Note from the editor: The fifth selection in our ongoing translated Asian literature series is Pak T’ae-wŏn’s ‘The Man Who Ran the Fragrant Orchid Café’. First published in March, 1936, Pak’s account of a penniless bohemian turned restaurateur provides a unique window into Occupation-era Seoul. – NS
Oh yes, that new café of his, well, thank heavens he could adorn it with the odd oil painting he had no hope of selling, positioning the canvases nicely about the four walls, practically the only interior decoration in this venture he had launched with a meager 300 wŏn, not exactly the wherewithal to dress up the place as a proper tearoom, his goal instead to provide it with the basic amenities–tables and chairs and such–and with donated items, choosing for a phonograph the portable model offered by the Count, not for him an extravagant attempt to make a financial killing off of bare-bones decorations, but yielding instead to the hints of his friends in their struggling artist ghetto–why not a little old lounge for us to hang out in?–he made this heartfelt gesture, to which the Count responded with the phonograph he had cherished for years, along with two dozen records, and Man-sŏng an assortment of ashtrays he had collected from heaven knows where, and Sugyŏng his mentor, with the name of the new café still undecided, an orchid repotted and delivered from his own tiny garden, suggesting the space be christened along the lines of the
Fragrant Orchid Café, and although there were several such touching anecdotes about the advent of the café, how could our intimidated would-be businessman of a painter-proprietor,
when he opened the doors of his establishment that first day, hope to make a living vending hot drinks and booze, or at least net enough in the way of proceeds to indulge in a pack of cigarettes or purchase a measure of rice, but to his utter surprise he was greeted with a throng of well-wishers, and from opening day forth, the café was frequented day and night, leading our proprietor and his artist patrons to wonder what exactly it was about the place that charmed the neighborhood customers—surely it wasn’t the sole server, the obtuse, plain-faced Misae—but one look about the stark interior left them bobbing their heads in agreement,
perhaps the Count was right, it made sense that the denizens of this out-of-the way locale would take to the ambience of extreme austerity, but regardless why one might seek out the café, who would grumble about an opportunity to offer hot beverages for sale, and why would our proprietor bother to empty his already shallow pockets to buy table covers if the customers preferred his ascetic approach, and so he forewent the idea, deep down in his heart, of installing a few table lamps with his first month’s proceeds, using them instead to round up his down-at-the-heels friends late that night for sukiyaki in Shinjuku, and looking back now, oh what a gossamer dream it was, because the following month, for whatever reason, the proceeds dwindled by the day, flustering our proprietor and his artist pals, who still weren’t used to the idea they were involved in a business—why, the area had always lacked for a place to smoke and have a hot drink, and now that the café was here, was it only curiosity that drew the locals, and now they were thinking been-there-done-that, and if that was the case, then what do we do next, but before they could devise a master plan, there overlooking the railroad, a hop, skip, and a jump distant, there opened another café, Mon Ami, into which a whopping 1700 wŏn had been sunk, and you can imagine what a blow this was to the
Fragrant Orchid, such that the one-time jest—wouldn’t the café surely become a members-only club for a few struggling artists?–became reality, for how could their cash-strapped home-away-from-home possibly compete with the flashy Mon Ami, and such are the realities of life, but even so the café held on for two years, members such as the Count, helpless as he was in mundane affairs, saying what a miracle it was for them to have lasted that long and no immediate harm would come if they hung on, but even that pronouncement was in recent days belied by the frequent visits of loan mongers, which enlightened our proprietor to the fact that his debt had accumulated to an astronomical amount, and as much of an optimist as he was, for the first time he felt at a loss, often taking to his bed to try to calculate the Mon Ami’s daily profit, suspecting it was probably 20 wŏn or so, an amount, needless to say, he himself dared not dream of, but instead if he netted as much as 5 wŏn a day, then, let’s see, 5 times 3 is 15, and 15 times 10 gives us 150 for the month, but even that would leave him hard up, the business only allowing him and Misae to scrape by, and in this dreary outlier of a neighborhood, grossing a meager 2 or 3 wŏn a day from a café, how in heaven’s name could he make good on six months of overdue rent, buy staples, pay the utility bills, and give Misae her salary, the act of ticking off these figures in his mind leaving him with a sour taste, surely there had to be a way, but as our young proprietor of the
Fragrant Orchid Café pulled a somber face in spite of himself and, as he was wont to do, took a deep breath and gazed at the ceiling, he was left wondering exactly what way that might be,
but of course no likely solution would magically pop up, and instead it was the fawning mugs of the various loan mongers looming in his mind’s eye, and instantly he grimaced, sickened by the image of that son of a bitch of a landlord, the worst of them all, who again yesterday had marched in and parked himself on his haunches as if he himself ran the café, threatening all manner of recourse, and when our youthful proprietor thought of the man’s jeering and mockery, he asked himself why cling to a business that bled him day and night, why not simply pack up and unload the café, then he’d have only his humble self to look after, and as Man-sŏng had said, he could peddle shina soba, really he could, and at least not starve, which got our proprietor worked up enough to focus on the notion, but it was easier said than done—it’s one thing if it’s only me, myself, and I, but what about Misae, she’s got no home to return to, no parents, no siblings?
—and this led to more thoughts, which led to dejection at the notion that if he really could not find a solution for her, then there could be no solution for him, and a sigh escaped his lips, a sigh originating in the history of Misae, originally a maid at his mentor Sugyŏng’s, and seeing as how he needed a young server at the café, he might as well hire someone he knew to be decent and trustworthy rather than a total stranger, but truth be told, in no respect was she suited to café work, and yet inasmuch as his wise friend had put her forth for consideration, he had taken her on at 10 wŏn a month without, however, offering any hint of a job description or the unpredictable work load at a tearoom, and our proprietor having no wife and no maid, she had undertaken practically overnight all the
domestic chores, devoting herself to the young master’s affairs, and although he felt so sorry for her and yet so thankful, and deep down inside so grateful, all too needy fellow that he was, unable to steer his business as he wished, and with no way out, he promised himself he would one day compensate her with a sum three times her monthly salary, but this was only a thought, and the next moment he was telling himself to forget it, since it had been all he could do to pay her meager 10-wŏn salary on time for her first few months, after which he paid her as circumstances dictated, feeding her 2 wŏn this month and slipping her 3 the next, vowing he would make it up to her the following month, and then the month after that, until two years had gone by, by which time the sum due her was easily 200 wŏn, and regardless
how guileless a country girl she might be, regardless what sort of person she was, financial dealings had to be tidy even between father and son, but it would seem that Misae,
far from ever letting drop the subject of money, harbored no thought of it, faithfully and earnestly serving our young artist proprietor as ever, leaving him so apologetic as to have once asked if she might not want to seek work elsewhere, in which case he together with Sugyŏng his mentor would do their best to arrange something, but the words had barely escaped his mouth, it being all he could do to glance at her sitting across from him, that she, obtuse country bunny that she was, probably thinking she had made a terrible mistake to have thus lost favor in the master’s eyes, instantly turned red in the face, and, inarticulate as always, appeared ready to burst into tears, stuttering one incoherent apology after another and perplexing our greenhorn painter, prompting him to wonder,
why bother, and never again did he broach the subject with her, but he was still holding out hope for a tidy solution when whom should he meet at the public bath but Sugyŏng his mentor, and when he reported in detail the incident with Misae and inquired of his opinion, his senior said that instead of racking your brains why not seize the occasion and marry her, he had actually been thinking this all along, it doubtless was meant to be, what a lovely prospect, and if our young proprietor felt uncomfortable putting it to her directly, he himself would go see Misae then and there and get from her a yes or a no, and in reaction to this one fell swoop, as if his elder presumed to know all about him and Misae, our young painter blushed like a girl, and telling him no no no no, suddenly wondered if Sugyŏng had the wrong idea about Misae and him, a belated realization that embarrassed him to no end, for if
his respectable senior could harbor such suspicions, then what about the shallow bunch in the neighborhood, who knows what sorts of rumors they might already have set in motion, a prospect that sent the redness rushing on to his earlobes, but considering it now, he had to ask himself what he could possibly do if in fact such gossip was circulating, given the dubious notion that a young man and woman could live under the same roof for such a period of time and remain chaste, the very idea of it was bizarre, for before he ever entertained the possibility of feeling either love or
lust toward Misae, there was first of all his considerable indebtedness toward her, an obligation not easily discharged, and perhaps it was this weighty thought that left no room for any sort of wanton proclivities, but given the fact that rumors were spreading, and even if he sent her off elsewhere with only the earnings she was due, he didn’t have the heart to speak up, nor would Misae, accepting as she was, readily pack up and leave, and when his thoughts reached this point, then the inevitable next step was to discover exactly what she foresaw in the way of a future, but it was all for nought, for it seemed that Misae had virtually no course of action or plan in mind, but rather was waiting for him or Sugyŏng his mentor to show her the way, and that perhaps all would go well if she were to do as she was told, and in that case should he be responsible for finding her a proper place, and determining for her a marriage partner,
and if not, then mightn’t he be stuck with her for life, and oh what a calamity that would be, he thought as he gaped in shock at the ceiling, and then it struck him, if she wasn’t opposed to the idea, then instead of making things difficult for himself, why not cast fate to the wind and marry her once and for all, what better solution would present itself for him to chart his future, and indeed that had been Sugyŏng his mentor’s very suggestion at the public bath, and armed with this thought our proprietor now took stock of her—she had only finished grade school, was neither bright nor pretty, but might that not make her the most suitable wife for an artist, a woman who
could at least make him happy–and the next thing he knew he was proclaiming to himself her various virtues, but when he wondered in turn if he could return the favor and make her happy, he realized anew how financially incapable he was, and considering his landlord’s hardline attitude the previous day, and the possibility he would have to surrender his lease on the café as early as the next day, leaving him out on the street with no place to go, why the mere thought of such a person imagining for a moment he might marry her, what a joke, he was dreaming, he sneered at himself, and suddenly he realized in surprise it was dark in his room, and that’s what it took to get him up on his feet and send him descending sluggishly to the cafe, where he found Misae sitting alone, the space feeling all the more forlorn when he wondered if tonight the Count might drop by, or maybe Man-sŏng, and asking her to fetch him his walking stick and without so much as washing his face he set out for a stroll in the barren expanse, swishing his stick in the sunset, then realized he hadn’t seen Sugyŏng in over a week and wondering if his mentor had started a new story, he struck out for his home, thinking that all the while he’d been
holding fast to that little café of his, his mind had gotten so used to being indolent, his hand had not held a brush, and would he ever again be able to produce a decent painting, but when all was said and done, the fact remained that in comparison with himself his mentor had no worries about the basic necessities, he had a tidy, peaceful room in which to work, there could be no limit to the happiness of a man devoting himself wholly to his art, and thus envying Sugyŏng his gratifying situation, he arrived at his wise friend’s plank gate in the gloom, and what should he witness but a scene that in spite of his having heard through the grapevine of the instability of his mentor’s wife, was bizarre beyond imagination, the middle-aged woman incessantly babbling, one after another hurling, breaking, tearing whatever came to hand, his mentor absolutely daunted by her frenzy, apologizing profusely, the stark image of him trying to ease her mad outburst visible through the rips and rents in the paper-paneled doors, preventing our young man who ran the Fragrant Orchid Café from lingering further, and off he dashed when suddenly he felt, throughout his being, there in the expanse beneath the autumn twilight, a desolation most helpless.
Pak T’aewŏn (1910–1986) was born in Seoul in 1910 and was a published writer by age 18. His best-known works are modernist stories from the 1930s, among them several, like the present story, consisting of a single sentence. During the Korean War (1950-53) he moved to North Korea, as a result of which his works were inaccessible in South Korea until the late 1980s. In North Korea Pak concentrated on historical fiction. He died in 1986. “The Man Who Ran the Fragrant Orchid Café” (Pangnanjang chuin) was first published in Seoul in Shi wa sosŏl (Poetry and fiction) in March 1936, the one and only issue of a journal centered in the Circle of Nine (Kuinhoe), a literary group consisting of some of the most distinctive writers in modern Korean literature.
Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton are the translators of numerous volumes of modern Korean fiction–most recently The Human Jungle by Cho Chŏngnae (Chin Music Press, 2016), the graphic novel Moss by Yoon Taeho (serialized at the HUFFINGTON POST, 2015-16), and Sunset: A Ch’ae Manshik Reader (Columbia University Press, 2017). Among the Fultons’ awards and fellowships are two U.S. National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowships (including the first ever awarded for a Korean project), the 4th Annual Chametzky Prize for Translation, given by The Massachusetts Review, and a residency at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, the first ever awarded for translators from any Asian language.
Moses Chang Min Shin is a illustrator, artist, and barista. Follow him on Instagram @cmoshin.