South Korea From hanboks to headsets

Story by Andrea Gross; photos by Irv Green

Flash back 60 years. Korea had barely recovered from half century of domination by the Japanese when it became ground zero for a contest between China and Russia to the north and United Nations forces to the south. The streets of Seoul were filled with oxcarts, the buildings were pockmarked with shrapnel, and starving people, dressed in tattered hanboks, foraged in the country for food.

Today, the streets are filled Hyundais, the buildings have been replaced with skyscrapers, and the country has morphed from one of the poorest in the world to one of the richest. Korea’s growth has been so extraordinary that it is commonly referred to as “The Miracle on the Han,” the Han being a river that flows through the center of Seoul.

To accomplish such a miracle, a country needs folks who are driven. It also needs folks who are caffeinated. Fortunately, South Korea has both. And now it plans to use that energy to brag a bit, to invite others to learn about its prewar past and its remarkable present. It seems to be succeeding. National Geographic lists Seoul as one of the top go-to places for 2017.

Thus, here we are—tourists in the Land of the Morning Calm, which isn’t very calm at all. The only thing that’s calm is the traffic, which is calm because it’s gridlocked to a standstill.

It takes us a while to acclimate. Few signs are written in English, few people speak English, and most are too rushed to try even if they can. But on the other hand, its worth the trouble. Where else can you see a miracle still in the making?

We begin our exploration at Deoksugung Palace, one of five royal homes in Seoul that served as the seat of government during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). It’s here that we’re able to glimpse the city’s transition from past to present. Seen from certain vantage points, the changing of the royal guard takes place in front of the stately gate of the ancient palace. From others, the drum rolls are backed by streets of distinctly modern buildings.

A short subway ride takes us to Bukchon Hanok Village, an authentic enclave of centuries-old homes (hanoks). Many of the homes have been turned into guesthouses and cultural centers, and women stroll the streets dressed in colorful hanboks, the short-jacketed, long-skirted dresses that date back thousands of years. No matter that the women are tourists who spent $20 to rent a hanbok for four selfie-filled hours. They give the village a certain panache, and I’m delighted to revel in a picturesque version of Korea’s past.

What’s more, off in the distance, framed by wing-roofed homes, I can see the high-rises of downtown Seoul. This serves as yet another reminder of the miracle that has transformed the city.

We leave the past behind when we go to Hapjeong, a former riverfront neighborhood that is now dominated by Mecenatpolis Mall, a group of three towers that punch more than 40 stories into the air. On the streets people scurry about, a smart phone in one hand, a latte in the other. This is the home of the driven, folks who are harried as well as hurried.

But as we wander a few blocks downhill from the mall, we come upon a neighborhood that has yet to be renovated. It’s filled with homes that date back to the ’70s; some still have echoes of traditional architecture. The owner of a small cafe tells us that these buildings are slated to be torn down and replaced with modern skyscrapers filled with offices for tech-savvy geeks. “But,” he says, “others are betting it’ll become part of the area’s creative renaissance, a place for filmmakers, musicians and other artists. After all, Hapjeong is part of the new Seoul.”

Located across the Han River, Gangnam is the new Seoul on steroids. The people may be determined, but they’re also energized—not only by the omnipresent coffee shops but also by a palpable enthusiasm that permeates the rarefied air.

A while back Gangnam was rice fields, but then came the 1988 Olympics and the rice fields became expensive real estate. In 2012, a South Korean rapper named Psy released a song about the upscale neighborhood in which he grew up. After “Gangnam Style” was featured on a YouTube video that received a reputed billion hits, his old neighborhood became Seouls hippest hangout.

We gaze at tall skyscrapers, visit the largest underground shopping mall in Asia and wander through a maze of upscale shops, galleries and restaurants that seems to go on forever.

It’s a far cry from the war-torn and depressed city of the ’50s. Korea has indeed leapfrogged from hanboks to headsets with unprecedented speed. It’s a miracle to be sure.

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