Gunsan giving new life to the city’s colonial-era architecture

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Gunsan giving new life to the city’s colonial-era architecture

GUNSAN - This coastal city rich in tradition and history has recently completed work on the grand exterior of a new history museum that officials say will showcase its bountiful collection of colonial-era architecture.

The 10 billion won ($9 million) Gunsan Modern History Museum project is part of the city’s ambitious plan to rebuild its historic central zone and transform its weathered homes, offices and storefronts into places of art and culture.

The project brings together the national government, the city of Gunsan and North Jeolla province - where Gunsan is located - to create an “arts and creativity belt” using Gunsan’s rich collection of early 20th century buildings.

With beautiful modern lines of copper, glass and ceramics, the museum’s massive structure artistically joins the land, sky and sea of this strategic port city, creating a new skyline. The museum is scheduled for a partial opening in May and a full opening in August.

Ostensibly, Gunsan looks like many of Korea’s other port cities, but walk its streets and you can witness the strong legacy of Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, especially in architecture.

While Koreans destroyed many examples of Japanese colonial architecture by the mid-1990s, including the Japanese Governor General Building in downtown Seoul, stately imperial offices and quaint Japanese-style wooden homes still dot the streets of Gunsan.

Such structures mask a more complicated and painful past, according to local historians. During the colonial period, Japan used Gunsan as one of its main bases to pillage rice, the staple food for its people.

“Gunsan was the first city below the Han River [in Seoul] to experience the March 1, 1919 Independence Movement,” said Gunsan tour guide Won Young-geum. “There was a school for Koreans here before there was one for the Japanese. Gunsan people have always had a high level of consciousness.”

Koreans take great pride in the 1919 uprising against Japanese rule. And although the revolt was short-lived, with thousands executed or thrown into jail, the day is honored today as a major national holiday.

With the Japanese occupation, Gunsan transformed from a small fishing village in 1899 into a bustling port city of commerce and trade with electricity, running water, schools, banks and other modern conveniences.

Settlers from Japan flocked to the city, establishing colonial-style plantations with land cultivated by countless Korean tenant farmers, the brutal exploitation of whom produced resentment and tensions that would outlast the colonial occupation.

Most visitors to Gunsan begin their tour of its history at the Old Gunsan Customs House, a brick building built in an eclectic mix of medieval European styles located on the old waterfront, near which many of Gunsan’s historical remnants stand.

Built in 1908 with money from the Korean Empire’s finance ministry, the structure must have been quite expensive for its day, with bricks imported from Belgium and an entrance of granite.

Cutting a dramatic contrast with the Gunsan Modern History Museum, which is just next door, the Old Customs House is picturesque, but like many of Gunsan’s historic sites, it’s a beauty mixed with grief.

“From 1910, when the Japanese annexed Korea, to 1945, when Korea was liberated, the Customs House was the window through which the Japanese plundered rice from the Jeolla and Chungcheong regions, and the building contains that sorrow,” explained Koh Ha-young, who showed visitors around the Old Customs House.

Located nearby are several old bank buildings, including the imposing Old Bank of Choson (built in 1923), once the largest building outside of Seoul, whose roof is said by some to resemble a samurai’s helmet.

Although fire and neglect plagued its recent history, it is now undergoing restoration as part of a recent effort by Gunsan to restore its historical sites to their former glory.

One of Gunsan’s most impressive colonial buildings, and certainly one of its most beautiful, is the remarkable Dongguk Temple in Geumgwang-dong.

Founded in 1909 by a Japanese monk named Uchida and moved to its current location in 1913, it is an almost perfectly preserved Japanese Buddhist temple built in the Edo style.

At the height of the Japanese colonial period, there were more than 500 Japanese temples in Korea. But this is one of only a handful that remain, and the only one still used as a Buddhist temple, albeit by Korea’s Jogye Order, which took over the temple following Korea’s liberation from colonial rule.

The temple’s Japanese corridors and doors, and straight lines and right angles are a dramatic contrast to traditional Korean aesthetics.

Not all is Japanese, however. At the front of the main hall is a very Korean Buddha, crafted in the 17th century by the Ven. Byeokam, a Korean monk who, ironically enough, had served as a monk-soldier against the Japanese during the Imjin War (1592-1598).

Ven. Jonggeol, who resides at the temple, has conducted much research on its history and is very keen on the temple’s preservation.

“A people who are ignorant of their history and culture will be subjected to foreign occupation,” he says. “This place teaches future generations that. And as a man of religion, this place shows that a temple is a temple: in Korea, Japan, India and elsewhere, the Buddha is the same.”

A short walk from Dongguk Temple, through a neighborhood of old Japanese single-story and double-story homes, brings you to another Gunsan gem, the Hirotsu House, an old, wooden Japanese Edo-style yashiki (mansion) built by a Japanese man who grew wealthy as a dry-goods merchant, a rarity in Gunsan where wealth was made from the land and rice.

From the long corridors to the straight Japanese wood lines, it is, for the most part, a model of Japanese residential architecture.

Noting the prominent smokestack behind the house, Won explains, “The second floor uses tatami mats, but the first floor uses the Korean heating system of ondol. The house might be Japanese, but it was adapted to suit Korean climactic conditions.”

Baek Gyu-beom, who is taking care of the place while it undergoes restoration, says it gets its share of visitors, especially Japanese researchers, as many houses of this kind were destroyed in World War II.

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