The Sea Women

South Korea's "sea women" have been harvesting commercial treasures from the ocean floor since the 4th century. With only a few tools and fishing baskets slung over their shoulders, these sunburnt and wrinkled grandmothers can dive up to 20 metres on a single breath. Their dives mix dexterity, desire and death. Vancouver writer and broadcaster Gloria Chang returns to the country of her birth for an intimate portrayal of these cultural icons and to unravel a matriarchal mystery: Why do only women take to the waters?
A group of 'Haenyeo' or Sea Women pose for photographers on island of Jeju, South Korea. November 2015. (ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

South Korea's "sea women" have been harvesting commercial treasures from the ocean floor since the 4th century. With only a few tools and fishing baskets slung over their shoulders, these sunburnt and wrinkled grandmothers can dive up to 20 metres on a single breath. Their dives mix dexterity, desire and death. Vancouver writer and broadcaster Gloria Chang returns to the country of her birth for an intimate portrayal of these cultural icons and to unravel a matriarchal mystery: Why do only women take to the waters? **This episode originally aired October 18, 2007.
 

There's a story my father tells me, of women who rule the seas. With nothing but a few tools and fishing baskets slung over their shoulders, they dive to the bottom of the ocean floor on a single breath to harvest its commercial treasures: abalone, sea urchin, sea snails. At the surface, they let out a melancholy whistle, like whales, my father says, before they submerge again. Up and down, up and down, until the day's work is done.

Jeju, South Korea's largest island located 100 kilometres south of the peninsula, is often referred to as Samdado – the island of three abundances: wind, rock, and women. It is the women who intrigue me most on this beautiful sub-tropical isle. Against the backdrop of a country steeped in Confucian culture that values men over women, this island paradise has somehow become a matriarchy.

Since as early as the 4th century, the Sea Women have been harvesting commercial treasures off the ocean floor with only a few tools in hand and a fishing basket slung over their shoulders. They are the primary breadwinners in their families. With gritty endurance and an even stronger will to survive, the Sea Women have faced the fury of the sea and a deeply rooted patriarchal society – and triumphed.

Special thanks to my father Steven Seung-Soon Chang, who first told me the story of the Sea Women and helped tremendously with the translations. -- Gloria Chang

 

Gloria Chang is a writer and broadcaster based in Vancouver, Canada. The Sea Women is part of a cultural adventure she embarked on to uncover her own story in South Korea.  


Photographs from Gloria Chang's visit to Jeju, 2007

73-year-old Kang Soon-Yi and 47-year-old Che Soon-Ja, one of the oldest and youngest in their fishing village. (Gloria Chang)
Left: Getting ready to dive. Right: Returning from the water. (Gloria Chang)
Left: A Sea Woman holds an octopus, an extra treat caught while out harvesting sea urchin. Right: Depending on each person's buoyancy, various stones turned into weights are used. (Gloria Chang)
The purple seaweed isn't so popular to eat among the locals, but desired by Japanese merchants. (Gloria Chang)
A bag of sea urchin caught by one of the Sea Woman. (Gloria Chang)
80-year-old "Rabbit" Grandmother - so-called because she is quick - has been diving for 55 years. (Gloria Chang)

 

**This episode was produced by Yvonne Gall

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