[Outlook]Myeongdong’s shadow

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[Outlook]Myeongdong’s shadow

Myeongdong, central Seoul, is a district of desires and consumption. Streets are packed with fashionable coffee shops, restaurants, boutiques, cinemas and hair salons. Surrounded by skyscrapers, people dine out, shop, chat and strut down the street all day long. People enjoy life and youth to the fullest. Neon signs glitter on the street and shops, restaurants and bars are lavishly decorated inside.

Myeongdong was a vibrant place in the past as well. The only difference now is that the poverty that made it difficult for people to eat three meals a day is absent, along with the fatigue people get from carrying the heavy burdens that life imposes. The tragic beauty the district once possessed now seems weird. The world has changed.

During the Korean Empire, Myeongdong Cathedral was built in the place where the Minister of Personnel Yun Jeong-hyeon used to live. The cathedral stood out among low houses from the Joseon Dynasty and created an exotic sight. It was in the 1920s that Myeongdong started to be modernized. As Japan occupied Joseon and controlled it as a colony, Myeongdong was called Meijimachi by the Japanese and became the central street for Japanese living in Seoul.

As Western culture and products entered Korea, the words “modern” and “new” as in a “modern boy” and “new art” were frequently used, pushing aside our traditional lifestyle. Wearing Western clothes, using Western products, eating in Western or Japanese restaurants and hanging out in bars or dance halls were regarded as part of modern life. All this started in Myeongdong.

After the 1910 Korea-Japan annexation treaty, some Koreans set off to Primorsky Kray in Russia and worked to win the country’s independence. Others who were studying in Tokyo saw “modern” women in Ueno Park, feeling guilty that their wives remained in Joseon. This contradiction was probably nobody’s fault. It was the course of history, just like some drowned themselves in the Korea Strait while others lived decadent lives in Myeongdong. All of these were part of life.

After liberation, Myeongdong was full of joy. Many writers, artists and intellectuals hung out there and held animated debates. They listened to classical music and discussed philosophy in cafes such as Madonna, Oasis and Dolce, which Jun Suk-hee and Sohn So-hi opened. They ate jajangmyeon, cheap noodles with black bean sauce, for lunch in the Chinese restaurant Donghaeru. They talked about their times and lives. Putting on worn-out jackets, they dropped by Munyeseorim or Mona Lisa during the day. At night, they drank together. Literature and art were born among these people.

O Sang-sun, Seo Jeong-ju, Mo Yun-suk, Kim Gwang-gyun, Lee Yong-ak, Kim Dong-ri, Cho Yeon-hyeon, Kim Gi-rim, Cho Byeong-hwa, Cho Ji-hun and Lee Jin-seop all frequented Myeongdong. Kim Su-yeong, who appeared in “Figaro,” discussed poetry with Han Ha-un and shared the pain of a frustrating history. When the country’s national per capita income was less than $100 and the country was going through a war, Myeongdong offered a place for exhausted intellectuals to rest.

“Times come and times go./ Life is not that lonely. It is just mundane like the cover of a magazine.” This is part of the poem, “The Wooden Horse and the Lady,” written by Park In-hwan. Park was recognized as a young, talented poet in Myeongdong and he died at the age of 31 in poverty. Both Yun Yong-ha, who wrote a song called “The Barley Field,” and the famous poet Kim Gwan-sik struggled in poverty before they passed away. Paintings by Lee Jung-sup, Park Su-geun and Kim Hwan-gi are now sold for billions of won among the rich.

But they portrayed tired people and the artists felt exhausted themselves. Jeon Hye-rin, an author who studied in Germany and came back to Korea with memories from Schwabing in Munich, also went to a traditional Korean bar, Eunseong. She killed herself at the age of 31.

In the 1970s, Myeongdong was still the district of romanticism and it was reborn with a passion for democratization. Myeongdong Cathedral became a central point of the democratization movement.

Today’s Myeongdong doesn’t seem to remember the old stories of our generation. It is simply a space to consume and excrete. However, the present can’t exist without the past. Today’s Korean literature and art exists in the shadow that Myeongdong casts from the past. We can build a museum to show Myeongdong’s history. We can restore our past. In doing so, we will learn that to live is not to judge. The only important thing is to cherish and embrace one another.

Myeongdong is not the only such place in Korea. Our past footsteps still remain in Busan, Tongyeong, Mokpo, Daegu and Incheon, as well.


*The writer is a professor of constitutional studies at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Chung Jong-sup
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