SEOUL: For five days starting from Wednesday (Sep 30), only window seats will be available on trains run by South Korea’s national rail operator.
The move to halve capacity comes at a time when millions of South Koreans are normally travelling back to their hometowns for Chuseok, one of the country’s most important holidays.
COVID-19 will force many to change their plans.
Nam Seung-in lives in Seoul. He is returning to his hometown in Chungju, 113km away, for what is sometimes referred to as the Korean Thanksgiving, and was able to secure train passage in only one direction.
“I waited for Chuseok bookings to start early on the morning of Sep 9 and tried to book a seat but I couldn’t get any coming back to Seoul,” he said. “So I’m taking the train home but coming back on the bus.”
OUTSOURCING A RITUAL
Family members visiting and cleaning ancestral graves is a big part of Chuseok. But with many expected to heed the government’s advice to not return to their hometowns, some are turning to hired help.
As Chuseok approaches, male family members normally head to grave sites to spruce things up. The act of cutting grass and removing weeds is known as Beolcho and is considered an important part of the whole ritual.
Hwang Bong Yeon, who has been performing Beolcho for about five years, says around 10 members of his family and extended families would usually gather in Yeoncheon, about 100km from Seoul, to tidy the area around the grave site where his ancestors, including his grandfather and father, are buried.
“But since the government is urging people not to get together for Beolcho, we decided not to gather and instead hire professional workers,” said Mr Hwang.
“This is the first time we have hired people to do this job. We have always done this ourselves.”
Would Mr Hwang outsource the practice again? Reactions from his family members were mixed. “The young ones in the family would prefer to just pay these people and get it done,” he said. “But the elderly members believe it’s important to put your heart and mind into this grass-cutting ceremony and do it with sincerity.”
Many other South Koreans are in similar situations, which means business is booming for someone like Park Sang-won.
He and his men have been getting only a few hours of sleep every night in the weeks leading up to Chuseok.
“It’s about one in the afternoon now and this is already our fifth job for the day. We have been up and about since 5am today,” he said. “We usually have a quick lunch and then we are on the move again. That’s how busy we are these days.”
Mr Park said he received around 150 to 200 assignments last year. This year, he and his team have already taken on nearly twice the number of jobs. And the bookings are still coming.
“Because there are so many people who can’t go themselves, they are urgently hiring people like us. At this rate it’s very likely we will be cutting grass even after Chuseok this year,” he said.
The cost of Mr Park’s services varies, depending on the size and number of grave sites. How far his team have to travel and the walking distance to the sites are also taken into account.
“This area is considered easy to do. Sometimes we have to go through rugged roads or walk through woods and forests to get to the grave site. Those can cost more. But to cut grass around one ‘easy’ grave site will cost around 150,000 won (US$128).”
FIRST MAJOR FESTIVAL DURING PANDEMIC
After the preparatory ritual that is Beolcho, entire extended families come together at cemeteries during Chuseok to pay their respects to ancestors.
This is something that the South Korean government is actively discouraging because of the pandemic. In a recent survey of about 1,000 people, 81 per cent of the respondents said they would be skipping the festivities this year.
“Because of the coronavirus, we are not going to our hometown during this year’s Chuseok. I don’t think we will be welcome either,” said one woman at a market in Seoul.
Another elderly woman who lives alone in Seoul said she had told her son and his family not to visit her this year because she was afraid of catching COVID-19.
“It will be uncomfortable for everyone. I will be spending Chuseok alone this time,” she bemoaned.
SMALL BUSINESSES SUFFER
Jeon is a Korean dish made with meat, shellfish or vegetables. The protein or greens are seasoned with salt and black pepper, and then coated with a light flour and egg batter, before they are pan fried in oil. The result is a golden brown pancake that is an ever-present dish during Chuseok.
Park Keum-soon runs a small shop selling jeon, and like other businesses at traditional markets selling Chuseok delicacies, takings are down.
“Business is bad for small shops because people don’t want to come out and try the food or stand in lines to buy them,” she said. “Now they just pick up the phone and order, they don’t come directly.”
This year’s Chuseok is the first major festival that South Koreans are marking since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. The next big holiday is less than five months away, when families gather to celebrate the Korean New Year.
Ms Park, the food stall owner, hopes business will pick up then. But with little certainty on how the COVID-19 outbreak will pan out, she waits with bated breath.