Pots pave matriarch’s road to richesAlmost half a century ago, Shin Yeon-geun struggled to make ends meet by selling earthenware from a handcart.
Forty-eight years later, she still sells pots but the number on display has grown much larger. Instead of a handcart, pots of various size are stacked alongside a concrete wall for well over 50 meters (164 feet) down a road in Haebang-chon, Yongsan district, against a wall of Yongsan Garrison, the main U.S. military base in Seoul.
Earthenware pots are traditionally used to keep kimchi or raw rice as fresh as possible, although these days many people use kimchi refrigerators instead. These pots have also helped the 70-year-old matriarch feed and raise 13 family members for the past 48 years.
"My children tell me I can stop and rest now, but I am strong enough to do this for at least five more years," Ms. Shin said.
Her store, located where the earthenware line ends, is comprised of three floors of 99 square meters each. A quick calculation suggests the building itself must be worth several hundred million won. She should have nothing to worry about, some might say. However, her worries are similar to those when she first started selling pots, she said. She wants to satisfy her customers, especially the regulars, as less people use earthenware at home these days. She keeps her store open 365 days a year so customers' won’t be disappointed if they decide to drop by, she said.
She takes obvious pride in her work. A customer from Chuncheon, Gangwon province, once ordered 90,000 won ($90) worth of pots from her. She sent them by delivery service but found some had been damaged on the way. She repacked the full order and spent 70,000 to rent a small truck and driver to take her the five hour trip to Chuncheon, all at no further cost to the customer.
In recent years, many foreigners looking for souvenirs have dropped by her store. Ms. Shin only had three years of elementary school but has no difficulty bargaining with them.
"What more is there to say?" she asks. "When they say 'how much,' I tell them how much. Sometimes they say 'later.' That means they won't buy it."
Ms. Shin’s life has been far from easy. She was born in 1936 in Icheon ― now part of North Korea. After Korea was liberated from the Japanese in 1945, she and two brothers followed her parents to the South, settling near Seoul Station. The family was poor and she did needlework to help them survive.
When her parents heard a "young man with a few patches of rice paddy" was interested in her, they married her off, saying, "at least you won't starve." She was 22 years old.
Her life did not improve much. Her husband, Hahn Tae-seok, was a KATUSA, a Korean Augmentee to the U.S. Army. It was during a time when many profited from army goods that soldiers snuck out but she said her husband was "too naive" to do that. To make matters worse, her father-in-law died soon after she moved in. Neighbors blamed Ms. Shin, saying she had brought bad luck to the family. The family only had usage rights to the rice paddy they supposedly owned and these reverted elsewhere on her father-in-law’s death. Ms. Shin had four siblings-in-law to feed, as well as her own young children.
She bought leftover greens from nearby vegetable farms and sold them by handcart to grocery stores on the other side of Seoul. Sometimes she earned enough money to provide a bowl of rice for her family members, but it was rare she got to taste it herself.
After a year, neighbors suggested she should sell earthenware instead. So every morning, she and her husband loaded the handcart with pots they bought the day before. She carried one child on her back, while the others sat on top of the pots. Her husband pulled the cart, while she pushed from the rear.
Ten years passed like that. It was horrible, she recalled.
"We had two chunks of tofu to share for a meal," she said.
In 1967 she was able to purchase the land beside Yongsan Garrison from the Seoul city government under an assistance plan for poverty-stricken people. The problem was they had no place to live. Desperate to own property, she spent all her savings on the land and could not afford a house at the same time. By then, her husband had become an alcoholic.
Ms. Shin tried building houses from plywood and bricks she picked up on the streets ― only to have them torn down by city authorities as illegal structures. In four years, her "handmade" houses were torn down about 20 times. She finally outfoxed the authorities by digging a hole, camouflaging it with plywood and dirt. The family almost suffocated from briquette smoke but at least they had a place to sleep, she said.
In 1982, her husband died and she continued selling the earthenware by herself.
Because she had no place to store her pots, she started piling them next to the Yongsan Garrison wall. Thankfully, she said, the soldiers seemed to enjoy her making “the gray wall pretty." She also washed cars at night to make extra money.
Ongoing construction on the Namsan tunnels caused the walls of the hole that had been home to Ms. Shin and her six children for 17 years to begin crumbling but by then she had enough money saved to build a basic house on the spot. In 1988, the Seoul Olympic Games were held, and the economy boomed, providing her with the funds to build the current house and store.
Ms. Shin said she was never able to give her children allowances but they were good children, nonetheless. Two of them even went to college.
Now adults, they have been telling her that she should stop working and spend time on herself. Her response stunned them.
"I think I need a driver's license," she said. "That would be very helpful when I have to make quick deliveries myself."
by Nam Koong-wook
To visit Ms. Shin's store: Drive through Namsan tunnel 3 toward Banpo Bridge. At the first right turn, there are hundreds of earthen pots against the Yongsan Garrison wall. You can't miss them.