The Korea Herald


[Kim So-hyun] The quiet taxi driver from Paris

By Korea Herald

Published : April 26, 2024 - 05:35

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Last week, a man named Hong Se-hwa passed away at age 76.

Those who were old enough to read Hong’s 1995 bestseller “I’m a Taxi Driver in Paris” remember him as a writer with a heart for the underdog and a social activist who lived up to his words.

The book of essays was about Hong's experiences as a taxi driver in Paris, French society and where he thought Korean society should be headed. He wrote about the French concept and practices of tolerance toward differences, which were novel and refreshing to South Koreans, who were then living in a largely homogenous society that had just emerged from decades of authoritarian rule.

Perhaps due to his disposition and a few unusual choices he made, Hong was able to look at mainstream Korean society from an outsider's perspective throughout his life. He lived as a refugee and migrant worker for 20 years as he was in exile and couldn’t return to Korea. After returning home in his mid-50s, he wrote more books about social inequality and justice and worked with progressive nongovernmental organizations. As a journalist, he criticized both conservatives and liberals, especially their shamelessness and disregard for the marginalized, and told stories of workers struggling to be heard.

The story of his life offers a glimpse into what Korea was like in the 1950s, the 1970s and onward. What made him a lifelong fighter? He wrote that, looking back at his turbulent life, he thinks it all started with Hwanggol, a small village in South Chungcheong Province.

In 1966, when he was a freshman at Seoul National University, he learned that he was nearly killed as a toddler in a massacre led by villagers during the Korean War. He didn’t remember it, as he was only 3, but when he heard about the incident, it shook him to his core, he later wrote in a column for the Hankyoreh newspaper. The fratricidal war had divided the villagers into communists and anti-communists, and a long rift between villagers involving greed culminated in the murders of even women and children. Hong was told that he was also rounded up with his mother and 1-year-old sister in an assembly hall, but survived as a fellow villager pointed at him and said “his father is not a communist.”

Learning about the 1950 atrocity in Hwanggol changed 18-year-old Hong. Shocked and confused, he said he felt like he was being swallowed by questions such as “Who am I?” or “What is it to be human?” He dropped out of college and re-entered a different department at SNU.

In 1970, the second most shocking incident in his life took place. Jeon Tae-il, a sewing worker and workers’ rights activist killed himself by self-immolation at age 22, bringing attention to the poor working conditions at Korean factories. Jeon’s death led Hong to question capitalism, and he became a socialist. Then came the “People’s Revolutionary Party incident” in 1975, in which eight people accused of seeking to overturn the South Korean government were tortured and killed through what was later picked by judges as “the most shameful trial in the republic’s history.” He thought he had to stand up against an administration under which innocent people were being tortured and killed. Hong joined an underground leftist group that sought to end Park Chung-hee's dictatorship known as “Namminjeon,” short for South Korean National Liberation Front Preparation Committee, and threw leaflets on the streets.

Hong also worked for a trading company in the late 1970s. In 1979, he was working at the company’s Paris branch when the Seoul government began nabbing members of Namminjeon, and put them on a wanted list. He claimed asylum in France, and drove taxis to make a living. Following the June Democratic Struggle in 1987, Hong began writing columns for liberal media outlets such as the Hankyoreh.

Reading books by French existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, Hong identified himself as an existentialist. The child who walked out of the assembly hall alive could not help but resist irrationalities, he wrote. “Even after I grew old, I couldn’t erase the inclination to be recalcitrant in my speech and writing. Defiance against the existing system, questions and skepticism about mainstream values. Even now, I’m someone who constantly doubts.”

He was also a progressive whose actions matched his words. In the 20 years he was away, Korea transformed from a rustic, naive society to a full-blown capitalist society. Some liberals who once fought for democracy became corrupt. In early 2023, he stopped writing columns for Hankyoreh after its senior staff member got implicated in a bribery scandal.

“Talking about being a progressive or a leftist is different from living as one. Being able to speak is also a privilege, and more than a few mouths criticize neoliberalism, but they live neoliberalism in their own lives. Most are also rich,” he wrote in his last column.

While he was critical, Hong was known as a quiet person by nature.

By chance, I happened to stay at his Paris house for a few days during a backpacking trip to Europe with a friend in 1999. We remember sitting in the living room in silence where he was reading something, and “Planet of the Apes” was on the TV. My friend and I had both read his 1995 book as teenagers, but we just watched the movie probably because we didn’t know what to say. Later, we talked about paying him a visit in Seoul but forgot about it as we got carried away with life.

It feels like the whole of Korean society got carried away, while Hong stood there unchanged as an outsider young at heart. Many thought he was too idealistic, but even so, regardless of political orientation, people sympathized with him because he was right on many things. He will certainly be remembered.

Kim So-hyun

Kim So-hyun is an editorial writer for The Korea Herald. The views expressed here are the writer's own. -- Ed.