19 October 2008

Seoul: Gyeonghuigung, Deoksugung, & City Hall

I decided to limit myself to the City Hall area today, and my experiences today allowed me to see Seoul both as an ancient capital and as a modern international business hub.

My first destination today was Gyeonghuigung, the westernmost royal palace which was built in 1616 strictly as an emergency backup. Nevertheless, it witnessed the inaugurations of three of Joseon's 27 monarchs. The Japanese managed to pretty much destroy it completely during their colonial rule, so the palace today is considered only a "site," though a few key buildings have been rebuilt.

In the royal era, I would've been inside the palace. But today, I am at a plaza which is showcasing photos of the Han River in Seoul, taken between 1956 and 1963.

This photo, one of about two dozen, shows rowboats floating around the river's only vehicular and railroad bridges. In postwar Seoul, this was one of the few ways the citizens could unwind and relax.

These children are skating and sledding on the frozen river, under the railroad bridge. Some of them are wearing the "People's Army" winter caps, which were a necessity for street credibility among young boys playing winter games.

This scene was very common in the 1950s, but is only a memory today, as global warming and all the heat produced by modern city activities combine to keep Seoul much warmer, preventing the river from freezing at all, much less well enough to allow skating.

Two young women are sporting modest swimsuits on a hot summer day. Back in these days, having enough money to buy a swimsuit was a big deal. Many, especially young boys, played in the water completely naked - not a problem, as it was (and to a large degree, still is) completely acceptable and healthy to see young boys naked. A few nearby photos were indeed showing photos of naked boys, but I didn't capture them, as they would be considered child porn in the West.

In Korean culture, sights of naked young boys are completely nonsexual and usually a very good thing. A newborn boy will customarily have his frontal nude photo taken in celebration; after all, his manhood better look good, so that after he grows up, he will be able to father lots of children and continue the family line. (It's also completely acceptable, and encouraged, for older relatives to touch the newborn boy's manhood in order to bless him - even though the very thought of it creeps me out.) Even as the boy grows up, he may end up playing outside naked - or at least naked from the waist down - until he is potty-trained (and maybe even a bit longer afterwards), to save on diaper and laundry costs. And even after that, nudity for young boys has traditionally been acceptable all the way until right before puberty, in limited contexts such as swimming, but that's no longer the case today, as everyone can afford swimsuits now.

Girls are saved from all this indignity, however, as femininity is considered delicate and to be protected at all costs, and therefore girls are always fully clothed. Reminds me of ancient Greek art - naked males, clothed females.

Swimming in the river used to be common, but industrial pollutants from the 1960s on pretty much stopped that altogether, and even though the river is once again clean, swimming is still not a good idea.

Originally, I started taking photos of turtle tombstones as a shout-out to my blogging friend DiAnne Grieser in Seattle, who loves turtles. But as I continue running into more and more turtle tombstones all over South Korea, I am developing my own like for them. Though again, I couldn't tell the purpose of this tombstone.

This tombstone occupies the front plaza of Gyeonghuigung, which is now a public square partially occupied by the Seoul History Museum.

The plaza is currently under renovation, but when it's finished early next year, it'll feature this: a streetcar.

Seoul inaugurated a streetcar system in the dying days of the Empire, running east-west along Jongno from the city's western gate through the eastern gate and slightly beyond. A north-south line, from Gyeongbokgung through City Hall, the southern gate, and Seoul's current main train station, to Yongsan, was added during the Japanese era. The streetcars were retired in 1968, and replaced with Seoul's first subway line six years later, covering roughly the same route as the aforementioned two routes.

This streetcar, previously displayed at Children's Grand Park, is itself undergoing chassis renovation right now, in preparation for its new role as the star display of the plaza.

Next to the streetcar lies this bunker. It appears to have been built as a shelter in case of a second North Korean invasion. That invasion is becoming less and less likely, however, as North Korea's shrinking economy is taking a toll, even on the military, despite its "military first" policy. Nevertheless, it can't be completely ruled out.

One of the rebuilt halls of Gyeonghuigung. This building is Sungjeongjeon, built in 1618 as the main administration building. The original was sold by the Japanese in the 1920s to a Japanese-owned Buddhist temple, and is now being used as a religious hall at the Buddhist-owned Dongguk University. This is a reconstruction based on historical records and excavations.

Sungjeongjeon's throne.

Outside this palace are a number of high-rise buildings housing the various divisions of a leading South Korean corporation, Kumho Asiana. The left building houses the company's life insurance division; the red slanted accent mark is the new corporate identity of Kumho Asiana. The curved building in the center right is the new corporate headquarters of the entire corporation, opened less than four weeks ago.

Kumho Asiana is well known for tires and other automotive parts, as well as transportation (Kumho Bus Lines, Korea Express truck line, and Asiana Airlines) and construction (not only Kumho Construction, but the construction arm of the defunct Daewoo group too). The company's name used to be simply Kumho; "Asiana" was recently added due to the high visibility of Asiana Airlines, especially overseas.

Now, I am about to enter Seoul History Museum. Although I had been there in 2004, and photos are not allowed, I still thought it couldn't hurt to go in again, especially since admissions is free this month. (It's normally 700 won.)

Today, there was a special exhibition on the Chinese historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and its role in Korean popular culture throughout history. The novel is based on the events in China around 200 CE, when the Han empire was breaking up, many warlords vied for influence, and three of them (Cao Cao, Liu Bei, and Sun Quan) eventually competed for the control of all of China. I am somewhat familiar with the story (and quite familiar with the major characters), after discussing them with my Chinese-speaking friends back in the US.

Again, photos were not allowed in the exhibit area, so I can only describe what I saw today. I could see screens depicting various scenes from the novel, written forms of the novel in Chinese and Korean, 1970s comic version of the novel (both uncensored and censored), and the development of various Korean-language translations of the story. There are even some side stories that are popular in Korean culture, but were never included in the Chinese original.

These sketches are in the photo-allowed area. I can take a dot sticker and place it next to my favorite major character from the Three Kingdoms. On the right is Liu Bei, considered the most honorable of the three major warlords; he was winning the popularity contest here. On the left is Zhuge Liang, the extraordinarily smart advisor to Liu Bei.

Two more figures. On the left is Liu Bei's trusted general and sworn younger brother, Guan Yu. Guan Yu is a deity in China, and a shrine dedicated to him stands even here in Seoul. On the right is a very wily warlord, Cao Cao; although Cao Cao died late in the story, his descendants were the eventual victors.

Nearby were some popular Korean sayings that were derived from Three Kingdoms, a few of which are as follows:
  • Cao Cao laughs his way to his own demise. (You may be overconfident and smiling now, but could humiliate yourself later.)
  • Cao Cao's arrows shoot Cao Cao. (Using too many tricks will lead to one's own demise.)
  • Are you Liu Bei? You weep too much. (A way to indicate a crybaby.)
  • He's like Zhao Yue (a major general for Liu Bei) using his old spear. (A way to describe one's spendthrift ways of using money or objects.)
  • Zhang Fei (Liu Bei's youngest sworn brother) always fights everyone he meets. (A way to describe a very belligerent person who picks fights with anyone and everyone.)
  • Don't fight Zhang Fei. (Zhang Fei may be a good fighter, but unless you let him fight you, you don't have to fight him at all.)
  • Three ordinary people are better than a Zhuge Liang. (It's better to have several ordinary brains working together than an extraordinary brain working alone.)
  • If Zhuge Liang comes, he'll go home crying. (A way to describe someone truly extraordinary - even more so than Zhuge Liang.)
The rest of the museum didn't feature too much beyond what I've seen in other museums around Seoul. However, I loved displays of Seoul's urban growth, with models of downtown from the 19th Century, from the 1930s, and from 2002. Also present were a video showing Seoul's city limits and transportation network, from modest 1394 beginnings to the sprawling complex today. I could also take a virtual tour of the downtown area of 1930s Japanese Keijo, and even take a look at tourist maps, pamphlets, and many other objects dating back to that time. I could see the city's growth in three stages: the initial modernization at the end of the Empire, further modernization by the Japanese to fit their imperial ambitions, and the rebuilding of the city after the complete destruction in the Korean War. Interactive terminals at the end allowed me to further study those developments, including the 1970s and 1980s development of Jamsil from a sleepy floodplain of silkworm farms to the home of the 1988 Summer Olympics, something that I personally remember.

Once the most common sight in Seoul, but now very rare: a second-generation Hyundai Excel from the early 1990s. This particular example has decals stating that it comes with optional fuel injection, which was standard on US-market second-generation Excels.

Its license plate is really old; it is in the format of "Seoul 1 X 1234" (X being a simple arbitrary Korean syllable), issued from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. Most older plates, from the late 1990s to 2004 (and for commercial plates, continuing into today), feature the format "Seoul 12 X 1234," with an extra digit in the first number. The newest national plates drop the "Seoul" or any other administrative designation altogether, and simply read "12 X 1234." The primary means of identifying a particular car is through its last four digits of the license plate; the make and model may not be enough, as something like a "silver Hyundai Sonata" is way too common.

By the time this Excel came around, Hyundai was suffering in the US due to poor reliability of the Excel. Many thought Hyundai would simply give up on the US. Instead, it introduced superb new cars, switched from hand-me-down Mitsubishi technologies to its own technologies, and backed the new cars up with super-long warranties; that paid off handsomely.

The first-generation Excel set many sales records in the US, but as it was a truly horrible car, it can no longer be seen in South Korea today. The four-door sedan version of that car, with a separate trunk, was called the Presto in the South Korean domestic market; export models were all Excels, regardless of body style (except those bound for Europe, which continued to use the old Pony name). But for this second generation, all models were Excels (except, again, Europe-bound models, which were again Ponys), and the Presto name was dropped.

A contrast of different political forces currently vying for power in South Korea.

In front, a banner hung by the New United Democratic Party (now, simply the Democratic Party) criticizes the Lee Myung-bak government and its massive tax cuts for the rich. In South Korea, the Democratic Party represents the center-left, and is the largest opposition party, though even then, its influence is limited, as the ruling conservative Grand Nationals hold an outright majority. Any mentions of the "Democratic Party" in South Korean media refers to this party; for the American political party, a specific "US Democratic Party" label is required.

In the rear, the Chosun Ilbo headquarters stands tall, with a television screen showing various news articles and commercials. Again, the Chosun Ilbo is the mouthpiece of South Korea's conservative establishment (as well as its foreign allies in the US Republican Party and elsewhere).

After an upsetting early morning over the political developments both here and back in the US, I have to say that I was feeling better by this point. The Seoul History Museum had shown me the growth of Seoul from a sleepy colonial administration center to an industrial powerhouse to a true world-class city, and even more importantly, the ability of the South Koreans to get all of that done in just a few decades. If only they can remember to draw from their proud, glorious recent past, and stay the course, instead of copying the failed policies of the US Republicans...

This demonstration is asking the passersby to knit some caps for the poor African children. There are a number of such philanthropic demonstrations going on throughout Seoul these days. For a fraction of the immense sums of money being sunk into the Unificaton Church and the US Republicans, the South Koreans are able to do much more with these poorer members of the human family, and make far more difference.

I am nearing the City Hall area. Across from me, the bell tower of the Anglican Church is visible. This is the British area of Seoul; the UK Embassy is just beyond the church.

To the right is the original National Assembly building, which now houses Seoul's City Council. The National Assembly moved to Yeouido in the 1970s.

This is the Seoul Plaza, in front of the City Hall, formerly a very chaotic intersection full of traffic. Now, most of the area is grass, and vehicular traffic is routed around the far end. This is a place where key demonstrations take place, including the 1945 celebration of Japanese defeat, the 1980s democracy movements, the wild cheers of 2002 FIFA World Cup, and the anti-W candlelight vigils of today.

A plaque here said that this place became a grassy plaza in 2004 to immortalize the 2002 FIFA World Cup cheers. The plaque was signed by then-mayor Lee Myung-bak, of course the current President.

Behind me stands the City Hall itself. Currently, it is a Japanese-era building, but it is closed for partial demolition and rebuild, and city administration takes place a few blocks to the west in a temporary building.

Another act of philanthropy: sending 4,000 pairs of sneakers to Bangladesh, where dire economic conditions force even the youngest children into hard labor. These shoes are intended to give some place to rest for the children's labor-hardened feet.

Citizens were asked to hang around, pay for a pair of shoes, then personalize the shoes with various message and insignia using the provided ink and paint. The personalizations serve to not only carry a message from Seoul to the recipients, but also prevent the shoes from being sold in the black market.

I proceeded to the nearby Lotte Department Store (the main branch), where I visited the food court on the top floor. I was very delighted to find the Thai Orchid, one of the few Thai restaurants in Seoul. Food was expensive, but very good, though a bit spicier than I normally find in the US (as South Koreans like spicy food too) but still not as spicy as what a native Thai would ask for. As very few South Koreans know and appreciate Thai food, many of the fellow diners were Westerners. The staff was a mix of Thais and Koreans. Also in the food court, next to Thai Orchid, was the absolutely nicest Vietnamese restaurant of my life!

I'm finished dining, and I am wrapping up the day. I am passing in front of this building, once again in front of City Hall, which houses a whole bunch of foreign offices. Some represent the Taiwanese government, but most belong to airlines. Some, like Finnair and EVA Air, are fairly recent entrants to the South Korean market. Others, including some familiar US-based names, have never served South Korea, and maintain offices here for the convenience of South Koreans traveling to/within the US.

Although mainline Continental has never come here, Continental's Guam-based Micronesia subsidiary occasionally serves Seoul; Continental currently serves Seoul through codeshares on Korean Air, Delta, and Northwest, though as it switches from SkyTeam to Star Alliance, Asiana and United will take over soon. Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air, a name very familiar to me - and one of my favorites, despite my hatred of the State of Alaska - also maintains an office here; it also relies on Korean Air, Delta, and Northwest to carry passengers from Seoul to one of its gateways. A Mexican beach vacation will involve flying Korean Air to Los Angeles, then transferring to Alaska Airlines there (though that may change, as Aeromexico is rumored to be considering running a Seoul-Tijuana nonstop).

My last shot for the day. The gate in the distance is Daehan Gate, the entrance to Deoksugung, immediately to the west of City Hall and south of the British section. I decided not to enter the palace, as I've been there before, and its European buildings and gardens are more of interest for the locals than for me. Besides, I was a bit tired.

To the left is a yellow sign announcing the presence of a Chinese language academy there. Its name is "Yi Er San" - 1, 2, 3 in Mandarin. Mandarin Chinese, as I previously mentioned in my post on Seoul's tiny Chinatown, has become an unhealthy national obsession in South Korea, second only to English.

For comparison, the same 1, 2, 3 count is done in Korean as "Il Yi Sam" - closer to the pronunciation in Cantonese than Mandarin. The Japanese pronunciation doesn't differ much either; it's "Ichi Ni San."