Hang on for an inspired ride

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Hang on for an inspired ride

9:30 a.m., Tuesday. Barely squeezed through the door to the packed car on line No. 3. Tried to ignore the bags and elbows hemming me in by watching the news from television installed in car. 10:30 a.m. On way to work, picked up book at City Hall Station kiosk. Had bought book week before online and was delivered free-of-charge to kiosk. Book in hand, suddenly am hungry. Went back to City Hall Station and grabbed noodles at subterranean food court.

6:30 p.m., same day. On way home from work, enjoyed contemporary art show at Hyehwa Station on line No. 4. Contemplated seeing jazz dance performance put on by Seoul School of Performing Arts at Nowon Station, line No. 4, but decided to head off to amateur classical guitar performance at Isu Station on line No. 7. Classical guitar just seemed more appropriate this chilly, sort of melancholy day. Faces of focused passers-by endlessly streaming here, there, all swept up in holiday commotion, added to mood.

The subway is, besides a place to see and be seen, an indispensable means of transportation for urbanites of this modern world. But for many Westerners, the subway is often associated with darkness and crime. The French filmmaker Luc Besson's "Subway" (1985) offers up an entire murky society of strange characters and small-time crooks hiding out beneath the streets of the city. The made-for-HBO movie "Subway Stories" (1997) chronicles the true yet truly unbelievable experiences of everyday New York metro riders.

But Seoul's subway offers none of this mysterious allure. To the regret of those who revel in the potential mysteries of a subway system, with its eerie stations and snaking tunnels, Seoul's subway is endlessly clean and bright. And it provides services you might never have considered.

The Seoul subway system, which began operation in 1974, now transports approximately 6 million people per day. At first the system was criticized. The trains were not on time, the stations were badly lighted, airless and cheerless. But things have changed, one by one: trains generally hold to schedule, air-conditioning has improved, walls are brighter, there is more light and heat, and recently, more elevators are being installed. One thing that has never changed: The place is still super-crowded.

The Seoul subway is not just for transportation purposes. It has become a platform for everyday living, culture and the arts. Virtually everything can be done in a Seoul subway station or subway car. From watching soap operas on small screens inside a train to enjoying pop art displays and receiving legal consultations, the Seoul subway offers hundreds of services. You can even get married at Noksapyeong Station on line No. 6, free of charge, and that includes a wedding march on the escalator. "People said it was really easy to come to a wedding down there," says Lee Jeong-hee, who got married last year at Noksapyeong station. "They could take a subway and arrive on time. My wife liked the idea of a wedding there because we could use the hall for as long as we wanted." Meeting places, or annamui gwangjang, are just like ones up above, along the highways, still another example of the changing new face of subway stations. These spots are convenient places to meet up with friends and then head off to somewhere else. After standing for a long time on a subway, or negotiating the long flights of stairs so common in subway stations, some people like to sit down at one of these meeting places before going outside or transferring to another train. Currently, there are 93 such meeting places at 72 stations. Some of them have televisions, computers, books to read, sculpture, mirrors and places to recharge cell phone batteries. The books available vary from station to station, and some stations have a wide variety of books for children. Some subway stations have monthly fashion magazines such as Kiki and Ecole and on occasion even a few books in English ("It's Nice to Be a Korean" published in 1983, and "A Day in the Life of The New York Times," published 1971). The books are donated by citizens or private companies. "Even though many of these books are old, I like reading here," says a college student who has pulled a book from a shelf inside the Seoul National University of Education station on line No. 3.

Cultural facilities and events are abundant in the Seoul subway. One day you can walk along a long passageway and see nothing on the walls. The next time you walk by, there are paintings or murals from one end of the passageway to the other, both sides included. Even the pillars along the platforms at some stations are decorated with artwork.

To see works of art or performing arts in a Seoul subway station isn't uncommon these days. As Jeong Jae-whang, an official of the Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corp. says, "The subway is reaching out to the public as a cultural hot spot."

At 5 p.m on a recent day at Isu Station on line No. 7, riders who were headed for the turnstiles stopped for a moment to watch a musical performance. They stood together around a stage inside the station and clapped at the folk song and guitar performance of the singer Jeon Heung-cheol, who often appears underground. Taking a break, Mr. Jeon says, "I just like singing and that's why I am here. And I think I contribute to establishing a new culture in the streets and subways."

"It's great to watch a live performance down here, and I can take a breather in this busy place," says a 21-year old woman waiting for Mr. Jeon to continue.

One level below this stage at Isu Station, several high school students are practicing dancing. They are jumping, turning and walking on their hands. When asked why they are dancing inside a subway station, Oh Jae-won, a freshman at Sehwa High School, says, "We have no place to practice. If we practice dancing here inside the station, people will clap. I think they understand us." Alongside the dancers, a couple of people are busily thumbing through books in the station's meeting place.

Stations are not the only places to find entertainment in the Seoul subway system. Subway trains are another important medium of below-the-streets culture. In fact, society and the arts meet regularly aboard subway trains. The "culture train" project of the Seoul subway is using trains as a means to appreciate various art forms. A couple of cars of subway line No. 7, for example, were temporarily transformed into kitchens last summer to get the public to think about gender equality and to publicize the importance of housework. Subway cars were decorated with kitchen utensils, aprons and sinks.

Pigs -- happy flying pigs -- await subway riders. The Seoul subway system, along with Info Art Korea and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, has decorated a train that runs on line No. 5 with "pig" themes. The exhibit will run until March 10. "Pig art" exhibitions cover some of the train's cars, and others are being turned into a "pig village." The ceilings of the cars are decorated with airborne pigs soaring through cloud banks. The purpose of the display is not only to charm passengers, but also to promote the image of the pig-raising industry. "People will like pork more," says an official at the ministry. Even if you do not agree with the official, it's a kick to watch a pig merrily soaring through a train. Or to find yourself in a "pig pen" car.

The subway system in Seoul is run by two public companies. The Seoul Metropolitan Subway Corp. is in charge of lines 1, 2, 3 and 4, while the Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corp. handles lines 5, 6, 7 and 8.

The companies came up with an overall plan to create cultural and living areas in the system a couple of years ago. Their main objective was to activate cultural space within stations through increased performances and exhibitions. The two companies, along with such groups such as RailArt Korea, a volunteer association that promotes cultural performances in the subways, have staged productions both in stations and on trains. The performances include a wide variety of traditional and folk songs to electronic violin and accordion solos, from martial arts to mime, and no admission fee is necessary. Exhibitions include such displays as flower shows to graduation projects to photography.

The chief benefactor of the cultural life of underground Seoul is not the Seoul subway corporations or businesses. It's people, the most important producers and consumers of subway culture. The subway cultural performances actually began with suggestions from a couple of citizens who wanted to use a public place to call attention to a piece of culture. Now many cultural performances in the Seoul subway system are being organized by volunteers. Furthermore, some citizen groups are now engaged in such activities as campaigning for cleaner subway bathrooms and for displaying accomplished art and stories in subway stations and cars.

"Having a cultural life on view in a subway," says Park Jong-ho, the head of RailArt Korea, "is something that should be ongoing and familiar, like riding a subway itself.

by Min Seong-jae

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