At the auction house in Namhang, the sound of boat bells and the auctioneer’s chant mingled to create a peculiar harmony. Tens of tons of fish pass through this place every day. Middlemen eye each other and call out prices with hand gestures, while retailers buy the fish that the middlemen have won in the auction and head to their respective businesses. Today, I found myself at this auction house early in the morning.
“Hey, mister! I made way for you last time, didn’t I? Didn’t you promise to make it up to me next time? There’s still some room in our box today; if I lose this one, I’ll be disappointed!”
“Yeongguk, alright! Enough, you’re making my ears bleed!”
“No, seriously. Please help me out today.”
“Fine, I won’t compete with you. You know fish quality so well. When you grow up, you should be an auctioneer!”
“No way, I’ll be a government official earning a stable pension!”
“You really drive me crazy, you know that? Still, thanks to you, Namhang Market is thriving these days!”
It was common for voices to be raised when discussing the quality of the fish. It was not because of any malicious intent but rather because the view was obstructed by the ice preserving the fish. Usually, middlemen would deliver the fish directly to the auction alley, but I often visited the auction house in the early morning. They say, “The early bird catches the worm,” and this was a similar principle.
“Come and get some hot coffee!”
I prepared mixed coffee for my close auctioneer friends and middlemen. Of course, I didn’t buy it with my own money. It was distributed at the rest area in the market, but most auctioneers and middlemen were too busy buying and selling fish to even think about making coffee. By scoring points like this, I got a better chance of getting hold of fish with better quality.
“Yeongguk, aren’t you going to school today?”
“Who would go to school on the weekend? I have nothing to do.”
“Quit school and join this business! I’ll make sure you get a good wage!”
With the auction over, seagulls swoop down and peck at the discarded fish scraps. Street cats, usually enemies of the seagulls, team up with them in search of leftover fish. People pretend not to see them, likely knowing everyone was just trying to survive.
“Hey, eat this. It’s better for your body.”
I secretly threw a fish at a kitten-sized cat. At first, it seemed cautious but soon picked up the fish in its mouth and ran to the other side of the wharf. I worried it might get injured while running, but surprisingly, it even had the leisure to wink at me before disappearing. I was just about to leave when I heard an unexpected voice.
I turned my head to the voice, and there stood a familiar figure. A middle-aged man dressed in a neat suit who seemed vaguely familiar. Who was he? Where had I seen him before? As I tilted my head, the man handed me a business card, and suddenly, I remembered.
“Aren’t you the president of Park Suyeong’s agency?”
“Yes, I’m glad you remember me, Yeongguk! I was actually worried about how I would find you in this vast market, but when I asked around, all the merchants seemed to know you very well.”
“But why me?”
The filming had ended long ago, and there was still about a week left until the drama aired. I wondered why the man would come looking for me in such a situation. We briefly saw each other at the restaurant and didn’t even get a chance to exchange proper greetings, surrounded by the film crew. I didn’t think much of it then, but his words a moment later made my heart tremble.
“Jang Yeongguk, do you want to act again?”
Ssanghwa tea had a rich flavor. It was the perfect remedy for an empty stomach with its savory nuts, dried jujubes, and egg yolk garnished with crushed sesame seeds. Seeing the boy savoring the taste of ssanghwa tea like a seasoned connoisseur was a rare sight. Yet, the café owner didn’t pay much attention, as if she had seen it all before.
“CEO, please have a taste while it’s fresh. It’s best when eaten right away. If you leave it too long, the yolk will be half-cooked, and the taste will be ruined.”
Without realizing it, CEO Kim Seonghwan nodded along and followed the boy’s lead, sipping the yolk first. Having grown up in Seoul, he was barely familiar with ssanghwa tea. To the taste of a true Seoulite, there was no better drink than coffee. Or so he thought until he had a mouthful of ssanghwa tea.
“Ugh?! This is really delicious!”
“This is the best teahouse in Namhang. Their ssanghwa tea is truly exceptional. But what brings you here?”
Embarrassed, Kim Seonghwan put down his teacup and spoke.
“Yeongguk, do you remember what I said to you earlier? I asked if you had ever thought about acting again. I’m Kim Seonghwan, the CEO of Songwon Entertainment in Seoul. I was really impressed by your passionate acting that I saw on the set back then. Your performance has been lingering in my mind ever since.”
“Have you heard of it before?”
“No, the company’s name just sounds familiar to me. But you’ve come to the wrong place. I have no intention of acting again. Back then, I only acted because I desperately needed the money.”
Kim Seonghwan was taken aback by the boy’s firm stance. Usually, child actors had a strong desire for acting, unless they were being forced to act under the pressure of their parents. The boy’s performance that day definitely had that passion.
“Why? If you utilize your talent, you could definitely become a successful actor. I can guarantee that!”
“It might sound a bit materialistic, but CEO, are there any dramas or movies in Korea where a child actor plays the leading role? This isn’t the United States, and as far as I’ve seen and heard, there aren’t any. The appearance fees for child actors are also much lower than for adult actors. I’m still a student and can’t travel all over the country trying to earn money while leaving my mother behind.”
It felt like he was having a conversation with a peer. Moreover, the boy’s eyes were not filled with the curious, innocent gaze one would expect from a child. Instead, he maintained a consistent, clear-eyed stare. Kim Seonghwan had approached the boy first for a simple reason – to see if the boy truly wanted to act.
“There may not be any right now, but there could be if you join our agency.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know why you’ve gone to such lengths for me, but as I said before, I have no plans to act again.”
“Is it really because of the money? Like I said earlier, if you succeed as an actor, the money will naturally come rolling in. Honestly, I never imagined I’d be discussing this directly with you and not with your legal guardian.”
“Half of that is true. However, there’s an even bigger reason.”
“What can I do to change your mind?”
His eyes showed he wouldn’t give up. The boy knew people like this well. They would never give up. Soon after, the boy hesitated for a moment before gulping down the ssanghwa tea and adding.
“CEO, a small apartment in Yeongdo costs about 30 million won. If you can provide me with that amount as a contract fee, I’ll consider it. You saw me going around the fish market earlier, right? I’ve seen and heard a lot there. The contract fee should be treated as a company expense, not an advance payment. Whether I’ll ultimately act or not will also be my decision.”
It was an absurd contract proposal. But the boy’s unwavering gaze remained unchanged. Eventually, unable to respond, Kim Seonghwan watched as the boy stood up and bowed deeply.
“Thank you for the ssanghwa tea. My mother is waiting, so I must leave first.”
Kim Seonghwan stared at the empty seat, wondering to whom he had been talking. The small stature and shaggy hair clearly belonged to a boy, but his speech was as mature as an adult’s. Was he really a middle school student? The rich aroma of ssanghwa tea hung heavily in the air.
* * *
There were generally three types of entertainment agency CEOs: swindlers, businessmen, or artists. Kim Seonghwan, the CEO of Songwon Entertainment, was closer to being an artist. He didn’t know that back in the fish market, but he could tell after meeting him face-to-face and hearing his name. Moreover, he had heard quite a few stories about him in his past life.
So, he went missing after all.
In his past life, when he was still a bit part actor, a scandal shook the broadcasting world. The news was that the CEO of Songwon Entertainment had been imprisoned for embezzling funds. It turned out later that it was his business partner who embezzled, but the partner had already fled overseas. So, all the blame fell on Kim Seonghwan.
The losses were so enormous that Songwon Entertainment, which had some big-name actors on board, almost went bankrupt. Although he was known for his good character and had several people offering him help, Kim Seonghwan refused all of it. After that, no one knew what had happened. One day he disappeared without a trace. There were rumors that he was homeless near XX Station, but no concrete information existed. Back then, there were only rumors.
“Look what we have here! Fresh, delicious fish! Take a look and try one before you leave!”
Even while attracting customers, the last image of him lingered in the boy’s mind. He was known to be kind-hearted. Even when speaking casually to the boy, he always respectfully addressed him. Though the boy was tempted to interfere, how could he explain something that would happen in the future? Moreover, since he had spoken so harshly, it was unlikely that Kim Seonghwan would seek the boy out again.
“Wow, you really have a good eye! How do you manage to pick out only the best fish? And every time I see you, you look younger and younger.”
“Really? The delicious fish here is the reason I came. You’re the best when it comes to service, so be more generous.”
“Of course, service is a must for you! I’ve added plenty, so make sure to come back again next time!”
Being a child actor was a curse. It meant that the value of their acting was not worth the investment. Even if a child actor were to sign an exclusive contract, the contract fee would basically be nonexistent. There’s very little revenue an agency could make from a child actor. For a child actor to grow into a credible adult actor was incredibly rare.
In that situation, the boy rattled off unbelievable contract terms. While he could have been considered insane, it was well played from the boy’s perspective. The obsession of an artist was unparalleled. To shake him off, the boy had no choice but to speak harshly.
“Jang, I’ll clean up the display. You go ahead and rest. I told you to rest on weekends too.”
Lost in his thoughts, the day flew by in the blink of an eye. However, it seemed the boy’s mind and body had moved independently. Not a single fish remained unsold on the display. Despite his mother’s objections, the boy tidied up the display neatly.
“I’m a healthy son, so you don’t need to worry. I won’t be able to help much on my school days. So, at least on weekends, please let me take care of things.”
While the boy was neatly stacking the fish display under the night sky, he suddenly felt someone’s gaze. When he raised his head, Kim Seonghwan stood holding a small bag he had somehow acquired.
In that bewildering moment, Kim Seonghwan greeted the boy’s mother first. She was surprised to learn that he was the CEO of actress Park Suyeong’s company. She wondered why on earth he would come all the way to Yeongdo. Then, the bag loudly landed on top of the fish display.
“I’ll meet the conditions the Yeongguk wants! I was going to transfer the money to your account, but cash seems better, considering you’re running a business, right?”
What an unyielding man – his persistence was on the level of a bull’s tendon.
 It’s a herbal tea.
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