Many of us have been lucky enough to have come back to Korea to places we lived and worked forty or more years ago. Most of these towns grew, swallowed up by development of one form or another. Looking at pictures we took back then helped to etch our old life permanently in our brains. Trouble is, sometimes the physical changes where we lived were so massive that those old images cannot be recreated. So, we look at our pictures. When that happens, our emotions get mixed up—sad about the changes but also happy to see the improvements.
호헤원was a bustling village when I lived there from 1979-80. The village was in 나주군on the outskirts of 광주. Egg production in the village was on a massive scale. The entire village was part of a cooperative that produced thousands of eggs every single day. Trucks rolled into the village daily to pick them up and then sell them in surrounding towns. 호헤원was a prosperous place. A by-product of that prosperity was the over-powering smell of chicken shit. And, yes, I ate lots of eggs.
Tuesday I was back in 호헤원. The village has been virtually abandoned. Part of it was swallowed up by a factory and another part was paved over for a road reaching the factory and other large businesses that have invaded the area. The centre of the village, near where I lived, was still intact—the village office, a monument to 육영수(Park Chung-hee’s wife--she visited in the early-1970s), and a small community centre still stand.The rest is a jumble of empty houses and chicken coops, collapsed roofs, and weed-filled lots. The house of the woman who washed my clothes no longer stands but the small tree she had next to her chicken coop has become mature, softening the scene. The monument to 육영수remains well-tended with the azalea late in bloom—someone still comes around to keep it clean and tidy. Sometime between when I lived there and its abandonment, the small paths through the village were transformed from muddy ruts to pavement.
So, what happened to this prosperous little place? It was better off than surrounding communities and I would have guessed, back then, that it would continue to grow. In fact, it was probably doomed from the beginning: it was a leprosy resettlement village. Forty years ago the residents of the village were either under six years of age or over forty years of age. All young people were packed off to school far from the village to avoid the stigma of being from a leprosy village. Villagers were committed to ensuring that their children’s lives were not touched by leprosy in any way. It is not surprising that children did not return to the village after schooling. There were no young people to keep the egg business going and the village died. An “old folks home” occupied the top floor of the village office for a while—even that is now gone.
The visit was bittersweet. The young people that I never knew got on with their lives. I hope the elderly live comfortably.
One thing hadn’t changed: even with the absence of chickens the smell of chicken shit lingered….everywhere.