As we’ve traipsed all about Seoul in the course of this project, one of the things that’s struck me most, that I was totally wrong about before we began, is how many waterways there are. Seoul will never be confused with Bangkok or Venice, but if you walk around or simply take a good look at a map, you’ll notice all the streams that crisscross the capital, adding a fluid dimension to this solid city.
Apart from the obvious, the Han, the one that springs most readily to mind is the Cheonggye Stream (청계천), a narrow ribbon that, to a remarkable degree, seems to run not just through the city’s northern half, but through her modern history, serving as a barometer of what Seoul was and what it’s wanted to be. Once a pristine creek, the destitution of the postwar years turned it into an open-air sewer, as the refuse and excretions of a burlap and tin population seeped into the waters from the scrap and shamble shacks piled up along its banks. Breakneck modernization and neckbreak dictatorships brought eviction notices and orders to drain the water and erect a flyway, as livelihoods and livability were sacrificed for the need to build a country, no questions asked. By the mid-2000s, thanks to past sacrifices, no one could doubt that Korea had made it, and when the country finally took its foot off the gas and looked around it realized that the way forward meant undoing some of the past. Authoritarian governments had been replaced with democracy, popular culture continued to wax like an ever-inflating moon, green and design were ubiquitous buzzwords, and the very same man, Lee Myung-Bak, who filled it in ordered that the highway be dismantled and the Cheonggye-cheon restored. And what the city has now is a waterway whose characteristics couldn’t be more modern Korean: an artificially engineered version of something natural, a second chance that came about through trial and error and sheer force of will, and that, in spite of everything it’s been through, has become one of the best, most loved things about the city.
We’ve been all up and down the length of the Cheonggye in the course of this project, but to get to know the stream and its history there probably isn’t a better place than the stretch near Yongdu Station. Here you’ll find aspects of both the highly designed western end and the more natural eastern end, as well as a stream-related exhibition and the Cheong Gye Cheon Museum (청계천문화관).
The Cheonggye Stream (청계천) is just a short walk south from either Exit 4 or 5, part of it situated below a flyover that curves around high above. Walking paths and bunches of reeds line either bank, and for anyone whose only experience with the stream is the touristy end near City Hall, its unfussiness and the extent to which it’s localized at this point may come as a bit of a shock. Just to the west the even smaller Jeongneung Stream (정릉천) empties into the Cheonggye, forming an apparently popular meeting spot for the local duck population. I counted at least six.
Cross to the stream’s south bank, and just a few steps to your right is the Cheonggye Stream Shack (청계천판잣집), a model of the wooden shacks that the area’s poor lived in in the 1960s and 70s. The first thing you’ll likely notice, and there’s no point trying to pretend otherwise, is that the Shack does not capture the squalor of the actual river shacks at all. The real stream neighborhoods, as any photograph will attest, were little better than refugee camps, comparable to any slums you’d see in contemporary Lagos or Mumbai. Instead it’s a purely Rockwellian version that will leave you not gaping at the awfulness of postwar Korean life and awestruck by the country’s progress, but, as I was, dreaming about throwing out your phone and laptop and moving into one of these rustically romantic huts with nothing but a typewriter and fully stocked library.
That said, the shack is still a fun, interesting, and, yes, even educational place to visit. Composed of unvarnished wooden boards, it’s the only place I know of in Seoul where you’re able to walk through a recreation of this part of the city’s history, and the attention to detail is impressive. Old movie posters (바보 (The Idiot) and 저 하늘에도 슬픔이 (There’s Sadness Also in the Sky)) advertise the era’s silver screen offerings, wooden carts are propped up against the wall underneath old-fashioned, hand-painted wooden shop signs, and there’s even a government notice (on aged yellow paper) tacked up encouraging citizens to eat other grains and more flour due to a rice shortage.
The shack condenses a charcoal briquette store, comic book shop, grocery, public water works, and school room into a rather small space, which left me with the feeling that I was walking through a Fisher Price play set come to life, and the heavy coating of nostalgia and myriad knickknacks on show put the finishing touches on the feeling that the step back in time was not so much to the Seoul of forty years ago, but to some alternative version of my own childhood.
Inside you can indulge the feeling. There are old-fashioned school uniforms you can put on if you want to sel-ca yourself as a ‘60s school kid (in the days before you could sel-ca), and dated equipment and toys. It’s tempting, but the sign that says ‘Please don’t take stuff,’ reminds you better. These items are found in the 전시-체험관 (Display Experience Center), the first room you step into, followed by the 공부방 (study room), where a low study desk with books and pencils is accompanied by tin bowls and pots on a heater. A stack of newspapers sits at the base of one wall, photos of Park Chung-hee (박정희) and Kim Il-sung (김일성) gracing page one.
In the 구멍가게 (corner shop) some things provided a rare sense of continuity – Samyang ramen, OB beer – but most reinforced the wide gap between then and now – Crown beer, wooden toy guns, chintzy plastic toys that today’s kids wouldn’t know what to do with. The next room, the 만화방 (comics shop), had shelves lined with faded copies of old comics and, on a table, several women’s magazines for mothers to peruse while Junior checked out his favorite superhero’s exploits. The last room is the 추억의 교실 (Memory Classroom) where some old bags and textbooks sat around (some not old enough to fit with the rest of the things in the Shack) along with award certificates, lunchboxes, and class photos.
A stone’s toss west of the Shack is a point in the stream billed the ‘Wall of Propose’ (청혼의벽), a rather tacky little spot ostensibly targeted at couples that’s best avoided, particularly if you have any inclination of actually proposing. There’s a big metal heart sculpture on the wall, hearts on the bridge, heart-shaped seats by the stream, and three hearts saying ‘Love in Seoul’ attached to the bridge’s central pillar.
On the south bank a park bench has been transformed into an impossibly cheesy gold carriage where couples can get their photos taken, provided that an obliging passerby can keep his gag reflex in check long enough to click the shutter. Meanwhile, on the north side of the stream you’ll also find a lock wall where you could take part in the by now rather clichéd ritual of attaching a padlock together with your partner to signify your unbreakable bond. The one here was rather sparsely used, making it seem a bit forlorn. I did like, however, the couple that had chosen to express their love in the form of industrial size locks bearing the Cass beer logo.
Across the street from the Shack you can fully immerse yourself in the stream’s history at the Cheong Gye Cheon Museum (청계천문화관), easily recognizable by the long glass wall imitating the stream’s watercourse that runs the length of its façade. Also on the building’s exterior are two enormous panoramic photos that show the capital city in 1929 and 2009, the encircling mountains being just about the only thing convincing you it’s the same city.
The first part of the museum focuses on the postwar Cheonggyecheon, particularly the restoration project that began in 2003, and if it comes off a mite bit pleased with itself it’s not without good reason. Restoration required two years, the removal of 5.4 kilometers of covering road and 5.9 of expressway, 16.8 kilometers of sewer maintenance, and the construction of 22 bridges, resulting in 10.9 kilometers of waterway being excavated. Yes, that’s 39 kilometers of work that could have been avoided, but let’s not get too cynical; the end result is pretty marvelous. Displays chart the stream’s degradation, covering, and restoration before moving on to a section that highlights the Cheonggye’s flora and fauna.
Downstairs holds what I found to be the most interesting part of the museum, an informative look at the stream’s history and its relation to the city and its people, from the time that Seoul was founded (as Hanyang (한양)) to its temporary elimination. Maps from the 17th to 19th centuries are on display, along with models of the five major bridges that crossed the water during the Joseon Dynasty. The issue of how to use the stream has been a perpetual dilemma, stretching from when Joseon monarchs declared, much to the objection of feng shui experts who feared it would damage the city’s chi, that an increasing population necessitated it be made available for waste disposal, to the postwar years when factories that re-dyed military supplies and uniforms for civilian use set up shop on its banks, curdling its waters into a sludge of dark gray muck.
Although it’s the neighborhood’s dominant feature, the Cheonggye Stream isn’t all the neighborhood holds, nor is it even the only stream in the area. As I mentioned before, you can also find the lower reaches of the Jeongneung Stream (정릉천) and the Jeongneung Stream Levee Park (정릉천제방공원) here, a short walk past the new 20-story apartment towers outside Exit 1.
This little stream was still and half-frozen when I visited, a scrim of ice on its surface in some places, the water more like slush in others, and here too were a couple of ducks paddling about in a section where there was still open water. Stepping stones ran across the stream and bike and walking paths ran alongside, all in the partial shadow of an overhead flyover. Never very wide, the further north I walked the less water there was and the more sandbars appeared, until it was just a thin ribbon as I neared Jegi-dong Station (제기동역). It was around there, underneath a bridge, where I watched an old man climb down the banks and, in a very generous interpretation, engage with the stream in a way that recalled its more humble past. To put it more bluntly, he urinated in it. Stay classy, ajeosshi, stay classy.
Lastly, if you come out Exit 4 en route to the Cheonggye, you’ll find yourself in the triangular plot that is Yongdu Park (용두공원), a compact but very pleasant little oasis between major roads. There’s an outdoor stage and a pair of fountains linked by a stone channel, though these were both turned off for the winter. Stone pillars inscribed with poems flanked a walkway, and in a whimsical touch there was a wall of ceramic tiles with children’s handprints and convex mirrors like halved pinballs jutting out, offering a skewed reflection of the surroundings. A trio of old men were making use of the exercise equipment, while nearby a much younger version had somehow found the space to play a bit of baseball. It struck me as mildly ironic, this scene: the old men, who had grown up when the neighborhood was little more than an improvised slum, utilizing the benefits of a modern society wealthy enough to spend money on things like public exercise equipment, and the young kids, who have known nothing but prosperity, fashioning their entertainment out of nothing more than a bat and ball and some improvised space.
Cheonggye Stream (청계천)
Exit 4 or 5
South on Gosanja-ro (고산자로)
Cheonggye Stream Shack (청계천판잣집)
South on Gosanja-ro (고산자로), right after crossing the stream
Hours Tue – Thu, Sun 10:00 – 19:00, Fri – Sat 10:00 – 20:00, Closed Mondays
‘Wall of Propose’ (청혼의벽)
South on Gosanja-ro (고산자로), right after crossing the stream
Cheong Gye Cheon Museum (청계천문화관)
South on Gosanja-ro (고산자로)
Hours March – October: Tue – Fri 9:00 – 21:00, Sat – Sun, Holidays 9:00 – 19:00; November – February: Tue – Fri 9:00 – 21:00, Sat – Sun 9:00 – 18:00; Closed Mondays and New Year’s Day
Jeongneung Stream (정릉천) and Jeongneung Stream Levee Park (정릉천제방공원)
Yongdu Park (용두공원)