[FORUM]Preserving our special memories

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[FORUM]Preserving our special memories

There are special places engraved in everyone's heart. Every time you pass by them, your breathing quickens, your body feels alive and your memories crowd in on you. Perhaps the feeling is of longing, perhaps of remorse or perhaps it is heartache. You reminisce until you are misty-eyed.

I cherish one such place in particular. It is a four-story building at 54 Myeongdong 1-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul. My teenage years, trapped in time, live and breathe there still. It is a building constructed in 1934 by a Japanese building company named Tamata as a theater.

In my middle school years, when the only way to get in touch with culture was through visits to musical concerts or exhibitions, I remember as if it were yesterday the day my friends and I first stepped into the Myeongdong National Theater.

"To be or not to be," Hamlet poured out with agony, after which one of my friends became a fanatic fan of the actor Kim Dong-won. We had a great laugh when someone made a New Year's card out of Kim's wedding picture by pasting my friend's face over his wife's.

The ruthless march of time has made me forget which one of we rascals proposed the first visit to the theater, but even in our dotage, after 30 years of rare contacts, the trace of the memories lives on.

I could not possibly be the only one who cannot erase the memories of the past from our visits to the old National Theater. In June 1936, it changed its name from Myeongchijwa Theater to the City Office to the National Theater, and finally it closed down as the Art Theater in October 1975.

How could it not hold heartwarming memories for folks over 40 years old, when the theater was a part of our good times and our bad times for the 40 years it was open?

It has been over two years since cultural artists took the lead to preserve and restore this theater as a part of Myeongdong's cultural infrastructure. The former owner, Daehan Merchant Bank, went bankrupt three years ago. Last spring, a committee to promote the old theater was established, because some people thought it insufficient to keep the building as a dead relic. The government wanted it preserved, but had no plans for how to use it.

At the end of last year, the Cultural Properties Committee concluded that the building was worth restoring as a public performance theater, and after an inquiry by professionals last month, it was suggested that the exterior be preserved and the interior be remodeled as a performance hall with 600 to 700 seats.

We are all so proud of our 5,000 years of history. We single out Seoul as a city of over 600 years standing, rare for a capital. But trying to find a living, breathing antique building here is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. During the years of our poverty we pushed for development, and during the abundant years, greed for money led us to dismiss preservation of our architectural heritage.

We need buildings in our city that have the breath of life, especially in Myeongdong where young foreign visitors flock. Myeongdong is an attractive area for young people, and to name it the "street of youth" is an understatement. About 2 million people a day pass through this place, nearly half of them young. Where will they end up, when they retrace their memories years from now if the area is filled only with clothing and food?

The only party with the necessary resources of 60 billion won (around $50 million) to restore the building is the government. The necessary funds must be found in order to repurchase this building for the public in order to put some cultural infrastructure in Myeongdong. There is no time and no reason to delay this project.

Over 50 theaters in London that were built in the 1800s have been remodeled and are regularly used. We should also revive the National Theater so the wandering youths of today can make memories of their own and so different generations can share "our own stories" across generational lines.


The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Hong Eun-hee

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