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Sunday, 5 July 2015

Taegeukdo-Gamcheon Culture Village, Busan Saha-gu: Korea's Most Beautiful Favelas during Korean War


"Korea's Santorini." "Korea's Machu Picchu." "Lego Village." "Korea's Rio de Janeiro". These are the many nicknames the Busan Metropole's Precinct of Gamcheon 2-dong, Saha-gu - Taegeukdo Village or also known as Gamcheon Culture Village - has earned over the years.

Nested high in the hills of Busan Saha-gu, this quirky art-filled suburb has emerged from the dust of poverty and war to become one of Busan's more unique architectural and cultural offerings. Although it attracts thousands of camera-toting tourists every year, the village has recently attracted renewed interest by winning the 2012 UN-HABITAT Asian Townscape Award as well as a cultural excellence award from Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

And as you stare out upon the community from the bus stop in front of Gamjeong Elementary School, you instantly understand why. Spread out below you is a panorama of endless rows of low-rise cubicle homes climbing up the steep hillsides from the sea below, their cheerful blue, yellow and pink hues a delight to the eye. Narrow stone and concrete alleyways wind their way through the homes, yielding something new at every turn. Beloved by photographers throughout Korea, it might not be Busan's most famous tourist destination, but it certainly is one of its most picturesque.

Those shanty homes were built up into the brick-and-concrete Lego-like houses that you see today partially thanks to a man named Jangsan Cho Cheol-je (정산 조철제/鼎山 趙哲濟, Born: 1895 - Died: 1958). Cho founded Taegeukdo, a religion that believes that the Taegeuk, or yin and yang symbol, represents the true meaning of life and the universe. Practicing again after persecution and suppression during the Japanese occupation, Cho and his followers converted nearly 90 percent of the refugees living in Gamcheon with their gifts of rice and candy. With this help, residents were then able to funnel their earnings into rebuilding, and in 1955 the area became known as the Taeguk Village when Cho moved the religion’s headquarters there.

Taegeukdo Village’s unusual name reveals the community’s unique origins. During the Korean War, some 4,000 followers of the Taegeukdo religion, refugees from other parts of the wartorn land, settled in this neighborhood of Busan, erecting as their homes some 800 wooden shacks. Founded in 1918, Taegeukdo is an offshoot of Jeungsando, one of several new religious movements that arose in Korea in the social and political tumult that characterized Korea at the turn of the 20th century. The religion believes the Taegeuk - the yin and yang symbol found, among other places, on the Korean Republic National flag - captures the true nature, principle and mystery of the universe. 

In 1958, the 4,000 believers in Busan were joined by more from elsewhere in Korea. In the following decades, the village has changed relatively little. In the 1980s, some 20,000 people called it home, but since then the population has dropped to about 10,000, leaving a good many of the homes empty. The head temple of Taegeukdo can still be found in the village, although most residents are, in fact, not believers in the religion.

Although better established by the 1990s, Gamcheon and the Taeguk Village remained poorer than the rest of Busan, which busied itself by erecting skyscrapers and high-rises. In 2009, the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism stepped in with the Dreaming of Machu Picchu in Busan project. Reparations were made, artists were hired to paint murals and 10 artworks were installed, some created with the assistance of the residents. In 2010 the follow-up Miro Miro project saw the addition of 12 more works, including alley paintings and path markers perfectly suited to the project as miro means 'maze' in Korean. These days, visitors can see trick art, sculpture, and even rooms or buildings remodeled around a singular art concept, such as the Book Cafe shaped like a giant coffee mug, or rooms interpreting themes such as ‘peace’ or ‘darkness’.

In recent years, Taegeukdo Village has gotten quite a bit of attention from the local press, photographers and filmmakers, so on weekends, tourists flock in from all over Korea, camera in hand. This has not been entirely welcomed by village residents, however. The community is not Busan's most affluent, and while tourists find its ramshackle alleyways and old-style homes charmingly quaint, some locals are sensitive to outsiders photographing what they consider symbol s of poverty . Not everyone is so sensitive - as this writer was walking about, one local resident saw my camera and guided me to a nearby rooftop where the views were particularly nice - but be aware of your surroundings, and if you see people in your viewfinder, please ask their permission before snapping the shutter.

Due to the position of the village, it is virtually bathed in sunlight from sunrise to sunset, making the Santorini comparisons all the more apt. More importantly, the sunlight accentuates the light hues of the village. From above, it looks like a quilt of blue roofs and pink and yellow walls. The cubicle homes are stacked one upon another almost like matchboxes and Legos, a product of a time when space was at a premium.

Taegeukdo Village presents a beautiful panorama from above, but to really appreciate its beauty, you need to jump in and wander about the alleys. The narrow passageways are bounded on both sides by row upon row of matchbook houses, interspersed with gates and steps. Also hidden in the jungle are various shops and neighborhood parks wedged into the precious little open space available. Every turn, every angle presents a new view. Higher up in the village, you're afforded beautiful vistas of Busan Harbor and the sea. Unfortunately, there’s no way to properly guide you around the maze - you're just going to have to explore. If it helps any, there are a couple of larger "roads" that might help you get your bearings. If worst comes to worst, up brings you to the top of the hill, and down brings you to the port of Gamcheon, so you needn’t worry about becoming a cautionary tale on the Discovery Channel.

While "redevelopment" might be something of a catchphrase in other cities, Busan has been keen top reserve Taegeukdo Village's "traditional" identity while at the same time bettering its residents' quality of life. In February, the city announced plans to transform the community into an "arts and culture village" by October 2010. To do this, about 300 empty homes are being transformed into galleries, book cafés and other cultural facilities, while local colleges and village residents are working together to produce installation art to be placed at various alleyway corners. Maps marking the galleries and art will be produced as well.

While the village's remaining 10,000 residents are now used to the influx of tourists, photographers and filmmakers, they are still wary of them, and many do not care to be the subject of photos. The village is open from 9:00 to 5:00, and is free of charge. For more information, and to buy the illustrated souvenir tourist map, you can head to the village's Haneul Maru Tourist Information Center and Observatory, where you'll also get a great view of the city.

Beautiful Scenery of Taegeukdo Village, photographed by Kim Sa-ik.
Looks like a Korean Rio de Janeiro.