Go Book a Chance to See “Portrait of a Beauty” Right Now. No, Not the Movie.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes. Images, L-R: a “Gangnam beauty”; the original “Mi-in-do/Portrait of a Beauty” by Sin Yun-bok; and a poster of the 2008 movie of the same name. Sources: Awesome Pick, 기냥 보는 재미…원미동통신, and 연예계 뒷담화.

I’m working on a piece about a very rare, arguably feminist example of 18th Century Korean Rückenfigur art at the moment, as one does. The artist Yun Yong, some claim, was the real painter behind “Portrait of a Beauty,” not the much better-known—but still awesome—Sin Yun-bok.

Or so I thought, until I learned that controversy was actually about the “Gosan (고산) Portrait of a Beauty,” which looks very similar and often has the “Gosan” omitted from its title (sigh).

Either way, Google perused my complicated browsing history, put two and two together, and alerted me to this news video about a week-long exhibition of it going on at the National Museum of Korea at the moment:

Apologies that I’m only just finding out about it now, and that this provincial Busanite has no information about how to book tickets to Seoul museums. But for the determined, hopefully there’s still some spaces available for the remaining three days of the exhibition.

Update: Here is the link to book tickets :)

다시 문 연 박물관…’미인도’ 내일부터 연장 전시 Museum Reopens Its Doors, “Portrait of a Beauty” Extended Exhibition Begins Tomorrow

Saturday October 3

[앵커] 한국의 모나리자로 불리는 ‘미인도’가 내일(5일)부터 국립중앙박물관에서 다시 관람객들을 맞이합니다.

Anchor: Called the Korean Mona Lisa, “Portrait of a Beauty” welcomes visitors again at the National Museum of Korea from Monday the 5th. [James—Not technically “tomorrow”; YTN got its dates wrong!]

코로나19 여파로 닫혔던 박물관이 다시 문을 열면서 특별전시회 기간도 조금 연장했습니다.

As the original exhibition ended prematurely when the museum was closed in the summer due to the Corona-19 pandemic, this special exhibition was slightly extended.

김혜은 기자가 보도합니다.

Reporter Kim Hye-eun reports.

[기자] 구름 같은 가체 머리에 둥글고 앳된 얼굴, 살포시 아래를 향한 얇고 긴 눈매.

Reporter Kim: A cloud-like gachae [traditional Korean wig] with a round and youthful face, and thin, long eyes looking gently downwards.

웃는 듯 아닌 듯 속내를 알 수 없는 표정이 백미입니다.

The viewer not being able to tell is she is smiling or not, her impenetrable expression is one of the highlights of the painting.

목 뒤의 잔머리나 붉은 삼작노리개를 매만지는 섬세한 손 등 세밀한 묘사가 돋보입니다.

The extraordinary detail of the depiction stands out, such as in the fine hair at the back of the neck, and in the delicacy of the hand with which she’s tying the red three-piece norigae [a traditional ornament worn by women].

조선 후기 고관대작들의 초상화에나 사용했던 세밀화 기법이 여인의 초상화에 등장한 겁니다.

In the late Joseon Dynasty, this technique of incorporating small details was used in portraits of high-ranking women.

[강경남 / 국립중앙박물관 학예사: 머리털 한 올 한 올, 한복의 깃까지 굉장히 아름다운 색을 쓰고 세필로 정성스럽게 그려 넣은 것을 알 수 있습니다.]

Gang Gyeong-nam, National Museum of Korea Curator: “You can see that each hair and the collar of the hanbok were carefully drawn, and painted in beautiful colors. Great attention was paid to the fine writing too.”

Image source, cropped: Joo Jaebum @Behance; (CC BY-NC 4.0)

그림 속 여인은 기생이라고 추정할 뿐 아직 밝혀진 건 없습니다.

The woman in the picture is presumed to be a gisaeng, but no information has ever emerged about her.

간송문화재단에서 보관하던 ‘미인도’는 지난 8월 국립중앙박물관에 3주 일정으로 특별 전시됐지만, 코로나19 탓에 나흘 만에 볼 수 없었습니다.

“Portrait of a Beauty,” which was kept by the Kansong Art and Culture Foundation, was to be specially exhibited at the National Museum of Korea last August for three weeks, but the exhibition had to close after just four days due to the Corona-19 pandemic.

지난주부터 박물관이 다시 문을 열면서 ‘미인도’는 11일까지 1주일 동안 다시 전시됩니다.

With the museum reopening last week, “Portrait of a Beauty” will be exhibited again for a week until Sunday the 11th.

박물관 측은 국보와 보물 83건을 볼 수 있는 큰 전시인 만큼 특별전 기간을 오는 11일까지로 연장해놓았습니다.

The museum has extended the exhibition due to its large size, with 83 national treasures on display.

긴장감이 감도는 투전판, 옷섶을 풀어헤친 채 장기 두는 승려를 그린 김득신의 풍속화와, 지금의 청운동인 인왕산 기슭 청풍계를 담은 정선의 작품도 만날 수 있습니다.

These national treasures include Kim Deuk-sin‘s paintings of four tense men gambling and of two men and one monk playing Chinese chess. There are also a number of Jeong Seon‘s landscapes, including “Cheongpunggye” which depicts the present-day Cheongun-dong neighbourhood of Jongno-gu in Seoul at the base of Inwangsan Mountain.

다만 국보인 ‘삼국사기’는 사전협약에 따라 반환돼 연장 전시 기간에는 공개되지 않습니다.

However, the History of the Three Kingdoms, a national treasure, has already been returned to the Kansong Art and Culture Foundation according to a prior agreement and will not be on display.

관람은 1회 30분 간격, 회당 40명으로 인원수가 축소되며 온라인 사전예매 방식으로만 운영됩니다.

The number of visitors is reduced to 40 people per 30-minute interval, and is operated only by online pre-order.

YTN 김혜은[henism@ytn.co.kr]입니다.

This is Kim Hye-eun of YTN [henism@ytn.co.kr].

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

TIL About Eugenics in Singapore in the 1980s. Was This a Thing in Korea too?

Remember that hilarious Singaporean government birthrate campaign ad from the 1980s? Which I mentioned in my look at the demographics of Korean dating agencies?

Twenty-plus years after laughing at that as an undergraduate, last night it suddenly wasn’t so funny:

Source: Page 162 of South East Asia in the World-Economy: A Regional Economy, by Chris Dixon (1991).

Somewhat late to the party, I learned there’s actually a wealth of information about Lee Kuan Yew’s eugenicist streak out there. Which just goes to show it’s also been twenty-plus years since I studied Singapore in any great depth.

But I wonder now too, if Korean policymakers ever had similar motivations?

However unlikely it may sound, there’s a great deal in Korea’s history to suggest that it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Since the 1930s, an ethnically-based, “bloodlines” conception of nationalism and citizenship has been prevalent here, despite being hilariously unscientific. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a “patriotic,” semi-forced female sterilization “mania,” and widespread sex-selective abortion didn’t end until the late-1990s. Just a decade ago, the Lee Myung-bak government (2008-2013) openly acknowledged that it was criminalizing abortion in order to increase the birthrate. And today, Korea has one of the world’s lowest rates of out of wedlock-births, and continues to discriminate against single mothers,

I don’t have the answers, and I’m not saying a concern with Korean brides’ education was necessarily a thing. But it’s going to be interesting finding out ;)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Busting the Myth of Jeju Island’s Topless Divers

Estimated reading time: 25 minutes. Image source: KpopStarz.

Imagine for a moment, there’s a bona fide reason to open a post about Korea’s female sea divers, known as haenyeo, with this image of iconic K-pop group Girls’ Generation promoting Gangnam.

Many of you will immediately recognize its age: Jessica, in the center, left the group in September 2014, two and half years after they were appointed as honorary publicity ambassadors for the district. Yet still their aura of stylishness, cosmopolitanism, and confidence remains so vivid, and district officials’ desire to link that aura to Gangnam so powerful, that this eight year-old advertisement can still be seen in airports even today.

Now imagine if, at the same time it was produced, it was an open secret that the Seoul Metropolitan Government had begun collaborating with a foreign government to set up brothels in Gangnam. Not necessarily K-pop themed, but brothels nonetheless. That by the time Covid-19 struck, the majority of overseas visitors to the district would not be the starry-eyed hallyu fans you’d expect from the sub-heading on the ad, nor medical tourists. Rather, they’d be stressed businessmen from that foreign country, encouraged by both their government and their companies to let off steam by going on sex tours to Gangnam. For some of the more high-ranking among them, their liaisons with Korean sex workers would even be arranged by Seoul government officials themselves, to better facilitate trade and investment deals.

That sexing-up of Gangnam’s image with Girls’ Generation? One hell of a coincidence. Whatever your feelings about sex work, you could ask serious questions about what choices the members had in their image being used to promote it. So too, if they ever made any profit from doing so, rather than all of it going to SM Entertainment.

You can guess where I’m going with this.

A sex tourism industry really was developed throughout Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, but especially on Jeju Island.

On the mainland, its history is complicated by that of the parallel sex industry set up for the USFK, and complicated further still by the earlier industry for (primarily) Japanese officials and male tourists in the 1930s, as we’ll delve into later. But on Jeju, the story after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan in 1965 is relatively simple.

There, according to Dr. Caroline Norma of RMIT University, prominent Japanese businessmen, private companies, and even the Japanese Ministry of Infrastructure, Transport, and Industry were directly involved in the setting up of tourist facilities and infrastructure in the 1970s—all for the explicit purpose of gambling and sex tourism for Japanese businessmen, and all with the full support of Korean president Park Chung-hee who wanted to develop the island as a tourist resort. Certainly, there was opposition in both countries. Yet by 1986, over 1000 women would be working in the 4 ‘kisaeng houses’ established, and the industry would come to be so integral to the island’s economy that the Jeju prefectural government would ask to be exempted from the anti-prostitution law of 2004—and saddled with swathes of abandoned buildings when that request was refused.

You can also guess that Jeju’s tourist brochures from the 1970s would be replete with glamorous photos of youthful models posing as Jeju’s haenyeo. For example, this one below, which at least features realistic outfits for the time (as I’ll explain in detail later):

Source left, cropped: hansoo7007; the highest quality image I’ve been able to find. Source right: National Folk Museum of Korea via Google Arts and Culture. Unfortunately, the only definitive dating of this image I’ve found is from a 1974 postcard, but it probably dates to at least several years earlier.

Here’s another with different models, superimposed over a background of local landmark Dragon Head Rock. This photo was likewise featured on the cover of a tourist brochure, on postcards, and on souvenirs:

Source: Prof.dr. R.E. Breuker, Leiden University, Marginalia on Northern Korea. Used with permission.

But forget about the burgeoning sex tourism industry behind the scenes for a moment. So too, the affected poses. Besides those, what is “off” about about these photos exactly? Which isn’t off about this one below, of genuine haenyeo from the early-1960s?

Source: Jeju Provincial Self-governing Haenyeo Museum via Google Arts & Culture.

Recall that I described them as “glamorous.”

It’s true the word can have many meanings, including—ironically for our titular subject—“busty” in Korean. But in this particular case, the first two photos are glamorous because their emphasis is on the models as women, not as haenyeo. It’s on their femininity. That’s why they still look like models, despite the authentic outfits and the equipment. Whereas in the last picture, all but one of the haenyeo are too busy to care less about the photographer, which is a good indicator they’re the real deal. If there’s any emphasis in the photograph at all, it’s on the profession.

If stressing femininity was the purpose in the former photos however, this raises the question of why it was necessary to use a haenyeo theme. Even on the added justification that the haenyeo symbolized Jeju, whereas, say, generic bikini models wouldn’t, there were significant numbers of haenyeo on mainland coasts who would have begged to differ.

Source: Dolga Dolga@YouTube. This statue of a Busan haenyeo is located in a popular drinking spot in the summer, and gets a lot of attention (and damage) from drunks.

The answer is that the decision was merely the continuation of a long, preexisting history of marginalization, exploitation, othering, and sexualization of Jeju haenyeo, as I’ll discuss later. But it was indeed from the 1970s when this stress on their femininity began in earnest.

Writing in 2013, Shin-Ock Chang from the Department of Sociology at Sungkyunkwan University described the result of four decades of that:

…femaleness is the most mobilized and utilized aspect of women divers in order to please visitors to the island. Women divers’ femaleness has taken the forefront in the island’s tourism development. The femaleness is pervasive in tourism related materials including magazines, posters, basalt sculptures, FRP (Fiberglass Reinforced Plastics) materialized caricature sculptures, and souvenir items. Indeed, the feminine character of women divers is what one comes across most in traveling on the island, and is particularly pervasive in places where tourists are expected to pass through such as hotels, restaurants, museums, shopping centers, coastline car driving roads, and beaches.

Left: K-pop singer Ivy in 2017, via enews24. Source right (cropped): leesangtaek.

Lest this sound like what some would disqualify as typical feminist overreaction over, say, taking harmless funny pictures in front of a couple of statues (a Jeju vacation ritual), consider that “pervasive” means precisely that. For instance, as of 2010, there were 33 haenyeo statues along the coastal roads of Jeju. Thirty-one of these, Chang notes, were the A to C types in Figure 4 below which emphasize and exaggerate the haenyeo’s “female body lines such as breast, hip, and legs.” Also striking was that 19 were of the A type, which she notes bears a strong resemblance to the 1972 photo of a model in a rather inauthentic and impractical bikini in Figure 5 (but still, as indicated through the picture title and equipment, an ostensible haenyeo):

Source: Chang, p. 24.

Moreover, with ubiquity comes familiarity and normalization, and the Korean public, mainland tourists, and foreign visitors alike tending to regard such objectifying as only natural. For example, also consider that last year, the Jeju Women and Family Research Institute released its 2019 Gender Impact Assessment of Jeju Tourism Contents Report (2019년 제주특별자치도 관광 콘텐츠에 대한 특정성별영향평가) in which it identified problematic gender and sexual stereotypes in those contents, and made recommendations on how to correct them. Among the many mentions of haenyeo, one example given was the unnecessary use of those sexualized statues of them used in the background of a video for children shown in the Jeju Dialect section of the Jeju Education Museum (pp. 55-56):

시청각 영상물에서 해녀의 이미지 가성적으로 표현됨. 유두, Y존, 섹슈얼한 포즈 등 지나치게 여성의 신체 일부를 드러냄으로써, 해녀의 신체 에대해 성적인 이미지를 강조하고 있음. 아울러 단어와 문장에 맞지않 은이미지를 사용하고 있음. 해녀에 대한 섹슈얼한 이미지 활용에 대한 문제제기는 이미 많이 진행되어 왔고 개선되고 있는 상황임. 이러한 변화에 맞추어 개선 필요. 특히 어린이/청소년 대상 전시물의 경우 미래 세대에 미치는 영향에 대한 고민 필요

☞ 특정성, 특히 여성에 대한 외모를 강조하는 이미지 활용은 지양. 이미지 개선 필요.

My translation:

The video includes likenesses of haenyeo. But those likenesses are in sexual poses and show off female body parts such as nipples and crotches, stressing an overly physical and sexual image of the haenyeo. Moreover, they are completely unrelated to the words and phrases of the Jeju dialect that are the video’s focus.

There have been many improvements made in the use of overly sexual imagery of haenyeo, and [this museum] needs to improve in line with these changes. In particular, in the case of exhibitions aimed at children and teenagers, it is advisable to consider the impact of such imagery on future generations.

☞ Special attention needs to be given to the rejection of imagery that emphasizes women’s bodies. Improvements to this imagery are necessary.

Yes, that is indeed unfortunate shading on the second statue, but it’s no fault of the video. It’s hardly prudish to wonder why the sculptor(s) were instructed to take that particular creative direction with it either, when everyone would balk at them doing the same for other professions.

But in addition to their shared stress on haenyeo’s femininity, there are two more common themes to be aware of.

Let me explain them by posing you a question. Do you think a 30-something haenyeo should have been chosen as the face of a tourism competition last year to win round-trips to Korea? When 9 out of 10 haenyeo are now over 60 years old?

Screenshot (cropped): Korea Tourism Organization.

There were good reasons. The Korean Tourism Organization promoted the competition through painfully scripted videos of young influencers in Korea waxing lyrical about literally everything, which automatically excluded all those too old to care less. Also, essentially the same role was envisioned for the eventual winners: a miserly 2 days and 3 nights of hotel accommodation were only provided if they chose to meet with the 1 of 30 Korean “friends” available they’d selected upon entering, of whom Go Ryeo-jin above was one. Realistically, very few young hallyu fans would have opted to spend such a limited time with a more representative haenyeo their grandmother’s age. In fact, in that sense, claiming in her own video that Go was the youngest haenyeo of all may only have further added to her appeal. It’s not like any hopeful competition entrant would have quibbled that it wasn’t actually true.

In fairness, the competition did offer the opportunity to meet elderly “friends” in other professions. But this (mis)representation of haenyeo is all too common. For example, when Go played a similar role the year before:

Source: The Traveller. The Korean subheading at bottom literally says “Jeju Naturalism Travel,” but probably “Travels Among Jeju’s Nature” is closer to the intended meaning. Note the anachronistic rubber flippers.

Hey, no-one’s blaming Go for her side-hustles. But Traveller‘s glamorous representation of haenyeo in particular is problematic. Not because feminists are natural spoilsports, but because, in addition to her relative youth, Go’s wearing one of the much flimsier traditional diving outfits like you saw in those glamorous photos earlier. Which were taken precisely when haenyeo stopped wearing such outfits in favor of wetsuits.

Yes, no working haenyeo has actually worn those for nearly 50 years.

So, unless explicitly set before the 1970s, any modern representation of haenyeo that doesn’t convey the reality that 9 out of 10 of them are elderly women in wetsuits, is misinformed at best and a deliberate misrepresentation at worst. And, again, begs the question of the agendas—or at least stereotypes and cultural baggage—of those choosing the representation.

Left: Her Kyungsuk, Hamo Jeju, 2014. Right: Lee Okyong, Gosan Jeju, 2013. Photos by Hyung S. Kim via BuzzFeed.
Source: Noby Leong@Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The logical outcome of the stress on haeneyo’s femininity is then, a stress on their youth. And the flimsy traditional outfits are best at highlighting both themes, which is why we encounter them far more often than wetsuits.

For example, in this fashion show as part of a haenyeo festival in October 2008, which—make of it what you will—I first found pictures of on the misogynistic, alt-right site Ilbe, where members usually post pictures of women only to ridicule or ogle them:

Source: Hankyung.

In fairness, young women have already been performing as haenyeo in various capacities for a very long time. Here are two examples from the 1960s:

Source: e-영상역사관, 1969 & 1966.

I would have loved to have continued with more examples here. In particular, of all the instances of haenyeo in Korean pop culture from the last 70 years that I’ve collected these past two months, as all those were surely both strongly influenced by and strong influences on this sexualized positioning of haenyeo. Through their sheer weight of numbers alone, I felt, it would have been obvious to anyone that this combination of femininity, youth, and overabundance of traditional outfits in them has always been a thing.

But that long list would have rapidly snowballed. Better then, to provide you with the tools to judge such representations of haenyeo for yourselves, wherever you may find them.

That’s our cue to discuss the traditional outfit in detail.

A screenshot from the 2009 TV series Tamra, the Island, with Seo Woo playing a haenyeo. Naturally, it prompted many “news” articles about the topless myth, and a great deal of speculation as to how much of her chest viewers would be treated to. (See my first impressions of the series when it came out here.)

Joo-Young Lee and Hyo Hyun Lee, both from the Department of Textiles at Seoul National University, offer a refreshingly simple guide to the traditional outfit in their 2014 examination of the loss of haenyeo’s physiological adaptions to the cold due to adopting wetsuits (p.4.):

Jeju haenyeo wore a bathing suit made of cotton-broadcloth in white or black (100% cotton with 30 counts, about 0.5 mm thick, and 8.5% water absorption at a dry condition) until wetsuits were supplied. Before the broad cotton cloth was imported from Japan [a 99.6 percent monopoly by 1919—James], the bathing suit was originally made of muslin (thin cotton cloth). Haenyeo preferred the broad cotton to the muslin bathing suit because the broad cotton was relatively thicker and stronger in salty water than the muslin cloth.

I’d add that according to the Jeju Weekly, the difference between the white and black outfits is that the former were made from muslin, woven from traditional looms, while the latter were made from broad cotton cloth that was machine-woven, then dyed black. I doubt this difference in material and method of manufacture continued until the 1970s however.

Source: Lee and Lee, p. 4.

From bitter experience, different romanizations can lead to considerable confusion. So, please take note of the original Korean:

  • The “juck-sam” referred to is “적삼.”
  • The “so-jung-ee” is “소중이.”
  • And the “mul-su-gun” is “물수건.”
  • However, although Lee and Lee only use “mul” in that last name, it simply means water, and every other source I’ve encountered attaches it to the other two names also—i.e., mul-juck-sam/물적삼 and mul-so-jung-ee/물소중이. So I will too.
  • Also, for your interest, su-gun also means towel, which is what it closely resembles.
  • Many sources (example) refer to the entire traditional outfit as “murot” or “mul-ot,” but this—”물옷”—simply means “water clothes.”
  • I’ve only ever seen white muljucksam, but am happy to be shown black ones existed.
  • And finally so-jung-ee, literally “valuable thing,” is often a euphemism for genitals, and probably no coincidence here.

Next, here’s a more detailed breakdown of the mulsojungee from a (Korean) 2013 article by Kim Hyun-mi and Jang Ae-ran of the Department of Beauty & Art at Cheju Halla University and the Department of Clothing and Textiles at Jeju National University, respectively:

Source: Kim and Jang, p. 359. Source below: Zum.

Very confusingly, Kim and Jang mention a jjokiheori/조끼허리 at the top rather than a muljucksam. But that length of it above, indicated by the dotted line extending into the mulsojungee, seems to be mistaken. A jjokiheori is a waistcoat-like covering that is so short it almost looks like a bra (see right), and is most commonly used with hanbok. However, much more commonly used on top of both men’s and women’s hanbok are jeogori (저고리), of which the women’s is usually as short as a jjokiheori, but has large loose sleeves that the jjokiheori lacks; indeed, the muljucksam has been described as a kind of jeogori, albeit with much narrower sleeves to prevent them dragging in the water. As I’ve only been able to find a single additional reference of jjokiheori being used by haenyeo then, and no pictures, there’s no reason to consider it further.

Besides which, it’s the maechin/매친 shoulder strap that’s crucial. This ensured that only the upper chest—but not the breasts—would be exposed if the muljucksam wasn’t also being worn. That, plus the fact that the mulsojungee seems to have come in black just as often as white, sharply distinguishes haenyeo from Japanese ama (海女):

Source, cropped: TheStory

But “crucial”?

Fixating on breast exposure may seem very childish. Not least, because as you can probably tell from the examples below (and as many readers with breasts will already have been well aware), it is obvious that the thin material would have hidden little, and that the functional side-slits for easy adjusting and removal, plus the practicalities of the job (including infant childcare), would in practice have meant frequent breast exposure. It’s also true that the haenyeo would have been working well away from the prying eyes of most men. And even if men did see them—such as fishermen in passing, handlers of the haeyneo’s boats, or men on their shore unloading the haenyeo’s catches—breast exposure was still routine outside of cities in Korea, even as late as the 1950s.

Source: Jeju Special Self-Governing Province
Caption: “Haenyeo at work while wearing muljeoksam” by Yang Ha-sun, 1966. Source: Haenyeo Museum via Google Arts & Culture.
Source: 에뜨랑제(Etranger)나그네의 길
Caption: “Haenyeo warming themselves up in groups after just leaving the water/공동물질을 마친 해녀들이 삼삼오오 짝을 지어 불을 지펴 언몸을 녹이고 있다 (1968년).” Source: I Love Jeju Magazine.
Source: Whimoon Alumni Association. Multiple NSFW images follow.

And yet the mulsojungee would rarely have naturally ridden down below the bust, nor the thick maechin shoulder strap come off, without the wearer quickly fixing them when able. Let alone a haenyeo forgoing wearing a mulsojungee entirely.

In other words, there’s a world of difference between photos like these, taken in passing while the haenyeo were too busy working to care less about the photographers, with photos of haenyeo openly revealing their breasts to them.

Rest assured there are multiple alleged examples from English and Korean google searches to be found of the latter. Armed with this knowledge of the outfits though, now you can instantly tell that a good, say, 95 percent of the nude images are actually of ama, whatever their captions may claim. And it is highly likely that those 5 percent that are indeed of haenyeo were staged.

Knowing this last to be a fact is a good basis on which to investigate why.

Source: @WhoresofYore.

When doing so, there’s three potential factors to consider.

The first is the influence of sexualized representations of ama. Frankly, I am unfamiliar with their traditional outfits, and can not speak to how realistic Yoshiyuki’s Iwase’s (influential) depictions of them topless were—while most are clearly glamorized and staged, many others seem to be little different from those we saw of haenyeo working, albeit with much less clothing.

Regardless, given Japan’s much more liberal media environment in the postwar era, ama were much more intensively and rapidly sexualized than their counterparts in Korea. For instance, their fetishization in film goes back at least as far Michiko Maeda’s Revenge of the Pearl Queen (1956), which tellingly also contained Japanese cinema’s first nude scene. By the 1970s, there were numerous soft-porn films centered around ama.

Source: film.ru.

This is important, as it’s plausible to argue that the glamorized depictions of haenyeo from the early 1970s were simply due to timing.

Which is ultimately quite mistaken. But still plausible.

In particular, and somewhat inconveniently for branding Jeju as a cishet man’s sexual paradise, that period saw the beginning of the most authoritarian phase of Korea’s military regime. This included a harsh crackdown on burgeoning youth culture, including on its attendant challenges to conservative standards of dress and restrictions on nudity in art and the media. If that likewise affected advertising, then using models in genuinely skimpy haenyeo outfits would have served the same glamorizing purpose as bikinis. Being authentic, they would have helped deflect potential criticism and charges of hypocrisy that using models in bikinis might have incurred.

Military regimes are not well-known for suffering public opinion however. It’s also unlikely women’s movements would have raised such trifling matters when so many of their members were routinely being brutally beaten by factory-owners and police.

Alternatively, many older readers may recall the very successful James Bond movie You Only Live Twice had been released just a few years earlier. While it was set in Japan, and only featured ama characters, the similarities in tone with the glamorized depictions of haenyeo we saw are obvious, particularly the 1972 example of a model in a white bikini (but the existence of which slightly contradicts the military crackdown rationale). Indeed, at least one former Peace Corps Volunteer admits the movie was very, very much on his mind upon his arrival on the island in 1973.

Mie Hama as Kissy Suzuki in You Only Live Twice (1967). Source, cropped: ScreenMusings. Source above-right: Anastasia Ashman.

But information about the movie’s (unlikely) popularity in Japan itself is hard to find, and regardless, Japanese businessmen traveling to Jeju for sex would undoubtedly have been much more influenced by ama characters in homegrown soft-pornography films. It’s also reasonable to assume that despite the outlawing of pornography in Korea, and despite official restrictions on direct cultural imports from Japan specifically, Japanese sex tourists’ stereotypes and objectification of ama would still have filtered across to the Korean public through various means, and influenced their preexisting notions of haenyeo.

This would have been especially true after Korean films and photos featuring semi-nudity became widely available in Korea, most notably after President Chun Doo-hwan’s “Sex, Screen, Sports” policy began in 1980. These haenyeo-themed examples from the Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper for instance, which have a very similar feel to Japanese examples from 10 or even 20 years earlier:

Source, left(1987), right(1979; cropped): Moreska@Flickr, used with permission. The red box on the right very helpfully explains that that model is “Film actor Kim Min-jeong symbolizing the haenyeo style. A woman with the sea and sky, radiating a pure warmth”

Meanwhile, Japanese pornography itself had become much more explicit by that stage. I’ll leave interested readers to find ama-themed examples themselves however, confining myself here to passing on the trailer of the (comparatively mild and amusing) Nympho Diver: G-String Festival (1981) instead. Partially, because of its conspicuous Korean subtitles, which title it as Lustful Haenyeo, and partially because it’s quite typical of the sort of adult movies I’d find playing on very late-night Korean television in the 2000s.

Lest I have come across as too critical and prudish in this post, for the record I’m actually a strong supporter of ethical pornography produced in safe environments, by and for consenting adults, and which focuses on women’s pleasure just as much as men’s. Yet I’m hardly ignorant and naive either, and am well aware that most pornography presents women as all too eager to have sex with just about any cishet man who bestows his gaze upon them. So I’m not surprised then, that the aforementioned Jeju Women and Family Research Institute’s 2019 report on tourism materials found numerous cases of voyeurism being normalized as both completely natural for men and just clean harmless fun, which I’m astonished haven’t been torn down yet in the wake of angry protests against Korea’s spycam epidemic. One of these examples (p. 58), from Jeju Loveland, depicts a haenyeo in all but name:

Incongruous Caucasian man in Victorian-era clothing aside (a whole other topic), I’ll leave readers to connect the dots to earlier, pre-internet examples.

The next factor to consider is that the 1970s weren’t the first time haenyeo had been used to sex-up the island for the tourism industry. One prior attempt comes from the 1950s:

Source, top-right: KRpia. Source, all others: 유자향내를 따라서.

Clearly, these photos are part of a series, of which more are available at the single source. Frustratingly however, no extra information about them is provided (my bad for not contacting the owner yet). Also, while the one at the top-right is available elsewhere, most notably in the KRPia Database, I lack the institutional access required to see if any additional information is provided there. (I’ll return to this practical issue later.)

An additional source of frustration is that although some of the outfits appear inauthentic, eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that in an earlier picture of genuine working haenyeo from the 1960s I provided, some of them too wore outfits with two shoulder straps.

After spending so much time researching and familiarizing myself with the traditional outfit, I frankly throw my hands up in despair at that observation. (And so miss that they could simply be a kind of tank-top?) Yet the fact remains that those 1950s photos above were obviously completely staged and glamorized, particularly of the bare-breasted woman. But why?

A tantalizing hint can be found through the following photograph in a June 2012 article in the Jemin Ilbo. Not only because it’s very similar to the above (albeit still very uncertain if it’s related at all), but because the caption there claims it was for a tourism shot:

Source: Jemin Ilbo.

Again frustratingly, that’s the entirety of the information about it. But if true?

Likewise, what to make of the following photo, which is also very staged, but with authentic outfits? Curiously, an authoritative source dates its production to exactly July 21, 1958, but doesn’t say on what that date is based. Nor indeed, any other information about it:

Source: Hankook Ilbo.

Considering Jeju had just seen 10% of its population killed in a brutal repression of an uprising in 1948-1949, and Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world in the decade after the war, then the very notion of producing tourism photos for the island seems absurd, let alone such titillating ones. And yet they stubbornly exist.

I apologize that the pictures raise more questions than answers. But I’m on much firmer ground with the final factor to consider, to be considered when viewing images 20-30 years earlier from the colonial period: that generally, Japanese colonial representations of Korean women were used to dangle the possibility of sex with locals, to present them as primitive and in need of civilizing, or both.

Source: Moreska@Flickr. Used with permission.

Alas I can not possibly do justice to the extensive literature on the development of the sex industry in colonial Korea driving that, let alone dare to publicly take a stance in the politically-charged debate on its links to wartime comfort women. So, I will confine myself to making two points about its scale, as this was a big factor in why postcards and posters of Korean women were so prolific.

First, among colonial empires, the Japanese one stood out for the number of men from the home country working in its colonies. To give a specific example: according to politics and international affairs Professor Atul Kohli of Princeton University, “there were 87,552 government officials in Korea in 1937, 52,270 of whom were Japanese, whereas the French state in Vietnam (relatively large itself compared to British colonies in Africa) only had 3000 French officials. In other words, for geographically-similar sized colonies the Japanese had fifteen officials for every French one.”

I don’t mean to imply that Japanese officials were the bulk of the clients, which wasn’t the case at all. But those numbers do suggest that, per capita, the sex industry catering to such a colonial presence would have been comparatively large. Also, secondly, why regularly visiting sex workers was considered completely normal and unremarkable.

Yet for Japanese living in the Home Islands, why travel to Korea for that?

“The most famous gisaeng during Japanese colonialism, Jang Yeon-hong.” Source: zixundingzhi. Note the accompanying prominent placing of the Japanese General Government Building, completed in 1926.

One reason was the relative ease, both because of the geographical proximity and because a huge industry for Japanese tourists was developed in the interwar years. Another was the persuasiveness of the ensuing extensive advertising. Also, as Hyung Il Pai of the University of California explains (p. 73), there were “millions of train schedules, pamphlets, and guidebooks estimated to have been distributed at major piers, train stations, and department stores throughout the empire.” Unfortunately, being designed to be disposable, very few of those have survived. But it’s unlikely their contents would have differed much from the sturdier pocket-size guidebooks and attractive postcards that do remain, and these had consistent themes. As Okpyo Moon from the Department of Anthropology at the Academy Of Korean Studies explains (p. 151):

While actual places visited by Japanese travelers concentrated on urban centres and newly constructed modern colonial facilities, many of the postcards printed and circulated during the Japanese colonial period emphasized images of pre-modern exoticism. For instance, most of the tourist postcards of the time depicted Korea with images of rural rather than urban, female rather than male, elderly people or children rather than lively young men, passive and static rather than active and moving, traditional and past-oriented rather than progressive and modern. The continuous reproduction and wide distribution of these images helped Japanese travelers to perceive colonial Korea as something to be conquered, enlightened, modernized, desired, and consumed.

In the last two decades, a big online market for these postcards has developed, driving up costs and making access more difficult. Also, most of the universities and museums with digital archives of the postcards, and, presumably, as much verifiable information about them as is available, either require institutional access or visits in person—and most are in the US. Add that such painful, emasculating depictions of Korea may not be a favorite subject of Korean historians, so the vast majority of scholarship on the postcards appears to be Japanese (which I don’t speak), then unfortunately it feels extremely difficult, here in Busan, to pursue the subject in as much depth as I’d like.

The January 1927 cover of Chang Han (長恨 Enduring Bitterness), a very rare examination of the colonial sex industry written by the sex workers themselves. Source: Adan Mun’go.

An informal survey of what material is publicly available however, demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of glamorous pictures of Korean women in them are of kisaeng. It would be very hypocritical and misleading to perpetuate their own stereotype that they were largely sex workers; however, the colonial (male) tourist gaze didn’t discern their internal distinctions and artistry, stressing their alleged sexual skills and availability instead. This context should be borne in mind when you see examples like those two a moment ago, and Moon (pp. 153-4) notes their obvious similarities with later tourism materials:

An apparent continuity can be observed between the pre-war and the post-war Japanese perception of Korea and in the ways in which tourism was later promoted in Korea. The tourist posters printed and distributed by the Korean government in the 1970s, for instance, invariably depicted women in Korean traditional dress either dancing or playing musical instruments such as [12-stringed Korean harps]. The continuity with kisaeng images in the postcards of the colonial period cannot be missed.

This depiction of Korean women in traditional outfits, accompanied by the tools of their trade, but in which it’s ultimately their femininity that is being highlighted, does sound somewhat familiar.

Meanwhile, of the other colonial postcards featuring women, many of the others were like that of the somewhat wizened-looking rural woman with exposed breasts. In an era when the adoption of Western dress was rendering breast exposure increasingly taboo in the cities, and covering them a signifier of (Japanese-led) modernization and civilizing, then the intention of the photographer was clearly to shame. For this reason, many Korean historians and the public have—not unreasonably—refused to accept that breast exposure was nonetheless still routine in the countryside then.

But because of what we know about the traditional outfit, we know that it was indeed for shaming purposes that the haenyeo below was told to pull down her mulsojungee to expose her breasts, in this, the single verifiable postcard featuring a haenyeo I’ve been able to find:

Source: Moravius@Flickr. Used with permission.

My source, to whom I’m eternally grateful, gave a little more information about its origins in their message to me:

[This] is part of a set of eight postcards which I bought from a Chinese dealer some 15 years ago. As you will know, postcards produced by Japanese businessmen in Korea for sale mainly to Japanese tourists and collectors are an important—and very often the only—source of photographic material of the colonial period. They often came in sets of several cards held together by a colourful printed envelope. The Cheju-do set also includes an explanation sheet (in Japanese, of course). These are the only Cheju-do postcards in my collection, so it seems Cheju-do was not popular with Japanese tourists at that time.

Actual tourists aside, it has been argued that glamorized posters and postcards of young, nude Jeju haenyeo were also produced, but I have yet to find any actual examples. Also, for readers’ interest, another similar, shaming depiction of topless Jeju haenyeo can be found in a Japanese newspaper from 1934 (p.24).

(Update) And then the following appeared. Alas, not from a Japanese postcard, but intriguing nonetheless:

With my considerable thanks to historian JiHoon Suk for passing it on, this topless, alleged Jeju haenyeo comes from the cover of the June 1928 edition of the Korean literary-intellectual magazine Donggwang (동광), with the caption:

“濟州道 海女들이 감(柿)를 드린 바지를 입고 潛水질하는 거슬 海邊에서 볼ᄯᅢ에는 꼭 南洋에 간 感이 잇다. 女子들은 어찌나 健康한지 젖가삼이 쑥쑥 나오고 血氣잇게 다니는 그 女子들은 陸地의 男子보다 몃배의 힘이 잇을 것이다. 市長에는 女子뿐이고 巨里에 낭구(木) 팔러 오는 사람도 女子이고 심할 것은 牛馬의 力으로 回轉시킬 돌방아까지 女子 3, 4人의 힘으로 도는 것을 보앗다. 陸地의 女子들이 濟州島 女子들의 하는 活動을 볼 때에는 참 놀랠것이 만흘 것이다. (寫眞은 濟州에서)”

Suk explains that, basically, “the intention here is to emphasize how strong and healthy the women of Jeju (including haenyeos) are compared to (even) men of the ‘mainland’,” and that specifically “when the caption mentions ‘젖가슴이 쑥쑥 나오고’ (Their breasts are well-built and protruding),” he is “quite positive that this is alluding to the common complaint that the Korean (mostly male but some females as well) intellectuals were talking at that time that Korean women lacked healthy postures and development and [were] thus inferior to more healthy (i.e. ‘Western’) bodies.”

Indeed, this was a common complaint at the time in China, Taiwan, and Japan, too, and I’m looking forward to covering the topic in more detail in the next post in my series on that.

I stress only alleged haenyeo though, as she’s clearly not wearing the traditional haenyeo outfit, and her bottoms closely resemble those of the ama featured in Iwase Yoshiyuki’s photographs taken 30 years later. We also only have the caption writer’s say-so that the woman was a haenyeo (there was no related article), and the editors were probably not all too concerned about accuracy when they were conjuring up a rationale for putting a nude woman on the cover. So, I’d wager that she was indeed an ama—or a least a haenyeo working elsewhere in the Japanese empire, of which there were many. Alternatively, the adoption of the ‘traditional’ outfit in the 1920s may have been much more piecemeal and gradual than I suggested. Either way, it just goes to show haenyeo’s long history of being sexualized, and my thanks again to Suk for passing it on.

But frankly, it’s high time to move on from (over)analyzing tantalizing, but ultimately very frustrating single examples the further back in time we go. Let’s conclude instead, by addressing four elephants (whales?) in the room.

The first is that simple geographical isolation meant that Jeju residents were inevitably marginalized and othered throughout Korean history. And Jeju haenyeo in particular, about whom most mainland Koreans would have known very little beyond that they dived and wore skimpy outfits, would have been very easy to conjure exotic, sexualized narratives about. An internal Orientalism, if you will.

The isolation driving this was significant until surprisingly recently. As the island is just a quick, cheap flight away today, it can be difficult to appreciate how difficult it has been to get to for most of its history, and that what later became the standard practice—flying to Jeju for honeymoons—only really began in the mid-1980s. In stark contrast, when the glamorized pictures of haenyeo were being produced in the early-1970s, the Seoul-Busan highway had only just been completed. Only 1 in 100 Koreans had cars then. Also, consider Koreans’ abject poverty at the time: still less than 1 in 10 had washing machines, refrigerators, phones, or televisions. Not for nothing would the Minister of Education in 1973, in a rare moment of candor, publicly praise sex workers for bringing in so much foreign exchange “with their cunts.” (Which is not to imply the sex workers weren’t still treated appallingly by the government, and aren’t still awaiting compensation even today.)

Source: Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea by Laura Nelson (2000), pp. 87-88.

Next is the stereotype of Jeju women as feminist Amazonians, which does not jibe well with much of what you’ve read so far. By all means, gender relations on Jeju have long been much more complicated and interesting than on the mainland, and today at least Jeju women do indeed generally have more equitable gender relations compared to their mainland counterparts. But I also invite you to read this journal article from 1976 for an academic perspective on those from the time, in which the author Soon Young-yoon bluntly concludes “Jeju martriarchy does not exist.” This assessment has not changed over time, Dr. Norma also noting that Jeju women were not particularly empowered in the 1970s (p. 417):

Even with [the income from tourism]…the island was still significantly poorer than the rest of South Korea. Women living on Jeju were, therefore, even more vulnerable to the demands of the Japanese men who traveled there in large numbers in the early-1970s.

Nor were haenyeo in any more of a position to challenge the sexualized narratives being written about them by the Korean and Japanese governments. Consider that even while celebrating haenyeo history and culture for instance, this short 2016 Arirang video also features the now elderly women themselves describing the realities of their dirty, difficult, and dangerous job. In particular, they point out that it was not at all their choice to do the work, and that they were always looked down upon for doing it:

“Life was so hard that we couldn’t live without harvesting underwater” (2:12), “There was no other way to make a living” (2:20), “It’s hard work, but what can we do…I sent my children to college on the mainland with the money I made doing this” (2:32), “Diving in the sea is such a harsh, low-esteem job” (5:14).

I highly recommend Joey Rositano’s blog about haenyeo for many more in-depth interviews in that vein, and his recently released book Jeju Island’s Haenyeo, A User’s Manual. (And if you’ve just read 6000 words on haenyeo, how can you not buy it?). Full disclosure: I am especially grateful for his giving me time for an interview, and regret that so little of what we talked about made it into this post. But one thing we did talk about, and which was also mentioned to me by my other friends living on Jeju, leads me to my third point: that the image of haenyeo held by most actual Jeju residents is much more folksy than sexualized. Moreover, that haenyeo are far more concerned about increasingly severe pollution and other existential threats to their livelihoods caused by Jeju’s tourism industry, than about nipples on a few statues.

I am happy to defer to his and others’ experience of Jeju, let alone of the voices of haenyeo themselves, and look forward to hearing readers’ own impressions and stories as visitors or residents. I also acknowledge that most of the sources used here are somewhat old, and that there have been important developments in the last decade or so in the preservation of haenyeo history and the amplification of their voices.

And yet, while their modern image may indeed be moving well beyond the sexual stereotypes discussed here, their lack of control and profit from it sounds depressingly familiar. As a young haenyeo explained in an interview on Rositano’s blog in 2017 (my emphases):

Q) Nowadays there are a lot of touristic items such as jewelry, statuettes and other items featuring the women divers’ image. You’ve become a symbol of the island.

A) I think that it is good and realize that it is also due to the push for Unesco designation. It is good that we are recognized and I guess the outside world has the image in their mind that we are tough because we are divers. But we don’t seem to benefit from these touristic items. The people who make them are the ones who benefit. The ama…are more well-known in the world than we are, and in their villages the divers receive money for the touristic items they sell. This is not the case on Jeju Island. They (the local government) could make a certain item particular to each village and give us a cut of their revenue, but they aren’t doing this.

Q) How about when you are photographed?

A) That, too, doesn’t benefit us. It benefits the photographer….

Source: The Jeju Weekly. Caption: “Tamna Sullyeokdo,” painted in the early 1700s by artist Kim Nam-gil at the order of County Magistrate-cum-Navy Deputy Commander Lee Hyeong-sang, depicts haenyeo wearing white clothes as they dive near Yongduam Rock in Jeju-si. Inside the white circle, you can see the haenyeo working under water. (Photo: Korean Maritime Museum Webzine)

Two months ago, I was inspired to start writing this post by reading that in fact, the haenyeo had been topless over a century ago, our final elephant in the room. Frankly, my choice of title is a little misleading (sorry), but I was just too attached to the double-entendre to give it up.

The Chosun Ilbo, August 2015. For a discussion, see Korean Sociological Image #92: Patriotic Marketing Through Sexual Objectification, Part 1.

A century is a long time though, and realizing why the image of topless divers endured nonethless, and who it was for, I couldn’t help but recall Seungsook Moon’s must-read below. For it was from her that I first really grasped how the Korean government, military, and industry has long used, and literally even broken women’s bodies for nationalist and developmentalist ends. All too often, with little to no input or agency from women themselves, and over their desperate opposition.

It’s very difficult now, not to place the sexualization of haenyeo on the same continuum.

Right: From 207, then 17-Year-Old K-pop star Tzuyu being indirectly presented as “A Special Gift for [those] Korean Men” who have completed their military service.

With that, I am absolutely not saying every young, attractive woman in a traditional haenyeo outfit you’ll see will have been placed there with ulterior motives. But the next time you do encounter one in a tourist brochure, webtoon, talkshow, television series, or movie, I urge you to consider who chose to represent haenyeo that way, and ask why exactly.

Or indeed, to always ask who and why about any cultural text. Especially when you’re not entirely sure the people in them are the ones calling the shots.

Thanks for reading.

(Many thanks to Joey Rositano, ResearchProjectKorea, Hyung-Gu Lynn, Prof.dr. R.E. Breuker, Moreska, Moravius, and JiHoon Suk for their generous assistance and advice.)

Related Posts:

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

The Surprising Reason Koreans Don’t Buy Red Underwear for Valentine’s Day

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes. Image sources, edited: Summer Yolo Shop, KoBiz.

Go clothes shopping in East Asia at the moment, and it seems impossible to avoid all the red underwear. But it’s not because of Valentine’s Day. It’s because red is considered a lucky color by the Chinese, and the Lunar New Year’s celebration is just around the corner.

Unlike loud red clothes, red underwear will suit any wardrobe. Those whose Chinese Zodiac falls in the coming year for instance, when ironically they’ll need extra luck, can don it without revealing their age. So too Mahjong Players in Macau, who hope to leave their opponents seeing a different kind of red.

All these associations explain why “Triumph, the biggest underwear-maker in Asia, says its sales of red items are usually ten times higher than usual in Singapore and Malaysia around the Lunar New Year,” according to the following 2015 BBC report (0:35):

But it’s not just those countries with large Chinese populations that fall for red—Japanese stores also have big promotions. And Valentine’s Day can still be a very big deal: as the then Director of Triumph, Doy Teo above brightly noted, Lunar New Year’s fell very close to Valentine’s Day that year, making red underwear not just a good romantic gift. They will be even closer together this year.

Buying red on such an occasion seems a natural fit for young Korean consumers especially. Consider how Valentine’s Day has already been expanded into 11 other monthly holidays on various romantic themes, each with their own colors. Other non-native holidays, most notably Christmas, are not so much family occasions as rare opportunities to escape parents and spend time with partners or friends. “Couple clothes” are popular, and worn all year-round. Red is the color of the “Red Devils” soccer supporters, who the Korean media already portrays as young women in red, skimpy clothing. And in particular, red has many of the same lucky connotations in Korean culture too. As explained by Jang Jang-sik, Research Institute Director at the National Folklore Museum of Korea, it’s traditionally been worn by soldiers or those doing something dangerous, gifted to students doing exams, and there is a folk belief that it helps women who are finding it difficult to conceive a son:

국립민속박물관 장장식 학예연구관은 “전쟁이나 위험지역으로 떠날 때나 도박판에 갈 때도 붉은 속옷을 입는다”며 ” ‘수험생이 붉은 속옷을 입거나 지니고 있으면 합격한다’ ‘아들을 못 낳는 여자가 아들을 낳은 여자 속옷을 입으면 아들을 낳을 수 있다’는 속설도 있다”고 했다.

Chosun Ilbo, 7 March 2009.

There’s also a tradition of buying it for good luck from newly-opened stores. It rapidly sold out at the opening of Shinsegae’s Centum City branch in Busan in 2009 for instance, as well as at the opening of the Hyundai Department Store in Pangyo, Seongnam in 2015 (below), and at the re-opening of a Lotte Mall in Busan last July (video below):

Source: Korean Fashion + Tex News

Where then, is all the red underwear for lovers this Valentine’s Day?

To everyone’s relief, I have not done extensive field research in Korean lingerie stores to confirm its absence. The stores’ websites however, display no more red underwear than usual, nor do they have any red-themed promotions. Also, unlike couple outerwear, couple underwear has always been relatively expensive and limited in options in Korea, as I discovered before one frustrating anniversary recently. As friends later pointed out, if something’s only for each other to see, then what on Earth is the point?

But if lingerie stores are not even bothering to offer much in way of red at all, on a combined Lunar New Year’s and Valentine’s when it should sell more than ever, there must be some alternative, non-romantic connotations that the color has in Korea.

A tradition of buying red lingerie for one’s mother would certainly fit the bill.

I first learned about this via an inquiry made to the Korea Studies Mailing List by Ron Lieber, a journalist for the New York Times:

…I write the Your Money column for the New York Times — all about anything and everything that hits you in the wallet. I write often about families and money — how not just dollars but also wisdom and values are taught and passed between generations.

On that note, over the years Korean-American friends of mine have told me about a tradition where new college graduates (or teenagers or college students or even some older adults getting their first paychecks at a new, prestigious workplace) buy a gift for their parents after they start their first full-time jobs. I’ve heard about everything from handing the entire paycheck over in cash to buying red thermal underwear for both parents or lingerie for their mothers.

And I was further intrigued by the answer provided by Dr. Barbara Wall, then Research Assistant in Korean Studies at the Asien-Afrika-Institut in Hamburg:

…if you search for first salary 첫월금+ present 선물 many of the results you get mention red underwear 빨간 내복. I am no underwear expert, but what people say is that the custom of wearing “modern” underwear in Korea started only in the 1960s at which time underwear was a luxury item. Dyeing nylon at that time was not easy and worked best with red. That is said to be the reason for the red underwear as symbol of filial piety. Red is also said to have the ability of blocking everything “evil”…

Stephen Redeker at Gwangju News adds:

There is an old saying that one should buy red “long johns” for one’s parents after receiving the first paycheck from your first job. People tend to give other gifts to show appreciation to their parents, but the red long johns have an explanation. Back in the day, when floor heating was not as prevalent as it is now, people wore long underwear at night. Red-colored underwear was more expensive than the other drab colors offered at the time and therefore more desirable. Anyone who still observes this belief will probably buy red boxers, briefs, bras or panties for their parents.

Numerous Korean sources confirm. In addition to the information provided in the video below (apologies to region-blocked Korean viewers), it’s interesting to note that in 2009, over a quarter of respondents would buy red underwear for their parents upon receiving their first paycheck.

But is this still the case in 2018? Another source argues that it’s outdated, as parents’ memories of freezing winters and 24/7 thermal underwear-wearing in the 1960s and ’70s fade. This association with the middle-aged and elderly is evident in Japan too.

We must address the red elephants in the room too. “Underwear” is a wide-ranging term. Buying red thermal underwear for your parents, or long johns, is a far cry from buying sexy lingerie for them; as the Korean sources suggest, I’d wager children’s gifts are almost entirely the former. Also, even in Hong Kong, where the latter is supposedly all the rage, less than 1% of Chinese female undergraduates actually preferred that bra color:

Source: Sujoung Cha and Kristina Shin, “Hong Kong Chinese Breast Cathexis and Brassiere Design Preferences”, The Research Journal of the Costume Culture. 2011. Aug, 19(4): 780-793.

I also couldn’t help but notice that 60% preferred black. Because in An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality (2007), although author Jill Fields frustratingly doesn’t mention red at all, she does have a groundbreaking (albeit controversial) chapter on the connotations of black lingerie in the US, which she tied to stereotypes of African-Amercian hypersexuality. Not only do those obviously not apply to Hong Kong however, but Chinese lingerie-makers themselves boggle at the differences in consumer preferences between borders. Which suggests it’s misguided to assume Pan-Asian similarities in tastes:

Guanyun workshops operate their own online stores in addition to producing wholesale stock for other brands. They are increasingly looking to sell overseas, which now only accounts for about a tenth of the county’s yearly output. But understanding the preferences of foreign customers remains an obstacle, according to [lingerie manufacturer] Lei. “There’s a huge gap in the aesthetics of different countries,” he explains. Sexy cop costumes are popular in Brazil, which Lei says is because Brazilians don’t like the police; French maid costumes don’t sell well in Poland because, he theorizes, the two countries don’t have a good relationship; and Japanese customers love any and all seductive outfits. The lingerie tastes of most European countries — except France and Italy — are still riddles to him. “Every collection that we deliberately designed has failed in their markets,” Lei says. “Germany borders France, right? But their taste is the most difficult thing for me to figure out.”

“Unzipping China’s Lingerie Capital,” Sixth Tone.

What do you think then, does explain Koreans’ distaste for red underwear this Valentine’s? Lingering unsexy associations with parents? Associations of red with the psuedo-communist North? Or some other reasons? Please let me know in the comments!

Related Posts:

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Video about Korean Vacations Leads to Fascinating Insights into 1970s Korea—And its Dire Poverty

(Korean Sociological Image #94)
overconsumption-korea-%ea%b3%bc%ec%86%8c%eb%b9%84(Sources: left, 새마을운동; right, Sturmgeschutz)

Watch how an innocuous video on vacations in history segues into admonitions against overspending:

To be precise, the 1971 video from 0:57 to 1:20:

korean-overconsumption-kwasobi-1korean-overconsumption-kwasobi-2korean-overconsumption-kwasobi-32016 anchor: “In the 1970s the word ‘vacation’ was a buzzword, and many social issues associated with disorder, excessive prices, and overconsumption at vacationing spots occurred.”

korean-overconsumption-kwasobi-4korean-overconsumption-kwasobi-5korean-overconsumption-kwasobi-6Huh?

Look past the black and white, and many scenes from that segment look surprisingly modern. That’s what makes the original anchor’s warning so jarring. Who the hell buys so many beach balls, I wondered, that they get into debt?

In 1971, I’m sure Korean viewers were thinking the exact same thing. So, what on Earth had been the government’s motivation in producing that?

To answer, let’s be clear about what we’re actually discussing first. That Arirang report from August above is a translation of Korean news reports from a few weeks earlier, about 44 various videos, pictures, and documents on the theme of vacations just released by the National Archives of Korea (see here for a full list; opens PDF):

The segment we’re interested in is “To the Extent You Can Afford It” (분수에 맞는 피서를), originally shown on Daehan News (대한늬우스) on 16 August, 1971; see here for the full version, with much better picture quality.

Here’s a transcript:

무더운 여름철 물놀이가 한창입니다. 도심의 백화점이나 시장에서는 필요이상의 피서용구들을 경쟁이나 하듯 사들이는 이가 많은데 이 가운데에는 빚을 내어가면서까지 분에 맞지 않는 놀이를 즐기는 분도 있다고 합니다. 하기야 애써 번 돈을 무더울 때 분에 맞게 쓴다고 해서 탓할바는 못되지만은 그렇다고 지나치게 낭비를 하거나 빚까지 얻어 쓴다는 것은 삼가해야 할 일이 아니겠습니까? 물놀이는 형편과 분수에 맞게 그리고 가족과 함께 즐기는 것이 좋겠습니다.  또 수영장이나 피서지에서는 공중도덕과 질서를 지킵시다. 술에 취해서 큰 소리로 떠들어 대거나 눈에 거슬리는 짓은 삼가해야겠습니다. 우리는 분수에 맞는 피서로써 무리가 없고 명랑한 여름철을 보내야겠습니다.

“This hot summer, people are in the middle of having fun in the water. At city department stores and markets, many people are buying more leisure items than they need, as if they were competing with each other. Among them, some are enjoying themselves beyond their means, even getting into debt. Of course, people can’t be blamed for spending their own money which they earned themselves. Yet even so, isn’t overspending and getting loans something we should refrain from? It’ll be nice to enjoy the holiday with your family to the extent that you can afford. Let’s obey public rules and morals at swimming pools and leisure places. We should avoid speaking loudly while drunk, and behaving inappropriately. We should enjoy a bright summer to the extent we can each afford (end).”

Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find any more information about the video online. But probably, that’s only because the first thing to take away from it is how normal it was for its time.

That’s partially because under President Park Chung-hee, accusations of personal enrichment could be used as a device to bring down political opponents and errant factory owners; as Mark Clifford explains in Troubled Tiger: Businessmen, Bureaucrats, and Generals in South Korea (1998), when “the system was at its heart corrupt, virtually everyone was vulnerable to punishment.” But primarily it was because, regardless of what one thinks of his means, Park was at heart a developmentalist, who firmly believed in the necessity of short-term sacrifice and capital accumulation for the sake of longer-term goals—and who regularly reminded the public of that in his speeches.

Writing in Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea (2000), Laura Nelson stresses how important it is “to recognize how widespread and pervasive the censure of the pursuit of enrichment was” back then. In particular:

“During South Korea’s lean years in Park’s early tenure, quotidian frugality was ideologically transformed into an act of popular patriotism….Park placed the burden of responsibility for the success of national development strategies on the shoulders of individuals in all their daily economic decisions.

(p. 113; emphasis added)

Nonetheless, in May 1970 the Health and Social Affairs Ministry issued a report arguing that income inequality was creating serious social problems. Yet more troublesome still, according to Joungwon Kim, author of Divided Korea: The Politics of Development, 1945-1972 (1976), was the simultaneous “conspicuous consumption of the new elite, who began building luxurious homes and riding through Seoul in expensive imported Cadillacs and Mercedes Benz.”

This was at a time when Koreans had only one car per 100 households.

korean-washing-machine-advertisement-1973(1973 Washing Machine Advertisement. Source: Advertising Information Center)

And I want to offer yet more fruits from my hitting the books, to convey just how dire I learned the domestic economic and international geopolitical situation was for South Korea then, how tenuous the support for the government was, and just how vulnerable it felt politically. Because it’s reasonable to suppose that it only meant such admonitions became ever more fervent and extreme.

We were talking about a warning about buying too many beach balls, after all.

That would require thousands of words though, and probably most readers are already quite familiar with the circumstances leading up to the authoritarian Yushin Constitution of October 1972.

Instead, the promised insight of the title is how to make those feel more real and convincing.

Doing so is especially meaningful to me, because when I first learned about them as a student in the mid-1990s, it was before the Asian Financial Crisis. Tales of hardship in Korean history back then sounded somewhat abstract, or even hyperbole. Even when I learned much later that, in 1973, the Minister of Education praised prostitutes for securing much needed foreign exchange from USFK soldiers, Korea’s poverty failed to really sink in.“Hardship” isn’t what comes to mind when watching that video either, nor with that muchshared image of women’s fashions in 1971 that I opened this post with. Nor with this personal favorite too:

seoul-%ec%84%9c%ec%9a%b8-1968-08-07-68d08-0723-pal-meir(“Seoul 서울 1968-08-07 – 68D08-0723”, by Pal Meir; used with permission)

I mean, that pink dress, right? And that sweet smile? Could you look her in the eye, and tell her she couldn’t buy a second beach ball?

Ahem. But whatever the reasons such videos and images may or may not do it for you, the temptation to project a familiar, nostalgic Western image of the abundance of the ’60s onto Korea can be quite a powerful one. Perhaps even for Korean readers too, as it may be sufficiently distant that Korean popular culture now glamorizes that era.

That’s probably why it took cold, hard statistics to break the spell for me. Because at the time of that video, which looks so modern, and despite a miraculous-sounding average GDP growth rate of 10% between 1963-1970, still less than 1 in 10 Koreans had washing machines, refrigerators, phones, or televisions:

ownership-rates-of-major-household-goods-korea-1970-1985-measured-excess-laura-nelson(Measured Excess, pp. 87-88)

Those figures are sobering, and beg further questions about to what extent such videos served as both warning and propaganda. Even the women’s bikinis and swimsuits need to be considered in that regard, as again, they seem so modern—certainly no more or less modest than those of today—and may represent genuine permissiveness back then. Or, they may have been a deliberate, photogenic exception in an era when women-only swimming pools were deemed necessary in some places.

But let’s reserve answering those questions for the comments, and/or anything else raised here. Let me conclude instead with another quote from Laura Nelson, as she gives a much better sense than I could of how important the era is for understanding the negative, consumption-based stereotypes of Korean women that would come later. For remember those individuals, whose shoulders “the burden of responsibility for the success of national development strategies” would be placed upon? Ultimately, most of them would prove to be women:

…the image of the housewife as the archetypal consumer…begins to equate women as consumers and women as housewives, and is also part of the process by whereby men’s consumer practices become invisible. Moreover, the kind of consumption that women conduct as “housewives”…is a special case of consumption: women-as-housewives-as-consumers assume a responsibility for a collective interest….The dominance of the image of women-housewives-consumers foregrounds, for women consumers in particular, a moral distinction between responsible consumption and personal indulgence.

This leads to a consideration of the second gendered aspect of consumption: the danger…

(pp. 143-44)

And don’t forget precedents in the 1930s either!

(For more posts in the “Korean Sociological Images” series, see here)

“An epic battle between feminism and deep-seated misogyny is under way in South Korea”

(Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 10)
panorama-stad-amsterdam-1935-verhaal-ill-trampassagiers(Source: janwillemsen; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Update: See @lookslikechloe’s blog for a Korean translation of the entire article.

Back in August, I was interviewed by reporter Isabella Steger for her article “An epic battle between feminism and deep-seated misogyny is under way in South Korea”, which came out at Quartz today. It’s a good introduction to current trends and conditions, as well as being a great read. So for this post, let me just add a few links and extra context to those segments attributed to me. Starting with:

In the late 1990s, the Asian financial crisis upended the stability of the Korean “salaryman.” Many men who lost their jobs started to compete with women for work. “A lot of the negative stereotypes about women, a lot of very gendered labels, started appearing in the early 2000s,” says James Turnbull, a long-time resident in the southern city of Busan who writes about feminism.

To be more precise, a large cohort of men lost their regular, full-time jobs between 2002-2004, and started having to compete for irregular work with women, who’d already lost their own regular, full-time jobs five years earlier in the wake of the Asian financial crisis (under the rationale that they would be provided for by their husbands or fathers). Then another point of friction came in 2013, when the percentage of women in their 20s that were working began to slightly surpass that of men.

Tellingly, the media portrayed achieving equality with men as a “tornado” of female power.

For the exact statistics, and my analysis of their implications, see part 6 of this series in the links below. As for those negative labels and gendered stereotypes, see Parts 3 and 4, or Part 7 for a summary.

Next:

While overall crime and homicide rates in Korea remain very low, more women in Korea are murdered than men, which is unusual in a developed country, says Turnbull. The United Nations singles out Japan, Hong Kong, and Korea as places with some of the lowest homicide rates in the world but where the share of male and female victims is near parity, with intimate partner violence also an acute problem in Japan (pdf, p.54-56).

In addition to the extra information on that provided in Isabella’s article, see this Facebook post by a friend of mine (which he generously made public) for a breakdown and analyses of the statistics involved, which was originally prompted by the blog post “Women Are More Likely To Be Murdered In South Korea Than The U.S.” by Matt Pressberg.

Reporter John Power also provides some things to think about:

Finally:

While women have gained some power and independence in Korea, a preference for male children in the 1970s and 1980s has resulted in an excess of men–and the disparity in numbers contributes to tensions. In 1990, thanks to the availability of selective abortion, Korea’s sex ratio at birth was 116.5, meaning 116.5 boys were born per 100 girls, a ratio that since has evened out (paywall). Many of those 1990 male babies are now grown men unable to find girlfriends and wives, says Turnbull. At the same time, more Korean women are choosing not to marry at all.

Again, see Part 6 for more detailed information on those statistics and their implications (also see the tweet below, which graphically shows the number of excess men by age group.) By a huge coincidence, the Korean media would only finally begin reporting on the potential consequences of this imbalance in April this year, just a month before the murder in Gangnam.

Thoughts?