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Six days a week, an old man wearing a black fedora and a dark blue suit sits regally at a far corner table, his back to the wall, in the Lotte Hotel’s coffee shop in downtown Seoul.

On this recent day, two younger men are parked at the old man’s table, talking. The old man in the fedora listens to the talk, sipping now and then from a glass of water. In a while, a third man appears at the table, greets the old man with a bent-to-the-waist bow.

“Hyeongnim, I am here,” says the new arrival.

Hyeongnim means “big brother” in Korean, but in this sense the brotherhood simply involves the mysteries of making a living.

The old man gives a short grunt to the newcomer, who takes a seat at a nearby table, waiting for his turn to be heard.

The old man turns back toward one of the two men who were talking and says, “Now, where were we?” Slowly inhaling an extra-long, extraskinny cigarette, the old man listens for a couple of minutes, then finally nods his head.

“Do as you said you would,” he advises in a slow but firm tone.

One of the men nods slightly, pulls out a cell phone and disappears.

This sort of scene has been going on at the Lotte’s coffee shop for the last seven years: the white-haired gent in the jaunty hat greets old friends and gives an audience to new ones who seek his counsel.

The old man is Kim Dong-hoe. In in his prime, six decades ago, he was known to many on the streets of Seoul as someone not to be challenged. Back in those days he was second in command to the revered (and feared) Kim Doo-han, dead for 30 years but once the undisputed kingpin of the Jongno district underworld.

Once upon a time in Korea, gangsters, or jumeok, offered another form of resistance to Japanese colonial rule. These men were not just mere thugs controlling the streets; they were considered freedom fighters. They belonged to an era that today is bathed in sepia-toned nostalgia. The gangsters’ stories, whether true or not, have taken on lives of their own, becoming tales that live on.

How celebrated are these gangsters/ freedom fighters of the ’40s? “Yain Sidae,” a Korean television drama series about the men of the streets, men who used calloused fists rather than .45-calibers, consistently draws an audience share higher than 50 percent.

Old gangsters, it seems, never die.

“How old are you, kid?” the old man in the fedora asks the reporter. When the reporter gives his age, everyone at the table nods.

“You know,” gushes one of the men, “our hyeongnim is 85. But he is so healthy.”

Waving his hand in protest, the old man says, “I am a walking corpse, that’s what I am.”

Laughter fills the coffee shop.

What about gangsters today? the reporter asks.

Snorting, the old man shakes his head. “All they care about is money, you know. There is no more loyalty. And when it comes to a fight, before you know it, they have a knife in their hands. Where’s the honor?”

Born in 1918 in a village in the northern part of Chungcheong province, Kim Dong-hoe grew up helping his father with the family farm. At age 17, he wanted to go to Seoul and “make it big.” Promising his father that he would bring home much money, he headed for the capital. Upon arrival, he went to work for a Japanese trading company in Pildong. The company had about 60 employees and supplied Japanese goods to Seoul department stores. At night, he took up judo.

“Back then there weren’t many sports a young man could do,” the old man says, lighting another Virginia Slims. “Boxing and judo were about it.”

At 21, he won a local judo contest and for the next two years was unbeaten. It was nearly 1940 by now and Seoul had become something of a Wild West city where residents often took matters into their own hands.

“There weren’t many police and most were corrupt,” says the old man. “Bare fists were the real law here. And the strongest man always had the last word.”

Another morning in the Lotte Hotel’s coffee shop. The old man in the fedora is holding court at his usual table. With him this day is a 70ish fellow with slicked-back, dyed hair held down by a kilogram of grease.

Slick hair: “We would have to wait for the court’s decision on the construction matter.”

Old man (eyebrows raised): “Problems?”

Slick hair (making a chopping motion): “No problems.”

Old man (muttering): “As it should be.”

Kim Dong-hoe’s talent with his fists did not go unnoticed. Soon he received an offer to work as a bodyguard for a man named Hayashi, an underground boss who had strong connections to the Japanese government and ran Chungmuro district.

“It was a tough time for everyone,” says the old man, unease filling his voice. “Somehow I had to make a living and Hayashi promised to give me a tailor shop. How could I say no?”

Under Japanese rule, two factions existed at the time. One stood on the side of the rulers and the other did not. Hayashi belonged to the former. Hayashi was actually a Korean named Sunwoo young-bin. In Seoul, he had close ties to the Japanese military police and commanded some yakuza, or Japanese gangsters, as well.

Under Hayashi, Kim Dong-hoe “took care of business,” which meant a range of things from delivering goods, stolen or otherwise, to strongarming, otherwise known as extortion. In 1942, Kim Dong-hoe went to work for Kim Doo-han. “He pleaded with me to stop working for someone so pro-Japanese,” the old man remembers. “I agreed and asked Hayashi to let me go. After all the work I had done for him, he had to set me free.”

Now yoked with Kim Doo-han, suddenly Kim Dong-hoe had to fight against Hayashi’s people. “Sometimes, up to 100 people from each faction would meet at an empty field where Euljiro 3-ga is now.

“We’d go at each other. We only stopped if someone was seriously injured.”

Sometimes the Japanese military police would crack down on anti-Hayashi factions, taking them to prison or drafting them into forced labor for the Japanese Army.

These fights were conducted early in the morning, to avoid the attention of the police. For the oyabun, Japanese for boss, there were certain rules. No knives, no guns, just bare fists.

“As far as I know,” says the old man, “those rules were never broken.”

When a fight ended, news of the outcome would spread on the streets the next morning. Needless to say, a loss by a pro-Japanese faction such as Hayashi’s crowd was welcomed. Korean people needed heros in those days, they needed hope, and the gangsters filled that role.

In 1945, when World War II and Japanese colonial rule ended, Kim Dong-hoe and some friends formed Dae Han Cheong Nyeon Dang, a rightwing support group. “You were either an anti-communist or communist. Those were black and white days.”

The turmoil created by the absence of a real government and the changes to a temporary American military government brought opportunities to people like Kim Dong-hoe. An editor for the government-owned Kyungsung Ilbo, now the Korea Daily News, provided one. “This guy told me that if I wanted to make some serious money I should bring him 10 million won. I knew I could not raise that much, but I thought I should try.”

So huge was the amount that Kim Dong-hoe, along with Kim Doo-han, paid a visit to Oh Dong-jin, a prominent businessman.

“Mr. Oh had been responsible for supplying Manchuria’s Japanese Imperial Army with anything they wanted, and we knew he would have that sort of money.” Kim Dong-hoe says that he and Kim Doo-han walked into Mr. Oh’s house and asked him to “lend” them some money.

“We gave him just our names. Apparently our names were good enough for him.”

The two men were able to get 500,000 won, an enormous amount at the time -- simply by their reputations.

With the money in hand, the two Kims went to the Bank of Korea. Japanese soldiers were still guarding government buildings at that time, awaiting the arrival of American soldiers. Still, the guards knew better than to stop the two men. Inside the bank, the Kims, known by all on sight, ordered a group of bank employees to follow them to a small office down the street. There, paper cutters stood at the ready. The crew cut bundles of fake money and placed real bills on the tops of the bundles and dumped all the money into a couple of sacks. The next day, armed with handguns, Kim Dong-hoe and Kim Doo-han went to Jangchung-dong, home to a row of room salons, now a block occupied by the Ambassador Hotel.

“At one salon we met three Japanese military police officials,” says the old man. “After we showed them the sacks, they took us to a house in Bomun-dong.” There the Japanese showed them opium that was hidden beneath wooden floorboards. The opium bore the stamp of the Chosun government general and seemed to be a product of North Korea’s Hamgyeong province. The original destination: China.

It was then that Kim Dong-hoe and his partner pulled out their pistols and caught the Japanese by surprise.

“I guess they had hidden the opium there to fill their own pockets before they had to go back to Japan. We tied them up and loaded the opium onto our truck.”

On the gangsters’ way back to their hangout in Jongno they were stopped by American military policemen and had to follow the MPs to a nearby station. Although the two Koreans explained that the opium was medicine and that they planned to turn it over to a new government once it was installed, the “medicine” was confiscated. In return, the two Kims each received a bottle of whisky and a carton of cigarettes.

Pulling out another cigarette, the old man says, “If I hadn’t been stopped by those GIs, I could have retired right then.”

Kim Dong-hoe quit the street life in the early 1950s. Since then he has run a soy sauce factory and owned a small tofu making factory. Mostly he advised people who came to him for help, which he continues to do.

“At my age, what can you do?” He gives a huh-huh. “All of my friends are beneath the ground.” He smiles. “I just like talking to people.”

He calls himself a hyeopgaek, a man of chivalrous spirit. “It is important to keep your word. I always kept my word and that’s why people still listen to me.”

In 1990, “Janggunui Adeul” (The Son of the General), a movie about Kim Doo-han, debuted and became an instant hit. Two sequels followed. Kim Dong-hoe’s character appeared in all three movies. “I liked most of the things in those movies. Some of the stuff they made up.”

His water glass empty, the old man in the fedora signals to a waitress. The table is now empty, save Kim Dong-hoe and the reporter.

“You’ve got to understand, we were old school,” the old man says. “We would fight somebody and then shake hands afterward. We didn’t kill anyone, we didn’t do drugs. We respected our seniors. Now, people stab each other in the back over nothing.”

A pause, then: “Times have changed, I’m smart enough to see that. But you know, there’ll never be another time like those days in the 1940s.”

Except on television.

by Brian Lee

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