Once upon a time – Blast to the past in Jeju

Written by on October 29, 2012 in Lifestyle, Travel

Ever wonder what Korea was like in the past? Not the very old past, like the Joseon era or before – you can always go to palaces or themed folk villages to get a feel of what is was like – but a more recent Korea, like the 60s or 70s?
Of course, there are special exhibitions that let you get a glimpse of that time in Korea and there are also several museums around the country with such themed exhibits: The Seoul Museum of History, the Museum of Modern History of Korea in Paju, and the soon-to-be-opened National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in Gwanghwamun, Seoul. However, did you know that you can also take a ride back in time in Jeju Island, the tourist hot-spot, the must-see location on a trip to Korea? Or if you’re used to travel in Korea and have been to Jeju multiple times, do you think you have seen all that Jeju has to offer?

The entrance. Photo courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization

There is a quaint museum tucked away in a north valley of Jeju called “Seonnyeo & Namuggun” (선녀와 나무꾼) based on the old folk tale of the same name. (For a brief summary of the folk tale “The Sennyeo and the Woodcutter”, check out this post: “The Good, the Bad, the Ugly – in Korean Folk Tales”.)
The museum describes itself as a theme park, but I would define it more as a museum because there isn’t much interactivity involved. Unlike what its name implies, the museum doesn’t take you way back to ancient times, but from post-war Korea until the more recent 70s and 80s.
The entrance to the main hall is a replica of Seoul Station; you’re going on a trip down memory lane. The exhibit starts off with photos and dioramas of post-war Korea.

A hilly neighborhood of concrete gray houses

Marketplace with vendors and buyers

A city street with a pharmacy and a “radio hagwon”

The cinema is playing a Korean film and “Roman Holiday”

A hospital, airline office, bathhouse, bank, newspaper distribution office, store, and tea house all on one street

A winter scene in a village of thatched roof cottages

Scenes of everyday life of the 60s and 70s are recreated in true scale in the next segment of the exhibit.

Mural of a neighborhood alley, where girls play jump-elastic

Boys play ddakji (딱지), folded squares of stiff paper which are thrown to turn over an opponent’s

A household scene: women fold and glue envelopes as odd jobs to make ends meet

A wealthier household would even have a radio and TV

Neighborhood barbershops were very busy when long hair for men was banned in the 70s

Now hard to find, the neighborhood book store

Thankfully still around, the fish bread vendor

The yeot (Korean taffy) seller would exchange your old pots and pans for candy

Carpenters and wood craftsmen used to make everything

Ceramic, brass, and pottery shop

Fire station and carts

Public bathhouse with round bricks of coal stacked outside

A colorful Hanbok store

A watchmaker was most needed in every neighborhood

An ice cream vendor cart lies under a mailbox

Lottery tickets and glossy magazines

Movie theater program info. Only 300 won!

Government issued PSA posters about birth control

An explanation for the last photo. The poster with the corn-like image says, “The 3,000 li are overcrowded”. 3,000 li () refers to the whole Korean peninsula, which is said to be 3,000 li long. (Li is a old unit of measurement, approximately 0.393 km.) The poster on the right is titled “Family Planning” and informs those who “need loop birth control to go to the nearest clinic or Family Planning Office” – surprisingly very detailed in the description of the method of birth control.
This campaign was officially launched in the early 1970s because population density and over-population in a poverty stricken country was a great concern for the Korean government. (Yes, once upon a time, this country was poverty-stricken. Actually, it wasn’t that long ago, which is why exhibits like this are a great reminder of where this country had been.)
It also had to do with the die-hard tradition of favoring boys over girls leading to a lopsided gender ratio so this campaign went on for quite a long while. I still remember the slogans from that period such as “One well-raised girl is as good as ten boys” and “Have one child and raise it well”. I find it ironic how now the tides have changed and Korea is suffering from low birth rates.

Elementary school classroom

Probably the most popular of all the exhibits was the section related to school. Education is immensely important in Korea and because Koreans spend very long hours at school – in high school, it’s most likely you spend 3/4 of the day at school – this subject was something that all generations could relate to.
Although the desks have changed and kids no longer warm themselves with coal stoves in the classroom, the kid goofing off in the back of the class, the eager goody-goody in the front; they remain the same.

Old pencil cases and pencil sets

Taegeukgi case and children saluting the national flag

I asked an elementary school kid whether they salute the flag every morning. (We used to.) She had to pause and think before replying. “Only during full assembly,” she said. I guess that’s once a week or once a month. I also wondered whether kids knew how to draw the Taegeukgi but I missed the chance to ask. I remember being jealous of Japanese kids and French kids because their national flag was so easy to draw. Ours was like a lesson in geometry.

Textbook for “National Language” Korean, 4th grade, 2nd semester

In Korea, the boy and girl who shows up in textbooks are named “Cheolsoo” (철수) and “Yeonghee” (영희). The dog is “Badugi” (바둑이). I guess the American equivalent would be Dick and Jane and Spot. Cheolsoo, Yeonghee, and Badugi are still around after all these years, though.

Typewriters, word processors and computers

Probably the latest addition to the exhibit: the early computers. Kids were laughing their heads off at this display while adults were trying to explain the typewriter.
There are tons of other things to see besides the above: there is an old movie theater which actually plays an old Korean movie (the 1976 movie “Yalkae, A Joker in High School” was playing when we went), displays of the life of fishermen and farmers, and scenes of print shops.
The museum also a “prehistoric” section, a simple old-style haunted house, a replica of army barracks, an annex displaying traditional Korean embroidery, clothes, and dak-paper dolls (닥종이, papier-mâché dolls made from the paper mulberry tree).

“Conquer as soon as the battle begins” sign on the army barracks

The army barracks were interesting. Every Korean man goes through mandatory military service as a young adult. It seems not much has changed. Some men who hurried out, saying that they were getting the heebie-jeebies, others started pointing out various familiar things while rambling of all the hardships they had endured during military service. (My brother was heard saying the simple yet meaningful, “Ugh!” upon going in.)
The lighting was poor inside and all my photos came out blurry, so no photos of the interior. However, if you’re curious about Korean military life, just ask any Korean guy about it. I swear, hours later, you’d still be listening to his stories and he’d still have a lot more to tell.

Dak paper dolls ironing and sewing

Embroidered husu (후수), the sash for traditional formal Hanbok

The embroidery gallery was quite interesting to me, although I wished there were more explanations about the items on display. Unsurprisingly, compared to the army barracks, the men were horribly bored in this section.

Traditional Jeju harubang family in stone

Pond with water lilies not yet in bloom

There is a lot of nature to take in, too. The gardens were huge. Actually, I was quite surprised how large the whole place was. You can easily spend a whole afternoon here if you look at all the exhibits at a slow and leisurely place, grab something to eat at the snack court, browse for gifts at the souvenir shop, and take a stroll in the gardens.
Unfortunately, although the museum has English leaflets available for visitors, their website is not available in other languages nor do they have personnel on board to answer enquiries. For detailed instructions on how to get there I would advise asking help from someone fluent in Korean or contacting the tourism office before embarking on your excursion.
Also, as the museum does not offer much explanation about the exhibits – even in Korean – it would be more enjoyable to have a Korean accompany you to describe various tidbits of interesting information. In my opinion, the older, the better; I noticed that even some of the younger Koreans were baffled at what they were seeing!

* Entrance fee: 7,000 won (adult), 5,000 won (teens), 4,000 won (children)
* Opening hours: 8:30 am ~ 8:00 pm (3rd Friday in July ~ 4th Sunday in August)
Ticketing closes an hour before closing time.
Closing time for other seasons is noted as “sunset” – please check before going.
Open all year, no closing days.
* Phone: (064) 784-9001 and 9055
* Address: Jeju-si, Jocheon-eup, Seonheul-ri #1997

Official Sites
Seonnyeo & Namuggun: www.namuggun.com  (For mobile internet site, click on right image)
Jeju Special Self-Governing Province’s Tourism site: www.jejutour.go.kr
Jeju Tourism Organization: http://ijto.or.kr
Korea Tourism Organization: http://korean.visitkorea.or.kr

About the Author

Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul