Single figures double the fun

Photographer Nina Ahn captures the strange relationship between a South Korean loner and fruit.

Michael McDonald

US media giant CNN has caught up with the global increase in people living alone, a year or two after it made news in the rest of the world.

CNN reporter Stella Ko profiles the work of Korean photographer Nina Ahn. Heavy on broody atmospherics, Ahn’s work records young women looking wistfully out into inner space.

According to Ko, ‘The photographs are intended to capture the loneliness of South Korea’s youth – specifically a subculture referred to as ‘honjok,’ a neologism combining the words ‘hon’ (alone) and ‘jok’ (tribe).’

Buying tribal

I don’t buy it. Ahn is cleverly making a name for herself with a brand of fashion photography masquerading as social comment, but honjok is about more than loneliness. It’s a post-conservatism culture, even though alone and tribe shouldn’t be allowed in the one compound word.

I visited, home of the South Korean loners being all tribal. There is a lot more going on than loneliness. There is even a page devoted to restaurants where loners can hang out together – or ignore each other. One such eatery offers ‘One per perception for the tribe, the happiest cauldron rice per quadrant’. Thank you, Google Translate.

Australian band The Whitlams was way ahead of the honjok movement. In 1997 their hit song No Aphrodisiac revealed there is ‘no aphrodisiac like loneliness’. There are a lot of lyrics for a popular song, chiefly jokey references to lonely-hearts personal ads. Eroticism and longing blend in what could be an anthem for the single-person household.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies added more weight to the Whitlamesque irony, pointing out that one in four Australian households is a lone-person household. That accounts in part for all the apartments now springing up in Melbourne.

On the AIFS site, a March 2015 paper ‘Demographics of living alone’, by David de Vaus and Lixia Qu (no relation to DJ Susie Qu), ‘describes the trends in living alone and the characteristics of people who live alone’ in Australia.

The way of the floppy disk

But what does it all mean?, I hear you cry as you stare intently at a pallid moon. Are the so-called ‘family values’ of the devotees of the nailed god going the way of the dinosaur and the floppy disk?

‘In some quarters these developments have been interpreted as signifying a decline of commitment to family living, increasing social fragmentation and a rise in loneliness,’ write de Vaus and Qu. ‘For others, the growth in living alone has been celebrated as reflecting the greater choice that people have in their living arrangements and lifestyle.’

The fascinating part in the paper ( is the comparison of Australia with the rates of honjok in other countries. The Scandinavians rule at loner culture, which must account for all those Scandi Noir novels written under the neverending nighttime sun. Sweden weighs in at 48.6 per cent single-person households in 2010–11 compared to Australia’s 24.3 per cent. The Indians are a good deal more chummy at 3.7 per cent.

The CNN article also pointed out that there are five million single-person households in South Korea as of 2016, accounting for almost 28 per cent of the total number of households, according to the Korean Statistical Information Service, so we’re pretty much on par with the honjok crew.

Perhaps the loner family event is now a gathering at a cafe where you can excuse yourself and go home at any time. Those in a one-person household get to practise an Elvis impersonation at leisure in front of a bathroom mirror. And in a one-person household, no-one can hear you fart.

♦ Michael McDonald was editor of The Echo from 1995 to 2010 and now heads up our international trends desk. He is a practising codger in East Gippsland, home of the Burranun Dolphin.

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