Korea’s missing history: Someone’s been saving it

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Korea’s missing history: Someone’s been saving it

When visitors to Seoul want to see some Korean history, tour guides never fail to direct them to the palaces and museums that showcase the country’s 5,000-year-old heritage. After all, it seems there are only a few scraps of historic Korea to be seen amid the city’s modern sprawl landmarks such as Namdaemun and Dongdaemun, two of the few remnants of the Joseon Dynasty to survive the colonial period and the Korean War. But one might well ask: What was life like for the city’s people after the war? And what was replaced by the superhighways and glass-and-steel skyscrapers that dominate Seoul now?
That missing slice of Korean history can be glimpsed at a modest museum in Gyeonggi province, about an hour’s drive northwest of downtown Seoul, called the Museum of the Modern History of Korea. Housed in two buildings one called Folk Hall, the other Culture Hall are astonishingly painstaking re-creations of the Korea of four or five decades ago.
Upon entering Folk Hall through a real wooden gate from the 1960s, visitors find dimly lit “streets” lined with shops, stalls and homes, all built from old, neglected, dusty and abandoned artifacts a familiar but almost-forgotten sight for people old enough to remember, and a glimpse into the country’s hardscrabble past for those who aren’t.
Behind a windowpane is an old-time barbershop, where a barber mannequin cuts the hair of a nervous young boy. Details like the cheap Monet reproduction, the browned mirror, the calendar, the fan and the radio make up a realistic scene right out of an old movie. In front of a handpainted sign reading “Bus Stop,” a tobacco stall carries cigarette packs bearing old brands that faded into oblivion years ago.
Behind the steel bars of a pawnshop, a Scrooge-like shopkeeper examines a Seiko watch. Through a half-open window can be seen an electrician, working on a broken radio that only produces static. A lonesome cobbler works the late shift, shining shoe after shoe. Another man, in a heavy coat, anxiously awaits passers-by who might buy the last of his waffle cakes. Inside a humble home, an elderly couple sew the night away. And throughout the museum, you hear the tinny sounds of bygone Korean pop songs.
The annex called Culture Hall is a place where older Korean visitors can fondly revisit their childhood. The entire space is filled with educational and cultural materials from the past. A record shop is packed with vintage LPs; a uniform store displays clothing, accessories and various other paraphernalia used in schools; a movie theater comes with posters advertising hit movies from a few decades ago. An old-time classroom seems virtually intact, from a chalkboard, desks and an organ to the textbooks and magazines.

Behind this comprehensive and enormous production is Choi Bong-kwon, 49, the museum’s founder and curator. For the past 35 years, Mr. Choi has been an avid collector of all things old and bygone, from furniture to bus tokens. He says his collection totals more than 70,000 items; only about half of it is displayed in the museum’s 65 dioramas. Mr. Choi says he and five art professionals spent five years planning the museum, and another 16 months actually putting the displays together. For two years, he says, he slept in a tiny, makeshift container behind the museum.
Born and raised in Seoul, Mr. Choi says his interest in collecting began with stamps and coins, which were popular hobbies for kids in the 1960s. When the antique boom hit in the 1970s, he started buying old celadon and furniture like everyone else did. But he also had another idea.
“Typical Korean antiques were expensive and would fetch high prices later on, but I knew ‘cheap’ didn’t mean ‘worthless,’” he says. “When I saw that one important slice of our time was shamelessly being trashed, I had to save it somehow. I wanted to show future generations the missing era from our history book. To make it realistic, I had to keep everything, every trace of time, even the dust,” he says.
Mr. Choi was disillusioned by the abrupt social changes Korea was undergoing during the 1970s. In the relentless drive for modernization, he believes, Korea tossed part of itself aside.
“The last 50 years of the 20th century saw a lot of changes that resulted in sad, hard times,” he says. “The Saemaeul Movement initiated by President Park Chung Hee basically wiped out every trace of our old tradition overnight. And most of Korea’s cultural assets in temples and homes had been burned or stolen.”
He believes that modern, affluent Korea shouldn’t be ashamed of the years of struggle that his museum brings back. “Look, we’re not poor and hungry anymore,” he says. “We don’t have to feel shame and hide it from ourselves, from our children and from foreigners. We’re proud that we’ve come this far, this fast.”
Indeed, evident throughout Mr. Choi’s shantytown, besides his years of personal dedication, is his deep affection for his people and country. What’s truly amazing about this museum is the perfection in the details.
All the right items are in the right places, as if frozen into eternity. A crude, dungeon-like toilet has a door that reads “byeonso,” the old expression for “toilet.” A coquettish barfly is decked out in gaudy hanbok to lure clients. A receipt hung on a store wall is stamped with an actual date in 1971.
While planning the museum, he wondered what to do with his collection of older, more valuable “antiques” that didn’t fit into the museum’s time frame. Cleverly, he re-created an Insa-dong antique store to display them.
Since opening in January, the museum has had just a couple hundred visitors, mostly on weekends. “I wanted to break down the formality and concept of conventional museums,” Mr. Choi says. “This is not a museum that shows untouchable national treasures behind glass panels. This is where a whole family can come and spend a day immersing themselves in the old days, Korean-style. Grown-ups can enjoy nostalgia, looking back on their past, while children can experience what it was like in the lost era when their parents were younger,” he says.

Museum of the Modern History of Korea

Address: 154-16 Mokdong-ri, Gyoha-myeon, Paju city, Gyeonggi province.
Telephone: (031) 957-1125~6.
Web site: www.kmhm.or.kr
Admission: 4,000 won ($4) for adults, 3,000 won for students, 2,000 won for children.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except for Mondays.
English guide: Not available.
Directions: By car, take the westbound Gangbuk Highway or Jayuro toward Munsan. Pass the Haengju Bridge and Incheon Airport exits on the right. Get off at Isanpo I.C. (Interchange) on the right and head toward Geumchon. Along the way, you will pass Goyang Stadium on the left. At Geumchon Samgeori (three-way junction), turn left. You’ll pass Ilsan Furniture Complex on the left. At Wadong Samgeori, turn left and go straight until you see the 2-cha (Second) World Meridien Apartment Complex on the right. The museum entrance is across the street from the apartments.
By subway, get off at Daeha station, line No. 3, and transfer to bus No. 707, 9704 or 919. Get off at the apartment complex (the bus system calls it Gyoha City World 2-cha Apartments).
By bus, take the long-distance seated bus No. 9704 at Seoul Station in central Seoul, which goes straight to Gyoha City World 2-cha Apartments.

Recreating a forgotten era, one dusty memento at a time

Choi Bong-kwon spoke with the Joong-Ang Daily about his one-man project, the Museum of the Modern History of Korea.

Q.You must be extensively traveled.
A.I own a sanitary paper company with 30 employees. Because I have a lot of free time, I go around excavating. There isn’t a town I haven’t been to in Korea. If there were condemned or empty houses there, I would visit and see if there was anything I wanted. Old houses made from wood or tin were so rotten that it was very dangerous to scavenge. I ended up saving an entire roof from a Korean house. Once I nearly died from falling into an old well. I learned that families who keep cherished mementos have famous characters in their ancestry, while families who only have TVs and CDs have no history.

Didn’t anyone say you were crazy?
Every time my family went on vacation, I would slip out to a nearby town to check it out, or to speak to villagers about old-time customs. I bought and saved things, thousands of them, in storage, that were considered more or less trash, of course. When my wife found out, she thought I was crazy. At one point she thought I was possessed by an evil spirit, so behind my back, she asked a few local shamans to perform an exorcism. She gave up, and now she and my two grown children are supportive. Sometimes they come to the museum and help me out.
Which exhibit is your favorite?
The shabby tavern from the 1950s. Koreans were so poor then, going to a place like that was a luxury. The low tables, banners and cups are all real stuff from the old days. Now that this project is done, I’m planning to move to a bigger location next year. The new museum will have an old diner, where visitors can actually try simple dishes and drinks. The other day, I came across some old, rare soju bottles. I will display them there.

by Ines Cho
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