(573) Bukchon and Namchon
In recent years, the Cheonggye stream has become one of Seoul’s major landmarks. This long, artificial valley in the middle of the city attracts much attention and has been the object of much criticism.
Highbrow intellectuals are supposed to turn their noses up at its alleged kitschiness. The present author, not possessing such a lofty attitude, does not share these feelings, and admires the place.
For centuries the Cheonggye stream divided Seoul into two parts. The area to the north of the stream was known as Bukchon or “Northern village,” while the areas to the south were known as Namchon or “Southern village.” This division appeared in the early stages of the city’s history and persisted until after the end of Japanese colonial rule.
Until the late 19th century, Bukchon was a place where the elite dwelt while Namchon (the present-day Myeongdong and Chungmuro areas) was a place for the humble common folk.
This was understandable, all royal palaces were located in the northern part of the city, so officials and aristocrats preferred to live as close to the royal residence as possible. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bukchon boasted a number of elegant mansions belonging to the rich and powerful. Nowadays some of these mansions have been restored to their former glory and their existence makes Bukchon an attractive and popular tourist spot.
However, the fate of Bukchon and Namchon was dramatically reversed in the late 19th century with the beginning of the Japanese expansion into Korea. When, in the 1880s, the first Japanese settlers began to arrive in Seoul, they settled in the southern part of the city, around the slopes of Namsan mountain. This was a natural choice, since it was the area where the Japanese legation was located.
Therefore, from the 1880s, Namchon began to develop as the Japanese part of the city. This development sped up after 1910, when Korea became a Japanese colony and the number of Japanese settlers increased dramatically.
It is often forgotten that in colonial times, ethnic Japanese made up a very significant part of the urban population in Korea. For instance, in the 1910s, Japanese settlers constituted exactly half the entire population of Busan. In Seoul, the ratio of Japanese to Koreans peaked in the early 1930s when some 27 percent of the city population was Japanese.
Contrary to what is commonly assumed, only a small minority of Japanese settlers were bureaucrats, policemen or soldiers. Most of the settlers were small-time businessmen, technicians or skilled workers, attracted to Korea by high salaries and low prices.
The ethnic Japanese settlers enjoyed a number of explicit and tacit privileges and as a result Namchon became the most advanced part of the city. Many more houses in this area had running water and electricity.
In the colonial era, Namchon also became the major center of cultural and commercial activity. Myeongdong, then known under the Japanese name “Honmachi” was the major trade district in the country, where the Japanese-owned shops and sold the high-tech gadgets of the period (wrist-watches, radio sets and the like).
Of the five major department stores which existed in colonial-era Seoul, four were to be found in Namchon. Only one of these great department stores has survived almost unchanged to the present-day ― Shinsegae department store, once the property of the famous Japanese retail chain Mitsukoshi.
There was only one department store in the Bukchon area, predictably it was the only one owned by a Korean entrepreneur. The Hwasin store was quite popular among Korean residents of Seoul, who often saw its success as proof of Koreans’ business acumen. Unfortunately the impressive building has not survived.
But colonial Bukchon had its own attractions too. It was a place where cheap Korean eateries began to pop up in the 1920s. Therefore, for less than 0.5 won, one could eat a bowl of real seollongtang soup or naengmyeon (cold noodles). It was also a place where many Korean intellectuals lived, and often met to discuss their country’s future.
The startling difference between Bukchon and Namchon was often the topic of discussion in the nationalist newspapers of the colonial period. Even in the relatively permissive 1920s, they had to be careful not to emphasize the ethnic nature of the divide. Nonetheless, there were a number of complaints about the colonial administration’s preference for Namchon.
This division between the two parts of the city disappeared almost overnight after 1945. Virtually all ethnic Japanese, including those who were born and had spent their entire lives in Korea up until that point, were expelled from the country in 1945-46.
Their property was confiscated and Namchon soon lost its earlier image of “little Japan.” Around that time, Seoul began to grow with remarkable speed, so very soon, both Bukchon and Namchon became merely two small areas of a huge and fast growing metropolis.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.