Hwang Ok-hyun, an expert in repairing old stereo systems, radios and other audio equipment, in his workshop "Hwanggeum Jeonja" (Golden electronics shop) in Hwanghak-dong Flea Market, Seoul, Wednesday. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
Veteran technician keeps audio legacies for 46 years
By Nam Hyun-woo
New high-fidelity (hi-fi) audio devices with cutting-edge technology are released constantly. But for many home-audio enthusiasts, new is not always better.
Audiophiles who prefer analog systems value the warmer sound of older devices than the punchy sound modern equipment often produces.
Vintage audio aficionados love to spend time in front of ponderous old systems, rewinding the clock to 30 years ago. For those seeking pure analog sound, having a vintage device is a badge of honor. They give up the convenient, ubiquitous access to digitally produced music for the sound they love.
One downside of loving retro audio is that it is difficult to keep devices operational. Some of the parts were produced over 50 years ago and there are few repair technicians who know about the devices.
Hwang looks at the interior of a Pioneer radio at his shop, Wednesday. Hwang said he fixed problems within the device on Tuesday, but would leave it turned on for two days before returning it to the owner to make sure there are no other problems with it.
This makes Hwang Ok-hyun, 75, somewhat of a savior. He owns a small repair shop in Hwanghak-dong Flea Market, near Sindang Station on line no. 2 and 6 in Seoul, and is one of the few remaining first-generation audio repair technicians in Korea.
"It has been 46 years since I settled in this market," Hwang said, smiling. "During the old days, I made my living through repairing audio equipment, raising five children."
Hwang's reputation is evident. His three-square-meter workroom is a tight fit for two people and his corner shop is similar-sized, in the maze-like traditional market. Despite its size, it can be easily found because of its famous name "Hwanggeum Jeonja," or the golden electric shop.
Hwang holds a vintage capacitor up to the light at his workroom, Wednesday. Many parts Hwang keeps in his workroom are discontinued and considered rare.
"That is another reason why I cannot leave this place," Hwang said. "Many of my loyal customers have been coming here for years, memorizing directions. And young people come here with the help of navigation, so I must keep my place here."
The tiny repair shop is filled with amps, speakers and other audio components. Except for a small table and stool for waiting customers, everywhere is filled with audio components, all aged but in good condition.
From 12 p.m. until he "gets sleepy," Hwang has been there every day, rain or shine, since 1969, surrounded by wires, fuses, transistors and speaker units. From McIntosh Laboratory products to nameless manufacturers' crude boom boxes, countless "sound-making boxes" have gained new life in Hwang's hands.
The know-how accumulated during his career is not the reason why vintage audio enthusiasts admire Hwang as a "master." Rare components for old audio devices such as discontinued phonograph arm pieces, taken from other devices and preserved for the future, are arranged in Hwang's chest of drawers.
The Korea Times took a boom box to Hwang, Wednesday, and asked him to repair it. The tape player was manufactured by Sweico, a small-sized domestic manufacturer, in the early 1980s. Hwang said even he had not seen "such a relic" in a long time, adding that he would contact us after repairing it.
"All parts are within my reach," Hwang said. "I can find where they are with my eyes closed. I can fix almost everything, except for some helpless wrecks that are impossible to restore. So when I say ‘impossible,' it's the same as pronouncing the device dead."
According to the master repair technician, many customers visit his shop with malfunctioning old devices that are so damaged buying a new one would cost less. But they almost "beg" Hwang to restore the aged wrecks.
"I cannot fully explain why they do so," Hwang said. "But I can understand how they feel. Some of them must have had a fun time with those boom boxes in the old days, while for others the equipment may have been a cherished treasure that cost almost half their salary. Perhaps, what they want to restore is their memory."
Ironically, Hwang, who does not use the Internet or a computer, has benefited a lot from the web as his skills went viral online.
Hwang looks into an integrated circuit of a Pioneer radio receiver in his workshop, Wednesday.
"I guess many young customers have looked up the Internet to fix their equipment and discovered my shop here," he said. "That's fun for me because I don't use a computer or the Internet." For some foreign devices, where components cannot be found domestically, Hwang tells customers the name of the parts and asks them to use eBay, where "you can find everything."
Despite his nationwide reputation, Hwang says he is not interested in expanding his business or making more money.
"I am a technician, not a businessman," he said. "I'm happy when I'm surrounded by audio and tinkering with gear and I lose track of the time when I'm in the shop. That's my pleasure in life and that's why I'm a born technician."
Life goes on with audio devices
"This is a replica of a Sony audio device produced in the 1960s and we called it ‘Sunny,'" Hwang says, pointing out an old boom box in the store. He has many stories and fond memories related to the audio devices in his workroom. It is more of a history of Korea's audio industry in fact, juxtaposed with Hwang's life.
"In my ‘saju' (Korea's traditional fortunetelling through reading the date and time of birth), there were two life paths that I was destined for -- becoming a judge or a technician," he said.
Circumstances forced him to take the latter path. Like most Koreans of Hwang's age, his family struggled to earn money in the ashes of the Korean War (1950-53) and Hwang had to quit school after middle school, unable to pay the tuition.
"I finished middle school in Jochiwon (now Sejong City), but could not get my diploma because I didn't attended my graduation ceremony. I was afraid that my teacher might force me to pay the overdue fees."
Instead of heading to high school, one of his family recommended he go to an "electronic academy," where apprentices learned to work with a variety of appliances. After finishing the academy, he traveled to Busan, where top-class technicians gathered back then. Spending months "peeping at their techniques over their shoulder," he moved to Seoul in 1957 at the age of 16.
In Seoul, he started working at the Asia Electronics Department Store (now Sewoon Electronics Arcade). "Though it was called a department store, it was more like a group of vendors selling old radios from the U.S.," Hwang said.
In 1969, he settled at Hwanghak market. At that time, the market was considered a place where "everything in the world gathers." From foreign food to used electronic appliances, literally everything could be found at the market.
"At that time, people bought audio devices through monthly installments. When you had this kind of stuff in your home, you were called rich," he said of a Kenwood radio receiver made in the '70s.
A cassette tape deck by Marantz also had a story. "This one was brought in by a Korean worker who worked in Saudi Arabia during the so-called ‘Saudi boom' in the ‘70s and ‘80s," Hwang said. "Frankly, this is not high-end, but back then it was a trend to return home with audio devices."
Hwang's plan is to keep his workplace and continue his repair work until he reaches the age of 85. "I don't know what will happen then, but since I have no apprentice who wants to learn from me, maybe I will have to clean up all of this stuff," he said. "It's a tough and unprofitable job for young people these days."