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In 1904, facing war and the loss of their nation, more than a thousand Koreans leave their homes for the promise of land in unknown Mexico. After a long sea voyage, these emigrants — thieves and royals, priests and soldiers, orphans and...
In 1904, facing war and the loss of their nation, more than a thousand Koreans leave their homes for the promise of land in unknown Mexico. After a long sea voyage, these emigrants — thieves and royals, priests and soldiers, orphans and entire families — discover that they have been sold into indentured servitude.
Aboard the ship, the orphan Ijeong fell in love with a nobleman’s daughter; separated when the hacendados claim their laborers, he vows to find her. Then, after years of working in the punishing heat of the henequen fields, the Koreans are caught in the midst of a Mexican revolution. A tale of star-crossed love, political turmoil, and the dangers of seeking freedom in a new world, Black Flower is an epic story based on a little-known moment in history.
“Kim is at the leading edge of a new breed of South Korean writers.” — Philadelphia City Paper
“Spare and beautiful.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Readers who remember the historical fiction of Thomas B. Costain, Zoé Oldenbourg and Anya Seton will appreciate [Kim’s] extensive research and empathic imagination." — Kirkus Reviews
"This sprawling epic novel dips heavily into the concurrent Mexican revolution and the treatment of the Mayans. Spare and beautiful, Kim's novel offers a look at the roots of the little-known tribulations of the Korean diaspora in Mexico."
—Publishers Weekly, boxed review
"[Black Flower] shines light on how immigrants coped during a terrible historical moment." —Booklist
"Kim Young-ha takes a small moment of Korean history, when 1,033 Koreans embarked as contracted laborers in Mexico on April 4, 1905, and transforms this moment into a powerful, sweeping epic that resonates across continents and oceans, bridging East and West . . . Kim seamlessly weaves the history and the social structure of Mexico into the story of the Koreans, a story of exploitation and greed, while he also shows the resiliency and dignity of the Korean characters who adapt to the harsh conditions and cope as best they can . . . The scope and breadth of Kim Young-ha’s talent is evident on every page of this breathtaking novel . . . This novel engages, informs, and in a paraphrase of Kafka, breaks the frozen sea within us." —List Magazine
WITH HIS HEAD THRUST into the swamp filled with swaying weeds, many things swarmed before Ijeong’s eyes. All were pieces of the scenery of Jemulpo that he thought he had long ago forgotten. Nothing had disappeared: the flute-playing eunuch, the fugitive priest, the spirit-possessed shaman with the turned-in teeth, the girl who smelled of roe deer blood, the poor members of the royal family, the starving discharged soldiers, even the revolutionary’s barber—they all waited for Ijeong with smiling faces in front of the Japanese-style building on the hill in Jemulpo.
How could all these things be so vivid with closed eyes? Ijeong was mystified. He opened his eyes and everything disappeared. A booted foot pushed on the nape of his neck, shoving his head deep into the bottom of the swamp. Foul water and plankton rushed into his lungs.
FEBRUARY 1904. Japan declared war on Russia. Japanese troops landed in Korea and seized Seoul, attacking the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. In March of 1905, 250,000 Japanese troops fought at Fengtian in Manchuria, losing 70,000 men but winning the battle.
Admiral Togo Heihachiro’s Japanese combined fleet held its breath and waited for the Baltic Fleet under Admiral Rozhdestvenski, which had rounded the Cape of Good Hope and was heading for the Far East, unaware of its fate.
In the spring of that year, people flocked to Jemulpo harbor. The crowd included everyone from beggars to short-haired men, women in skirts and Korean jackets, and runny-nosed children. Short hair had been in fashion since ten years before, when the king, Gojong, had cut off his topknot due to pressure from the Japanese and issued the Hair Cutting Edict in 1895. In that same year, he also lost his queen to assassins sent by his father and by Japan, her body ruthlessly stabbed, then burned by Japanese thugs. In one stroke, he lost the hair that he had grown from his youth and the queen who had long been by his side; the king fled to the Russian legation and attempted to stage a comeback, but it came to nothing. A few years later, in 1898, the kingdom became an empire and the king became an emperor, but he was impotent. It was in that year that America won its war with Spain and gained the Philippines. There was no end to the ambitions of the powers that surged toward Asia. The powerless emperor was plagued by insomnia.
But in 1905 Jemulpo was a desolate harbor. With the exception of the Japanese settlement and the Japanese consulate, which had been built magnificently in the Renaissance style, it was hard to find even a single decent building on the sloping hill. The coastal islands and inland mountains were treeless; they looked like piles of peat. There were quite a few private houses. Their thatched roofs, though, squatted round and low to the ground, so they weren’t very noticeable. The Korean burden bearers, wearing white cotton headbands, walked along in single file, barefoot children running along behind them. Near the Japanese consulate a group of Japanese women walked with mincing steps. The spring sunshine was dazzling, but the women walked with their eyes on the ground, as Japanese soldiers in black uniforms stood guard. Holding rifles with fixed bayonets, they glanced sidelong at the procession of women. The kimono parade passed in front of a European-style wooden building. On the front of the building hung a wooden sign on which were written the words “British Consulate.” A Westerner came out of the building and went down to the pier.
The Japanese imperial fleet, which had participated in the siege of Port Arthur, could be seen heading south, flying high the flag of the rising sun. The black guns on the sides of the ships glistened with oil.
THE BOY TOOK A SPOT in the cabin in the bottom of the boat; there was room for him in a corner. He curled up as much as he could and covered himself with the clothes he had brought. Then he looked around the cabin, gloomy as a cave. Those who boarded as families gathered in circles. Men with buxom daughters were on edge, the whites of their eyes bloodshot. There seemed to be five times as many men as women. Whenever the women went anywhere, the eyes of the men followed them secretly and persistently. Four years. That’s how long they would stay together, these people. If a girl reached marrying age, might she not become a wife? This is what the single men thought. The boy didn’t think that far ahead, but he was at a hot-blooded age and sensitive to everything. For several days his dreams had been troubled. Girls would appear and set his head spinning. Dreams where a girl caressed his earlobes and disheveled his hair with her delicate hands were fine, but sometimes a girl would rush at him naked and wake him from his slumber. After nights like those, his chest pounded even when he was awake, and he had to pick his way between the sleeping people and go out onto the deck to get a breath of the dawn’s cold sea air. The SS Ilford was stuck in the harbor like an island. How far would they have to go to reach that warm country? No one knew for sure. There were those who said that, surprisingly enough, it would take a half year, and there were those who said they would arrive in ten days at most. No one aboard had ever made the journey before, so confusion was natural. Everyone swung back and forth, like pendulums, between vague hope and unease.
Leaning on the side of the ship, the boy carved the three characters of “Kim I Jeong” into the oaken railing with a knife from his pocket. He had gained those three characters here in Jemulpo, right at this pier. A strapping man with a long scar on his wrist asked “What’s your family name?” The boy hesitated. The man nodded as if he understood. “Your name?” “People just called me Jangsoe,” the boy said. The man asked him where his parents were. The boy didn’t exactly know. He didn’t know if it was the Military Mutiny of 1882 or the Donghak Rebellion, but his father had been caught up in one of them and killed, and his mother had gone off somewhere as soon as his father died. He was taken in and raised by a peddler. The only thing the peddler ever gave him was the name Jangsoe. When they stopped near Seoul, the boy ran away while the peddler slept.
“What sort of land is Mexico?” This was at the Seoul Young Men’s Christian Association. An American missionary spoke, his black beard covering his neck. “Mexico is far. Very far.” The boy narrowed his eyes. “Then where is it close to?” The missionary laughed. “It’s right below America. And it’s very hot. But why are you asking about Mexico?” The boy showed him the advertisement in the Capital Gazette. But the missionary, who did not know Chinese characters, could not read the advertisement. Instead, another young Korean explained the contents of the advertisement in English. Only then did the missionary nod. The boy asked him, “If I were your son, would you tell me to go?” The missionary did not understand right away, so the boy asked again. The missionary’s face grew grave and he slowly shook his head. “Then, if you were me, would you go?” The missionary was lost in deep thought. The boy hadn’t been long at the school, but he was bright and unusually quick to understand. He had been raised as an orphan, but had not grown timid, and he stood out from the other students with similar stories.
The bearded missionary gave him some coffee and a muffin. The boy’s mouth began to water. The peddler who had taken him around the country had taught him: “If someone gives you something to eat, count to one hundred before eating. And if someone wants to buy something of yours, double the price that comes to mind. That way no one will look down on you.” The boy rarely had the opportunity to follow these instructions. No one gave him anything to eat, and no one wanted to buy anything he owned. The missionary opened his eyes wide. “Aren’t you hungry?” The boy’s lips moved slightly. Eighty-two, eighty-three, eighty-four. He couldn’t bear it any longer. He took the sweet-smelling raisin muffin and began to stuff it into his mouth. When he had finished the muffin and coffee, the missionary brought him to a room with a lot of books and showed him a map of the world. On it was a country that looked like a sunken, empty belly. Mexico. The missionary asked him, “Do you really want to go? You’ve only been attending school for three months . . . How about studying more before you go?” The boy shook his head. “They say that chances like this do not come often. I heard that boys with no parents are welcome.” The missionary could see that his heart was set. He gave the boy an English Bible. “Someday you will be able to read it. If you earn some money in Mexico, go to America. The Lord will guide you.” Then he hugged the boy. The boy held the missionary tightly. His beard brushed the nape of the boy’s neck.
The boy went to Jemulpo and stood at the end of the long line. In that line he met the strapping man who tousled the boy’s hair. “A person must have a name. Forget childhood names like Jangsoe. Take Kim as your family name and Ijeong as your given name. It’s easy to write — just the character i (二), meaning two, and the character jeong (正), meaning upright.” As the line grew shorter he wrote the boy’s name in Chinese characters. It was seven strokes in all. The man’s name was Jo Jangyun. A staff sergeant engineer in the new-style army of the Korean Empire, he had set aside his uniform when the Russo-Japanese War broke out. There were a number of others in the same situation. Two hundred of these men, who had suited up together and trained in the new-style long rifles with the Russian advisory corps, had thronged to Jemulpo. There were enough of them to form an entire battalion. They had no land and no relatives. No nation needed an army more urgently than the feeble empire, but no rice could be found in the empire’s storerooms to feed them. Above all, the Japanese were demanding a curtailment of Korean military expenditures and a reduction in force of arms. Soldiers on the frontiers left their barracks and wandered off, and when they saw the Continental Colonization Company’s advertisement they raced to Jemulpo. They were the first to want to leave for Mexico, where work, money, and warm food were said to await them. Jo Jangyun was one of those men. His father, a hunter in Hwanghae province, had left for China; someone had seen him living with a Chinese woman in Shanghai. But Jo Jangyun did not go to Shanghai. Instead he chose Mexico, where they said the sun was warm year-round. And didn’t they say his wages would be dozens of times higher than a soldier’s pay? What did it matter where he went? There was no need to hesitate. Life in Mexico couldn’t be any harder than it had been in the army.
The boy cast his gaze over the ocean once more. Three black-billed seagulls wheeled above his head. Someone had said that there was gold in Mexico. They said that yellow gold poured forth from the earth, making many suddenly rich. “No. That’s America,” insisted another, but he sounded uncertain too. The boy repeated his name. “Kim Ijeong. My name is Kim Ijeong. I am going to a far land. And I will return as an adult Kim Ijeong. I will return with my name and with money and I will buy land, and there I will plant rice.” Those with land were respected. That was a simple truth the boy had learned on the road. It couldn’t be Mexican land. It had to be Korean land, and a rice paddy. But another thought had raised its head in the boy’s heart, the thought of another strange land, called America.
The seagulls fluttered above the surface of the water as if dancing. The quicker ones flew away with fairly large fish in their beaks. The wings of the gulls were tinged red. The sun was setting. The boy went down to the cabin and again wedged himself into the corner. The coarse, low voices of men could be heard between the cries of children. There was no strength in the voices of these men; they did not know their futures. Their words dissipated like the foam that washed against the prow of the ship. The boy closed his eyes. He hoped that he would not wake until breakfast.