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Useful And Fantastic: Korea As It Once Was - 2

Val Yule continues her account of life in Korea before the outbreak of war in the early 1950s.

We walked back through the paths of trodden petals. The blossom was falling faster and faster as the sun went down. Outside the big gates, in the street, boys were still selling horrible sweets; a whiskered ruffian was demonstrating his bamboo flute; a family had one tray of popcorn to sell. A little naked blind boy staggered around the lamp-post to which he was tied. The world behind the gate was, suddenly, a long time ago.

As if to emphasise that the past, indeed was gone, we went though the crowded streets into another world, through the doors of the Foreign Union.

It was the American equivalent of the English Club that Englishmen create in distant places, but I should think it quite different in tone and atmosphere. Be informal and cheery with a “Say, you. Come right on for a little bit of something”. Nothing like a plain Australian bunfight however. For the Supper Tea, the buffet, decorated with gay cloths and shining silver and flowers was crowded with food recognisable and unrecognisable. Being conservative, I kept to the cookies, nuts, cherry-pie, ginger-cake and potato straws, until I could tell whether the innumerable decorated dishes were curries, casseroles or sweets.

Many of them, as it happens, were perfectly familiar, but so carefully prepared and presented that even a macaroni stew looked like a magazine advertisement. No wonder Americans need so many labour-saving devices, when so often the pattern of meal preparation is over-elaborate. Take plain, well-flavoured foodstuffs. Mix together until flavours are indistinguishable. Swill in salad oil or a special sauce to provide flavour. The dish will then look awful. To make it look attractive, decorate with colourful, tasteless odds and bobs on top. The American cuisine is probably the most inclusive in the world. Americans fill their larders with sauces and condiments from every corner of the earth, and will experiment with anything.

I would never trust an American-made sandwich. But universalism can be a virtue too. Betty fed us on fried chicken and buckwheat cakes in maple syrup and other American brainwaves, although she too, liked to serve fruit-jellies swathed in raw cabbage, topped with salad dressing, with meat. She could never believe that we preferred to eat boiled eggs out of the shell with a spoon, rather than trouble to cool, disembowel and devil them.

The Union had tennis-courts, swimming-pool, and café-tables out on the verandah. Its situation was ironic. Opposite the main gate were the remains of the city wall. It was full of little holes with Hessian flaps. Refugees left their shoes outside these holes because one does not wear shoes in the home.
Beyond the caves was a hideous red-brick Georgian building,- a Japanese-built school. Round the corner was a settlement of Japanese houses that had been built for Japanese workers.

They were houses rather than cottages, and strikingly different from their Korean neighbours. The Japanese built with unpainted wood, rather than with mud, and apparently used plumbline and spirit-level, for all the sides and windows were straight. The inhabitants then, however were Koreans, who found them cold and draughty in winter, and much preferred their own low-ceilinged, fuggy native houses.

Korean-style houses are heated under the floor by sending the kitchen flue beneath the oiled paper and tiles. Koreans, who sleep on the floor, find it very hard to get up on winter’s morning.

Foreigners find the skew-whiff Korean houses, with their thatch or curving eaves, definitely more picturesque than these square boxes.

All Seoul was made up of such contrasts. As well as crammed huts and low, open shops, there were some fine public building and stone homes built by the Japanese; two department stores, the equivalents of Woolworth’s and Selfridges; a Japanese style shopping centre, the Hon Machi; the main Korean thoroughfare, Chong-no, from the centre of the city to East Gate and beyond; and the Pekin Pass, the road that led out to China.

At all points, not only the pot-holes continually jolted us, but the chaotic muddle of medieval and modern.
The three or four major roads were wide, though bad, and intersected at circuses, or at crossings which more truly deserved the name. There, villainous policemen and, often, fierce-looking little boy scouts, blew whistles and rang electric bells and waved their arms wildly and incomprehensibly. It was suggested that the skittles at the Union bowling alley be replaced with replicas of these policemen on their little green tubs.

All other streets were, on the whole, about the width of one jeep and one pedestrian, or even, mere interstices between the houses. They wound like foot-tracks over the crowded hill-sides of the city. Many of the hundreds of Americans in Seoul employed by ECA, the Military Mission or United Nations had Cadillacs and Buicks. I never saw them off the two main streets, which, as they were, must have tried them badly. Now and then workmen would fill all the great pot-holes with stones, and sweep the ground with little twig brooms, The first vehicle that went over the mended road would scatter the stones out of the holes on to the road, and the last state was worst than the first.

The jeep was supreme. Jeeps are not cars, they are terrific. They tear along with rattles and bounces, manoeuvre on postage stamps, crawl straight up hills. Jeeps are gadget reduced to uttermost simplicity. A few zips and studs turn them into trucks, open sports cars, station wagons or buses.
But even jeeps had difficulty when they went along a jeep-wide road with a ditch on one side and huts on the other, and could not return a few hours later because the huts had shifted their fences another six inches. Roads in Korea were constantly growing narrower.

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