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  • Peter H. Lee:Fifty Years with Korean Literature in America
  • Mickey Hong (bio)

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Peter H. Lee

A portrait of the scholar as a young man-the year Peter H. Lee completed his M.A. at Yale University. (Summer 1953 in New Haven, CT)

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This interview was conducted on March 6, 2007, and took several hours from late morning to mid-afternoon at the Faculty Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. Prof. Peter H. Lee has been a faculty member at the university since 1987. Academics in Korean studies outside Korea know Peter H. Lee as the resilient, meticulous scholar who is mostly responsible for establishing the field of Korean literature in the English-speaking world. However, in this interview he reveals a glimpse of his personal life, rich with encounters and experiences.

Mickey Hong: What were your memories of childhood? What colors, smells, and sounds do you remember? What did people wear? What did you wear? What kinds of food and drink were popular?

Peter H. Lee: I don't really remember colors, except those of girls' dresses. Smells and sounds, I think, are quite important because smells can be good or bad, and some are exotic. When I was about five, my grandfather took me to Mitsukoshi department store to buy me a school uniform. Back then you had two uniforms: one for winter and spring, and another for summer and maybe early [End Page 371] autumn. So that was the first time I set foot in Mitsukoshi, which was across the street from the Bank of Korea, Chōsen Ginkō. When I entered the building, I smelled a strange but pleasant odor, unlike any I was used to. It was a combination of perfume, naphthalene, and other scents. From then on I always associated that odor with Japanese stores. It struck me as strange because I had never smelled anything like it. But when I went to Hwasin later on, there was a similar smell, though not as strong.

When my father took me to a Japanese restaurant, again I encountered an odor different from what I was used to at home-maybe a combination of Kikkoman shōyu and other Japanese condiments. We never used shōyu. We used homemade Korean-style soy sauce. Also you could tell the difference because if you add Japanese shōyu, the soup becomes dark. I didn't like that. In the restaurant I encountered a second unusual odor, very different from the Korean odors at home. Although I wasn't allowed into the kitchen, the aromas wafted out and I could tell what they were cooking-beef soup, roast fish. But the smells from Mitsukoshi and the Japanese restaurant were different.

Our family occasionally went to a restaurant on the third or fourth floor of Hwashin department store where I experienced other smells-of curry rice, omelet rice, and some Western dishes. I think I first ate a Western-style sandwich in August 1945 in a Chongno restaurant. Other sounds and smells struck me as a child at the Chongno night market (yasi before 1945) with its many brightly lit stalls and ocean of people. Some fruit stalls sold exotic items like bananas and pineapples!

In Honmachi (Ponjŏng, what is now Myŏngdong), the Japanese area, there was a small store owned by a White Russian that sold butter, cheese, and bread. I was ten or eleven when I was sent there by my father or aunt to buy some bread and butter. When I walked into that store I encountered an entirely different odor. A very different odor. And I met the White Russian, who had a lot of hair.

Out in the street, different smells mingled, of food, people [End Page 372] passing by, tram cars, buses. Tram cars had a distinctive smell, as did buses. When I rode in a taxi (an old Volvo, as I recall), there was yet another smell.

On the top floor, the fourth or fifth, of Hwasin department store, there was a small cinema that showed films primary and secondary school students could watch. I went there occasionally to...