If you read blogs about South Korea, you may have come across Seoul Sub>urban, a blog that visits the immediate vicinity of a random subway station in Seoul to see what’s around. After a fairly recent post about Yongdu station, a couple of the destinations looked interesting enough to visit myself.
The gridded tower you see above, by the way, is essentially a spiral — inside is just enough room to hide from traffic — and despite the grid is private from all but the most observant bystanders.
A look from the inside of the aforementioned tower.
OK, so the main show here is the Cheonggyecheon Museum — opened in September 2005 around the same time as the Cheonggyecheon stream was restored to its former watery beauty. The stream itself was under construction / restoration from July 2003 to September 2005. As with some other high-budget public-works projects, the multi-floor exhibition halls aim to give a sense of the project’s value and history. This is, of course, the massive urban renewal (about $900,000,000 USD) started by Lee Myeong-bak, the then-Seoul mayor that later became became president of South Korea. At least one person was convicted of taking bribes connected to the massive project (despite that conviction, the bribed individual was pardoned and given a major post on the Four Rivers Project — a project complete with its own set of controversy.)
You’ll see none of this controversy at the museum, of course.
One gorgeous sunset, coming right up.
Take the escalator to the fourth floor and enter, then pick up an English brochure and observe the model below:
The large model will look familiar to anyone that’s been to Songdo Central Park — I dare say whatever company that makes the models is benefiting from the constant construction happening throughout Korea.
A look at the stream in decades past, along with some video from the era.
You could turn this into a tilt-shift picture, but the glass overhead would too easily give it away. In any case, the construction to restore the waterway occurred below street level.
Not pictured nearby is the only sign that citizens might have had a cow — a quickly described glossing-over titled “Supporting Local Merchants” that implies the merchants re-located willingly to Dongdaemun Stadium. Where’s that on my tourist map? Unless your map of Seoul is a pre-2007 map, you won’t find it — it was demolished to make way for the futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park. In short, the vendors were more-or-less forcibly moved from one site to another site that was demolished shortly after they set up shop. If I had the Korean skills, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that quite a few of the vendors still offering their wares in the Dongdaemun area were once trying to make a living in the Cheonggyecheon area.
Continue, gradually, through the hall and without the need for stairs you’re on the next, lower, level. It’s here where a larger map of central Seoul is laid out below a tiled glass floor (not pictured), and one can easily feel like Godzilla trouncing through the city. Once your inner seven-year-old has been quenched, take in a few other projects that I’m not sure ever happened or got beyond the pie-in-the-sky planning phase.
Continue to the next lower level and you’ll find two kings talking to each other. The history of rivers and streams run centuries along, of course. Amazingly, King Yeongjo (r.1724–1776) and King Jeongjo (r. 1776–1800) have been captured on high-definition digital video explaining their takes on the river. The former launched an enormous dredging project requiring 210,000 men, even as the capital’s population grew and put strains on the stream. Some yellowed newspaper clippings date from the 20th century and testify to the stream’s decrepit condition.
This condition wasn’t helped after the Korean war, when military uniforms were re-dyed to become civilian clothes. The stream turned dark grey as a result of the dye, and presumably whatever else was in the water.
It’s at this point where the museum ends and we walked across the street to the historically questionable shacks. The reproduction status is obvious, but what’s missing is the despondent citizens living hand-to-mouth and ekeing out a living alongside a depressingly dirty stream amidst tens of thousands of virtually identical people.
What we end up seeing, instead, is a rustic collection of memorabilia that would make any Cracker Barrel or antiques collector proud. They are genuine artifacts, indeed, and a reminder of how little some things have changed over several decades. What they are not, however, are symbols of the average person living along the Cheonggyecheon of the time.
I don’t get it — can anyone explain?
These images are nothing new, of course — similar collections of antique pieces have been seen in Seoul, among other places. I’ll freely admit to lacking the first-hand knowledge to say these are inaccurate, though Seoul Suburban’s description that struck as most poignant — “romantic” — describes this look back in history the best.
Name: Cheonggyecheon Museum (청계천문화관)
Address: Seoul, Seong-dong-gu Ma-jang-dong 527–4
Korean address: 서울특별시 성동구 마장동 527–4
Directions: Yongdu station (line 2 branch), exit 5. Turn away from the intersection and toward the stream. Cross over the stream, then turn right to follow the sidewalk. Walk 250 meters — you’ll see the museum on your left and the shacks on your right.
Hours: 9am-6pm (from March to October, or from November to February’s weekdays, until 7pm).