Lee Bong-ju Last of the Yugijang, South Korea
Text & Photography ©Nayan Sthankiya
Lee Bong-ju a farm boy from the north came to Seoul and discovered a craft unknown to him, brought down from the north which has become his life's work. In 1948, Mr. Lee began learning how to transform raw metal into common everyday household utensils. He trained with the original yugijang -makers of brassware- he had a talent for it and after much hard work he opened his own foundry just South of Seoul.
Monday to Friday Mr. Lee can be found in his foundry in a quite village in Ga-eun, a few hours south of Seoul, working much as he did when he was a young boy, tending the fires, pounding metal bowls, cups, spoons and chop sticks. He employs 23 workers at his foundry and except for the occasional use of machinery, the skilled artisans still use traditional hammers and methods to turn out simple table ware that look like art. At the age of 79 Mr. Lee has hardly slowed down owning his healthy constitution to the quality and medicinal properties of the brassware that he has worked and breathed so long. Lee also lost his eye in a foundry accident and credits the medicinal properties of the metal for his quick recovery and lack of complications.
His work is so revered that he has been designated as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Treasure, the only brass worker to be awarded this honor. Lee is one of the last remaining yugijang from the original group that came from North Korea to establish the craft in the south.
On the occasion of the Queens visit to Korea, Lee's brassware was used for her meals and a set was given to ex-president Clinton on his visit to Korea. Koreans, always health conscious, hearing a report on the healthful benefits of brassware caused a surge in sales and has helped secure a steady income which was not always the case during the lean years of post IMF Korea.
During those lean years Mr. Lee focused on making musical instruments to augment his income, gongs and bells. Used in Confucian and Buddhist rituals and also traditional Korean court music which is now performed on stage.
Lee, according to the Guinness Book of World Records holds the title for the largest gong in the world measuring in at 1.6 meters and weighing 98 kilograms. There were no facilities at the time in Korea to make such a gong so he and four workers traveled to China on two occasions to construct it. This summer Mr.Lee decided to construct 6 gongs similar in size fearing that it might be his last chance to construct something on this scale given his age and the immense difficulty involved.
A museum near the city of Daegu is being constructed, to be completed in 2006. In it will be a showroom displaying 1,200 of Lee's pieces. The culmination of a lifetimes dedication to a craft that has served Kings and commoners, crafted with love and dedication by a simple farm boy from the North, the last of the yugijang.