Friday, March 30, 2007

A Day in Bucheon

So the Seoul Subway Line 7 is being extended through the North side of Bucheon and into Incheon, which I thought was great until I found out that eventually, my parents-in-law's neighborhood will be re-zoned and turned into more overpriced, personality-free apartment blocks. I realized there is a real risk that the Korea I love will be close to gone by the time I return to the country, and my in-laws' neighborhood will most definitely be gone.
With that in mind, I've decided to go out and try to document the Bucheon I know and love, so that future generations will know what it was like to live in a good old fashioned 20th century Korean neighborhood.
We start our day in the life several hours into my day, coming home from a morning gig in downtown Seoul. It's 10 o'clock on a day of unpredictable weather, and I started off by snapping this shot out the window of the 700 bus, which runs conveniently along much of the same route that the new subway line will and affords a great view of the biggest new construction project in Bucheon, the 35-story 'We've The State' apartments. I don't know who comes up with these names, but the dubious English certainly isn't hurting housing prices.
The We've buldings are the row that defines the skyline, the two on the left still an unpainted gray and all of them still unoccupied. In front of them (and dwarved by them) in light yellow is the Dream Town apartment complex, coming in at a very standard 20 stories. before We've and 'Byzantium', another big complex going up two putative stops down, 20 was the upper limit of apartment height in Bucheon.

Here's something that has always bugged me about Korean streets. As you can see, the 'bicycle path' down the middle of the sidewalk is paved, but around it the street is paved with zigzaggy bricks. They are not mortared and require perennial resetting, which I suppose creates lots of low-paying jobs (benchmark this, Bush!) like these gentlemen are doing digging up and resetting the bricks. The funniest thing about the whole process is that the bricks were often initially set with intricate patterns or have had lines or symbols drawn on them. Tear them up and reset them and you have funky jigsaw puzzle pictures of people on bicycles and lines that jump and jerk all over the sidewalk. It makes walking fun!

In the next photo you get a good high view of the construction gong on at what will be Bucheon City Hall Station. The building at left is the Emart, formerly Walmart. Walmart folded in Korea because people wanted really fresh produce and didn't like spacious aisles (that's the paintrollered version of the story anyway). Emart is the most popular retailer in Korea, for reasons that I don't fully fathom. Nonetheless, this Emart is about to get a subway exit right in front of it. The thing about this Walmart-Emart transformation in this case is that I always thought the major problem of this location was the building. the top floors are parking, the supermarket is on basement 2, with everything else on basement one, and there's no elevator to the basement floors. You have to take a wicked slow shopping cart escalator down and up two flights of stairs just to do a little shoppin'. Nonetheless the renaming has been a great success, and even though shopping there is still a time-consuming and awkward experience, they do great business as an Emart.
Between the Emart and the three hefty buildings in the background you can see some colorful signage-covered 3-story buildings. These are some of the restaurants, sexy-lady bars, karaoke rooms and such that define Bucheon's moekgeori (pronounced 'moak-gorey', for those not in the know, it means 'eating street' and we'd define it as a promenade), a three block wide strip that runs through the middle of Bucheon for about 2 miles and features every conceivable to a Korean kind of bar and restaurant
Here's the view from the opposite direction of the umbilically connected Hyundai Department Store and the recently renamed 'The Mall'. You've got to love a corporate entity being so meta. The next building down is the currently under construction indoor water park and intercity bus terminal that is going to turn Bucheon upside down. Between Hyundai and The Mall on the street next to the stand of pines you can see a small white smudge.

The arms here are the small white smudge in the preceding picture. They're about 10 feet tall and certainly the best piece of corporate art in Bucheon, in fact the only one that doesn't make me want to die. Behind the arms you can see the express bus stop where you can catch a bus to the big city!

Most people are not aware that The United Colors of Benneton has cross-branded an interracial tandem bicycle. Miscegenators only, please.

Korea is years ahead of the rest of the world in recycling technology. Those lampshades are 100% post-consumer recycled material. It's good for the earth and for business.
Actually this is a modern updating of the old traditional bars that sold makgeolli (막걸리 - creamy rice wine served in a teakettle or a bowl) and Korean pancakes (with green onion, seafood and the like fried in. The old-fashioned places are usually rough and a little dingy, but this kind of revamp is well lit and clean, perfect for Korea's reigning generation of yuppies to connect with their culture without getting dust on their $200 pants. Just to be clear, I blame such people for the impending death of Korean culture.

This is the path running through Grape Town apartment complex south of the Hyundai department store. It provides a welcome respite from the noisy asphaltiness of the city, at least until a delivery guy on a motorcycle zooms past you, leaving you choking down a cloud of exhaust. Then again, if you had to choose between a world without motorcycles flying down the sidewalk and a twenty minute wait for sweet and sour pork, what would you choose?

It's funny how scarceness pushes up almost anything's value. The flowering and fruit bearing trees here in Boon Town may not look like much, but when you live in the neighborhood, as I did for a year, and you see these same few trees and bushes every day and develop an almost paternalistic concern for their growth. It only gets weird when someone with the same feelings catches you at it, adoring his favorite tree.

Here's the kindergarten where I work, recently renovated and looking good. It was a sickly yellow all last year, but now with white paint and new windows it's looking like a whole new place. Hopefully that'll attract back some of the students that last year's cold and off-putting manager drove away.

Here's me, trying very hard not to look stupid.

The new owner of my school is married to an art teacher, and they renovated the school accordingly.

And like so. Yes, that is fake grass on the wall. The light fixtures are actually really fascinating, but I found it impossible to photograph them, unfortunately.

This is the view out my window. From the left you see a high school, the high school auditorium, a large hospital (taller) and an apartment building, decorated with paper airplanes. One of the more classy apartment decorations I've seen. Sometimes these buildings have little depressing cartoon characters on them so ugly that if I were driving home from work to my house emblazoned with a jiggin' leprechaun on it I would rather plow the car into oncoming traffic than pull into the parking garage.

Here is a churning mass of five year olds. This class, in particular, was disturbingly good, like the final scene in The Birds. I'll spare you the pictures of less well-behaved children, who are invariably very cute.

After a long day of teaching kids, it's off to the neighborhood sangga for dinner. A sangga is essentially three strip malls wrapped up into a single sign-covered building. At night a sangga, like many buildings here, remind me of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Here in the basement of the sangga is a restaurant, more accurately a few tables set up next to a door that someone can bring food out of if you ask. The restaurant is wedged between other restaurants, a rice store, a butcher shop, and a seafood store with lots of live flounder in a tank overlappingeach other. You won't find any overlapping on the restaurants' menus though; each restaurant has its turf very well stamped out. My wife Miyoung is none too happy in this picture as we are discussing a problem with an underperforming student. The yellow menu banner on her left includes 'feast noodles, rice cake-dumpling soup, dumpling soup, knife-cut noodle soup, bibim noodles (like bibimbap, with noodles instead of rice), cold noodles, bean noodles, bulgogi bowl (that's what I had), beef rib soup, intestine soup, spicy beef soup, chicken stew, and samgyetang (chicken and ginseng soup, although you ought to be on a first name basis with Mr. Tang, if you know what's good for you). Don't be so racist, all Korean food is not noodles and soups, the other half of the menu got cut off. God, I'm disappointed in you.

Here's me, waiting for my bowl of gogi, under a sign for a livestock wholesaler. In the basement of a shopping center in the middle of an apartment block in a city of one million people.

Now I've had my dinner and I'm off to my last job of the night, teaching some adults. On the way I noticed the entrance to Jungdong market, a covered street market (one of four that I have been to in Bucheon) that sells just about anything you could want. Unfortunately places like old Emart are putting traditional markets out of business. You know how when you're inside a party, you don't notice how loud the party is to the neighbors? And when you're inside a housing bubble you don't realize how your own self interested acts are having an effect on the market trends? Few Koreans would be able to contemplate the fact that their search for a better, richer life is going to snuff out a certain degree of authenticity that their grandchildren are going to have to pay through the nose for to try and get back. When this world's gone, like the Makgeolli joints of yore, the trendy fake street markets that will pop up to replace them are going to be as crass and as fake as all holy hell, and just as existentially unsatisfying.

Here's the place, the Top Institute. Just a little hole in the wall school that you'd walk right past, just off the main drag that you can see at the end of the street. But good people inside, and regardless of why, how and how much they study English, I think they're all enriching their lives and having a good time doing it. Unfortunately, they didn't photograph so well, so they're right out of this blog.

My chariot, the bus. I spend about 4 hours a day on the bus, and so I really ought to be taking more pictures on it. This is a inner-city bus, which means it's not that comfortable. there are plenty of places to hang from though, and at the right time this but will look like a hot house full of drooping fake Burberry covered vines.

Again it's me, trying not to look stupid.

That's a typical day in my life, sans the early morning. Next time I'll try to get the whole day, and since the weather's improved a lot I'll be certain to hit up my favorite parts of Bucheon, from The beautifully twisty residential streets of Wonmi-dong to the curiously international Chunui-dong, the mind-numbing monotony of Sang-dong and the budget elegance of the Hyundai Department Store, the soul-piercingly banal corporate art and the rib-ticklingly tragic Eating Street.


S said...

Hi Joe,

My husband and I are moving to Bucheon on May 29th 2008! I loved reading your blog, and the pictures helped my imagination from going crazy (as I've been trying to picture what Bucheon is like).
Maybe we'll see you around!


Mark said...

I lived in Korea for almost 4 years and consider it my second home. I met my wife there and she lived and worked in Bucheon. The restaurants at the subway station are not bad in fact I enjoy the sashimi they there. I know Koreans aren't known for the sushi but this one was pretty good. I really dream of going back, I really miss the food and the people. May I suggest you take a day trip up to Chun Cheon by way of the train, you should try the Dakgalbi very good.