Remembering Gugongtan

Yeontan is a cylindrical coal briquette which was the primary cooking and heating fuel in twentieth-century Korea. It is often referred to as gu-gong-tan, a nine-holed briquette, though a standard yeontan has twenty-five holes. The peculiarity arises from a series of linguistic evolutions cut short by the fading usage of yeontan.

Originally, there were nineteen holes on yeontan. It was thus referred to as sipgu-gumeong-tan, a nineteen-holed briquette. The repetition of gu, however, rendered the pronunciation tricky, and the contraction sipgumeong-tan soon took over. But alas! sip is a slang word for vagina, and it was now all too easy to order pussy-hole briquettes. Eventually, gong, another word for hole, was substituted for meong, and the preceding sip was taken out completely, resulting in the current name gugongtan.


Gugongtan. Photo credit:

By the early 90s, my birth town had become one of the last places in South Korea to have a sizable number of gugongtan-heated homes. Halmeoni, my grandmother, used to tell me that I should wake up and run away as far as possible if I ever felt dizzy in my sleep. But how do I know I'm dizzy if I'm asleep? I had left my birth town at the age of three, and I am still not sure if she ever answered my question.

My sharpest memory of my birth town is of a moment at the marketplace near halmeoni's place. I had just read the name of the toy I wanted to her: Ja-pan-ki-no-ri. I want that, halmeoni. Please? She was first shocked that I was able to read and was soon horrified that the mini vending machine toy cost 9900 won, roughly $15. But I knew none of this; I just wondered why it took halmeoni so long to find her purse.

Back at halmeoni's place with the new toy, I forgot all about the dizzies. Halmeoni also did not mention it for a while, but it took me a long time to realize the absence of all the warnings.

Nineteen years have passed sine then. I was back in my birth town, eating at a cheap sushi buffet with my aunt and her children. We were planning on visiting halmeoni's grave afterwards. Aunt and I were talking about halmeoni, and it occurred to me that 9900 won was no longer enough even for a meal at an okay restaurant. We had to pay 13000 won per person!

What can you buy with 100 won around here these days? Why do you ask, aunt said. I need precisely 9900 won.

It was the first time in my life I visited a family's grave on my own accord. Aunt and I bowed down, stood up, bowed down again, stood up, and dedicated to halmeoni's grave a glass of makgeolli, the traditional Korean rice wine. Aunt then went looking for her little boy who ran down the mountain a few minute ago.

Left alone, I sat down and stared at halmeoni's grave for a long while. There, I found a little hole right next to the tombstone. I gave it a long gaze, drew a heavy sigh, and stuffed it with the money I brought.

As I was filling the hole with dirt, I couldn't shake off the feeling that I did something incredibly silly. I just wanted to be dizzy once again. I could forget everything if I were dizzy — if I were given the cute to run away as far as possible. I grabbed the bottle of makgeolli and poured the whole thing into my mouth.

Nothing happened. The dizzies just weren't there. The sting of makgeolli only reminded me that I knew no perfectly well when I would be dizzy in sleep, and why, even. I threw the bottle on the ground, let out another faint sigh, and wondered what I could have done better as a two-year-old.