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Labor activist Jeon Tae-il reborn through musical

A scene from 'Taeil,' a musical revolving around the life of labor activist Jeon Tae-il / Courtesy of Pro's Lab

By Kwon Mee-yoo

The life of Jeon Tae-il, the labor activist who immolated himself to raise awareness about the poor labor conditions of garment workers in the 1960s, is being told through a musical named after him.

Jeon (1948-1970) was born in southern city of Daegu. His father was a tailor who ran a small family business. Due to his underprivileged upbringing, Jeon was forced to quit school and did not receive a proper education. He left home and started working as an assistant to a tailor at age 16, but six years later he set himself on fire during a demonstration for workers' rights.

Jeon is a famous figure in Korea's modern history, but only fragments of his life are known to the public. This play approaches the lesser-known parts, showing him not as an activist but an ordinary young man pursuing a better life.

Currently on stage at the Seeya Project Box in Seoul, "Taeil" begins with Jeon's first day at Pyounghwa Fashion Town in Dongdaemun Market, which is home to the largest collection of clothing suppliers in Korea.

The play gives a sharp contrast between Jeon's brief but happy time in middle school, before he was forced to drop out to help his father's business, and his difficult days in Seoul where he struggled to make a living with his mother and siblings.

With his skills, Jeon gets promoted to a tailor faster than anyone, but his excitement fades away quickly as he faces appalling labor conditions. He walked home across Seoul every night, spending his bus fare to buy food for his assistants.

Labor activist Jeon Tae-il, first from right, with his colleagues in 1967 / Korea Times file

In an attempt to improve the situation, Jeon becomes a master tailor, who has more power to make deals with factory owners, but his efforts fall through. He then begins to study the Labor Standards Law, which was little more than a name at the time.

Jeon makes a visit to the labor supervisor and the poor conditions of garment workers was featured in newspapers, but conditions did not improve until Jeon sacrificed himself.

Instead of directly describing the iconic scene of Jeon burning to death, the play focuses on Jeon's thoughts before heading to the crucial moment in Korea's labor movement history.

The musical is the first in the "Voice Project" series, a collaboration project between playwright Jang Woo-sung, composer Lee Sun-young and director Park So-young that explores the lives and thoughts of actual historical figures.

The text mostly comes from biographies of Jeon and his actual journal entries, giving a greater sense of reality to the play.

The set is intricately designed to bring the audiences to the 1960s in a traverse stage. Each side of the black box theater offers an old-fashioned house and a tiny sewing factory in the clothing market. Audiences are allowed to tour the set before and after the show.

The musical stars Park Jung-won and Kang Ki-doong as the voice of Tae-il and Kim Kuk-hee and Baek Eun-hye as other voices.

The show runs until June 18. Tickets cost 30,000 won. For more information, call 070-7606-5577.