For collectors, anything is a fair targetThere was a time when almost everyone in the country collected stamps. That was only about 20 years ago.
For children at that time, stamps were like money, with which they could get beads or trading cards. Middle school and high school students learned about the world’s geography by collecting stamps, while adults considered it a “classy” hobby.
But times have changed. These days, doing what everyone else does is considered boring and simply a waste of time. That’s why the ranks of “yeopgi” (crazy) collectors are increasing now.
These collectors acquire virtually anything, and don’t care what other people think about their collections. The item may be trash to other people, but is a treasure to the collector himself.
One man’s love of soju takes a different twist
Doh Chang-jong, 50, an editor at the Yeongnam Ilbo, a daily newspaper in the Daegu area, doesn’t like moving. In the past 20 years, he has moved only twice. It’s not that he couldn’t afford a new place. He simply had too much to pack, considering his precious collection ― 800 soju bottles.
He finally moved to a new apartment last November. “I was so worried that the bottles would break in the process of packing, so I wrapped each one in paper, which took five days. I promised myself that this would be the last time I moved.”
Mr. Doh can barely finish a bottle of soju at a party, but he loves the local liquor in a different way than other Koreans ― he has been bringing home sealed bottles of soju, just to look at them, for the past 20 years.
Collecting soju bottles, when others collect wine and whisky bottles as a symbol of wealth and class, perplexed people. But, Mr. Doh explains, “After majoring in visual design in college, I started working in 1982 for a design team at Geumbokju, a soju manufacturer. Studying the designs of soju packages in different countries at different times, I became very interested in the bottles.”
Even after he joined a newspaper’s design team in 1988, his search for different soju bottles continued.
Now he has about 800 bottles, which fill an entire wall in his living room. Those from the 1950s and ’60s are in one corner of the collection, bearing such names as “Wonang” (Lovebirds) or “007.”
His knowledge of soju bottle design is broad. “In the ’60s and ’70s, soju bottles often had pictures of cranes, turtles or other animals that are symbols of longevity. In the ’80s, pictures of grains such as barley were often seen on the bottles to promote a healthy image,” said Mr. Doh. “Now, many are green, giving a milder image.”
The bottles in his collection come from various places, such as the Jeolla provinces, Jeju Island, Halla Mountain, and even places in North Korea. Because of his love for those bottles, he didn’t allow his children to run around in the house. And his wife always had to tell visitors, “Sorry, you can’t drink this.”
These days, Mr. Doh takes pictures of soju bottles with his digital camera. “Soju was always a friend of the ordinary people. It is a record of ordinary people’s lifestyle. Who knows? I may open a soju museum one day.”
Common food, uncommon hobby
“I was lost in a strange neighborhood. I went to a small corner store and found unusual-looking instant noodle packages. I quickly began picking them up. Alas, that’s when I woke up!”
Lee Seon-jun, 21, an interior designer, is such an avid collector of the lids of “cup ramyeon,” or instant noodle packages, that she even dreams about them.
Ms. Lee’s interest dates back to four years ago, when she was in the last year of high school, preparing to enter an art program in college. While she was painting in preparation for attending college, she ate a lot of instant noodles.
One day, as she was about to take her first bite of the noodles, she noticed that the cover was very cute, with its round shape and colorful illustrations. It became the first lid in her collection.
It wasn’t easy for a busy high school girl to collect various types of lids, since she usually went to the same grocery store, which carried a limited variety of instant noodles. So, when she traveled to different neighborhoods to visit her friends and relatives, she explored the area to find different packages.
After Ms. Lee entered college, her quest became more aggressive. She started an online community for those who had the same hobby. At cafe.daum.net/tookung, she began sharing information with club members. Ms. Lee also asked acquaintances to tell her about any unfamiliar noodle packages they found. Intrigued by her hobby, about 4,000 Internet users have joined her Web site.
Touched by her never-ending passion for her hobby, one of her male friends gathered rare lids while he was serving in the military, and a relative living overseas sent her “exotic” packages of instant noodles. Ms. Lee even e-mailed ramyeon manufacturers to ask for lids from their products that were no longer available in supermarkets.
Ms. Lee now has about 270 different lids. That does not equal the number of brands, however, since noodle manufacturers change their package designs when prices are raised or when the product is exported. Thus, her collection can grow as long as the industry exists.
But, Ms. Lee had to stop her search temporarily while she was looking for a job. Even though she was always updated about new lids to add to her collection, she didn’t have the time to actually go and get them. She succeeded in getting a job last month, however, and her quest for the lids will resume.
“I might go on a business trip to China soon. Whenever I have time, I’m going to drop by supermarkets and discount malls to find Chinese cup ramyeon,” Ms. Lee said.
Historical propaganda provides an inspiration
In the mid-1980s, Kim Yeong-jun, 54, was browsing through books at a secondhand bookstore. He wanted to see whether there were any books on radical ideologies after Japanese colonial rule ended in Korea. From the early 1980s, he had been collecting random items, including old art objects and books.
One day, something fell out of a book he was leafing through. It was a palm-sized piece of paper that said, “Freedom is granted to those who carry this pass.” Mr. Kim discovered that it was a “bill,” produced and spread for propaganda purposes by the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Koreans called them “ppira,” from the Japanese pronunciation. Mr. Kim felt like an explorer who found a virgin land.
This is how Mr. Kim started collecting ppira. Even though people were supposed to report every one they found to the police at that time, he kept the “forbidden” item in his collection. He even asked his relatives to give him any ppira they found. But that simple hobby caused some trouble. He was sometimes suspected of being a spy from North Korea, or thought to be a policeman, looking for ppira.
It eventually became legal to own ppira, and collecting them became a lot easier after Mr. Kim opened an antique shop, “Shigan Yeohaeng” (Time Travel). Exchanging information with people who had a similar interest, Mr. Kim gathered many ppira, and now has more than 2,000 of them.
Some he obtained for free, but others cost several hundred thousand won. Mr. Kim’s favorite ppira was made by U.S. and British troops to distribute to Japanese soldiers in 1945, right after Japan’s surrender in World War II. Another ppira he loves was drawn by Kim Yong-hwan, a famous cartoonist, who seemed to have drawn it under government pressure during the Korean War.
These days, Mr. Kim is interested in finding ppira that were made around the time of the 1980 Gwangju uprising. If he finds more ppira from this time and other periods in Korean history, he can publish a professional book on them for the first time in the country.
“Ppira carry history. In times of change and chaos, those little pieces of paper always appear. Especially in a country like Korea, which went through ideological conflicts, ppira are like a history book,” said Mr. Kim. “That’s why many historians want to find ppira now.”
by Namkoong Wook, Choi Min-woo