▲ Women divers go to work without oxygen tanks. Every minute underwater brings them closer to danger. Photo by Lee Sung Eun
It is no secret that the haenyeo (diving women) vocation is becoming obsolete.
Some 200 years ago these women took to the waters, harvested the seabed and returned to shore breadwinners of the household, matriarchs in a Confucian society; the manifestation of Jeju’s resilience, strength and courage.
According to “Jeju Myths and History,” produced by the Jeju provincial government, during the colonial Japanese occupation of the early 20th century the haenyeo stood as freedom fighters, organizing an estimated 240 demonstrations against their oppressors. In the 1950s there were 30,000 registered haenyeo. In the 1970s they were responsible for producing 50 percent of the island’s income.
During the 1980s the island began its rapid transformation from what it had always been, into the isle we live on today; an urbanized metropolis in-training. With development came foreign investment, government funding and less of a need for the women of the sea.
Currently there are 2,500 haenyeo, half the number of a decade ago, with a large majority above the age of 50. This job of necessity has undergone its own transformation from work that was once looked down upon to that of which legends are made. As their numbers dwindle, the media, including the Jeju Weekly, has reported with nostalgia and sentimentality about the final remnants of a bygone era.
Through government intervention in the form of the haenyeo school and active promotion of the culture to the mainland and overseas, Jeju hopes to prevent the profession’s disappearance, which raises the question; what will become of the haenyeo and why not allow them to simply become a source of pride in Jeju’s tumultuous history?
The haenyeo school, located in Hallim-eup, is one of the major driving forces behind the preservation of the profession. According to the principal, Im Myung Ho, the school has three main purposes; to preserve the haenyeo lineage, to transform them into the “mascot for Jeju” and to act as a tourist attraction. Im stressed that he personally wants the “haenyeo to remain a presence on Jeju.”
The training institution was founded after the provincial government “asked each village in Jeju to come up with a tourism idea. This village [Hallim], they came up with the Haenyeo Experience. That was 2007. It was picked number one of the specialized programs.”
The Haenyeo Experience, he explained, afforded tourists, for a fee of 20,000 won, the opportunity to swim with the haenyeo as they harvested crustaceans, sea cucumbers and octopi, which they then would serve to their guests.
“Because people come to watch and play haenyeo it makes them [the woman divers] that much more wondrous,” he said, though he remarked previously in the conversation that “I haven’t and never would see them as something to be toyed with or people ... watching them as entertainment. Like Kim Yuna’s performances on TV, people watch her with reverence.”
“These spectators come to experience and watch haenyeo because they are very skilled.”
It was not long after the establishment of the Haenyeo Experience that the haenyeo school was integrated into the program. “After that it became a combination of short term Haenyeo Experience and long term haenyeo school,” Im said.
Since the inception of the school there have been 135 students, of which 103 graduated from the program with only four who have since become part time haenyeo. Moon Young Sook, a member of the first graduating class said, “Initially, I didn’t have much economical motivation. I live in the neighborhood and I wanted to experience the sea, and more importantly this town of Hallim is filled with haenyeo and my neighbors are haenyeo and I wanted to interact with them.” She continued, “It helps with mingling with my neighbors.”
▲ After finishing a dive, haenyeo take deep breaths. The sound of the sudden intake of air is traditionally called 'Sumbisori.' Photo by Lee Sung Eun
Im reiterated the fact that the purpose of the school was not to create more haenyeo to replenish the aging and retiring stock stating that “I don’t think the haenyeo is necessary other than for cultural or tourist motivations.”
His reasons for that statement are that the once profitable occupation is no longer commercially viable as the urbanization of Jeju has opened up the job market creating more options for the gainful employment of women.
Also, young women “are reluctant to learn the craft and it is due to the pollution of the seas from the fertilizers of farming, from the factories, household waste. The seas are polluted. The sea is whiting, which means there are no more resources,” he said, continuing that only 10 to 20 percent of seaside industries are active, while the remaining percent are either floundering or have already gone out of business.
The school accepts 35 students from Jeju, 10 from the mainland and 10 foreigners. The majority of those who have graduated from the school have other forms of employment. Im said the only reasons one should attend the school is for a “rewarding experience and healthy exercise.”
Considering that the school has no interest in training new haenyeo to harvest the seas, its ultimate objective appears to be to transform the occupation solely into a skill, to maintain the haenyeo’s lineage and prominence on Jeju by allowing the younger generation to learn the abilities of a haenyeo.
Though their occupation is rapidly becoming extinct the contribution of the haenyo to the isle of Jeju has been solidified in the hearts and minds of its people. The concern now for those with stakes in the future of the vocation (the government, the haenyeo school, tourism organizations and of course, the haenyeo themselves) lies in preserving its honor. If they wish to maintain the respect and dignity this profession has worked so hard to earn over past decades, they will have to do so without allowing it to become a tourist trap. Moon said, “Haenyeo is such a lifestyle. Haenyeo can only converse with other haenyeo.”
This ephemeral aura the haenyeo have established on the island only adds to their mystique and to their legendary quality. Were this proud tradition to become merely another attraction for the Jeju marketing campaign, that allure may become lost.
Additional reporting and translation by Chris J. Park
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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