By Ben Cowles
After canning it up the hill at what must have been record speed, I couldn’t get off the mini bus fast enough. The nausea eventually subsided as I peered down at the sloping, vibrant neighborhood of Taeguk Village*(태국마을). The colors and short stature of the buildings were a stark contrast to the grey tides of the city we left behind. The necessitous of the town only added to its charisma. Wandering the narrow alleys between the brightly colored, tightly packed shabby homes of the hillside village, I felt as though my girlfriend and I had been transported to the third world.
The brochure/map for Taeguk village likened itself to the picturesque Greek island of Santorini. However the sloping view of the sea was where the similarities ended for me. I thought it typical of Korea to big up this village by comparing it to the exclusivity, luxury and pretensions of Santorini. I reckoned a more honest comparison would be with the slight less marketable favelas of Rio. But then, who’s going to slam “Shanty town” on their tourist paraphernalia?
It’s my understanding that Brazil’s favelas were formed as the poor evacuated Rio de Janeiro’s climbing expenses in the seventies, combined with a diaspora of rural communities seeking a better life in the booming city. Without anywhere else to go the destitute erected makeshift homes on the outskirts of the city of Copacabana, nightlife and sex.
While not in anyway similar to the danger or poverty of Brazil’s Favelas, Taeguk shares an equally sad story. During the Korean Civil War of the fifties, thousands of people were uprooted from their homes and forced to murder their fellow countrymen. At the start of the war, Busan was the only city to hold out against the sweeping advances of the commie Northerners. Taeguk village was designated as a stopgap refugee camp for the resulting droves of displaced peoples from all over Korea. When the ceasefire effectively ended, the conflict many of the exiled refugees stayed and the settlement became a permanent feature.
Unfortunately, the economic success of Busan since then had mostly passed Taeguk village by. As the rest of Busan developed into a behemoth city, erecting high raise apartment blocks, record breaking department stores, beach resorts and super highways, the village remained a backwater where things moved at a snail’s pace.
However, Taeguk village has since found refuge in the final sanctuary usually reserved for scoundrels: Tourism. Without any real touristic assets to speak of; say a sexy beach, sleazy casino, plunderable ancient ruins or natural beauty to leech off, the village needed some creative thinking.
In much the same way as the Favelas were painted bright colors to appease residents and pander to tourists; the ministry of culture, sports and tourism stepped in with its Art Village Project in 2009.
Now the much more creatively titled Miro Miro Project has transformed the previously skint village into an urban art gallery. The houses once seen as archaic and a source of embarrassment for the residents are now flaunted as Korean cultural heritage.
The interlude from the clangor of traffic, hordes of people and constant development have bestowed the place with a rare and peaceful quietude within the second city. While the kooky art projects have also given the town a down-the-rabbit-hole like experience. After a whole afternoon of general moseying, slouching and interacting with modern art, we found it hard to tear ourselves away and return to the insanity of Busan.
Every now and again I become disheartened by the conformity of Korean cities. Take a glance down any street, jump in a taxi for 10 minutes and no matter your destination, chances are the two streets could have been twins separated at birth.
It seems that there is perpetual development going on in Korea. In every apartment my hat has hung these past four years in the so-called land of the morning calm, I’ve been rudely awakened by sadistic builders intent on drilling, digging or generally causing a terrible cacophony of noise at some ungodly hour. Just open your window and I bet you’ll hear the sound of construction.
It breaks my heart to see scruffy, quirky residential areas get swept aside in order to raise vulgar communist style, personality exempt, ridiculously named apartment blocks in their ashes.
However, if you’re willing to put in the time, it’s possible to unearth a scattering of eccentricities in a Korean metropolis. Taeguk village is the best I have found in Busan thus far. The town has only recently bleeped on the tourist radar and therefore only receives a handful of Korean and Japanese tourists. By the looks a few of the residents threw way it was obvious that they haven’t seen many Westerns touring these parts. I hope that the re-branding of these buildings catches on and inspires others developers to use more colors than the standard ten shades of grey.
The town restored my faith in Korean cities by showing me that they could be, and in parts are just as beautiful, quirky and brimming with individuality as Santorini or the Favelas of Rio.
*The word village used in a strictly Asian population sense of the world.
If you’re down in Busan, grab your camera and head to Toseong station (토성역). Head straight out of exit 8 following the street around the corner to the right. At the bus stop just up the road in front of the Busan cancer center, take the mini bus 2-2 to Gamcheong elementary school (감천초등학교).
Ben Cowles has been living working, traveling and teaching in East Asia for the past six years. Having grown tired of monkeying around in the class room, he has decided to turn his hairy opposable thumbs to freelance writing. Ben is currently the alpha male at monkeyboygoes.com.