13 October 2023

Little known and centuries-old, the tale of the 'haenyeo' joins a vivid program at Culture Mix

| Dione David
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Pupperoos puppeteers Youngkyu Kwon and Kay Yasugi performing Haenyeo Women of the Sea

Mother and daughter team from Pupperoos Youngkyu Kwon and Kay Yasugi are set to bring an interactive, intimate and immersive theatre experience to Wollongong for Culture Mix. Photo: Darren Gill.

With her hand-crocheted puppets and her mum by her side, Pupperoos founder Kay Yasugi is set to bring to Wollongong the tale of a centuries-old people and tradition that is sadly dying out.

Haenyeo: Women of the Sea is an interactive, intimate and immersive theatre experience with traditional Korean music and whimsical puppetry as part of Culture Mix on Saturday 21 October.

Haenyeo are women divers from South Korea’s Jeju Island who go “free diving” (without breathing apparatus) for shellfish, seaweed and other seafood to sell. In possession of what many call superhuman skills, these incredible women – the oldest of whom are in their 90s – dive up to 20 metres and can hold their breath for up to two minutes.

While sadly the 600-year-old tradition is dying out, Haenyeo: Women of the Sea is Kay Yasugi’s contribution to ensuring the legend is kept alive.

READ ALSO Local youths to school Culture Mix audiences on the art of belonging

Yasugi, who trained at the London School of Puppetry and has used her skills in education, theatre and film around the world, promises a fascinating look at the “first ever sustainable sea farmers”, in an engaging format that will capture the imagination.

The show has delighted audiences at Italy’s Figura Offida Festival and the Melbourne Festival of Puppetry, but never before at a seaside location, making its Culture Mix appearance something of a homecoming.

“Performing by the water, for people who understand the sea is special and very fitting for this production,” Yasugi said.

It’s fitting as well that Yasugi’s mother and Pupperoos partner Youngkyu Kwon, who accompanied her as a translator while researching haenyeo in Korea, joins her on stage for this particular production.

“My mum is the cultural custodian of the show, and she brings to it a wealth of knowledge and expertise,” Yasugi said.

“She’s also the age of the average haenyeo diver, and as this show is about passing down traditions, it made a lot of sense that she be involved.”

Aside from her marvellous production Yasugi herself, who is half Korean and half Japanese, is like a poster child for Culture Mix.

“I am half Korean and half Japanese. It’s amazing I exist considering the history between the two countries,” she says.

“The fact that my parents got together is testament to the philosophies of this multicultural festival.”

READ ALSO Save the date: Culture Mix is locking down a kaleidoscope of multicultural delights in Wollongong

There’s not long to go now until 21 October, when parts of Wollongong will be transformed by Culture Mix – a free and inclusive festival celebrating the cultural patchwork of our community, and open to people from all backgrounds, ages and abilities.

The program is out and the council is suggesting a “choose your own adventure” approach, with workshops booking up fast.

A section between Kembla and Corrimal Streets will be closed off to traffic and transformed into a large outdoor precinct where existing CBD businesses will activate special offerings to complement authentic, grassroots stalls.

However, there will also be distinct hubs dotted around the CBD, including the Global Kitchen located at 90 Crown Street and Lower Mall and open from 12 pm to 6 pm. Here visitors will learn new recipes and “taste their way around the world” as different community-based groups present a signature dish.

The Celebration Stage from 12 pm to 8 pm at Arts Precinct will be a participatory stage, where audiences will witness – and perhaps participate in – dynamic performances from drumming to dancing.

On Lower Crown Street, the Food Fair from 12 pm to 8 pm will include a more intimate, community-focused stage showcasing community dance groups, choirs, children’s groups, ensemble groups and emerging artists from the Illawarra’s different nations. Nearby will be a Cultural Bazaar art market, where different cultural groups will set up shop to showcase a variety of skills and wares, with a strong focus on local Indigenous Australian groups.

Creative Sessions will take place at Town Hall from 12 pm to 8 pm, Wollongong Art Gallery from 12 pm to 7 pm and Wollongong Library from 12 pm to 7:30 pm, featuring cross-cultural workshops in drumming, dance and more.

Markets, participatory and observatory cultural performances and creative play opportunities will be woven throughout the tapestry of the festival. The advice is to mix a bit of “must-see” planning in with time to get swept up in the spirit and fun of it all.

Culture Mix will take place on Saturday 21 October, from 12 pm to 8 pm at various locations in Wollongong CBD, including Lower Crown Street and Mall, The Arts Precinct, Wollongong Library, Wollongong Art Gallery and Wollongong Town Hall.

Haenyeo: Women of the Sea will take place at Wollongong Library from 12 pm to 12:30 pm – book online.

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