History lives on in Mokpo's forgotten districts: A walk through the city tells a tale of occupation and liberation through buildings that still stand today

Dec 03,2018
The ship that was used by Joseon Tongsinsa, a diplomatic goodwill mission dispatched by the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) to Japan, was reproduced 200 years after its maiden voyage on Oct. 26. The ship, which originally voyaged between Japan and Korea 12 times between 1607 and 1811, will officially be utilized as a traveling museum from next May. [YONHAP]
Korea's Cultural Heritage Administration recently selected three places in the country that played a significant role in Korea's modern history but are still relatively unknown, at least for their historical significance. From next year, the administration will spend five years investing in the three selected regions - Gunsan in North Jeolla, Mokpo in South Jeolla and Yeongju in North Gyeongsang - as part of a pilot restoration project dubbed "Modern History & Culture Restoration Space."

In this three-part series, which started with Gunsan on Oct. 29, the Korea JoongAng Daily is guiding readers through a modern historical tour of each town.

MOKPO, South Jeolla - “Mokpo is a port.” The title of this song by popular 1930s singer Lee Nan-young probably best describes the city she was born in. Located at the southwestern tip of the Korean Peninsula, Mokpo is one of Korea’s three port cities and the first to be opened independently on the orders of King Gojong on Oct. 1, 1897.

During the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, Korea and Japan agreed a “tentative joint clause” to open the port in Mokpo the following year. Japan insisted that it build an exclusive settlement near the port, while Korea insisted on establishing a settlement that could be used by all foreigners. These two countries were unable to find common ground and the tentative agreement to build the port was scrapped.

As a result, the Joseon government of the time decided to open the port on their own, independent of foreign influences. To this day, the Mokpo dwellers are fiercely proud of this independence.

But the people of Mokpo say the pride they have of the city is not just because it is one of the three major ports in Korea, but because it is a "roofless museum" that walks you through Korea's modern history, both the good times and the bad.

"The city structure of modern Korea remains in tact in Mokpo," said Kim Jong-sik, the mayor of Mokpo. "It is true that some of those modern cultural heritages make us revisit the painful history of Japanese colonization, but it is still important for us to continue to remember it and rightfully pass it down to make sure our history does not get distorted.”

Mokpo’s Manho-dong and Yudal-dong areas near Mokpo Port are filled with historical sites that are designated as state registered cultural properties. Most are Japanese-style houses that were established during the early 1920s and '30s. That is why the Cultural Heritage Administration decided to select Mokpo as one of three towns - along with Gunsan in North Jeolla and Yeongju in North Gyeongsang - it believes are historically rich yet relatively unknown. These three towns have been dubbed “Modern History & Culture Restoration Space,” and for the next five years, the administration will invest and support their preservation and restoration.

When the Korea JoongAng Daily visited the old downtown area of Mokpo city near the port on Thursday, the area was already going through some transformations. Many old buildings that were unused by anyone except the stray cats on the streets of Manho-dong and Yudal-dong were being cleaned out and renovated for new businesses.

“There’s no other city like Mokpo, where modern history has been left so untouched,” said Jeon Young-ja, Mokpo City’s culture tour guide. “With a little bit of support from the government to sweep the floors and reorganize the area, this part of Mokpo will be born again as a tourist hotspot for learning about Korea’s modern history.”

The reason why this part of Mokpo was rapidly developed and heavily influenced by Japan in the early 1920s is because it used to be where the foreign settlement, or concession settlement for foreigners, was located when the port opened in 1897.

The initial plan was that many countries would establish their consulates in the settlement, but it was only Japan that actually put the plan into action. Eventually the settlement, which was established by reclaiming land, was mostly occupied by Japanese people. About a decade later, the country came under the colonial rule of Japan.

It is best to take the modern history tour around the old town of Mokpo on foot. It will take about four to five hours to take a good look at all of the buildings inside and out.

1. This building used to be the Mokpo branch of the Oriental Development Company, erected in 1920. Currently, the building serves as Mokpo's Modern History Museum No. 2. 2. The inside of the old Chosun Refractories factory site that has been abandoned since 1997. The company plans to use the vast site as a multipurpose history and culture complex. 3. Japanese-style two-story building in a neighborhood near Mokpo Port. This building is currently being used by Art Coop Namusup, an artist collective.
1. Mokpo Culture Center
(Former Honam Bank, Mokpo branch)

The tour starts at this former bank building located just five minutes on foot from Mokpo Station. (The station can be reached by KTX in about two and a half hours from Seoul.) The landmark building was erected in 1929 by influential figures in the Honam region, including a wealthy man named Hyeon Jun-ho, to fight the dominance of Japanese capital. Honam is a historic region that now encompasses North and South Jeolla and Gwangju.

The bank’s head office was in Gwangju and this building was constructed as its Mokpo branch. It is a two-story structure made of red bricks. Its exterior was finished with dark reddish tiles, and it is still in good condition today.

“It symbolized the Koreans’ resistance to Japan,” explained Jeon. “It was constructed solely using Korean capital, and it is said that the bank only hired Korean employees.”

It is the only modern financial building that remains in Mokpo and is designated as Cultural Heritage No. 29.

2. Deserted: Kim Young Ja Art Hall
(Former Mokpo Hwashin Department Store)
This turquoise-colored, two-story building was erected in 1936 as a local branch of the Hwashin Department Store, the first modern department store in Korea that opened in 1931 in Jongno, central Seoul. The department store fared well in the Japanese colonial era, with wealthy Japanese and Joseon ladies flocking to the popular shop.

Despite its popularity, the store closed down after only two years. During the '90s, it operated as an art gallery for a while, which explains the English signboard still visible on the building. The old department store has been abandoned for decades, but as word spread that this part of Mokpo would be regenerated, the building has recently been sold to a new developer.

“We’ll work with the new owner and plan to utilize this building as a history and culture complex,” explained Park Yun-cheol from the Mokpo city government. “This building is the largest commercial building that still maintains the early 1930s style in Mokpo.”

Chung Jae-suk, chief of the Cultural Heritage Administration
3. Art Coop Namusup
(Former Dong-A Madams’ Store)

The next stop is a two-story Japanese-style building just one block down from the Hwashin Department Store. This was another department-store-like shop operated by married Joseon women in the 1920s. This store, selling household goods, originally opened in Seoul, but it wasn't long before other branches began popping up across the country, including in Mokpo in the early 1930s. In a newspaper article published on Nov. 17, 1937, the store was introduced as “a large department store in Mokpo.”

Although the building was a store for Joseon housewives, it maintains a distinct Japanese design. This is because it is a Jeoksangaok, a house whose ownership was transferred to the general public after Korea recovered its independence. From the outside, the building looks tiny, but inside, there is a long hall of rooms and even a small backyard - a typical Japanese-style house, explained Park.

This building was abandoned until just three years ago, when an artist collective in Mokpo, named Namusup, decided to rent the deserted house, renovate it and make it their workshop and office.

“When we first came here, it was a den for stray cats,” said one of the Namusup artists. “It cost us 6 million won [$5,350] just to throw out the rubbish from this deserted house.”

Now, residents near the area visit the place for free art classes.

4. This Renaissance-style red brick building, established in 1900, used to be the Japanese Consulate in Mokpo. 5. The top of the windows feature a pattern that look like a Rising Sun Flag. 6. At the back of the building, there is a cave-like facility known as Mt. Yudal Air Raid Shelter. It was established by the Japanese to prepare for the Pacific War.
4. Shagreen Clothing Shop

This building is also a Jeoksangaok that was abandoned for a long time. According to Lee Jun-ho, who opened a clothing store here just a few weeks ago, it took him four months to renovate the house that was “falling apart.”

“I used to work as a designer in Mokpo, but after retiring, I wanted to do something that I always dreamed of doing,” said Lee. “I wanted to get this place because it is so historically significant. The structure and this back garden is very traditionally Japanese. I think this house is one of just a few houses in Mokpo with a well in the garden.”

Lee said that he wanted to contribute to the restoration of the neighborhood and help the government revive the area so that visitors can come and get a glimpse of what Mokpo once looked like.

“When customers come in to my shop,” added Lee, “I voluntarily invite them further into my back garden and show them the well. Foreigners really love it and take a lot of pictures.”

5. Chang Seong Jang Guesthouse

This two-story building, erected in 1928, also maintains a very traditional Japanese style, at least from the outside. Its current owner, Lee Jae-won, who opened a guesthouse here in August, transformed the building without touching its structure. The walls are vividly painted in orange, blue, red and yellow and the furniture is all of a high-end European style, attracting young travelers looking for somewhere Instagram-worthy to stay.

“The cost of renovations was two to three times more expensive than the cost of purchasing the building,” he said.

Lee’s two-story guesthouse has 10 rooms. According to Lee, it used to be a geisha’s house. The building has a lot of small rooms and a large hall-like area on the second floor, where Lee assumes the geishas danced and men drank.

“I was going to renovate the whole interior and operate a motel or something, but after looking at the structure, I decided that it would be a good place to run a guesthouse,” said Lee.

6. Mokpo Modern History Museum No. 2
(Former Mokpo branch of the Oriental Development Company)

This modern building was constructed by the Japanese government to launch a company that would monopolize and exploit the Korean economy. The Mokpo branch of this company was originally located in Naju in 1909, but relocated here in 1920. After liberation, the building was used by the newly founded Navy Mokpo Guard from 1946-74 and by the Military Police of Mokpo Coast Defense Headquarters from 1974-89. It was left abandoned when the headquarters relocated to Yeongam for about 10 years until 1999. The Mokpo city government decided to renovate the building in 2006 and utilize it as the Modern History Museum.

The museum exhibits old photographs of Mokpo and explains the city’s history in detail. It opens from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Mondays. Tickets cost 2,000 won for adults.

7. A Japanese-style garden that belonged to the late Lee Hun-dong, founder of Chosun Refractories. 8. The second floor of the Chang Seong Jang Guesthouse that newly opened in August by renovating an old geisha's house. 9. This building was the auditorium of the Simsang Public Primary School, the first school in Mokpo for Japanese students built in 1929. Currently, it is used as an assembly hall by Yudal Elementary School.
7. Yudal Elementary School
(Former Simsang Public Primary School)

The school that sits underneath Mount Yudal has an unusual auditorium that is registered Cultural Heritage No. 30.

The auditorium was actually the first school in Mokpo established by Japan in 1929 to educate Japanese children. It is made of reinforced concrete and finished with tiles in two colors on the front and sides, while the second floor features narrow, arched windows. This is the only extant elementary school building in Mokpo from the Japanese colonial period and it exhibits characteristic features of auditoriums from that time.

These days, the school is better known for the 110-year-old taxidermy tiger that it keeps in a glass display case inside the new school building next to the auditorium.

According to the school’s principal Jang Sa-ik, the tiger was trapped and captured by a farmer near Mount Bulgap in South Jeolla in 1908. It is a female and presumed to be about 10 years old.

A rich Japanese man named Haraguchi Shojiro purchased the tiger, had it professionally stuffed as a specimen in Shimtsu Manufactory in Tokyo and donated it to the then-Japanese school in 1909. The tiger has been at the school ever since, although, today, scientists argue that, because of its age, it needs to be looked after professionally, not in a school corridor.

8. Sungok Memorial Hall and
Lee Hun-dong Garden

The memorial hall is dedicated to the late Lee Hun-dong, a founder of Chosun Refractories that established a factory in Mokpo. As he was able to accumulate wealth in the region, he established the Sungok Cultural Foundation, supporting students with scholarships and artists with opportunities to hold exhibitions.

Visitors might be more interested in Lee Hun-dong's garden at the back of the memorial hall. This large Japanese house with a garden is open to the public only on Saturdays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. According to Lee Geun-sang, business promotion team manager at Chosun Refractories, the house is currently being used by Lee’s descendants as a vacation home, and they only allow the garden to be viewed by the public. It is well maintained in a Japanese style, and Lee presumes that a rich Japanese family used to live in this house during the colonial period.

9. Mokpo Modern History Museum No. 1
(Former Japanese Consulate)

Sitting atop a hill looking down at Manho-dong and Yudal-dong is a red brick, two-story building that looks very Japanese. The top of the windows feature a pattern that looks like a Rising Sun Flag, hinting that the building was used as the Japanese Consulate back in the day.

The building has a Renaissance style and was constructed in 1900. After liberation, it served other purposes, like being used as a government office and as the city hall. The decorations on the ceiling and fireplaces inside the building remain as they were originally constructed.

“This building is one of the most important modern buildings that has great historical and architectural value,” explained another Mokpo City culture tour guide, Kim Mun-shim. The museum also displays old photographs and archives of Mokpo’s modern history. It opens from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Mondays and an adult ticket costs 2,000 won.

Another highlight of this site is the air raid shelter behind the building. It is a cave-like facility that was built for military purposes as a means of shielding people from air-raid bombs during the Pacific War. Japan utilized Korean labor to construct this large-scale facility, equipped with cooking and air filtration facilities, in order to prepare for a prolonged war. This shelter at the foot of Mount Yudal can be accessed through the museum’s back garden. It is estimated that the shelter was built between 1944 and 1945. It is 85 meters (278 feet) long and has three entrances.

10. Old Chosun Refractories factory site

A few kilometers east of Mokpo Port, a large factory is left abandoned. The complex was first established in 1938. The company, which still exists, was founded by Lee Hun-dong as one of the first companies in Korea to produce heat-resistant materials like bricks. The company enjoyed its glory days in the '70s, adopting new technologies like the 70-meter tunnel kilns - an innovation at the time.

After the company began to expand, it had to relocate to bigger sites in Pohang and Gwangyang, leaving it little choice but to abandon the 9,000-pyeong (320,248-square-foot) site in 1997.

The company now uses this site as a warehouse, but has hardly renovated or maintained the structure. Visitors can see the generations of technology that were used here from the 1930s through to the '90s.

“Here we have a large kiln where you bake bricks,” said Lee from the company. “Back then, it was all done by hand by the laborers, so you can see that. Whereas [over here], there’s a tunnel kiln that we used in the '90s that baked bricks automatically. It’s like a museum if we restore it properly.”

The company plans to turn this vast site into a culture and history space in the future and contribute to society - following the philosophy of its founder.

“It will be a really good education center and a museum where people can learn about the industrialization of Korea,” Lee added.

11. Reproduction of Joseon Tongsinsa Ship

On Oct. 26, a reproduction of the Joseon Tongsinsa Ship had its maiden voyage in Mokpo. Joseon Tongsinsa is the name given to a series of diplomatic goodwill missions that saw diplomats travel from Joseon to Japan about 12 times using the ship between 1607 to 1811. Measuring 34 meters in length and 10 meters wide, the ship was said to be the biggest ship of its time.

After three years of thorough research, the National Research Institute of Maritime Cultural Heritage managed to reproduce it using 900 pine trees to make sure the ship is built traditionally.

“We tried to reproduce it as close to the real one [as possible],” said an official from the institute. “But because we had to follow today’s maritime regulations and insert an engine, some adjustments had to be made.”

About 72 people can board the ship at once, and it will officially go into operation starting from next May.

“We are still thinking about how to utilize it,” said the official from the institute, adding that one of its roles would be to travel to other parts of the city to serve as a museum to allow visitors to learn more about Joseon Tongsinsa.

“This is not a mere reproduction,” said Chung Jae-suk, head of the Cultural Heritage Administration during the launch ceremony of the new Joseon Tongsinsa Ship in October. “This ship will be utilized as a cultural envoy between Korea and Japan, as it was back in the day.”

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [sharon@joongang.co.kr]

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