From prison to palace, but always a gentleman
“Nope, can’t do it,” he said when asked to take off his hat. “If I take it off, I look like some old yokel.”
It was noon at Seoul’s massive Gyeongbok Palace, on a field sprawling out behind Gwanghwamun gate. He stood out even in a throng of brightly colored palace guards, looking grandfatherly yet spiritedly. In his blue jeans and sunglasses he still appears to be in his 50s, though he’s nowhere near tall (standing 174 centimeters, or 5-foot-7). His shoulders, however, fall in a graceful curve that gives him a chivalrous look.
His name is Bang Dong-kyu, 71. His business card presents him as the “chief of tour information,” which is a very rough translation of an even vaguer Korean title. His good-natured approach and gregarious style of conversation are so unusual that Mr. Bang was one of three characters who were considered to have the “gift of the tongue” in the 1970s serial novel, “Watching the village standing in a field,” by the novelist Hwang Suk-young (Mr. Hwang’s novels are published by the JoongAng Ilbo). The two others were Paik Ki-whan, a political activist, and Mr. Hwang himself.
Mr. Hwang once said that Mr. Bang was the greatest fist since Sirasoni, a legendary fighter in the mid-1900s whose real name was Yi Seong-sun.
Mr. Bang also has a nickname, Bangbaechu (baechu means cabbage). How did he get the nickname? “I used to wear short trousers to school,” he explained. Apparently, short trousers were also what the local cabbage salesman wore.
“Yoo Hong-joon, the cultural properties administration director, kept asking me to do this, so I started giving tours last fall,” Ms. Bang said. “Now it is just my job, being this quirky old guy who guides people around the palace. To tell you the truth, Director Yoo and I were once cellmates.”
Well, not exactly. Mr. Bang was incarcerated in Seodaemun prison for six months with the pro-democracy activists Jang Jun-ha and Paik Ki-whan were in the prison as well. Mr. Bang operated a farm in Cheolwon, Gangwon province, and Mr. Jang and Mr. Paik came by from time to time. Somehow that served as grounds for the government to declare that the three were North Korean spies. Mr. Yoo, who was then a senior at Seoul National University, was thrown in the cell next door.
“How much do I earn? I can earn as much as 940,000 won a month ($900) and up to 10 million won a year,” Mr. Bang said. “But it’s satisfactory. It’s good for my health and at this age, it’s a clean, honest way to put food in my mouth.”
Mr. Bang, who was born in Kaesong, Gyeonggi province, is well-traveled. In the early 60s, he worked in mines in West Germany and then studied French in Paris. After coming back to Korea, he opened a clothing shop, Salon de Bang, in Myeong-dong, Seoul. The store also acted like a gathering place for poets like Kim Ji-ha.
Before the financial crisis, he tried to do business in China, worked as fitness trainer and did manual labor in a factory. He prefers to work with his hands. Mr. Bang has a prejudice for physical activity: he can bench-press 150 kilograms (330 pounds).
Mr. Bang was never a gang member or back-street brawler, but he had little contact with the more conventional side of society until 1987, when he became the chief guard for Mr. Paik’s failed presidential campaign (he would take the same job for Mr. Paik’s 1992 campaign, as well). Mr. Bang had long viewed Mr. Paik as a teacher and elder brother because of his passion and patriotism. “Elder brother,” though, is a stretch: Mr. Paik is one year younger than Mr. Bang.
“That’s what’s attractive about Baechu,” Mr. Yoo said. “Unlike the intellectuals, he has seen real life. There were always lots of sleazy politicians around, but he rejected their offers and lived the life of a gentleman.”
by Cho Woo-suk