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Meet the Mermaid Women of South Korea


On verdant, volcanic Cheju, farmers raise tasty black pigs, grandpa statues boost fertility, and lady divers pry abalone from the icy depths of the sea. DUNCAN FORGAN reports from this legendary treasure chest in the Korean Strait. Photographed by YOUSUN MOON.

Published on Jul 20, 2017


IN A SMALL, CONCRETE BUILDING
      
ON THE REMOTE EASTERN COAST
OF CHEJU, A GROUP OF ELDERLY

women is getting down to gossiping. Outside, a nasty squall is whipping the Korean Strait into a frenzy of foam-flecked waves. Rain is lashing down upon the roof of the refuge in Seongsan, but the ladies have no problem communicating above the noise of the storm.

Cheonjeyeon waterfall
A tributary of Cheonjeyeon waterfall.

"My husband went into Cheju City this morning to get some things for the house," says Ji Su Kim, removing her old-school dive mask and pouring a warming cup of green tea from a pot on the stove. "He's probably already drinking soju with his friends."

In Korea, just like in the rest of the world, a single-sex gathering would not be complete without some gentle ribbing of the opposite gender. And if anyone has earned the right to give their menfolk something of a roasting it is these haenyeo women divers, who have spent the last three hours plumbing the frigid depths without the aid of any air tanks to harvest the ocean's fruits.

They build their women tough on Cheju, a unique province that lies apart from the Korean peninsula both geographically and culturally.

Legend has it that a giant grandmother named Seolmundae shoveled mounds of earth to shape the volcano-studded topography. The fable is just one of several creation myths that does the rounds here, but even the tallest folk tale can't mask the strong roles that females have assumed throughout Cheju's history.

Cheonjeyeon waterfall
Skipping pebbles at the waterfall.

I've come to the place Koreans call "the island of the Gods" to explore its awe-inspiring volcanic landscapes, gorge on barbecue black-pig pork, seafood and kimchi and luxuriate in five-star finery at its top resorts. Most of all I am drawn to the destination by the real-life mermaids who defy age and the elements to eke out a precarious living from the ocean.

The haenyeo—literally, "women of the sea"—are a symbol of Cheju and are celebrated in museums and in pictorial tributes in seafood joints around the island. In November, they were inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

Such veneration is richly merited from what I witness on my visit.  Which is no faint praise, for this is an island rife with national treasures. In fact, a quirky matching bookend to Cheju's grandmother mermaids might be its grandfather stones, or dol hareubang, the amiable-looking stone figurines that have served as village guardians around Cheju since ancient times.

Grandpa statues
Grandpa statues protect against demons in Cheju Stone Park.

 

OUR PHOTOGRAPHER
Yousun, a Seoul-ite to her bones, tells me that Cheju is her favorite destination in Korea. She and her husband love hiking the island's extensive network of olle long-distance footpaths, visiting its cultural sites and refueling at hip coffee stops such as Anthracite, a Seoul chain that set up shop in a converted flour mill on Cheju's northwestern coast. Many city-based Koreans flee to this cherished escape and head directly to the Jungmun resort area in the south, home to a stellar cast of luxury boltholes including the opulent Shilla and the Hyatt Regency.

Antracite
At Antracite, a coffee shop on the island.

A long-established fixture, the Hyatt enjoys an incredible location on a promontory overlooking Jungmun Beach—where I observe local surfers doing their thing on the impressive breaks rolling into shore from my balcony. A giant central atrium hosts an indoor tropical garden, a water feature, and a couple of glass elevators whizzing up and down. The hotel is invitingly old-school; its courteous service, comfortable rooms and mighty breakfast spread smack of a wealth of experience.

From this base, I strike out by car to explore the island. A stroll through the forests at the foot of Hallasan makes for a bracing excursion, while the Cheju Stone Cultural Park offers an enlightening insight to the island's culture, rituals and icons—especially of the dol hareubang. Beloved by islanders, the volcanic rock statues are considered to be gods of protection and fertility and were traditionally placed outside gates to guard against demons traveling beyond realities. It is believed that touching the noses of the statues can aid conception. Indeed, many of the dol hareubang I see in the cultural park are somewhat deformed, their nostrils reshaped by hopeful contact from successive generations of prospective mothers.

Cheju Stone Cultural Park
Volcanic matter on display at the Stone Park.

My personal highlight, apart from visiting the haenyeo, is a late afternoon ascent of Mount Songaksan on the island's south coast. At the summit the clouds part again to let the sun cast shards of light over the ocean and the distant rump of Marado, the southernmost boundary of Korea.

Another day, I take a shorter walk, this time from the Hyatt to the Shilla, to sample the latter's glamping experience. I'm escorted to my pimped out tent on the lawn, which is kitted out with an oversized lounger, dining table and a vintage record deck along with a selection of classical music vinyl. Outdoor-loving Koreans are fueling a massive camping trend nationwide, and especially in nature-rich Cheju. Tent sales have gone through the roof. This, in turn, has prompted resorts like the Shilla to promote their own high-end camping packages—complete with expensive seafood and champagne. It's not exactly the real deal, but for a guy whose camping memories are scarred by chilly Cub Scout outings in the Highlands of Scotland, I’m not complaining.

For the opening salvo of a six-course barbecue extravaganza that will also take in wagyu and black-pig pork, my personal chef serves up a seafood platter.

Shilla

The Shilla's glamping set-up includes a vintage record player and a six-course meal in your luxe tent. Courtesy of The Shilla Jeju.

As I reach greedily for an abalone, I feel a pang of guilt as I think about the haenyeo. What is so easy for me to consume now might have been harvested through painstaking work in the unforgiving ocean. When I think of the love that the women display for their proud profession, though, the food tastes sweeter.

 

DIVING FOR PRIZES
such as abalone, sea urchin, snails and other maritime morsels in the seas that encircle the island of Cheju used to be considered a man's work. But by the 18th century female divers outnumbered their male counterparts.

Several explanations exist for the shift. One is that a significant number of men died at sea due to war or fishing accidents in the 17th century. Another theory—the one subscribed to by the ladies I meet—is that women are just better equipped physiologically for diving: an extra portion of subcutaneous fat and a higher shivering threshold giving them the edge over the blokes.

Whatever the reason, the haenyeo have become a potent icon of girl power in a country where patriarchal Confucian traditions tend to be the order of the day.

Times were toughest for the divers during the era of the Choson dynasty—the empire that ruled Korea for almost five centuries until 1910. At that time, divers were forced to hand over most of their harvest as tribute. When the Japanese colonized the country, however, they were allowed to sell their catch at market and make a profit.

Mount Songaksan
Mount Songaksan on the south coast.

These glory days lasted long after the Japanese left, with haenyeo playing a prominent place in Cheju's economy and women taking on an unfamiliar role as the main breadwinners in many households on the island. Yet, as South Korea made its journey from impoverished third-world nation to Asian powerhouse, Cheju's defining maritime tradition faded.

A diver's life could hardly be described as an easy one. During tide times, haenyeo spend up to six hours a day immersed in the often-chilly waters picking at crevices on the sea floor with a sharp, scalpel-like tool. Although sharks are rare, jellyfish can be a pest. Stormy weather too can cause a potentially fatal loss of orientation underwater.

In their rambunctious refuge, the ladies in Seongsan tell me of the joy they get from diving and the sense of camaraderie they derive from the profession. Nevertheless, it is easy to see why younger Cheju women prefer to swap the rubber wet suit and headlight-shaped scuba masks for other professional garb.

There are now just approximately 2,500 haenyeo left on the island (compared to more than 20,000 in the 1960s) and the vast majority are over the age of 60—making them something of an endangered species. The atmosphere in the refuge may be bubbling with verve when I visit, but it seems clear that this proud custom is destined for extinction in the not too distant future.

"Diving has given me and my family a very good life,"” says Aesoon Kim, a haenyeo whose sparkling eyes and youthful demeanor belie her 67 years. "But I understand why my daughters don't want to follow my path. When I was young, it seemed a natural choice."

Haenyeo Ae-Soon Kim
Haenyeo Ae-Soon Kim emerges from the sea after freediving.

Many of Kim's relatives were haenyeo, she says, "and in those days there were not a lot of options—especially here in Cheju where the soil is volcanic and there's very little agriculture. I spent four years learning how to dive before I could make any money from it. Korea is a modern economy these days and there are many different paths for young people to follow."

Despite her sagacity, Kim admits to feeling sorrow at the probable passing of the tradition. "It makes me feel very sad," she says. "When I think about the good life I've enjoyed and the fun we've had, I can hardly believe that we will soon be part of history rather than the future."

With Kim's downbeat soliloquy ringing in my mind, I leave the ladies to their tea break. Such is its remarkable natural beauty it is hard to stay melancholic in Cheju for too long. As the sky shakes off its blackened hue to reveal a grandstand postcard of Hallasan—at 1,950 meters, the highest mountain in South Korea—my spirits soon start to lift with the view.

   THE DETAILS

 

 

GETTING THERE
Around the region, nonstop flights to Cheju International Airport depart from Bangkok, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

HOTELS
Hyatt Regency Jeju With a prime perch overlooking Jungmun beach—a favorite with international and local surfers—this venerable hotel matured with the times. A spacious central atrium is home to a lush indoor tropical garden while rooms offer choice toiletries and plush beds. regency.hyatt.com; from W180,000 per night.
The Shilla Jeju Probably the swankiest hotel on Jeju, The Shilla has something for everyone. Kids will love its pools, playroom and onsite video game arcade while couples and older visitors will appreciate its array of dining options (hint: the top-pick is a barbecue glamping experience), casino and luxurious spa. shilla.net; from W320,000 per night; glamping experience from W290,000 for lunch for two.

RESTAURANTS
Donsadon You might expect seafood to dominate the culinary landscape on an island. But locals swing more towards the pork from the local black pigs—said to be the tastiest in Korea. Sample it at this outstanding venue for Korean barbecue. +82 64 746 8989; meal for two from W80,000.
Magpie Brewing Company One of Korea's most cherished eating and drinking rituals, chimaek (beer and fried chicken) can be enjoyed lots of places. For a top quality tipple to wash down the crispy-skinned meat, there's no better place than this venue, which brews its own line of beers. magpiebrewing.com; meal for two from W47,000.
Soul Kitchen In the resort enclave of Jungmun, Soul Kitchen is famed for its reasonably priced American offerings. Try the chili-tinged volcano burger for a spicy fusion of Korean and Western culinary sensibilities. +82 64 739 8765; meal for two from W70,000.
Anthracite A hip, rustic-chic Seoul-transplant coffee shop. +82 64 796 7991; espresso W3,500.

Donsadon
Grilling black-pig pork at Donsadon Korean barbecue.

 
ACTIVITIES
Jeju Olle Hiking jejuolle.org.
Jeju Stone Park jejustonepark.com; admission W5,000.
Jeju Tourism Organization ijto.or.kr.

 

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  • Grandpa statues protect against demons in Cheju Stone Park.
  • At Antracite, a coffee shop on the island.
  • The terrain of Gotjawal (literally, "forest, rock and bush") Forest in central Cheju was formed by viscous lava hardening into bumpy stones.
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