A ship leaves Korea in 1905, bearing immigrants who hold multi-year contracts to harvest henequen in the Yucatan region of Mexico. They are a mix of Korean society (thieves, shamans, snobbish-but-poor nobles), many of whom are leaving because of Japan’s annexation of their country. While being fed on the ship without having to work is like heaven, once they arrive in Mexico their situation is far from blissful. The landowning hacendados whip them for rule infractions and cheat them at the hacienda store. Few Koreans speak Spanish, there’s no Korean embassy to protest to, and the prospects of saving enough money to return home are dim.
Orphan Ijeong falls in love with a poor noble’s daughter, Yeonsu, and their furtive meetings produce pregnancy and disgrace for Yeonsu. Yeonsu’s brother Jinu strives to learn Spanish and interpret his way out of debt, while their father refuses to work like a peasant, and their mother contemplates suicide. The thief Choe Seongil remains true to his profession, despite experiencing a religious conversion. Ex-soldier Jo Jangyun dreams of starting a military school. When Ijeong and other Koreans become involved in the Mexican revolution, their chances of going home are reduced even further.
The history fascinated me; I previously knew nothing about Korean immigration to Mexico. Kim explains in his author’s note how difficult the historical research was: sources were both scarce and vague. He is brave to tackle such a challenging subject. Ijeong and Yeonsu were probably the easiest characters to like among the long list of protagonists. I struggled to keep so many straight in my head. Charles La Shure’s translation from the Korean reads smoothly. I recommend the book as a window on a little-known world.