Sunday, June 21, 2009

The disappearance of Pimatgol and Cheongjin-dong

For months much of the Pimatgol/Cheongjin-dong area north of Jongno between Gwanghwamun and Jonggak Station has been shrouded by steel and blanket fences in preparation for demolition.

Over the last month or so most of the cordoned-off area has been demolished.

There have been a number of articles about the doomed neighborhood over the past year. In English we can find:

"Pimatgol, the back alleys of Seoul"
(JoongAng Ilbo, 2008.01.31)

"Disappearing Chongno P'imat-gol 'Taste Alley'"
(JoongAng Ilbo, 2009.03.05 - translated at

"The Memories of Pimatgol Disappearing"
(Korea Times, 2009.03.26)

If you have time to read only one article, read the unedited version of Scott Burgeson's "Annyong, P'imat-gol" (Newsweek Korea, 2009.06.24). Go read it now.

It's the best informed, and, seeing as a couple of the visits to the area documented below were with Scott, it's the article most related to this post. Scott has also posted photos of the neighborhood in happier days. This photo is of the Seoul Hotel, the interior of which (along with the surrounding area) was photographed by Jon Dunbar.

This map shows where redevelopment is supposed to take place in Cheongjin-dong.

In fact, more of the area is being demolished than what is seen here, including the area just north of '1', and a section of the area between '1' and '2.' The area may end up looking like what is shown here, or it may not. I have another post in mind which will look at what the previous destruction of another section of Pimatgol in 2005 (to build the lovely 'Jongno Town' building) has meant for the preservation of Pimatgol, but I'll leave that to another time, and for today mostly just post photos of the area.

The most picturesque part of Pimatgol was the section right next to the Kyobo building.

Visible in this picture is the owner of Daerim, who is interviewed in this Joongang Ilbo article:
“I’ve been cooking fish here for more than 30 years,” said Seok Song-ja, 65. [...] She runs a small restaurant called Daelim, and warmly welcomes anyone who shows an interest in the neighborhood.[...]

“I’ve seen it all,” she said. “Back in the old days, when customers were young and had little money, they promised to pay later,” she said. “Some paid, but it didn’t really matter that much if they didn’t,” she went on. “In the past there seemed to be a lot more jeong [affection] and it was a lot more fun. Today people are all about economics. Kids today aren’t as romantic as they used to be.”

Seok said many of her more frequent customers return to Pimatgol because they spent time here in their youth. “They’re mainly in their 40s and 50s and have children of their own now,” Seok said. Relationships are tight and the shared history creates a bond. Seok’s even been invited to some of her customers’ weddings. “They may not be as handsome as they used to be, but they are always welcome in my house,” she added.

What does Pimatgol mean to her?
“It’s where common people live their daily lives and where life is full and cheap,” she said.
Scott spends some time talking about her in his article (and has a great photo of her), and back in February he and I had dinner there together.

Actually, that day I had been in Hyehwa-dong trying to get a good photo of Hyehwamun (and trying to find the way up to the city wall) and discovered this demolished lot next to the city wall. I had to slip in through the 'blanket fence', and ended up getting fibers from the blanket all over my backpack (which were pretty difficult to remove).

As we went up to pay, she noted my backpack and asked what was all over it, and Scott joked that I was homeless. When we got the change back, Scott noticed that there was too much and asked why. Mrs. Seok's response was, "It's a homeless discount." Somehow I doubt those working in the shops in the office tower that replaces the neighborhood will be quite so friendly.

In mid-May I stopped by to take a look at the area (Jon Dunbar has photos of the area taken at the end of April). This was the view coming out of Kyobo Bookstore.

It was nice to see that Yeolcha-jip and Daerim were still open (and were as of last weekend). The buildings facing Jongno were being destroyed (interesting how you can see the outline of the formerly adjacent building against the remaining one).

Here was the view of the area from above, taken from the 'Bikini University' building nearby.

It was possible, from Pimat-gil, walk out into the demolished area seen above.

At the end of May, I returned to the area with my friend Blaz, who's been teaching urban studies in Seoul. This was the overview of the area then.

The same view from the ground:

Next to Jongno, the destruction continued.

(Note the people walking by at bottom right.)

Last Sunday night I took a photo from almost the same vantage point; the buildings along Jongno are all gone now.

As I mentioned, the map above does not show this redevelopment, in the northern section of the same block next to the Kyobo Building. Here it is looking north from the Bikini University building.

The only positive development to come from this would be the results of archeological digs on the site after the buildings were cleared.

Photo from here (note the Kyobo Building at left).

The managed to find some good examples of pottery from the 1500s or 1600s.

To see what these looked like when they were found, see here. Other pottery was found as well (and there is more here).

As redevelopment or restoration projects have proceeded in the downtown area over the past few years, the discovery of ruins and pottery has become more frequent.

We headed over to the other block of Cheongjin-dong being destroyed; or perhaps I should say, "that has been destroyeed."

At bottom right used to stand the restaurant Hanilgwan, which had almost 70 years of history and served former presidents.

Photo from here.

As the Korea Times wrote early last year,
Hanilkwan, a traditional Korean restaurant located in Jongno, Seoul, will suspend its 70-year service for a reconstruction project in the area in May.

The famed restaurant will move to Gangnam, southern Seoul. ``We are moving, not completely closing. Still, the staff and our customers feel sad that we have to leave where we established so much so long ago,'' said Kim Jung-ok, the restaurant's executive manager.

Founded in 1939 by Shin Woo-gyoung, the restaurant gained popularity for its traditional food and welcoming atmosphere. It is a family-owned and operated business covering three generations and is currently operated by Shin's granddaughters
Here's what it looked like in September.

As of the end of May, there were only two buildings left: a hotel, and a still-operating restaurant with a partly demolished hanok behind it, which can be seen below. It also appears that archeological excavations have started in this former neighborhood as well.

Here's what the entrance to the hotel once looked like.

As of the end of May, the area was tightly sealed shut, but two weeks earlier it was possible to pop in for a look around after workers left.

Easily noticeable was this partly demolished hanok.

I wondered if I had actually been there before, but dismissed it as unlikely. I took a few photos with the flash on.

It wasn't until I got home and looked carefully at the photo above and the one below that I realized I had indeed been here before - I described the visit in this post two and a half years ago. I went with Scott Burgeson, and he mentions this place, named Si-in Tongshin, in his article. Here's the photo I took at the time, of the poet who befriended us and Scott. A close look at the writing on the wall reveals it to be the same place as the partly demolished hanok above.

This is where I was introduced to Lee Jang-hee's 'Geugeonneo,' which is a really cool song, but very unlike the rest of Lee's folk-oriented music from that time.

Here's the entrance to and sign for Si-in Tongshin.

Over in the direction of these ruins was once Cheongjin-ok, the haejangguk restaurant which dates back to 1937.

Here is how it once looked.

Here is how it looks now after moving into the north end of the Jongno Town building.

The inside the building there is a photo of the old restaurant.

As this Korea Times article notes,

[M]ost restaurant owners say everything is different from the way it used to be. Some restaurants had to raise prices due to the high rent and hike in prices of food supplies. Cheongjinok, a blood soup restaurant, was a fixture of Pimatgol established in 1937. The restaurant has moved to the first floor of the Le Meilleur building last August and raised the price of main dish "ttaro gukbap'' (rice served with blood soup) to 6,000 won, a 500 won increase.

Mijin, a buckwheat noodles specialty eatery, also moved to the first floor of Le Meilleur, and raised the price of the noodle by 1,000 won to 6,000 won, the only price hike in eight years.

"I serve fewer guests here than I did at the previous location,'' said Lee Young-soo, 71, the owner. "Steady customers come to the new place as well, but they say the taste is different.''

As the redevelopment plan is carried out, more restaurants are expected to move to the building. "If the owner wants to keep running the eatery in this area, there is no other option than the Le Meilleur building for the present,'' a real estate agent in Jongno said.
"[N]o other option than the Le Meilleur building"? That's one way to rub salt in the wound. But there's more, of course.

The building requires a 100 million won deposit and 5-7 million won monthly rental fee for a first floor unit, the most expensive in the building and two to four times costlier than restaurants' previous locations.
I guess that's the price of progress.

I'll save my thoughts on what this means for downtown Seoul for another day.


Roboseyo said...

thanks for that post. are you going to put this or something like it up at the Hub of Sparkle? It's a worthy elegy.

Jin said...

Thanks for this splendid post. While I agree with Burgeson on many things, I think his discussion of the yangban/sangmin divide obscures a crucial point about what is happening today, which is directly related to Korea's integration into a global capitalist system. For a great analysis of the link between capitalism and urban redevelopment, check out David Harvey's recent essay, "The Right to the City"

Kelsey said...

Aw man, that was one of my favourite areas of Seoul!

Anonymous said...

wow, thanks for taking me through the back streets...

King Baeksu said...

Jin, I'm not sure what my argument "obscures" since like Harvey I offer a class-oriented social history of the urban core of Seoul. Admittedly, I had limited space but I think I got the point across. Harvey calls for mass movements of resistance to the control of the city by the elites, and we have seen a small-scale movement to this effect centered around the Yongsan Incident since late January. I would argue, however, that much of the potential mass energy in support of this movement (which has its own problems) was drained off by the mad-cow protests last year, which was primarily nationalist and consumer-rights oriented in nature: In other words, more reactionary and bourgeois than anything else, despite the "progressive" window dressing. There was and is widespread dissatisfaction with the "system" here but last year that potential mass energy was redirected in the wrong way, and essentially into a dead end, leaving little energy to support the kind of radical urban movements that Harvey calls for, and which could have been more broadly triggered by the Yongsan Incident. That said, I doubt much "revolutionary consciousness" exists among the broader Korean public, especially among the young, so one point in my essay for Newsweek was to try to articulate some of the social forces at work in the urban core and instill more of a class-oriented consciousness in (some) readers. It's a long process that will take years to build and strengthen, although frankly I have my doubts about how much can be achieved here in Korea at this point.

Jin said...

Scott, my point was that the yangban/sangmin duality does little to explain what is happening in Korean society today. Every Korean and their grandmother claims to be of yangban stock, despite whatever position they currently occupy on the socioeconomic ladder. What we're seeing in Seoul today is no different than what happened before the '88 Olympics and what has happened in Paris under Haussmann or in New York under Robert Moses. In other words, this is about the reinvestment of capital through the destruction of older neighborhoods and not some reflection on a "nearly timeless relationship" between two social groups which only exist in the imaginary.

King Baeksu said...

JIn, I mentioned yangban and sangmin in the Choson Period which was when and why P'imat-gol was created in the first place. I replaced that binarism with the rich and somin, which means commoners (or the working-class perhaps) in the rest of the essay. The conflict between the elites and the poor/commoners in Korea is indeed certainly timeless.

Anyway, the reason P'imat-gol is important is because it is the most famous symbol of traditional sangmin culture in Chongno. It's a point that many seem to forget, in contrast say to Bukch'on which everyone knows is a "yangban" district.

Jin said...

Scott, fair enough. I concede your point, although timeless remains a problematic term. As Marx said, all history is the history of class relations. BTW, I really enjoy your writing and your website. It's too bad I didn't run into you or your zine when I was living in Korea. Keep up the great work. The same goes for Matt, too. Both of you have a lot more to say about Korea than all the reactionaries who write on the Korea Times boards.

King Baeksu said...


Mark Russell said...

Hi Matt:

Great post. I was surprised to learn that Shi-im Tongshin was still around at all. When I crossed the fence into that neighborhood a few months ago, I thought it was already starting to be torn down. Maybe I had the wrong location. Or maybe they paused before continuing.

I agree with Jin about the problematic aspect of reading too much history into the changes happening today. The neighborhood of Bukchon in no way resembles what was there 100 years ago. The same with Pimatgol. After all, how "common" can a neighborhood be when such a large percentage of its cliental were government bureaucrats (the low-level yangban of the modern era)? I'm not denying that aspect of the neighborhood, but I am saying it is not so clear-cut either.

After all the Hwashin Department Store took out a chunk of Pimatgol when it was built. But it was also torn down, despite its architectural heritage, for the construction of the Jongno Tower (or whatever it is called this week). I do not see a lot of respect for high-culture either (unless it is the "right" kind, hence the archeological work going on at many of these demolition sites). This is far more about making money than it is about class.

I have to wonder what alternative was there for that part of town, and others like it. Most of the buildings around there are too old and decrepit to be used in the future (with small doors, antiquated plumbing and electrical work, etc.). The Euljiro 3-4-ga and Cheonggye 3-4-ga area is even worse. And that land is far too valuable to expect its owners not to develop it.

Rather than classify neighborhoods as being worth protecting or not, I wish the powers-that-be would go through all the neighborhoods and try to identify the buildings worth saving. Then they could work on development plans around those structures. Sure it would take a little more planning and work, but it might allow for a much more useful merge of the modern and the old.

Sorry for the long comment. Again, great post. Thanks much for it and the pics.

King Baeksu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
King Baeksu said...

"This is far more about making money than it is about class."

Disregarding the fact that it's mainly the royal palaces and yangban areas like Bukch'on that are officially protected and preserved, perhaps you might want to think again about the deeper implications of the above statement.

"I was surprised to learn that Shi-im Tongshin was still around at all."

It's "Shi'in" as in person/people.

"After all, how 'common' can a neighborhood be when such a large percentage of its cliental were government bureaucrats."

There's a crucial difference between low-ranking and high-ranking civil servants.

"And that land is far too valuable to expect its owners not to develop it."

Except that many of the owners themselves did or do not want to sell. The owner of the building housing Yolch'a-jip, Daerim, et. al. just doesn't want to sell. It's not about money for such people. It's their home and their ties to the area which often go back generations. If the government could spend a bit of money and help protect the area, it could be just as nice as many parts of Samch'ong-dong.

Mark Russell said...

> Except that many of the owners themselves
> did or do not want to sell.

Well, that's why I wrote about the need for a system that protects individual buildings, rather than neighborhoods.

Right now, if the government wants to develop a neighborhood, they just need to show that over 60% of the buildings in that neighborhood are condemned or condemnable (according to a rather Byzantine bureaucratic system) -- the other 39% are screwed.

Pyeknu said...

Oh, this is so sad. P'imat-gol was one of the nice places in Sôul that I loved to visit when I lived in Korea from 1996-2005; an internet café located close to the Kyobo Building provided my first real communications link back to Canada when I arrived to teach English in Sôul at the start of that odyssey. To see such a warm and cozy side street wrecked like that without taking any effort to maintain it is just so sad to read about.