[OUTLOOK]A streetcar named liberation

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[OUTLOOK]A streetcar named liberation

“Anybody who lived in Seoul in the winter of 1964 might know that street bars appeared along the streets of Seoul at night. They sold the Japanese-style side dish, odeng, skewered tidbits and roasted sparrow, with three different kinds of cheap alcoholic drinks. People rushed into the place through the gap of a tent that fluttered in the cold wind blowing through the frozen streets. Inside the tent was the wavy flame of a carbide lamp and a middle-aged man in a shabby military jumper dyed black, who served the drinks and cooked. One evening, three of us met by coincidence.”
The above is the beginning of Kim Seung-ok’s short piece, “The Winter of Seoul in 1964,” which is regarded as one of the best short novels written after 1945.
There is a scene in the novel where those three men separately write down what they have all seen in Seoul in order to prove they are truthful.
“Near Seodaemun Station, I saw the trolley of a streetcar that ran toward Seoul Station making sparks five times while I watched it. It was the tram that passed the spot at 7:25 p.m. this evening.”
Even if it were not for the novel written by Mr. Kim, people who lived in Seoul in the 1960s might have nostalgically recalled a streetcar that ran along the streets making sparks.
The removal of the streetcars from the streets of Seoul started in 1966, under the guise of building a underground pedestrian passage at Sejongno intersection. The Sejongno route was removed in autumn that year. The system dismantling was done in stages till the streetcars disappeared from the streets on Nov. 29, 1968.
The reason why I relate this story of streetcars disappearing so long ago is out of my wish for them to return, as an extension of the success of the Cheonggyecheon restoration.
As is well known, Lee Myong-bak was elected as the mayor of Seoul despite predictions at the time because of his election pledge of “Cheonggyecheon restoration.”
Once, there was a popular song with the lyrics, “Let’s plant apple trees on Jongno streets and persimmon along Euljiro. When the persimmon is ripe, our love will be ripe too.” When the cultural aspiration of Seoul citizens went beyond the words of the song and they were elevated to become citizens of the international community, Mr. Lee’s election pledge that he would remove the grotesque elevated motorway and let clear water run down the Cheongye stream might have been instilled in the minds of the people as replacement.
Seoul citizens now dream having the city be reborn as an international city like Paris or Rome, and thus making it a historical world heritage site.
On April 5, Kang Kum-sil finally declared her intention to seek nomination as the governing Uri Party’s candidate for the post of Seoul mayor. The race for the mayoralty, the highlight of the May local elections, has started to heat up.
Politicians might think that the election will be decided by a political struggle between the parties that will mobilize public opinion, but the actual election victory will be decided by the consciousness of citizens, as was shown in the case of the Cheongyecheon issue. If politicians misunderstand Seoul citizens as the object of a populism they can manipulate, they are committing the mistake of downgrading the citizens, who are already world-class.
I want to see streetcars run on the streets of Seoul again. It might not be only me. The clear water that runs down the Cheonggyecheon has washed down the wounds of dictatorships that forgave all kinds of wrongdoings in the name of economic development. Even if it creates a little inconvenience, if streetcars ran down to Dongdaemun, or East Gate, from Gwanghwamun, Seoulites would sing the old song of golden grassed hills and the sound of water mills. If a streetcar that started at Gwanghwamun ran through Jongno streets, turned around Dongdaemun, ran through Euljiro and passed by City Hall Plaza, young lovers would enjoy dates riding them hand in hand and tourists could experience a unique part of Seoul..
Park Gi-won writes in his poem, “Riding a Static Streetcar.”
“The one I met on a streetcar/ no need to have an appointment / friendly rubbing of shoulders/ exchange of friendly eyes / wrapping secrets as if jewels / no regrets for not knowing the destinations of others / silence is ground under the wheels / the time that stopped still goes round the wall...”
I want to ride a streetcar, while rubbing shoulders with my friendly neighbors in Seoul, although we don’t know each other’s destinations. I want to ride on a streetcar that runs along Jongno streets alongside the Cheonggye stream. Like “A Streetcar Named Desire,” by Tennesee Williams, I want to ride “A Streetcar Named Liberation.”

* The writer is a novelist. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Choi In-ho

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