Seodaemun Station (서대문역) Line 5 – Station #532

IMGP4039 copyThe gates that gave their names to the Dongdaemun and Namdaemun neighborhoods still stand, and their presence puts the stamp of history on the areas around them.  They’re constant reminders of the city’s Long Ago and chains that link the contemporary lives lived around them to the lives lived there hundreds of years ago.

Seodaemun, on the other hand, is the only one of the old city’s four major gates that no longer exists in either its original or restored form, having been destroyed in 1915.  And despite its proximity to Gyeongbokgung and Deoksugung palaces, the absence of the gate had always left the area historically anonymous to me.  Other parts of the city grab the tourist headlines; this, I thought, was merely where downtown petered out.  But while the Great West Gate long ago saw its final sunset, its namesake neighborhood still traces a thread that pulls you through many of the most significant events of Seoul’s past four hundred years, from the Joseon dynasty through the opening of the country to the West to the modern city.

You wouldn’t know this at first, as the area outside the station is crossed by major roads and an overpass, and sidewalks are busy with people on their way to and from work, but walk around a bit and you’ll be amazed by how much there is to stumble across.  We’re going to run this thing chronologically (mostly) and therefore start by heading out Exit 4 to the Former Site of Donuimun (돈의문), as Seodaemun (서대문) was formally known.  Built in 1396, Donuimun, meaning ‘Gate of Loyalty,’ was burned down during the Japanese invasions of the 16th century, rebuilt in 1711, and re-destroyed in 1915 so that the Japanese colonial government could construct tram lines.  Plans to rebuild the gate have been mooted, with a tentative completion date of 2022, but for now there’s only a rather odd historical marker running along the sidewalk.  A woodblock wall capped by a layer of frosted glass, it’s quite pretty, but it also looks like it’d be more at home in a Copenhagen office building.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A short ways further on is the district’s grandest historical site, Gyeonghui Palace (경희궁), though here too the term ‘historical’ is a bit mushy.  (Between the Former Site of Donuimun and Gyeonghuigung you’ll also find the Korean National Police Heritage Museum (경찰박물관).  I didn’t actually visit here, however, as by that point I was suffering from museum overload.  You’ll see what I mean.)  Set back from the road, the palace entrance is marked by Heunghwamun (흥화문) a large, three-doored wooden gate and one of the few structures in the compound to escape significant damage or outright destruction (though it was moved from its original position, further east).  Like the ex-gate, Gyeonghuigung was the victim of destruction and dismantling at the hands of the Japanese Government-General in the early 1900s.  Though it originally consisted of some 100 structures, what’s left today is a small and heavily restored and reconstructed fraction.

IMGP4125 copy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEn route from Heunghwamun to the main palace area is the Seoul Gyeonghuigung Museum of Art (서울시립경희궁미술관).  Shut when I passed by, it looked as if it might be closed indefinitely and was sorely in need of some upkeep.   Adding to the oddly recession-era tableau were a couple of foreigners in their 20s or 30s, Russians, I think, who were sitting on the palace’s front steps, stocking caps on their heads, an empty bottle of soju apiece next to them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Gyeonghuigung was constructed from 1617 to 1623 as something of a royal villa, the other other palace the emperors could go to.  The inner gate opens onto a stone courtyard bordered by covered walkways and backed by Sungjeong Hall (숭정전), the grooves in its black roof tiles filled with snow and giving the appearance of piano keys.  Sungjeong was the palace’s main hall, where kings met with subjects, arranged official ceremonies, and entertained foreign emissaries.  Three kings were also inaugurated here, and the interior contains a model of the imperial throne, fronted by rows of cushions for the dignitaries and courtiers who awaited the king’s orders.  The current hall is a recreation; the original was sold to the Japanese temple Jogyesa before eventually being moved Dongguk University’s campus, where it stands today.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Smaller and less important than other palaces, Gyeonghui receives fewer visitors and therefore allows a quieter, more intimate visit as you wander back through the door that leads from Sungjeongjeon to Jajeong Hall (자정전) in a second courtyard.  This hall, also a reconstruction, contained the king’s private quarters and, according to the brochure, was where he supervised academic competitions.  (Joseon mathletes, go!)  In later years it also held the memorial tablets of deceased kings.

Just next to Jajeong are Taeryeong Hall (태령전), which held the portrait of King Yeongjo, and Seoam (서암), a large sloping rock that runs up to the rear palace wall and is said to be the reason King Gwanghae chose this site for construction of the fifth palace.  Because when you’re a king that’s all the reason you need.

As the clock was running out on both Gyeonghui Palace and the Joseon dynasty, Westerners and Western influence were for the first time taking root in the previously closed off country, nowhere more deeply than in nearby Jeong-dong.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’ll get to that shortly, but first a brief museum interlude to break up all the history.  Just outside of Exit 5, en route to Jeong-dong, are the Rice Museum (쌀박물관) and the Museum of Agriculture (농업박물관).  The former aims to teach kids about the wonders of Korean rice (of which there are many, I’m sure) and offers educational programs, including cooking workshops, in addition to the standard displays.  The latter showcases the country’s agricultural history, innovation and products.  Both are run by the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation (NACF).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Tiny plots of barley, rice, wheat, peanuts, and chives occupy a small plaza in front of the agriculture museum, along with an ox-powered millstone and rice storage bins.  Inside, exhibitions start with Neolithic hunters and gatherers and continue up until the present day.  The amount of English explanation provided exceeded my expectation – as I doubt this turns up on many tourists’ itineraries – and so did the amount of interest I took in the displays.  That’s not to say that I’ll be making return visits, but it was far from as dull as I’d feared.  Among the more interesting things on display were the primitive tools that farmers had once used, wood and stone rakes and sickles and the like, and what the museum claims was the world’s first greenhouse, a structure developed in the 15th century that used hot water heated in a cauldron to grow crops indoors in colder months.

The second floor elaborates on the yearly farming cycles and explains 두레, collectives that organized villagers for weeding, planting, and various other tasks – including pungmul musical troupes to keep workers’ spirits up – related to the agricultural cycle, which, for many millennia was equivalent to the life cycle.

If you’re pressed for time (though if you’re visiting an agricultural museum you’re probably not), you might want to give the basement a miss.  The last part of the museum is dedicated to the history and works of the NACF and everything you ever wanted to know about rice production but were afraid to ask.  It’s essentially the museum version of that overbearing Korean acquaintance who insists on proselytizing the magical health benefits of kimchi, Korean beef, or any hansik at all at every opportunity.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Instead pick up the history trail again by hanging a right on Jeongdong-gil (정동길), the pretty side street that cuts right through the heart of Jeong-dong.  On the corner with Saemunan-ro (새문안로) are the offices of the Kyunghyang Sinmun newspaper and the Kyunghyang Art Hall (경향아트홀) where Jump and the article deficient Ballerina Who Loved a B-boy play.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Even though it’s just off the main street running through Seoul’s downtown, the narrow, tree-lined Jeongdong-gil is infused with a drastically different character.  There’s a Franciscan friary here, and on my way to the area’s historical sites I passed a man on the sidewalk, seated quietly on a folding camping chair and bundled up against the cold, making an extraordinarily good drawing of the pagoda tree across the street, snow on the bare branches like shading, tiny delicate buds at the ends.  That tree, which stands in front of the Canadian embassy (the former site of the Sontag Hotel, Korea’s first European hotel, built in 1902), is another of the city’s protected trees and is estimated to be 520 years old.  Fat and squat, its base splits into two main branches that climb upwards to a height of 17 meters.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOpposite the tree is Ewha Girls’ High School (이화여자고등학교), which still sits on the same plot of land that its forerunner, Ewha Hak Dang (이화학당), was established on over a century ago.  What American missionary Mary F. Scranton originally founded in her house in 1886 would eventually blossom into Ewha Womans University, the largest women’s university in the world.

On the school grounds is Ewha Museum (이화박물관), which has exhibits on the history of both the school and some of its most illustrious graduates, with particular attention paid to 유관순(Yu Gwan-soon), the famous independence activist who was tortured to death inside Seodaemun Prison when she was only 17.  Just to the right of the entrance is the Patriot Yu Gwan-soon Classroom (유관순열사교실); I’m not sure what connection there is between Yu and the classroom, but it’s at least an interesting chance to take a look at an early 20th century Korean classroom, so different from those of today with its wooden floors and heavy two-person benches like church pews.  Unfortunately there’s virtually no English explanations in the museum, though it’s still amusing to simply wander through and check out exhibits like the school’s student uniforms from founding to present; students wore hanbok until the 1920s.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Perhaps even more striking than the exhibits is the building that they’re housed in.  The museum occupies the now rather exorbitantly named Simpson Memorial Hall of Ewha Girls’ High School in Jeong-dong (정동이화여고심슨기념관), built in 1915 and the only building that remains of the original school.  Homer Hall, as you just know everyone actually calls it, is a handsome three-story red brick building with distinguished wood-pane windows and an air of stern New England authority.  It’s Registered Cultural Property No. 3.  The building also holds a student library so visitors should be mindful that it’s an actively functioning part of the school.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Leading directly away from Ewha, a narrow road next to the Canadian embassy curves uphill to the former Russian Legation (구러시아공사관), Historic Site No. 253.  When Empress Myeongseong was assassinated in 1896, Emperor Gojong and the crown prince fled here from Deoksu Palace (덕수궁) via a secret passage and laid low for a year until the peninsula’s tumultuous political situation died down.  The legation was all but destroyed during the Korean War, with only the three-story central tower remaining.  White with gray arched doors and windows, it’s a stark and stately presence despite the bit of grime it’s accumulated over the years.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The tower looks out over Jeongdong Neighborhood Park (정동근린공원), which would look much more at home in St. Petersburg than it does in Seoul.  Finely trimmed hedges frame a central gazebo and sculpted shrubs follow a steep slope at the back up to the legation.  An on-site plaque explained that the park occupies the site of the original house of the Sisters of Saint Paul of Chartres, the first group of missionary sisters to Korea, and it’s not hard to image a habited group of French nuns materializing to stroll down the park’s tidy pathways.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Back out on Jeongdong-gil and just a few steps past Ewha High is Chungdong First Methodist Church (정동제일교회), the oldest existing Protestant church in the country.  The year that Emperor Gojong poked his head out of the Russian legation and decided that the coast was clear was the year that the church’s construction was completed under the supervision of the Rev. Henry Gerhard Appenzeller, the first Methodist missionary in the country.  Busts of Appenzeller and the Rev. Pyung Heun Choi (최병헌), the church’s first Korean pastor, stand outside.  Historic Site No. 256, the church is a pretty little red brick building with white trim around its windows.  An on-site plaque also explains that the grounds were once the site of Pastor Lee Pilju’s residence.  Lee (이필주), the presiding pastor of Chungdong at the time, was one of 33 National Representatives who signed the March 1, 1919 Declaration of Independence, a scrawl that got him two years in prison.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Across the street from the church is Jeongdong Theater (정동극장), devoted to live traditional stage performances ranging from dance to pungmul to pansori.  Currently the popular show ‘Miso’ runs here.  An amusing statue of the renowned pansori singer 이동백 (Yi Dong-baek) and his drum stands in the theater’s courtyard.  Garbed in hanbok Yi is holding a fan and his mouth is open as if he’d been caught mid-song.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Immediately before the theater as you’re coming from the station is a tiny lane that leads to Jungmyeongjeon (중명전), where it all fell apart.

The building looks like no other in Seoul, with its wraparound porticoes, balustrades, and line of gray brick across the middle.  Designed by the Russian architect Aleksey Seredin-Sabatin (who also designed Independence Gate (독립문)), it was built in 1897 to serve as a royal library and incorporated into Deoksu Palace when the palace grounds were expanded.  After many of the other palace buildings were burnt down in a fire it became Emperor Gojong’s official residence in 1904.  And that was just the start of the bad news, as the next year saw the true beginning of the end for the Daehan Empire.

In the early morning hours of November 18, 1905, a cadre of armed Japanese imperialists forced their way into the building and coerced Gojong into signing the Eulsa Treaty, in which Korea surrendered its diplomatic sovereignty to Japan, acquiesced to the establishment of the Residency General of Japan on the peninsula, and ushered in one of the darkest chapters in the country’s modern history.  Jungmyeongjeon is now a small museum devoted primarily to the Eulsa Treaty and subsequent fruitless struggles to recover sovereignty.  Having suffered significant damage of its own over the years, the hall has been beautifully restored, with even the floor’s tile-work on display under glass.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While on Jeongdong-gil the past is seemingly never further than the ground under your feet, once you return to Seodaemun’s main thoroughfares the area’s downtown modernity can seem all-encompassing.  As I headed south on Tong-il-ro (통일로) the only hint of history was a small plaque on the sidewalk marking the original site of Seodaemun Station.  Otherwise the road was bordered by a procession of soaring glass towers and the hulking police headquarters to my right.  I fell in with the streams of office workers, coffee cups in hand, marching up and down the sidewalk until arriving at the Seosomun-ro (서소문로) intersection where, just off to the right, freight trains and KTXs passed by on their way to and from Seoul Station.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Which brings us to our second museum interlude.  Do you know Dokdo?

Do you know Dokdo Museum?  I confess that I didn’t know, but nor was I the least bit surprised when I discovered it.  In fact, given Koreans’, um, enthusiasm for the topic, the only thing that surprised me was that it was in such an out-of-the-way place, in the basement of the Lim Kwang Tower a few minutes’ walk from Exit 7.

My, and I think most expats’, eyes tend to glaze over whenever the topic of Dokdo is brought up, not because I disagree with Koreans’ claims about the islets – I, and again, I think most expats here, are on the same side – but because the fuss kicked up over them seems wholly disproportionate to their size and worth, and because if I had a nickel for every time I heard ‘독도는우리땅!’, well, I could buy them for myself and just settle the whole thing once and for all.  So it was steeled for a propaganda onslaught that I made my way into Dokdo Museum Seoul (독도체험관).

The museum is, thankfully, rather small.  What it lacks in size, though, it more than compensates for in design and displays.  With fancy digital graphics; ample signage and brochures translated into English, Chinese, and Japanese (I wonder how that goes over.); and even a 4D theater, it was obvious that someone had poured a lot of money into the place.  Also thankfully, the museum keeps a modest tone to its exhibits.  Much of the museum is of course dedicated to laying out the Korean claim to Dokdo, but it goes about this without raising its voice.  Some of it, like the displays on the peninsula’s historical relation to and interaction with the islets, is actually rather interesting.  Other parts, like the exhibitions of Korean and Japanese records attesting to Korea’s sovereignty over Dokdo and Ulleungdo, are as dry as the paper they were written on.  The museum’s final section is devoted to the nature of Dokdo: its geography, flora, fauna, and marine life.  Again, some of this is interesting – the scale model, the information about the migratory birds that stop by the islets – and some is just a bit too much, unless you have a deep curiosity in ocean currents and microorganisms.  There’s also a mention of Kim Sung-do, Dokdo’s only permanent resident, who lives there along with his dogs, who are named in the exhibition, and his wife, who – the poor woman – is not.

And just in case you do want your Dokdo with a bit of rah-rah Korea!, there’s a photo kiosk where you can have your picture taken and put on the front page of the 독도신문 (Dokdo Newspaper) as the Dokdo Defender of the Day under the headline ‘독도는대한민국의영토입니다.’ (Dokdo is Korea’s territory.).  Print it out and put it up on your refrigerator.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Picking up the history thread again, I returned to Exit 4 and the Former Site of Donuimun, but this time, instead of continuing straight, I turned left on Songweol-gil (송월길) to follow what the sign on the corner says is the 7th Alley Walking Course in Gyonam-dong (동네골목길관광7코스 | 교남동).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While Jeongdong-gil is steeped in the history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Songweol-gil picks up where it left off, hosting several structures of historical significance to the early and mid-1900s.

Lined on its right side with small alleyways hosting hole-in-the-wall restaurants, Songweol-gil runs uphill past the headquarters of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, outside of which a man and a woman were holding a lonely protest next to some propped-up signs, the man checking his phone while his head poked through the hole in a placard he was wearing around his neck.  At a fork I veered right to stop by Weolam Neighborhood Park (월암근린공원) and its restored section of the old city wall.  From the park there were broad views across the valley to the west where, behind a large metal barrier that ran along the road for several hundred meters, the entire neighborhood between Songweol-gil and Tong-il-ro was being demolished and cleared for redevelopment, a backhoe tearing down an old brick building in great crunches that filled the air.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Just past the park and directly opposite the brick building that was being torn down was another brick building, spared the same fate by its historical significance.  I usually dislike the adjective ‘quaint’, but the home is just that, with vines climbing up its sides and flowers on interior windowsills.  Built in the ‘30s for a German missionary, it’s the only remaining building of a Little Berlin, so to speak, that sprung up around the German consulate that once stood nearby.  Not long after it was built, the home was bought by the composer Hong Nanpa (홍난파) and is now known as Hong Nanpa’s House in Hongpa-dong (홍파동홍난파가옥).  Outside there is a youthful bust of the composer, youthful by necessity as he died at only the age of 43 in 1941.  While alive, though, Hong was a leading figure in bringing Western music to Korea, and the home is preserved as a memorial to his legacy.

In a front window was a small ‘Come In We’re Open’ sign, exactly like those I’ve seen in the windows of so many small American shops.  The front door is typically kept locked, but ring the bell and a kindly caretaker will come to the door to let you in.  The house is very well maintained, its wood floors shining and the mini grand piano in the main room smartly polished.  Nearby, a cello was propped up next to a fireplace.  Connected to the main room was a small alcove that had once served as Hong’s bedroom and was, the caretaker told me, where he composed his music as he gazed out at Inwang Mountain.  Naturally enough, recordings of Hong’s music accompany you as gaze at the displays – a timeline of Hong’s life, sheet music samples, a list of his compositions (including many children’s songs) – but for me the sound that struck the deepest chord was the rattling of the windows as a muscular spring wind blew outside, a sound I realized I’d never heard in Seoul before, as there are hardly any buildings here old enough to have had their window panes set in wooden frames.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you continue north on the small street and pass over the Sajik Tunnel, you’ll arrive at another significant home, Taylor House or Dilkusha (딜쿠샤), as it’s also known.  Dilkusha means ‘utopia’ or ‘happiness’ in Hindi, and it was the name that Albert Taylor’s wife gave their home, naming it after a palace she’d visited in India.  Taylor’s father owned a gold mine in now-North Korea, and Taylor himself was a UPI correspondent and one of the foreigners who played the greatest role in Korea’s independence struggle, reporting on the March 1 Independence Movement and serving six months in jail after he was convicted by the Japanese on charges of aiding Korean independence activists.  He was ultimately expelled from the country in 1942.

Until his expulsion he lived in what was, at the time, surely the very handsome red brick home that he built in 1923.  Now, however, the structure is in significant disrepair and has had several alterations made to it, as it’s been divided into flats where multiple families live.  Cracked windows and roofs covered in tarps weighed down by tires are just some of the things crying out for repair.

Just opposite Taylor House is a stone plaque that marks the former Site of General Gwon Yul’s House (권율장군집터).  A hero of the struggle against the 1592 Japanese invasion, he’s also believed to have planted the majestic 400-year-old gingko tree that spreads its branches over the plaque and that, according to the on-site sign, was what a nearby village, 행촌동 (gingko tree village), was named after.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe most important historical site on Songweol-gil, however, lies back near its beginning, on the grounds of Kangbuk Samsung Medical Center.  Turn into the hospital as if you’re going to the emergency room and you’ll arrive at Gyeonggyojang (경교장).  Built in the 1930s, the house is a pretty, cream-colored building with stone accents, handsome wooden doors, and curling wrought iron above the second floor windows.  It’s served many functions over the years, from its original service as the home of gold mining magnate Choi Chang-hak to its later use as the ambassador of China’s residence, facilities for U.S. special forces during the Korean War, the ambassador of Vietnam’s residence, and part of the Kangbuk Samsung’s medical facilities.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It played its most important role, however, during the first four years after World War II, when it was the home and offices of Kim Gu (김구).  Born in Haeju in Hwanghae-do in what is now North Korea, Kim was the president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, the government in exile during Japan’s colonial occupation.  He was also the owner my favorite mug of any historical Korean figure, with his toothy grin making him look like a happy beaver when he smiled.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After years of eclectic use, Gyeonggyojang underwent a three-year restoration that was only just completed last year, returning the building to its late 1940s state.  The results are magnificent, with the fine marble trim along the staircases, the polished wood floors, and period furniture all on display.  Its restoration completed, Gyeonggyojang now serves as a museum devoted to both Kim Gu and the Korean Provisional Government, which operated out of Shanghai from 1919 until the war’s end.  The building’s first floor was furnished in a Western style, and visitors can now poke their noses in the sunny front sitting room, replete with fireplace, that functioned as the government’s public relations office, and into the dining room, with its long polished table.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Exhibitions in the basement explore the life and exploits of Kim, complete with a pair of underwear with a secret message written on them.  Upon Kim’s return from exile he struggled in vain to establish a unified government on the peninsula until he was assassinated on June 26, 1949 by Ahn Doo-hee (안두희), a Second Lieutenant in the Korean army.  The bloodied pants and jacket that Koo was wearing when he was killed are on display.  The murder itself took place upstairs, as Kim was seated at his desk in his second floor bedroom and office.  You’re still able to see the two bullet holes in the window where the shots entered.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While I’d been retracing my steps back down towards the main road earlier, I’d spotted a young woman walking through the area of demolished homes, and with some spare time after leaving Gyeonggyojang I decided to head back up to where I’d seen her.  When I reached the spot where she’d come from I noticed a thin path cutting through the rubble that I’d missed earlier.  It provided a shortcut for people who lived on one side of the valley or the other, linking Songweol-gil to the north side of Tong-il-ro, where buildings and businesses that showed their age ran from Seodaemun Station up to Seodaemun Independence Park and the Independence Gate.  I strolled down the pathway, looking at the scraps and clutter of the former homes.  The surroundings smelled smoky and charred, and several of the buildings around me were only half torn down, their endings left unfinished.

In many ways the scene was a distillation of how history is so often made, by subtraction.  We decide what is and isn’t worth preserving, and ultimately it’s this deciding, even more than treaties or battles that become history, as even these can be lost to time if it’s decided that they should be. As for the buildings and homes that used to be here, the decision has already been made, they’ve been edited out.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Or perhaps not entirely, at least not yet.  Perhaps someone took the time to photograph the neighborhood while it still stood or someone collected stories from the people who lived there or maybe someone just took to heart the request on the Seoul Museum of History’s (서울역사박물관) brochure to ‘버리기전에다시한번생각하고연락주세요’ (‘Think before you throw things away and contact us.’) and their old toaster found its way into the museum’s collection so that someone, fifty years from now, can see what a toaster looked like in 2013.

Just past Gyeonghui Palace as you come from the station, the museum opened in 2002 to serve as a repository and exhibit of Seoul’s history and culture, from the Joseon dynasty to the present day.  And just like that hypothetical toaster, over 70% of the holdings were public donations.

Exhibits here start before you even set foot in the museum.  On the grounds outside, in addition to several stelae from royal tombs, visitors will find the Shop Structure of Jongno Market (종로시전행랑유구), a section of an early Joseon-era government market that was excavated from Pimatgol and moved here in 2009.  About two meters below a glass covering (that a worker was cleaning with a big squeegee), stones are lined up forming sections labeled as having been storage, living room, or ondol areas.  There’s also the eye-catching Streetcar No. 381 (전차 381호).  Electric streetcars first appeared in Seoul in 1899, but this handsome forest green and khaki trolley, one of two remaining in the capital, rolled through the city from the 1930s to the ‘60s.  Peek inside to check out its fine wood paneling and the collection of levers and handles that controlled it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

IMGP4117 copy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe approach to the main entrance features cherry trees and is decorated by a recreation of the famous wood block map of Seoul, Suseon Jeondo, that’s housed in the Korea University Museum, another reproduction of which is by the Cheonggye Stream near Euljiro-1-ga.  Once inside, visitors will find, in addition to a café and gift shop, the Seoul History Library and the Donated Relic Exhibition Hall on the first floor.  The latter of these is where that toaster may eventually end up, as it showcases collections donated by citizens.

IMGP4027 copy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMain exhibits are on the third floor and are divided into four sections.  The first, Seoul of the Joseon Dynasty, covers the city from 1392-1863.  It explains how and why the capital was founded where it was and displays a large collection of maps from the time, from general city maps to charts showing the boundaries of the various military forces’ patrols.  Other exhibitions are devoted to specific important neighborhoods: Bukchon, where the affluent lived; Yukjogeori, the street in front of Gwanghwamun where government ministries were located; Unjongga, the city’s commercial center.  Miniatures recreate market areas, and displays explain how certain middle-class families specialized in vocations like medicine or translation, the profession passed down from generation to generation.

IMGP4028 copy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIMGP4040 copyMuch of section two, The Capital of the Daehan Empire, will be familiar to anyone who’s explored the Jeong-dong area (or made it this far in this post).  Seoul’s turn toward modernity and the West from 1863 to 1910 gets a close examination here, as the influence of foreigners, foreign ideas, and foreign products, from eyeglasses to electronics, reshaped life in Korea.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

IMGP4099 copyPart three, Seoul Under Japanese Control, is a fascinating and remarkably evenhanded look at the period from 1910-1945.  Exhibitions show how thoroughly the Japanese transformed the city, destroying or altering many of its structures and much of its appearance in an attempt to stamp their authority on those living under them.  Losses were innumerable and irreplaceable.  At the same time, though, the more advanced Japan brought many developments and modern culture to Korea, and the museum does a commendable job of being frank about this fact.  Less than a century ago, this period has a tangibility that the Joseon era doesn’t, and it’s fascinating to watch videos of the earliest department stores or firefighter training, listen to warbly recordings of old children’s songs (토끼의귀, 달마중), look at a tourist map from the era, flip through digital archives of popular comics of the day, or check out a display of the ‘modern boy and girl,’ (모던보이, 모던걸), the sons and daughters of the elite, with their moustaches, flared pants, bobbed hair, ankle-revealing dresses, and predilection for Western movies and culture.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The final section, Development of Seoul, covers the second half of the 20th century, from 1945-2002, a period in which so much happened so fast that each decade could have its own museum.  The war ended, a new war began.  The city nearly disappeared, its population exploded.  It was destitute, it was developed.  Roads, infrastructure, the subway, Yeouido.  It was on just one side of the river, it was on both.  So much of what’s on display here is immediately recognizable as today’s city a couple generations removed, and, for me at least, the result is the museum’s most astonishing, most melancholic, most humorous, most emotional section.  There’s a full-size recreation of an actual disappeared Pimatgol restaurant (원조청일집); hilarious fashion ads from the ‘80s; mention of how the mambo enjoyed a brief vogue (with a photo of the Mambo Barbershop (맘보이발관) as testament to the craze); explanations of how many post-war housing developments included revival (부흥), rehabilitation (재건), citizen (국민), or hope (희망) in their names; clear-eyed looks at the social and environmental sacrifices that development entailed, and a chronicle of the city’s spread across the river, where farmers were using cows to plow fields in Apgujeong as late as 1978.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

IMGP4065 copy

Visits to the museum culminate in the Seoul Panoramic Theater, a 1:1,500 scale model of the city.  I’ve worked on this project for over four years now, exploring the city’s infinite corners and becoming connected to it in a way I never thought I would when I moved here, and to stand above it, to gaze out over its entirety and pick out all the places I’ve been was to realize how much of its history has become intertwined with my own, but also to be overwhelmed, and struck by how little I truly know it, by how little anyone ever can.  History is understood with hindsight, but it is made blind.  You pick up a thread and follow it to where it ends.  In Seodaemun, that thread ends here, in a stunning summation of where the past 400 years have led Seoul, have led me, have led you.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

IMGP4094 copy

Former Site of Donuimun (돈의문)

Exit 4

Straight on Saemunan-ro (새문안로)

 

Gyeonghui Palace (경희궁) and Seoul Gyeonghuigung Museum of Art (서울시립경희궁미술관)

Exit 4

Straight on Saemunan-ro (새문안로)

Gyeonghui Palace

Hours | 9:00 – 18:00, Closed Mondays, January 1, and holidays designated by the mayor

Admission | Free

Seoul Gyeonghuigung Museum of Art

02) 723-2491

Hours | 10:00 – 18:00, Closed Mondays

 

Korean National Police Heritage Museum (경찰박물관)

Exit 4

Straight on Saemunan-ro (새문안로)

02) 3150-3681

Hours | 9:30 – 17:30; Closed Mondays, January 1, Seollal, and Chuseok

 

Rice Museum (쌀박물관) and Museum of Agriculture (농업박물관)

Exit 5

Hours | March – October 9:30 – 18:00, November – February 9:30 – 17:30; Closed Mondays, January 1, Seollal, and Chuseok

Admission | Free

Rice Museum

02) 2080-5681

www.농협쌀박물관.한국

Museum of Agriculture

02) 2080-5727~8

www.agrimuseum.or.kr

 

Kyunghyang Art Hall (경향아트홀)

Exit 5

Straight on Saemunan-ro (새문안로)

 

Ewha Girls’ High School (이화여자고등학교), Ewha Museum (이화박물관), and Simpson Memorial Hall of Ewha Girls’ High School in Jeong-dong (정동이화여고심슨기념관)

Exit 5

Straight on Saemunan-ro (새문안로), Right on Jeongdong-gil (정동길)

02) 752-3345

Hours | 10:00 – 18:00, Winter 10:00 – 17:30; Closed Sundays and national holidays

Admission | Free

 

Former Russian Legation (구러시아공사관) and Jeongdong Neighborhood Park (정동근린공원)

Exit 5

Straight on Saemunan-ro (새문안로), Right on Jeongdong-gil (정동길), Left after the Canadian embassy

 

Chungdong First Methodist Church (정동제일교회)

Exit 5

Straight on Saemunan-ro (새문안로), Right on Jeongdong-gil (정동길)

 

Jeongdong Theater (정동극장)

Exit 5

Straight on Saemunan-ro (새문안로), Right on Jeongdong-gil (정동길)

02) 751-1500

www.mct.or.kr

 

Jungmyeongjeon (중명전)

Exit 5

Straight on Saemunan-ro (새문안로), Right on Jeongdong-gil (정동길), Left on alley before Jeongdong Theater

02) 732- 7524

www.deoksugung.go.kr

Hours | 10:00 – 17:00; Closed Mondays, Seollal, and Chuseok

Admission | Free

 

Dokdo Museum Seoul (독도체험관)

Exit 7

Straight on Tong-il-ro (통일로), Right on Seosomun-ro (서소문로), B1 of Lim Kwang Tower

02) 2012-6100, 6101

www.dokdomuseumseoul.com

Hours | 9:30 – 18:00; Closed Mondays, Seollal, and Chuseok

Admission | Free

 

7th Alley Walking Course in Gyonam-dong (동네골목길관광7코스 | 교남동)

Exit 4

Straight on Saemunan-ro (새문안로), Left on Songweol-gil (송월길)

 

Weolam Neighborhood Park (월암근린공원)

Exit 4

Straight on Saemunan-ro (새문안로), Left on Songweol-gil (송월길), Right at fork

 

Hong Nanpa’s House in Hongpa-dong (홍파동홍난파가옥)

Exit 4

Straight on Saemunan-ro (새문안로), Left on Songweol-gil (송월길), Right at fork

070-8112-7900

Hours | April – October 11:00 – 17:00, November – March 11:00 – 16:00, closed weekends and holidays

Admission | Free

 

Taylor House / Dilkusha (딜쿠샤) and Site of General Gwon Yul’s House (권율장군집터)

Exit 4

Straight on Saemunan-ro (새문안로), Left on Songweol-gil (송월길), Right at fork

 

Gyeonggyojang (경교장)

Exit 4

Straight on Saemunan-ro (새문안로), Left on Songweol-gil (송월길), Left onto grounds of Kangbuk Samsung Medical Center

02) 735-2038

Hours | 9:00 – 18:00; Closed Mondays (Tuesday if Monday is a holiday), New Year’s Day

Admission | Free

 

Seoul Museum of History (서울역사박물관)

Exit 4

Straight on Saemunan-ro (새문안로)

02) 724-0274~6

www.museum.seoul.kr

Hours | Weekdays 9:00 – 20:00; Weekends and Holidays March – October 9:00 – 19:00, November – February 9:00 – 18:00; Closed Mondays, New Year’s Day

Admission | Free

Seoul History Library (서울역사자료실)

02) 724-0259, 0231

library.museum.seoul.kr

Hours | Monday – Saturday 9:00 – 18:00; Closed Sundays and holidays

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Seodaemun Station (서대문역) Line 5 – Station #532

  1. Pingback: SEOUL Weekly: SEOUL May Issue | SEOUL Magazine

  2. Pingback: Gyeongbokgung Station (경복궁역) Line 3 – Station #327 | Seoul Sub→urban

  3. Pingback: Gangdong Station (강동역) Line 5 – Station #548 | Seoul Sub→urban

  4. Pingback: Seoul Gyeonggyojang House(서울 경교장) :: Korea travel tour site info! – Korea Travel Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s