A story of romance and nostalgia in photosKim Yong-ho sits at his desk, leaning forward. Right next to his desk stands a tall Benjamin tree. The floor-to-ceiling box shelves behind his desk and around his office are scattered with things his world travels have brought him: a Corona typewriter; boxes of Cuban cigars; a new box of Northern Light strawberry tea; an aluminum tricycle; framed, faded movie posters; an antique desk fan; used lounge chairs, on one of which hangs a black jacket; a toy frog; an unopened bottle of Cironza; a Chinese birdcage with a pair of canaries that chirp unceasingly. A couple of his books are neatly wrapped in black silk and red paper. He says they are for special friends.
Mr. Kim is one of Korea’s celebrity photographers. Everyone knows him in Korea’s fashion and magazine industry. He has traveled around the world and brought back a series of beautiful black-and-white photographs that exude nostalgia. He speaks in Korea’s southern dialect, with a melodic cadence.
Fashion editors, fellow photographers and industry professionals consider Mr. Kim a trendsetter in fashionable Cheongdam-dong. He loved the cafes in Paris, so he introduced one of the first French cafes in Seoul, on the first floor of his company’s building. He loved wine and cigars so much that he opened a wine and cigar bar, also the first of its kind in Seoul. He loved to entertain his friends, most of them working in fashion, so he opened a posh club of a kind that was new to southern Seoul. He is also a sharp dresser of whom editors love to take photographs.
I worked for Mr. Kim years ago, when he was a fashion photographer and a creative director, who had won a number of awards for his advertising campaigns.
At a party to celebrate his newest project, it seemed that he had since become a respected artist. His new project is “Sonyeon,” a “photographic novel” that tells a romantic, nostalgic story of strangers in the country, Chinese immigrants on the western coast of Korea.
He said he first got the idea for it when he went to Chinatown in the western port city of Incheon in 1985 for a fashion photo shoot. Since then, he had collected historical documents and photographs related to the area. Five years ago, he wrote a scenario, originally intended for a short film. When a fellow photographer with whom he had planned to work on the project disappeared ― just as Jae-hak, one of the main characters, does in his novel ― Mr. Kim decided to write the book alone.
The coming-of-age story inside the 215-page hardcover book is told through Korean prose, Mr. Kim’s own photographs and historic photographs Mr. Kim had collected. He asked the Korean actress Kim Min-hee to play the Chinese immigrant in the story.
I looked him up after the party and asked him about the new book.
Q. All your characters have the same names as your personal friends.
A. That’s right. I used the names of my good friends in the story. Seon-ok, for example, is the one working in a fashion company. About 10 years ago, when I first met her, she asked me if I had seen Wong Kar Wei’s “A Fei Jing Juen” [“Days of Being Wild,” 1991]. I didn’t know who Wong Kar Wei was then. So I watched the film and was deeply moved. My impression was recreated in the by-now famous Mook [Korean shoe brand] commercial; I used mambo as the main image.
The photographer in the story is Yong-ho. Gyeongryul is the name of one of my loyal employees. Jae-hak is my fellow photographer from years ago. He moved to the Philippines and married a local woman there. He vanished from us, so in the story, he disappeared, too. Qi Shu, the Chinese girl in the book is named after my favorite Taiwanese actress.
The book has a series of photographs, but also sketches of maps around the area.
Did you know that thousands of birds used to migrate in the wintertime to that area, which has become the Incheon airport? Those birds cannot come back to their home anymore. I’m really sad about losing home, that feeling of returning home.
Besides the story, the book actually offers a very nice, perhaps the best course to see the best of Korea’s west coast near Incheon. You can take Gyeongin Expressway in the morning to get to Jayu Gongwon and eat real Chinese food made by ethnic Chinese. After lunch, you can enjoy rides in Wolmi Land and take a boat ride to Yeongjon island, like my characters in the novel, and eat roasted clams or sashimi at the Yongyu island beach. The nightscape of Incheon airport is quite a spectacle; while enjoying the view, you can drive back to Seoul by the expressway.
What was your first impression when you first went to Chinatown in Incheon?
I went there in 1985 for a fashion photo shoot. It wasn’t necessarily very beautiful or anything, but it was natural. It was a kind of place where you can get a feel for the everyday life of ethnic Chinese people. They are originally from the western coast opposite Incheon, or the Shantung region, even if they have Taiwanese passports. The novel is about the sad life of the unknown minority, strangers in Korea. As mentioned in the book, my original plan, too, was to hold a photo exhibition when the Incheon airport opened. I wanted to express my nostalgia for the lost natural habitat, a home to thousands of birds and also for Chinese people who had found their new home.
Do you ever feel like a stranger?
I feel like a stranger when people near me make a big fuss about things I don’t care about. Feeling like a stranger means you don’t feel like you belong there or you feel different from the rest of the people. When naturally placed things are removed, you can feel like a stranger too.
Look at my office. I’ve got so many things scattered all over the place. Some people find it too complicated, but I know exactly where I left things. Imagine someone coming in and rearranging everything. I’m sure the space would be more functional and better organized, but I could no longer get the natural feel of everyday life. Likewise, some big investors came into Chinatown and cleaned up the old buildings and turned the area into new blocks. That just breaks my heart.
On the night when the fashion photograher Kim Yong-ho celebrated the publication of his photographic novel “Sonyeon” at Aston House on the grounds of the Sheraton Grande Walkerhill hotel in eastern Seoul, it drizzled.
For most Koreans, it was a sign to skip the party because of the traffic conditions, but 1,000 guests turned up on a recent Tuesday evening to fill the vast reception space, both indoors and outdoors.
“I’ve seen Kim Yong-ho from afar in Cheongdam-dong cafes, but I didnit know he’d be this big,” commented Patrick Lee, a Korean-American lawyer-turned-restaurateur.
Scores of former associates and employees who once worked at Mr. Kim’s advertiging firm, Doff’n Company, had something of a reunion.
The star of the night was the local actress Kim Min-hee, who was the main model in Mr. Kim’s book. The party crowd consisted not only of fashion and entertainment industry professionals, but also financiers, CEOs, PR agents, art dealers and wives of Korean business group chairmen. A whisper could be heard: “The party has brought out the entire Cheongdam-dong crowd.”
While jazz musicians performed smooth melodies all night in the lawn overlooking the scenic view of eastern Seoul, Mr. Kim’s book was being sold for 10,000 won ($8). The money went to The Beautiful Foundation, a charity organization established earlier this year.
Here’s who was who at the Aston House party:
by Ines Cho