KOREA NEWS Hunting 'crow thief' on Korea's east coast in 1930s

Hunting ‘crow thief’ on Korea’s east coast in 1930s

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A stone image along a quiet road, circa 1930s / Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

There has always been something magical about the East Sea. In the 19th century it was the hunting grounds for Western whalers. In Korean legend it was the domain of water ghosts and mermaids. And in modern history it was the final stage for the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. Many years ago, it was my favorite place to get away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. Of course, during the summers, finding a place of peaceful solitude was nearly impossible as the beaches were filled with frolicking families, mischievous schoolboys and the occasional military patrol.

The only time one could truly find a lonesome peace was during the winter months when it was too cold for anyone but the most determined.

Korean boats in the harbor circa 1930s / Robert Neff Collection

Korean boats in the harbor circa 1930s / Robert Neff Collection

However, the East Coast wasn’t always so crowded during the summer. Sometime in the late 1930s, a Japanese soldier spent some time along the coast and took pictures of a quieter time. It is through his lens that we are granted a very fleeting view of Korean fishermen and their hunt for a “crow thief.”

It is said that squid sometimes pretend to be dead by floating on the surface of the ocean. When hungry birds, such as crows, swoop down and try to peck at the “corpse,” it suddenly reanimates and snatches the would-be scavenger by its legs to drag it beneath the waves. Presumably, this is why squid are called “ojeokeo” – the hanja characters mean ‘crow, thief and meat.’

The beautiful sea, circa 1930s, is powerful and deadly. Robert Neff Collection

The beautiful sea, circa 1930s, is powerful and deadly. Robert Neff Collection

Judging from the pictures, the squids’ tactics had little impact on the Korean fishermen.

I still recall how confused I was when I first encountered “san ojingeo” on a restaurant’s menu. I mistakenly thought it meant “mountain squid” (I was thinking along the lines of Rocky Mountain oysters) and was embarrassed when my friends pointed out that the word “san” meant “live.”

The next time you are out drinking beer or soju with some friends, treat them to a handful of dried or roasted crow thief.

Squid dry in the sun in a Korean fishing village circa 1930s. Robert Neff Collection

Squid dry in the sun in a Korean fishing village circa 1930s. Robert Neff Collection

Boats and the rugged coast circa 1930s / Robert Neff Collection

Boats and the rugged coast circa 1930s / Robert Neff Collection

Domestic life along the coast circa 1930s / Robert Neff Collection

Domestic life along the coast circa 1930s / Robert Neff Collection

A group of curious children in the 1930s / Robert Neff Collection

A group of curious children in the 1930s / Robert Neff Collection

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder — or the photographer. Circa 1930s.  Robert Neff Collection

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder — or the photographer. Circa 1930s. Robert Neff Collection

Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books, including Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters.

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