▲ Mr. Lee not only sells and works on motorcycles, but rides them as well. Photo by Alpha Newberry
Everyone knows Mr. Lee.
Over the last 5 years, the Jeju native has seen at least 4,000 different foreigners walk into his business, Mr. Lee’s Bike Shop. That’s incredible considering the number of island residents that may have never even talked to a native English speaker.
“I have 500 English business cards printed every 6 months,” Lee said. “I go through them.”
These days, when customers walk into his shop they might see many things: perhaps the loyal mechanic, who rarely leaves the shop; maybe Lee’s smiling wife, who helps in the office; or possibly their cute son and daughter. On the walls – amateur pictures, framed photographs, posters, media clippings, artwork – are catalysts for the many stories that may spill out of the genuine and affable, teddy-bear-shaped owner.
There’s a poster from April 2009 with scenes from Korea’s popular “Il Bak I Il” (One Night, Two Days) variety show. It’s a good story with which to start.
“It’s a very famous show in Korea, with actor and comedian Kang Ho Dong,” Lee began. “I didn’t know, and they did not call me, [but] it was a Friday afternoon 2 or 3 p.m. So, two guys suddenly came to my shop and they wanted to go to Hyeopjae Beach by renting a scooter. They took some film here and we talked about a few things for 20 or 30 minutes.”
“I was surprised,” he added. “They had a staff of about 15 people outside.”
After the show aired a week later, many mainland Korean tourists called to ask the location of the shop.
“It was very helpful for me at that time and it still is because of all the information on the Internet and what people write on their blogs,” said Lee.
Things were not always so lucky for the 36-year-old though. Originally from Seogwipo, Mr. Lee finished his military service and moved to Jeju City in 1998. He lasted one year in his first shop, which only sold parts.
“I was young and I opened the shop with my father’s help,” Lee said, who has owned a Honda Shadow 750 Cruiser and a Yamaha 1300cc model. “But, I did not know how to make money, how to talk well for business, and I had to give a lot of money for renting, so I moved to another shop.”
His second stint lasted 4 years as he “slowly was trying to fix [motorbikes] and learning how to talk to customers.” It proved advantageous to add sales and service to his repertoire because in 2004 he uprooted again and moved into his third, current shop in Gu- [old] Jeju.
As Lee surveyed the bulletin boards of Polaroids, each with a face matching an accompanying motorcycle or scooter, he stopped on a picture of Mike Duecy, manager of the popular Internet message group RhymesWithJeju since 2002.
“I’ve met many foreigners. I just want to remember that. They are good friends. That’s why I take pictures. Mike was my first foreign friend,” Lee said. “I couldn’t speak English, but he didn’t care. I was studying. We met the first time. He had a Hyosung bike. I was a Hyosung dealer. We would meet and talk for lunch since he had two motorcycles already.”
Word got out on the Internet and within the English-speaking community. Things slowly snowballed from there, and Mr. Lee was renting scooters and motorcycles by 2006.
This has not always proven easy either, but Mr. Lee now holds the de facto foreigner monopoly for all things related to motorcycles and scooters on Jeju.
“I can listen in English and talk some and I can find what they want,” Lee said. “I’m trying to do good.”
It took him a few minutes to explain why.
“Some people on Jeju may want to make a lot of money with foreigners because they don’t speak Korean and they don’t know about Korea,” Lee said. “So, some people, they’re not fair ... I never thought about this question. I try to help them. I try to fix, buy and sell honestly.”
Crunching the numbers, Mr. Lee estimates that 60 percent of his overall business comes from Koreans and 40 percent comes from foreigners. For his rental business, he says he sees 70 percent foreign and 30 percent Korean customers. In the summer 10 foreigners on average will visit his shop each day. Forty percent of his profit comes from renting, 40 from selling, and 20 from service.
However, on some occasions, communication gets in the way.
“I have had a few problems with Koreans and foreigners because all people are different,” Lee said. “In case of renting, accidents and scratches and things breaking and customers not telling me, that’s one type of problem.”
Mr. Lee offered up another story, not about being a shop owner, but about being a 16-year-old kid. At the time he did not have a motorcycle license but really loved to ride. His father – who runs one shop in Seogwipo with his other son and another shop on far-off Chuja Island – did not want him riding due to safety concerns.
“When I was 4 or 5 years old my father got a shop,” Lee said. “My mom, dad, brother and I lived in the back. So I just watched everything through a small window. I stayed here and I could see many things, what to do, how to fix, how to talk. The shop was moved when I was 16. I stayed with workers because there was a small room for them and I stayed and talked.”
“Every night [at age 16], I opened up my father’s shop and would ride customers’ motorcycles,” Lee reflected. “I could not tell this to my father. One day, I was riding a big motorcycle without a license, without a helmet, [and it was] ... that night [that] the police caught me.”
“I called my father and he was very angry,” Lee chuckled. “And I could not ride for 6 months, until getting a license. Yeah, I like that story.”
He has better stories.
“Actually, when I was age 15, I loved New Kids on the Block,” remembered Lee. “My two friends and I, we made a team. It was in my room, we had a lot of posters on the wall. We listened every time. We bought a lot of music videos. We watched the music videos together and talked about them.”
“This happened for one year,” said Lee gazing in the direction of his office’s “Easy Rider” poster. Upon being questioned, Lee said: “I’ve never seen the movie.”
Jeju’s foreigner-friendly bike shop owner needs to see the movie. A Harley-Davidson may be in his cards.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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