▲ A dang that resides within Mini Mini Land amid a plethora of diminutive replica international landmarks signifies the threat facing Jeju's traditional cultures. Photo by Yang Ho Geun
Mini Mini Land, located in Gyorea SamDaSoo village, is a tourist attraction that capitalizes on Asia’s obsession with kitschy photo opportunities.
The theme park is filled with diminutive copies of international landmarks and as such, is a place that I would normally avoid, but there is something that differentiates Mini Mini Land from other tourist attractions on the island or elsewhere in the world.
Tucked among the leaning tower of Pisa and the White House, is a dang, the home of a Jeju god. I was told this by my good friend and Jeju Weekly photographer Brian Miller who had seen it for himself while documenting the island’s temples (dang, in Korean) with Song Jung Hee, a classical Korean music teacher and Musok (Jeju Shamanism) believer. I was instantly intrigued and arranged an interview with Gyorea SamDaSoo village head Kim Sam Bum for the following week and asked Song if she wished to join.
For at least the last 200 years Korea has undergone a constant metamorphosis of identity. During the 19th century, while under strict Confucian ideology, Korea was referred to as the hermit kingdom as it allowed no foreigners into the country and no Koreans out. During the 20th century Korea made a mad dash to modernize itself and in the 1970s Jeju went through a period, supported by the provincial government, of anti-shamanism, where everything shaman was banned and dang were destroyed. These movements were mainly fueled by political or developmental reasons and I assumed that this dang had become victim to the latter.
▲ Kim Sam Bum, Gyorea SamDaSoo village leader. Photo by Yang Ho Geun
The interview with Kim was on the same day that Typhoon Kompasu hit so when my translator and I arrived at the Gyorea office our appearance of professionalism had been washed away. Kim told us that the land was purchased by a Jeju citizen in 1995 and Mini Mini Land opened its doors in 1998. He explained there had been no opposition from the village “because they thought it was a good tourist attraction and it was a developmental cause.”
I looked to my translator and rephrased the question. “There was no opposition at all?”
“They didn’t face any major opposition because it is not like it was a house dang. It was just a small tree with some statues around it,” Kim said.
This surprised me, but I figured I would corroborate his story when Song arrived and instead asked him how he personally felt. “I don’t have a problem with it,” Kim said. “The Mini Mini Land is utilizing it as a tourist attraction as well. They have moved some of the dang to the dang over here. I don’t feel too uncomfortable about it.”
He continued to say there are two dang in the village and the one in Mini Mini Land was insignificant because every village in Jeju is home to a similar dang and it was not a house dang like the one which resides just outside the office.
“How is it insignificant?” I asked.
He replied that sometime in the mid-2000s the god was removed from the dang by a Shaman and was relocated to the one outside the office. “They moved the god 4 to 5 years ago. And they did do some rituals over there even after Mini Mini Land was open but [the operators] complained that people were asking them to open their doors for rituals and admit them for the rituals and they had conflicts there so they moved the god,” Kim said.
What I didn’t understand was how it could be deemed insignificant when, according to Kim, Mini Mini Land made a deal with the village people that for 10 days during the month of January the backdoor to the theme park would be left unlocked allowing those who still believed to give homage and respect to their god.
This is when Song arrived. The two had never met, but his disposition changed immediately.
“It might be insignificant,” Kim said, “…but to the people of Gyorea it is special to them and I believe that it is a historical artifact so it can’t just vanish but it is not a special dang.”
Song, who does not view the dang as artifacts, but places of worship, retorted; “these are very unique and strong dang and prideful dang.” She continued that the future of shamanism on Jeju was bleak. Musok is dependent on locals to pass on the stories of their gods. “Some people are relocating to Jeju, some people are moving out. So if there aren’t any locals, this is how it is going to be in the future.”
I asked Song if the reason why the dang is insignificant was a direct result of Mini Mini Land. “Yes,” she said.
We then bade goodbye to Kim and headed out into the typhoon, with hopes that Mini Mini Land would be open and that they would allow an interview, because when I had previously called to arrange one, they had declined.
It was open. We paid the entrance fee and while being beaten down by the weather that rendered our umbrellas useless, we searched for the dang. Among the desert of concrete, populated by miniaturized landmarks was an oasis of foliage. Near the back of the park, embedded at least a meter under the concrete ground was a semicircle of volcanic rock surrounding a tree. This tree Song told me was once the home and body of the god, Gool-mok-nang-mok Madam Ok-dang, who was the overseer of skin disease and child-rearing. There was no placard or anything to indicate the importance of this out-of-place refuge; how is Mini Mini Land utilizing it as a tourist attraction if there was nothing there to highlight its importance?
We took some photos and went to search out the elusive interview.
“I believe that the idolization has passed as the generations move on,” said Choi Won Mok, managing director of Mini Mini Land. “For individual purposes I would, if someone called in and said ‘I need to use the dang for this or that, so could you please leave the door open at night.’ I would, but there has not been a precedent.”
Again, I asked if there was any opposition to the creation of Mini Mini Land. Choi replied that he hadn’t been working there then, so he didn’t know for sure, but didn’t believe so. “One of the conditions with the Gyorea people was that we have to preserve the dang as much as we have,” he said. He continued that they did not have to make any concessions, but they did so “As a respect to the older generation.”
He also alluded to the insignificance of the dang saying “I believe that in the modern day world, even Christians live in this rural village and they have a church here and I don’t think that [the dang] had great religious merit.” This affirmation of the insignificance of the dang seemed odd to me since, as he previously stated, that during the 10 day period when the backdoor is left ajar “there are colorful things hanging from the tree and money around, which is part of the ritual. Given that the amount of the celebration that has gone on the night before I believe that four to five people [visited the dang].”
Though an atheist, I could not wrap my head around the fact that someone else’s religion is being directly controlled by a theme park. While the miniaturized statues they display are imbued with a larger than life essence, the importance of this full-sized dang has been muted by simply sharing the same space.
To help correct this, Song suggested they add a sign, something to inform passersby of what they are seeing to which Choi replied “It has never occurred to the company to do anything with the dang. The older people recognize the dang immediately. We might face opposition from anti-shamanists.”
And then it clicked. I looked about the office meeting room and saw a large wooden cross on one of the walls and I asked the question that I have so often been the recipient of from Koreans. “Is [the owner] Christian?”
“Yes,” he said.
This dang is not only owned by a tourist attraction but also by a member of a competing religion.
This dang stands as a metaphor of the future of Jeju’s indigenous culture. It is battling a war on three fronts and losing. Those who believe are old and dying and modernity, development and Christianity are gladly stepping in to fill the void in Musok’s decline. Jeju, an island so proud of its culture, is watching as this form of Shamanism, singular only to Jeju, vanishes, and I cannot understand why.
“I think it will happen very fast,” Song said. “It is very unfortunate.”
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