Once Scandalous, Center Scrubbed Up for Reopening

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Once Scandalous, Center Scrubbed Up for Reopening

SamcheongGak, a grand entertainment complex near the Blue House and the staging ground for many significant, if not scandalous, events in modern Korean history, has been transformed into a luxurious multiplex hall. Most of the buildings of the complex are in the hanok, or Korean traditional, style. First an elite gisaeng club, where high-class women "entertainers" plied their trade, SamcheongGak became in the '80s an opulent restaurant that provided sensual desserts in its back rooms - mostly for Japanese tourists and foreign investors. Now, after a four-month renovation, it is set to become a tourist attraction with nothing to hide.

Located in Seongbuk-dong at the foot of Mount Bugak, just northeast of downtown Seoul, SamcheongGak could be perceived as the epicenter of the corruption of modern Korea's political history. On a diplomatic level, the complex was the stage for major banquets and political agreements, such as the 1972 Joint Declaration by North and South Korea's Red Cross officials.

The complex will be opened in its new incarnation Monday. The compound will include the main building, a smaller hanok with three luxurious suites, and a pavilion and a pagoda where traditional arts classes will be offered for foreign tourists.

In the old main building, Ilhwa Hall, a chic Korean restaurant has replaced the private rooms where some of the country's most important decisions were made during the regime of former President Park Chung Hee. The restaurant will be run by the Seoul Plaza Hotel. On the second floor of the building will be a teahouse and a 200-seat auditorium where Sejong Center for the Performing Arts will hold monthly music recitals. The hotel also had a hand in the renovation of the three rooms in a separate structure, Dongbaek Chamber, which will now be rented out as grand suites. The building, thickly surrounded by trees, was a place for politicians to meet discreetly. Presumably, this was also a place where many a tryst took place in the old days.

The chief organizer of SamcheongGak's performance and lecture desk, Choi Sung-cheol, defined the new function of the complex. "This is an art house," he said, adding that guided tours will be provided for visitors unfamiliar with its history.

The question that remains, though, is how they will present that history. Will tourists staying in the luxurious suites at the Dongbaek Chambers, and paying $500 or more per night for the privilege, want to hear about its "eventful" history?

Mr. Choi laughs. "I think we'll have to go more with the diplomatic image of SamcheongGak and the influence it had on Korean history," he said, "like the 1974 declaration and other official deals made and announced here."

But the Korean public doesn't seem too put off by the complex's infamous past. At least 200 visitors have been coming by every weekend since local newspapers began running stories about the reopening, Mr. Choi says. For their part in publicizing the complex, the organizers have set up an English Web site (www. samcheonggak.or.kr) and printed pamphlets for tourists to pick up at hotels and airline offices.

Though there may still be a few ghosts, the new version of SamcheongGak should be a practical tourist package for foreigners short on time but long on seeking a window into Korea's culture and history.

For more information, call 02-3676-3456 (English available). There are free shuttle buses leaving for the complex every 20 minutes from both Seoul Plaza Hotel and Sejong Center for the Performing Arts.

by Park Soo-mee

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