For a number of years, I looked on Google Maps, after it existed, for my former institute and residence in Seoul. I could never see anything up close on any maps. I discovered eventually, only less than a year ago, that Koreans have their own unique version of Google Maps called Naver Maps. Websites I had found said that English-speaking people were frustrated because Google Maps could not show Korea up close and that the alternate, Naver Maps, was completely in Korean and difficult to use. I looked up Naver Maps and they must have been diligently working on the English because there was lots of English and it was so much better than Google Maps. You can go down many streets in the 360-degree-view area anywhere you want and it’s just like you’re there. You can travel far in all the scenes in this 3D virtual reality, and you can go much, much further than you can in Google maps. When I realised this it was very exciting to me.
I looked at my neighbourhood in Songpa Gu and I had to stare a long time and compare it with my old photographs until I could see that, yes, this was really it. Things do not change that much so quickly in Canada. They have redone most buildings, changing the colours and windows on them. In many residential areas of Seoul, and Karak-dong is no exception, they have taken away the bottom floors of short dwellings and put open ‘garages’ there instead, for parking their vehicles. So in most neighbourhoods now they drive into a spot in the bottom of their building, where the first floor used to be, to park. Also, these new windows and garages are very ugly.
In my photograph above, you can see the dwellings are a nice brick colour with some ceramic tiles in spots for decoration. Now, all the residential buildings in the whole area are mostly painted white with unattractive ‘new’ black windows and the ground floors have been gutted and replaced with open ‘garages’ for parking cars. The decorative tiles are gone. It’s not simply Karak-dong now either. It’s separated into GarakBon-dong and Garak-1-dong and Garak-2-dong.
Of course, more elaborate, taller, glass office buildings have been built throughout Seoul everywhere and countless nicer, taller apartment complexes have been made. There are many ‘green’ spaces fit in along roads and highways and there are a lot more parks in general. Even the pavement on the streets looks ‘newer’ and is actually coloured in some areas. Most of Seoul is now too different for me and doesn’t have the same personality, though. The Korean government does not believe in preserving what has been somewhere for just 25 years and wants everything modernised and even sensationalized all the time. This idea has been worked right into their society’s consciousness since the 1970’s. Back then, a former president, Park Chun Hee, who some say was a dictator, made all of the Koreans tear down their traditional thatched-roof dwellings. This post-war crusade was a national cleansing of “the old”. I do feel President Park went way overboard and the people did not have to keep “renewing” everything forever, but they seem to be.
I think the Korean War traumatized them so much that they think and feel differently than any other society would. They only opened up their borders to let eachother out of the country or let foreigners in, in 1970, so this alone made them insular and even behind in a few ways. I love and admire their innovations and advancements but in the west, people preserve most old buildings and have them as great tourist attractions. We like old items and sell and buy ‘vintage’ clothes and books. That’s why I miss all of the older buildings and areas in Seoul… but maybe it’s just sentimentality. Perhaps because they lost so much during foreign invasions and takeovers and in the Korean war, the Korean people do not feel sentimental about things like North Americans do.
So the busy area in the picture at the start of this blog still has older, shorter buildings. These shorter dwellings have probably been newly painted, but the up-to-date, very tall structures in the photograph weren’t there before. I wonder all the time if they tore down the existing buildings to put these newer, taller, elaborate ones everywhere? Because when I was in Seoul, it already had what I thought were special establishments in all of these spots…. Most state-of-the-art edifices in Korea have those funny round pieces sticking up on the tops of them too, I’ve noticed, and I can’t figure out what these round roof protusions are for.
There are currently more architecturally unique, distinctive buildings in Seoul like the one below. They had special, distinct buildings that had striking, interesting designs when I was there in the late 90’s also.
When my husband visited in January 1998, he couldn’t believe, like me, how there could be so, so many tall cranes everywhere, where new buildings were springing up. South Korea had just gotten a huge bailout from the IMF, and their ecomomy was, we thought, in severe peril. I remember my husband asking Sail about it, and Sail said it was fine. And it was! They paid back the IMF a year or 2 after the bailout. I remember when the government asked the Korean people to turn in their gold from home to help with the ‘crash’ and foreign economists said that was a bad idea…
The 2 pictures above involving the Han River show the differences between Seoul in 1997 and Seoul in 2020. People could go on a river cruise years ago and see some of Seoul, which was fantastic enough, I thought. But today, people can look at ‘coloured’ water spraying out of the sides of one of the bridges crossing the Han River at night. There is a ‘green’ walkway in side parks all along this river now and many people sail boats or waterski on the water. No boats were on the river when I was there, and now the people are thrilled with boat recreation, it seems. Some things have been new to them only recently and they are incorporating them into their culture, like recreational boating and even eating cheese!
DeoksuGung Palace(above) has 2 imperial, western-style buildings on its grounds. During one of the times when the Japanese ruled after one of their takeovers, the Japanese Army built them. These European-style buildings house museums now. Most of the tall edifices surrounding the palace are new and have replaced the office buildings that were already there in 1997. The fascinating mountain, on the top left, InWangSan, was always there. Most of my days in Seoul were spent marvelling at the clear blue sky like it is shown in this photo, and I understand why an old saying or greeting in Korea is “The sky is high today!”. Everything seemed so much bigger and grander in Korea than I had experienced in Canada.
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