Thursday, October 5, 2017

Gamcheon "Painted" Culture Village, Busan

Gamcheon Culture Village is a town originally formed by the Taegukdo followers. Cho Cholje (1895-1958) and founder of the new religion had moved in the vicinity in 1948 just before the war. In 1950 when the Korean War pushed people from all over the Korean peninsula behind the tiny 230-kilometer line known as the Korean Perimeter, the only area not taken by the North Korean People's Army in the war, refugees crowded into Busan, many into the Jagalchi Market area which quickly became over-crowded. So many pushed to the steep hills of Gamcheon, a few kilometers away and in a safe but steep space. Overnight the area was transformed into a shantytown of 800 wooden shacks, clinging to the hillside. The shacks were made of corrugated iron roofs piled with stones to keep them from flying away in the wind; walls were of makeshift material. The village smacked of war, poverty, and hardship.

Cho Chojie, founder of the new Taegukdo religion which had been suppressed during Japanese occupation, by this time had 3,000 members in the area, and he promised the refugees toothbrushes, candy and rice if they would believe in Taegukdo. Soon almost 90% of Gamcheon residents practiced Taegukdo, and in 1955 Cho moved his headquarters to Gamcheon, which became known as Taegukdo village.

With Cho's move to Gamcheon, the village started to develop its economy and people started to earn money. They bought bricks and built up the wooden village of the '70s to two-storey brick constructions of the '80s and '90s. With the increase in people but not of land, it only made sense to build taller. Still, the hardships of war and poverty were imprinted on the village, and in actuality, it was much like a slum.

In 2009 the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism launched a program to renovate Gamcheon, naming the program "Dreaming of Busan Machu Picchu". The plan was to remodel the village into a creative community run by residents, artists and the local administrative office. The government therefore hired artists to paint murals and add 10 pieces of street art to the neighborhood. 

Phase 2 of the project known as Miro Miro soon followed with six houses and six alleys transformed into mini galleries and/or colorful paths. Experiential artists targeting tourism were set up -- pottery making, clothes dyeing, hanji craft, jewelry making, wood carving, puzzle painting, caricatures, metal crafts, and more. Arrows were painted for tourists to find their ways through the maze of alley ways. 

Many shops were opened by artisans, and cutesy jewelry, paper craft and handbags are frequently themes in booths attracting tourists. Several hanji shops were opened as well, as one particular one with a little craft room in the back of the shop snagged my attention. The elderly lady really had a talent for making exquisite hanji lamps and displaying theme elegrantly, not in a mishmash of bedlam like many of the other shops focusing more on quantity of item rather than quality of product. 

Local residents initially resisted the invasion of their privacy and balked at others seeing their less than modest homes, but gradually they have embraced the chance to earn a bit of money otherwise elusive to their neighborhood. 

Domestic media picked up on the change and have further stimulated tourism to the unique village charm via Korean movies and TV dramas filmed with Taeguk Village as a backdrop: "Hero", "Geu-nyo-ay-gae", "Superstar Kam Sa-young", and "Camelia". 

The village has also been dubbed as a Lego Village due to its perceived symmetric rows of colorful blockhouses perched on the hillside, and even tourist maps sentimentally label it as Santorini of Busan or Busan's Machu Picchu. In any regard, the former refugee shantytown has been transformed into quite the tourist spot, and is thought to be a model village for developing tourism in other Korean villages.

According to recent tourism figures, about 1.4 million tourists visit Gamcheon Village every year. Not quite sure how this number is generated, but I will say, during the Chuseok holiday when my friend and I were here, it was quite the hangout for young people -- groups of friends, dates, and families with young children. The town doesn't seem to attract the middle-aged or older people, but then most of tourism in Korea is aimed at the youth these days.

I don't quite get the importance of the photo zones .... but that seriously is the rage around Korea these days. There were several photo zone areas, the swimming whale below was pretty popular but the longest line was for young kids to take selfies with the Little Prince who was sitting on a wall over-looking a rather colorful area of Gamcheon Village.

Popular photo zone ... Wouldn't be any fun in this village without a selfie stick! LOL!
This couple found a space with a view but without a long line to take one of their couple-shots.
Quite cute actually.

One of the several painted stairways in the village.
With the theme of books, I actually found this one quite clever!
Appreciation goes to Yonhap News for writing a history of Gamcheon Village: "Street Art Rejuvenates Busan Ghetto" (Feb 1, 2012). 

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