Heart of the city

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Heart of the city

"It's a small town," says Lee Byeong-moon of the Hyoja neighborhood, a humble area in the shadows of Seoul's most powerful edifices, where he has lived for 40 years and works as a real-estate agent. "Word spreads fast here so you really have to watch what you say. People are gentle but very old-fashioned. This neighborhood is like a small countryside village plopped right in the middle of Seoul."

Though Hyoja is in the heart of Seoul and surrounded by big complexes like the Blue House and Gyeongbok Palace, the neighborhood manages to retain traces of its history, which can be traced back some 600 years. Because of the strict zoning regulations designed to ensure Blue House security, which forbid the construction of high-rise buildings and major renovations, the area is rich with old traditions: Some of its shops were built not long after the Korean War. In a metropolis where shops seldom survive more than a few years and business success depends on catching the cultural fad of the moment, Hyoja is indeed a most singular place. The JoongAng Ilbo English Edition spent a recent weekday visiting some of the oldest stores in Hyoja-dong and meeting some of its long-time residents.

Kang Young-ja, 57. Restaurateur

I tell every government officer who comes to Yeonlaejang restaurant to eat our jjajangmyeon (noodles with black bean sauce) if they want to be successful.

Many of our past customers have become famous. Kim Sook-hee, who used to come here very often, visited us the day after she was named the education minister. I shook hands with her and treated her to a free dish of sweet and sour pork. We have other regulars from the Blue House whom we have served for many years, including the secretary generals who call to have noodles delivered right to their offices. Some of them are nice people. I give them extra noodles and give them discounts when they drop by.

The store has been around for a good 50 years. A Chinese family ran it for the 30 years before my husband and I took over. They emigrated to the United States in the early '80s. We started running this place in 1983. I've watched four presidents come and go at the Blue House. My favorite out of those four? Well, it's difficult to say. But speaking as a person running a restaurant near the Blue House, we did the best business during Kim Young-sam's term. I know that's not what Koreans want to hear, but it's true. We did very well during the economic crisis, probably because jjajangmyeon is people's food. It's cheap. We charge 2,500 won ($2), and haven't raised the price in 10 years.

It's funny, because it used to be the exact opposite when I was growing up. Back then, only the rich kids went out for Chinese food with their families. It was the kind of food that most people ate only on special occasions, like graduations or weddings. But now people look down on Chinese food.

When Kim Young-sam first opened this area to the general public, many visitors from other regions who came to tour the Blue House and Inwang Mountain dropped by our restaurant for lunch. That was really our heyday. Before then, this street was strictly off-limits to most and blocked off by barricades; civilians were not allowed to enter Hyoja street at all. People from the National Security Agency came to this neighborhood almost every week. One time, they asked us to take down our signs immediately, because they thought our red sign, which is typical for Chinese restaurants, stood out too much. They also asked us why our chimney was located on the side facing the Blue House. There wasn't any reason - it was just made that way. When complaints like that come in, we have to fix them by the next morning, otherwise we get in deep trouble. Things like that.... And whenever there was a presidential parade of some sort, they asked us to close all of our windows, even in the boiling summer heat.

I like this place though because we don't have many one-time customers, as most of the eateries in downtown Seoul do. We mainly deal with regulars whom we've known for years. That's really what makes this place so special.

Kim Do-geun, 64. BarberBR>
I moved into The Old Barbershop 10 years ago. Before that, for 30 years, I ran a huge barbershop with some 20 employees in the basement of the nearby Kolon building.

In the mid '80s, though, the place was branded a decadent shop for hiring female employees, and I had to pay huge fines and leave the building. But it was just a rumor ?I never hired prostitutes in my shop.

There are other barbershops in Seoul that hire young prostitutes, but I would never do such a thing. I just cut hair. Reporters should go and write about all those other shameless barbershop owners, not about honest people like me. You reporters sometimes do useless things. I yelled at an SBS cameraman last summer when he came for a story about old barbershops. I told him to go mind his own business, and kicked him out of my shop. How dare he?

I hate being photographed. I am not the kind of person who's dying to be seen on television. I write calligraphy. Look at all these works I've done. I am also good at removing people's moles. I can remove your mole right now. Those tear moles beneath your eyes can cause serious misfortunes you know."

Yu Bong-jong, 62. Bootmaker

I'm very proud of what I do. I mean how else could I have sat down to dinner with people like former corporate presidents Chung Ju-yung and Lee Kun-hee. But I did. I've been doing this since 1954. I've made boots for all the Korean presidents except Kim Dae-jung. Former President Kim Young-sam was very fond of horseback-riding. He was even a member of the riding club when he was studying at Seoul National University. He was very good to me.

It's a tough job. Sometimes my wife and I work on this stuff in our basement studio from dawn to midnight and we barely finish making a pair or two. But I've never turned my eyes to anything else. I started making saddles and boots for horseback-riding when I was 14. I was trained by my Japanese neighbor before the Korean War. I started out with a small shop in this neighborhood and moved into this larger store just last year.

I don't smoke, I don't drink and I don't hire anybody to help me make the boots other than my wife. That's probably how we were able to make some money. Now our son-in-law does most of the shop management. I have two daughters who help out when the shop is busy. I concentrate on making boots these days. I stopped making saddles a few years ago, because Koreans only want to buy foreign brands. Local products just don't sell. You say my name to anyone in this neighborhood and they'll know me. I think that's what keeps me going. I'm a bona fide Seoul native."

Choi Ryu, 57. Seal carver

I think my heyday was the mid '60s, when former President Park Chung Hee was in office. He kept me busy. There were ribbon-cutting ceremonies every few weeks for the completion of roads and bridges, and most of the country's government buildings and major highways were being built then. I make stamps for new offices, and nameplates and armbands for the ceremony participants. I also make special decorative scissors for ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Just as a hobby, I used to sell antiques.

I started doing this in 1961. Back then, the economy was so good that anything I put on display in the store would draw a willing buyer just like that. Now with all the digitally-made stamps and the use of signatures on major documents, handmade seal carvers like me are fading. The business has been dropping off sharply ever since former President Ro Tae-woo came into the Blue House. That's when I decided to run a small baduk (Korean for the game go) place for older residents in the neighborhood and rented out part of this office to a fortune-teller.

Young people these days wouldn't know it, but there is something very sacred about the practice of carving seals.

by Park Soo-mee

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