’s job was to lift the wet fabric out of the vat with a sturdy dye-stick and hang the dyed lengths on a wire frame until they were dry. Then he would drape the dry fabrics from yesterday on to the narrow trestle table that displayed their wares. The stall had no colour of its own. The vats were stained with long dribbles of spilled dye, and the narrow gutter was full of grey-green sludge where the pools of dye dripped into each other and obliterated all semblance of colour. If any of the fabric trailed in this grey wash it ruined the length with dirty grey streaks, and the boy would get a beating. He was a little older than Suni, but was slight, and often staggered under the waterlogged mass of fabric. Suni could see the evidence of many such beatings, and it made her boil. She knew the pain of injustice. Had she not been abandoned and turned out from the house of Choi? She remembered no details; just assumed her mother had done something terrible to deserve such punishment. But what had she, Suni done? She craved justice! Now she craved it for the boy as well.
She never went near the vats, but sometimes she would slip over alongside the boy and they would fold the dry lengths together and put them on the trestle. Suni would quickly rearrange them into rainbows or shades, and the trestle table took on a different look about it, attracting more customers. The avaricious owner was quick to see the advantage, so he pretended not to see Suni working there. But after a few days, Suni said to him,
“I have helped your business. You should pay me something.”
“PAY!” the man screeched. “How do I know you are not STEALING?”
Suni ignored his outburst, even though it annoyed her.
“Not in coin then. But I deserve a length of fabric.”
The man raised a dye-stick to beat her, but the boy rushed between them, and the blow fell on him instead. Suni ducked away out of reach, and the boy followed her.
The man ranted for a bit, but quickly changed his features as a customer approached.
“He should pay you,” muttered the boy. “He sells more fabric now that the tables look so good.”
“He shouldn’t beat you,” said Suni. In all their battles of wills, Misuk had never beaten Suni. She just knew such brutality was wrong.
The boy shrugged.
“He is my master. I was sold to him. He can kill me if he chooses.”
This was a new idea to Suni. She decided no-one would ever own her!
The boy went on. “I will pay you with a length of material. I will dye an extra length and keep it aside for you.”
“Won’t he notice?” asked Suni, not at all bothered by the illegality of the suggestion.
‘No. I cut the names off and he pretends not to know.”
“Not to know what? What names?”
For answer the boy reached into his trousers, where a small pocket was concealed.
He drew out the seams he had cut off this morning’s loads. Embroidered along each seam was the name of a hotel or guest house in the better part of the city. On one she saw the symbol used by her father’s family – the House of Choi.
Suddenly Suni grabbed the hem and gave a big grin.
“Oh boy, you will never have to suffer another beating! If he threatens you, warn him that the House of Choi knows of his theft, and if anything happens to you they will demand retribution!”
For the first time in her life Suni realised the power of a famous name. The boy’s eyes widened and something like hope glimmered there. It didn’t matter that her threat was an empty one. The boy didn’t know, and neither would the savage old master!
“Come tomorrow afternoon,” he said with a half-smile, and he went back to the stall. Suni waited a moment longer. She saw the man raise the dye-stick again, then suddenly lower it, his head dropping and his eyes furtive. Then she left to trade her handkerchiefs.
The next evening when Misuk arrived home, tired and irritable from the shirt factory, she was astounded to see two lengths of bright, freshly dyed fabric on the box that held their small personal belongings.
“What are these?” she asked in surprise.
“They are gifts from my friend who works the dye vats,” said Suni with a grin.
“But how did you pay for them?”
“I didn’t have to pay. They were gifts.”
“In return for what?” asked Misuk suspiciously.
In return for freedom and justice.” gloated the girl, and recounted most of the events of the previous day.
Then Suni held out her hand, where the label the boy had cut off the seam of the sheet showed clearly the embroidered symbol.
Misuk gasped, even as a tremor of fear ran through her.
“The House of Choi!”
“They have just been returned to their rightful owners.” Suni was laughing now.