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Gamcheon: Busan’s Cultural Village

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Busan is one of six metropolitan cities in South Korea, and the second largest after Seoul. It has the most important port in the country, as well as being the headquarters of the South Korean Stock Exchange[1]. The city underwent a complete transformation during the 20th century, first with the arrival of refugees from the Korean War, and then as it became a reference for the accelerated economic development of the country. Therefore, Busan could be defined as the place that reflects the encounter between the modern and ancient history of South Korea. On the one hand, it is possible to see large, modern buildings that form a cityscape comparable to major metropolises such as New York or Dubai. On the other hand, there are places like Gamcheon, whose essence reminds you of the long road South Korea has had to travel to become the world power it is today.

Gamcheon Village is a village located in Gamcheon-dong, Saha District, Busan, South Korea. It was built between the 1920s and 1930s, with the aim of relocating Busan’s poorer population to an area away from the port, yet close enough to provide them with the necessary labor force. At that time, Gamcheon was just a suburb of Busan, but since the 1950s, more precisely since 1955, in the midst of the post-war recovery, some 800 refugee families belonging to the ascetic religious community known as Taegeukdo[2] settled in the village and began to farm the mountainous region to earn a living. This contributed to the growth of the place, and gave it the name “Taegeukdo Village” or “Taegeukdo Faith Village” because of the people who lived there.

In 1957, neighbors agreed on two basic principles to promote their own urban planning: all roads should be connected and the view of the back house should not be blocked. As a result, Gamcheon became a place full of terraced houses, stepped streets and maze-like alleys leading everywhere from Oknyeobong Peak to Cheonmasan Mountain. This gave Gamcheon the basis of its distinctive panorama, for which the place is now nicknamed the Machu Picchu of Korea and the Santorini of Korea. Likewise, the village has also been called “Train House Quarter” because the houses lining the border look like connected trains, and “Block Village” or “Lego Village” because its current colorful landscape seems to have been built with these toy blocks.

However, by the 1970s there were only wooden houses in the area, and while by the late 1980s and early 1990s, families began to build two-story houses, the village still faced poverty and poor living conditions. Moreover, after the death of the founder of Taegeukdo, from the 20,000 people who inhabited the area by the 1980s, the population was reduced by more than a half as descendants began to leave. The situation continued in the same way until the 2000s, by which time Gamcheon was still only an underdeveloped village inhabited by the lowest income earners in Busan. Nevertheless, due to the rise of tourism during this time, the local government and the private sector decided to join forces to undertake a cultural project in Gamcheon, transforming it from an impoverished area to Busan’s major tourist attraction.

In 2009, “Dreaming Busan’s Machu Picchu” was selected as the winning project in the “Village Art Project Competition” held by the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. The project proposed to carry out an artistic renovation, based on a collective public effort, to create creative spaces that would turn Gamcheon into a cultural center. Art students, professional artists and residents were invited to repair and decorate the streets of Gamcheon with murals and art installations. The sector’s infrastructure was also painted in bright colors, restored and upgraded to accommodate commercial spaces, such as souvenir stores and cafes, and museums that would not only house art, but also tell the story of Gamcheon.

Gamcheon Culture Village

Taken from: https://unsplash.com/es/fotos/5ITi3WdzZ8Y

Since the start of this renovation initiative in 2009, tourism in Gamcheon has increased considerably, reaching nearly 1.4 million visitors by 2015. While some residents have participated in the efforts to transform the place and attract more tourism, others have opted to move out, despite the difficulties in selling their homes, so that about 300 local houses have remained empty in recent years. Even so, the project has not stopped, and has included among its goals the conversion of these abandoned houses into art galleries, museums, workshops and stores that can further activate the local economy. This is how 5 empty houses are currently being used as art spaces by theme: the House of Peace, the House of Light, the Book Café, the House of Darkness and the Photo Gallery.

Naturally, the ongoing transformation of the village spaces has increased the number of experiences and attractions that visitors can access. These include artists’ workshops where tourists can create their own souvenir to take home, and art installations, including bird sculptures, playful installations based on Murakami’s works, the famous Little Prince scene where tourists can have their photos taken, and works such as “Fish in the Alley,” designed to decorate the alleyways.

The Little Prince and the Desert Fox

Taken from: https://pixabay.com/photos/busan-korea-republic-of-korea-7233823/

Note: “The Little Prince and the Desert Fox” beautifully depicts a scene in which the Little Prince came to Earth to meet the Desert Fox, and after a long journey, they both decide to sit on the railing of “Gamcheon Culture Village” to rest for a while.

Add to the artistic experience the nighttime view of the city from Gamcheon, and the village becomes the ideal place to spend an entire day. In the evening, tourists can enjoy food and drink at places like Green House, a café that doubles as an art gallery where abstract works embodying the experimental spirit of artist Young-chan Ahn (CEO of the Busan Art Association) can be appreciated. It is also recommended to visit the Fun Mong Gallery, run by writer Oh Sang-yeol, famous for introducing a new type of “Pun Touch” design calligraphy to Hangeul, with the aim of “liberating” it from its horizontal and gridded form of writing.

Thanks to the cultural transformation in everyday living spaces, Gamcheon has been reborn to officially become “Gamcheon Culture Village,” the most colorful and artistic place in Busan. The beautiful harmony of narrow alleys and old houses, as well as cute cafes and workshops full of personality have attracted both domestic and international attention, making “Gamcheon Culture Village” one of the city’s most prominent tourist attractions. While Gamcheon used to be a place that harbored the deepest ravages of the Korean War, today it serves as a cultural tourism center, visited by nearly 2 million people each year, while preserving Busan’s history. In that sense, the village is a place where history, landscape and art converge to turn Busan’s painful traces into beautiful memories that resonate in the hearts of its visitors.

 

[1] The only operational stock market in South Korea.

[2] A branch of Jeungsanism, a religion that professes reincarnation and the personification of blood by means of a universal message, millenarianism and a method of healing based on meditation.

 

Written by: Luisa Quintero

Reviewed by: Andrea Ramírez

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