Evolution of Structure: Catalyzing traditional culture into something new and adaptive

Yun Meeyoung 2

What does a small, improvisational market and an independent art gallery – both in the Jeju – share in common? They are both mediums for cultural adaptation. Both have taken old tangerine storage buildings deep in Jeju’s countryside and converted them into spaces where the island is integrating its past into something new.

In short, Shin Sam’s Market and Joongsun Farm are both built on structures which have become epicenters for a real-time evolution of Korean culture.

Shin Sam’s Market

Founded at some point in the early 15th century, Susan-ri is a village of about 420 homes and 1200 people. It’s so small that most people have never heard of it.

It’s a farming village full of bright blue and red “tractor-trucks” that look handmade. Gyul, or Korean tangerines, are grown in abundance here. A few years ago, storage and distribution of citrus was handed over to Nonghyup, an agricultural cooperative bank. That’s why Shin Sam was able to rent an old tangerine warehouse – Susan-ri was repurposing some their unused buildings.

A longtime resident of the island turned to me after only a minute at Shin Sam’s market and asked, “Who are all these people?”

He had been unprepared to find an entirely new subculture on the island, especially in a village he’d never heard of. There were fringe elements here that he had only seen glimpses of in Seoul or abroad; bohemians, iconoclasts, and nomads from at least four different countries. But it was more than just dreadlocks, tie-dyes, and tattoos.

Mainstream Korea was here too.

Like many of the regulars at the market, Jung-seon was originally from the mainland. He had a master’s degree in furniture design. He spent nine years as a teacher using his technical drawing skills to help students prepare for exams in photorealistic rendering. Jung-seon was a perfect model of mainstream Korean focus and industry.

His back pain was as much a product of stress as it was from being bent over a draft table all day. But it was more than that. He loved teaching, but it hadn’t satisfied his passion for creating. Moreover, Jung-seon felt alone in one of the most densely populated cities on the planet.

As is so often the case, his body was demanding a change that his heart had only just started to admit. Eventually, the pain and pressure got bad enough for him to get the message.

In 2013, Jung-seon came to Jeju. He didn’t have an itinerary. He wasn’t looking for a new life. He just wanted to enjoy the comfort of simple things again. Eating. Sleeping. Being outside amid the trees. But a little freedom can be a dangerous thing.    

 

Jung-seon almost immediately sold everything he owned and moved to Jeju. He signed a five-year contract renting an old warehouse about thirty minutes east of Jeju City.  He built a humble living space in one corner and set up a woodworking shop in the rest. People must have thought he was crazy. Maybe he did too.

He certainly never expected to become a community center. Being social was never really one of his talents. However, his woodworking classes fostered a striking camaraderie. People began to come earlier and stay later. Word spread and so did the diversity of his classes. People were hungry for the passion and energy they found at his workshop.

When Jung-seon decided to sell some of his hand made furniture in June of 2014 it was as if a critical mass had been reached. A market erupted and has been growing ever since.  

Jung-seon has become better known by his professional name, Shin Sam. His lower back is happier than it used to be and so is he. He’s married now. The market has become one of many labors of love for him and his wife Kyung-jin.

Their humble 330 square meter warehouse, full of raw timber and Christmas lights, is flush with a steady heartbeat of friendships, community, and creativity. People from all over the island and all over the world show up to mix with generations born and raised in Susan-ri.

Once a month from 12 – 3 p.m. you can take the pulse of a burgeoning new culture. It’s a phenomenon disguised as a market. An example of progressive culture on an island that’s struggling with the appropriation of its history, icons, and even its dignity – all in the name of branding. An optimistic counterbalance to worrisome aspects of Jeju’s growing prosperity.

And you can see it on the faces of the people in town. They love Shin Sam’s market and the diversity it has brought into their village. There’s a feeling of friendly embrace in Susan-ri, an enthusiasm for the future.

 

Joongsun Farm

From the outside, it looks like a typical Jeju farm. You can see a trail leading to a field of tangerine trees and four buildings made with Jeju’s famous volcanic rock.

However, look a little closer and you will start to see something different. The buildings, for example, have big glass windows. The roofs are a little higher than usual.

This is because Joongsun Farm isn’t a farm but a space designed for culture. The four buildings aren’t for farm equipment storage anymore. Now they’re an art gallery, a library, a cafe, and a guest house.

Jung Jae-ho and Kim Jung-won are the directors. They explained how the buildings were originally built by the family who owned the farm in 1979. The gallery used to be a tangerine storage facility, the library a place where machines and tools were kept.

 

The couple, in accordance with the wishes of the previous owner, decided that instead of knocking down the original buildings and making something new, they would repurpose the original buildings to fit their current needs.

Jae-ho explained about how the previous owner had wanted to preserve the buildings as an example of how things used to be.

Buildings can be so much more than just practical. Contained within the walls and the architecture of our structures are aspects of culture, and on a personal level, the history of the people who have spent their lives there.

While many new buildings have outer facades or are built with a certain style in mind, the buildings on the farm are made from the volcanic rock that you can find throughout Jeju. The fact that they were built using raw materials from the island means that they are literally Jeju.

Despite now living in Seoul, the owner still feels deeply about his hometown, his family, and his youth, and keeping the building intact was a way of preserving this culture.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Jae-ho and Jung-won could just move straight in. They explained that when they first arrived at the farm, the buildings were in no state to be used for anything. Even storing tangerines would have been a stretch.

The old roofs were tattered, so they had to be replaced. They also wanted to open the buildings up with more natural light, so they put in large windows.

In total, it took nine months to refit the buildings for their current purpose: The directors wanted to bring culture from the rest of Korea to this small rural village.

The artwork they choose for the gallery is meant to be accessible to a large number of people. As such, they try to focus on well known, contemporary work by Korean artists, presenting it in a unique way befitting a smaller rural gallery.

The current space may be small, but Jae-ho explained how he wanted to give people who come to his gallery in the country just as much nourishment as people who go to one of the big galleries in Seoul.

By choosing more established names – as opposed to up-and-coming talent – Jae-ho hopes that the art will be more likely to garner an interest from locals and tourists alike.

In a time when tangerine farms – a traditional good source of income for many Jeju residents – are becoming less profitable, the land is frequently being repurposed. While this is only natural, if too many farms get built over then we risk not only losing a key part of Jeju’s culture, but also the many benefits that agriculture offers.

Jae-ho told us a story about his friend’s mother. She suggested that instead of looking at the farm as a place where profits are to be made, we can look at it as a garden that can give us value by helping us relax, keeping us close to nature, and being a reminder of a way people used to live.

Like Shin Sam’s market, it is also a reminder that Jeju is changing, and it is up to us to decide the quality of this new, emerging culture.