Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Bukchon Village's Hanok: A Vanishing Heritage

The last time I walked along the inner alleys of Bukchon was in 2006 when I visited the home of David and Jade Kilburn. It  was during our despedida dinner for a good friend Brenda who was going back to her home in Canada after working at a national daily. That night, after our dinner, Jade invited the group to her home in Gaheo-dong, right in the middle of Bukchon Village.

While sitting at the living room of their hanok, I suddenly realized something. While we were there chatting, I recalled a scene from a Korean movie, 3-Iron, or its name in hangul, Empty House or 빈집.

In the movie, there was a scene where the lead actress went straight inside a hanok uninvited and lay down on the couch of the house, ignoring the couple who were by the front porch. The 'L' shape architecture of that hanok in the movie reminded me of the same shape of David's hanok. So, I had to ask him if it was the same house, and he confirmed it was! Even my friend Stefan from Austria was surprised about it as he said that was his favorite Korean movie. After all, that movie was directed by the award-winning Kim Ki-Duk! Lucky us! And lying there on the table in David and Jade's living room was a coffee table book featuring the movie with photographs of their hanok!

(Here's a link to that movie. On 1:03 and 1:14, that's David and Jade's beautiful hanok.)

And as part of my tour in the Jongno District, I once again roamed the alleys of Bukchon Village, where the last of the remaining hanok in Seoul still exist. This was supposed to be a protected enclave of traditional Korean houses with their original architecture and structures still intact. But what I saw is a village where hanok homes mix with apartment buildings and commercial spaces. And while there were still old-looking hanok, you can see that there were newly built ones. They don't look old. One could tell they're newly built, which was a turnoff. 

As I walked the alleys, I was wondering whether the Seoul city government, or the officials of the Jongno District didn't have any plans to preserve the Korean traditional homes of the area. The remaining structures that still have the traditional Korean architecture are only a handful and seem to be concentrated in one small area. 

I read in the brochure that I got from the tourist information booth that this place was populated by court officers during the Choseon Dynasty due to its proximity to Gyeongbuk Palace and Changdeok Palace. These two palaces sandwich Bukchon Village.

From Exit 1 of Anguk Station, the path leading to the hanok enclave looked like an extension of artsy Insadong. But from Exit 2, along the busy road, the path is lined with commercial spaces with nary a hint of the traditional. You would know that you're actually near when crowds of tourists are gathered at a corner next to the pharmacy. It would have been interesting if that corner was actually a hanok housing a shop selling traditional Korean medicine, just like during the last dynasty. 

And near the more interesting corners, there were signs in English and other languages saying that the area is still a residential neighborhood, and should only be visited from 10AM until sundown. This means the residents also needed the peace and quiet the whole neighborhood is entitled to.

But while I was there, some Asian tourists couldn't seem to restrain themselves from the excitement of having visited Bukchon Village and having their selfies taken with the hanok in the background. I wonder how these residents feel that their homes are now a tourist attraction.

One couple who I think must have liked that idea is Mr. Yohan  and Mrs. Magdalena Kim, who both run the Bukchon Observatory. I was surprised one Sunday morning, right after the snowfall the night before, no one else was at their terrace.  They turned their unit at the top floor of a three-storey apartment building into a public viewing spot. For KRW3,000, you can stay at their unit, enjoy the view and have a drink. 

I was thinking, a hanok might have stood on the spot where their apartment building now stood because right next to it was a row of hanok lined up in what looked like their original location ever since they were built, untouched and preserved. Maybe those hanok were only renovated, as they still retained their original look. I didn't have to ask Mr. Kim; it was obvious. 

Even at the alley where David's hanok now stood, a few neighboring hanok looked new and the corner lots were now occupied by modern houses. And I wonder why in the brochure the modern-looking house of Lee Jung-gu (not sure who he was) was being promoted as a tourist attraction, even though it stuck out as a sore thumb in the picture.

Some hanok in the area have been transformed into commercial spaces that offer some traditional experience for tourists. This may be of interest to those visiting Korea; they'd be able to experience the culture in Bukchon.

From the way Bukchon Village looks from the outside, the number of real hanok is dwindling and the area is losing its identity. 

I no longer felt the atmosphere of the old and the traditional as I walked the alleys after seeing only a few hanok next to two-storey apartments. I no longer see traditional; I see commercial. That's why I decided to shoot the photographs in monochrome so as to camouflage the reality that Bukchon Village has lost its identity and its heritage.

I don't know the exact count of the remaining authentic Korean traditional homes left in the village, and if it's decreasing, Bukchon's days as a tourist attraction are probably numbered.

Everyone calls them hanok; to me, they're Bukchon's vanishing heritage.

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