Chrysanthemums find new life in an array of different colors

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Chrysanthemums find new life in an array of different colors

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The boat rocked back and forth as it moved slowly away from the dock. The poet Lee Eun-sang would have stood here 74 years ago, watching the same waters that wash around the southern port city of Masan. They inspired him to write his famous poem, which was subsequently turned into the lyrics of a classic song, “Gagopa,” meaning “I long to go.” In the song, Lee pines for the blue southern waters that distinguish his hometown. He falls deep into thought, missing his younger days and wondering where all his friends have gone now that they are grown up. I did not have time for such personal reminiscing, as the boat soon approached its destination; Dotseom, or Dot island. The small, vague chunk of land I had seen from the Masan shore a moment ago was quickly looming larger and well-defined.
Despite my slight disappointment that the trip on board was so short, I smiled as I disembarked at the city’s effort to infuse Dot Island with the spirit of Lee Eun-sang. The sign on the dock said it welcomed all passengers to “Gagopa Land.”
“We renamed the carnival on Dot island recently to commemorate the poet who grew up in our town,” said Suh Hye-yeong, a staff member of the Masan city government who was on hand to show me the island.
But the moment I stepped out of the boat, I felt I had to apologize to the old poet. Unfolding in front of us was a giant chrysanthemum field that stretched far from the dock and continued around and over a hill that was also covered with literally millions of chrysanthemum flowers.
I no longer smelled the “blue, blue ocean” of Lee’s verse and his images had been driven from my mind. Instead I smelled the sweet scent of 200 varieties of chrysanthemums. There were exotic looking bees and butterflies buzzing and flying around them. The scene swamped my eyes with color.
“Welcome to the Masan Gagopa Chrysanthemum Festival,” Ms. Suh said, smiling as she led the way into the field. She emphasized the “gagopa” part, as if she was determined that I would not lose sight of Dot’s poetic hero, despite the way my senses were being overwhelmed by the island’s all-conquering flower.
Dot island is a 2.2 square-kilometer (0.5 acre) piece of hilly green land. It floats between the cities of Masan and Changwon but it is part of Masan’s territory and the port city wanted to make clear the island represents the city’s crowning beauty, which is the chrysanthemum.
“You may not believe it, but our city’s best product is chrysanthemum,” Ms. Suh explained. I was surprised. Historically, Masan has been known for its high peaks and the port that connects much of the outside world with Changwon Industrial Complex and Masan’s Free Trade Zone. But according to Ms. Suh, Masan’s most important economic development in the last thirty years has been the stronghold it developed in chrysanthemum farming.
Since 1960, Masan has been farming chrysanthemums on a massive scale for commercial use. The city says it was the first in Korea to put wild chrysanthemum under cultivation as a form of commercial agriculture.
The city has prospered from the decision because it has the right climate at this time of year, with the short daylight hours and bright sunshine that this “flower of autumn” requires to hit full bloom just as many other varieties of flowers begin to wind down for the long winter.
Masan first began to be a power in the flower market when white chrysanthemums started to become popular as funeral flowers.
Although the chrysanthemum has been a symbol of death and mourning in Asian countries for generations, it was not until the death of Yook Young-soo, the wife of the late president Park Chung Hee, in 1974 that the use of white chrysanthemums became common at funerals. The sight of the former First Lady’s funeral car covered entirely with white chrysanthemums on television caught the public’s imagination and the practice immediately became popular. The Masan agricultural economy was an immediate beneficiary.
Bae Im-do, a chrysanthemum farmer for over 40 years and also the chairman of the city’s chrysanthemum festival, says 70 percent of all chrysanthemums he farms are white and 20 percent yellow, while other colors make up a mere 10 percent.
“Almost all of them end up going to funerals,” Mr. Bae said. “But I am very proud of them.” The city may not agree with him, however. It wanted to market chrysanthemums more extensively by emphasizing that they can bloom in a host of colors such as traditional yellow, orange, pink, red and even purple.
The festival has proved to be the right way to demonstrate that the flower can escape its funereal image. A walk around the island is enough to convince most people. It takes the visitor on a road that stretches out between the brilliant colors of many different varieties of chrysanthemums.
Over 500,000 chrysanthemums were naturally grown on the island before the Masan initiative while others were brought from the mainland and planted in pots for ornamental uses.
Now, aside from the chrysanthemums that look like daisies and some bigger varieties looking like buttons or pompoms, those in pots are trained into different shapes to look like hearts, butterflies and animals.
Walking along the path for a few more minutes, several vendors were spotted on the way, all offering different products based on the flower.
“We have chrysanthemum tea, chrysanthemum liquor, chrysanthemum rice cakes and chrysanthemum-stuffed pillows,” said Ms. Suh. “As you know, chrysanthemums are considered the best of flowers.”
Yoon Yeong-mok, head of a task force team at the Masan city government said he was sad that people usually consider chrysanthemums as flowers to avoid because they are used mainly in funerals.
“Our ancestors used to praise the dignity and grace these flowers possessed,” he said. “I hope our festival could somehow change the negative image it has.” A young couple I spotted on the island did not seem to mind the fact that the chrysanthemums usually symbolize death.
They were busy taking photographs of themselves sitting alongside the chrysanthemum bushes. The girl giggled as she stood up wearing a clumsily-made chrysanthemum wreath on her head.
“That’s how we want the chrysanthemums to be used,” Ms. Suh said, with a big smile. Even so, it will probably still be some time before women will be happy to receive chrysanthemums on Valentine’s Day.


Chrysanthemum season festivals in other cities

Golden Chrysanthemum Festival in Gochang, North Jeolla
Seo Jeong-ju (also spelled as So Chong-ju) wrote his renowned poem, “Besides a Chrysanthemum” in Gochang, where he was born. The organizers of the festival here say the field will be covered with 10 billion chrysanthemum flowers. www.gcfestival.com

Iksan Chrysanthemum Festival in North Jeolla
On the far western side of the peninsula, Iksan is holding its chrysanthemum festival from today until Nov. 2. The city says its 11-acre central park will be full of the flowers along with vendors selling chrysanthemum snacks and drinks. www.gukhwa.or.kr

Chrysanthemum therapy at Spa Greenland in Toechon, Gyeonggi
Aromatherapy is offerd at this outdoor hot spring filled with chrysanthemum petals. The Spa Greenland opens its chrysanthemum hot springs just for the autumn season and serves chrysanthemum tea by the pool. www.spagreenland.co.kr


by Lee Min-a

How to get there from Seoul:
By train, take the KTX bullet train from Seoul to Miryang and transfer to a regular train to Masan station. By express bus, it is approximately five-hours from Seoul station to Masan station.
The Masan passenger liner terminal is located within 10-minutes by taxi from the Masan train and bus stations. Ferries come and go from the passenger liner terminal to the island every 10 minutes for 4,000 won ($4) per person. The fee includes a round-trip ticket to the Dot island and the entrance fee to the Masan Gagopa Chrysanthemum Festival.
For more information call, 055)240-2904 or visit http://www.gagopa.org
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