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Back to Life by Bike

The bike repair shop ByCycle is located in South Korea's capital Seoul. | Photo © Sören Kittel

With his bicycle repair shop, social worker Lee Hyeong-un teaches the homeless how it feels to be a part of society. A visit in Seoul’s skyscraper canyon.

Lee Hyeong-un doesn’t need to look far to see where a life can end. On the wall next to his desk hangs the photograph of a man who has evidently just climbed a great mountain or accomplished some other significant feat. His round face is laughing confidently, his windbreaker shines blue and his hand makes that two-fingered gesture which in Korea means not “Victory” but simply “Everything is very good”. Mr. Lee says of the picture: “That’s one of my employees. He could drink 50 bottles of soju (rice liquor) a day”. But the man is now dead. Dead of alcoholism or life as a homeless person in South Korea.

For Mr. Lee this photo is both a warning and a promise that it shall never again go this far with one of his protégés. The 46-year-old man can see how such a fate can be prevented when he looks up from his desk and in the other direction. Then he is looking straight at his repair shop ByCycle, a unique enterprise in Seoul, this metropolis of 25 million people. Between the skyscrapers and the subway station Samgakji, and right next to an intersection of two major highways, Mr. Lee has set up his repair shop for bicycles, staffed almost exclusively by homeless people. At present around 35 homeless people work there regularly.

Punctuality is the beginning

From old bikes the homeless screw together new ones; they repair wheels for residents for a fee and in their spare time tinker art works from discarded bicycle parts. On the walls hangs a set of “stag’s antlers” consisting of a bicycle seat (head) and handlebar (antlers); in front of it is a pen-holder made out of a bicycle tire; the repair shop just had an exhibition of paintings painted with the pieces of a bicycle chain. “You can be creative here”, Mr. Lee says, “and the things still sell well”. He got the idea for the repair shop many years ago, when, in his work with the homeless, he noticed that many simply lack any prospects at all. If they have a job and colleagues, he thought, they could bit by bit find their way back into everyday life.

Today he sees that this concept doesn’t always work. “They also have to want it”, he says, “or else even the best offer won’t help”. It begins with punctuality. “This is something that in the beginning they have to practice.” After a while he introduced a bonus system for employees who showed up on time, or came at all to their shift. As an incentive, there is the payment: in the first year workers receive 500,000 won a month, about 500 US dollars. In the second year 800,000 won, and in the third 1.2 million won. Here again the idea is that the employees see it is worth their while to stick with the job.

Time and again employees succeed in switching from this job to another and better one. This is one goal, says Mr. Lee, he hopes to achieve with his work. “The other goal is for the city of Seoul to see it can work when you make an offer to a homeless person.” The city supports the project only because it sees that it is sustainable. ByCycle receives free bicycle scrap from the municipality. “Using this we can assemble new bikes and then sell them.” Upcycling – almost in the double sense.

Lee Hyeong-un gives homeless people and bicycles a second chance. | Photo © Sören Kittel

Learned to drink from the father

South Korea is a very competitive society; it regularly comes out on top in the PISA studies, but cannot deal with those who fall through the cracks in the educational system. Seoul’s official count of the homeless is 4,000 people, but since the homeless are not registered there is probably a high number of unknown cases. In addition, adequate social networks are lacking – which, among other things, has to do with the fact that citizens who champion issues on the political left are quickly suspected of supporting North Korea. For this reason alone it has been difficult to establish a social system. Even the bicycle repair shop has had to struggle with neighbors who don’t like that homeless people are suddenly working and living in their vicinity – for some sleep in the repair shop. 

One of them is Oh Byeong-min. He is very thin, speaks very softly, walks in a constricted manner. He has been coming to the repair shop for three years, he says, and adds: “With one year’s interruption”. Because he’d had enough of bikes and went back on the street. “I thought all that doesn’t do any good.” But now he is back. “I like that we’re friendly with one another here; that’s not something I can take for granted.” Some customers come to the workshop for repairs precisely because they want to do a good deed.

He tells in a few words of his childhood in Nonsan, a small town about two hours’ drive south of Seoul. His parents didn’t look after him; early on he had to fend for himself. He learned to drink from his father, but he never learned to have confidence in himself. “I wasn’t good at school”, he says, “and at some point I just stopped trying.”

He is now 38 years old and works here in the bicycle repair shop five days a week. “I sleep here too.” He has worked his way up to the second pay grade. Recently he cobbled together a bike from scrap and painted it a camouflage green , like a military bicycle. In the evening he rode it along the Han River. There he was: one of many.

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