King Baeksu(2006-09-30 16:35:14, Hit : 20879, Vote : 1896
 Dowon.jpg (131.4 KB), Download : 70
 Another One Bites the Dust (Updated and Revised)

NOTE: The following essay has been updated and revised for my new Korean-language book, 대한민국 사용후기. I
thought about submitting the English-language version below to the Seoul Metropolitan Government's 10th Seoul Essay
Contest, which was accepting submissions through Aug. 31, 2006, but since I didn't even place the last time I sent them
an essay a few years ago, I figured they wouldn't like this one very much, either. Have a look at some of last year's winners
and let me know if you think I'm wrong or right:

Insa-dong Becomes Ginza

I've been saying for years that Insa-dong, Seoul's "traditional" art, antiques and crafts district, is slowly but inexorably transforming
itself into a wannabe Ginza, as its quaint, funky single-story landscape of old Korean-style architecture is replaced bit by bit with
sleek modern high-rises, Western-style cafes and overpriced yuppie wine bars. First the convenience stores and Starbucks moved in,
then the Italian restaurants started multiplying, and now its last yojong or gisaeng house has bitten the dust -- replaced by the local
government with a very traditional parking lot.

Dowon was a lovely, rambling and exceedingly large kiwa-jip or tile-roofed Korean manor in Kyonji-dong, on a little alleyway
off the northwest end of Insadong Street and right next to Agio, the popular Italian chain restaurant. A couple years ago I stopped
by to ask how old it was and one of the genteel, hanbok-bedecked madams said the yojong had been in business for about 50 years,
and that the building itself dated from the very end of Choson. It was right near my place, and whenever I passed by over the years,
I often heard the plaintive strains of Korean bbongjjak echoing from within, and sometimes saw the occasional gisaeng in chic office
attire arriving discreetly for work at the back entrance, or the ajummas from the kitchen preparing vast quantities kimchi out in the
street (to go along with the sumptuous feasts served inside). Late September 2004, however, about a week after the Roh Moo-hyun
administration launched its nationwide crackdown on the sex trade, Dowon closed its doors for good. I asked one of the ajosshi
attendants there what was going to happen to it, and he said the local Chongno Guch'ong or Ward Office had taken over the
property somehow and was planning to turn it into a parking lot.

I couldn't believe that such a fine example of traditional Korean architecture was really going to meet with such a fate, and thought
perhaps that they would eventually reopen for business after the administration's rather half-assed crackdown had eased up more.
For about ten months it sat there forlorn and quiet, and then all of a sudden, the wreckers pounced and demolished almost all of it
faster than you can blink an eye. Last July, late on a Sunday morning, I was walking by to get lunch and saw that the main building
was being leveled rapidly, and by the time I could rush back home, grab my camera and buy film, the work was nearly done and the
workers had gone off for lunch themselves. I snuck into the grounds and surreptitiously took the picture you see here, and managed
to get out before anyone returned.

Of course, it makes perfect sense that Insa-dong would need more parking lots, given that it continues to rise vertically at an insane
rate. After all, all those extra workers in all those new offices and fancy multi-story galleries have cars and need to put them
somewhere, right? Somehow it seems so perversely poetic that Korean tradition has been sacrificed here to the automobile, that
most modern of conveniences. Not to worry too much, though: When I passed by again later, one of the construction (or rather
"destruction") workers said that the structure you see here would be rebuilt and symbolically restored as a "hongbo-gwan" or public
relations office for tourists, just so that unfashionable preservationists like myself can't get too worked up and overly indignant. To
put things in perspective, however, this little building occupies a mere 5% or so of the total site (roughly 500 p'yong), and is but a
fig-leaf to cover up this thoughtless erasure of Korean history and heritage.

Some might argue that a gisaeng-jip is an "immoral" business and so good riddance. Well, not everyone who goes to a yojong sleeps
with the girls (although, admittedly, it does tend to happen more than with Japanese geisha, the Korean gisaeng's traditional
counterpart); in any case, the business could have been changed while preserving the original building, instead of simply flattening
it. But perhaps that would not have been enough to cleanse away the lingering stigma of such a "dirty" place. After I took this
picture, I dropped by the nearby Insa-dong Tourist Information Center and asked the young girl there if she knew the name of the
yojong, since I could not read the Chinese characters that advertised its name on the sign out in front (which was now gone anyway)
and had momentarily forgotten it, what with all my rushing around. She pointedly declined to help me by refusing to acknowledge
that there had even once been a yojong there, and every time I repeated the word "yojong," politely but firmly insisting that it had
been a famous 50-year-old local landmark right around the corner, she looked vaguely terrorized by the blasphemous word. I finally
said, "You just don't want to help me, do you?" and her cool silence was clear confirmation. Of course, it wasn't identified on any
of the official tourist maps of Insa-dong, either. I then went to several nearby galleries right next to the site and encountered the
same blank, defensive stares. It was almost as if I had the plague. Finally, I went back to the site itself and one of the workers told
me the name right away. At least he was friendly and not all hung up about it.

And so the Kangnamification of Chongno continues apace. One of the eerier and more poignant features of the downtown Chongno
landscape is how many marble and black-brick memorial tablets there are for historic buildings that have been disappeared in the
name of "development" and "progess," from the landmark Hwasin Department Store across from Boshingak (the largest and most
famous Korean-owned department store during the Japanese colonial period, replaced not too long ago by Samsung's colossal
glass-and-steel Jongno Tower), to the old Jukdong Palace in the southwest corner of Insa-dong (residence of Princess Myongon,
eldest daughter of King Sunjo, and now the site of a dull 14-story gray-concrete office building with a McDonald's on the first floor
and a "missy club" in the basement), to the royal Sujin Shrine, just a stone's throw from Chongno Guch'ong itself (memorialized by
yet another parking lot, and yet another Starbucks). There are hundreds of these grave markers scattered about here and there, and
oftentimes they remind me of tombstones, but fortunately they are small enough that they are easy to ignore, so that pedestrians in
the area do not have to be forever reminded that they are strolling through what amounts to a massive open-air cemetery in the heart
of the nation's proud and sparkly capital. Rather, they can be comforted by the thought that soon all of Kangbuk will be just as
"modern" and "shiny" and "convenient" as Kangnam is today, and that Insa-dong will have just as many "chic" Italian restaurants
as Apgujong and Chongdam-dong, because, really, who cares about history when it is neither trendy nor delicious?

In any case, I am under no delusion that the local government would ever think of placing an official historical marker on the former
site of a decadent and corrupt yojong, even if Korean politicians themselves were once famed for frequenting yojongs in the past,
just as they are known to enjoy room salons today (and what is a room salon but the modern equivalent of a yojong?). But I think
they might at least consider the idea, and not just because Kyonji-dong's Dowon was one of the few remaining yojongs in all of
Seoul. Yesterday, I went down to the Seoul Information Center at City Hall, in order to confirm information I had come across on
the Internet: namely, that before Dowon opened for business in 1955, the kiwa-jip itself had been owned by Prince Uich'in (1877-
1955), fifth son of King Kojong and a staunch nationalist who in 1919 had tried to join the provisional Korean government in
China, but was captured by the Japanese authorities in Manchuria and returned to Seoul. Once again, however, the name "Dowon"
drew tense blanks from the two prim ajummas and proper younger gentleman behind the main reception desk there, and as soon as
I mentioned the trigger word "yojong," things immediately went from bad to worse; when I insisted that I merely wanted to confirm
that the property had once been owned by Prince Uich'in, and that there must be reference materials in their extensive Korean-
language library, the most senior ajumma replied flatly, "We don't know," and refused to volunteer any further assistance. At that
point, I was so pissed off by such passive-aggressive indifference on the part of city representatives who couldn't do their job
properly that I simply cocked my head at them said, "You're not very helpful" and headed for the exit.

Fortunately, the PR Division down the hallway was much more obliging and professional, and eventually I was directed to the
Department of Cultural Heritage, tucked away on the 11th floor of City Hall's annex building beside Toksu Palace. There, the polite
young Deputy Director and two of his assistants showed me a large, laser-printed digital scan of a 1923 map of central Seoul, which
indicated that the site had indeed been Prince Uich'in's sadong-gung or prince's residence, since upon reaching adulthood at the
age of 20 only the Crown Prince could remain at Toksu Palace according to strict protocol. How could the Chongno Guch'ong destroy
such an historic building and replace it with a parking lot of all things, I asked incredulously. For several long seconds, the Deputy
Director and his assistants looked down in puzzled, nervous silence at the oversized map spread out across the desk. The very fact
that they couldn't say or didn't know itself said a lot about how it could have happened, since presumably the Guch'ong should
have at least contacted and consulted with them first before proceeding with its parking-lot project. Several more awkward seconds
went by, and mainly to fill the silence I finally said in Korean to no one in particular, "It's so strange." After another long pause, one
of the assistants replied in English that was so quiet I could barely hear her, "It's shame." I wasn't sure if she said, "It's a shame" or
"It's our shame," but it was true enough either way.

Before leaving, I asked if there was any way to know for certain whether the kiwa-jip that had housed Dowon was the same structure
as Prince Uich'in's sadong-gung, given that it may have been damaged or entirely rebuilt after the bombing and destruction of the
Korean War. I was told in so many words that since Korea's royal family had not been terribly popular in the post-Liberation modern
period, it would be tough to find public documents or well-preserved records for that sort of thing; apparently risking one's princely
life to join the provisional Korean government in China did not merit much in the way of historical remembrance, which again I
found strange in a land like South Korea where "love of country" is almost a national religion. Perhaps if it had been a Japanese
company which had bought Dowon and announced plans to turn it into a parking lot, the indignant nation would have been more
motivated to preserve its own architectural heritage, and that beautiful old kiwa-jip would still be standing today. For if truth be told,
Korean nationalism frequently seems less like love and more like base jealousy -- an altogether dysfunctional dynamic in which the
object of affection is often taken for granted and even neglected unless it is under threat from one's rivals.

All I know for sure is that it's been a royal pain in the ass just to gather the little information I've sketched here, and I admit my
interest in Dowon has always more aesthetic than strictly historical in nature. For me, the old Dowon in Kyonji-dong spoke of
mystery and dreams. I always enjoyed strolling by it and stealing glances through its great tile-roofed gate and into its stone-strewn
courtyard garden, imagining radiant enchantresses and three-hour banquets and oh-so-sad, delicately plucked kayagum melodies; I
especially liked it at night when the moon and the stars spilled silvery light onto its wing-like eaves and into its shadowy recesses,
although there were sun-kissed winter mornings after overnight snowfall when it was lovelier than a fairytale, wrapped in a thick
soft blanket of glittering white that reminded you ever so fleetingly of how much of Seoul must have looked like a century ago or
more. I dreamed of one day going there myself with good friends, enjoying it all the more because it was so wildly expensive and
consequently the rarest of treats for a humble writer such as myself. I dreamed of beauty and grace and nothing more, bored by
modern Korea's empty Americanized sex culture and wondering if any traditional traces of the genuinely erotic still existed here
in this harried day and age. In short, I dreamed of a pearl, classically beautiful and exquisite, hidden away in the depths of a
turbulent ocean. Just knowing it was there was enough to remind me that life could be something magic.

Orientalist fantasy? Not really, because until recently it was all quite real and within my grasp, and far preferable to the alternative:
In February of this year, the "Seo-Insa Madang (Garden or Court) Parking Lot" opened for business, and now my old dreams have
been extinguished by the foul vapors of carbon monoxide; mystery and beauty have been replaced by black asphalt and cold
technological convenience. Indeed, since I do not own a car myself, this public "madang" is now entirely closed off to me -- as it
is to anyone else who does not drive a late-model Chairman or Grandeur here in Seoul, which is to say, virtually every foreign
tourist in Insa-dong. I'm told there are now just three surviving yojongs in all of northern Seoul, and in fact one of them is still
Dowon, at least in name, for shortly after closing its doors in Insa-dong, it relocated to Ikson-dong, just north of Nakwon-dong
where Seoul's homosexuals and other social outcasts and freaks are known to gather. For me, however, it's just not the same:
Dowon's new quarters are a two-story, granite-faced mishmash of modern and "traditional" architectural elements -- less an oasis
than a tacky reflection of the aesthetic chaos that is northern Seoul today. Where once I dreamed of a pearl, I now only see an
empty shell cast off to some obscure backstreet far away from me.

But I suppose that for many moralists and money-mad developers and promoters of gentrification, this is a perfectly acceptable
compromise, banishing this "old-fashioned" house of infamy to the ghetto of greater Nakwon-dong -- well off the main tourist path
and safely out of the way. Frankly, though, it's hard to say what's really worse: Paid sex between consenting adults, or raping your
own history just to get paid. Oh, it's all so complicated! Mori ap'o! ("My head hurts!")

Let's just forget about it, eh?

Triumph of the Dear Leader (Director's Cut)

Copyright 1999-2020 Zeroboard / skin by zero