A slice of German life in the Land of Morning Calm

Cultural exchange: Madam Suk helped to start an annual beer festival, modelled after the German beer festival Oktoberfest, in Dogil Maeul. — The Straits Times/ANN

Cultural exchange: Madam Suk helped to start an annual beer festival, modelled after the German beer festival Oktoberfest, in Dogil Maeul. — The Straits Times/ANN

AS a nurse from South Korea working for decades in Germany, Madam Suk Sook-ja always missed her hometown. So when she heard about South Korea building a retirement village for migrants like her on Namhae, an island off the country’s southern tip, she jumped at the opportunity to return home.

“Even after living in Germany for 30 to 40 years, we are still Korean and long for home,” said the 70-year-old widow.

Madam Suk is one of 20,000 Koreans dispatched to Germany to work as nurses or miners in the 1960s and 1970s, during a time of labour shortage in the European country, in return for a much-needed loan of 150 million German marks made to the South Korean government.

The financial aid, combined with the hard-earned money they sent home – US$101.5mil (RM422.4mil) in total and worth about 10% of Korea’s exports at that time – paved the way for South Korea’s rapid growth from one of the world’s poorest nations to Asia’s fourth-largest economy today.

Madam Suk lives in Dogil Maeul (Korean for German Village), an enclave of 43 houses with triangular red-brick roofs and white walls in typical German style, using materials imported from Germany.

The village came about around 2000, after the county’s then mayor Kim Doo-gwan devised a plan to build a retirement village to attract migrants – and their pension money – back from Germany.

The story goes that Mr Kim, during a visit to Germany in 2000, heard from Koreans there that they yearned to return after retirement. He acted on it. Ten hectares of land was set aside for the retirement village and small plots of land sold at low prices to lure migrants back. The local government built infrastructure and a village hall to support the development.

Some 35% of Namhae county’s population of 45,000 was aged over 65. Young people had sought jobs in big cities like Seoul and Busan, leaving behind parents, who were mostly farmers or fishermen. Meanwhile, some of the Koreans in Germany were keen to return, given the government’s offer of cheap land and housing subsidies.

And today, the mayor’s idea has taken off and expanded. The hillside village, which boasts ocean views and hosts an annual beer festival modelled after Germany’s Oktoberfest, has since become the top tourist attraction in sleepy Namhae, drawing one million visitors a year.

And it is more than a scenic spot. The residents here hope that visitors will walk away with an understanding of German-Korean ties that stretch back to the post-war era, and gain insight into a uniquely German-influenced lifestyle.

Twenty-three of the families operate pensions (guesthouses) from their homes, and residents also take turns to run the Deutscher Imbiss (which means German snacks) eatery located in the main tourist zone perched on the top of the hill, overlooking the housing enclave. They also maintain an exhibition hall that explains the crucial role that the residents played in nation building.

Madam Suk’s journey started in 1973. Fresh out of high school and trained as a nurse, she saw a recruitment notice in the national newspaper looking for licensed nurses to be sent to Germany. She applied and was assigned to work in the small town of Leichlingen in the western side of the country.

“With my German salary, my family was able to repay our debts and my younger siblings went to college,” recalled Madam Suk.

The early days were tough. Petite nurses like her struggled to lift heavy patients and to learn German. They would sing the Korean folk song Arirang to soothe homesickness. Their hard work earned praises from the Germans, who called them “Korean angels”.

Madam Suk was also deprived of Korean staples like kimchi and garlic, which the Germans found too pungent.

“The Germans thought we ate these because we were uncivilised. Now that South Korea has become developed, I can turn around and tell them they have no idea how good garlic is for health, and that the Samsung phone used by most of them is made in Korea,” she said, beaming with pride.

Since moving to Dogil Maeul in 2003, Madam Suk, who lives alone, has been actively promoting the German connection. She has organised a camp for German language students, conducted tours for visitors, and started the annual beer festival in 2010. The three-day event draws about 100,000 visitors.

Fellow resident Lee Byong-soo, who ran a tour agency in Munich for 25 years before retiring in South Korea in 2012, said it is also important to share the village’s German-inspired culture.

“Living here is very different from living in the rest of Korea,” said Lee, 69, who runs the Munich House pension with his wife, serving German coffee and tea to guests every morning.

“If people can see the value of the German culture here, this village can last forever. But if our story is only about the miners and nurses, it will end when they die.”

Sustainability remains an issue, as most of the residents are well into their 80s and it is not known whether their children, many of whom are still living in Germany, will return like their parents. Some residents are also unhappy with unwanted tourist attention, protesting against trespassing and other inconsiderate behaviour.

But according to Namhae mayor Jang Chung-nam, there is demand to further develop the village as a tourist spot. He also stressed the value of maintaining a German connection.

For one, South Korea, which is divided from its neighbour North Korea, has always looked towards Germany’s reunification model.

Said Jang: “Germany is a country which we need to learn from politically and economically, and we think Dogil Maeul, which has historical and social meaning, is the place that connects us to Germany.” — The Straits Times/Asia News Network