Jeju's women divers find new confidence as they take to the stage

A scene from "Haenyeo Kitchen," a play that features real haenyeo in Jeju Island. [HAENYEO KITCHEN]

Eighty-nine-year-old Kwon Young-hee is the oldest haenyeo (the indigenous female divers of Jeju who are on Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage) in Jeju Island’s Jongdal-li village. Kwon, who has been living life as a haenyeo since she was 10 years old, is following in the footsteps of her mother who lost her husband when she was in her 20s and had to raise five children.

She shares conversations she had with her mother that bring tears to the eyes of those who gather to see her performance in “Haenyeo Kitchen.” The audience bursts into laughter when she even jokes that the life of haenyeo these days is too easy as they can wear rubber gear to keep themselves warm underwater and have husbands to come pick them up after they're finished working for the day.


“Haenyeo Kitchen” combines theater and a dining experience and started its operation from January 2019. It takes about 2 hours and 30 minutes for a diner to finish the experience which includes dinner and the show. First is a short play about the life of haenyeo for about 30 minutes, followed by a talk about all the kinds of seafood haenyeo catch. Then dinner is prepared with the seafood caught by haenyeo. After the dinner, there’s a session in which the audience can ask the haenyeo questions. The theater space is in a warehouse in Jongdal-li village in Jeju.

Kim Ha-won is the woman behind "Haenyeo Kitchen." Kim, who was born and raised in Jongdal-li, studied theater at Korea National University of Arts in Seoul. She was preparing to go study abroad in the United States, but changed her mind when she was struck with inspiration for this unique concept.

She sat down with the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, to share what the performance is all about. Below are edited excerpts.

Sea snail with horns, known as bbulsora in Korean, gathered by haenyeo in Jeju. [HAENYEO KITCHEN]

The food served during the show "Haenyeo Kitchen." [HAENYEO KITCHEN]