Joys of a creek, or whatever inspires themEvery so often, aspiring amateur writers dream about entering a prestigious writing contest that might be their debut on the literary scene and make them famous. Or, they could be content with merely entering the annual essay and poetry contest of the Seoul Metropolitan Government.
Every year since 1997, Seoul city has held the contest for Koreans and foreigners to extol the virtues of living in this dynamic, overcrowded, six-century-old city. And every year, lucky contestants are award cash prizes of up to 3 million won ($2,800), prove their literary talent and even shake hands with the mayor.
The winners of the 8th annual Seoul Essay and Poetry Contest were announced on the city’s Web site on Oct. 31, and the award ceremony will be held on Nov. 24 with pomp and ceremony and Mayor Lee Myung-bak. Among the 650 entries, 64 pieces were selected for prizes; the total prize money to be awarded is 29.5 million won ($27,624).
Nearly half of the winners were foreigners, who were free to submit poetry and essays in English, Chinese, Japanese or Korean. Winners came from many countries; there were Chinese, Japanese, Peruvian, American and even Bangladeshi literary masters.
This year, the theme of the contest was Cheonggyecheon, the creek in Seoul that became so polluted in the late 1960s that the city covered it over and built an elevated highway on top. The highway, which in due course became an eyesore itself, has been razed and the area will be turned into a stream-side urban park by the Seoul Metropolitan Government.
Lee Jong-geol, an official at City Hall, said, “We chose Cheonggyecheon as the theme because we wanted to get the people of Seoul involved in the project and see how interested they were.” Contestants were encouraged to write about their experiences, anecdotes and legends about Cheonggyecheon and its surroundings.
While most Korean winners wrote dutifully about the project, most of the top prize winners among foreigner contestants were stories about the city itself rather than solely about the stream. Some winners were not even residents of Seoul. But never mind; a little deviation from the rules is nothing new in Korea, and who would want to run the risk of rejecting a possible classic?
Wang Long, a university student from China studying Korean at Kyung Hee University on a scholarship from the Chinese government, won the grand prize for his essay, “Affectionate Seoul,” which he wrote in his native tongue. He described feeling stunned at hearing he had won the jackpot, shortly before his return to China next month.
Mr. Wang said, “I wrote about the weather, the natural landscape, the people of Seoul and about kimchi. I didn’t know we had to write about Cheonggyecheon.” Indeed, his piece makes no reference to the historic stream but instead raves about the beauty of the palaces and the mountains surrounding Seoul.
Vernon Moores, the winner of the grand prize in the poetry category, won after several tries in the competition. He said he had submitted “four or five” essays in the past, and placed fourth on two occasions.
“I’m elated that I won,” he said. “I knew it was a good poem, but I didn’t know if the judges were going to like it or not.” The poem is titled, “Jongno Summer Nights,” but does not go on to praise the beauty of Cheonggyecheon stream. It sings of the contrast between old and new in the streets of Jongno district and the contrast between the ancient shrines and modern buildings. Mr. Moores, a Canadian, is an English professor at Busan National University of Education and has lived in South Korea for ten years.
Brahm Agrawal from India, winner of the gold prize in the essay category for his piece, “Oh Seoul of Yesteryears!” said, “I wrote about my experiences in Seoul from a historical perspective.” His piece, subtitled “A love letter from a wandering vagabond,” was an ode to a city mixed with poetic verses written in Hindi (although translated into English in brackets) that even compares Seoul with Delhi. His essay laments what he called excessive modernization that has sapped the vitality of the city.
Mr. Agrawal does make reference to the stream, though, writing, “I am happy to know that they are going to restore the pristine glory of your midstream Cheonggyecheon.” Mr. Agrawal has been visiting Korea periodically since 1973, and has been doing research at the Academy of Korea Studies with a scholarship from the Korea Foundation. “It’s a great honor for me to have won. It has inspired me to work harder in Korean studies,” he said.
The judges were recommended by literary associations and included university professors who could read and assess foreign-language pieces. City Hall’s Mr. Lee said, “We weren’t really trying to find future literary giants. The objective was to have people, both Koreans and foreigners, become engaged in what the city is doing.”
Oh, Seoul of Yesteryears !
A love letter from a wandering vagabond
(Edited for space reasons.)
Hi Seoul! How are you these days!
Today, may I ask you one question? What is so attractive in you that I cannot forget you? Why I come to you again and again? Don’t you know that it is not easy for me to traverse frequently the long distance from my home? Then why do you call me so often? After all, I have been to Paris, Moscow, Tokyo, and many other famous metropolises around the world too. But they never entice me so much. Then, why are you embedded so deeply in my heart? Why am I unable to free myself from the shackles of cherished memories of our first encounter more than three decades ago?
“Teri yaaden mere dil par kuch aise ankit hain,
Jaise kisi khandhar par shasak ka shasankal khuda rah jai.”
(Your memories have been imprinted in my heart in such a manner,
As if the era of reign of a ruler remains engraved on a ruined castle.)
I cannot say exactly why I am so infatuated with you. Perhaps, I am smitten by the bewitching beauty of your surroundings and landscapes. The soothing sights of Namsan, Bukhansan and many other small hills around your perimeters. The vast spread of boulevards and plazas in front of legendary Kwanghwamun and City Hall. Your glittering buildings and shopping complexes. Panoramic banks of Han river dividing you in northern and southern halves just like Yamuna river flowing by the side of historic Red Fort in Delhi. Your wide and smooth roads with convenient traffic signals and easy to follow directions written in both Han-gul and Roman alphabets. Your superb subway network―-an aesthetic marvel of engineering and architect, the first segment of which from Cheongnyangni to Chongnosamga I saw being built in front of my own eyes. Only a few years back, you had also an elevated expressway running over the whole length of Cheonggyecheon Street. You remember! How much I liked to climb on it sitting in a car from the side of a curve somewhere in Wangsimni area, to look onto passing structures on both sides, then turn towards left by the side of renowned Samil Building, jump across the streets of Euljireo and Toegyero, and to reach direct to Hannam-dong. When I confronted your Namdaemun for the first time, I asked him: “O! The majestic gateway of the Capital of the ancient Hermit Kingdom, whom have you been waiting for with your open arms since a long-long time? Are you still awaiting the return of a monarch or a prince of the Yi dynasty like King Sejong, or some of the pioneers of your renaissance and enlightenment like Kim Ok Kyun or Philip Jaisohn, or those unknown patriots who laid their lives for the sake of your freedom?”
Then he replied: “Hey foolish young man from India, the men of bygone days never come back. Nevertheless, the footprints of their treaded paths remain forever. Some of their impressions are still visible in my bosom. You have to dig deep to explore them.
“I wait here to welcome travellers from far away lands like you,” he added. “Well, then, why are you standing over there? Come inside and discover some of the numerous treasure-troves of art and culture of my city just behind me, or sit comfortably in a lively and tastily decorated coffee house or restaurant, or just relax in a cozy pub located nearby “ When I wandered through your magnificent palaces and saw your monuments of Great Bell, Pagoda Park, Independence Arch, and that small edifice of the First Post Office in your country, And lo! When I found myself drifted to your ‘Secret Garden,’ I paused for a moment and asked myself: “Have I lapsed into a childhood dream of a fairyland? Rows behind rows of colourful trees. Clusters upon clusters of vivid flowers. A hazy glimpse of a stately mansion at a deep distance amid dense woods. It seemed as if thousands of rainbows had descended on earth. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief, and you laughed at my bewilderment.
“Deeno danish arz kardam kas bachize, bar na dasht.”
[When I was taken to heaven after my death, I could not bear the grandeur and purity of paradise, and said trembling: “take me back to my own world.”]
Maybe, I am attached so much to you because of your lovely and friendly dwellers famous for their tradition of hospitality. I have heard that they forget to wear their shoes when they rush to receive their guests. I hope you might have not forgotten how readily they welcomed me too during my first sojourn in your domain just thirty one year ago. Almost every one from an aristocrat to a common man, from a businessman to a taxi driver, from a scholar to a waitress was eager to make friendship with me. Your men shook my hands warmly, your women greeted me with sweet voices of oshipsio-oshipsio, and the children of my neighbourhood at Hwikyeongdong used to sing anyonghasimnikka-anyonghasimnikka in a chorus whenever they saw me walking in front of them. When visiting my place as my guests, they used to bring a presentation of a matchbox for me, symbolizing their inner wish for my prosperity while staying in your precincts. Many a time, I was taken aback by the affinity and kinship shown towards me. The cordial twinkles of their beaming eyes, the inviting glows of their rosy cheeks, the seductive streaks of smiles on their luscious lips, and the shining streams of pearly tears flowing down their innocent faces at the time of my departure still linger on my fading memories.
Or probably, I come to you in search of some solace and peace in the solitude of Buddhist temples and Confucian monasteries strewn all over your circumference. It is in these serene abodes where hermits and ascetics engrossed themselves in their pursuits of Tripitaka Sutra and Confucian classics. You tried your best to keep them undisturbed by closing your gates to outsiders. But the trespassers were bent upon breaking your seclusion in the name of friendship and trade. Once you allowed some of them inside, hordes of them crowded in to enjoy the abundant gifts and charms of your cloister.
But I tell you frankly. Some of your enchanting beauty and captivating charms of earlier days have dwindled now. Don’t raise your eyebrows in anger. Yes, yes I agree that everything changes with the passage of time. I myself have lost much of my passions and intensity of my youth. But you are altering more rapidly. Of course, I admire your tremendous gains of the “Miracle of Han River.” The living standard of your population has risen to a very high point. Now, they possess and enjoy all kinds of luxuries. But your excessive zeal for modernization and automation is sapping the vitality and happiness of their lives. No more warm welcomes, no more hearty smiles, no more human touch and no more looks of love and friendship. Nowadays, even my old friend Namdaemun does not implore me to come inside. He just stares at me thinking, “This stupid man is still searching something or someone in front of me.” Your extravagant garb of high ascending complexes and skyscrapers all along your length and breadth has hidden your natural spells to a great extent. Your open and calm avenues are becoming congested and noisy with deafening sounds of pop music. Your unsatiated desire for urbanization is devouring the arcadian freshness of your outskirts. But, I know you are not only to be blamed. It is happening more or less to every city and town around this earth in this age of so called globalization. However, I am happy to know that they are going to restore pristine glory of your mid stream Cheonggyecheon. But I am not sure of seeing it in this twilight of my life.
No, no my darling, don’t shed tears. I still love you deeply and would continue to do so till my last breath. Some of your charms are eternal. Some of your beauties are timeless.
Brahm Swaroop Agrawal
Jongno Summer Nights (Excerpts)
In the summer’s heat,
the streets inflamed
manners, first world luxuries
scarce, like toilet tissue
but models prance, electric
stacked in an endless row
the electronics market, a midway
work twelve hours of sweat
but the evening hour has arrived
Near Chang-deok-gung Palace
the old men clocked their time
go to Tapgol Park these days
limp and wander up Goblin Hill
straw hats and white cotton shirts
sit in groups of a dozen or more
beneath the pillared gates at Chongmyo
the rain pours down and
the thunder roars where the horse hooves beat
the Kisaeng sang
and danced upon the moon;
the royal well still draws up
and the wood paths weave their way
on Kumwon slopes by the lotus ponds
at night the magpies fly
from the white oak and mulberry trees
kayagum strings are plucked
the whipperwill coos its’ tune
the bell is rung a thousand times
in dragonfly star-lit nights
At Nammun market
cow’s heads, horns intact
cooked in gristeled skin
stare into the eyes of passerbys
we are never alone here
the squid and prawn always watching
a thousand eyes from a thousand fish.
The eels slither out of their tanks
and squirm in puddles through the market
chase the coffee shop girls in high heels
weave their way through the narrow alleys
the odour of sea fish and salt
music blaring from every stall
the smell of hot pepper and garlic
a whiff of green tea and ginseng
the frying sound of corn oil boiling
the soft lights of barbershop ajumas
who display their celestial wares
the dreams of merchants and soldiers
and high school kids in uniform
who spend slim coins in the video arcades
the lights from the dalanjujums
the night music proudly announces
a fashion show of college co-eds
to the blast and beat of the horns
a parade through the lights of neon
arm in arm they prance and giggle
to the musical rythmn of handfones
and the cinema hoftown boys smile
and wildly waste the night away
Past the pink light side-street dim
policemen gather nonchalant
the girls dance in platform shoes;
High School seniors do wheelies
super-sport racers all painted up
three to a bike and rolling by
by Choi Jie-ho