A Pyongyang Home Companion
No. 9: Kumgang Household
Use Matches

Smoke 'em if you got 'em

If you like the friction of striking up a match, the crackle of the flare, and the scent of burning phosphorus, then Kumgang Household Use Matches are for you. Leave those cheap, plastic, sterile lighters behind and pick up the matchbook with the deer on them: Kumgang Household Use Matches.

The deer is intimately tied to a legend of Mt. Kumgang, the Diamond Mountain, the local populace, and the immortals who have inhabited the area since time immemorial.

Chris Marker in Coréennes recounts the story below from his 1957 journey to Korea:

We left in the early morning, at the same time as the woodcutters. A man of the forest – purple and rather flat, as Father du Halde would say – showed us our path. Was he the last avatar of T’yoen ha tai chang kun, the Great Commander beneath the Heavens, charged with guarding all pathways?

In the forest awaited the figures of the gods, countersigned by the visitors (Korean writing, where graffiti becomes ornament!), and farther above were the severe waterfalls, their cheeks tattooed with poems – Chinese characters, each fifteen meters high – gurgling with the sound of some huge animal drinking.

Kumgan-san, the Diamond Mountain… The tigers that inhabit it have now disappeared. The last were disguised as women picking potatoes, and girls bearing earthenware jars. All have been destroyed, even the grandfather, the White Tiger.

We met a young woman. As she was not picking potatoes and bore no earthenware jar, but a cyclopean baby, she was not a tiger. But if accounts are made, there must remain in the mountains one bear-doctor, nine dragons, and fifty-three golden Buddhas disembarked from a stone ship. There are also the Sinseuns, immortal beings. So you never quite know whom you meet.

One must be circumspect in these parts: even before being told, you can guess that the water of lake Samilpo ‘is better than that of Heaven,’ and that the fairies prefer to come draw their drink here, at the risk of being ravished by a hardy woodcutter.

(This woodcutter had saved a deer pursued by a hunter. The deer, who knew, revealed to him that three fairy-sisters came every day to fill their pitchers. A first attempt failed, and the prudent fairies continued to draw their water from the lake, by lowering a bucket from Heaven. Seeing this, the woodcutter – I told you that he was hardy – simply hid in the bucket and rose to Heaven to take his wife.)

The earth frays and rips here near the sea, and the planet’s true skin shows soft and finely grained through its rags. Between these false, striated islands, joined by isthmuses of sand as fragile as the touch of two sleepers brushing each other in the night, in this sweet and solitary land on the edge of green water (where so many cats must have dropped soluble stones), upon these gray, flat boulders, silence mounts like fog – troubled only by the strange countersigns of French journalists, conveyed by the wind: deal – my turn – cut… incantations of a recalcitrant but apparently effective magic, since no bucket came to carry them to the heavens, despite my prayers.

Among the summits of the Diamond Mountain, there are three which recall the episode of the lake, the deer and the hardy woodcutter. Here again, the rules of the game: you have to look a long time, staring at the three summits, then close your eyes. At that moment, it is said, the colors are reversed, the sky darkens, and shadows of shadows appear in the darkness, the faces of the three sisters.

Put a deer on it.

If you are interested in more DPRK brands check out Made in North Korea: Graphics From Everyday Life in the DPRK ($29.79; Phaidon Press, 240 pages) by Koryo Tours' founder Nicholas Bonner. The description of the book on Amazon below:

'Made in North Korea' uncovers the fascinating and surprisingly beautiful graphic culture of North Korea - from packaging to hotel brochures, luggage tags to tickets for the world-famous mass games. From his base in Beijing, Bonner has been running tours into North Korea for over twenty years, and along the way collecting graphic ephemera. He has amassed thousands of items that, as a collection, provide an extraordinary and rare insight into North Korea's state-controlled graphic output, and the lives of ordinary North Koreans.

This book is one of a kind and the closest thing we have to a printed Pyongyang Home Companion...for now. At the time of writing, it is rated '#1 New Release in Antique & Collectible Paper Ephemera'. Ain't that a kick in the head.

A Pyongyang Home Companion is a guide to daily life in Korea: how-to, food, sports, modern culture, and romance.

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