Koreans are known for their entrepreneurship - from restaurants, hair salons, to even hiring a ‘daeri’ to drive your car home if you’ve been drinking - they’ve thought of it all. Birthday celebrations are no exception and for a baby’s first birthday or ‘dol,’ businesses hiring out traditional clothes and decorations are helping to continue this custom in Australia.
First birthdays are particularly important for Koreans as, before South Korea developed from a third-world country to a dominant economy, many newborns died early from diseases or poverty. It was considered a great milestone for a child to live to be one year old during that time.
Lee Hye Sook is a seamstress and owns a store in Sydney’s Eastwood that hires out traditional Korean clothing and decorations for dols, weddings and funerals. For $500 you can rent ‘dolbok’ clothing and ‘doljabee’ - a table prepared with traditional Korean food and objects that signify the baby’s future. If a baby picks up thread, they will have a long life; a notebook and pencil means they will be academic; and money, of course, means wealth. The objects vary from each family and modern versions have seen the inclusion of specific occupations, like a stethoscope in hopes the baby will become a doctor.
With an estimated 40,000 South Koreans living in Sydney, that’s a lot of potential business for Hye Sook. But the businesswoman is stressed about the diminishing demand.
“My business is the oldest of its kind in Sydney but lately I’m not having too much success,” she tells SBS.
“When I first started 20 years ago, there was a lot of competition but now my store and another in Meadowbank is all that’s left.”
Hye Sook is not only concerned about her dwindling business, but also the possible loss of this valuable custom.
“The new generation don’t have too much interest in the Korean culture, it’s very sad,” she says.
Instead, her main customers are non-Koreans - interracial couples who are “looking for tradition”.
“Ninety per cent of my customers are mixed couples; the Korean partner wants to share part of their culture with their new partner.
“Also, non-Koreans love the spectacle of it - the bright clothes, the traditional music and the unique food.”
Joanne Baek is a 36-year-old mother of two who was born in South Korea but has been living in Sydney since high school. Both her children, Ryan and Evelyn, celebrated their first birthdays with ‘dols’.
“We chose to do the traditional Korean theme as it shows our culture, also the outfits are more colourful and memorable and we as a family would rarely dress in them.
“In addition, the celebration is a reflection of our culture and who we are as Korean-Australians,” she tells SBS.
Some of Joanne’s Korean friends chose not to celebrate ‘dols’, and she believes it all comes down to convenience.
“Being ‘Westernised’ is easier and more casual...I don’t think many mums are willing to organise such a big event by themselves nowadays.”
While there are now many more options for Koreans to choose from, Hye Sook is determined to continue her work and not just for business’ sake.
“I’m doing this so the Korean culture does not diminish, I’m holding onto it.
“No one else is doing this, so I’ve got to do it.”
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