Where life goes on (and on)

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Where life goes on (and on)

SUNCHANG, North Jeolla province
Some places in the world, such as Okinawa, Japan, and Sardinia, Italy, have an unusual number of people who are more than 100 years old. Naturally, this tends to attract attention from people wondering if they know something the rest of us don’t.
In Korea, that place is the “longevity village” of Sunchang.
Nestled 340 meters above sea level in a semi-mountainous region, the people of Sunchang seem to enjoy not just long lives, but long and healthy ones. Kang In-hyeng, chief executive of Sunchang County, suggests a few explanations.
“First of all, Sunchang is renowned for its fermented delicacies, which have been proven to effectively prevent diseases of all sorts,” says Mr. Kang (who himself, incidentally, is 58).
Indeed, Sunchang is synonymous in Korea with fermented soybean pastes, such as gochujang, doenjang and cheonggukjang. There is even a Sunchang brand of gochujang, produced by the local food manufacturer Cheongjeongwon.
Besides the soybean-heavy diet, Mr. Kang has other explanations for the villagers’ longevity: clean water; plenty of exercise, thanks to the mountainous landscape; and the prevalence of extended families. “These are scientifically and medically proven facts that make Sunchang a place where longevity is scientifically studied,” added Mr. Kang.
Last October, Sunchang was host to an event called the International Symposium on Centenarians, with experts from the United States, Japan and Italy in attendance.
Of 230 cities and counties around the country, Sunchang had the most centenarians with 29 per 100,000 persons, according to research conducted in 2002 by Park Sang-chul of Seoul National University Medical School. Yecheon, North Gyeongsang province, was close behind with 28.4 centenarians per 100,000; Bosong, South Jeolla province, had 27.7. That’s compared to an average of 4.7 centenarians per 100,000 people for Korea as a whole.
The town’s oldest living person is 112 years old, but she is an invalid; the oldest person in Sunchang still leading an active life is Park Bok-dong, who was born in 1900 (like many of the older residents, she’s not sure of her exact birthday).
Gang In-gi, born in 1925, has a flowing white beard and something of an antediluvian appearance; nevertheless, he’s fit as a fiddle. Not only is his back straight (he’s never needed a cane), he’s still strong enough to lift an eight-kilogram (17-pound) sack of rice over his head.
Mr. Gang lives with his wife, and to this day continues to work on his farmland and his house, where he was mending the roof when a reporter arrived.
“My secret to long and healthy life is that I drink three cups of soju a day,” Mr. Gang says with a chuckle. “That makes me forget all my worries, and that, I think, is what makes this body tick.”
He talks incessantly about what it really means to be Korean. “To grow a beard is to be more Korean!” he declares. One suspects that with his beard shaved off, he could pass for a man in his 50s.
Not all of Sunchang’s elders are so cheerful. Kim Bok-deuk, born in 1902, has seen many trials in her day. She has lost her husband and two of her eight children; despite her soundness of mind and body (until last year, she played the Korean card game “go-stop” with some of the other village elders), she laments being this old.
“I don’t know why I’m not dead yet,” she sighs. “I’ve lived enough years in my life. “What can I do, I must die when I die.”
“To live a long life is not necessarily good, because it means to live longer on earth to see many unhappy events,” says Seo Jeom-sun, born in 1921. “But we are a town where people tend to live to see great-grandchildren.”
Ms. Kim suspects that her fondness for vegetables, boiled rice and cereals has something to do with her long life. “I used to pluck herbs from the mountains and eat them,” she says.
“And we also get plenty of exercise walking around the town, because the area is so hilly,” added Ms. Seo.

If residents of Seoul were to move to Sunchang, would they live longer lives? “For sure, they would become healthier,” says Mr. Kang confidently. “Many medical experts who come to Sunchang spend one night here and say the air is sweet. Also, they don’t need to wash their shirts for an entire week, whereas in the big cities, one would need to wash their clothes every day.”
Sunchang’s underground water has been found to exceed international standards for quality. As for the air, there are no smokestacks in sight; the only factories here are ones that make the fermented food the town is famous for. And according to Mr. Kang, the town has largely been spared natural disasters like floods, blizzards and famine. He thinks this helps account for people’s cheery dispositions.
Sunchang County and the Agricultural and Rural Infrastructure Corporation (under the Ministry of Agriculture) plan to build a residential, employment and welfare complex here for the elderly. When it’s finished (the target date is at the end of 2006), retirees from elsewhere will be able to live here for a reasonable amount of money.
Environmental factors help make Sunchang the fermented-soybean capital that it is. The average temperature year-round is 13 degrees celsius (55 degrees Fahrenheit), and the humidity tends to be high; it averages 77 days of foggy weather per year, compared to the Jeolla province average of 14 days.
“All these natural conditions enable yeast and mold to grow well here, allowing well-made fermented soybeans to develop,” says Mr. Kang. Sunchang accounts for nearly 40 percent of all sales of fermented soybean products in Korea; the town is virtually made up of soybean fields.
Sunchang is best known for its gochujang, the fermented hot pepper soybean paste. There is even a small cluster of homes in town called the Sunchang Traditional Gochujang Village, where 54 families live who have been making homemade gochujang for generations. Japanese tourists come to Sunchang in large numbers to buy its traditional Korean food.
There is even a research institute on fermented soybean foods, whose goal, according to its slogan, is to create a “yeastopia” in Korea.
“Soybeans have been scientifically proven to aid in the prevention of cancer, high blood pressure and other diseases,” says Jeong Do-youn, a researcher at the Fermented Soybean Products R&D Center in Sunchang. “That’s one reason for the robust health enjoyed by the people of Sunchang.”

by Choi Jie-ho
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