This is a long post with lots of links – there’s a lot going on in Hapjeong, people – so before we even get started we’re going to get lunch, OK? OK. And we’re going to go to Liz’s favorite sushi joint, Sushi Kimpura, right next to Tapkun (탭꾼) the dance studio where she takes tap classes. To get there, head out Exit 2 and swing a left at Jandari-ro (잔다리로) where it’ll be a block down on your left, just after the stoplight.
Kimpura is a small joint, just 15 bar seats and two small tables (plus three more outside when the weather’s nice), but it’s very inviting and quite popular, judging by the fact that it was full both times I’ve visited. A pair of automatic sake dispensers sits near the door, holding upturned bottles and keeping the sake at a constant 65 degrees Celsius. Five chefs work in an open kitchen and serve up the usual suspects: sushi, sashimi, hoe deopbap, udon, soba, and yakkisoba. I’m no connoisseur, but I’ve been quite pleased with both of my meals here and am especially a fan of the Sushi & Noodles for Lunch (초밥우동점심세트), which gets you a big bowl of udon, either four or six pieces of sushi (I can’t remember), a couple dumplings, and a couple rice balls, all for only 10,000 won.
OK, ready to go now.
Few areas in Seoul allow one the opportunity to see the city reshaping and reinterpreting itself as well as the Hapjeong neighborhood does. In particular, it offers a living timeline of the ways in which outside influences have been received by Koreans over the past two centuries, from the earliest Christians to the latest baristas.
A walk to the river from Exit 7 is a trip into the past. Follow the street directly above the Number 2 line, Yanghwajin-gil (양화진길), as it heads toward the river, and after a few blocks you’ll arrive at its end below a subway bridge, the sides of which are covered with abstractly Christian murals. Here, at the top of a wide set of wooden stairs, are the twin memorials of the Jeoldusan Martyr’s Shrine and Yanghwajin Foreigner’s Cemetery.
Alternatively, if you want a slightly more interesting stroll, decide to follow a random biker and make the walk one street east as we did, on Seongji-gil (성지길). Here you’ll see a medley of foreign imprints that may have seemed barely imaginable a century, let alone twenty years, ago: Western-style cafes, tart shops, a Vietnamese restaurant, even a bike shop selling that ne plus ultra of modern hipsterdom: the fixie. It’ll also take you past Star Empire Entertainment (스타제국), a record label, where, when we passed, a flock of about two-dozen teenage girls were waiting outside.
We walked up to one of them and, in a mix of pidgin English and pidgin Korean, pumped her for information:
Us: ‘Why? Who’s inside?’
Fangirl: ‘ZE:A. Idol group.’ (Korea’s first Jewish pop stars?)
Us: ‘How long did you wait?’
Fangirl: ‘Two hours.’
Us: ‘You come here every day?’
Fangirl: Confused silence. (I think we’ll take that as a yes.)
Unfortunately, for our day’s mission at least, ZE:A did not come out, and we left behind the studio, covered in magic marker graffiti professions of love for its employees, and continued along to our original destinations.
Constructed in 1967, the Martyr’s Shrine was built to commemorate the Pyong-in Persecution, which had occurred a hundred and one years earlier. That year, an incursion by a French warship reached Kanghwa Island. The powerful Heungseon Daewongun, regent of Joseon and father of then 13-year old King Gojong, blamed Catholics for this affront and ordered a wholesale massacre in response. Daewongun wanted to send a message, and the location was chosen for its proximity to the Yanghwa Ferry Crossing and its popularity with the public as a recreational spot. Over 8,000 Catholics were killed here.
Today these peaceful grounds on top of a bluff house a chapel, museum, and numerous monuments to Korean saints and martyrs. Mass was being celebrated inside the chapel when we visited, and we were surprised both by how full it was on a Saturday afternoon and by the fact that many of the women – in particular the older ones – were wearing lace veils over their head, an old-fashioned Catholic practice that neither of us, who were both raised Catholic, had ever seen before.
The museum displays a small collection of artifacts related to the history of Catholicism on the peninsula, including handwritten missives explaining church teachings and the Grammaire Coréenne, the first ever grammar textbook for foreigners. There are also examples of small porcelain bowls that were buried with the recently deceased, as grave stones were forbidden on the graves of martyrs.
Outside, the shrine’s central feature is a towering statue of Andrew Kim Taegon, the patron saint of Korea and first Korean-born Catholic priest. Beheaded in 1846 when he was only 25, Saint Andrew now stands watch over the memorial complex. A walking path with stone carvings of the Stations of the Cross horseshoes behind him, which some devotees were following, stopping to pray at each station. There was also a bank of red, blue, and yellow votive candles nearby, and we watched a young kid gaze at them for a long while, fascinated, before trying to blow some of them out. Fortunately, he was too short to be successful.
A short stroll west is the Yanghwajin Foreigners’ Cemetery, where a number of early expat residents are buried, including a large percentage of missionaries. In a rather ironic turn, it was King Gojong himself who, in 1890, designated this a site for foreign missionaries.
The cemetery sits on a small hill, and narrow footpaths run between gravestones, a number of which suffered damage during the Korean War. The graves vary, from simple stone slabs marked ‘Unknown’ to more prominent markers indicating significant figures in the foreign community’s past. Among these are the journalist and Korean independence advocate Homer Hulbert, whose tombstone famously reads ‘I would rather be buried in Korea than in Westminster Abbey,’ and Horace Grant Underwood, who founded Chosun Christian College, the precursor to Yonsei University.
Previous to hosting the cemetery, the site was also the location of a Joseon military base, established by King Yeongjo in 1754 to defend the river. Nothing remains, but part of the old base is marked out with what a plaque helpfully informs are ‘long-and-big stones.’
After leaving the cemetery we walked back up Seongji-gil to see if the girls were still waiting outside for ZE:A to emerge, two hours after we first passed. Almost all of them had left, but the girl we’d talked to and her two friends were still holding vigil. ‘No ZE:A?’ we asked. ‘No, not yet,’ Fangirl answered.
While the riverbank enshrines the past, the rest of the Hapjeong neighborhood is a case study in contemporary Seoul’s forward momentum and its significantly more welcoming attitudes toward foreign culture.
On the northwest corner of the station intersection an absolutely enormous and very un-Hongdae business-residential development is in the process of being erected, and just outside of Exit 3 is the Chai Gallery (자이갤러리), which you’ve no doubt noticed if you’ve ever passed by, as it’s one of the city’s more architecturally exciting buildings. We’d wondered for a long time exactly what it was, and now, casing the neighborhood, was a perfect chance to find out. We walked in, expectations high, and strode up to the bespoke man working at the reception desk. He explained that there was no art gallery, no exhibition space, nothing for public use. It was just a venue for the Chai construction company to exhibit model apartments and living spaces.
Really Chai? That’s the best you can do? You’ve got a stunning building in one of the city’s coolest neighborhoods and you can think of nothing better to do with the space than to turn it into a glorified showroom? How about an art gallery, or one featuring cutting-edge interior design, or an exhibition of green design expanding and improving upon the rather lackluster one in the garden outside? In any event, the gallery and the development next to the station are clear indications that the neighborhood is going to see big changes in the future and – for those of us who prize the area’s independent and idiosyncratic character – not all of them may be for the best.
The cosmopolitan trend evident on Seongji-gil is even more pronounced on Yanghwaro-6-gil (양화로6길), more commonly known simply as Café Street. Hang a right here after emerging from Exit 5 and you’ll find yourself on one of the coolest streets in the city. As the Hongdae neighborhood has become increasingly well-known and commercialized, its most interesting and idiosyncratic places have migrated toward its edges, including the area around Hapjeong, though judging by the developments occurring on the main intersection this neighborhood may not stay under the radar for long.
After you pass a rather uninspired mural wall – unimaginative copies of well-known works by Picasso, Warhol,
and Keith Haring – you’ll see that, as the name would suggest, Café Streethosts an abundance of cafes. You won’t find any of the big chains here, though; every shop is independent and unique. As far as caffeine goes, you’re spoiled for choice. We picked one more or less at random and popped into the tiny, second floor Jeulgeowoon Book / Café (즐거운북카페) where Swedish shoegazer pop, shelves full of books, and phenomenally moist brownies are the perfect pairings to their quality coffee. In warmer months a small outdoor patio offers a chance to people-watch.
There’s more to Café Streetthan just cafes, though; it’s lined with small galleries, salons, and one-of-a-kind boutiques. You’ll also find the artisanal bakery October, which bakes bread as good as you’ll find anywhere in the city. We noticed it on our visit but didn’t go in, and were oblivious to its quality until served up some of its bread the next week at a party hosted by our good friend and TBS eFM host John Lee. ‘This is some satisfying bread whether it’s dipped in a stew, chomped as a bruschetta or enjoyed solo,’ he said. ‘I particularly like the sourdough baguette as it has the right amount of crunch and chewiness.’ Preach.
Where Café Street meets Parking Street sits Rolling Hall (롤링홀), a very good venue for live music, and a large gray building called In the Paper (인더페이퍼).
Outside influences, from Catholicism to espresso, have by now been fully absorbed into contemporary Korea. But it’s not just foreign culture that’s finding outlets for expression in Hapjeong. The country has a venerable tradition of papermaking – most notably using mulberry bark to create hanji – and here this craft gets a modern makeover.
In the basement is a gallery where, when we visited, there was an exhibition of calligraphy by 강병인, who had written messages composed by various celebrities – from Nichkhun of 2 PM to punk band Crying Nut – which were then being sold as a fundraiser for The Beautiful Store, a wonderful organization we strongly recommend you check out.
Upper floors house a café (of course), studios, and shops, where you can buy both sheets of paper in practically any color imaginable as well as a variety of paper-based products.
There is also a design school, where new and creative takes are given on an ancient craft.
Left at Jandari-ro (잔다리로)
Jeoldusan Martyr’s Shrine and Yanghwajin Foreigners’ Cemetery
South on Yanghwajin-ro
Martyr’s Shrine – www.jeoldusan.or.kr, 02-3142-4434
Museum Hours: 9:30 – 17:00, Closed Mondays
Foreigners’ Cemetery – www.yanghwajin.net, 02-332-9174
Visiting Hours: 10:00 – 17:00, Closed Sundays
Chai Gallery (자이갤러리)
Hapjeong Café Street
Right on Yanghwaro-6-gil
Jeulgeowoon Book Café (즐거운Book Café) – 02-6081-4770
October Artisan Boulangerie – 02-322-7882
Rolling Hall (롤링홀) – www.rollinghall.co.kr, 02-325-6071
In the Paper – www.inthepaper.co.kr, 02-3144-3181
Parts of this post first appeared in the April 2011 issue of SEOUL magazine.