Monday, March 29, 2010

The Empress's Last Bang

Korea's last empress, Sunjeong-hyo (순정효황후), clearly didn't leave the same mark as her legendary predecessor Queen Min (Empress Myeongseong), a modern reformer murdered by the Japanese in 1895 because she would have resisted the annexation of Korea much more efficiently than her husband King Gojong.

Empress Sunjeong never actually ruled : Japan officially claimed the country in 1910*, and Syngman Rhee kept her away from the palace during his presidency, probably to make sure Korea was done with monarchy... or at least royalty. She came back to Changdeokgung in 1961, where she died in 1966. No Child Left Behind : her husband was not murdered, but - thank Japanese innovation for small mercies - enjoyed a chemically induced sterility and debility.

To me, Empress Sunjeong perfectly illustrates the way Korean royals vanished during the tragic limbo between the end of the Joseon area and the beginning of democracy, a period she crossed almost like a ghost haunting former symbols of power. Note that the last person who could claim the throne died a few years ago, a poor old man living off songs and charity.

If you visited Namsan Hanok Village, you have seen the reconstitution of the Yun family house where the girl who would become the last empress grew up. At least, you may think, the memory of this one is respected. Uh... not exactly.

The original house lies in 47 Ogin-dong, Jongno-gu, a site signaled among the few remaining landmarks of an area West of Gyeongbokgung recently preserved by Seoul Metropolitan Government - as we saw earlier ("Stop The Hanok Genocide... And Stop Revival As Reenactment"), over 600 hanoks will be saved from almost certain destruction around Chebu-dong.

But when Hankyoreh journalist Song Chae-gyeong (송채경) visited the old Yun house, he came back with an utterly depressing story**. And what to say of the picture of the ruin inhabited by six survivors of the clan in contrast with that of the pristine reconstitution*** ! Song interviewed the chairman of the cultural heritage committee, who also lamented about the ludicrous contradiction : a lot of money has been spent in a fake and the original abandoned to redevelopement.

I'm sure that exposing this kind of follies will help Seoul city in its recent crusade in favor of the preservation of old Seoul. Beyond the survival of this house, Song's article shall also contribute to a vital pedagogy : when they are not obsessed with short term profit, many hanok owners are simply unaware of the value of traditional houses, not to mention cultural landmarks.

Note that a hanok can be ruined without being destroyed, for instance by owners who just want to make a quick buck because they think old stuff is bad for business. Korean traditional houses can easily be camouflaged : the old tile roof replaced with plastic, the front hidden behind big boards advertising a restaurant or a shop, a red brick wall and voila.

In Seochon, West of the Gyeongbokgung, most of the 600 remaining hanoks don't look like hanoks anymore : actually, I live not far from there, I've passed by every single alley and cul-de-sac, I have maps and aerial pictures of the area, and I'm aware of the way traditional houses can be camouflaged... but last year I've been stunned by the number : I would have estimated it to 200, 300 tops (but there are plenty of more modern yet interesting houses too, like the ultimately cute blue bookstore Daeoseojeom / 대오서점).

OH Se-hoon is right to secure key areas in spite of the anger of owners' associations. He is right to sponsor the restoration of hanoks because maintaining an old house is very demanding, particularly for old owners who can't afford it. Europeans are familiar with the vision of old castles falling apart even if people keep inhabiting them, but in Europe restoration itself is a century-old tradition, there are incentives, associations, and support from local as well as national authorities for important assets. Furthermore, the population sympathizes with people who fight for preservation. In Korea ? You are considered a lunatic when you refuse redevelopment, or if keep a hanok where you can build a 3 story-villa.

Long time Seoulite and hanok-lover Peter E. Bartholomew actually sued Seoul city to stop a redevelopment based on biased reports. He won the case last year and saved from destruction many hanoks in Dongsomun-dong (Seongbuk-gu), only to face the ire of other owners. Other acts of resistance involve financial investment : Arumjigi****, a private association, has been preaching by example for almost a decade, renovating houses across the country, investing in a future richer from the past.

Koreans love history, but to a certain point. Last Friday, the country celebrated the centennial of the death of resistant Ahn Jung-geun. I bet than one hundred years from now, the descendants of Dongsomun-dong hanok owners will celebrate the victory of Bartholomew v. Caterpillar.
Seoul Village 2010

See also : "Stop The Hanok Genocide... And Stop Revival As Reenactment", other Seochon related posts, including "Baekundongcheon / Gwanghwamun-gil - A River Runs Through It".

* 100 years after the annexation of Korea by Japan, both countries are at last discussing about a common vision of history. But for the moment, the Korea-Japan Joint History Research Committee only managed to shoot the myth of Imna Japanese Headquarters (an outrageous invention to justify the annexation : Japan would have ruled over Korean kingdoms during the 4th century !).
** "
‘마지막 황후’ 뛰놀던 집 재개발로 헐리나" (Hankyoreh 20100329)
*** photographer : Park Jong-sik (박종식)

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