The most important feature in the Cheonho neighborhood is also the one you’d be most likely to walk past without noticing. Just outside of Exit 10 is an earthen mound, about ten feet high, un-mowed and partly covered in a plant with tiny white blossoms. It looks as if it might be a covered landfill or a poorly tended neighborhood park. In reality it’s one of the remaining sections of Pungnaptoseong (풍납토성), an earthen fortress that, along with Mongchontoseong (몽촌토성) to the south, formed the center of Hanseong Wiryeseong, the first capital of the early Baekje dynasty. Baekje’s kingdom was seated here for half a millennium, until being overrun by Goguryeo and forced to relocate south, to Gongju, in 475. Its former capital fell into disrepair and its earthen structures were buried under accumulating earth, disappearing for 1,500 years.
Then, in 1925, the Han River flooded, and when the waters receded numerous relics were found, piquing renewed interest in the area. Preliminary excavations were carried out in 1964, and then, in the late 90s, apartment construction near where Cheonho Station now sits accidentally unearthed more relics, and a long-forgotten chapter of the city’s history was reopened.
Just outside of Exit 10, janggi (Korean chess) players and a group of churchgoers singing hymns occupied Pungnap Neighborhood Park (풍납근린공원), basically just the corner in front of Pungnaptoseong. I passed them and started to make my way around the old earthen structure’s circumference. The section here is a long J, cut in half on its long end by a small access road connecting some apartments to Cheonho-daero (천호대로). At the tip of the J’s hook is the start of Pungnap Market (풍납 시장), where, in the shadow of the ancient structure, a butcher sliced the skin off a chicken for a waiting customer. Customers with tiny dogs cradled in one hand and bags of chestnuts in the other wandered past hot bar stands, shops selling sundaeguk to go, and a vendor selling turtles and eels. Three old women sat in front of an empty store and shucked corn, a big pile of husks at their feet.
Definitive consensus on Pungnaptoseong’s exact nature doesn’t yet exist, but given its size and the quality of construction it’s likely that it served as Baekje’s capital and may even have protected a royal palace. Hindering investigations is extensive damage that the structure has suffered over the centuries, including during the aforementioned apartment construction and flood, the latter of which washed away a third of the earthen walls. Despite this, excavations both of and inside the walls continue, and have turned up the remains of various buildings, pottery, iron artifacts, and Chinese porcelain.
Though the occasional green tarp at the structure’s crest hints at these excavations, this section of Pungnaptoseong is not, for the time being at least, a place where you can get a look at the archaeological work that’s been done. For a glimpse of that, instead head out Exit 9 and walk down Olympic-ro (올림픽로) to Olympic-ro-59-gil (올림픽로59길). Take a right there, swing left on Punseong-ro-25-gil (푼성로25길), and then an immediate right onto Punseong-ro-25-na-gil (푼성로25나길). On your left, looking a bit like an unused lot, is another section of Pungnaptoseong, but one more block ahead is Pungnaptoseong Gyeongdangjigu (풍납노성 경당지구), a one-block park built on a former excavation site. On-site information stated that two recent digs were carried out there. The first, performed in 1999-2000 by a team from the Hanshin University Museum, unearthed thousands of pieces of earthenware and roof tiles. In 2008 a second excavation uncovered storage facilities, a well, Chinese porcelain, and earthenware from Japan, leading researchers to conclude that the site was home to the upper-class and possibly to royalty. Now, in addition to the exercise equipment and the wildflower beds, four separate areas of the park are marked as former dig sites, each with a small plaque and photos providing insight into what came out of the earth in that spot (Korean only).
A walking course demarcated by a yellow Baekje falcon logo connects Pungnap Market, Pungnaptoseong Gyeongdangjigu (which on some signs is also labeled Gyeongdang Historical Park (경당역사공원)), and the various sections of Pungnaptoseong.
Despite its ancient lineage, most of Cheonho is, like the restof the southeast side, unmistakably modern and well-heeled. When I first arrived and headed out of Exit 4, it was past shoppers poring over racks of shoes at the attached Hyundai Department Store, and outside traffic streamed down the broad avenues and over Cheonho Bridge. The sidewalks near Exit 5 were filled with people – local families, ajummas with parasols, a navy officer and his girlfriend. (Nothing is whiter than a navyman’s whites.) The smell of sweet breads and donuts wafted from a Tous les Jours sidewalk stand and a woman on the sidewalk was trying to recruit blood donors from passers-by. This is a tactic that I’ve frequently seen employed by blood banks in Seoul, and it’s one that never fails to baffle me, since blood donation isn’t exactly the sort of thing that the average person decides to do on a whim. It almost goes without saying that I’ve never seen one of these pitchwomen actually reel someone in.
Cheonho-daero-157-gil (천호대로157길) is marked by a pair of giant silver fangs and a sign identifying it as the local Rodeo Drive (로데오거리). A single narrow lane of infrequent traffic with wide, meandering sidewalks, it’s a pedestrian friendly place. This particular Rodeo is far less shopping-centric than other Rodeos throughout the city, its clothing stores outnumbered by restaurants and upper-story bars and noraebangs. A mall near the street’s entrance is the main shopping venue. The Cheonho neighborhood is also characterized by a prevalence of churches and proselytizing church groups, and another such group had set up in front of the mall. Some of its members were handing out packs of tissues while a half dozen others had set up microphones and speakers and were signing praise music, accompanied by a guitar. This sort of activity usually grates on me, but the group here was actually half-decent and, almost in spite of myself, I found that I wasn’t annoyed. Then, suddenly, for some reason or another their speakers cut mid-song and at once the song sounded tiny and far away.
The far end of Rodeo opened onto a small plaza where stalls sold sparkly, garishly patterned ajumma clothes, and yet one more church group was handing out literature. The station map marked the junction here as Cheonho Old Intersection (천호구사거리), and, indeed, this is the one corner of the neighborhood that I came across with a distinctly older hue to it, the type of place where commerce was strictly conducted in the cash from hand to hand method. On the opposite side of Gucheonmyeon-ro (구천면로) began Cheonho Market (천호시장), which was in stark contrast to the Rodeo I’d just walked down. On the sidewalk aged vendors sold small piles of fruit and vegetables or steaming corn and sweet potatoes. Others offered a variety of medicinal twigs, roots, and aloe leaves. A collection of pork trotter restaurants crowded an alley leading off the main street, and further back the market held giant bags of dried chilies, bins of dried anchovies and shredded fish, and large white cubes of tofu stacked up like igloo blocks. The smell of shit hung in the air. There were no customers, just ajumma vendors sitting and talking.
Just west of the market and immediately before a large 2001 Outlet was the side street Gucheonmyeon-ro-23-gil (구천면로23길), and strung above it was a banner reading:
청소년 통행금지 구역 00:00 – 24:00
강동구청장 • 강동경찰서장
(Children not permitted 00:00 – 24:00
Gangdong-gu Administrator • Gangdong Police Chief)
Beyond the banner, the road was lined by a series of identical one-story buildings. The buildings were sectioned into small apartments, and each apartment was fronted by a wide, nearly floor-to-ceiling window, almost all of which had heavy red velvet curtains drawn across them. A couple of apartments on the corner had the curtains pulled back, and the two prostitutes inside stood up and peered out in curiosity as I walked past.
The sex trade is a quietly flourishing business in Korea, carrying on largely out of sight, but the government has admitted that it makes up as much as four percent of the country’s annual GDP, equal to fishing and agriculture combined. The Ministry for Gender Equality has estimated the number of women working in the sex industry at half a million. Unlike in certain other countries in the region, however, it operates inconspicuously and, Hooker Hill (or what’s left of it) aside, is almost entirely targeted to domestic customers. While non-Koreans seeking to avail themselves of the services are typically told to go away, the Korean Institute of Criminology states that one in four Korean men in their twenties pays for sex at a rate of once a week. The business also has a convoluted and hypocritical relationship with the law, though that can also be said about a lot of places. Officially illegal, prostitution is largely tolerated by law enforcement, as evidenced by the decision of the district administrator and police chief to put up a banner warning kids to stay out instead of prosecuting the local business owners and employees. Walking through the alleys I also noticed signs listing a website on every building. Typing in the URL takes one to a website for a union for Korean sex workers, though, in keeping with the trade’s preference for keeping things on the down-low, it’s set up like the union website for any regular group of store owners and doesn’t immediately make clear just whom it’s organizing.
Though we’ve come across wisps of its presence before – the remnants of the old Yongsan red light district, the businesses advertising widows and targeting older men in Jongno-5-ga – the red light district here was both the largest and most brazen display of Seoul’s sex trade that we’ve yet encountered in the course of the project. Still, though, it was Sunday afternoon and Sunday afternoons for working girls are pretty much like those for everyone else. Businesses were closed and laundry racks of drying pink towels stood in the sun outside several front doors. As I headed back toward the main street I once again passed the apartments of the two girls who were working, and as I did they both said, ‘Hey!’ and gave a friendly wave to come in, which I appreciated. No discrimination. I smiled and waved back and kept walking.
A couple of blocks away, back on Olympic-ro (올림픽로), and it was back to the southeast side I knew, with sidewalks busy with shoppers passing in front of super modern buildings. A short walk down the road from Exit 3 brought me to the well-tended Cheonho Park (천호공원). Seniors filled the walking paths, there was a library, and on an open patch of dirt seven high school boys and girls practiced a dance routine, likely for a school festival or talent show. On the park’s east side was an outdoor workout area far more impressive than the usual motley assortment of exercise machines: four bench presses and nine different weight machines with enough variety that they could largely negate the need for a gym membership. A bit to the north was an artificial pond with an elaborate fountain (off for the winter), the benches around it a popular place for ajummas to gather and for ajeoshis to play games of janggi. Not far away, in the park’s center, was an al fresco stage where a P.A. system was set up and pots of flowers surrounded a mounted flag. On and in front of the stage were a hundred old guys, give or take, seated at or standing around folding tables. Those seated in the plastic chairs were engaged in their own games of janggi, members of the Cheonho Park Janggi Association (천호공원 장기 동호회), as a sign at the base of the stage attested. Which raised the question: Just who were those guys over by the pond? Hopeless beginners? The expelled? A splinter cell? The mind reeled.
I turned back toward the station, drifting back and forth between the new buildings and shoppers on the main avenue and the smaller back streets and their modest apartments. Clustered on some of those back streets near the station was Cheonho Stationary Town (천호 문구•완구거리). Just outside of Exit 1, the first street on the right was marked by a gate of curving pencils and a little book character improbably throwing up devil horns with one hand. Beyond it were a number of shops, all with some sort of cute cartoon character – pencils, markers, schoolchildren – on their signs. Almost all of them were closed on Sunday, but judging from those that were open they were as much toy stores as they were stationary shops.
Instead of turning into the Stationary Town, continuing straight from Exit 1 or 10 will lead directly to the Gwangnaru portion of the Han River Park (한강공원 – 광나루). The entire park, on both sides of the river, is arguably the best location for cycling that the city has to offer – flat and open, with great views and well-maintained bike paths – but its southeastern-most stretch is arguably the best of all, thanks to the presence of the Gwangnaru Bicycle Park (광나루자전거공원). Located along the part of the Han that makes a sharp southwestern turn as it enters the city, with views of Walker Hill and the aquamarine W Hotel across the water, the Bicycle Park collects several different bike-related activities – some typical, some very atypical – all in one spot.
Tucked between the shadows of the Cheonho (천호대교) and Gwangjin Bridges (광진교), the first facility I came to was the Racing Stadium (레이싱경기장), by which Koreans mean a BMX track. The fact that it was pavement and not dirt didn’t seem to matter to the dozen or so middle school-age kids pedaling up and down the ramps and around the banked U-turns before zipping back around to the start to go again. On the west side of the Cheonho Bridge was an inline skating track, where kids who knew what was up were running circles around those who were out learning with parents or older siblings, and, complementing the BMX track, the X-Games Park (X게임장) (Korean-speak for ‘skate park’), where young inline skaters and skateboarders practiced jumps and flips on the ramps and rails. Just past these was the Rail Bike Zone, where families and couples pedaled big red and yellow carts around iron rails that wound between reeds and small trees.
Northeast of the BMX track was a grassy lawn and a wide open plaza with a small exercise area, where two ajummas were hard at work hula-hooping. Adjacent to the plaza was the Bike Park’s most idiosyncratic component, the Novelty Bike Experience Zone, something of an Island of Misfit Bikes. Inside an enclosed area, park-goers were trying out some of the two-dozen or so different bikes that were scattered across the pavement: a tandem bike cart in a heart-shaped frame, another two-person bike cart that moved sideways instead of forward, a bike that riders propelled by standing on two pedals and rocking side-to-side, and even a bike with square wheels. Lastly, at the far eastern end, next to some bike-shaped playground equipment, were the Children’s Bike Education Park and the Baby’s Bike Education Park, at the latter of which kids on tiny bikes with training wheels were guided around a simple track by their parents.
Though this part of the Han River Park is very bike-focused, there’s of course plenty of other stuff to do. Some lush grass lawns provided an opportunity for locals to spread out mats or set up tents on the riverbank, a little league baseball team held practice on a dirt field, and underneath the Cheonho Bridge a couple hundred others were taking advantage of the shade to picnic or play badminton.
I was in Cheonho past when the sun went down, and besides history, shopping, vice, and recreation, the area had a surprisingly vibrant nightlife as well, particularly around and opposite Rodeo Street. Directly across Cheonho-daero from the entrance to Rodeo and quickly accessible from Exit 8, Cheonho-yet-gil (천호옛길) was full of cafes, bars, and fried chicken joints catering to anyone who’d finished up their day’s shopping or biking.
To end my day in the most Cheonho manner possible, though, I turned right down the alley just past Cheonho-yet-gil, Cheonho-daero-158-gil (천호대로158길), near where a sign pointed to the anatomically incorrect Seongnae-dong Webfoot Octopus Street (성내동 쭈꾸미골목). This project has visited a jjukkumi street before, near Jegi-dong Station, but there’s no such thing as too much jjukkumi. Around a dozen restaurants serving up the mini octopus stir-fried in a spicy sauce crowded the alley, several of them with people lined up outside, waiting for a table. Other restaurants, mostly at the back of the alley, were nearly empty, though I’ve got no idea if that means they’re not as good or that people are just lazy. I went into 독도쭈꾸미 (Dokdo Jjukkumi) not out of any sort of patriotic, territorial pride, but because it was busy, yet not so busy to have a line out the door. The décor was odd, nothing at all to do with Dokdo – black and white photos of Audrey Hepburn, Liz Taylor, Venice’s Ponte dei Sospiri, and the G.I. kissing a girl in Times Square at World War II’s end – but the food was right. Instead of your standard straight-up jjukkumi we ordered a mix of the mini octopuses, shrimp, and samgyeopsal – spicy, but not overbearingly so. When that was gone we finished dinner off with an order of rice stir fried in the leftover sauce, presumably how Hepburn would do it.
Pungnap Neighborhood Park (풍납근린공원)
Pungnap Market (풍납 시장)
Straight on Olympic-ro (올림픽로), Right on Baramdeuri-gil (바람드리길)
Pungnaptoseong Gyeongdang Jigu (풍납토성 경당지구)
Straight on Olympic-ro (올림픽로), Right on Olympic-ro-59-gil (올림픽로59길), Left on Pungseong-ro-25-gil (풍성로25길), Immediate Right on Pungseong-ro-25-na-gil (풍성로25나길)
Rodeo Drive (로데오거리)
Left on Cheonho-daero-157-gil (천호대로157길)
Cheonho Market (천호시장)
Left on Cheonho-daero-157-gil (천호대로157길), Right on Gucheonmyeon-ro (구천면로), Left on Gucheonmyeon-ro-29-gil (구천면로29길)
Cheonho Red Light District
Straight on Olympic-ro (올림픽로), Right on Gucheonmyeon-ro (구천면로), Left on Gucheonmyeon-ro-23-gil (구천면로23길)
Cheonho Park (천호공원)
Straight on Olympic-ro (올림픽로)
Cheonho Stationary Town (천호 문구•완구거리)
Right on Cheonho-daero-151-gil (천호대로151길)
Han River Park (한강공원 – 광나루) and Gwangnaru Bicycle Park (광나루자전거공원)
Exit 1 or 10
Straight on Cheonho-daero (천호대로)
Seongnae-dong Webfoot Octopus Street (성내동 쭈꾸미골목)
Straight on Cheonho-daero (천호대로), Right on Cheonho-daero-158-gil (천호대로158길)