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On the Road

2016 SUMMER

LIFE

ON THE ROAD Mokpo, Where Life Becomes Your Muse

Once a key base for the Japanese during colonial rule, Mokpo is a harbor city that nurses the scars of Korea’s modern history. Certainly, most Koreans have special feelings for this city. From the top of Mt. Yudal, a picturesque rocky mountain standing 228 meters above sea level, the city center steeped in the atmosphere of old spreads out below with the sea shimmering beyond.

The night train heads for Mokpo. Outside the windows, the night villages go rushing past. The village lights, wet with raindrops, look like bluish flowers. Is there any story as sad and beautiful and mystical as village lights?

In the Night Train
I took my first trip when I was eight years old. Thanks to that short trip I came to know what a warm and beautiful world village lights signify. And later it was those village lights that gave me the strength to wander the world from one place to another.
My father was a wanderer. Once every season or so he would drop by the house. In my heart I had no objection to his visits, but that was because of the presents he brought. One time it was a set of 18 colored crayons, another time it was a picture book, and another time he handed me a box full of sweets. But the days when father visited home were the days my mother and father fought. That day my mother and father had a ferocious fight, and I left the house and started to walk. When I reached a village at sunset and darkness was about to fall, I saw the shining lights coming from the houses.As I stared at the lights, I felt a warm trickle inside my young heart making its way out of my body. That’s when someone called out to me: Where are you from? It was a man passing by on a bicycle. I spent that night at the man’s house. Amazingly, his house was filled with picture books. I don’t know how many I read that night. The next morning, I was able to properly look around the house. It was a tile-roofed house with flower beds in the yard. Growing along the walls around the yard were strawberry vines. When the man watered the flowers from a can, a small rainbow appeared between the noodle-like strands of falling water.

Lee Nan-yeong’s debut song “Tears of Mokpo” from 1935 struck a chord with Koreans, who were suffering under Japanese colonial rule. With this one song, Lee became a star beloved by people all over the country. The photo shows the cover of the 1971 compilation album “Lee Nan-yeong Golden Hits.”

The Tears of Mokpo
Mokpo is a harbor city at the southwestern end of the Korean Peninsula with a population of 240,000. When Korea opened its ports to the world in 1897, it was Japan that quickly realized the importance of this harbor. Mokpo was perfectly located for an approach to the Jeolla provinces, the granary of Korea. So when Japan forcibly annexed Korea in 1910, Mokpo became a vital junction in the country’s rail and road network. National Road No. 1, which ran south to north from Mokpo to Sinuiju, via Seoul, and National Road No. 2, running west to east from Mokpo to Busan, together with the railway lines, formed the primary routes for transport of Korean commodities to Japan. Mokpo thus played a central role in the Japanese plunder of Korea during the colonial period (1910–1945). The poet Kim Seon-wu laments the historical wounds of Mokpo: Like the effigy that knows no pain With tens of needles stuck in its heart, Not able to shed a drop of blood for relief Wading back and forth to Mokpo Harbor.
Rather than hurting, unable to love anyone Love passionately and then be cast aside.
The last boat has departed and enters my body.
– From “Mokpo Harbor”

“Hurting, unable to love anyone” was Mokpo’s fate during the colonial era. Songs of the human condition are inevitably born in the company of tragedy in life. Mokpo gave birth to songs and singers that embodied the city’s soul. Born in Mokpo, the singer Lee Nanyeong (1916–1965) debuted in 1935 with the song “Tears of Mokpo.” It was a song that tore at the hearts of Koreans at the time for it sought to soothe their remorse and sorrow over losing the country. In this exquisite song, performed in a weepy, nasal tone to the accompaniment of an accordion, people saw Korea’s sad fate and the dance of history in the words of a heartbroken 19-year-old girl. “Tears of Mokpo” carries echoes of timeless stories of a nation’s pain told in traditional pansori melodies.

As the song of the boatman flickers away Deep into the waves of Samhak Island
The end of the new bride's sleeves is dappled With tears of parting, the sorrow of Mokpo.
– From “Tears of Mokpo”

The Mokpo Modern History Museum is housed in the former Mokpo branch of the Oriental Colonization Company. The streets around this area are a testament to Mokpo's history as a port city that served as a key base for Japan’s exploitation of Korea during the colonial period.

“To love passionately and happily die for it.” This was something that was non-existent for the people of a fallen country. The destination of life that couldn’t be dreamed of. For the girl at the wharf, parting is unspeakably painful and sorrowful. When can we meet again? Dreams of a new world are far away and her sleeves are wet with tears.
When the people of Mokpo talk about Lee Nan-yeong they like to bring up the French chanteuse Edith Piaf (1915–1963). The two singers were contemporaries. Not only did they debut at roughly the same time; they were both famous for inspiring and soothing the souls of their fellow countrymen. If Edith Piaf’s signature songs are “La Vie en Rose” and “Hymne a L’amour,” Lee Nanyeong’s are “Tears of Mokpo” and “Mokpo is a Harbor.” On the slopes of Mt. Yudal overlooking the city stands a monument to Lee.

The singer Lee Nan-yeong's grave lies under a crape myrtle tree in the Lee Nan-yeong Park in Samhakdo.

Summer Night at Peace Plaza
All harbors are located where the land ends. And for some people this means the harbor is the starting point for a new beginning. Here is a new dream for the city of Mokpo, once the core of bitterness and exploitation.
Kim Dae-jung (1924–2009). No Korean is ignorant of this name. Born to a family of sharecroppers on the island of Hauido, off the coast of Mokpo, Kim was one of the most politically oppressed figures in the world in the past century: he was jailed six times, placed under house arrest 55 times, and spent 10 years in exile. When the new military government ordered his execution in 1980 but offered to spare his life if he promised to cooperate, Kim stated: “I too am afraid to die, but if I compromise now to save my life I will die forever in history and the hearts of the people. But even if I die now, I will live forever in history and among the people.” This statement, so steadfast even in the face of death, is indeed entrenched deep in the hearts of the Korean people. In 1997, Kim Dae-jung was elected the president of Korea, and then in 2000 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to advance reconciliation between South and North Korea. The life of Kim Dae-jung, his epic suffering, and larger-than-life achievements can be explored at the Nobel Peace Prize Memorial built on the former island of Samhakdo, which had been reclaimed and is now part of the mainland.
The night is as fresh as could be at Peace Plaza in Hadang. Children riding toy cars, young couples busy photographing themselves, merchants selling varicolored candy floss, people lined up at snack carts, flower sellers, people just strolling around or relaxing on the breakwater and chatting, people fishing as they listen to the sound of the lapping waves: It seems as if the whole population of Mokpo has descended on this square.

Myriad lights come on and music comes up. It’s the dancing fountain. In the middle of the harbor, great jets of water rise and fall with the music. When loneliness hits, try getting on a night train and getting off at Mokpo Station to walk among the crowds at Peace Plaza. The noises infused with human warmth can be medicine for the lonely soul.
As I strolled through the bustling square, I thought about the times in which Lee Nan-yeong and Kim Daejung lived. The good times dreamt of by people who had lost their country and roamed around with no home were playing out in this plaza by the sea, with the sound of the waves in the background. The peace yearned for by the politician so dignified even in the face of death was right there in front of my eyes. The scent of a human being, who rose above extremes of despair, loss of direction, and pain, and then battled on to realize his dream. On that summer night in the harbor city of Mokpo, the stars blanketed the sky.

When loneliness hits, try getting on a night train and getting off at Mokpo Station to walk among the crowds at Peace Plaza. The noises infused with human warmth can be medicine for the lonely soul.

Gatbawi Culture Town
Gatbawi [Hat Rocks] Culture Town gives first-time visitors to Mokpo a taste of the pleasure of traveling on foot. Clustered in this culture and arts complex are museums, memorial halls, and art galleries: Mokpo Natural History Museum, Mokpo Ceramic Livingware Museum, National Research Institute of Maritime Cultural Heritage and National Maritime Museum, Mokpo Literature Hall, Namnong Memorial Hall, Mokpo Culture and Arts Hall, and Mokpo Intangible Cultural Heritage Center. Leisurely touring this complex over a few days, listening to the sound of the sea, you can feel your thoughts grow deeper with the city’s history.

The Mokpo Harbor Festival has been held every summer since 2006 in Peace Plaza and the surrounding Samhakdo area.

Namnong Memorial Hall offers a well-organized exhibition of Korean literati paintings of the Southern School from the 19th century to the latter half of the 20th century. Heo Geon (1908–1987), known by his style name Namnong, was the grandson and successor of the style of Heo Ryeon (1808–1893), the lead figure of the Southern School who was lauded by famed calligrapher Kim Jeong-hui for having the “greatest dignity east of the Amnok [Yalu] River.” The museum displays the works of Namnong’s grandfather Heo Ryeon, his father Heo Hyeong, and his students. But among them all, my favorites are the works of Namnong’s brother Heo Rim(1917–1942), who passed away at the age of 25. Two of his paintings in the museum, “Old Man Selling Hens” (1940) and “Mountain Top” (1941), depict the lives of ordinary people during the colonial period and the mountains in warm tones and gentle lines. The distinction of an artist’s works is determined by the depth of his view of the world. There was a time when seeing these two paintings alone would make a trip to Mokpo worthwhile. To me they are the finest works from the transitional period in Korean painting, created with modern Western techniques and the spirit of the literati paintings of Joseon.
For those who like adventure and travel, the National Maritime Museum is not to be missed. There you can view the preserved remains of the Yuan Dynasty merchant ship (the Sinan shipwreck) that sank in 1323 in the seas of Sinan, off the coast of Mokpo, and relics recovered from the ship. In another gallery, the development of ships around the world can be explored. It is wonderful to follow the tracks of travelers from the Age of Exploration in the 15th century. The famed Chinese explorer Zheng He (1371–1433) led expeditions around the world with his fleet of 62 ships. On seven expeditions, between 1405 and 1433, he traveled to many countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. His voyages continued even in his old age and eventually he died at sea, a fitting end for a legendary explorer. Every one of us holds in our hands the net of life. The explorer’s dream of adventure, to cast that net into uncharted waters, vast and mysterious, where no one has gone before, is a dream held dear in all ages.

Four Writers of Mokpo
Next stop is the Mokpo Literature Hall, past the Mokpo Ceramic Livingware Museum. This harbor city has produced many writers who are beloved by the Korean people. The Mokpo Literature Hall showcases the lives and works of four of them: novelist Park Hwa-seong (1904–1988), playwrights Cha Beom-seok (1924–2006) and Kim U-jin (1897–1926), and French literature scholar and literary critic Kim Hyeon (1942–1990). I lingered in the Kim Hyeon Gallery until closing time. Kim wrote 240 works during his lifetime, and there is a reason why Koreans love the works of this man who was neither a poet nor a novelist. He was a critic who passionately loved the works he wrote about. He approached them not as texts to be analyzed but as the objects of sublime love. Bringing the texts into his vast reading collection, he delved into them to reveal the dreams therein, and in doing so revealed his own integrity.

The Kim Hyeon Gallery at the Mokpo Literature Hall shows the manus and relics left behind by Kim Hyeon (1942–1990), a literary critic who loved the written word.

“The further you move away from yourself, the closer you get. It is this paradox that holds the secret of human existence.” – From “Kim Hyeon’s Artistic Travelogue” (1975)
“To read incorrectly means to read with a different principle in mind. But that is rather a way of reading that enables something new to be created.” – From “Looking for the Hometown of Man” (1975)
“Does the rumor that good times are coming again really mean good times are indeed coming? Is it not a futile dream? I hesitate as I analyze and interpret the world.” – From “Analysis and Interpretation” (1988)

Sauntering through a place alive with history is the special gift of travel. There are times when life itself comes across as a muse. That’s what Mokpo means to me.

A harbor city, located at the end of the land, is for some people a point of departure to new beginnings.

Gwak Jae-gu Poet
Ahn Hong-beom Photographer

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