Jeju Island. Semi-tropical, volcanic island off the southern coast of South Korea. Favorite honeymoon and golf getaway venue for the better-heeled Korean, Chinese and Japanese set. Also, the setting for the most infuriating Korean soap opera finale of all frickin’ time. If you’re a K-drama fan, you know I’m talking about the last scene of the first season of IRIS. Okay, hang on, let me catch the others up….
All you need to know, is that the couple in the following clip both just retired from active spy duty with a South Korean government intelligence agency so they could finally live a quiet life together. For 20 episodes, they were star-crossed, kept apart by the lies and malevolent agendas of various Svengalis, as well as their own conflicting loyalties. Every time they were about to get together, something would tear them apart. They even each thought the other was dead for a while. So, they’ve been through quite the wringer. In Episode 20, the final chapter, the Baddie gets his comeuppance, the two lovers quit the spy biz for good, and run off to Jeju Island for some long overdue R&R&R (rest & relaxation & romance). He casually proposes and asks her if they can have five kids; she jokes that she can’t take such a random proposal, with no ring, seriously. So, later, he leaves her a note to meet him at the lighthouse, and he goes and gets a ring. She knows what’s coming, so she happily goes and waits for him, wistfully reflecting on all they’ve been through. Then, this:
What. The. Hell! They killed him in the final scene? After 20 episodes of spectacular betrayals, intrigues, and narrow evasions of death at every turn? When, finally, all obstacles to their love had been cleared from their path? With her, standing on the lighthouse platform, waiting for him to come propose to her properly, right there in his sight as he bleeds out? Aww, man…Korean soap operas have a tendency to have less than the full Hollywood happy endings, but this was just uncalled for. I was so mad, I watched Spanish telenovelas instead of K-dramas for two months afterward out of spite, as payback for that beaver tail slap to the face.
But, I got over it. There are, after all, a host of other K-dramas with happier scenes filmed on Jeju Island—or Jeju-do, as it’s called in Korean. In fact, the tourist maps have all the film locations noted on them, so fans can easily find them. Naturally, I made a beeline to the infamous IRIS lighthouse. I even parked my rental car in the spot where they filmed his car screeching to a halt after he’d been shot. It gave me closure. I can move on now. I might even watch the second season. Maybe.
But, back to Jeju. The southern tip of South Korea shatters into a spray of little islands, and Jeju is the largest, and one of the most distant, of them. Still, it’s a snap to get to, with ferry service from Busan, as well as practically hourly flights from Busan, Seoul and other major Korean and Japanese cities. I took the 45-minute flight from Busan, and the ticket only cost me about $40 USD on Jeju Air.
Jeju has a personality all its own, very distinct from the mainland. The local saying goes that Jeju-do is a land of “Three Abundances: rocks, wind and women”–because of the rocky lava landscape and the Dolharubang (ancient stone statues sprinkled around the island), the windy climate and the fact that Jeju women are more plentiful and dominant in its society than men–and “Three Lacks: thieves, locked gates and beggars”—as the community values are such that there is no theft or begging, and thus, no need to lock the front gates. I can vouch for the Three Lacks, but from what I saw, I think they need to revise the Three Abundances to read “women, tangerines and sex museums.”
The place is lousy with “museums” of all kinds, actually, due to an apparent special tax benefit for museum owners. But, on an island of roughly 700 square miles, there are three fairly large scale museums devoted to sex. In the town of Seogwipo (pronounced “soggy-po”), there is the somewhat clinical, yet still X-rated, Museum of Sex and Health, as well as the World Eros Museum, devoted to erotica. But, the biggest, and best known, is Jeju Loveland in Jeju City.
Loveland is an adults-only sculpture park, started in 2004 by art students from Hongik University in Seoul. The 140 sculptures in the park are all sexually inspired; some are more graphic than others, and some are even interactive. With a few exceptions, the tone is humorous and playful, and encourages visitors to lighten the heck up about sex. From the gaggles of giggling grannies I saw gleefully frolicking amongst the interactive exhibits, I’d say that message was received, in spades.
There’s a snack bar at the far end of the trail through the park. It’s adjacent to a giant, mosaic-tiled posterior—complete with butterfly tattoo–peeing into a pond, next to which a comely maiden rides astride a rearing, phallic steed. Because, you know…that kind of sight can make a person a bit peckish. As I approached, an apron-clad auntie came out of the snack bar and insisted I try a sample of some fragrant, fresh baked goods she had in a basket.
They were little cream-filled waffles shaped like boobies and wee-wees. Of course. What else? Although, I personally felt the joke would have been carried home a little better by some kind of Bavarian cream filling, these were filled, like almost all pastries in Korea, with sweet red bean paste. Anyway, I always feel obligated to buy after I accept a sample, and they weren’t bad, so I went inside to buy one. But, they only came in bags of three. So, I bought and, yes, ate…a bag of dicks. And, I thought about Louis C.K. the whole time.
I may have to tweet him about this.
More ubiquitous than, and some would argue equally salubrious as, the sex museums, though, are tangerine orchards. For centuries, Jeju has been famous for–indeed, practically synonymous with–tangerines. The island is, literally, covered with tangerine trees. The climate and volcanic soil on the eastern side of the island, near Seogwipo, are perfect for citrus cultivation. In the IRIS video above, notice that, when the girl is sitting by the window reading, she’s got a big basket of tangerines next to her, and there’s a giant pile of peels on the floor. Oh yeah, you don’t go to Jeju and not gorge yourself on tangerines. It just isn’t done.
Historical records indicate tangerines were offered as tribute to the king as early as 476 A.D., in the Baekje Dynasty. They were prized not only for their sweet taste, but also for their value in oriental medicine.
Once the royals got a taste of Jeju’s tangerines, they couldn’t get enough, and demanded a huge tribute of tangerines each year, to the point that the local governors requisitioned the fruit on all the trees on the island, including those in people’s back yard gardens. Here’s a groovy 3D video they had at the Tangerine Museum (yes, they had a tangerine museum, complete with “Smell-evision”) of a dramatic reenactment of the ancient King first learning about the wondrous tangerine:
Got that? Good. So, civil servants would run around the island during the bloom, and count the buds on the trees, and then show up to collect exactly that number of fruit at harvest time. If your tangerines failed to develop, fell, or got eaten by bugs or birds before they could be collected, you had to pay a fine for the missing ones. If your tangerines were of inferior quality, you could be charged with mismanagement of tangerines, stripped of your property, and converted to a person of the slave class. Harsh, no? So, during that time, people who didn’t want to take the risk, would pour boiling water on tangerine saplings, to kill the tree before they could be held responsible for it. But, on the flip side, if a slave managed to plant some tangerine trees and yield some good fruit, he could be elevated out of slave class to a citizen. Later, when the tangerine industry started to be a profit center for Jeju residents, they called tangerine trees “college trees,” because if you planted enough, you’d be able to afford to send your kids to college.
There are several varieties of tangerines grown on Jeju, and citrus stands dot the roads all around the island. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on some. Tangerines have been my favorite fruit since I was little, when we had tangerine and tangelo trees in our groves in Southern California. I have many fond memories of sitting under the trees in the sunshine, sweet tangerine juice running down my chin, my hands and arms all sticky, as the honey bees buzzed whimsically around.
So, first thing, even before I went to Loveland, I stopped at a roadside stand to buy some tangerines. The farmer sent his helper running up to the house to fetch his daughter from her homework to come help, as she could speak a few words of English. I’ll spare you the play by play, but suffice it to say we had a minor disagreement about which, and how many, tangerines I would be taking home with me. I wanted the plumper, dark orange ones with thick, dimpled skin, and he seemed to want to unload these sad little greenish, golf ball-sized, shiny, thin-skinned ones that didn’t look appetizing to me. And, he insisted I had to take at least a kilo, which is a lot of tangerines. Finally, by the time his poor daughter had smoke coming out her ears from trying to translate the exchange, I agreed to take a kilo, and he agreed to split it half-and-half between the two varieties.
And darn it, he was right. The ugly little green splotchy ones were sweet, juicy, brilliant ruby and delicious inside, whereas the big fat orange ones that had attracted me were sour and dry, like the Naranja Agria you get in the Latin markets back home for cooking rather than eating.
Shows you what I know. I had to go back later and apologize to the farmer, and get some more of those yummy little ones, after I hoovered through what he had given me in one day. To his credit, he didn’t gloat. To my face, anyway.
One of Korea’s uniquely charming traits is how it can embrace modern progress, charging headlong into the high tech future, while at the same time, its historical and folk culture remains intact. This is evident nowhere plainer than on Jeju-do.
I’m not talking about self-consciously quaint reproductions of old-timey traditional burgs filled with souvenir shops, although there are some of those. No, Jeju’s got the real thing. There are entire villages of inhabited thatch-roofed, mud and stone hut compounds surrounded by low walls of stacked lava rocks to keep the pigs and chickens from taking off. Seongup is one such village.
People still live and work in these anachronistic communities, and not just to provide atmosphere for the tourists. It has been their way of life for generations. They do add modern conveniences here and there, though.
Because livestock is kept inside the walls of the homesteads, they put stone pillar gates–called “jeongnang”–at the entrance, and block the gate with one to three wooden poles to keep the animals in when they aren’t around to mind them.
They also use the jeongnang poles as a message system to communicate with the neighbors, as well as any camera-wielding tourists who may wander in. If all three poles are up in the gate, it means “Don’t come in.” Two poles up means the owner is out for a while, but will be back in a bit. One pole up means the owner is not in the house, but is somewhere close by. All three poles down means the owner is home, and visitors are welcome. Remember, no locked gates on Jeju-do.
The most defining cultural feature of Jeju-do, though, is the Haenyeo. The “sea women.” Specifically, women free divers. If you drive along the coast, chances are you will catch a glimpse of a group of black rubber-suited figures popping their heads up from the surface of the dark, clear sea, whistling like trains in the distance as they exhale their long-held breath. These are the haenyeo. Jeju’s mermaids. They work in tight sisterhoods, diving for as long as two minutes at a time without the assistance of air tanks, to hand-gather abalone, oysters, mussels, octopi, urchins, and any other edible, useful or saleable sea creature or plant they can find. They even dive when they’re pregnant, and well into old age. Some of these broads are in their 70s, and they’re still hauling their entire extended family’s livelihood out of the sea with their bare hands, every day.
As early as the 17th century, women were the breadwinners in Jeju, diving for marine products from the sea in the morning, and tending family farms in the afternoon. This came about in part, because so many of the island’s men blew away when out to sea to fish (remember, wind is one of the Three Abundances), but also for a much more practical reason. Under the early laws, women weren’t taxed. So, Jeju’s women took to the seas, and the yield from their day’s work was more profitable, because they weren’t taxed. Soon, they figured out that women were more suited to diving; they didn’t get cold so fast, because of higher body fat. As a result, gender roles on Jeju reversed, with women assuming the place as heads of the household.
They created a sure-fire matriarchal society on Jeju-do. Confucian traditionalists on the mainland didn’t like that; women were supposed to be inferior and submissive. So, they tried to ban women from diving. But, the Jeju haenyeo ignored them, and went about their business. So central were the haenyeo to the economic health of the island, there is a saying on Jeju when someone has a baby: “if it’s a girl, we’ll roast a pig and have a party; if it’s a boy, we’ll kick him in the hip.” Not that the haenyeo didn’t have any use for men in their circles. You know…as pets, to keep warm at night.
The haenyeo were also critical to the anti-Japanese resistance in Korea. They continually staged protests and fought against the Japanese occupation in Jeju in the 19th century. In the 1930s, Japan had turned Jeju-do into a military base. The haenyeo organized two years of full-scale rebellion against Japanese oppression of Jeju’s fishing and marine industries, rallying thousands of villagers to stand up for their rights. It is considered one of the three most significant anti-Japanese movements in Korea’s history, and the only one lead by women.
At the height of Jeju’s marine product export economy in the 1950s, there were as many as 30,000 haenyeo on Jeju. They made good money, and sent their daughters to college instead of having them follow in their flippers to a life in the sea. As a result, by 1970, the number of working haenyeo was down to 16,000. Today, there are fewer than 6,000 haenyeo still plying the waters around Jeju-do. Two-thirds of them are over 60 years old, and over a thousand of them are over 70. But, they remain the pride of Jeju. So concerned is the community that the haenyeo are dying out, they have established a school, where anyone who wants to learn the haenyeo trade is welcome to enroll.
If it wasn’t for Dale, and my extra-buoyant figure, I’d give it a whirl. But, I’d probably end up like this crusty old bat (note the tangerines):