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Feting Jeju's diving women and craftsmenYang Hwang Il, organizer of one of Jeju's premier festivals
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승인 2011.05.14  20:15:53
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▲ haenyeo hurry to harvest as much seafood from the ocean bed as possible during the 5th Haenyeo Competition. Photos by Douglas MacDonald

Yang Hwang Il is a busy man. As team leader of the Jeju Branch Office for Human Research Development, he has an array of responsibilities. From helping foreign workers acclimatize to the island to promoting small and mid-sized companies, these responsibilities mean he and his team pull regular all nighters at the office.

This was never truer than in April, which saw Yang organizing and hosting not one, but two festivals on Jeju: the 5th Haenyeo Competition and the 43rd Craftsman Skills Competition.

The former, which was held on April 24 at Sagye-ri harbor, came into being because Yang had been informed by his head office that he would have to come up with a Jeju traditional event. Though the responsibility was handed down from the powers that be, it was Yang who came up with the idea of having a haenyeo (woman divers) competition.

▲ Haenyeo Competition was organized and hosted by Yang Hwang Il. Photos by Douglas MacDonald
“At first I was afraid whether [I could] make this event a success or not,” Yang said, adding that due to his concerns, the initial haenyeo competition was small, with only one village invited to participate. Nonetheless, it was a success, he said, and the following year a total of 28 haenyeo competed from five fishing villages.

This past April 24 saw the event balloon from its initial size to 58 haenyeo from eight villages and attracted approximately 1,000 spectators throughout the day. Yang said the reason why he chose to promote haenyeo is because he is worried about the state of this proud and culturally important occupation.

He said he views the haenyeo as one of Jeju’s traditional professions and a symbol of the island. However he fears that one day they might become obsolete because young women are opting for safer and more modern occupations. They are passing up the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of their mothers and grandmothers, he mused. Currently, the majority of haenyeo are above the the age of 50 with only a handful in their 40s, the youngest being 46 according to Yang.

The event consisted of a diving competition where haenyeo gathered shellfish, octopuses and abalone; and a kayak race.

Though the event was more of a festival than a true competition, cash prizes were awarded to those who finished in the top three.

Yang Geum Sun from Sagye-ri village came in first place, receiving 500,000 won in prize money for catching 24 kg of conch, one abalone, one octopus and three sea cucumbers. In second place, for 300,000 won, was Kang Sun Ja from Gangjeong village with 16.8 kg of conch, one halibut and one sea cucumber. And in third place, for 200,000 won was Sangmo village native Kim Mi Hwa with 29 kg of conch.

In contrast to the haenyeo competition, the craftsman skills competition is an entirely different event. Yang said that this year saw over 300 professionals in an array of fields including computer engineering and welding competing to represent Jeju in the annual Korea Craftsman Competition, the winners of which are invited to the world championships.

Much of Yang’s job deals with promoting and certifying craftsman to work in Jeju. “Craftsmen are important, and we need them to develop our country,” said Yang, who is also in charge of foreign craftsmen workers. This competition, Yang said, does not garner the public’s attention, and its only audience is the families of participants and local students from technical high schools who, on a field trip, come to view potential career options.

Due to the magnitude of the Craftsman Skills Competition, much planning was needed for it to run smoothly and concurrently at its three island locations. The lack of sleep did not seem to bother Yang, as organizing and hosting this event, he said, is one of his favorite aspects of the job. This was only beaten for the number one spot by the fact that his profession allows him to meet people from diverse backgrounds.

During 24 years in this profession he has had the opportunity to help foreigner workers from 15 developing countries become comfortable with their temporary lives here on Jeju. He stressed that it can be difficult for foreign workers here on Jeju considering the cultural differences and the chances of their employers being able to speak their language is highly unlikely.

So that foreign workers can become more familiar with the Korean culture in which they have been instantly immersed, “We take interpreters to their work place and we make them communicate with each other and we give them many kinds of information and books,” said Yang.

Even on his own free time Yang seeks to interact with non-Koreans and to teach them about Jeju. As a member of Servas International, a hospitality exchange organization, Yang occasionally houses travelers who visit the island. In fact, he said when he does he likes to show them the island and take them to some of the more popular tourist sites.
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