A short history of coal from the bad old days...Most city dwellers in Korea now live in homes with gas or petroleum fueled boilers. However, until the 1980s most Koreans depended on “19-hole” coal briquettes, or yeontan. The briquettes were introduced by the Japanese during the colonial period (1910-1945), during which briquette factories were set up all over Korea. By 1957, over 90 percent of citizens were using briquettes.
The new fuel spread rapidly because briquettes were more abundant than wood and had a higher thermal output. They were used to heat homes and cook food. When it snowed, the left-over ash was spread over slippery streets.
But the briquettes had problems as well. When briquettes were stacked the holes had to be aligned perfectly, or combustion would be inefficient. It was quite common for people to crack the briquettes accidentally in an effort to align the holes, making them useless. Also, the combustion time was inconsistent, varying according to the weather and the structure of the house. Because of this, housewives often had to wake up in the middle of the night to change burnt-out briquettes with new ones to keep their homes warm.
But worst of all, the briquettes could be deadly. Carbon monoxide fumes sometimes leaked into a house from small cracks in the floor, poisoning entire families. Newspaper headlines of such tragedies were common in the winter, during which junior reporters scurried through police stations to get pictures of the latest victims.
It’s only natural that Koreans have a love-hate relationship with the briquettes. They convey a certain nostalgia that makes Koreans think back to a time when the country was struggling economically.
by Nam Koong-wook, Cho, Jae-eun