[Letters] Seoul’s relentless wave of demolition

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[Letters] Seoul’s relentless wave of demolition



Several years ago, after a trip to Kyobo Bookstore in Gwanghwamun, I took notice of a narrow alley for the first time.

I strolled into the lane to discover a succession of boisterous hole-in-the-wall establishments. Choosing one at random, I found myself sequestered at a small table with a dish of barbecued quail and a hefty cup of cheongju, Korean-style sake, which had been served with a blue flame burning upon the surface.

The proprietress, a sturdy, no-nonsense matron, dashed about the room dispatching orders and receiving new ones. Her business was so firmly established that she could afford to speak roughly to her customers. I took an instant liking to this gritty woman.

Looking about the room, I realized that I had never been in a place with so much character and atmosphere in Korea. I imagined that it might have been a pre-war building, though most likely it had been built just after the Korean War.

Over the next few years, whenever I was in Seoul, I made a point of returning to this eatery, most often ordering skewered scallops and barbecued quail.

The alley, I discovered, was named Pi-ma Gil, “secret street,” and it dated back to the Joseon Dynasty.

It was used by lower class citizens as a refuge whenever royalty passed down the main road (now Sejongno); if the commoners remained on the main boulevard, they would have to bow to the ministers and royalty, but in the secret alley they could enjoy a chat and a quick drink.

Not long ago I joked, half-seriously, that the day this restaurant was demolished would be the day that I leave South Korea. It served as a tangible, material link to the past in a time when so many of these lesser-valued links had already been demolished for the sake of apartment complexes and high rise office towers.

The last time I passed through Pi-ma Gil, the whole backside of the block had been leveled, though the alley itself was left standing and the restaurants were still packed.

I assumed that, as cultural heritage, the alley would be preserved.

But I learned otherwise this week. I was gazing out the window of a bus when I noticed that the alley had disappeared with the rest of the block. I must have been staring intensely because the woman sitting behind me turned to look as well.

South Korea is a nation that has thrived over the past few decades through the incredible adaptability of the Korean people.

In many areas, such as the adoption of new technologies, the country is a world leader. Particularly in the area of demolition and construction, though, one is forced to question the principle of constant, relentless change.

Blind change may come at the expense of cultural heritage.

While ancient royalty is represented through the many restored palaces and shrines in the downtown area, where are we to catch a glimpse of the heritage of the common people? What will be the effects of wiping out an entire slice of life?

Matthew C. Crawford, professor of Sungshin Women’s University
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