Monthly Archives: October 2014

Escape From Camp 14: Twist on Representation

Escape from Camp 14, the incredible story of survival from a slave death camp in Korea north by Shin Dong-Hyuk told by former Washing Post journalist Blaine Harden, was a story that never really escaped me since reading it. Spieglman’s Maus gave me another chance to look at this narrative from a different perspective, with attention to things like representation and voice.

Dong-Hyuk’s story is unique. Literally.

He is the only person to have escaped and told the story of the infamous slave death camps of Korea north that Kim’s junta categorically denies and UN absolutely confirms. People who are found guilty of crimes against the state (political and ideological crimes, including attempting to escape to China) are sent to concentration camps on forced labour. These harshness of these camps differ in range, and Camp 14 is one of the death camps where prisoners are sent for life. As a “reward” for good behaviour in these camps, inmates are “married” for several days a year. Shin Dong-Hyuk was born from one of these marriages, and his crime was inheriting the sins of his parents. He never talked to the father, and he fought his mother for food as soon as he could feel hunger. Children like Dong-Hyuk are forced into child labour until they can do adult labour at 14~16, if they manage to survive that long: they are slaves bred by the (member of UN) state. He meets an older political prisoner who came out at the wrong end of the endless purges who tells him about the world outside. Inspired by stories of barbequed meat (seriously) Dong-Hyuk escapes the camp, and luckily makes it out to China finding his way into Korea. Until he leaves the camp at age 22, the only food in his life was salted cabbage soup and coarse mixed grain. Field mice that he managed to catch was the only meat he ever tasted. (I saved the best parts, go read it)

Shin Dong-Hyuk originally wrote and published an autobiographical account almost immediately after arriving in Korea. However, his coarse penmanship and lack of understanding of, essentially, the fundamentals of scientific reasoning created a narrative that was not effective in communicating with the Korean audience. However, once Blaine Harden publishes a book based on interviews and consultations with Dong-Hyuk, it becomes a critical and commercial success. With the acclaim in North America, the Korean audience loved it too.

Shin Dong-Hyuk never went to school and is not a good orator. In ways, he is like Vladek. While Art is not a primary source in telling the story of the Holocaust, he might be the more effective source, just as the journalist Blaine Harden was able to be more effective. One thing Harden does is to give multiple accounts when there are contradicting stories in the interviews. Instead of making the story less credible, this allows for a better understanding of the greater picture as details become insignificant. However, a first-hand account cannot be guilty of presenting multiple accounts of a single event.

The authenticity of Shin’s story is sometimes challenged, especially as there is no one to verify it. There is one identified defected officer who worked at a concentration camp, although not a death camp like Camp 14, and he only saw/heard about these death camps on paper. Some critics argue that the authenticity of such traumatized individual cannot be used as grounds for political action. The media of Korea north vehemently denies the existence of these camps and accuses the American and Korean governments for propaganda. As a response, Shin, Harden and his supporters challenge Kim Jung-Eun to prove otherwise. Until then, his account stands. While this is a strange logic, somehow, it makes sense here.


Works cited:

Harden, Blaine. Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. New York: Viking, 2012. Print.

Photo Life Narrative: Jim Wong Chu’s Centre A Exhibit


A special exhibition by Jim Wong Chu chronicling some of the historical events around Chinatown has been held at Centre A, Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.  As second and third generation Asian Canadians, the people in the old photographs were witnesses to the social and cultural development in Vancouver and in Chinatown.  Featured in the exhibit were photos of social activism such as the Quebec-Columbia Connector Freeway protests, drive to save Chinese BBQ, and other snippets of life around Chinatown and its inhabitants.  The pictures, mostly action shots of people in daily activities, assert a communal voice that becomes the narrator in a communal life narrative.

The power of pictures aside, however, I want to turn my attention to the effects of using photographs to tell a life narrative in comparison to using words.  One of the most ironic aspects of a photo exhibit is that while every single shot is taken by the photographer and is, in some way, a reflection and expression of the photographer’s life, the photographer is always absent.  In class, we discussed at length about the factors that affect the authenticity or “truthfulness” of a life narrative, and one of the factors we focused on was whose voices are expressed, why and to what effect.  In the case of Fred Wah, hearing his own words about himself greatly helped to solidify his character; meanwhile, in Sarah DeVries’ case, her person was communicated through the voices of others as well as her own words.  Telling a story through photography, on the other hand, has a different complexity.  While the photographer can choose the subjects and episodes for her/his shot, the message is completely out of her/his control.  The subtle facial expressions and body gestures spontaneously captured in a photograph may contain elements of truth that can never be verbalized, and even betray the intentions of the photographer.  Despite having full control over the setting, and thereby always being able to set the context, the photographer can never be the subject of her/his photo narrative.  This is in contrast to telling story with words in which the writer can clearly express her/his opinions, but often has limited control over the context and how the messages are received.

Today’s exhibit featured photos of Vancouver’s Chinatown in the 1970’s, highlighted by social activism and cultural imprints.  While Jim, the photographer, is not in any of the photos that he took, he still tells his life narrative through the reflections of people he photographed.  A single authoritative voice that writers often look for in a written story may not be present in Jim’s photographs, but by withdrawing that authoritative “I”, Jim’s life narrative becomes naturally placed with the community narrative, and becomes part of communal history.

A group of Chinese Canadians pose in a boxcar as an homage to the complex history between the CPR and the Chinese community.

A group of Chinese Canadians pose in a boxcar as an homage to the complex history between the CPR and the Chinese community. Sean (middle with a shovel) says, “We just got together to take that photo. It was sometime in the 70’s. We told Jim to set the timer, but he wanted to just take the picture.”