PHOTOGRAPHED BY LEE ERIC
“VOLUNTEER WORK?” asked the taxi driver. Through the rear-view mirror the taxi driver glanced at the back seat, with a ‘I knew it’ look on her face. I mumbled my answer out of confusion; the driver was more than excited to share her stories taking students after students to the area. “It’s a small village, with so many people living there till now. It’s simply not a place suitable for living.” Scattered buildings caught my eye outside the taxi window, with greenery increasing as we drove by. Something was different. In fact, everything was different. On the border of Seoul and Gyeonggi-do, this was a place where it is a bit awkward to be labeled a ‘city.’ Less people, few buildings, the borough was not ready yet to be a crowded downtown.
No. 104 Junggye-dong Nowon-gu, Seoul. What used to be a place where people started their lives as Seoul citizens turned into ‘the last Daldong-nae’ in Korea. Daldong-nae, which are poor hillside villages or shanty towns, have long been referred to as ‘untouchable’ places in Seoul. Side by side with the rapid economic development since the 1960s, people across the peninsula flooded into the city. Not knowing where to go, people started building temporary residences on state-owned hillside near the factories they worked for. Without sufficient support from the governments who were indifferent other than economic development, Village No. 104 quickly turned into a slum, where people come in and leave when they find a proper home. It is not so strange that the place lacked technical infrastructure ready for them, and the residents had to build everything from scratch, including external bathroom stalls and wells.
It was a 10-minute ride from the subway station to a narrow alleyway which the driver called the ‘entrance.’ He continuously complained about the government not kicking the residents out. “Morons, they really don’t know what’s important.” According to the taxi driver’s heated comment, the government chose to do nothing, since the residents living there refused to leave the place without proper compensation. “It is understandable, since the housing prices even in this remote region would skyrocket after the redevelopment. I mean, where else would they go with so little?” We arrived at our destination, and I grabbed my camera to get off. Noticing that I was the only student there, the taxi driver suggested not to stay after 9 p.m. I shrugged, thanking the driver for his kindness. Leaving the driver behind, I took a deep breath and faced the alleyway.
My first impression was a mixture of surprise and panic. Such a lifeless place. A mixture of grey and white, the marginal housing units and the alleyway reminded me of a coffin, lacking any sort of energy. Rather, there was only tranquil silence, dumbfounding any visitors who are not used to the quietness. Red banners and flyers filled with rage and dissatisfaction was more than enough to show that the residents are still struggling against the government for compensation. Several angry residents were talking on a bench at the entrance, eyeing the stranger with a camera with both interest and wariness. Avoiding any eye contact, I quickly swept the area. Except for a chain convenience store, there was not a single store that was open. Blocked with many layers of tape and vinyl, the empty stores added weight on the unnatural silence of the village.
It was an ideal day to take pictures. Semi-cloudy weather, adequate amount of sunlight and wind enough to cool down your sweat. Excited with such circumstances, I quickly held the camera and took a picture. With a click, I succeeded in drawing interests of the residents. Trying hard to ignore such attention, I checked the picture I just took. Surprisingly, even without any artificial filters, the picture only showed me the color of grey shade. Though the first picture was not satisfactory enough, I chose to climb the village to the top of the hill, where I would definitely get a better view of the village. Passing by the residents at the bench, I could not help but notice they were all staring at me. Whether it was out of curiosity or alertness, the gaze was not friendly. Noticing the identification that indicates that I am a reporter, they suspiciously gazed at my camera, wondering the reason why I was there on Sunday. Feeling the gaze following me, I slowly started climbing the road to the top with the camera ready to capture at any second.
What I thought to be an easy stroll turned out to be a hardcore hiking, or rather a mountain climbing. I realized that there were no stairs, just steep concrete roads. Never-ending white concrete roads made me dizzy; ever-increasing steepness slowly snatched my breath. With every step, the camera felt heavier. Strangely enough, the more I proceeded towards the top, the road was getting ever steeper. After five minutes of climbing, first residence came into my sight. At first sight, it barely resembled a residence. More like a mud hut, it looked like it just jumped out of the mid-1940s, when the capital was not fully developed. Covered in overgrown vines, it clearly was uninhabited, without any sign of life left. I slowly opened the creaking door, afraid I might actually bump into anyone, or anything. Beneath the broken glass window, I saw what looked like a bed mattress. Beside the mattress was a wardrobe, also broken and empty. Glass shards were all over the place, making it hard for me to get inside. Long deserted, the place was even creepy, refusing any unwelcome visitors to enter. Quickly crawling out of the house, I was even more surprised by the fact that this was only a beginning.
Slate roofs, LPG gas tanks outside the front doors, and even long-disappeared coal briquettes greeted me. On the brick walls of the residences were murals, with the paintwork beginning to peel. It looked old, without sufficient care. Color fading, some of the murals were even covered with demonstrative flyers and graffiti. In contrast to hopeful messages such as “water supply for our neighbors” and “last resort of humane affection,” what was left was nothing but uninhabited residences. I noticed that the street was filled with the Korean national flags, more than anywhere else except the National Cemetery. It was strange until I realized the reason why: the government decided to mark the uninhabited huts with the Korean national flags, so that public officers do have to visit each and every one of them.
I kept climbing until I came to a forked path. A sofa was in the middle, in front of a mural of an old smiling couple. I sat down, blaming my lack of agility. Next to me was an elder, merrily gazing over the hill. Out of curiosity, I carefully introduced myself. At first, he didn’t understand what I was talking about. I nearly shouted out my greetings and asked him if he was comfortable with me taking a picture of him. He looked puzzled at my question, but soon understood when he saw my reporter identification card. With his permission, I backed a step or two, trying to figure out what would be the best composition. With another click, I took his photo.
Mr. Kim was a quiet, old gentleman. Despite his small semi-basement flat, he still had that childish, naïve smile. He has three children, all grown up, married with families of their own. He hasn’t seen his grandchildren in years. “They must be busy with their lives. It is sad, but you can slowly digest it, understand them, pity them perhaps, as a burden for them.” Things used to be better for him. Coming from a small rural village in Jeolla-do, he moved to Seoul when he was 17. Like all the others, he wanted to earn money, support his family, and send his brothers to school. Continuous efforts made him affluent until his wife was diagnosed with cancer. In an instant, he lost his partner, his wealth, and his home. And Mr. Kim chose to live the slum because he practically had to pay nothing. “But it was a real crisis when my children got married. I walked 20km to save money.” Though he had a smile as he spoke, his eye sparked with sorrow as he showed me his picture of his grandchildren. In contrast to the smiles of an old couple’s mural, Mr. Kim’s sad smile seemed lonely and awkward. “Karma is a magnificent creature, you can never get away from it.” Finishing his sentence, Mr. Kim slowly got up, picking up the crutch he was using as a cane.
Thanking Mr. Kim, I continued my journey up the path. As I climbed upward, the road got steeper and narrower. As soon as I reached the top, I met a kitten chewing a dead snake. It was as though the kitten was willing to try anything to beat his hunger. As I approached, I tried to lure him with a branch and succeeded in drawing in his attention for a few seconds. Eventually he fled, with the dead snake in his mouth. Obviously, a hungry kitten would do anything for his food.
Disappointed, I turned around and faced the road that I just climbed. It looked even steeper now that I was seeing it from the top. But the scenery was beautiful. The hill was definitely higher than the nearest apartment complex. The discrepancy between the output of an industrial development and the slum stood out, and it was growing. Obviously, the hill that I was standing is the one and only slum left in Seoul.
I decided to wait, wanting to take the picture of a shaded version of the street. I lit up a cigarette, trying to ease out the sore muscles that survived an hour long climb to the top. With nothing to stop the wind, gust after gust stroke me hard, making me regret that I didn’t bring my jacket.
The sun started setting earlier than I expected. And the warmth quickly ebbed out. Darkness swarmed over the village, since there were only few residences lighting up. Street lamps, sparsely located, maybe one in a few blocks was not enough to light up the narrow alley. I tried very hard not to trip. Clicking the camera once or twice, I started climbing down the hill, hoping I could get a glimpse of anyone in the streets. Climbing down the village was harder, since you have to lit your own way out. Unfamiliar with the cracks and pits on the road, I nearly fell a couple of times. Fortunately, I was able to sight a handful of kids under the street lamp, playing hide and seek. It looked nearly impossible to find them in such darkness, and to my surprise, they easily found the others. 10 minutes after I started taking pictures of the children, I saw an elderly couple climbing the hill. I recognized them as the children’s grandparents. Calling them in, the children ran toward their grandparents, helping them with their bundles.
When I reached the entrance I looked back, half afraid of what was going to happen to the residents. And the streetlights nearly blinded me when I faced it, as if it was mocking me for my insecurity.
I took a bus back to the subway station. As the narrow alleyway quickly zoomed out of sight, I exhaled, not sure whether it was out of relief or concern. It was a Wonderland, where few people know it exists, and fewer know what it is really like. Abandoned, busy steps of the people getting on the bus felt as if it was an inconvenient truth. Outside the glass, dazzling lights boasted how vibrant they are. It struck me again when I realized it was also a 10-minute bus ride to the nearest subway station. At the ticket barrier, I hesitated to tag the card. With a beep, the screen kindly told me that I just used ₩2,200.
Where there is light, there are shadows. Where there is growth, there are always the abandoned. Where there are dazzling chandeliers, there are always the poor looking for food to eat. While we seek asylum in consoling ourselves that we are never going to be part of the untouchables, there are people who walk 20km each day to save ₩2,200. And I realized for others, their lives are ‘not important’ to us.
* * *
After the redevelopment project, Village No. 104 will disappear into the mists of history. And a place where photographers visit for a moody shot will be gone soon enough. Its memories and its people will be lost. But I hoped to preserve a small part of that in these photographs and remind the readers of the sufferings that can happen due to social neglect. As an average college student who is slightly more interested in small details around us, I personally hope that my photographs can lit up a spark. And if that spark could trigger you to take a closer look, then that would be more than enough.