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The shining life

27 September 2016 No Comment

Kang Gyou-hong, 63, has spent decades shining and repairing shoes inside a tiny stainless steel booth near Gwanak District Office in Seoul.

Working with many customers over the last 27 years, Kang says he didn’t make much money but learned to be grateful for what he got.

Satisfaction is the greatest aspect of his work.

“Customers give me a pair of dull shoes, and I make them look remarkably good,” he said. “Every time my customers come to get their shoes back, their faces light up, thanking me for making their old shoes look like a brand new pair. That’s where my pride and joy come from.”

Kang is proud of what he does.

“How many professions can you think of that give others sheer joy? Politicians, lawyers, bankers, policemen, government officials or reporters like you, can they say the same?”

Plus, there are other perks that come with the job.

“I’m my own boss. Nobody can tell me what to do. I don’t have to impress anyone or show fake emotions, which is what most office workers spend their time doing.”

He says he still has a lot to learn about shoeshining.

“What’s more, I don’t have to retire. I will do this as long as I can until I’m 90 or 100. Only then, my skill will be more refined and I will be more experienced.”

He said people need to look on the bright side, instead of complaining about what they don’t have.

“It is really hard to find anyone with a smile on their face nowadays,” he said. “But, almost always, they don’t know what they have. Why not be thankful for not being sick? Why not be thankful the weather is not scorching hot anymore, for example?”

Kang said male customers come mostly to have their shoes shined, while women come with other requests.

“Some expensive shoes from Italy and France have only a thin, soft outsole. Those shoes are meant to walk on a carpet, not on asphalt or on the street. Many women come to me to add a durable rubber sole so they can wear their shoes longer with minimal damage to them,” he said.

Stiletto tip replacement is the next-most-frequent repair request by women, he added.

“Women come for the tip replacement regularly, almost every three months. You know, some women don’t like that clicking noise when they walk. For them, I have more expensive but quiet tip replacements,” Kang said.

The price of a shoeshine goes for usually 3,000 won ($2.68) a pair, but Kang recommends wax coating, coloring and other “extra care,” which are more expensive than a simple shoeshine.

“I have my special way to make shoes gleam and become more durable. And that is part of my business secret that I came up with on my own over my 40 years of experience. But, sometimes, I do it for free for my regulars.”

Kang and his 30 fellow shoeshiners in Gwanak have donated millions of won every year to help the needy since 1990. As of last year, they had donated 116 million won.

“It’s all up to how you choose to see things. Of course there are plenty of people who have far more money than I have. But do they have greater appreciation toward life and its meaning than I do? I don’t think so,” he said.

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