Saturday, July 2, 2011

Seocheon, a Little Known Strip of Seoul

Robert J. Frouser, PhD, gave a very interesting slide show with chronological commentary over the past several centuries of a little known area of Seoul, Seocheon, located in a narrow strip next to the famous Kyungbokkung Palace (Palace of Shining Happiness). His titled presentation "Seocheon: Wandering Seoul's Last 'Untouched' Neighborhood" gave insights on the development and growing awareness of this little known but not secluded groupings of hanok (traditional style homes), small shops and new renovations of one-story buildings into artsy galleries.


Kyungbokbung, as the oldest palace in Korea constructed in 1394 by King Taejo, needed court officials to help with the governance of the country. The more prestigous the position of the offical, the more likely he was to live on the eastern side of Kyungbokkung. According to pungsujiri (fengshui), the western side had the Inwhang Mountain, also now known in English as "Witch Mountain", and this mountain had negative qi [refer to picture of Robert Frouser describing the particular qi in the arrangement of the mountains surrounding Hanyang, or present-day Seoul]. Thus, Seocheon (literally "western district") was contructed in the shadow of the latent malevolent forces of Inwhang Mountain, and so more highly positioned officials chose to live in Bukcheon ("eastern district") where benevolence, success and happiness were embued in the topography. As can be guessed also, the Seocheon hanok were smaller and more modestly constructed on postage stamps squares of hilly mountainside land than those built in the more spacious flat area of Bukcheon.

Interesting Points about Seocheon
The year following the construction of Kyungbokkung, Sajik-dan (the neo-Confucian shrine for soil and grain ceremonies and for funeral rites) was built nestled at the northwestern corner of the palace and in the foothills of Inwhang Mountain directly north of what quickly became the housing area for lower court officials, their families and (unlike in the more reserved, higher statused Bukcheon) small groceries and shops for conveniences. The dwellers in the Seocheon district were not above mercantilism as were the Bukcheon-ites who wanted an atmosphere to reflect their scholarship and distance from the work of the lower statused.

Seocheon, though extremely narrow, had one particular advantage, that is, the area was the headwater of Cheongyechoen, the stream that flows through the heart of Seoul and was covered over in 1976 with a 16-lane highway and finally uncovered and restored to "green" glory in 2005. As was the Cheongyecheon, the headwater and other streams in Seocheon were also slowly covered over beginning in the 1930s to allow housing space for the growing influx of people migrating in the capital.

Even before the covering of the streams, the housing constructions changed in Seoul. With postage stamp squares for homes, the more flamboyant wings of roof tiles and the central open madang (garden) were reduced to accommodate reduced housing units, and thus was born a new style of hanok, what Robert Frouser refers to as the "city hanok", a more utilitarian style of house for cramped city living. What is unique then as still is true is the alleys that meander through the postage stamp plots. These alleys retain the same lines as they have for the past few centuries. Until just last year, the Korean government was making a huge push to modernize Seocheon as it is systematically doing of all of Korea ... tear down the old and build up new and bigger and "better". According to Peter Bartholomew on a similar lecture on Korean architecture [see Dec 12, 2009], only 3% of the hanok that stood after the Korean War still stand today, mainly due to the "carpet bombing and rebuilding" (Frouser's very appropriate description) of ridding the culture of the old to make way for the new-and-improved.

Anyway, as of 2010 the Korean government started to see Seocheon as an area that can be utilized to tout Korean history, although it's my and many others' opinion that when something gets recognized as "originally Korean and exportable to the public", the ugly or unpleasantness of it gets white-washed and the history gets presented as something gloriously "sterile". An example, the commoners (that is, the majority of people) of Joseon dynasty wore white and were not allowed to wear colored hanbok with each color represented position, season, gender and many other factors and so colored hanbok were only for statused individuals. However, when people in museums are portrayed in the Joseon dynasty, they are very frequently presented in a colored hanbok, a gross misrepresentation of an era, and one that confers status and "cultural respect" on the glossy history. Anyway, it is yet to be revealed how the Korean government will "rebuild" Seocheon, but it can be guessed that the present brick walls will take on the sterile chunking of gray concrete with light plaster fill like those already surrounding the renovated five palaces and in the re-created Bukcheon area. However, the unique focus of Seocheon is 3-fold: the streams, the alleys and the hanok.

Seocheon, due to its proxemics to the palace, emissaries and its spider-alleyed pathways disappearing into a multitude of tiny doors, not to mention the negative forces of qi filling the area has at times caused the government keep its eye on the comings and goings of the densely populated narrow district. Especially after the 1968 Blue House attack when North Korean commandoes came within 80 meters of the Blue House, Seocheon was awarded with the special privilege of a strictly enforced curfew of 10pm while the rest of Korea was allowed an additional two hours to get off the streets for the night. The curfew has long since been lifted but the new threat of development (galleries, shops for tourists, etc) endanger yet another area of Seoul where housing was once cheap for the very young and the elderly but where, with the development and price hikes, those present occupants are threatened with losing their homes. (One old man still lives in his simple house although homes all around have been torn down. He has no electricity, water or heating, but HE STILL HAS A HOME.)

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