City without memories

Published : Dec 07, 2007 00:00 IST

THE RESTORATION OF the Cheonggyecheon, which was buried under concrete for decades, cost $370 million - JUNG YEON-JE/AFP

THE RESTORATION OF the Cheonggyecheon, which was buried under concrete for decades, cost $370 million - JUNG YEON-JE/AFP

Visitors are fascinated by Seouls palaces, gardens and walks, but they fail to see how much the city has tried to eliminate its past.

FOR decades, Seoul has been radically obliterating all traces of its own past. If there were doctors who treated cities, the diagnosis for Seoul would be short-term amnesia. Like an Alzheimers patient, the city suffers from a sickness that makes it lose its most recent memories. First-time visitors to Seoul are fascinated by the old palaces, the traditional gardens and the picturesque walks. But they fail to see how much this city, consciously or unconsciously, has desperately attempted to eliminate its past.

For 600 years Seoul has been the capital of different systems of government: dynasties, a constitutional monarchy and various republics. Its honour and its shame is to have served so long as the capital of a weak country.

In June 1950, the Peoples Army of North Korea captured Seoul in just four days. The army, recruited from guerillas and other irregulars, marched South with Russian tanks. The then South Korean President Syngman Rhee abandoned the capital and fled. In pre-recorded taped messages, he assured his people that he was still in Seoul and promised that the South Korean Army would soon drive out the enemy. Numerous citizens who believed him and remained in the city were put in prison. Three months later, the Allied Forces recaptured Seoul. After the Peoples Army withdrew to the North, those who remained in Seoul both voluntarily and by necessity were vilified.

After the war, the hills of the city were covered with concrete-slab huts of the war refugees. Those from the North had nowhere to return to. The city administration built apartment blocks to house the masses streaming in. Soon, Seoul resembled a forest of high-rise buildings. These were erected in the old residential areas, the huts were torn down, and during the construction, the districts involved were surrounded by walls.

As soon as the inhabitants no longer had to fight for survival, their first concern was to demolish the buildings of the general government of the Japanese occupation forces. Memories of the Japanese colonisation, memories of the flight of the rulers, memories of the dictatorship and memories of the concrete-slab huts are barely perceptible in Seoul today.

My family went to Seoul in 1979. My father was a soldier and served in the demilitarised zone on the frontier with North Korea, about an hours drive away. He had bought a small apartment in Seoul so that my siblings and I could enjoy better education. We were brought up in a district called Jamshil, named after a place where silk was made. The kings of the Choson dynasty planted mulberry trees on the sandy, well-irrigated soil of the banks of the Han river and had material spun from the threads of the silkworms.

When we went there, not a single mulberry tree was left. Like the royal house, the mulberry trees had vanished without trace. As many as 100 five-storey apartment blocks had taken their place. These apartments were so much alike that children who had not yet learned their numbers often could not find their way home.

Within the complex, separate buildings had identical schools, identical trees and identical play areas, like identically divided cells.

The apartments were identified by numbers: Sections 1 to 5. Apartments in Section 5 were different from the others; they had upper floors and therefore elevators. As a child I often slipped past the porter of Section 5 with my friends in order to play in the elevators. At that time I sometimes asked myself whether this place was really the capital Seoul. I felt as if I was living in a city above the clouds, with no relation to the city below. The year my family moved to Seoul, the then dictator was shot by one of his staff. The new dictator had baseball grounds laid and a stadium built in our district. This was the beginning of professional baseball and professional football. The nightly curfews were abolished. Pupils could wash their hair and no longer had to wear school uniforms.

It was also the time when colour television arrived. We may have been living under a dictatorship, but it was a special time of daily freedoms. With the colours on the television, the colours of the world also began to shine more brightly. The dictator wanted to suppress memories of the massacre that took place during the coup dtat. Like the Caesars, he built a stadium and summoned people to gather there. During the weekend they poured into the stadium and were enthusiastic about professional baseball.

In 1987, my second year as a student, the dictator faced a crisis. Students and citizens everywhere demonstrated in favour of direct elections. When rumours of a new coup dtat circulated, he gave up. He agreed to hold direct elections to the presidency and promised to resign. Months later, in the countrys first direct elections, an old and close friend of the dictators was elected President. Seoul suffered further trauma, namely the painful memory that we cannot rely on ourselves. In 1988, the Olympic Games were held in Seoul. Before they began, apartments and buildings were brutally demolished. Houses of which the authorities were ashamed, and which they did not want foreigners to see, were razed to the ground. Where demolition was impossible, walls were built to shield the buildings from view. Almost all these areas were turned into tenement blocks.

Since then, Seoul has been exposed to a continuing process of redevelopment and rebuilding. Traditional single-storey dwellings have been torn down as have old residential blocks. All parts of the city are becoming increasingly similar. The narrow, winding alleyways are giving way to straight streets laid out on a grid pattern. Names of construction firms have been adopted as the names of apartment blocks: Samsung Apartments or Hyundai Apartments are everywhere. The residents happily accept these names in place of the districts original names. Everyone is obsessed with extinguishing the memories of the roots of the district in which they live.

In 2006, I visited Jamshil, which I had left 15 years earlier, having heard the news that all the apartment blocks there were to be demolished and new ones built. Emerging from the subway station I had no trouble finding the apartment block where I had lived. The older and more dilapidated a block is, the more quickly the city gives permission to tear it down and rebuild. So residents of older apartment blocks tend to let their blocks deteriorate. Instead of redecorating them or making repairs, they slowly destroy them.

My block was in a much worse state than I had expected. I went up to our old apartment. The rusty door opened slowly. Without taking off my shoes, I went into the living room and looked around. I could hardly believe that my family lived in this small apartment. There were two small rooms beyond the kitchen, where four adults would have slept on the floor. Then there was my parents bedroom. The glass of the balcony door was broken.

A poster on the opposite apartment block read, Lets vacate the apartments quickly so that rebuilding can begin. I took a couple of photos, left the apartment and went back home. The demolition work began soon after. I saw on television how the neighbourhood of my childhood was being destroyed.

The earth was red, and only a couple of pieces of heavy equipment, looking like weird robots, were used. I could not believe that those few bits of construction machinery had turned hundreds of apartment blocks into a place that resembled the surface of Mars. In that desert I had played hide-and-seek with friends, kissed my girlfriend for the first time and, sitting on a swing in the playground reflected on the pains of unrequited love. Now, my memory no longer has a home. The neighbourhood is being reborn as a complex of luxury apartments.

Like a careful criminal who plans the perfect crime, the city is wiping out all traces of the past. The inhabitants have to mistrust their memories. So they never talk to anyone about what used to stand here. There is no place for retrospection and nostalgia in Seoul. Here you have to be able to say, Look, a new building is being put up. Great!

Only recently has Seoul once again completely changed a gigantic fragment of memory. The Cheonggyecheon stream, that flows into the Han river, coming from the oldest street in Seoul is completely canalised. During his time as mayor of Seoul, the presidential candidate who at this moment has the best prospects, promised to remove the asphalt covering and the high streets that spanned this canal. People were amazed at this promise, since they were completely unaware that a stream had once flowed through the centre of the city. It had been hidden under the asphalt too long and had merely served as a sewer.

An attractive concrete waterway was built over the canal, through which water is pumped. Now the Cheonggyecheon flows in two streams. The earlier natural canal is hidden under its artificially created brother canal. Every weekend, thousands flock to the artificial Cheonggyecheon canal. There are graceful fountains, fish put on show by the city administration, and stepping stones on which you can cross the canal. While bright lights illuminate the mayors achievement, the Cheonggyecheon sewer flows unnoticed underneath.

If Seoul had a subconscious mind, it would be symbolised by this sewer under the artificial canal. This city, with a population of 10 million people without memories, invests a gigantic sum each year in beautifying itself, but the void within continues to flourish. One day someone deep within the city will ask: Seoul, where do you come from? And who are you, who lives in this artificial paradise without a memory?

Sometimes I am afraid for this Seoul, in which everything seems to vanish without a trace. From my apartment I look out at the Sangam World Cup Stadium, where Germany and Korea faced each other in the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup in 2002. When I came here for the first time, there was a giant artificial hill, under which the city administration buried all our garbage. Seoul completely wiped out these memories in order to host the World Cup. Today, there is a beautiful park on the site, the size of several golf courses. But the garbage is still under the park. Seoul is a city like that.

Kim Young Ha, born in 1968, lost all his childhood memories in an accident at the age of ten, shortly before his family moved to Seoul. His stories and his novel Gods Game, published in 2006, focus on the theme of memory his own and those retold. This article was translated from the German by John Bowden.

Sueddeutsche Zeitung 2007. Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate.

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