Seoul’s historic foreign quarter
It was here in the late 19th century that Protestant missionaries built Korea’s first modern churches and schools. It’s where meddling diplomats, military attaches and businessmen jockeyed for position in the dying days of the Joseon Dynasty.
In short, Jeong-dong is where Korea got its first full whiff of the West.
A walk through Jeong-dong starts outside the main gate to Deoksu Palace. This is where the daily changing of the royal guard takes place. Most times I pass, throngs of tourists are photographing palace troops dressed in their finery.
The winding road heading along the south wall of Deoksu Palace leads into the heart of Jeong-dong. This first part is known as Doldam-gil, or Stonewall Road.
Not surprisingly, there’s a stone wall here and a magnificent one it is, too. On weekends, moms and dads photograph their kids posing against the wall. In the evenings the street lighting makes for a pretty scene.
Mention Doldam Road and you’ll probably hear that this thoroughfare is famed as a romantic walkway. Courting couples flock here in their multitudes, the foreign buildings and sense of history perhaps adding to the allure.
Han Mi-ja, a writer and researcher at the Korea Cultural Historical Survey Society, offers this perspective.
“Jeong-dong has a symbolic meaning of modernization,” Han says. “This is where all Western European power was located. Some people only know this road as a romantic path possibly because of the Western culture.”
This path is also known for its story of the lovers who separate when they reach the end of the road.
“That’s because the Seoul family court, where many divorces took place, used to be located near the end of the street,” says Robert Koehler, a magazine editor in Seoul who has helped lead tours around the Jeong-dong area through the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture.
The court that he is referring to used to be housed near the Seoul Museum of Art, which stands on the left-hand side of the road as you head west.
To find it, ascend the cobbled pathway to the top of the rise where you’ll be greeted by the museum’s handsome facade and its wonderful arched entrance.
I wanted to know when the building was built, so I skulked around for the foundation stone, peering in all sorts of nooks and crannies. A security guard approached. He looked serious.
“Can I help you?” he asks, eyeing me up. I explained my interest in the history of the neighborhood. His eyes lit.
Thirty minutes later, we were sat drinking hot milky coffee in a wooden hut in front of the museum. Lee Dae-kyung, 43, has worked at the museum for six years. He’s quite a history buff.
“This building was built by the Japanese in 1928 as a law court,” Lee said, adding sugar to his coffee. “Korea’s Supreme Court was here until 1995 and then the art museum opened.”
Lee had also showed me where to find the fading foundation stone. It was hidden behind a yellow trash can.
I told Lee I had to get going. He looked disappointed. “Follow me,” he said. “I want to show you something else.”
Intrigued, I followed him over to the wooded knoll in front of the museum. “There,” Lee says, pointing among the pine trees. “Most people miss it.”
The small stone tablet said the famed Confucian scholar Yi Hwang (1501-1570) once lived here. His portrait graces today’s 1,000 won bills.
We looked on in silence. To a history nerd like me, discovering Yi Hwang lived here 500 years ago was quite exciting. I imagined him doing some gardening here, deep in Confucian thought.
“I love history,” Lee said as we bowed our goodbyes. “But I never liked studying.”
Across from the museum is Chongdong First Methodist Church, built in 1897. The church exterior is rather plain but I like the redbrick bell tower and pointed arch window.
After the ban on Christianity in Korea was lifted in the 1870s, well-funded American missionaries poured in, including Methodist missionary Henry G. Appenzeller. He proselytized here until his congregation grew so big, he was granted land to build the current church.
At weekends, there’s a service in English and the streets reverberate with drum, bass and rap from the church rock band.
Across from the church, a road leads north. It’s partially blocked by listless policemen guarding Habib House, the U.S. ambassador’s official residence.
The English writer Isabella Bird Bishop wrote in 1897 on a trip to Korea that the roads in Jeong-dong were “guarded by several slouching Korean sentries gossiping in knots as they leaned on their rifles.”
More than a century later, the guards still slouch and gossip, but the rifles have been replaced by clubs.
If you walk past Habib House, you’ll come to an imposing early Western building with the motto “Blood and Fire” emblazoned on an exterior wall.
It’s the Salvation Army Central Hall, built in 1928 in memory of General Bramwell Booth’s visit to Korea. Booth’s dad established the Army in 1865 in London’s stricken East End.
In the Army cafe next door you can drink coffee and sway to the stirring martial music played on the PA.
Back at the Chongdong First Methodist Church, continue west and you’re on Jeongdong-gil, or Jeongdong Road.
There are several pretty restaurants here and a travel agency occupying the annex of an attractive five-story Victorian pile. The road is lined with gingko trees that smell horrible when in fruit.
A fascinating place to visit here is Simpson Memorial Hall, built in 1915. It’s tucked behind the entrance to Ewha Girls’ High School. Inside there’s a collection of memorobilia dating back to when the missionary Mary Scranton founded the school in 1886.
“It was the first modern school for girls in Korea,” says Yim Hyun-soon, a guide at the museum. “When the school first opened, there was only one student. At that time girls didn’t usually get an education.”
The school eventually gave birth to Ewha Womans University.
“Yoo Gwan-soon was a student here. too,” Yim says. Yoo was an independence fighter during the Japanese occupation. There’s a photo of her dressed in her school uniform in an exhibition on the second floor. She looks painfully young.
“The Japanese tortured her to death in 1920,” Yim says.
Outside Simpson Memorial Hall is a stone tablet marking the spot where Korea’s first modern hotel stood.
Antoinette Sontag established the Sontag Hotel in 1902. It’s long gone, but the sturdy Korean gateway to the school still stands.
A stone marker here reads, “Whether you’re high class or working class, get off your horse before you enter.”
Across the street there’s a hill leading to the former Russian legation, built in 1890. It used to dominate the skyline, but all that’s left is a solitary white tower.
Emperor Gojong hid at the legation for a year after Japanese agents murdered his wife, Queen Min, in 1895.
Cho In-souk, who leads walks around architectural places of interest in Seoul, has sharp views on the Western-style architecture in Jeong-dong.
“Western architecture competes with nature, but Korean architecture tries to blend with the landscape,” says Cho, the president of DaaRee Architect and Associates.
Cho says when she was in middle school, she thought Jeong-dong was exotic. But after studying conservation architecture, she modified her views.
Her guided tour of Jeong-dong is hosted by the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture. It’s titled “Foreign Intervention in Seoul.”
“Architecture is about identity,” Cho says, pointing out the lack of architectural continuity between Western buildings in Jeong-dong and traditional Korean buildings.
Hundreds of hanok, Korean houses, were pulled down to allow the imperial powers of the late 19th century?to erect their baronial buildings, she points out.
“Jeong-dong is a lovely place to walk, but there’s more to the neighborhood than just attractive buildings,” she says.
Additional reporting by Susan Yoon
By Michael Gibb Features Editor [firstname.lastname@example.org]