In Looking at the Overlooked

Wan Chantavilasvong

For a brief moment in my life, I connected with souls young and old, foreign and local, men and women. I opened myself up to become one with my surroundings, and my time on Yaksan-do has culminated into a series of fond memories and friendships that I will continue to cherrish.


Aside from domestic demands in South Korea, the global demand for seaweed has also been rising. A report from the FAO 1  shows that seaweed production has doubled between 2005-15. Today’s number is likely to be much larger than that. Most of the global seaweed production comes from the farmed aquaculture, and only a small ratio comes from wild production. 

South Korea is ranked third in the global market for major seaweed species. Consequently, seaweed’s value to South Korean economy had quadrupled between 2005-15. 1  

Despite the large seaweed’s socioeconomic values, I also believe that other perspectives and stories about the lives of seaweed and people surrounding such a global production are also worth exploring.

Figure 1. Satellite imagery of seaweed farming in South Korean waters.
Source: Kuring, N. (2021). “Green Harvest in South Korean Waters.” NASA Earth Observatory. Available from:

One afternoon in my second week on Yaksan-do, I spotted a small piece of soggy kelp on the street. I decided to bring it back to the residence and put it on a rock outside to observe its drying process. Without water, the kelp started to fold and wrinkle in ways which maintained its water-like forms—organic and dynamic like the forms of water bodies when winds and currents slosh them side to side. In other words, the seaweed’s drying process was a way to preserve its water-like body—frozen in an ever more dynamic form (Figs 2 & 3). Its folds and flows also inspired me to paint with my watercolor (Figs 4 & 5). With water and color pigments, the spirit of seaweed was in my brushes too.

Figure 2 Dried kelp (3.9.2023)
Figure 3 Dried kelp (3.9.2023)
Figure 4 Dried kelp no.1
(watercolor on paper, 4.9.2023)
Figure 5 Dried kelp no.2
(watercolor on paper, 4.9.2023)


Around Yaksan-do, farming communities cultivate around 5 mariculture products: tot, miyeok, dasima, cheonggak, abalone, and oysters. However, South Korea has at least 12 types of common seaweed.2 The abalone, oysters, and fish farms are parts of the symbiosis and help to maintain nutrient levels in the water, which is much needed for seaweed to thrive. The symbiosis between these species has been thoroughly studied so that the country can turn wild seaweed harvesting into an efficient industrialized mariculture.3 All these various types of seaweed also diversified my conceptions of seaweed (Fig 6).

Figure 6 Common seaweed in South Korea
Adapted from: Bon, B. Diverse delicious seaweeds of Korea’s seas. 2021; Available from:
(pencil on paper, 8.9.2023)


Figure 7 Sea of buoys (12.9.2023)

How does one reconcile the beautiful and the ugly? I kept asking myself this question while I was walking along the coast one evening. The water level had receded during the low tide. Without the seawater, a lot of styrofoam, old buoys, and other trash that are lost at sea began to resurface and reveal themselves. In the eyes of many, they can be deemed as ugly and in many aspects problematic and unsustainable.

Figure 8 Floating styrofoam (2.9.2023)
Figure 9 Chair (18.9.2023)

But then I saw and greeted a few elderly villagers who came out to the coast for their evening walks. They were chatty and seemed to be enjoying themselves, looking yearningly toward the sunset on the horizon, and paying no attention to the ugly aspects that my eyes kept wandering to.

In addition to the seascape, the landscape was also filled with old and dilapidated fish farms, shacks, houses, and other buildings—all mixed alongside the streets of Yaksan-do. As an outsider, they seemed to be nuisances and blights. But perhaps for the villagers, they were just things that existed and reminders of the glorious pasts.

Figure 10 Abandoned shack (2.9.2023)
Figure 11 Abandoned pipe (2.9.2023)

In reflection, I think that perhaps with time, one can become accustomed to both the beautiful and the ugly. When seeing either frequently enough, they can become one and the same. The unmanaged debris, unmaintained buildings, and vast natural spaces are often co-existing components within many of the overlooked villages surrounding our urbanized world.

What is it with our mental model that we do not see these changes as much when they are up close, but we see them so clearly when we have some distance to view them more objectively? Perhaps distance gives a different kind of clarity than when we are immersed. Maybe.


To understand my surroundings, I sometimes rely on pop-culture medias. At the time, I was watching a drama series about the lives of Korean islanders called Our Blues. A scene on it striked me quite profoundly. 

“...A woman, who had been struggling with depression for years, walked over to the edge of a port in the middle of the night. The next morning, she was still standing there on the edge continuing to think about her son. The people on the port saw her with questioning looks, but none really saw her. Then she jumped.”

Figure 12 Sea of buoys (12.9.2023)

“Would you ever consider living in Wando instead of Seoul?,” I asked out of curiosity to keep the conversation over coffee going.

“No”, my friend answered tersely. My mind quickly went to the most likly explanation that it might be too boring or too slow a life here, which might not suit everyone’s lifestyle.

“There is a saying that if you live near the ocean or water for too long, you will become depressed and mentally ill,” she further explained after laughing off her blunt no, but her explanation brought more questions than answers. 

“Why? It would actually be my definition of bliss,” another friend joined in the conversation. “Mine too, I’ve actually been thinking of moving to a coastal town away from Bangkok,” I concurred. 

“It’s Feng Shui,” she finally muttered the sacred word that continued to triumph modern thinking.

Feng Shui is  rooted from Taoist philosophy and is widely known in Eastern cultures and traditions. An example that I can remember is that a good burial place, according to Feng Shui, is where the front faces water and the back is supported by mountains. In other words, the Yin in front, and the Yang in the back—a harmonic balance.

“You know, condominiums that are river fronts, ocean fronts, or even lake fronts in South Korea sometimes don’t sell very well. I think it is because of this belief.” As a trained urban planner, I find such phenomenon startling. How century-old cultures and beliefs are deeply embeded, and in this case leave its traces in modern day competitive real estate markets.

I then think back to island development. Does such a belief system deter investment in these areas? If so, how? Will it continue to deter development or will it change over time? Will the aunties and uncles living on the islands get to see such a change? What do the locals think of their home locations having the undertone of such a belief? 

Despite the many questions, I began to realize that there are actually not many houses that are beachfront on any of  the islands that I have visited so far:  Yaksan, Wando, and Seogwipo (Jeju). Most buildings along coastal roads are warehouses, fish farms, immigrant labor living quarters, or just simply abandoned. The seemingly high-valued property in many other cultural contexts becomes the unpreferred property in the Korean context instead.

Figure 13 Abandoned building (28.9.2023)
Figure 14 Factory (2.9.2023)


It was a calm Saturday, and so a fellow residency artist and I decided to try out the only café in Yaksan—the Fisherman Room Café. 

“Ey!” someone shouted from behind me as I faced the counter waiting for someone to take my order. 

I turned to the only occupied table in the café with a couple of elders sitting and enjoying their coffee break. I suddenly noticed that one of them was our neighbor. She waved at me enthusiastically. 

I greeted her, “Annyeonghaseyo”, finished my coffee order, and went over to sit next to her table.

From the brokenness of our translation application’s capacity, we learned that she was the president of the women’s group here in Dangmok village. Another one of her friends was her associate. Her title helped me understand why she had been so curious about us and our residency since the day we arrived at the village.

Figure 15 Sunset on the boat from Jeju to Wando (31.8.2023)
Figure 16 Abalone shell (18.9.2023)

It was my first day after a restful night from my long travels from Jeju to Wando. I heard an aunty shouting at the door of the residence. I stumbled out to greet her, confused and clueless. She spoke Korean, I spoke English, and that did not work. I held up my index finger signifying for her to wait and got out my phone to open a translation app.

She asked how many people will be living here? Are we friends? And what do we do here? 

I said: “Three, friends, and artists.” 

She further explained that the building, which is now our residence, used to be her hangout space. She and her elderly friends would cook, sit, and talk together during the day. I could only answer in nods and smiles.

She seemed satisfied, as her smile filled up the silence of our lost-in-translation. She then spurted out a sentence … something kimchi. 

I nodded enthusiastically. “Yes.” I held my thumbs up. “l like.” 

She smiled wider and continued to talk while pushing me to find a container and follow her. I could only find a large ceramic bowl in the kitchen and so I followed her with the bowl in my hands. She lived right next door to us, and she took me to her kimchi storage. She took out two big cabbages from it and plopped them into the bowl. 

All the while she was saying something I didn’t understand. I could only nod enthusiastically with a lot of smiles and a lot of thank-yous.  That night I learned to call her, “Imo”, or aunty in Korean. 

A few days later when we met on the street, she asked if the kimchi was delicious, “Kimchi masisseo?”

“De, masisseo,” I learned a new word on the fly. I thanked her again. We smiled, and then we parted. 

Through my stay during the art residency program, I kept meeting her in various places around the neighborhood—the café, the pagoda, the streets, and our residence.  Sometimes she came in with ripe melons that she spotted in our small front garden. On Chuseok holiday, she came to the door and told me to follow her. She brought me into her kitchen and started to distribute Chuseok food on plates.

She was one of the most welcoming neighbors in town, and I enjoyed seeing her every time. She helped me to feel belonged, and so I thanked her profusely everytime.


We were sitting in the same café when a middle-aged guy came in and started talking to us. We learned that he was the leader of the fisherman’s association in Dangmok. He told us that he had had 38 years of farming experience and that he was already 57 years old. As a side job, he also took people on private tours of his abalone farm as well.

Figure 17 Seaweed farm plots (4.9.2023)

Out of curiosity, we asked him about how the seaweed farming space is managed. He invited us into a room so that he could show us his work. 

He pulled out a few sheets of an old ripped-out calendar, the back of which are filled with columns and names that he wrote with markers. He said this is the map of the farmer’s assignment. 

Some fisherman’s associations re-assign the ocean plots either annually, biannually, triannually or more  depending on each association. Each village has their fisherman’s association, and each association seems to have their own system of managing their seaweed farm.

Later he also offered to take us on one of his abalone tours. We scheduled a time with him and got to his farm. He showed us different things and we got to swim in the water of his farm. It was an experience that helped accustom me to swimming with seaweed.

Figure 18 Drifting seaweed (31.8.2023)
Figure 19 Drifting fish net (18.9.2023)


After typing in an online search for “Thai migrant workers in Korea”, many of the results were about the newly arranged intergovernmental mechanisms that Thailand had recently made with Korea to help mend the labor shortage issue.

As South Korea became a super aged society in the past decade or so, they started to reach out to international migrants to fill up their labor shortage. Sometimes such attractions far surpass what the intergovernmental mechanism can offer.

For many Thais, there are hoops that people must jump through if they wish to work legally in South Korea. Consequently and unfortunately, many people continue to opt for the illegal status: slipping in via their tourist visas or continuing to stay on beyond their terms of commitment.

Such a practice had made big news in Thailand before, so I was aware of it. However, the awareness only made me nervous of being misunderstood by the immigration office when I arrived in South Korea. 

“Jeollanam?” the officer asked, raising her eyebrows. 

“Who is hosting you there?” She suddenly became suspicious.

Luckily, I used my nervousness to prepare the letter of invitation from the foundation. With the evidence, she gave me the green light. I know of one too many stories of Thais being turned back for the fear that they would corrupt their entries and stay forever. Sometimes such a fear is real, but sometimes the threat is unfounded.

Figure 20 Some steel cages (18.9.2023)
Figure 21 Wave actions (18.9.2023)

On one of the days that we would take a walk along the coast, a fellow residence and I stumbled upon a factory with three people. One was standing, and he immediately recognized us walking toward them. The other two were squatting down and were focused on packaging cheonggak into plastic bags. 

“I’m from Thailand,” I introduced myself promptly. 

The guy, who was standing and looked like the owner of the factory, turned and said, “She’s from Thailand too.” 

I looked towards the two squatting people and saw that one clearly looked like an employee and the other looked more like the boss’ wife.

“P’Pa,” she told me her name. She was from Nongkai, Thailand, and had been living in South Korea for 5 years now. She came in illegally and decided to stay longer because the minimum wage here had been very good. 

She told me that Thai workers would usually come here during the kelp harvest season during May-June. Now they had moved on to work elsewhere. There were only 4 people staying here long term, and she was one of them. She did not speak any Korean, but she has been getting by because her employers have paid her fairly, unlike her previous employer.

It is a random draw for many people, who risk their lives and lawful status to find jobs in another country in the hope that they can better support themselves and their families back home. Perhaps if the legal ways make sense economically for lower-income population, they would probably just naturally opt for the legal pathways.


“No no no, let me. We have to do it the Korean way.” my friend from the residence stopped my hands from pouring soju into my small glass. I handed the bottle back to him and held up my cup to wait for his service. Once that was done, I took my turn and served him back. 

We must have looked like wanna-be tourists in the crowded city of Seoul, but we learned that custom when we spent our time at Pyungmoo Kim’s house in Eodu-ri. Mr. Kim was an 83-year-old man, who had always lived on Yaksan-do. 

The three of us were invited to Mr. Kim’s house for Chuseok, the Korean mid-autumn celebration that brings families back to their home. People would go home to see their families. Old friends would gather and enjoy their games, their karaoke, and their soju.

On the days before Chuseok, it was the first time that we saw traffic jams on Yaksan. Cars waiting to get on the ferry boat started to stack up along the street leading up to Dangmok port forming a long line. 

Figure 22 Soju in nets (31.8.2023)
Figure 23 Fishing nets (31.8.2023)
On the evening of Chuseok, we were picked up by Mr. Kim’s son in his fisherman’s truck, and he drove us over to his house in Eodu-ri, a nearby village. Their house has a huge bush of rosemary out front, providing a freshness in the air as we entered.

Once inside, they told us to pay respect to their ancestors. Because we did not know how, I had to ask them to show us. They kindly complied: each of us bowed to the floor twice and gave a small cup of soju to the table set up with all kinds of food. 

Once we were done, Sooyoung, the wife and the mother of their children, began to rearrange everything so that we would be able to sit around the table and eat together. (That was when we learned to pour soju for one another. The custom we cherished, even after we left Yaksan and had arrived in Seoul.)

As the night went on, we started to sing karaoke and I noticed how much joy we had brought to Mr. Kim. He stood up and sang a rock-and-roll song. He clapped with us and was laughing along with our silliness. A connection was formed that night, and Sooyoung suggested that we should meet again. She said, we need to give you a farewell party before you go. I agreed because we had such a good time with their family too.

Our last night in Dangmok was spent eating Korean barbeque with Sooyoung’s family, Siyeon’s family, as well as Pyungmoo and his brother. We had a great time and it seemed like Pyungmoo did not want it to end. The time in Dangmok ended on a very high note. 

Figure 24 The pier (10.9.2023)

Wan Chantavilasvong is a photography artist from Thailand who loves to explore different natural landscapes worldwide, from high up in the mountains to under the ocean. Her photographs often create a sense of serenity and curiosity, allowing for external exploration of the world and internal exploration of the minds. Her first exhibition in 2021, Silent Dialogue, was a collaboration with a watercolor artist which explores the dynamics between two different mediums of expression.

By trade, she is a spatial planning researcher with interests in environmental issues, inequality, informal workforce, and urban governance. She sometimes uses media participatory action research methodology to integrate her two interests and create photo essays that explore and document broader social issues. Such projects include Copley Square, To See Things from the Other End, We See Our Souls Better in the Dark, and Salt Fields. Her work is shortlisted in the 2013 International Fine Art Photography Competition. She received honorable mentions in the Monochrome Photography Awards for the wildlife category in 2014 and the fine art category in 2016.  In 2020, she held her first duo exhibition, “Silent Dialogue”, and her first solo, “Blue Wilderness: Finding Peace in Flux” in 2023.

1 Ferdouse, F., et al. (2018). “The Global Status of Seaweed Production, Trade and Utilization.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: Rome. Available from:

2 Bon, B. (2021). “Diverse delicious seaweeds of Korea’s seas”; Available from:

3 Hwang, E.K., H.G. Choi, and J.K. Kim (2020). “Seaweed resources of Korea.” Botanica Marina, 63(4): p. 395-405. doi:10.1515/bot-2020-0007