The first stop of our journey around the world is here. Jeju Island is well-known as one of the new seven natural landscapes in the world. Of course, what attracts us is not necessarily its beauty. In my plan, Jeju Island is a journey of searching, not a sunny beach, not a bikini beauty, but a group of mysterious “old women”-“sea girls”.
In the past, most men on Jeju Island had to go to sea to fish and maintain their livelihoods. The death toll was very high, resulting in the island’s “yin and yang decay.”
It was these remaining women, some of whom took over the men’s fish baskets, dived into the rough seas, and ventured to gather seafood on the seabed.
It is said that they do not need any diving equipment, they can hold their breath underwater for 2 to 3 minutes, easily dive 20 meters, and fish freehand. Today, only some old people are still engaged in this ancient occupation. The youngest of them are also in their fifties, and the older ones are in their nineties. Perhaps in another dozen or twenty years, Hai Nu will really disappear in this world.
Stop the boat and land on the island. A Korean friend Cici in Beijing learned that we were going to stop at Jeju Island and hurried back to South Korea to be our guide. Without rest, we went to rent a car. Cici told us that 50 kilometers away from the city, you can find a harbor, where the gathering place of sea girls.
Sailing out of Jeju Island, there are many stone sculptures of sea girls. Following the stone carving, we are getting closer and closer to Hai Nu.
We reached our destination, but soon found something was wrong. The crowd is crowded here, and the tourists are like weaves. It is quite different from the scene where I imagined that only a few elderly sea girls dived into the sea to float out.
Because of its reputation, it has become a tourist area, and many tourists from all over the world come here. But I still saw four or five sea girls. They are really very old. They are all grandma. Wearing black leather clothes and diving glasses.
A sea girl who looks like a foreman, holding a microphone, bowed to the tourists and said hello, and then said that she was about to start performing. People held up the camera and mobile phone in their hands, “click, click” to shoot.
This is not the scene I met with Hai Nu in my imagination. What I want to find is the kind of sea girl who really lives by diving fishing. I want to get close to them, understand and record their real life, and even go fishing with them.
Although what we have in front of us is just a performance show, it is still worth seeing, because these performers are indeed real sea girls. Performing in this scenic area is part of their work.
The sea ladies tied a weird belt around their waists before going to sea, wearing two round lead blocks polished to a round shape. It is said that these two lead blocks weigh seven or eight kilograms, which can help the sea girls to dive more easily.
Then they took their net pockets and “punched” into the water.
Liang Hong on the edge bit his lip, feeling a little sentimental. She said it was really unimaginable. In China, in Beijing, seventy or eighty-year-old aunts have already retired at home, bringing grandchildren and nurturing for years. But on Jeju Island, these 80- to 90-year-old aunts are still working and soaking in the cold water.
After staying in the water for nearly 20 minutes, each of them dived five or six times. The sea girls ended their performance. They grabbed some sea urchins and kelp. Climbing ashore, the sea girls didn’t have a breath.
We stopped an aunt who was out of the water and chatted with her. I learned that she started learning diving in her teens, and has been doing this job for more than 50 years. The aunt said that as their age increases, the number of sea girls will continue to decrease in the future. In a few decades, no woman will do this again.
Auntie finished her smile and bowed to us.
Her words added to our determination to find the “real sea girl”. I want to record this civilization that is about to disappear.
We drove along the coast, hoping to visit some fishing villages and find the sea girls who lived by fishing. Finally, we were outside a small fishing village and saw the sea not far away. There were a few sea girls scattered in the water. They dived and floated quietly, and there was only the sound of sea breezes and waves beating the coast. When they dived, flipping their flippers out of the water gave me the illusion of seeing a mermaid.
Waiting by the shore, I want to chat with them after they come up. Finally, two people finished their work and landed, and I greeted them excitedly. But when they saw our shooting, they were very resistant, blocking their faces, refusing to talk to us, and not letting us shoot.
We can only go back to the sea wall and look at them from a distance, some lost.
Cici suddenly said, “I can take you to a Hai Nu restaurant.”
A small shop, Cici said that this restaurant was started by the sea girls in the village. The chefs are all sea girls. They also serve as bosses and waiters. Every day they go to the sea to fish for seafood, then return to work here, sell them here, and all their income is divided equally.
The aunts who are on duty are very nice, willing to chat with us, and agree that we photograph them. They are busy working in the kitchen, answering some of my questions. They still have to dive into the sea every day and return to work in this restaurant after landing.
Finally, I tried to ask her if we could follow them to dive and fish. The aunt replied that their fishing work is over today, but she invited us to go out to sea with them tomorrow morning.
After being overjoyed, the aunts gave us a special surprise, and they cooked the delicious food they brought up. Please let us taste them one by one. These seafood are particularly fresh and can even be eaten raw without cooking: conch, abalone, octopus…
Early the next morning, they rushed to the place where the sea girls went into the water. They had already changed their clothes and waited there. We also came prepared, bringing underwater cameras and diving suits. When these things were on board in Shanghai, I prepared them just for the date with Hai Nu.
When Liang Hong and I changed clothes, an aunt dropped some sea urchins for us to try. That is the freshest sea urchin I have ever eaten.
When the water went down, the aunts swimed quietly on the surface of the water, and looked at the bottom of the water. Suddenly they pierced. After a while, they floated up with their prey and threw them into their net pockets. They are all people in their 60s, but in the water, they move quickly and vigorously.
This long-term undersea operation also damaged the ears of the sea girls, and they all spoke loudly to each other. The sea girls go on for 2 minutes each time, 30 times per hour, and work five or six hours a day. I have to go up and down more than 100 times a day, but I only get tired after a dive.
The sea urchin is delicious, but the sea girl is not good. One of the reasons why the sea girl is about to disappear is that it is dangerous and too hard. Not many girls of the next generation are willing to inherit this mantle.
An aunt named Jin Xinan agreed to let us go to her house. A very simple farmhouse, full of pictures of their couples and children.
Aunt Jin is a “young” sea girl. There have been two or three times. Aunt Jin wandered on the edge of life and death on the seabed. Aunt Jin said that although being a sea girl is very tiring and dangerous, she relied on this job to raise three children and let them all finish college.
I’m curious, will Aunt Jin let her daughter be a sea girl.
Aunt Jin said that her daughter mentioned to herself that she also wanted to be a sea girl, but she disagreed. Over the years I have been a sea girl, I have left a lot of sequelae: my nose is often inflamed, migraine, and my hands and waist are sore; I must take medicine before going into the water; and when I am older, most sea girls will be deaf.
We all sighed at this, but Aunt Jin smiled with a hearty smile: “As long as you think about your family, you feel worth the hard work.”