The family business - tradition or trouble?In a cramped studio next to a humble residence in the suburbs of Seoul, gat maker Park Chang-young and his son, Hyeong-bak, are seated on the floor with their legs crossed, enjoying the warmth from the ondol, or under-floor heating.
“In the old days the youngest ones got up at 4 in the morning and lit the fire,” says the father, as he watches his son burning charcoal to heat the floor.
His son listens quietly.
For years, the business of making gat, the traditional Korean hat worn by scholars, had been a prestigious job. A gat was a pivotal social statement for Korean men throughout history, as well as a rare fashion accessory. Even up until the 1960s, collectors were keener on folk crafts from the country’s Confucian past than now. Demands for gat from clan heads, too, were more common then.
Nowadays, Mr. Park, the father, one of the few remaining gat masters in the nation, is registered as an intangible cultural asset. Many of his clients are producers of period dramas and films, though there are occasional commissions from wealthy families and museums. The situation is in stark contrast to 40 years ago, when the elder Park first joined the family business and half the neighbors in his hometown of Yecheon, North Gyeongsang province, a town noted for ancient crafts, were gat makers.
It’s been 120 years since Mr. Park’s family began making gat and he is the fifth generation to take up the craft.
Yet when the elder Park decided to teach the dying tradition to his eldest son, he made a cautious compromise with reality ― he didn’t want his son to become a professional craftsman.
“You can’t make a living as a craftsman here,” the father says. “But I decided to teach him. It’s well worth passing down the tradition.”
His son agreed.
After majoring in fashion design with his thesis titled “Sculptural Elements of Gat during the Joseon Dynasty,” Hyeong-bak is now a college lecturer in the field. In addition to his day job, he occasionally helps his father to learn the family trade.
So far, it hasn’t been easy.
To make a gat takes up to a week. To get a good feel for the process, experts suggest a person needs to practice for up to 10 years.
“I am persistent,” the father says. “Because it’s a tough job. It’s hard to endure unless you have a strong reason.”
In modern Korean society, family businesses are underestimated when compared to neighbors like Japan, where some of the world’s oldest entrepreneurial companies began as small family businesses.
According to a recent survey, there are less than 40 companies that are 50 years or older in Korea.
This may be because of the Korean war, which cut the veins of the nation’s economy. Others blame Koreans today who tend to favor modern advances over tradition.
Lee Gyeong-ju, the grandson of Jongno Tailor’s founder, a shop that opened in 1916 in central Seoul, started learning his family business when he was a teenager. But he thinks the value placed on family businesses by society isn’t always favorable, especially in a country where foreign luxury brands dominate the market for small businesses.
“People don’t seem to value tradition, not even the politicians who say they do,” he says. “We get so easily seduced by new trends.”
The family ran the shop in Jongno for almost a century, but Mr. Lee moved to his current location in Gwanghwamun three years ago when the city began redeveloping the previous site.
His hopes, though, are still high, as is his pride.
He said he lives up to the ethics of the family business ― to tailor suits the customer can wear through decades of changing trends. His patrons know that and some have frequented the shop for 30 years, he said, including a former president.
“Trends change,” he said. “The collars get wide and narrow. So I make it just in between.”
In Korea, the shops and businesses that have survived tough years make news just by their history. Nostalgia is a main selling point for Yonggeumok, one of the oldest surviving restaurants in downtown Seoul.
The restaurant, which has specialized in mudfish soup for three generations, opened in 1934 in Mugyo-dong, downtown Seoul, where taverns and theaters in the area were a major attraction of the city at the beginning of the20th century.
Now, decades later, the restaurant retains the same size and atmosphere in a small alley in the financial district of Seoul.
A now-deceased poet, Lee Yong-sang, wrote an essay titled “The Age of Yonggeumok” ― a memoir about the country’s social mood in the 1960 and ’70s. The book delves into the numerous writers, artists, politicians and theater actors who frequented the shop, their stories and the city’s history.
A famous anecdote tells that, after the Korean War in 1953, an envoy from North Korea asked a South Korean politician during a break in truce negotiations whether Yonggeumok was still in the same spot.
Ms. Hong died in 1981. Since then the kitchen of Yonggeumok, which means a place where gold sprouts, has been headed by a woman who worked with Ms. Hong for 50 years. Practically all of Ms. Hong’s children, her grandson and their spouses work in the business.
“It’s a good thing that she’s left this tiny restaurant rather than a huge sum of possessions,” Mr. Shin said. “That way our family never gets into messy fights about who will have what. We just think about making the business work.”
For some children, however, the burden of continuing a family business can be overwhelming.
Yu Sang-geun, grandson of the founder of Anseong Matchum, a pottery firm based in Anseong City, feels that he may not leave his business to his children.
“It’s very difficult, because there are customs and certain rituals involved in this business in which I am simply incapable of reaching the sophistication of the older generation’s sentiment and skills,” says Mr. Yu, 31.
“My father started this business when he was in elementary school,” he explained. I joined the company after I got out of the army. The quality of our work is just different. ”
But Lee Jong-un, grandson of the founder of Tongmungwan, an antique bookstore in Insa-dong, and the current owner, had a positive experience of taking over a family business.
“It may be because I grew up watching my family in the business,” says Lee Jong-un, “But I tend to have a natural instinct for valuable books. There are certain moments you have to rely on your instincts, and my decisions haven’t been far from the actual results. I can tell when something is real. There is a special feel in my hands. It comes as a surprise, but I know when it happens.”
by Park Soo-mee