It's one of those moments where you look at a photo, grin a copacetic grin, remember good memories, and wonder about the present: what is he doing now?
Shin Hoon had laughing eyes and a kind smile. I never saw him in any other mood than happy. He genuinely liked people—all people—but seemed to have an affinity for foreigners. He enjoyed engaging in conversation, what he called
Mr. Shin owned a small bar that was on the second floor of a small store that was always closed when Urban was open. It's steel, corrugated door shielded curious eyes. The sign, written in Hangul, offered foreigners no clues as to its business. The bar was simple, clean, with welcoming tables and comforting sofas. Light-and-tan-coloured wood covered the floor, walls, and bar; small halogen lamps hung above tables from the ceiling.
If you were lucky enough, you could get a sofa near the window that ran from the ceiling to the floor and looked out onto the narrow street below and the brightly, neon-lit signs from the buildings across the road.
When you walked through the door, into the warmly dim bar, Mr. Shin would smile and welcome you, greet you with a fresh basket of popcorn or, if you were what he deemed a special guest, a dish of plump cherry tomatoes.
He would laugh when he spoke, or so it might seem, as his voice was always happy. There was never any negativity with Mr. Shin. I never heard him speak ill of anyone.
It's been a long time since I saw Shin Hoon. It's been more than 16 years. I would think of him, often, as I wrote my novel. While many of the characters are fictional or loosely based on real people, I kept Mr. Shin as I remembered him.
It was because of another friend, someone I also knew in Korea, that my thoughts returned to Urban Bar. A photo that I took, sometime in 1997, captured that friendly bar owner, that master of social intercourse, to a T. My friend recently passed the photo on to me and it brought me to one of the few places in that city where I could truly relax.
I never called Chŏnju home, but Mr. Shin, welcoming me into his establishment, allowing me to call him Hoon, greeting me with a fresh bowl of juicy tomatoes, made me feel at home.