No, that’s not a typo. Nor is it Engrish. For a long time I hadn’t even noticed the anomaly in Ewha Womans University’s name; then, when I did, it rankled my English-major sensibilities. This was the university that produced South Korea’s first female Constitutional Court justice, its first female prime minister, that was one of the country’s foremost institutions of higher learning and they couldn’t get a simple plural right?
Well, turns out that it’s supposed to be that way. The university’s founder, American missionary Mary F. Scranton, to emphasize that each student was unique and worthy of respect, chose to pluralize ‘woman’ by adding an s, rather than changing the vowel, thus avoiding grouping all students under what she viewed the more collective ‘women.’ In a society that places so much emphasis on the collective, it’s an interesting acknowledgement of the importance of individuality at time in one’s life when that quality is essential. Though it still doesn’t resolve the problem of the missing possessive.
The school that would become Ewha Womans University (이화여자대학교) was founded in 1886 and a year later was christened Ewha Hakdang (이화학당), meaning ‘Pear Blossom Academy,’ by Emperor Gojong. College courses started in 1910, and after liberation from Japan Ewha was granted full-fledged status as a university. It is now the world’s largest women’s university and the alma mater of many prominent Korean women.
The university, known colloquially simply as Edae (이대), is a five-minute walk from Exit 2 or 3 down Ewha Yeo-dae-gil (이화여대길), a narrow road lined with stores catering to the Four Necessities of the Co-ed Life: snacks, coffee, accessories, and assorted cuteness.
Beginning almost immediately outside of Exit 2 is a succession of street stalls that stretches all the way to the university gate, offering sausages and saju readings, takoyaki and silver earrings, tteokbokki and other things. Practically no two are the same. Cosmetic shops and shoe stores are well represented, and there are a fair number of tech shops and places selling the sorts of things that for a brief period in one’s early twenties get shifted from the Why? to the Must Have!!!! column: puffy photo frames, checkered lamps, plastic duckies in fleece hoodies. Restaurants in the area trend toward the kinds of places that sell themselves on an air of girlish sophistication and class, where the act of going there is more the point than eating. Which is not to say that Edae girls won’t chow down on bossam and sundae, because there are those places too, the absence of squeamishness about foods not being ‘ladylike’ a trait of Korean women that I very much admire. Bakeries selling things like tarts and cakes are popular, and this may be the one place in the entire country where the slogan hung on the local branch of Mr. Pizza actually makes some sense. Edae, too, could arguably be credited as the wellspring of the country’s relatively recent coffee obsession, as it was here, on the main drag, that Korea’s first Starbucks was opened. It’s still there, but now it seems as if you can’t throw a rock in the neighborhood without hitting a café.
The side streets, particularly to the west, via Exit 1 or 2, are where you’ll find most of the area’s renowned fashion and accessories shopping. It’s not quite the mecca it was back in the day, before internet shopping and international fast fashion chains like Zara and H&M set up shop on the peninsula, but it’s still a bustling, popular place to snag the newest threads at student-friendly prices. The shops and stalls form a U around the huge apM building, their clothes running the line from freshman to senior, which is to say from fun and funky to young, job-seeking professional. Imported Americana, like Abercrombie & Fitch and Aeropostale, is popular, and when you need to put the finishing touches on an outfit the alley stalls and carts can fit you out with things like socks and stockings, the latter usually arranged on two dozen disembodied plastic legs that stick up like a plaster mold of the Rockettes at work. The amount of accessories on offer can only be described as a Frenchwoman’s nightmare.
Sprinkled among all the apparel are your basic collegiate Good Time necessaries: noraebangs, clubs, fortune tellers, and photo booths. There are love motels too, but don’t worry, parents reading this. We didn’t see your daughter go in any of those. Perhaps most exotically there are even some men’s clothing shops tucked in amongst everything, so the male study abroad students who attend Edae, as if they weren’t lucky enough already, can pick up shirts and pants here as well. Or, more likely, girls can shop for their boyfriends.
Underneath the constant blare of upbeat Korean and American pop, I noticed a fair bit of Chinese being spoken as I walked around the neighborhood. This continued when I arrived at the university proper, after passing the man selling packages of bananas from cardboard boxes by the front gate, where perhaps a handful of exchange students or prospective exchange students from across the Yellow Sea were touring the campus with parents and posing for pictures.
And Edae is a good place for being an exchange student posing for pictures. Its campus is one of the prettiest in Korea (which partly goes hand in hand with being one of the oldest), populated with many handsome gray stone buildings, ivy climbing up their sides. The first of these such buildings that a visitor notices is the Welch-Ryang Auditorium (대강당), directly up a long flight of stairs and looming over the entrance plaza. Another notable building is Pfeiffer Hall (본관, or just ‘main hall’ in Korean, sparing everyone the trauma of those multiple f’s), a dignified four-story structure with peaked gables and a copper green roof. Just to the left is a statue of Dr. Helen Kim, Korea’s first woman to receive a doctorate. She later went on to become the school’s first Korean president. Pfeiffer Hall is the anchor of the upper campus, an especially pretty section of more stone buildings, a hanok, and many trees – a veritable oasis from the busyness below.
Connecting the main plaza to the upper campus is the university’s most distinguishing feature: an elegant gash in the earth called the Ewha Campus Complex. Designed by the renowned French architect Dominique Perrault, the ECC looks a bit like the half excavated carcass of a crash-landed alien cargo ship. From the main plaza, a wide, gentle slope descends between walls of glass and steel ribs before leveling out and then ascending again, this time more abruptly, up a long flight of steps to Pfeiffer Hall. It’s a beautiful structure, both in the day and at night, and gives one the pleasingly bipolar feeling of being simultaneously underground and outside.
Its ingenuity extends inside as well, as the design lets plentiful natural light into rooms that would otherwise be in a basement or taking up valuable real estate elsewhere, the shops, classrooms, study rooms, reading rooms, lounges, and cafes that occupy the ECC being the beneficiaries. Even if you’re not an Edae student or are indifferent to architecture, there’s still an excellent reason to stop by the ECC, and that’s Arthouse Momo (아트하우스 모모), a two-screen cinema that’s one of the best places in the city to catch independent and foreign films. For those who pine for a ‘purer’ cinema experience, one where androgynous workers dressed in black check your tickets and there’s no snack bar, this is it. (You can, naturally, grab a latte at the adjacent café, though.)
Leaving campus I hung a right once outside the gates and followed an advertisement bus promoting a new idol group called NU’EST as it rolled toward Sinchon Station. Not to be confused with the subway station, this is Sinchon Railway Station (국철신촌역), where you can catch an actual train train. This, however, was not the reason I came, nor was the enormous new station/shopping complex. Tucked below, simultaneously sticking out and easy to miss, like a Model T parked in the lot of a new car dealership, is the original Sinchon Station (신촌역), Seoul’s oldest rail station.
Pale yellow with wooden window frames and doors and a green tile roof, looking more like a cottage than train depot, this used to be the first stop on the Seoul Station to Pyongyang line. In operation since 1920, it’s miraculously avoided the wrecking ball, though unfortunately for me it was undergoing renovations when I visited. I was still able to check out the exterior, however, and to peek in through the windows where I could make out an old schedule board posting trains bound for Munsan (문산), Dorasan (도라산), and Imjingang (임진강).
Like in some other neighborhoods we’ve been to, opposite sides of the same street can have wildly different characters, and that’s certainly true of Edae. North of the station, the girl to guy ratio hovers in the 3:1 range and virtually every single business is targeted at the 18-30-year-old female demographic. South of Sinchon-ro (신촌로), however, one finds themselves in a run-of-the-mill neighborhood that’s perhaps a bit on the scruffy side. Brick apartment buildings, corner stores, and small churches fill up streets whose hilliness hints at the more pronounced inclinations in nearby Aeogae and Chungjeongno. Even here a few concrete staircases built into the streets were necessary.
Daeheung-ro (대홍로), south from Exit 5 or 6, was a fairly busy street, lined with supermarkets, real estate offices, and tteok shops, and up past a dirt lot where piles of tree branches sat in front of old homes I could make out the buildings of Sogang University (서강대학교) atop a hill to the southeast. Off the avenue, the side streets showed signs of aging: paint peeled from walls and gates, and a loose exhaust pipe fan let off a high-pitched squeal whenever the wind spun its blades. A good proportion of the denizens walking through those side streets were elderly, and I assumed it was a group of them who had set up the little improvised salon of four green plastic chairs and two stuffed pleather ones that occupied the bit of space next to a green clothing donation bin.
The last main feature of the Edae neighborhood, and one we talked about when we went to Ahyeon Station, is Wedding Town, the stretch of Sinchon-ro between the two stations that is lined almost exclusively with wedding dress shops. A hundred meters or so from Exit 4 or 5, dozens of shops provide gowns for soon to be brides that range from glitzy numbers studded with rhinestones to more simple pieces. In addition to stores selling Western-style dresses many also sell hanbok, but even these range from traditional cuts to more modern interpretations.
Ewha Womans University (이화여자대학교)
Exit 2 or 3
Straight on Ewha Yeo-dae-gil (이화여대길)
Arthouse Momo (아트하우스모모)
Exit 2 or 3
Inside the Ewha Campus Complex, Door 3
Sinchon Station (신촌역)
Straight on Sinchon-ro (신촌로), right on Sinchon-yeok-ro (신촌역로)
Exit 4 or 5
East on Sinchon-ro (신촌로)