The last flickers of coal-fired heatingSitting cross-legged in a small room, an elderly man repeatedly places the palm of his right hand on the floor, feeling its temperature. A moment passes before he emits a grunt. “I can feel it in my bones. The cold is coming up. Better get some heat in.”
Koo Jong-sang, 70, picks up an iron bar and slips it into one of the holes in a charcoal briquette that lies atop a pile stacked by the door. Turning a corner of the room, he lifts a round black cover from a casket-shaped stove. Slowly, he removes a briquette, which has been heating for hours and has turned the color of white chocolate, and puts in a replacement.
Three times a day for the past 20 years, Mr. Koo has had to change yeontan, the briquettes used to heat his small ironware shop in Dapsimni, Seoul, that also serves as his home.
Beginning in late autumn, when the mercury starts to drop, the act of feeding briquettes into the stove is a daily ritual of Mr. Koo’s starting at 7 in the morning. The charcoal is replaced around 6 p.m., with the final piece going in around midnight, just before he goes to bed. “Being out in the cold is no fun,” he says. “But briquettes are cheap. So for people like us it’s better than nothing.”
This old-fashioned heating method is a throwback to the old Korea, in the days before rapid economic growth turned it into one of the East Asian “tigers.” Now, the briquettes, which cost about 350 won (28 cents) apiece, are used primarily by poor people.
For many people, and particularly those of the younger generation, briquettes are nothing more than a cooking tool, since some Korean barbecue restaurants use them for grilling meats.
Since the mid-1980s, natural gas has increased in popularity as households’ main energy source for heating. According to the Korea City Gas Association, only 8.4 percent of the country’s households used natural gas for heating in 1986, with Seoul claiming a slightly higher rate of 11.2 percent. But since then, the construction of modern apartments has boosted that rate to 91.4 percent for the Seoul area and 63.9 percent nationwide.
While the change has improved air quality, for those who produce the briquettes life has become harder. “Our production is decreasing by 35 percent a year,” says Kim Doo-yong, a senior manager at the Samcheonri briquette factory, which produces about 250,000 briquettes daily to meet demand in Seoul and surrounding areas. “The only time that demand picked up was during the Asian economic crisis.”
The manager cites the Roh Tae-woo administration’s aggressive policy in the mid-1980s of supplying about 2 million new homes with natural gas heating as the catalyst for the dramatic decline in briquette use for heating homes.
“Back in the ’70s and ’80s, we had to work extra shifts to meet demand,” Mr. Kim says. “People and trucks would line up en masse to load our stuff. Those were the good times. Now, we are barely surviving and it’s only going to get worse.”
Hwang Jeong-bun, who operates a tiny briquette shop in Dapsimni, has also felt the drastic decline in demand. “I have seen days when I sold 2,000 briquettes in a single day. Now, I am lucky if I sell a dozen,” says the 72-year-old.
“That’s why I started to sell cigarettes,” she adds, pointing to a small shelf. “I can’t make a living with briquettes anymore.”
But Ms. Hwang, who has marketed briquettes for 25 years, acknowledges that change is inevitable. She thinks this winter might be her last in the business. Her clientele has been reduced to only a handful of people, and even they are not likely to return as customers.
Dapsimni, in eastern Seoul’s Dongdaemun district, has been slated for redevelopment. Hundreds of small homes, most of which used briquette stoves, have been torn down to make room for modern apartments. The few that are left, along with some old shops in the nearby market, are expected to have a similar fate soon.
Except for the indigent and those who live in remote areas where gas lines have not been installed, briquette stoves have become a distant memory to most Koreans, an item of nostalgia.
In earlier times, the ashes from burned-out briquettes were spread on snow to provide greater traction. Children mixed ashes with snow to make better snowmen. Sometimes, dried squid was heated on the charcoal or sugar was caramelized in metal spoons held over the glowing briquettes to provide a quick snack.
Not all of the features of briquettes were so pleasant, however. Numerous deaths occurred from the poisonous fumes released from the stoves. “I remember reading such news quite often in the 1970s,” says Ms. Hwang. “You would open the morning papers and there was always [a report of] somebody dead.”
For the needy, briquettes will remain an essential commodity to battle the cold winter. While the majority of Seoulites may forget what it’s like to carry briquettes on iron bars, organizations are well aware of their importance to some people.
Since last December, Bapsanggongdongche, a nonprofit organization, has opened three locations in Gangwon province that it calls “briquette banks.” It buys briquettes with donations it receives, and gives them out to the needy for free.
“Last year, we distributed about 30,000 briquettes. We need more this winter since we expect it to be a long one,” says Shin Mi-ae, an official with the organization.
While for most people briquettes are no longer a part of winter living on the peninsula, for some the meaning will never change. “All my life I have burned briquettes,” Mr. Koo says. “As long as I live here that won’t change. It’s the only thing I can afford to buy, anyway.”
by Brian Lee