Tanya Ko Hong: Three Poems

Yang Kong Ju

Koreans called her
Yang kalbo
Yankee’s whore

Korean men say
No thanks
even though it’s free

She started working at clubs
doing dishes
cleaning tables, mixing
drinks for soldiers
for tips

More tips to sit next to them
More tips to pour Jack Daniels for them
More tips to touch them there with tiny bare hands
More tips to say, I like it

Once nobody
now a swan

She speaks some English—
honee, Got dem it
exhales Virginia Slims
smoke between whiskey
red virgin blood
polished finger nails

Her GI tongues her
neck, gropes her breasts
Stop it, she giggles

Lucky lucky seven
when she becomes
bride to white American

Her GI laces up
his boots. Hard as stone, she says

Marry me

GI tucks a dollar bill
in her lace black bra


Grandmother Talks of Camptowns

At 77 years old all my teeth are gone
and the wind blows past my gums.
No windscreen here in Dongducheon
where homeless live alone.

Rather than live alone
I wanted to be a monk in Buddha’s temple
but they kicked me out—
I sneaked the bacon.

The Deacon’s ad in the newspaper
offered a room at his church.
In exchange for cleaning I lived well.
One rainy night I drank soju and smoked—
so they kicked me out.

Damn hard work on my back for GIs—
pounded and pounded me inside
so one day it had to go.
The khanho-won removed my womb.
No pension, no yungkum
for sex trade.

American couple adopted
my half-white son—
my half-black daughter
I left at the orphanage door
and never knew her fate.

At one time I had money saved.
My brother came with his guilty face:
Because I can’t protect you, you do this.
He used my handling money
to become a lawyer and soon removed
my name from the family—like scraping
a baby from the womb.

Still, on my birthdays my sister Sook
secretly came to see me,
came with seaweed soup.
Unni, Unni
I waited for her to come,
saved a gift chocolate so carefully wrapped,
gum, perfume, Dove soap…

Now that she’s engaged
Sook cannot come again.
Why can’t you go to America like the others?
For the first time that day I was weeping,
Mother, Mother, we should not live—
let’s die together!—but Mother was already gone.

The time goes so fast that people on the moon
didn’t know where Korea was.

One day I met a man
and I was a woman making rice,
washing his work clothes, submissive
and joyful until he found my American dollars,
ran away and never came back.

Now in Dongducheon
stars shimmer in the wind.


  1. khanho-won: nurse
  2. Unni: a term of respect and endearment for an older sister

[first published in Paris Press, Spiraling Poetry]


1946, Chinju, Korea

One year after
I came home

Short hair
not wearing hanbok
not speaking clearly

Mother hid me
in the back room
At night she took me to the well
and washed me
Scars seared with hot steel
like burnt bark
like roots of old trees
all over my body

Under the crescent glow
she smiled when she washed me
My baby! Your skin is like white jade, dazzling
She bit her lower lip
washing my belly softly
but they had ripped open my womb
with the baby inside

Mother made white rice and seaweed soup
put my favorite white fish on top
But Mother, I can’t eat flesh

That night in the granary
she hanged herself
left a little bag in my room
my dowry, with a rice ball

Father threw it at me
waved his hand toward the door

I left at dusk

30 years

40 years



bury it with me

They called me wianbu—
I had a name


[one of two sections from the segmented poem Comfort Woman which were
published in Beloit Poetry Journal (Volume 65, Number 1, Fall 2014)]

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