SOS Book Club Pick: Black Flower

Discover the history of the Korean immigrants in 1905 who traveled to Mexico in hopes of a better life in “Black Flower” by Kim Young-ha. Set during the Mexican Revolution, “Black Flower” narrates their journey seeking safety in a new country, with themes of identity, courage, and human spirit amidst hardship.

About the South of Seoul Book Club

If you are familiar with the series, skip ahead to learn more about “Black Flower.”

Looking for book recommendations? Welcome to the South of Seoul book club. We recommend a book every month. Such recommended books explore topics like 1) South Korean history or culture, 2) the complexity of cross-cultural life, 4) the exploration of life within the diaspora experience, and 5) lenses on Korean culture around the world.

Commitment to Accessibility

South of Seoul volunteers take book accessibility into consideration when recommending titles. We consider:

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  • Purchasable in English In Korea: Many translated titles can’t actually be purchased in English in Korea,
  • Audio Version Available: Many people find audiobooks easier to consume.
  • Online Versions.: International residents can’t afford to travel with many books. Also, many books may not be available in digital form from within Korea.

Commitment to Diverse Lived Experiences

South of Seoul volunteers seek to put lived experiences at the forefront of their recommendation choices. When considering authors we look for such things as:

  • Korean authors who write based on lived experiences in Korea.
  • International residents who write based on their lived experiences in South Korea.
  • Ethnic Koreans who write based on their lived experience in other countries.

Reading about Korean culture from a variety of perspectives may provide readers with a greater understanding of the country and culture.

Commitment to Supporting Mental Health

South of Seoul also includes book recommendations that support the lives and mental health of our community. This means that books may tackle the issues related to living between cultures. This may include topics such as culture shock, language, relationships, and more.

Book Recommendation By Melissa Edwards-Whittington

January’s South of Seoul Book Club recommendation, “Black Flower” is brought to you by Melissa Edwards-Whittington of the KimchiRednecks. Edwards-Whittington has lived in Korea since 2017. She and her husband, Chuck, formed the KimchiRednecks YouTube channel to give people living outside of Korea or those coming to Korea, a glimpse of life here in Korea. Together with their three shih tzus, they post weekly videos about places to eat, things to cook, places to visit, or life in general living in Korea.

black flower

The History Behind “Black Flower”

People left Korea in large numbers in the early 1900s because of its unstable society and frequent natural disasters. Labor brokers started putting ads in the newspapers in 1904 In the port city of Incheon in Korea. They were looking for people who were ready to go to Mexico to work on henequen plantations for four or five years. More than 1,000 people were hired, and on April 4, 1905, they left from the port of Chemulpo, which is now Jung District, Incheon on a British cargo ship, even though the Korean government tried to stop them. A month later, on May 8, 1905, they got to the Mexican port of Salina Cruz, Oaxaca. From there, they took trains to get to their final location, which was Yucatán.

The labor brokers had not been honest about the work or that they were being sold into indentured servitude. Therefore, it was a difficult place to work; workers were beaten or jailed for not doing their jobs or not maintaining the status quo. When their contracts were up, most of them hadn’t even saved enough money to pay for the trip back to Korea, even though marketers had told them they would make a lot of money, and they didn’t really want to go back to their no longer-independent home country.

So, most of them moved to Mexico and either kept working on henequen plantations or moved to different places in the country. Some tried to move on to other places. For example, a Korean American community group in San Francisco tried to get some of them to move to Hawaii but failed. In 1921, when the price of henequen fiber dropped and Koreans were worried about their jobs, 288 of them left the port of Campeche for Cuba. Eight hundred of their children and grandchildren still live in Cuba.

For more details on this period in history, check out the following links:

The Korean Diasporas in Mexico and Eurasia

A Brief Account of Early Korean Emigration to Mexico

About The Author of “Black Flower”

Kim Young-ha is an award winning South Korean author. Born in Hwacheon in 1968, his family moved around often due to his father’s military service. Kim earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Yonsei University in Seoul. His career in writing began in 1995 after his discharge from the military. He has written many articles and reviews of movies, as well as more than seven books. Also, his novels have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Before writing “Black Flower,” Kim did a lot of study in Guatemala’s Tikal and Antigua regions, as well as in Mexico’s capital city and Merida, capital of the state of Yucatan. In 2004, he won the prestigious Dong-in Literary Prize in 2004 for this novel.

An Outsider Within: A Chat with Kim Young-ha

My Experience Reading “Black Flower”

After reading “The Picture Bride” by Lee Geum-yi, I stumbled across “Black Flower.” The events of both books occurred around the same time in history. To be honest, “Black Flower” can be difficult to read at times due to the subject but also in some of the writing. This historical fiction is covering a very political time where Korea as a nation was in flux, ultimately becoming a protectorate of Japan.

At times, the story feels a bit bogged down because there are multiple characters and their stories involved. In addition, historical background is often interspersed in the middle of the narrative which can make this harder to follow. However, because the story was fascinating, I continued reading and I am glad I did. I learned a bit more about Korea’s history that is not often discussed.

More Commentary And Reviews On “Black Flower”

The above review contains my thoughts and opinions. However, make sure to read other reviews to have a more rounded perspective toward the book. We all come to each story with our own social/cultural lens. Therefore, others may have perceived this book in a different manner and may help you decide if this is the book for you.

Book Review: A Wilted “Black Flower” From Korea

‘Black Flower,’ novel about early Korean plantation workers, published in Mexico

You can purchase Black Flower by Kim Young-ha in English on Amazon.

Find More Book Club Recommendations

Did you like this recommendation? Be sure to explore our other volunteer-recommended books.

South of Seoul Book Club List for 2023

Check out the books from last year’s book club list.