The story behind Kimchi Pot Gate
Editors Note: The story below appeared in the “Morning Calm” 26 March, 2010. When we ran across the article we were so intrigued that we wanted to do a follow up on the story. Mrs. Sin is a couple of years older but still goes to her shop each day and runs her business outside Gate 3. After the story ran originally, her business picked up; there were more shoppers and more curious passers-by stopping in. Sin runs the business alone and says she wants to continue doing so as long as her health permits. At this time she is not making any plans to retire, but someday hopes to turn the business over to her son. – Follow-up interview and information by Un Chu Chon. Photo(s) by Chol Hwi Yun, Stars and Stripes
YONGSAN GARRISON — History is not always grandiose. History is a trace that our parents and ancestors have gone through. Therefore, listening adults talking sometimes gives us more valuable life lessons than reading history textbooks. On Jan. 22, I found myself in such a situation when I visited Yeon Keun Sin. She has been selling Korean traditional pottery for 52 years, 43 of those years at Gate 3, also called the ‘Kimchi Pot Gate.’
Conventional markets are in every town and pottery shops are in every conventional market of Korea, but seeing dozens of kimchi pots lining the perimeter wall of a U.S. military installation is quite unique. Not to mention the interesting owner.
75 year old Sin was born in 1936 at Icheon, Kangwondo. She started her business selling pottery with her husband Han Suk-tae. Han was a Korean Augmentation to United States Army Soldier back in the Korean War. Once the Korean War was over, Han and Sin began selling a variety of vegetables before selling pottery.
“One day we bought a wagon of vegetables from Guri, 15 kilometers away from Seoul, and Han, my husband, lost a pair of shoes on the way so I had to lend him mine instead. We were traveling on a gravel road and that killed my feet. We couldn’t eat for three days and my feet kept bleeding. I wept with emotion.”
After a tough year of selling vegetables, some potters recommended that Han and Sin sell their ceramic goods. That was how Sin began to sell the iconic kimchi pots. Sin was only 23 years old.
10 years of selling pottery brought Sin her own shop. One day she carried a small kimchi pot filled with 10 won, 100 won, and 500 won coins on her head and visited Yongsan Tax Office to pay her property bill. Sin said that the office did not want to take her payment in thousands of coins. She was told to pay a bill by check. She went off to the Bank of Korea, where she thought it was the only existing bank in peninsula, but they rejected her.
“I finally got to a local housing bank and was able to pay the bill. It was just embarrassing.” Sin laughed out loud.
Sin’s only property was a plot of land, but she did not have the money to buy a proper house. She had to build a house made of bricks and planks. However, wrecking crews descended on her house to demolish it because they considered it an illegal shanty house. Her house, located at the foot of Namsan Mountain, was symbolic of Seoul’s character, she said.
Sin thought of a strategy after her house had been demolished several more times over four years.
“My kids and I began digging in the ground and floored a room with flat stones over Chuseok Holiday because wrecking crews never came during the holidays,” Sin said. “We put the thick board on the top and camouflaged with dirt. We had no electricity, no water. My children almost died of carbon monoxide poisoning because we had no idea how to make a ventilation system.”
Sin felt more grief in her life after the loss of her husband, Han Suk-tae, in 1982. But, She opened her store, rain or shine. She delivered goods without complaining, no matter how far the destination was. Sin said she always adhered to sell the best quality of pottery while other shops were selling low grade products.
Then, Sin then started piling up kimchi pots along the wall of Yongsan Garrison in order to draw attention.
“I really do appreciate Yongsan Garrison not mentioning the removal of the kimchi pots – not even once,” Sin said. “I think they were curious and happy about the fact that I decorated garrison’s wall. I am still deeply thank them.”
In 1988, Sin built a Western-style house, ending the life of residing under the dark ground. Pottery sales were lucrative business during 1988 Seoul Olympics. Sin’s shop earned well.
After so many years of adversity, Sin said she had some advice for young people. “Have you seen white pebbles?” Sin asked. “I collect solid white pebbles. They are strong and steady, never broken. I’ve always marveled at those robust white pebbles. When the young are discouraged of feeling hopeless, I urge them to be strong and resilient, like the white pebble. Small, but strong and indestructible. Gleaming, keeping their color.”
With 10 years as a merchant and 43 years as a wholesale ceramics dealer, Sin has been in the kimchi pot trade for more 53 years and counting. Her trade has come not only to define her, but a part of Garrison Yongsan’s vocabulary, too, when referencing Gate 3.
Perhaps more important than her great collection of kimchi pots adorning part of our Garrison’s wall, Sin’s greatest accomplishment is being part of the hardworking movement that brought Korea out of the ashes of the Korean War and into modern civilization at breakneck speed.
As we ended our conversation about the “Kimchi Pot Gate,” I couldn’t help bowing in respect for her work ethic and her devotion to Korean ceramics, an art full of history and meaning.
Yeon Keun Sin, who has been selling Korean traditional pottery outside Kimchi Pot Gate, is a living testament to Korea’s recent history.