A hanok is a traditional Korean house. Bukchon, an area of Seoul, had a whole village full of them. I went to a two-room museum which described the transition from the older to the newer hanok — and one man’s attempt to keep traditional Korean culture alive against the threat of “Japanisation”, which the occupying Japanese threatened.
Bukchon, although it resembles the architecture of the Joseon period (14-19th century), was established in the 20th century. Jeong Se-gwon (1888-1965) was the central figure in its reconstruction.
Jeong Se-gwon saw that the traditional hanok, with its central courtyard, was unsuitable for the increasing population in Korea. They needed affordable houses. He bought these large traditional hanoks from aristocrats and divided them into about six city-style hanoks in the 1920s.
You can see in this blurry photo the traditional hanok (left) and the newer one (right).
Whilst there was probably a commercial imperitive for Se-gwon, he also wanted to check the expanding Japanese residential areas. At its peak, he was building 300 hanoks a year; this accounted for about 35% of houses built for Koreans in Seoul at the time.
Not content with tackling housing and the Japanese, Jeong Se-gwon put his weight behind the Mulsanjangryeo Movement, which promoted Koreans products.
Bukchon, and the other Joseonjip-style neighbourhoods, built in northern Seoul during the colonial period were, the exhibition goes on to say, “not simply residential areas, but a cultural bulwark against everyday pillaging by encroaching Japanese imperialism”. In this way, “Koreans could maintain and develop Korean culture, by carrying out cultural resistance activities in a living space that was distinguished from Japanese habitats.”
These Bukchon houses, built for “ordinary people” (like some of the old British almshouses) are now affordable only by the wealthy. In the case of the hanoks, the ownership has gone full circle, from aristocrats to the current-day wealthy.
As I was leaving the museum, I saw the manager of the museum speaking to another visitor. She was mentioning some of the places to visit in the area.
I went to the first place she mentioned, Baek in-je house museum – a beautiful example of a hanok open to the public for free. I bumped into the tourist, Eric, from the museum. He was French.
After the house closed, we went to the second place mentioned by the museum manager — a street lined with hanoks. It was popular. Tens of people were walking up and down the narrow street, taking selfies and recording videos. I later read that the village averages 10,000 visitors a day! Apparently, tourists are driving residents out of the area.
This is a video I took whilst walking along this popular street:
There are signs asking visitors to be silent and respect residents’ privacy. House-owners can’t be pleased with thousands of tourists turning up at their doorsteps every day. However, the tourist board have recognised Bukchon’s popularity. There are foreign-language speaking tour guides walking around. They will happily hand you a map and answer your questions, whilst sporting their t-shirts asking you to keep your voice down.
After Eric and I exchanged details, we went our separate ways, I saw there was a library in the area.
Jeongdok Public Library has lovely grounds and an outdoor reading area with soft floor cushions and bookcases! In the background was a mountain. What a beautiful setting for a library!