BUSAN, South Korea — A beach is a simple thing – sea meets sand; the rest are details – but a beach isn’t really a beach until somebody loves it. Among Busan’s beaches, Haeundae suffers no lack of affection. Hundreds of thousands of people crowd Korea’s best known strand every weekend in the summer, turning it into a small city of half-clad umbrella dwellers. There, among the throngs, are the regulars; the folks who comprise the local landscape, the characters who give the beach its character.
Down behind the Paradise Hotel hangs a group of bronzed and muscular guys who play soccer, throw frisbees, and groove to music wearing naught but Speedos and dark tanning oil. You may have noticed them, or else you have noticed a lot of other people noticing them. In a time and place where many people still swim in shorts and T-shirts, the old folks stare, children giggle and women blush. Many snap furtive photos. Some ask for autographs.
The Speedo Crew with their unofficial leader Yoon Tae-won (center)
The unofficial leader of the pack is Yoon Tae-won, 55, who hails from Busan but lives and works in Seoul. From nine to five, Monday to Friday, Yoon wears a suit and tie, but every weekend he heads down to Busan, sheds the monkey suit, and opts for a modified Speedo (He rolls the backside up so it forms a cord across his bum). Mr. Yoon recently became a minor celebrity when the TV show Superstar K featured him, not as a contestant, but as a guy who lives his art, which he says is having a good time. He says he likes to teach the young kids how to have a good time too, and to make a spectacle for visitors to the beach.
While Yoon and company are indeed a sight, you can walk right past Kim Jong-man and not notice him, though if you’ve looked to the sky on a Sunday afternoon, you may have seen a colorful rectangular kite, soaring and diving under the control of an expert hand. Follow the kite string down and you will find him working a large spool with both hands, jerking and spinning what looks like the runaway wheel of an ancient loom. He’s happy to talk about his several dozen kites, which he crafts from bamboo and rice paper. His are faithful replicas of the signal kites used long ago by the military to convey specific instructions like “rendezvous on the mountain” or “attack when the moon is up,” or to describe the strength, movements, and location of the enemy.
Kite maker Kim Jong-man, showing off some of his handiwork
On weekends, Kim volunteers at the Korean Traditional Culture Preservation Society, where he teaches interested folks how to make and fly kites. He would like you, too, to go fly a kite, in the best possible sense.
If you have strolled the concrete esplanade you may have heard old Korean popular melodies being played on a twangy, trebly guitar. The source of the music is Go Gyoung-gu, 82, who sits out with his axe, his amp, and a beat-up old songbook containing handwritten notation and lyrics to a few hundred songs. Go wears a suit, a grin and a fedora like your grandfather used to wear. He says he’s been coming to Haeundae every Sunday for twenty years, and he is usually joined by friends, who sit around and croon songs that were a hit before your mother was born. Go says he has no interest in Superstar K, and he doesn’t play for money, though a Japanese tourist once gave him 200,000 won for playing a Japanese song on request. He takes requests for free too, as long as you lend a voice.
Further down, where the esplanade opens into a small crescent, sit the portrait artists. They lounge in folding canvas chairs and bark “Sketch!” to passers-by, hawking pencil portraits which take about fifteen minutes and cost 30,000 won. I stopped to chat with local artist Seo Gyoung-hwa, age coyly undisclosed, who, when asked how long she had worked there, joked that it was her first day. A peek behind her easel revealed that she had been drawing for much longer than that; a true likeness of the young woman who sat in front of her, one of the thousands of faces that pass her easel each day.
I asked Seo, “Why pay thirty bucks for a portrait when you can just take a photo?”
“It’s a nice souvenir,” she said. “Families like to have a portrait to capture a moment.”
Plenty of moments remain to be captured this summer at Haeundae Beach. See you there.
John Bocskay is a Haeundae resident. He may be found somewhere along Haeundae Beach with a Day-glo green Frisbee and a cold bottle of beer. Check out John's columnist page here.
Looking to lose some memories of a day at the beach? The nearby soju tents oughta do it.
A couple enjoys a romantic day on the shore