Brassware, Now Out of Style, Has Long History

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Brassware, Now Out of Style, Has Long History

Yugi (brassware) was once an important feature of daily life in Korea. Brass tableware (not-geuret), such as soup bowls, was in particular something no household went without. Brass basins, spoons, chopsticks - all were popular culinary utensils in the past.

During the summer, Korean people often served meals in a set of porcelain bowls to add light and freshness to the table, but during the winter, not-geuret replaced the chinaware. Yugi, with its shiny yellow color and heavy weight, helped make the table look inviting and well-laden and retained heat to prevent foods from getting cold.

These yugi items are usually made of yellow brass - an alloy of copper and zinc - but are sometimes fashioned from alloys of copper and other metals, including bronze - an alloy of copper and tin - or white brass, an alloy of copper and nickel. Koreans also used brass items outside the kitchen, for items such as tobacco boxes, paperweights, candlesticks, inkwells, water containers and chamber pots.

According to a record of the Choson dynasty (1392-1910), brassware occupied a central spot in the average household. The record states that, "People used a complete set of brass tableware to serve rice, soup and side dishes." Gongs, trumpets, bell chimes, altar fittings and utensils used to worship Buddha, and jegi, vessels used in memorial services for the deceased: all these brass products were also popular at that time.

In the late Choson period, brassware produced in Anseong, Kyonggi province, was considered the best in the nation. Custom-made brassware items from the Anseong were renowned for their superb quality, beautiful luster and delicacy. Small, elegant items of tableware made in the area were popular among noble families. It was around that time that Anseong-machum, which literally means "custom-made in Anseong," became a common expression used to describe something that fit one's needs exactly.

Kim Geun-su, 85, is a craftsman who specializes in making brassware. For over a decade, he has been trying hard to keep the tradition alive in Anseong. The craft of fashioning brassware was once in danger of dying out with the advent of products made of stainless steel or plastic.

Mr. Kim is the owner of the only factory that still produces yugi in Anseong.

According to Mr. Kim, the method of making yugi differed in every region. In Suncheon, South Cholla province, craftsmen hammer soft molten copper alloys to make yugi. In Anseong, however, craftsmen use molds (geopujip in Korean) made from clay or stone to produce a yugi.

Mr. Kim demonstrated how to make a yugi Anseong-style. First, he used a model of a bowl he wished to create an iron cast and filled the cast with clay. Using the same method, he created another mold. He then poured molten brass into the molds to produce the yugi items themselves.

Yugi items look dirty when they are lifted out of the molds, but they go through a refining process and are finally cleaned to a shine using powdered giwa (Korean roof tiles).

During the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), Mr. Kim worked as a salesman and traveled all over the nation to solicit orders for brassware.

He recalls that it was around 1945 that brassware enjoyed its golden time, following the liberation of Korea. Brassware was in high demand among young women preparing for marriage, and attracted crowds of buyers to Anseong. They had to wait days to get what they ordered. But brass items lost popularity after the Korean War (1950-1953) as people began to use products made of new materials such as plastic, and a number of brassware factories went bankrupt.

Brassware is in demand again these days due to improvements in the standard of living, in large part from restaurants who wish to recreate an atmosphere of old with their own custom-designed yugi tableware. "There were times that I wanted to give up making yugi," said Mr. Kim, "but I am glad that I overcame the difficulties and continued the tradition of Anseong-yugi."

For information on products and ordering, call 031-675-2590 (Korean language only).

by Shin June-bong

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