▲ Shin Sam’s Market: friendship, community, and creativity Photo by Choi Kyoung-jin
At first I thought Jeju had named a town after my mother. However, the “san” in Susan-ri rhymes with “Khan”. Founded at some point in the early 15th century, Susan-ri is a village of about 420 homes and 1200 people. It’s so small that most people have never heard of it.
It’s a farming village full of bright blue and red “tractor-trucks” that look handmade. Gyul, or Korean tangerines, are grown in abundance here. A few years ago, storage and distribution of citrus was handed over to Nonghyup, an agricultural cooperative bank. That’s why Shin Sam was able to rent an old tangerine warehouse - Susan-ri was repurposing some their unused buildings.
A Korean friend of mine and longtime resident of Jeju turned to me after only a minute at Shin Sam’s market and asked, “Who are all these people?”
He had been unprepared to find an entirely new subculture on the island, especially in village he’d never heard of. There were fringe elements here that he had only seen glimpses of in Seoul or abroad; bohemians, iconoclasts, and nomads from at least four different countries. But it was more than just dreadlocks, tie-dyes, and tattoos.
Like many of the regulars at the market, Jung-seon was originally from the mainland. He had a master’s degree in furniture design. He spent nine years as a teacher using his technical drawing skills to help students prepare for exams in photorealistic rendering. Jung-seon was a perfect model of mainstream Korean focus and industry.
His back pain was as much a product of stress as it was from being bent over a draft table all day. But it was more than that. He loved teaching, but it hadn’t satisfied his passion to create. Moreover, Jung-seon felt alone in one of the most densely populated cities on the planet.
As is so often the case, his body was demanding a change that his heart had only just started to admit. Eventually the pain and pressure got bad enough for him to get the message.
In 2013, Jung-seon came to Jeju. He didn’t have an itinerary. He wasn’t looking for a new life. He just wanted to enjoy the comfort of simple things again. Eating. Sleeping. Being outside amid the trees. But a little freedom can be a dangerous thing.
▲ The small streets and "tractor-trucks" of Susan-riPhoto by Justin Ferrell
Jung-seon almost immediately sold everything he owned and moved to Jeju. He signed a five year contract renting an old warehouse about thirty minutes east of Jeju City. He built a humble living space in one corner and set up a woodworking shop in the rest. People must have thought he was crazy. Maybe he did too.
He certainly never expected to become a community center. Being social was never really one of his talents. However, his woodworking classes fostered a striking camaraderie. People began to come earlier and stay later. Word spread and so did the diversity of his classes. People were hungry for the passion and energy they found at his workshop.
When Jung-seon decided to sell some of his hand made furniture in June of 2014 it was as if a critical mass had been reached. A market erupted and has been growing ever since.
Jung-seon has become better known by his professional name, Shin Sam. His lower back is happier than it used to be and so is he. He’s married now. The market has become one of many labors of love for him and his wife Kyung-jin.
Their humble 330 square meter warehouse, full of raw timber and Christmas lights, is flush with a steady heartbeat of friendships, community, and creativity. People from all over the island and all over the world show up to mix with generations born and raised in Susan-ri.
▲ Shin Sam, a man of culture Photo by Yun Mee-young
Once a month from 12 - 3 p.m. you can take the pulse of a burgeoning new culture. It’s a phenomenon disguised as a market. An example of progressive culture on an island that’s struggling with the appropriation of its history, icons, and even its dignity - all in the name of branding. An optimistic counterbalance to worrisome aspects of Jeju’s growing prosperity.
And you can see it on the faces of the people in town. They love Shin Sam’s market and the diversity it has brought into their village. There’s a feeling of friendly embrace in Susan-ri, an enthusiasm for the future. However, there’s also a profound depth of history living here as well.
If you wander around Susan-ri long enough, you will eventually find a massive Japanese black pine at the edge of a man-made pond. The tree’s name is Gomsol (곰솔), meaning “bear pine”. This village tree is around 400 years old - an ancient symbol of protection, ancestry, and resilience.
The house where it was planted four centuries ago vanished, along with countless iterations of Korean culture and history. This incredible tree came into the world in the early days of the Joseon Dynasty and lived to see its end in 1897.
It was alive during the reign of King Sejong and the creation of Hangul - the Korean alphabet - a foundation of Korea’s modern identity and culture. It survived the wars with Japan and China, and first contact with the European colonial powers; the World Wars, Japanese occupation, the Korean War, and the Jeju massacre. And it continues to prosper in the time of hagwons, noraebangs, and PC bangs.
When I asked Shin Sam about gomsol, he said he feels a bond with this tree. It represents the protection that community and history provides. Gomsol is a steadfast member of Susan-ri who brings a subtle wisdom to the ever-uncertain times of the people living here. A vitality and strength that anyone can experience, when they return to their roots.
▲ A 400 years old village tree in Susan-ri named “Gomsol” Photo by Justin Ferrell
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