Sunday, 17 March 2013

"Kim-ssi, Open The (Namdaemun) Gate!"

I had to borrow that line from the film Sunset Boulevard, when the movie star Norma Desmond's car entered Paramount Studios and she had to order the guard to let her in. I think her line was, "Jonesy, open the gate!" 

But today, the gate is still closed. Closed for restoration, that is. And I am not talking about Paramount Studios; I'm talking about Namdaemun.

Sungnyemun, popularly known as Namdaemun, was the main gate of the Hanyang, the old Seoul, which was the capital of the Joseon Dynasty. According to the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea, it only took three years to construct Namdaemun from 1396 to1398, during the reign of King Taejo, the founder of that dynasty.

But it only took one night to destroy it. On February 10, 2008, without any of King Taejo's guards watching over it, Namdaemun was set on fire by a disgruntled citizen, shocking the whole nation. And me!
                             (A fireman checking any burning ember)
                        (Hundreds of people even from the other side 
            of the Namdaemun street watching in disbelief)
I could not believe that this very popular tourist spot, which always showed up in Korean postcards and competed with the Seoul Tower and Gyeongbuk Palace as the most recognizable places in Korea, was destroyed! Just like that!
                  (If King Taejo were still alive, heads would have rolled)

On that chilly Sunday night when disaster struck Korea's National Treasure No. 1, I was switching TV channels when I saw on a local Korean TV the whole structure being surrounded by firemen as they bravely tried to save with icy cold water whatever ancient wooden structure there was to save. I think they were able to control the fire past midnight but the most revered national treasure, along with the national psyche, went up in smoke.
                               (Not exactly a postcard picture now)
                                      (People flocking to see for themselves 
                       what was left of the national treasure)

The next day, at noon, I went over to the area to take a look for myself. What I saw was a shattered monument, black in soot and surrounded by sad, shocked faces. Standing there among the crowd, I joined the chorus in asking, "How could this happen?"  This wasn't just National Treasure No. 10 or Number 2 or Number 3. This was Number One! The top of the list!  And just like any preventable disaster, there was a lot of blaming after.
                       (Messages for the Sungnyemun)

But the blaming could not bring back the old, colorful glory of Namdaemun.  Two and half billion Korean won would try to.

From 2008, the area was cleared, research on historical archives and documents about Namdaemun was made, and the construction site was prepared. In 2010, the actual restoration started, and in April 2013, it is expected to have been fully restored and will be opened once more.

                  (A priest with an altar and offerings in front of the site)

So next month, I will be there again at Namdaemun to join the thousands in celebrating its return to the lists of the most popular tourist spots and the most popular postcards. And most important, with its restoration costs of at least KRW 2.5 billion, it better be up there again as Korea's National Treasure Numero Uno.
                                              (A photo taken this month)
                                (Restoration almost done)

And when that happens, I guess King Taejo will be proud again that the gate he had first built in 1398 is back to its old splendor, its rightful place in Korean history, and its place on a tourist's itinerary.   

But in the meantime, we are all waiting for his majesty to call out...

"Kim-ssi, open the gate!"
                (The Namdaemun was a postcard-perfect sight 
                                    before the fire)


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  2. That's probably why there are more fire extinguishers now in Seoul's burnable tourist attractions.