Echoes of Jeju: A Photo Essay of Korean Island Life in 1979 (Part 1)

1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography

35 years ago my family moved from America to Jeju Island. We lived there for just over a year. I was six then. While we were there, my father took a bunch of photographs. But they got buried away in a pile of boxes, stored along with all the other stuff families collect.

I remember seeing the Jeju photos as child when we came back from Korea. Whenever friends would come over, my dad would pull open the big white viewing screen, turn on the slide machine – I can still hear the whizzing the of the fan cooling down the bright viewing light – and then dim the lights.

The carousel made a clicking sound as the slides dropped in and out: a Korean grandfather in traditional clothing, Hallasan Mountain, or the ubiquitous haenyo or woman diver. The exotic images and my own experience living in Korea as a child were enough to convince me to travel the world as much as possible, and one day go back to Jeju.

Time went on and the photos and slide shows disappeared with it. Ever since I came back to Korea in 2007, my father and I talked about digging up those old photographs and converting them to digital files. Whether it was for educational purposes, or purely for entertainment value, we both felt a need to share them. The following is a small collection of some of those images, along with an interview with my father.

1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography
The sun sets in front of Halla Mountain.
1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography
A street festival in Jeju.
1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography
Tony DeMarco with village elder and kids
1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography
Honeymooners take a photo on Jeju.
1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography
Locals in front of choga-jip or Jeju stone house.
1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography
Workers in the field.
1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography
Horse pulling cart full of coal yuntans or coal.
1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography
Older women or ajummas helping out with construction.
1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography
An ad for a new housing development.
1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography
A model poses during a photo shoot at Hyopjae Beach.
1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography
A street on Jeju. The sign reads “Dog Soup.”
1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography
Boxes of fish by the market.
1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography
A man rows a traditional Jeju raft.
1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography
A haenyo with her equipment.
1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography
A small village in front of Halla Mountain.
1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography
Extinct volcanoes or oreum as they are known on Jeju.
1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography
Doing laundry in the river.
1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography
Jeju street scene.
1979, Cheju, Groove Magazine, JeJu, Korea, Tony DeMarco, asia, echoes of jeju, island, photography
Mom, me, and younger brother Matt.

 

An Interview With My Father

Now that we’ve digitized the photos, I wanted to find out the story behind them. I wanted to know why my father made the choices he made. So I asked him a few questions about that part of our lives, and here’s what he had to say.

 

Me: What brought you to Jeju in 1979?

Dad: An independent study course for my masters in International Studies at Central Connecticut State University. My advisor, Dr. K.L. Koh, knew I had been a Korean linguist in the Army and had spent a year in Pyeong Taek already and asked me to go back to his home island of Jeju to begin an exchange relationship teaching English at Jeju National University.  In addition I wanted to do an article for Nat Geo and continue a Korean art business I started with three of my army buddies and Jeff.

 

What was your first impression when you arrived in Jeju? You went over first and then we came a couple months later.

I was scared and really alone.  I felt like I was on a different planet.  No one spoke English.  My first night there was stormy, cold and dark.  Your mom was pregnant with Matt and I felt really guilty about leaving her and you.  My first dinner there after I got off the plane in Jeju City I’ll never forget.  I ordered from a picture menu, lobster and octopus.  When I got served, both were moving.

 

What did you know about Korea before you went?

I had spent a year as a Korean Linguist for the U.S. Army Security Agency in Pyeong Taek at Camp Humphryes.  Your mom came a few weeks after I got there in 1972, and because Korea was so primitive then, dependents were not allowed for enlisted men so we lived off base in Korean style housing with yeon tans and an outhouse.  It was really hard but we learned a lot about how Koreans lived back then.

 

What was it like teaching English at Jeju National University?

I was really shocked at what I found.  The “language lab” was a bunch of broken down tape machines.  Nothing worked.  I became the tape and wore my voice out so many times.  All of my Jeju students looked at me like they never heard English.    Park Chung-hee was a total dictator then and there was a big pro-democracy movement led by academics and students and the Jeju kids, although backward then, were just catching on to things.  Then the massacre in Daegu happened and things got really serious.  Then Park got assassinated.  Really turbulent times.

 

What was it like raising a family there?

An almost impossible challenge.  We were the only western family at Jaewon Apt. You knew no Korean.  The first apt JNU put us in had holes in the walls behind the cabinets and rats would come in.  Finally after a few weeks we got a much better apt from JNU. Mom got sick just after she came with you from exhaustion probably and almost died when she got antibiotics that she was allergic to.  Matt got sick also with really bad eczema.  The only western medical help we could get was the nuns at Hallim.

 

You went back to Jeju a few years ago. How has it changed?

I didn’t recognize it.  I was stunned at the development, new architecture, new roads, a complete transformation.  It had changed from a primitive backwater place to avoid, to a modern and beautiful resort destination.

 

How did you get into photography? Why did you shoot mostly slides? Did you have any training to learn how to use your camera?

I always enjoyed taking pictures. During my Army tour in ’72-’73 we had a darkroom and lots of my buddies were into taking shots of Korea.  It was a strange and beautiful place.  We got into developing our own film, B&W, and color.  The best film back then was Kodachrome and Ectachrome so we had a great little informal Photo Club.  Also, for my Nat Geo article, slides were the highest quality image you could get.

 

Was there anything in particular you were trying to document/capture with your camera? Why?

I knew that Jeju was going to change forever.  Dr. Koh told me about the billions of won that the government was going to pour into the island for development.  Being “modern” was more important to them than preserving the unique culture of Jeju.  I knew lots would be lost forever so I wanted to preserve a small slice with my shots.  Plus, I was to submit the photo essay for my independent study at Central Connecticut State University.

 

What did your friends and family say when you said you were moving to Jeju.

They thought I was crazy.  It devastated your mom that I would leave her with a little 5 year old and expecting a baby.  It caused a lot of pain for all of us but I felt I had no other options as it seemed a path was laid out for me to go back to Korea for lots of reasons and I couldn’t get a job in the U.S.  I’ll never forget the look in your eyes when I left you.

 

How did the locals treat you?

Some treated us really well and were sorry for the tough time we were having.  Kyeong Hee was a godsend, helped mom so much with all the challenges. We made some Korean friends but others looked at us like we were from Mars.  There was only one other American on the island then and only one other foreign family with kids.  It’s crazy but I think I’d do it again.

 Click here to read Part 2 of Echoes of Jeju

 

  • Taken: July 11, 2013
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Author: Pete DeMarco

Pete DeMarco is an award-winning travel photographer. His passion for helping people transform their photography shows through in the expert advice he shares. His work has been featured in National Geographic Traveler, CNN, and as a staff writer for Digital Photography School.

10 thoughts on “Echoes of Jeju: A Photo Essay of Korean Island Life in 1979 (Part 1)”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing these precious pictures. My family is living in Jeju. It’s great to see how Jeju looked like back then. Cheers to your dad and Jeju people!

  2. Hi,

    Thank you very much for sharing the photos!

    Jeju is my hometown where I was born in 1978. Now I’m living in Toronto, Canada.

    I’m very happy with watching the pictures of Jeju back in 1979.

    Thanks again.

  3. Thanks for preserving the pictures. I was 24 years old when I followed my Methodist Missionary husband to postwar Korea in 1960. Our four children were born there. We thought we were going to spend our whole working lives there, but Geoge was deported by Park Chung Hee in 1974 because he prayed in public for eight innocent men who had been given the death sentence because the government had called them the ringleaders of a fabricated plot.

    I think the massacre your Dad mentioned was in Gwangju, not Daegu.

  4. Such a great article and pictures. Thank you for sharing you and your dad’s experience in my hometown. It’s always great to see someone talk about the island. I was kind of hoping to see my grandfather’s buiding that was destroyed due to modernization.(just hoping :0) Jeju is now a lot different than old days. I even cant think back how my old hometown looked like. (I left Jeju when I was 19 and it was 11years ago) Hope your family get a chance to go back and see (compare) one day. 🙂

  5. I was a Peace Corps volunteer from 1977-79 in the Republic. Went to Jeju for a break, got really sunburned on a cloudy day and drank a lot. These pictures are very similar to mine during the period especially the washing of clothes. I have not been back but assume that the onslaught of Chinese gamblers and others have really altered the views. How nice to reflect. In fact tomorrow I will meet with former residents of Korea, Peace Corps returnees and Koreans to hear about Korean ceramics at the DIA and Freer house that I prevailed upon friends to help be bring to Detroit.

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