Lights Burn Out on Burning Coal

Jardín Kim

Lead Korean Writer

It hasn’t snowed for a while, but it snowed a lot this time. Time to go outside and check it out. I headed to a mountain hillside looking for pristine snow, but lo and behold, incline-loving little ones have taken over the hill. And their sleds have packed down the snow, an icy hazard for a midlifer prone to osteoporosis. I promptly turned around. Heading back home, I thought about how in the olden days kids would slide down hills on makeshift sleds of plastic sheets with grownups chasing after them sprinkling coal ash around so they wouldn’t get hurt on slippery slopes. We don’t see coal briquettes anymore. They’re almost completely gone. No coal, no ash. Too bad that only memories remain.

Coal briquettes, called yeontan in Korean, were a widely used fuel source in East Asia. Anthracite was hardened into shape with holes so that air can circulate and facilitate combustion. These blocks of coal were used for heating or cooking. A new coal briquette placed on top of a kindled one kept the flooring warm and toasty from night to dawn. Families could rest easy knowing that their stockpile of coal was a fierce defense against long, chilly winter nights. Electric rice cookers that keep rice warm weren’t common in those days, so on the days when dads come home late from work, stainless steel bowls of rice were tucked under a blanket on the heated floor. So for most families, stocking up on coal was the first thing to do in preparing for winter. In the hit drama Reply 1988, Jung-bong’s family wins the lottery and becomes rich overnight. So what do they do with the money? Get a thousand coal briquettes delivered by a truck. A thousand. With Sun-woo’s mom looking on with envy. That scene may seem unreal to us now, but in 1988, up to 78% of Korean households used coal briquettes as the main source of fuel.

Coals have their share of problems. Most furnaces require two briquettes, one on top of the other, and the extinguished coal on the bottom must be carefully switched out without breaking the lit one on top. In Reply 1988, we see Jung-bong’s father performing separation surgery on stacked briquettes that have melded together in the furnace. If left unattended, both briquettes will die out with no chance of coal resuscitation. Then you’ll need to light up a new briquette using ignition coal bits or borrow a burning one from a neighbor. But these are minor problems compared to the most serious problem with coal: incompletely burned toxic gasses leaking into rooms through cracks on walls or floors. In Reply 1988, Deok-sun breathed in some of this gas, and the antidote offered to her was dongchimi brine. The radish in this kimchi is known to have detoxing properties, but who knows if she drank it up knowing that. At any rate, the threat of inhaling deadly gas was real during those times, with fatal incidents occurring frequently.

Yeontan, the ultimate icon of humble living, was often used by politicians on the campaign trail who smiled into cameras as they stood in a formation of volunteers passing coal briquettes to a family in need. That is a fading memory now, with only 81,721 households still using coal as of September, 2021. The only places I see coal briquettes now are restaurants, where I eat grilled meat while breathing in the smell of burning charcoal that I so hated as a child. The meat I chew is savory, deeply infused with smoky flavor and nostalgia.

Translator: Culture Flipper English Team
Original Content in Korean: