My first visit a few months ago to Busan, the southwestern port city of Korea, was accompanied with great weather. The early spring weather brought with it a slight, refreshing breeze, hinting at warmer weather to come. With the clear air and sky, the conditions were perfect for a visit to Busan’s Gamcheon cultural village, the iconic mountainside slum ever-present in flyers and brochures for the city. While now a colorful smorgasbord of clustered homes, the hillside neighborhood wasn’t always so bright. This breadth of shades and colors is unique to Korean architecture, and more a reflection of youth culture than of traditional Korean design.
This area became a tourist attraction after receiving a makeover by young Korean artists, who, in 2009, were given permission to brighten up the streets/homes and staircases with touches of color, arguably at cost to the peace and quiet of its residents, as can be seen by the numerous signs saying “please be quiet” scattered along the walking courses. I’d seen photos of the village many times before Busan and had really wanted to visit one time myself. I, however, wasn’t expecting how touristy it’s become since its original makeover. The bus stop was crowded with hoards of young couples and women taking selfies at every stop, holding out long selfie sticks, striking cute poses. My friend, somewhat embittered by possibly too much time in Korea surrounded by selfie-frenzied young Koreans, lamented this state of affairs in dramatic tone…mocking this obsession with selfies and social media. The rest of us nodded, amused with his passion on this topic.
Yet, nonetheless, he had a point. The area was beautiful, but having become such a touristy place, lacked some of the feel it might once have had….of being a unique cultural enclave, home to families living real lives. It wasn’t until we descended into the labyrinth of side streets below the major lookouts and main street of shops selling ice cream and churros, amongst other treats, that we could really feel what it might be like living in such a neighborhood. Like other hillside communities in Seoul, the narrow alleyways and winding streets were lined with parked motorcycles, the major form of transportation living there, as cars simply wouldn’t fit. For this reason, we had to keep our eyes wide while walking around. As anyone who’s spent even a short time in Korea knows, the motorcyclists expect you to move out of their way, not the other way…so, unless you want to end up limping back to your hostel, don’t make any strong stands for your “right of way” while sightseeing in Korea.
On the way down the hill to bus stop, we passed a variety of small shops selling gimbap (Korea’s version of sushi rolls…a common snack), small family run convenience stores, fried chicken shops and laundromats, with locals going about their daily lives, few and far in between. Korean flags were waving in the wind, suspended from the sides of houses, a reminder of the beginning of Korea’s independence from Japan, celebrated on that very day…the day when Korea’s independence fighters gathered in Seoul to organise in protest against occupying Japan…What would those freedom fighters have thought having seen Korea now, a major economic power, drawing tourists from all across Asia to places such as this? Would they be happy with what they see? I guess I’ll have to ask the next elderly man I see here…