New life for an old gamePink, purple and blue-feathered shuttlecocks were whizzing through the air like hummingbirds outside the Lotte World folk museum in Jamsil, southeastern Seoul.
“Look kids!” shouted one father at his brood of two. “Here’s how you kick a jegi!”
His children tried their darnedest to kick the 23-centimeter (9 inch) doodad as well as their dad, but to no avail.
“You’re good because you’re an old person,” the little daughter grumbled, as the son attempted to kick it again, only to miss and find his rear end on the ground.
In the past, legions of kids at school playgrounds across Korea could be found kicking and chasing after jegis. The toy resembles a badminton shuttlecock, except that it’s bigger, has more feathers and metal discs at its base instead of plastic. But these days it’s practically impossible to find Korean kids, at least in Seoul, playing a round of this aerobic activity.
“It’s sad how kids nowadays spend all their time playing video games,” says Hwang Young-kyu, who introduced the jegi gaming area to Lotte World’s museum last month. “Children hardly get any exercise and most of them are losing their social skills as well.”
Yu Byung-chan, the folk museum clerk, says, “There’s long been a general consensus that jegi is just plain boring. But since Mr. Hwang turned up, everything has changed.
“I’ve seen middle school students kicking the jegi for hours and totally forget that they came here to Lotte World, the amusement park, to get on those rides,” Mr. Yu says, adding that teachers who bring their flock to Lotte World on school picnics also adore the jegi play area and ask Mr. Hwang for more specific rules of play.
Jegi can be played solo, with a partner, or in team play. In the solo and doubles version, players attempt to rack up as many consecutive kicks as possible without dropping the shuttlecock ― a goal synonymous with that of hacky sackers in Western countries. It is also possible to play the game competitively, with two or three-person teams battling it out on opposite sides of a low-slung net. In fact, jegi is considered the predecessor of the popular Southeast Asian sport of sepak takraw, which involves kicking a ball over a net.
A middle-aged man who had not exercised for nearly 10 years, Mr. Yu has returned to the realm of physical activity thanks to jegi. He claims to have kicked his smoking habit thanks to the shuttlecock. “I come to Mr. Hwang’s booth every day,” Mr. Yu says. “I just love it, and my two daughters love it as well.”
At first Lotte World shrugged off Mr. Hwang’s proposal, but recently the behemoth entertainment center’s executives have shown a more favorable opinion of the concept. According to Mr. Yu, Lotte World executives loved the jegi booth so much, they warmed up Mr. Hwang with a gift.
It was not until recently that Mr. Hwang showed any interest in traditional Asian games. An economics major in Sahmyook University, Mr. Hwang graduated at the top of his class in February. But he shies away from bragging about his academic prowess. “I was just one of your typical Korean college students, who was more into pop culture,” Mr. Hwang says.
It was only when he visited China on a 10-day evangelical trip that his job future began to take form. He saw kids everywhere in China kicking around the colorful shuttlecock. This inspired him to research its background; he learned the game originated in China in the 5th century B.C. and later spread across Asia.
While many Korean think the game is for commoners, Mr. Hwang’s research proves otherwise.
“It was actually played within the royal court both in China and Korea,” Mr. Hwang says.
After returning to Seoul, he wrinkled his nose to figure out a way to increase the ancient game’s popularity among young Koreans zombified from too many hours of StarCraft, Warcraft and other online games.
With his plan set, he skipped his college graduation ceremony to visit a factory in China, where he placed his jegi order.
Jegi in hand, Hwang typed up a business proposal to Lotte World in April.
The amusement park staff sent him to their event team, which planned a massive event involving at least 20 doumi, or publicity girls in skimpy outfits. Mr. Hwang turned down the proposal as “too enormous,” and landed in the more relaxed confines of the Lotte World folk museum.
In spite of the game’s popularity, Mr. Hwang insists he is not pocketing a dime of profit these days in his quest to promote jegi.
“I lose money rather than build up profit because when kids play jegi, since it’s difficult for them to kick it they throw it on the floor and break it,” Mr. Hwang says, adding that his father frowns at his playful occupation. “But I have no regrets and I’m not interested in making money,” he says.
For now at least, Mr. Hwang’s life spins around the unpredictable shuttlecock.
by Lee Ho-jeong