In South Korea, beachgoers stay out of the sun
Pity the Chinese food delivery guy on Haeundae Beach as he wanders the mile-long maze of sun umbrellas with haiku-like instructions: “Lifeguard tower 8; third row; three parasols from end; noodles.”
Covered end-to-end with multihued parasols that turned the beige sand into a sea of blue, red, white and pink, South Korea’s popular summer playground is a beach where people studiously avoid the sun.
American businessman Greg Conklin shook his head at the sight: This isn’t a public beach; it’s another planet.
“In Michigan, we go to the water to sizzle and burn,” he said. “You don’t see umbrellas jammed together like cars during rush hour. I mean, where’s the sand? Where do you throw the Frisbees?”
On this day, Haeundae was packed with 300,000 people. On record days, 1 million visitors flock to the curved waterside attraction with its own jail and police force numbering 300 officers. There are also 200 lifeguards, many of them patrolling the water aboard jet skis, beneath several hovering helicopters.
Not long ago, Haeundae applied for inclusion in Guinness World Records for the largest number of beach umbrellas (7,937) — in this country where tans are dismissed as the mark of laborers — but officials were informed that the book had no such category.
It’s a place where string bikinis remain scarce and where many instead hit the waves dressed in shorts and T-shirts.
“I love the water, but not the sun,” said Kim Su-min, 29, who huddled under her umbrella wearing sunglasses, long shorts and a hooded sweat shirt, her ankles covered with a towel.
In fashion-crazy South Korea, so many young women refuse to trade their high heels for flip-flops at the beach that green Astroturf runways are installed so they won’t wobble and fall.
With 100 or more children getting lost each year at Haeundae, officials now provide security bracelets that are used to track down stray youngsters using radio waves.
Each evening, with the umbrellas gone, the beach is transformed into a cruising scene for young South Koreans, their flirtations backlighted by the high-rise hotels that line the shore. To guard against alcohol-induced drownings, security guards scan the sand from nearby building tops using night-vision binoculars.
Kim Tae-won, Haeundae’s head tourist official, oversees his domain like the mayor of a medium-size city. The 56-year-old frequented the beach in his youth and can recite its history: Haeundae is named for a 9th century poet who called himself Haeun, which means “sea and clouds.”
These days, add “hordes of people” to that moniker. “People want the Haeundae experience,” said Kim, “and they’re willing to join a million others to get it.”
He sniffs at the idea of an empty beach. On a visit to the Mediterranean, Kim wondered where all the people were. His son attended college in Santa Barbara and reported that the local beach was so deserted that “he had the place to himself.”
Although Kim’s office overlooks the water, his life is no vacation. He supervises the daily cleanup of 10 tons of trash and oversees the occasional incarceration of intoxicated beach patrons or those who get a bit too leery while videotaping passing women.
He also referees Haeundae’s beach umbrella wars. Among the 20 outfits competing for clients, tempers flare when patrons spread their own parasols.
“To be here, you have to pay,” said Wang Hyo-eun, 24, a vendor wearing sneakers and a straw hat. To chase away “squatters,” he insists, he uses “just pressure; no violence.”
As a truce, Kim has established an area for private umbrellas and limited to $5 a day the rental rates that had risen to $50. He plans other improvements, such as trucking in 50 million tons of sand to widen the beach and installing new high-heel runways.
That plan pleases Kim Na-young, a 23-year-old fashionista in skyscraper spiked heels. “They’re a little uncomfortable,” she said. “But they make you look taller in your swimsuit.”
This year, Kim introduced prepaid plastic bracelets that allow patrons to buy, with a wave of the wrist, drinks or fried chicken, a popular beach snack here.
The innovation impresses foreigners such as Conklin. “The hotels even have machines that blow sand from your sandals,” he marveled. “In Michigan, you’re lucky to get a rusty outdoor water faucet.”
There are other peculiarities of this beach culture. The waterline, for instance, is dotted by yellow inner tubes, mostly rented by adult Koreans unsure of their swimming abilities and who refuse to wander far from shore.
And as younger beachgoers begin to follow the Western trend of bare chests for men and skimpy bikinis for women, a new, racier code of conduct has also emerged: public displays of affection.
Many couples kiss and fondle as older patrons look the other way. “You normally don’t kiss your girlfriend in public,” said one male beachgoer. “Here, it’s different.”
At dusk, after the volunteer trash pickers finished filling their plastic bags with cigarette butts and chicken bones, a beach Zamboni tamped down the immaculate sand in preparation for yet another day of frolic under the parasols.
Haeundae’s night scene was slowly emerging. Inside one lifeguard tower, a couple watched the sun slide into the surf; drinking beer and smoking cigarettes that glowed in the twilight.
Jung-yoon Choi of The Times’ Seoul bureau contributed to this report.
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