Art Saves Korean Ghetto: Busan’s Gamcheon Culture Village

An impoverished Korean neighborhood looks for salvation in art.

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Rows of brightly colored ceramic birds with smiling human heads perch along the edge of a roof, welcoming passers-by. Silver dragonflies the size of people cling to a school wall. Three metal flowers resembling dandelions sprout from a sidewalk and tower as high as a two-story building.

Walking the streets of Gamcheon Culture Village in Busan, it’s easy to suppose artists were trying to recreate an Alice-in-Wonderland-like world. Residents are betting the village’s future on art. What’s harder to imagine though is that this neighborhood’s history is deeply rooted in war, religion and poverty.

Gamcheon, or Gamregeol as it was originally called, began as nothing more than a cluster of 20 or so houses. In 1950, at the onset of the three-year Korean War, the North Korean People’s Army pushed back U.N. forces to a 230-kilometer line near the southeastern tip of Korea. The area, known as the “Pusan Perimeter,” was the last line of defense and only part of the peninsula the North never held.

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Impoverished war refugees from all over the country poured into Busan, the provisional wartime capital, looking for safety and the city became a giant refugee camp. By 1951, there were almost half a million refugees in Busan, in addition to its original 882,000 inhabitants.

Most arrived with only the possessions they could carry. They moved to neighborhoods such as Bosudong, close to Jagalchi Market, but these quickly became overcrowded. Gamcheon was only a few kilometers away and had plenty of space. The village was transformed almost overnight into a refugee shantytown of 800 wooden shacks clinging to a Busan hillside.

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A photo of Gamcheon taken back in 1957.

The refugees built shelters from corrugated iron, old planks and plywood. Their makeshift homes were so rudimentary that “stones covered the tops of the dwellings to keep the roofs from blowing off,” said Lee Min-su, a guide at the Gamcheon Culture Village information center.

Change was brought about by a man by the name of Cho Cholje (1895-1958), the founder of a new religion called Taegukdo. After suffering religious suppression during the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation, Cho moved the headquarters of Taegukdo to Bosudong in 1948 and started practicing again.

About 3,000 households became members. Then the Korean War began and refugees started to pack into the neighborhood surrounding Cho’s headquarters.

“Cho Cholje and his followers told the refugees he will give them candy, toothbrushes or rice if they believed in Taegukdo,” said Lee Chang-ho, Gamcheon’s village leader and resident since the 1970s.

Jeon Yeong-chul, who now teaches a ceramics class in the village, said, “The refugees were really poor and they needed something to believe in. There was nothing there when they moved to Gamcheon. The people who lived there before the Taeguk people came were also very poor. The Taeguk people wanted to develop the village.”

The efforts of Cho and his followers to proselytize the refugees were highly successful. Soon almost 90 percent of Gamcheon residents practiced Taegukdo. Then, in 1955, Cho once again moved his headquarters, this time to Gamcheon, which became known as Taegukdo village.

Although not a follower of Taegukdo himself, Jong Jae-am, a resident who moved to the village 58 years ago, said the place “changed quite a bit. There was nothing when I first got here. Then the residents started to earn some money, bought bricks and built it up.”

Lee recalled the village’s growth: “Gamcheon was only one district in 1950, now it’s nine. In the ’70s there were only houses made of wood. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, families started to get bigger so they built two-level houses.”

Although some improvements to the village were made, it was still difficult to break free from the hardships of the past. The area remained one of Busan’s most poverty-stricken neighborhoods, resembling a Brazilian hillside favela or slum.

“The place was poor and old so the people were in a bad mood as a result. Nobody wanted to come live here,” said Lee.

Then in 2009, the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism launched a project to renovate Gamcheon. It was named Dreaming of Busan Machu Picchu. The plan’s goal was to remodel the village into a creative community run by residents, artists and the local administrative office.

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The government hired artists to paint murals and add 10 pieces of street art to the neighborhood. Phase two of the project known as Miro Miro started soon after. Six houses and six alleys were transformed into mini galleries or colorful paths. Arrows were also painted on the sides of the houses to guide tourists through the maze of alleyways. Experiential activities for tourists were set up, including pottery making and clothes dyeing.

Many of the residents rejected the project at first. “They didn’t know or understand the meaning behind the art village or the reason for building it,” said Kim Mun-seng, a village resident since 1956 and an active community member. “Tourists came to our village to take our picture as if we were animals in a zoo. Our houses are modest and not something we want to show off.”

Gradually the community accepted the changes and Kim now says, “the art makes the village more enchanting.”

Domestic media also began to take notice of the village’s distinct charms. Korean movies and TV dramas started to use Taeguk Village as a backdrop for stories including “Hero,” “Geu-nyo-ay-gae,” “Superstar Kam Sa-young,” and “Camelia.”

Gamcheon is also known as Lego Village for its symmetric rows of colorful blockhouses scaling the hillside. Tourist maps of the city even go so far as to call it the Santorini of Busan. Many visitors agree that although it’s not shiny and new, the village has a special charm about it. Kim Na-young, a tourist from Daejeon, said, “It is a sight that is distinctly Busan. You can’t see anything else like it in Korea.”

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Now Gamcheon is a stop on the tourist trail. For foreigners like photographer Greg Samborski, the extra charm to the great views on offer is the area’s welcoming residents. Walking down the main street, locals smile or say hello in English when they see a foreigner.

“The residents and government wanted to change the whole village atmosphere to make it happier,” said Lee proudly.

She paused as she looked out over the former refugee camp from atop the village information center’s observation deck. “The art village project chose to preserve and rejuvenate the neighborhood instead of redeveloping it. It’s a role model for others in Korea.”

Now that’s something for the birds to smile about.

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[This article was originally published by Yonhap News Agency.]

  • Aperture: ƒ/4.5
  • Taken: November 13, 2011
  • Focal length: 28mm
  • ISO: 400
  • Shutter speed: 1/20s
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Author: Pete DeMarco

Pete DeMarco is an award-winning travel photographer. His passion for helping people transform their photography shows through in the expert advice he shares. His work has been featured in National Geographic Traveler, CNN, and as a staff writer for Digital Photography School.

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