Bong Seon Hwa (봉 선 화): A traditional Korean custom of dyed nails, Jeju, Korea.
Story by Sherrin Hibbard | Photos by Alison Crump
Recently, you may have noticed that a lot of women, and maybe some of your students, have orange coloured fingertips and nails. No, they are not nicotine stains! This is the time of year, after the rains, when women and children dye their nails with the bong seon hwa plant.
Spelled “bong seon hwa” (봉 선 화), traditionally dyed nails are considered to be very beautiful and it is said that if your nails are still orange by the time the first snow falls, you will marry your first love.
Blooming in late summer, bong seon hwa’s Latin name is impatiens balsamina though, in English, it goes by several names – touch-me-not, spotted snapweed, garden balsam and rose balsam. For those wishing to partake of this common Jeju custom, just follow the following steps.
Gather a large handful of bong seon hwa leaves and another handful of the flowers. Discard the stalks and any discoloured petals.
Before you start, cut some plastic into 3×4-inch squares, one for each finger. Also, cut some string into 6-inch lengths.
In a pestle and mortar, grind a rounded tablespoon of alum (in Korean, “myeong ban” 명 반, available from any pharmacy) into a fine powder. Slowly add the leaves and petals, grinding and mashing them to a fine paste.
Using tweezers or a pointed metal nail file, place enough mixture to completely cover the fingernail. Take a plastic square and wrap the bong seon hwa covered nail. Secure the plastic with a 6-inch piece of string by wrapping it around the finger several times and then tying it.
Your fingertips will also be dyed; however, this will wear off after a few days. If you really don’t want orange fingers as well as nails, you can put some oil or Vaseline on the skin surrounding your nails.
Most people apply the bong seon hwa just before going to sleep, and the dye is fixed after about 7 hours when the paste can be removed by scrubbing your fingernails with a small nail brush. For a deeper colour, many people apply the bong seon hwa again a day or so later.
You don’t have to do all ten fingers. Chinese medical practitioners believe that fingernails are an indication of health. That’s why often you might see that a Korean has dyed only two or three fingers on each hand. Whilst the dye is totally natural and completely harmless, you might not be ready to go all out. If you aren’t that adventurous, dyed pinkies and ring fingers are enough.
Here in Jeju, as a foreigner, partaking in this ancient custom is a great way to bridge the cultural divide. Wherever you go, Jeju people will see your fingers and give you a knowing look as they smile. And, you never know – if the snow comes and the dye hasn’t grown out, you just might marry your first love!
– With thanks to Koh Chun Ho for doing our nails.
– Article by Koh Yang Ja and Sherrin Hibbard, Photos by Alison Crump