For the entire 52-week account of Dr. Nemeth’s time on Jeju Island as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s, you can download his new e-book free of charge. JejuWorldWide would like to thank Dr. Nemeth again for his generous contribution. — Ed.
For Part 1, click here. — Ed.
The northern reaches of the East China Sea have been a hotbed of piracy since ancient times. Fragmented coastlines with secluded coves and roadsteads adjacent to merchant sea lanes have been especially prolific incubators for piracy. Early Portuguese maps of East Asia represent the Korean archipelago as “Ilhas dos ladrones” (Islands of the Pirates).
In the Korean archipelago we should expect to find all sorts of adventurous, perhaps shady, characters in its historic seaports; for example in Mokpo, Masan and Pusan. What about Cheju City? When I arrived there in February of 1973, I was counting on it.
Should I have even been surprised to run into the likes of “China Smith” from my childhood fantasies in Cheju City? I knew, for example, that as with most remote southern islands in medieval East Asia (for example, Hainan in China and southern Kyushu in Japan) Cheju Island was the most notorious Korean repository through the ages for its exiled criminals and disgraced officials. The descendents of some of these may still be about, I figured. These would provide the appropriate context of a romanticized human milieu for an adventurer like China Smith to rub shoulders with. The inescapable conclusion I drew in 1973 from the historical record and through the lens of my fertile imagination was that Cheju Island has always been — and should therefore remain — a magnet and repository for marginal types.
Although his visage was more Humphrey Bogart than Dan Duryea, the exotic stranger I encountered on the streets of Cheju City shortly after my arrival tentatively fitted my expectations of the China Smith of my childhood. I spied him on first occasion around dusk in the month of March or April when he was emerging from an alleyway onto Chilsung-ro (Seven Stars Road). Window-shoppers and after-school students were thick on the ground. He paused to slowly survey the scene, both up and down the promenade, and then darted seamlessly into the crowd.
I took chase but the stranger disappeared before I could catch up and introduce myself. Had he noticed me and fled? Fair-skinned Europeans and Americans were very rare in those days. Tall ones were hard to miss. I probably stuck out above that crowd like a whitewashed lighthouse. How could he not see me?
Several weeks later I passed by him in the jam-packed labyrinthine Dongmun Public Market. He and I were walking in opposite directions. I was being hustled forward by a small group of co-workers toward some obscure restaurant and a night of revelry. I actually bumped shoulders with the elusive stranger before I realized who it was. Again I missed my opportunity: “Who was that guy — the foreigner?” I could only shout this out over my shoulder to my colleague, Mr. Kim, who was pushing me ahead and anxious to get the party started.
“That is Mr. Dustin!” he replied. So, my “China Smith” of Cheju Island finally had a name!
“Mr. Dustin” turned out to be Mr. Fred Dustin, man about town and visiting professor at Cheju National College (now University), but considered by one and all to be a mysterious expatriate and an indefatigable entrepreneur. To make my long “China Smith” story short here, I eventually tracked him down to his favorite watering hole and more or less forced myself upon him there. He, but for my presence, would normally have been sitting in solitude at the long bar there in the dim light, in peace.
What did I learn from our meeting? He had a taciturn, tough-guy demeanor…
Our initial meeting that night was brief, lasting perhaps half an hour. Mainly, I spilled the beans about myself while he sat there politely smoking a Marlboro while nursing a cold OB beer in silence. He appeared to be listening, but who knows? I divulged that I was the latest Peace Corps Volunteer sent down to Cheju. He raised one eyebrow in response. I braced for a sarcastic “Thank you for your sacrifice!” but none was forthcoming.
Several months later Fred and I were no longer strangers — but not yet the old friends we are today. In late 1973 he invited me and all the other island Peace Corps volunteers to a pleasant holiday dinner in his apartment and this photo was snapped:
Next: Fred Dustin, “China Smith” Part 3