A creaky wooden hanger, a yellowed calendar, and an old wall clock whose minute hand had long stopped ticking. Yet, the view of the waves at Namhang that could be seen from the window was always the same. Just like the merchants who had shared decades of ups and downs in the marketplace. The merchant association chairman, wearing a red sailor hat, boasted of his unkempt beard as he spoke loudly.
“Let’s wrap up this month’s regular agenda! But before you all leave, listen to what I have to say!”
On the common day off for the Namhang Market, all the merchants were gathered in the merchant association building. The building, built shortly after the Korean War, was old and worn out but had a deep history. It was no other than the association that had maintained the order of Namhang Market, a haven for refugees on Yeongdo Island. This place had maintained their livelihood while carrying their sorrow and a myriad of emotions.
“You all know Yeongguk, right? The skinny kid selling fish next to his mother!”
“Who wouldn’t know Yeongguk in Namhang? If you don’t know him, you must be a spy!”
“Exactly! I remember Yeongguk’s voice was so loud that I almost woke up from drowsiness and got scared by his shouting when he was pulling in customers.”
“That’s right! So, from now on, let’s support Yeongguk as much as possible!”
“Chairman, are you talking about the scholarship? We decided that last time, right? We all agreed we’d take care of it because Yeongguk studies so well. I’ve never seen such a smart kid before. Right, Mrs. Yang?”
“Yeah, I’ve seen Yeongguk selling fish next to his mother countless times. He even brought his report card when he visited us and ranked tenth in his entire school.”
As the topic of Yeongguk came up, the market merchants became noisy. Their faces were full of proud smiles. After all, Yeongguk was now a well-known figure in Namhang Market. Not only did he help his mother, but he also rolled up his sleeves and assisted other merchants when they were short of help. How could they not like such a kid? That’s when the chairman shook his hat and focused everyone’s attention.
“I know you all like Yeongguk. Now listen carefully to what I’m about to say! Yeongguk, born and raised here in Namhang, will be involved in a drama shoot or something. Who are we? We’re the merchants of Namhang who live by sharing even when we have nothing! Of course, we’ll support him with a scholarship and give him a warm push when needed. That’s the spirit of Namhang merchants, right?”
All the merchants nodded in agreement.
“Today, there is a shoot near Namhang. So, when everyone’s resting on a day like today, why don’t we go to the shooting site and treat everyone to a meal? That way, Yeongguk can also live and be happy!”
“That’s right! The chairman has finally said something right! I can’t just keep receiving help from Yeongguk, who has helped me with sorting fruits more than once or twice. I completely agree with this!”
“Oh, Mrs. Choi from the fruit shop. You’re not just doing this because actress Park Suyeong is coming to the shoot, right? I can see right through you! Anyway, I agree too! We have to help Yeongguk at least once!”
“Right! Mr. Chairman, you’re spot on. Last time, Yeongguk’s mother came to our house to ask about buying marinated crabs. I heard PD Yoo got some crabs just before the shoot, but the prices have increased recently, so just watching it go around makes me feel bad!”
In an atmosphere that was heated like wildfire, no one opposed the idea. However, as always, there was someone who cooled things down.
“But should we ask Yeongguk’s mother first? If we go there unannounced and they’re in the middle of shooting, wouldn’t we be bothering them?”
“I’ve thought of that too! The people shooting has to eat, so they’ll probably have dinner. We just have to let them know in advance. Mrs. Yang, you’re close to Yeongguk’s mother, right? Ask her!”
Mrs. Yang was given the heavy responsibility in a blink of an eye. However, she nodded firmly as if ready to take it on. Hadn’t she been selling fish in the Namhang fish stall alley for the longest time? Over that period, countless ajummas had come and gone from the fish stalls. Most young people couldn’t last even six months before they gave up.
At first, she thought Yeongguk’s mother would be the same. But, to her surprise, she worked diligently without being intimidated by the stubborn Busan ajummas. It didn’t take long to find out why she worked so hard without any tricks while calling out to customers. As a woman and a mother, she couldn’t help but feel a sense of belonging.
During the Japanese colonial period, many traditional Korean houses built in Yeongdo were converted into inns after liberation. This was due to their large land area and numerous rooms, making them suitable for the lodging business. These inns served as a resting place for boatmen and a haven for tearful refugees. It was in one such place where a film shoot was taking place at a frantic pace.
“Jin, you should eat some more. Doesn’t it suit your taste?”
“Who made this for eating?! It’s the same bland pig slop you serve every day. I’m not surprised my taste buds have turned against it! You must think I’m a piglet!”
In a small room that seemed to be filled if just one person lay down, a young Kim Hajin (played by Jang Yeongguk) and his mother (played by Park Suyeong) were having a tearful dinner. But due to the wooden construction, their ill-tempered neighboring boatman pounded on their shared wall as if it were about to collapse.
“Keep it down! We all have to get up before dawn for work on the boats, and you’re busy making a ruckus! Did you buy out the entire inn?!”
At the boatman’s irritated voice, the mother lowered her head. Unable to bear this, her son rushed to the door, slammed it shut, and stormed out of the inn. Alongside the mother’s lonely figure, PD Yoo yelled,
“Great job, everyone!”
PD Yoo’s face was filled with satisfaction. The set design team had found the traditional house scheduled for demolition and transformed it into an inn reminiscent of the past. There was nothing to throw away, from the setting to the characters in the scene. After finishing the day’s shoot, the fatigue weighing on his shoulders seemed to disappear. However, he suddenly heard a voice.
“PD, can I ask you a question?”
Park Suyeong still held the script in her hand, displaying an uneasy expression.
“Yes, Park Suyeong.”
“The script says that Kim Hajin and his mother ate porridge made from ground beans without even any glutinous rice for days on end. Isn’t that an exaggeration? It’s only been about twenty years. There must have been some opportunity for them to eat a proper meal, right?”
“Well, that part was set by scriptwriter Choi. I don’t really comment on it as the script was written based on historical evidence and interviews with people who lived during that time.”
Park Suyeong was satisfied with the filming but thought that the food in the script was too meager. This wasn’t because she wanted to find fault with the PD but rather out of curiosity as an actor. She was the type to ask questions and overcome issues whenever she encountered something she couldn’t understand. That was when it happened.
“It’s not an exaggeration.”
“In the ’80s, if anything, people struggled more, not less.”
“Can’t you see that the PD and I are talking? What would a young person like you know?”
“Do you know how hard it is for people running inns? They’ll boil a ramen broth with a few dried anchovy heads to make it last for days. And that’s if they’re lucky. On a slow business day, they’re stuck sucking their fingers. I can’t even eat the fish I sell myself because I have to save every ten-won bill.”
Hadn’t he once lived in an inn with his mother? Back then, he always hated his mother for serving him fishy-smelling rice with ramen broth. He even had several instances where he refused to eat because his lips swelled up. His mother, worried about being thrown out by the innkeeper, struggled to appease him.
“Then why run an inn? You have to pay for lodging here too. Wouldn’t it be better to rent a small room instead of paying for an inn every month?”
“Who’s going to buy the briquettes?”
“Living in an inn must be most difficult for the mother. After losing her husband at a young age, do you think it’s easy for her to live in an inn full of boatmen? But by staying at an inn, she can save on briquette costs and sleep in a warm bed. That’s why she made that choice. She wanted to save even a single ten-won bill so that she could buy a school uniform when her son enters middle school!”
Park Suyeong closed her mouth without realizing it. As someone with a comfortable upbringing, this was a world she couldn’t have known. Seeing this, PD Yoo asked with a surprised look.
“Yeongguk, how do you know about that?”
It wasn’t so long ago that…
“Because my mother and I used to live like that.”
The atmosphere around them had gotten solemn. Park Suyeong couldn’t even meet eyes with anyone, her face flushed with embarrassment. After all, hadn’t she recently made a snide remark about his performance, saying it was probably just like their real life? She wanted to crawl into a hole and hide. PD Yoo noticed this and clapped his hands to lighten the mood.
“All right! Pack up the equipment, and we’ll have dinner here tonight!”
“PD Yoo, are we really having dinner here on the set? Can we even get food delivered from a restaurant at this time?”
“Yeongguk’s mother will be treating us all!”
“My mother? PD, what are you talking about?”
Smirking, PD Yoo winked at the confused young boy.
“Let’s give a round of applause to Yeongguk―!”
Even amidst the clapping, Yeongguk couldn’t shake off his bewildered expression. How was it possible for his mother to treat everyone to dinner? That just didn’t make any sense. At least dozens of people were on the set, including the actors and the film crew.
* * *
The sound of clinking glasses and boisterous laughter filled the soon-to-be-demolished red-brick house. The merchants from Namhang Market, the film crew, and the actors had all gathered and spread out their seating mats. The food was so plentiful that porters were needed just to carry everything. It was no exaggeration to say that every kind of seafood imaginable was present.
“Now, PD, have a shot of this! It’s very healthy, indeed. I’m a fisherman, but I occasionally go to the mountains. This is a special alcohol brewed with the roots I dug up six years ago!”
“Mr. Choi, if you only give it to the PD, the other directors will be jealous!”
“Oh dear, you’re right! Everyone else should have some too! This drink rejuvenates old folks like me. It’s like our strength is restored instantly! Don’t refuse it, everyone, since I’ve been saving it for a special occasion like today!”
Yeongguk couldn’t find the words to express his gratitude to the market aunties and uncles. His mother also tried her best to hide her teary eyes while smiling. These people had taken care of them as if they were family.
Their warm-heartedness while preparing the food, despite having little to offer themselves. The adults would just pat his head and say, “Of course, it’s only natural!” when thanked. The feelings of camaraderie he had never experienced in his previous life were now hitting him hard.
“PD, is Yeongguk really good at acting?”
“Don’t even ask. He’s so good that it feels like I’m flying these days. The other directors probably feel the same way!”
“I agree. I’ve never encountered such a talented actor in all my time as a camera director!”
“Everyone is treating him so well. You don’t know how kind our Yeongguk is. When the market merchants need help, he sets his own work aside and assists them. I can’t even express how hard-working those small hands of his are. And his mother is so attentive to him that all the female merchants are envious. Our good-hearted Yeongguk simply must succeed!”
“Mr. Choi is right! Yeongguk is going to do well! If only my son could be half the person Yeongguk is, I would have no more wishes. He’s so well-behaved and smart, and what skills he has! I’ve been in Namhang for forty years, but he’s the first prodigy I’ve ever seen. Since he started selling fish in Namhang, the number of visitors has increased significantly. People come looking for him because they’ve heard rumors about his face. Yeongguk is a treasure born in Namhang! I don’t know how his mother managed to raise such a son. I’m truly envious!”
The son of Namhang, that’s what they all called me. My mother kept smiling with pride at their words. But why do I feel like crying? Do I really deserve this love?
“Park Suyeong, could I ask for your autograph?”
“Of course! I’ll also give you an autograph and take a photo with you!”
“Wow, how did you know I brought a camera! I couldn’t even mention it because I was worried it might be a hassle!”
“Of course, we have to take pictures. Otherwise, I’d be so disappointed!”
True to her title as an actress, Park Suyeong’s demeanor was quite different at the filming set than it was in the market. She approached the market vendors with genuine warmth, greeting them and providing fan service without forgetting anyone. They had never seen a decent actress before, and in their eyes, Park Suyeong, who had appeared on television occasionally, must have seemed like an amazing person. She seemed embarrassed while taking photos and could not make eye contact with me.
“PD Yoo, please try this too. It’s yukjeot!”
“It’s shrimp sauce, but if it’s made in May, it’s called oweoljeot, and if it’s made in June, it’s called yukjeot. Try it with this jjigae. They say the shrimp in yukjeot are of the highest quality and are even better than beef!”
“This is so precious. Thank you so much.”
“Please, everyone, enjoy! There’s more in the back! Don’t be shy. Kim from our Namhang Market provided a whole barrel of alcohol!”
“Let’s have the Market Chairman say a toast!”
“I can’t do it today! Let’s have Jang Yeongguk do it!”
Suddenly, all eyes were on me. The gazes of dozens of film crew members and actors were directed at me, but the warm stares of the market vendors were especially touching. No matter how often I would say “Thank you” to them, I realized it wouldn’t be enough. But it was time for a toast. I raised my glass filled with soda and shouted,
Laughter erupted once again, accompanied by the sound of glasses clinking. It was like a scene from a street food restaurant. Emotions I had never experienced in my previous life came flooding in like a tidal wave. As I sat down, overwhelmed by emotion, my mother held my hand tightly.
Next to my mother, Park Suyeong was sitting, enjoying a bowl of yellow porridge after a shot of soju. She ate with such gusto that I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the same Park Suyeong I knew.
“Park Suyeong, do you like the porridge?”
“Yes, it’s so delicious! What is it made of?”
“The herbal medicine shop owner made it just for the film crew. I was worried it might not suit the taste of the younger people, but I’m glad you like it.”
“Herbal medicine shop?”
“Yes, a place that sells medicinal herbs that are good for your body. They say that if you eat this dish once, you won’t sweat in the summer and will be full of energy. It’s made from frogs and said to be more valuable than ginseng for hard-working people!”
Park Suyeong’s eyes turned towards me, questioning. She must not have understood the dialect.
“Frogs,” I immediately replied.
At that moment, Park Suyeong’s wavering gaze fell upon her empty porridge bowl. The bowl was so clean that no additional washing was needed. On the one hand, I was grateful, but on the other, I felt a bit mischievous.
 Briquettes are liked charcoals and are commonly used as a fuel source for heating and cooking.
 “개구리” is the standard Korean word for “frog,” but Yeongguk’s mom used the word “개구락지,” which is the Busan dialect equivalent. That’s why Yeongguk had to clarify it to Park Suyeong.
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