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The past in aspic: two Korean folk villages

Arriving on the sunny, volcanic island of Jeju-do in early January, there is snow on the ground outside of the city. Mandarin oranges are in plentiful supply, however, grown on the warm, Southern slopes of the volcanic cone of Hallasan that rises in the center of the Island. A popular Korean honeymoon destination for many years, Jeju-do has both the natural wonders of World Heritage Site lava tubes and hiking to the peak of scenic Hallasan as well as man-made amusements like fish restaurants along the quay, golf courses, Folklore and Natural History Museum, Peace Museum, Dak Paper Doll Museum, Teddy Bear Museum, World Eros Museum, O’Sulloc (Tea) Museum and two folk villages, to name just a few.

Catering to the tourist market, Jeju-do-ian travel literature abounds in accolades of its natural wonders and numerous diversions. As a Korean honeymoon destination of yore, the two folk villages in particular, one with an admission booth and one with free roaming, pose questions of purpose and structure. Conceptually, on the local bus that leaves from Jeju City’s local bus terminal, a convenient means of reaching these two different travel destinations, there is a reflection on history as a fact-filled affair.

First there is Seongeup Village, an agricultural town along the 2-lane highway to the Southern Coast, where all the residents decided, evidently, to keep their thatched roof houses as a design concept to attract tourists. In addition they added satellite TV in their living rooms and installed the Internet. Seongeup is a “folk village” without the admission booth, concession stand and gift shop at a guarded entrance.

The location offers ample opportunity for ambling among the houses in what the tourist literature describes as “a typical mountain village…home to a number of treasures, both tangible and intangible…cultural property #188.” The perennially peripatetic foreign visitor finds placards introducing the homes of notable residents (in both English and Korean) throughout this tourist location, as well as introducing old buildings of the government, with their tile rather than thatched roofs, centuries old zelcova tree, tombstones. Meandering among the volcanic rock walls, the visitor also can view Confucian shrines, schools, millstones and harubang, the distinctive Jeju-do stone sculpture statues.

Further down the road from Seongeup Village is the Jeju Folk Village Museum, a brief bus ride away, located somewhat beyond the last stop of the bus. Made with all the trappings of institutionalized bureaucracy, this “village” is one of recreated reality, a collection of architectural specimens, here of thatched room “types” from around the island. Beyond the ticket gate, a small restaurant and gift store, a paved road leads through a collection of houses in varying architectural styles from Jeju-do’s three main environments: mountain, plains, coast.

Visitors are free to walk among the houses, reading placards describing subsistence activities of villagers in the past and viewing exhibits re-creating some of these. The scenes date to the 1890’s and include numerous folk elements such as 1046 items of bamboo items, 1627 of wood, 1699 of earthenware, 1544 of porcelain, 921 of iron, 579 of other materials, and 765 candles. A flock of ostriches past the southern wall of the Folk Village Museum, cavorting in a field near the neighboring resort hotel, is also worth seeing; the coastal highway nearby offers a peaceful stroll along a more-or-less undisturbed rocky coastline.

In the two folk villages traditional life ways appear. In one they are in a bounded space where the locals run the concession stands and present performances including music, drama and dance, according to schedule. Yet in the other the locals still live in the thatched roof houses in the agricultural setting, albeit with Satellite TV and the Internet, cell phones to be added to the list of folk village items. Both sites contain office buildings of the Jeju government of the time, along with placards of explanation, yet in neither do people use the government buildings anymore, showing a discontinuity between Chosun-era politics and the current governing scene.

By classifying certain building materials and architectural types as suitable and appropriate to “folk villages” within the “Jeju Folk Village Museum” these concepts become associated with “folk culture” even when the appear in a regular village down the road. Finally, these two villages are a reminder about differences in describing previous times in terms of their culture with or without individuals, as well, irrespective of the building materials used.

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