Secret Lives

Sunnyside’s Setup Artist

From a Burger King booth in Queens, a seventy-five-year-old matchmaker pairs Korean-Americans the old-fashioned way.

Sunnyside’s Setup Artist

One day last July, my mother told me that an older Korean man had spotted me walking in her neighborhood of Sunnyside, Queens on a few occasions. When the stranger later saw my mom on the street, he was curious to know if I was her daughter since he noticed a resemblance. He asked my mother if I was single, and told her that he wanted to relay a message—that he knew a family friend with a son who would be perfect for me. Did I want to be set up?

had to go on the date, my mother insisted.

Ordinarily I would have flat-out refused. Like most people, sure, I would love to find a compatible partner and a loving, long-term relationship. However, marriage is not something that weighs on my mind, let alone represents a dire emergency. My mother, however, does not feel the same way. I am thirty-three, unmarried and an only child. In the Korean immigrant community my parents are a part of, these facts elicit headshaking and sorrowful sighs from family and friends alike, as if I told them I had a terminal illness.

So I chose the path of least resistance, knowing that nothing really deters my mother, an outsize personality for a four-foot-ten-inch seventy-four-year-old woman. I only had to think for a few seconds about her traumatic stories of running away from bombs falling during World War II and the hours she toiled working as a nurse and helping my father run his deli to support me, and the guilt set in. So I agreed to the blind date.

I didn’t give it much thought until about a week later, when I visited my parents again and my mother excitedly told me she’d had a conversation with my potential date’s mother over the phone. My mom got all the details that seemed to matter; it sounded as if she and the other mom had traded notes on their children like we were breeds of horses. She found out that my potential date, Eugene, was 175 centimeters tall (Koreans use the metric system); that he owns some type of hardware store; that his family had settled in Argentina and later relocated to the States; that he went to college in Texas; and that he was a landlord and lived in Midtown. He owned a house and an apartment. She emphasized that point. My mother instructed me that I would receive an email from him any day.

Surprising myself, I slowly began looking forward to meeting Eugene. There was something endearing about the fact that the old man had seen me on the street and immediately thought of setting me up with someone. Maybe there was some value in that. Was it any better or any worse than being paired by computer algorithms on an online dating site?

Several days later I did get an email from Eugene, and we agreed to meet at a yakatori place on St. Mark’s for dinner. When I went on the date, I found out that he didn’t own a hardware store, but a company that provides building contractors with supplies for large-scale projects. He was in his late thirties, neatly dressed in khakis and a button-down shirt. All in all, he was great and I had a nice time chatting with him. But I felt there was an unspoken, shared gut-feeling that we didn’t have a romantic connection.

As we were paying the check, Eugene said, “So it was one of these ajushis [older married Korean men] that set this up.” I sort of nodded and agreed, but I wasn’t sure what he meant.

A few weeks later, on another visit to my parents’ house, I learned what he had meant. I overheard my parents talking in low tones in the dining room. My mother had not been to the local senior center in a week or two, she told my father, but had to go there now to pay someone. After I pushed her, my mother revealed that she had hired a professional matchmaker for my date.

“For a date, he charges $100. If you get married, he gets $1,000 from each family.”

“What?” I asked, equally incredulous and amused. “So you lied to me?”

“He told me that young people in your generation don’t like to get set up like this, so better not tell you,” my mother said, absolving herself.

My mom went on to tell me that she actually met Mr. Han the Matchmaker at the local senior center about two years ago. She made a deal with him, right there in the cafeteria, where they sometimes sit together to eat lunch. And no, he never saw me on the street. She showed me his business card, which read, “Han’s Marriage Management Center.”

Jun Gak Han is a slender, smooth-faced seventy-five-year-old grandfather with a vibrant voice. While I was uninterested in his services, I was curious to meet him. I visited him at his home a handful of times to interview him for this piece, accompanied by my mother, who acted as a translator. Han wasted no time angling for another opportunity to try to set me up again.

Jun Gak Han in his apartment, below a painting of him and his wife
Jun Gak Han in his apartment, below a painting of him and his wife

“Do you want to be matched?” he asked exuberantly. Han speaks like an orator, using his hands as he gesticulates, almost like a preacher. “I have a nice thirty-eight-year-old pharmacist for you.”

“I’m fine for now,” I replied politely.

Han’s marriage center is run out of his four-bedroom apartment in the Korean-American enclave of Sunnyside, where he has lived for the last twenty-seven years—by coincidence, diagonally across the street from my parents. He spends much of his days there waiting for phone calls from prospective Korean bachelors and bachelorettes. He often places ads in the Korean newspaper, as well as on a website called Hey! Korean, a Craigslist-like portal for Korean-language speakers. Sometimes young and middle-aged Koreans find him through word-of-mouth. Most of his clients are from New York City, but he’s had clients from as far afield as Paris and Los Angeles.

In an age when online dating sites like OkCupid and eHarmony are increasingly popular, Han follows an enduring tradition that has existed for centuries in every culture imaginable. In Hebrew, they’re known as shadchan, in Gaelic it’s babhdoir and in Korean jungmaein, or matchmaker. He caters to a very specific niche: single, straight and Korean. There are several much larger businesses offering matchmaking services to this community—a quick survey of The Korea Daily Business Directory shows half a dozen marriage consulting centers in New York City, plus a few in Fort Lee and Palisades Park, New Jersey. But unlike those centers, Han’s is a one-man operation.

The Wendy’s where Han often meets clients
The Wendy’s where Han often meets clients

After the interview Han will compile the data in one or more of his eight composition notebooks. Based on how the applicant answers questions and to some extent their looks, he will make a match. Later, he’ll call each client with their match’s phone number and a verbal description; if they agree, that’s that. (I was a special case, of course, and he had “a good idea of my appearance” based on the looks of my mom.) He says if the client isn’t satisfied with the date he’ll offer them a few more dates per application, usually up to five at most.

Han says that he has made hundreds of contacts over the years, and reports his matches have resulted in forty marriages. At his peak, he was fielding ten calls per day and meeting clients regularly, but he has worked less in recent years, partly because he chose to scale himself back and advertise less, but also because some clients aren’t encouraged by the idea of a septuagenarian matchmaker.

“Sometimes a customer will call and ask, ‘how old are you?’” says Han. “When they find out, they ask me, ‘Is there anyone younger there that I can speak to?’”

Matchmaking doesn’t generate much income—if anything it’s pocket money to supplement his Social Security checks and what he earns from periodically subletting rooms in his apartment.

Profiles of Han’s clients’ are organized inside composition notebooks
Profiles of Han’s clients’ are organized inside composition notebooks

“Sometimes the couples that have gotten married don’t end up paying me,” he says, adding that he doesn’t even demand the money. “But I don’t mind. I do it because I enjoy it.”

While he seems just as determined to find a match for every young person he meets, he does set limits—one client went on twenty dates without any success, so Han gave up. “You have to be humble when dating and not too picky,” he says.

Born on July 6, 1937, Han grew up the fourth of five sons in the village of Punggye-ri, near Hamhung, the second largest city in what is now North Korea. His father operated an apple orchard, and the family lived in a relatively well-to-do neighborhood where other leafy orchards could be seen all around.

“My father was a matchmaker too,” Han reveals. “He liked to talk.” Many Korean men engaged in matchmaking endeavors in those days, since men were often mobile, transacting affairs and going into town to meet people, while women stayed home.

“It was more natural then,” says Han. “‘You have son, I have a daughter,’ they would say. The match would be made.” One of Han’s brothers was set up that way.

The Han family’s home was an expansive, one-floor house with sliding doors connecting several rooms.

Their life was turned upside down when the Korean War broke out. After South Korean and United Nations troops penetrated considerable North Korean territory in 1950, fighting became a regular occurrence in Han’s neighborhood. While the American general Douglas MacArthur famously predicted a quick end to the confrontation, it soon became clear this would not be the case, especially as the Chinese began amassing a sizeable force to join the North Koreans in battle. Civilians were constantly under threat of being conscripted, by both the North and South armies.

On December 8, 1950, when he was thirteen, Han’s mother called for him and his brothers. “You have to go the other side in order to live,” he recalls her telling them. Many families in the North had already directed their younger, able-bodied family members to flee, while others less likely to be conscripted remained behind. Han’s parents thought the family would be reunited in a matter of months and stayed behind to mind the family business. They had no idea that North Korea would soon become a sealed-off state, and that they would never see their sons again.

Han’s mother instructed the boys to start walking to the Hungnam seaport that night, where evacuations were being organized, about twenty-five miles away. Somehow in the chaos that is war, the boys were separated from each other. Han says he left with “nothing but the clothes I wore.”

“Even if I brought money with me, I wouldn’t be able to use it,” Han adds, noting that the North Korean currency would have been useless in South Korea. “It was a war. All rationale was lost.”

To confront the icy temperatures and avoid hypothermia and frostbite, he managed to find a stack of North Korean military long johns, layering literally a dozen-and-a-half of them on top of each other.

He set off east toward the port, a path through mountainous terrain of hills and valleys. During the hours-long gun battles that took place between Northern and Southern troops each day, he would climb to higher ground in order to check out the line of fire along his path, then wait until the sounds of gunfire stopped before proceeding.

“I could see everything,” Han remembers. “I knew places I could hide and where I had to go.” Along the way, when he encountered any soldier, whether North Korean, South Korean or American, “I would bow, and say ‘annyeonghaseyo’ [a polite greeting] very respectfully.” As a thirteen-year old, he was banking on being perceived as non-threatening. “I feel angels were watching over me,” he adds.

He stopped for food and shelter in houses that were quickly being abandoned, many of the residents going the way he was—to the port where they hoped to get on a ship bringing them out of harm’s way. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were fleeing the warpath. Once, he arrived in a house where the owners had apparently rushed out very recently, and he was ever so happy to find a warm pot already filled with rice—“the best meal of my life.”

One night during his journey, asleep in a house, he was awoken by a North Korean soldier who signaled to get out of his way so that he could sleep where Han was. The soldier asked him where he was going; Han lied and told him he was heading to see a relative in Hungnam, knowing he would be seen as a traitor if he admitted he was trying to leave. The soldier, looking weary and tired from combat, merely responded, “Good luck and hope you arrive there safely.”

The twenty-five-mile trip took seven days, after which Han reunited with his three older brothers at the port, where United Nations forces were lining up refugees for evacuation. He and two brothers managed to board a Japanese-operated ship, gutted out to make room for thousands of people. The fourth brother had to wait on another line after the ship reached full capacity. In all, nearly 100,000 refugees escaped through the port between December 10 and December 24, in what is known as the Hungnam Evacuation. Six days after Han left Hungnam, the whole city was virtually destroyed.

Han with a photo of his mother
Han with a photo of his mother

They would spend a cold three days and four nights elbow-to-elbow, not eating, drinking or using the bathroom. The vessel finally arrived at Geoje Island, a South Korean-controlled isle southeast of the peninsula, where his older brother was quickly whisked off to help the war effort on the South Korean side, leaving Han to fend for himself for a couple of months. Most nights he would sleep in the outdoors or in barns, until he agreed to collect wood for an island woman in exchange for a place to stay.

After four months one of his brothers came back and brought Han to live in the Eighth Army military base in Busan, South Korea, where he was stationed. Han did odd jobs for a woman who ran the catering within the base. Han spent about two and half years in Busan, until the fighting ended in 1953. His older brothers all survived, though one was wounded in the arm, and together they moved to the bustling South Korean capital of Seoul to build a new life.

A sizable portion of the North Korean community from his village had settled in a small enclave of Seoul where the church his family had attended had relocated. He attended high school there and after graduating opened a watch repair and consignment stand to earn money. After the trauma of the war, Han remembers those days fondly, as a time when he was surrounded by lots of friends, many of whom would come by his stand daily to hand out and eat chajang myun, Korean black bean noodles. It was there he struck up a friendship with a female high school student named Sun Hee who came in one day to get her sister’s watch fixed. The pair would soon spend many days strolling around the neighborhood and eating candy.

“We just walked around in circles,” says Han. “We talked about everything.”

Han went to night school and enlisted in the army; after a brief stint transporting classified documents he landed a job as a teacher. With some financial security, he decided to propose to Sun Hee.

He never did see his parents or his younger brother again. One neighbor from his town who managed to escape North Korea in 1983 reported that “everyone in that house just disappeared.” The neighbor said that by 1957 many families who had sent their relatives to the south were killed or taken away. All Han can surmise is that his parents and brother met such a fate, as punishment for the disloyal act of sending him and his brothers to the south. While his parents have almost certainly passed away by now, he still keeps hope that perhaps his youngest brother is still alive, and that one day he will be permitted to return to see him.

“I’m ready to go anytime,” he says.

Han has one hazy black-and-white photograph of his mother in his apartment in Queens. “Sometimes I still cry, I miss her,” he says, getting a little misty-eyed as he holds the picture. He doesn’t own a photo of his father, but says he is like a carbon copy of his father, in personality and appearance.

Han did not take up his father’s craft of matchmaking until much later, in 2005. He worked as a teacher and a private tutor most of his adult life living in Seoul, until a near-death experience with carbon monoxide poisoning when he was in his forties sparked a sense of adventure. He surprised his family by retiring from teaching, applying to work for Carnival Cruise Lines and relocating to Miami. He worked as a ship yeoman, checking on staff inventory and traveling to Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Haiti, sending most of his earnings back home to his wife and children in Korea, who were unable to obtain visas to join him.

He eventually left the cruise line, and, after buying a boat of his own in Miami and sinking money into a failed tuna business, was seeking a new career path. He moved to New York, where he managed to bring his wife and two of his children (his youngest chose to stay in Korea), eventually opening a dry cleaning shop. It was only after retiring from that business that he took up his current trade.

“Seeing my father as a matchmaker and my brother being matched, I felt connected to it,” he says.

A Korean-language bible in Han’s home
A Korean-language bible in Han’s home

Han attributes his business tenacity to the harsh experiences of his early life. “When you have to survive, your mind lights up and you become bright,” he says.

As for the secret to finding love, he reveals none of his secrets—only that instinct and intuition seem to prevail. “Three seconds,” he says. “You know in three seconds.” When he met his wife, he recalls simply: “I instantly liked her. After talking to her a while, I found out that she was a good one.”

His advice for couples seeking harmony is equally straightforward: “There’s a thing that a man wants to hear from his wife. What is it? ‘You can do anything you want.’ And women want to hear ‘You’re beautiful, I love you.’”

Han’s daughter, who remained in Korea is married; his son in New Jersey in widowed; and his second daughter is unmarried, but he insists he doesn’t put any pressure on her.

“If you do get married or don’t get married, it’s fine,” says Han. “Whatever makes you happy.”

But, the next time I see him, he offers a caveat: “If you settle down with someone, it will make life much less boring…Did I mention my wife is very beautiful?”