| (Note: This essay appears as a two-page feature in the 24 June 2009 issue of Newsweek Korea; it was slightly truncated in the|
magazine, but this is the original, full-length English version. The top picture is of Woo Che-eun of the makkolli house Yolch'a-
jip, the lower one of Seok Song-ja of the grilled-fish shop Daerim, reenacting one of the scenes described below.)
by J. Scott Burgeson
During the Choson dynasty (1392-1910), Korean society was broadly divided into two main status groups: The yangban or
nobles and the sangmin or commoners, who as far as the yangban were concerned were basically everyone else. Each social
group had their virtues and less attractive characteristics. The yangban were the custodians of the nation's highest ideals and
spiritual values, based mainly on the Confucian tradition, and were, at least in theory, adept at "shi-so-hwa" or poetry,
calligraphy and painting. They could also be rather stuffy and uptight, and generally looked down on anyone so unfortunate
as to have to actually work with their hands for an honest living. Yes, they were snobs, and some might even say that they
were lazy bastards who lived off the labor of others.
If the yangban often lived with their heads in the clouds, the sangmin lived with their feet in the mud and the dirt. Of course,
they were not nearly as "refined" or "educated" as the yangban, and no doubt their "rough" manners, be it perhaps swearing
too much or wolfing down their rice and kimchi too noisily, only increased the disdain that many yangban felt towards them.
However, from a more generous perspective, we might view them as appealingly unaffected and down-to-earth on the whole.
Certainly such classic expressions of sangmin culture as p'ansori, mask dance or tightrope walking reflect a lively humor and
spontaneity of spirit. And even the yangban must have known that the sangmin were the productive foundation of the entire
In the modern period, and especially in South Korea after 1948, the rigid social-status system of Choson was replaced by a
more flexible and explicitly economic class structure. In place of the yangban, the wealthy and politically powerful now
occupy the top levels of this society, and unlike the yangban, many must have walked through the mud and dirt themselves
to get to where they are today. Meanwhile, the spirit of the sangmin lives on as best it can, although nowadays their modern
heirs are commonly referred to as "somin," which is more of an economic designation at the lower end of the social scale.
And just as in the past, the tension between the elites of Korean society and the nation's somin persists, much like the yin-
yang symbol at the center of the T'aeguk-gi or South Korean national flag. Of course, we know who always manages to
stay on top.
No clearer example of this tense, nearly timeless relationship can be found at the moment than in my neighborhood of
Chongno in downtown Seoul, where I have lived off and on since 1996. More specifically, the continued assault on and
slow death of P'imat-gol, perhaps the most famous symbol of sangmin or somin culture in Chongno, has been the occasion
of much sadness expressed by the Korean public and in the local media of late. As a proud somin of sorts myself, or really
an incorrigible sangnom* at heart, I very much share this sentiment, and would even go so far as to say that P'imat-gol is
being killed off by the ghosts of yangban past, who continue to lord it over the somin of today's Chongno.
As most Koreans know, P'imat-gol is an historic, narrow alleyway just north of Chongno that once ran uninterrupted from
Chongno 1-ga all the way to Chongmyo and beyond into Chongno 5-ga. It dates from the early days of Choson, and indeed
its name reflects a certain sardonic, subversive sangmin spirit: "P'imat-gol" literally means "Fleeing the Horses Alley," and
it was created so that Chongno's sangmin could avoid the strict social obligation of having to bow or prostrate themselves
every time they passed high-ranking government officials and other dignitaries belonging to the yangban elite. Thus, its
very existence was an implicit rebuke of the notion that sangmin should always have to stop whatever they were doing
and "lower" themselves before their "betters," which was obviously seen by many as more of a pain-in-the-ass and empty
formality than anything else. Over time, P'imat-gol became something of a social destination in itself, filled with all manner
of inexpensive taverns and cozy eateries that catered primarily to the capital's less socially privileged and economically well-
off. P'imat-gol was truly a populist party place.
During South Korea's modern development period, several large sections of P'imat-gol were broken up and replaced with
Western-style high-rise structures, including the present SC First Bank building next to Chonggak Station, and Samsung
Securities' Chongno Tower, just across the street. (Naturally, somin culture doesn't stand a chance against the interests of
the all-powerful banking and finance industries.) And two years ago, "Chongno Town," by general consensus one of the
ugliest and most monstrous high-rises now in Chongno, officially opened for business where a long stretch of P'imat-gol
in Chongno 1-ga once stood. As a sop to preservationists and half-baked regulations drawn up by Seoul's City Hall, the
developer of Chongno Town, Le Meilleur ("The Best") Construction Co., made a point of building around the actual
physical space of the old P'imat-gol, but it's hard to say that the giant 7-Eleven or fancy Western-style cafe facing into
the alleyway there accurately reflect P'imat-gol's 600-year-old cultural legacy and tradition.
Chongno Town, however, was only the beginning of full-scale destruction of the greater area. Since last summer, much of
Ch'ongjin-dong, the main neighborhood north of Chongno 1-ga including what remains of P'imat-gol, has been bulldozed
and completely cleared to make way for several large-scale high-rise redevelopment projects, and in early May the best-
preserved stretch of P'imat-gol found itself literally cut in half by the wrecking crews. It must be admitted that much of
P'imat-gol, especially the sections further down along Chongno 2-ga and Chongno 3-ga, has been allowed to deteriorate
over the years, dominated by dodgy noraebangs (karaoke clubs), tacky "hofs" and seedy motels. But the small green-brick
lane just behind Kyobo Bookstore was without doubt the most picturesque of all, and home to several of P'imat-gol's most
famous drinking establishments, including the 60-year-old Yolch'a-jip and the 30-year-old Daerim. As I write, the owner
of the three-story building they all continue to occupy is holding out for a better price from the developer, but once they're
gone in a few months' time, the best part of P'imat-gol will be lost forever.
My own memories of this area go back to the late 1990s, and have only grown fonder and warmer as I've watched Chongno
grow ever higher and much colder. In 1995, one of South Korea's first Internet cafes opened in the second-story space
directly above Yolch'a-jip, which was no coincidence since its owner, Yoon Sang-geon, just happened to be the son of Yoon
Hae-soon and Woo Che-eun, the proprietors of Yolch'a-jip. For many years, The Net Cafe was a favorite hangout of expats
in the downtown area, and was more of a social center complete with coffee and wine bar than your standard, anonymous
PC bang or room. In late 1998 and early 1999 when I was working on my first book, "Maximum Korea" (1999), I did not
own a computer and spent much of my time typing the text into the terminals there and sending it off around the world for
feedback from friends and family, as songs like The Offspring's "Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)" blasted on the sound system
and kept my adrenaline flowing. A few years later, I celebrated the signing of the contract for my second book, "Balch'ikhan
Han'guk-hak" ("Nasty Korean Studies," 2002), with my old publisher Eclio at the famed Sorin Nakji ("Sorin Octopus"),
which was just down the alley from Yolch'a-jip. The molten-hot nakji bokkum or grilled octopus we had there was fantastic,
although I must have lost several quarts of sweat by the time our feast was finished.
Yolch'a-jip itself, which first opened in 1951 and moved to its current location in 1969, is probably the best-known makkolli-
jip ("rice wine tavern") in the Kwanghwamun area, and they still hand-grind the fresh mung beans they use for their lip-
smacking pindaeddok or mung-bean pancakes every afternoon. According to Mrs. Woo, the simple, intimate interior of
tightly packed tables and varnished pine benches -- hence its name, which literally means "Train House" -- has barely
changed since the 1970s, when it was frequented by journalists and low-ranking civil servants who worked in the area,
and who were looking to fill their bellies and catch a nice buzz on the cheap. In a figurative if not quite literal sense, many
were sangmin themselves, since they were living under an authoritarian regime throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s,
and usually had to just do what they were told by their superiors and always keep their heads down low. And, of course,
makkolli is the consummate drink of sangmin and somin, and it has long inspired patrons to scribble their thoughts on
Yolch'a-jip's creamy, makkolli-colored walls. During a recent trip there, one of the most poignant messages I saw was
one of the simplest: "오늘 마지막이다" ("Today is the last"), signed by a trio of tipplers named "Jong Kwan-tae, Chun
Young-man and Lee Han-gil," and dated "25 March 2009." I hope their final visit there was also their best.
My favorite shopkeeper in P'imat-gol is Seok Song-ja, who along with her husband Kim Young-rak has been running Daerim,
a few doors down from Yolch'a-jip, since 1978 or 1979 -- after all this time, she doesn't exactly remember, but in any case,
it's been a good long run. I first had dinner there back in late 1996 with my friends Sarah and Lisa, and ever since then, Mrs.
Seok has always greeted me merrily whenever I pass by, since she's often out in the alley grilling fish, the house speciality,
and chitchatting or bantering with the neighboring shopkeepers. Mrs. Seok is a bit of a ham and the walls inside her restaurant
are covered with numerous pictures of her appearances on local television over the years; a well-placed, slightly conservative
Korean journalist once confided to me that he thought she was too "flashy" for his tastes, but that may just be another instance
of elite condescension towards the humble folk of P'imat-gol. After all, if you're a "somin" sometimes you've got to hustle for
a living, and even promote your business as shamelessly as you can from time to time.
Personally, I think Mrs. Seok deserves an award or medal from the government for services rendered to the nation as a cultural
ambassador of sorts: Korean shopkeepers can often seem gruff to foreign visitors, but she's been out in P'imat-gol nearly every
day of the year for the past 30 years, giving nothing but love to all the bewildered tourists and battle-hardened local expats
happening by. As far as I'm concerned, she's a hero, and in more ways than one. During the 1980s, when P'imat-gol regularly
reeked of tear-gas, Mrs. Seok played her own part in the struggle for Korean democracy: More than once, she helped student
activists and demonstrators, who were often regulars there, escape out the back when police came looking for them, and she
even claims to have been able to squeeze and hide no less than 5 or 6 young bodies inside the storage space for yont'an or coal
briquettes by the front grill. At the time, such customers were less concerned about fleeing horses than police truncheons and
interrogation sessions that aimed to have them bow to state authority in the most brutal manner.
If you were lucky, you also may once have been able to hear Mrs. Seok singing "Arirang" and other Korean folk songs,
especially from her native province of Kyonggi, inside Daerim as she kept the beat on her changgu or hour-glass drum, but
she says that because of the redevelopment of P'imat-gol, her heart is too heavy and her mind too worried these days to
summon the energy to do so anymore. In fact, a number of restaurants from this first and foremost section of P'imat-gol
including Sorin Nakji have already relocated across the street to the sterile, glass-and-steel confines of Chongno Town, but
as Sang-geon told me not long ago, "The atmosphere there sucks and doesn't fit a makkolli-jip like ours, so we're trying to
find another alleyway that's more suitable for Yolch'a-jip." Their search may be difficult, since the scenic, low-rise back
alleys of the old city center are disappearing rapidly, and with them much of the authentic sangmin and somin culture that
has played such an important, and even fundamental, part of Chongno's long history.
But one suspects that the mandarins in charge of Seoul's relentless redevelopment do not much care for such "sentimental" or
"old-fashioned" things, and seek to erase as much of the downtown area's sangmin past and somin present as possible as they
continue to "upgrade" Seoul's image in both their own eyes and the eyes of the wider world. Think of the recent "restoration"
of Ch'onggye Stream, for instance, which was really anything but: During Choson, it too was an important gathering spot for
Seoul's sangmin, who went there to wash their clothes and gossip at its banks, but nowadays even such beloved symbols of
somin culture as the legendary Hwanghak-dong flea market have been banished from its vicinity in favor of gatherings of yet
more cookie-cutter high-rises, while Ch'onggye Stream itself has been given an aggressively postmodern, half-Westernized
facelift -- almost like the natural beauty of a classic Korean face ruined by too much plastic surgery and gaudy make-up. As
far as Ch'onggye Stream is concerned, the only thing that has been "restored" there is the traditional and symbolic dominance
of Seoul's elite over basically everyone else.
Of course, this general process is hardly unique to Seoul or South Korea, for gentrification is a universal and almost inevitable
phenomenon around the world. Indeed, one possible translation of the word gentrification directly into Korean might be
"yangbanhwa" (literally, "making aristocratic or noble" in both languages), and this seems an apt summation of the official
approach to "cultural preservation" in Seoul's historic heart. Since 2001, City Hall has allocated large sums for the preservation
and restoration of the few remaining hanok or traditional Korean houses in the historically yangban district of Bukch'on ("North
Village") between Kyongbok and Ch'angdok palaces, and earlier this year, it even established its own dedicated "Hanok Culture
Department." Yet so far their hanok-preservation policies have been largely limited to such "high-end" areas as Bukch'on and
the nearby tourist zone of Insa-dong, while essentially abandoning such traditionally "low-end" neighborhoods as Ch'ongjin-
dong, which alone has lost dozens of hanok in the past year in the name of redevelopment and what some call "progress."
One such lovely hanok, just off P'imat-gol on Ch'ongjin-dong 1-gil, was nearly a hundred years old and home to Shi'in
T'ongshin ("Poets Exchange"), a popular drinking spot that first opened in 1982: The single-story, tile-roofed building itself
was a genuine work of art and perfectly preserved, its interior walls decorated with beautiful hand-drawn calligraphy, pictures
and poems accumulated over many years -- a fantastic, psychedelic collage and visual expression of the city's collective dreams
and desires. Yoon Seok-ho, the genial son of owner Han Kwi-nam -- a well-known poet in her own right -- and the man in
charge on most nights, was always happy to take requests from his vast collection of classic Korean rock, folk and pop, be it
"Kugon No" ("It's You") by Lee Chang-hee or Sanullim's "Kajima'o" ("Please Don't Go"). But because it had the poor fortune
of being in a traditionally sangmin neighborhood, it was not considered important enough to save, it would seem, and now it is
no more. Avoiding the horses was always pretty easy in this part of town, but escaping the bulldozers of today is, alas, much
The great irony here is that a too narrow focus by local authorities on preserving the representative areas of traditional "high
culture" in Seoul at the expense of those considered less "worthy" of protection means that often the best of both yangban and
sangmin heritage is lost, with only their less appealing aspects remaining in a kind of debased, hybrid form. The fewer traditional
or quasi-traditional neighborhoods in Seoul that survive, the rarer and more valued they become, and in fact property prices in
Bukch'on have increased tenfold on average since 2001, the year City Hall began subsidizing hanok renovation and restoration
there. Thus, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that Bukch'on is becoming a kind of latter-day or "neo-yangban" district
as local elites push out those who can no longer afford to live in the area -- even as it becomes increasingly tourist-oriented and
commercialized, and therefore less and less authentic as an organic residential environment. At the same time, radical gentrification
of such neighborhoods as Ch'ongjin-dong means that whatever funky charm they once may have had is being effaced by a bland,
yuppie-oriented "modern" environment more characteristic of nouveau-riche Kangnam (South Seoul) than old-school Chongno.
Indeed, few can honestly say that the purported goal of "upgrading" the downtown area is even being met, since the record shows
that most developers here are more concerned with maximizing profits via cheap, shoddy design and building materials, rather
than enhancing and improving the aesthetic character of Seoul's most historic district. As one long-time worker at the Korea
Tourism Organization recently told me, "Chongno is a very important street in Seoul and should be 'elegant' and 'graceful'...
but it's not." She's right, of course: It's more of a muddled mishmash of "high" and "low" that in general manages to be at once
snooty and pretentious ("Le Meilleur"), and rather vulgar and crude (Chongno Town). The overall arc of development in greater
Chongno, including both Bukch'on and Ch'ongjin-dong, may aspire towards a kind of yangbanhwa, but the end result seems closer
to base "sangnomhwa" more often than not.
For me, this basic dialectic is best represented by a large bronze statue placed in front of Chongno Town when it opened in the
summer of 2007: A shirtless, startled sangmin with one leg in the air is tossed on the back of a bucking, fierce-eyed horse with
its head turned directly towards the newly "refurbished" P'imat-gol -- and apparently ready to charge straight at or into it. If
P'imat-gol was traditionally a place where "the horses did not go," the statue is bizarrely situated, well off Chongno and much
closer to the entrance of P'imat-gol itself. Was the developer so oblivious that they had completely ignored or missed the essential
meaning of P'imat-gol, even as they pretended to "preserve" it? Or was the placement of the statue perhaps intentional, an emphatic,
final "fuck you" to all "the little people" they had displaced in the area, much like the sangmin on the horse's back who seems
about to take a very nasty fall? Either way, where once I would have considered such a horse to be the sign of a yangban, I now
see it simply as a symbol of modern hyper-development here in downtown Seoul, and Korea as a whole -- charging madly forward,
and knocking down all who dare stand in its way.
For your listening pleasure.