Jeju divers draw island’s history, ethos
By Chung Ah-young
Wrinkled faces, rough knuckles, gray hair and strong personalities might well define the livelihood of “haenyeo” (female divers), a symbolic face of Jeju Island, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Korea for its beautiful beaches, exotic atmosphere and mild weather. Their features epitomize the haunting tales of the island natives saddled with the ups and downs of a hard life for survival.
The new book “Moon Tides: Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea” written by Korean-American photo journalist Brenda Paik Sunoo with Han Young-sook documents the stories of the island through the eyes of the haenyeo.
The author, a third-generation Korean-American writer and photojournalist based in Orange County, California, gathered the women’s stories while living in their diving villages for seven months between 2007 and 2009 to capture their lives through intimate interviews and vivid photographs.
The book consists of seven chapters from survival, shamans, suffering, aging, compassion, family and future to track down the divers’ rough lives and diverse social and cultural aspects of the island as women, mothers, wives, divers and human beings.
For centuries, the female divers have confronted the tempestuous tides of history and struggled for survival by diving into the sea to harvest seaweed, octopus, sea urchins, turban shells and abalone. They are now disappearing and perhaps the present divers might be the last of their generation.
Traditionally, they have never used scuba diving equipment and dive only in three-piece rubber suits aided by a mask, fins and a floating device with a net, and metal tools for plucking abalone or cutting seaweed.
The number of haenyeo has dwindled from 15,000 in the 1970s to 5,600 in recent decades. Scattered around more than 100 villages around the island, the women work year-round in groups organized by their own community’s diving associations known as “eochongye.”
Many of them are known to dive 65 feet while holding their breath for two minutes or longer. They sometimes hover around the “critical line” when the concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood forces the breathing impulse before they safely reach the surface due to their greed to harvest more.
Cho Jeong-sun, 54, who receives hyperbaric treatment for headaches, says “I’m happier doing haenyeo work than farming. It is fun for me to be underwater searching for seafood. I’ve actually never swum in a pool. If I were allowed to, I’d want to go into the sea every day.”
An Mi-seon, the youngest haenyeo, who was born in 1970, in Haengwon, went to the mainland and married there but returned to Jeju. She began diving at age 29 because she had to support her family.
“Most young women don’t want to be a haenyeo because they think the work is too difficult. But I love it. When we all go to the sea, we work together like a family. Who knows? In a few years, young people may become interested in such work,” An says.
Due to the dangerous nature of their work, they tend to resort to shamanist ceremonies praying for a safe return and abundant harvest. Their intimate relationship with the land and sea, their shamanist beliefs and their communal village life have protected them throughout their entire lives.
Jeju shamans serve as intermediaries or messengers between the physical and spiritual worlds. Believers rely on shamans to treat their ailments, cure the souls, protect their lives, ensure bountiful harvests from the land and sea and bring prosperity to their business or pray for their children’s luck in education and marriage.
“The gut (a shamanistic ritual) is important to the haenyeo because they feel they are risking their lives all the time while in the water. They need something to rely on and make them have a sense of security. The gut can give them that sense of security and make them feel at ease,” a shamanistic believer said.
When the women have big occasions, they invite the shamans to prevent bad luck. Rice is thrown for those who attend or for those whose names are written on paper by them. The shamans cajole the spirits and elicit laughter.
The April 3 Massacre in Jeju in 1948 which killed at least 30,000 civilians during a rebellion put down by the Korean military was an important part of the island’s history. Almost every family on the island has been affected by the tragic losses that occurred during this time. Earlier, the haenyeo’s anti-Japanese activities took place in Seongsan-ri in 1931 when they realized they were being cheated out of their deserved earnings.
In 1932, the biggest protest was held in Hado-ri and some 17,000 people gathered together at that time. It was one of the biggest protests in the history of Korea’s anti-Japanese movement. It was unique in that women spearheaded the protest.
Currently, the working, comparatively young haenyeo volunteer to feed and bathe the elderly who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and retired divers enter into the sea to clean up the environment. They haul and sort garbage, such as oyster traps, bits of Styrofoam, plastic bottles and other garbage.
The 200 vivid photographs in “Moon Tides” best capture the realistic portrayal and diverse faces of haenyeo. The photos won the 2010 Community Choice Awards for an exhibit entitled “Picturing Power and Potential,” sponsored by the San Francisco Arts Commission and International Museum of Women.