Editor’s Note: The uncertainties of expat life have struck again, and Joshua has found himself whisked off to Hong Kong, meaning that there’s once more a change in photographers here at Seoul Sub→urban. One more post with Joshua’s work will be coming up – along with a couple from Merissa – but now I’d like to turn things over to our newest photographer, Chris da Canha, and let him introduce himself and the first post he worked on.
Hey everyone, I’m happy to introduce myself to you. My name’s Chris, I’m a skateboarder and photographer living in Seoul. I’ll be working with Seoul Sub→urban and hoping not to be whisked off to Hong Kong. For this first post I’ve been involved with, we spent some time in Songpa, under the tip of the Lotte World Tower’s shadow. It’s an interesting area typifying so much of the city; unique locations and experiences gently disguised by a familiar façade. I hope you enjoy the tour.
Just outside of Exit 2, a tiny little park is wedged into the corner at the intersection of Songpa-daero (송파대로) and Yangjae-daero (양재대로). There’s a dirt walking path winding through it, the path bordered by a shin-high white plastic picket fence, like something you might see in the same yard as a pair of garden gnomes. Alongside the path were benches and manicured shrubs, and the blossoms on magnolias and cherry trees were just beginning to emerge.
The small scale of the park was in contrast to just about everything around it. Across the road to the south were towering apartment buildings with enormous, horrific mint green mushroom statues in front of them. Separating me from them, Yangjae-daero was a 14-lane expanse of incessant traffic. Perpendicular to it, Songpa-daero was six lanes split by several more that dipped into a tunnel running beneath the intersection. With northbound traffic stopped at a red light, an ajumma, large bag slung over her shoulder, trundled across the nearest three lanes to the tunnel’s guardrail, then walked along its shoulder toward the intersection, presumably making her way, dangerously, to the sprawling Garak Market on the opposite corner. Overhead, a pair of twin-prop planes from the nearby military airstrip passed by. Everything added up to make me feel very small.
At the intersection I turned left, and after a couple blocks found myself at Songi Park (송이공원). The park sits atop a hill and behind a scrim of pines and so isn’t actually visible from the street. The hillside was lined with two parallel rows of forsythia and, near the bottom, was dotted with tiny purple flowers. I climbed the flight of steps that led up to the park’s entrance, just inside of which was a monument commemorating the sister city relationship that Songpa-gu formed with Asunción, Paraguay in 1994.
The park, like much of the surrounding neighborhood, was tidy, with well-tended shrubs and carefully placed rocks. There were benches and a dirt court for ball games, a gazebo, and a grove of knotty pines on a small hill. All the way at the back was a large play set, though it was empty of any kids when I visited. In Songi, too, cherry trees and magnolias were starting to bloom, and in a further sign of spring tiny white butterflies flitted about.
Leaving the park, I cut north through the neighborhood on Songi-ro (송이로), squeezed between a middle school on one side and a high school on the other, and accompanied on the sidewalks by moms and the young kids they’d just picked up from school.
The road soon brought me to a second park, Hanyang Park (한양공원). The neighborhood was serene, but the corners just in front of the park were busy in an understated way. On one corner a man sold meter-high bags of puffed rice snacks from a truck, on the opposite corner another truck piped out a recorded sales pitch for bundles of cypress wood from Jiri Mountain, and in between them two guys outside a service center tinkered under the hood of a van.
The park itself held benches, exercise machines, a barefoot walking path, and a spurt fountain, turned off until the weather got a bit warmer. Hanyang was long and skinny, pegged between an apartment complex and a road lined with small boutiques and cafes.
Hanyang is more directly reached from Exit 1, via Garak-ro (가락로), a calm commercial strip of hair shops and restaurants and second floor clinics and hagwons. If you’re headed to the park from this way, at the corner of Garak-ro and Songpa-daero you’ll spot a pair of small arced wooden doors opening onto a staircase. The staircase leads down to the Songpa Village Art Creation Center (송파마을예술창작소), an underground arcade of artist studios, a tiny gallery, and classrooms where members of the public, both kids and adults, can take art lessons. In one classroom, a pair of women in their forties or fifties was working on watercolors, and down at the end of the hallway some woodworkers wore face masks to protect their lungs from floating sawdust as their power tools filled the space with a keening whir.
Students’ finished paintings and prints hung on the arcade’s walls, and there were also small wood blocks lined up on a bookshelf, each block bearing a crayon drawing by a kid. (Presumably, based on the level of motor skills on display, though, hey, you never know.) Among the pictures was a close-up of a Minion from the ‘Despicable Me’ movie series and another of a dog exclaiming ‘Oh yeah’ in pride at the shit it had just taken.
The stretch of Garak-ro to the west of Songpa-daero bore much similarity to its eastern half, with the addition of the slim Seokchon Market (석촌시장), one long line of stalls tucked below apartment buildings on Songpa-daero-31-gil (송파대로31길). About half were open on the afternoon I passed through, each with a small sign listing its number and decorated with a unicorn-horned dokkaebi holding a knobby club. The stalls that were open sold banchan in Styrofoam trays, donuts, dumplings, and fish that smelled again now that warm weather was back. A pair of stray cats hung out in front of a rice cake shop. Halfway down a map listed all of the market’s stalls, different little house icons denoting whether the vendor sold food, produce, clothing, or something else. Tailors in the market mended clothes; a tiny little pet shop sold birds, fish, and rabbits; and boutiques sold clothes for ajummas in colors so violent you wished you saw only in black and white.
Looking at a map of the area before heading to Songpa, I had assumed that the area to the west of the station, outside of Exits 3 and 4 would be by far the least interesting part of the neighborhood: several blocks of nothing but apartment towers between the station and the Tahn Stream (탄천). Instead it turned out to be the most interesting.
The first hint that something would be a bit different about this particular apartment complex was the three-story commercial building just outside of Exit 4. Old, worn, and gray, it felt out of place in this affluent part of town. I took a small side street between the building and the exit, and as I got a clearer view of the apartment towers it became apparent that the ones nearest the station were at least partially abandoned. Some cars were parked in the drive, but no one was around and I saw no signs of life in the buildings’ windows. A concrete fence prevented me from going into the complex, but just on the other side of the fence I could see haphazard piles of refuse, another pile of downed tree branches, and a large hole dug in the ground, several feet deep.
I followed the small road to the right, and after a short ways I spotted an open gate in the concrete fence and slipped inside. It was oddly quiet. The glass in the front door of the nearest tower had been kicked in.
Signs – just pieces of A4 paper, really – had been taped up next to each tower’s entryway, giving notice that the area was under CCTV surveillance. I didn’t see any cameras, though, and it seemed unlikely that, even if there were, anyone was keeping much of an eye on them. One of the towers’ front doors was open invitingly, and I went inside. The walls of the entryway were poxed with stickers advertising moving companies. Dark green mailboxes sat empty and caked in rust, and all but two of the utility meters had been pulled out of their casing on the wall, leaving just square black holes behind. I started up the narrow stairwell. On the first landing sat an empty milk carton, and strands of what looked like seaweed or some root hung from a clothes-hanger dangling from the banister. Someone had once put them out to dry with the intention of later eating them, but that had never happened, and now they were as brittle as autumn leaves. The stairs provided access to two apartments on each floor, their doors pale green metal with spots of rust around their keyholes. I tried the door handles of several of them, but they were all locked. Many also had small swatches of duct tape over the door jambs, though what purpose this served I had no idea.
Back outside, I continued to wander up and down the complex’s streets. Trash was strewn indiscriminately, and here and there I had to step around downed tree branches. Bricks had been dislodged from sidewalks, and untended grass and bushes encroached on footpaths between towers. A blooming cherry tree and some roses added an out-of-place beauty, but for the most part the surroundings were grim and anarchic. What was once likely a residents’ center had its doors chained shut. On the sidewalk a box spring’s cover had been ripped off, exposing a rusted skeleton inside. In the middle of one street, a suitcase rested on a stack of bricks, packed up with a carefully placed pile of square stone slabs. Many of the apartment towers’ windows were smashed, others were missing their glass entirely, and on others long lines of windows were still intact but were marked by large ‘X’s spray-painted across them in red, as if someone was using them to mark off days or send some type of cryptic signal. This, I thought, was what the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse would look like if it ever came to Seoul.
As I walked around I’d occasionally pass someone else, typically an old person just standing around or biking through. At first it was hard to figure out what they were doing; they didn’t seem to be scavenging. Then I realized that – much like others do in cemeteries – they were here for the quiet, taking advantage of the near-silence to get some exercise in peace.
The entire subdivision – all 134 towers according to Naver Maps – was slated for redevelopment, and it just so happened that I’d turned up on the penultimate day that residents had to enter their old homes and claim anything inside that they wanted to take with them before the buildings were razed.
Closer to the subdivision’s western edge I went into another empty tower. A first floor apartment’s door was marked with another large spray-painted X, the mark’s upper arms framing a small red sticker that said ‘고맙습니다 사랑합니다’ (‘Thank you, I love you.’). I tried the door. It was unlocked.
Sunlight filtered in through the window, throwing light on a small space that combined living room and kitchen. A chunk of the floor was missing, and what was left was dusty and littered with odd pieces of plastic. Cabinet doors hung askew. A dirty rag rested on the countertop where once a gas range had been mounted. On one wall a small red and white Christmas poster was taped up. Half of the poster was ripped off, revealing a pencil sketch of a young girl’s face that someone had once drawn on the wall. The half of the poster that was still there showed a snowman and Santa Claus relaxing on a couch, Santa napping with his head resting in the snowman’s lap. At the top of the poster enough of the English text was still visible for me to make out that it had once read, ‘You are not alone.’ I certainly hoped I was.
A room adjacent to the living room/kitchen was empty save for a single white cloth work glove and, right in the middle of the floor, a dead rat. It didn’t look injured, nor did it look like it had been dead for very long, and I wondered how it had met its end here.
In the rear of the apartment was another small room, a child’s bedroom judging from the wallpaper of bunny rabbits and pandas that still clung to the wall in places. Like the drawing of the young girl in the main room, the walls here were covered in pen and pencil scribbles: some doodles, but mostly writing. Mixed in with Korean notes were Chinese characters, math problems (’86-38=48’), and English vocabulary words (‘vanish,’ ‘banish,’ ‘impediment,’ ‘obstacle’) and their Korean translations. Most eerily there were also passages of scripture written in English: ‘No one comes to the Father except through me;’ ‘She will bear you a son. You shall name him John.’
It was an odd sight, seeing nearly every reachable space of the wall covered in writing, as if whoever once lived here had used the very walls of their home as a memo pad, as a diary. It made the home feel oddly alive, still infused with the spirits of whoever had once lived there. As I left the apartment I noticed something I hadn’t on the way in. Taped to the inside of the front door was a photograph, cut into a scalloped shape like a seashell, its edges curling. Whoever had lived here hadn’t bothered to take it when they left. In the photo were three children, two girls and a boy, wearing conical party hats with red frills at the base. They were seated at a table with two birthday cakes in front of them. One girl and the boy showed shy smiles; the girl in the middle was serious, unsmiling. Were they the ones who had lived here, who had drawn the portrait of the girl, who had written the scripture? Were they the ones who learned the word ‘vanish’?
Songi Park (송이공원)
Straight on Songpa-daero (송파대로), Left on Yangjae-daero (양재대로)
Hanyang Park (한양공원)
Straight on Songpa-daero (송파대로), Right on Garak-ro (가락로)
Songpa Village Art Creation Center (송파마을예술창작소)
Straight on Songpa-daero (송파대로)
Seokchon Market (석촌시장)
Straight on Songpa-daero (송파대로), Left on Garak-ro (가락로), Left on Songpa-daero-31-gil (송파대로31길)
Garak Apartment Housing Reconstruction Site (가락시영아파트주택재건축)
Exit 3 or 4