[96] Indomitable © 2017 Matt Lemon Photography

Portrait of HONG Seung Il, a tenant-merchant at the Cheonggyecheon industrial area. Jongno District, Seoul. © 2017 Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.

The year is 2017. Jongno-gu is entirely occupied by gentrifiers. Well, not entirely… One small village of indomitable locals still holds out against the invaders.


Jongno-gu is a neigbourhood in downtown Seoul that takes its name from Jongno, or Bell Street, named after Bosingak, a pavilion housing a large bell that used to be rung to announce the opening and closing of the four city gates and is now part of Korea’s very own “ball drop ceremony” on New Year’s Eve. While Gangnam-gu* will perhaps forever be more well-known than Jongno-gu outside of Korea, the latter has been the city’s centre for over 600 years, when the ruler of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) established its capital here. Even today, Jongno-gu can be referred to as the “face and heart of Korea” as the district continues to play an important role in the country’s politics, economics, and culture. Renowned royal palaces, significant places of worship, and Cheongwadae, the Blue House, where the Korean president works and resides, are all located within the 24 square kilometres that form the district to which a whopping two million people flock every day to work.

Cheonggyecheon Blueprint

Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project

On Jongno-gu’s southern border lies the revitalised Cheonggye Stream, symbolising “Korea’s past, present and tomorrow”.

“Cheonggyecheon is a small industrial area in the city of Seoul where small metal workshops are located. Cheonggyecheon had played a key role in the industrialization of South Korea from the remnants of colonialism and war. Following the liberation of the country from Japanese rule in 1945, many industrial complexes became abandoned, resulting in a flood of scavenged machine parts on the market. In Cheonggyecheon, street vendors who laid the foundation for independent workshops sold these machine parts. The aftermath of the Korean War filled the streets with abandoned military goods and scrap metals were traded rigorously during the 1950s post-war recovery. In the 1960s, Vietnam War veterans brought many machines into Cheonggyecheon, initiating small-scale production and what’s now considered ‘copy’ production unique to the economies of developing nations. [During the late naughts], the business on Cheonggyecheon [declined] as the surrounding neighborhood [was] in the process of renovation and gentrification, as part of a beautification initiative by the Seoul Metropolitan Government.”

[Source: Excerpt from filmmaker Kelvin Kyung Kun Park’s notes about his documentary Cheonggyecheon Medley: A Dream Of Iron for the 61st Berlin International Film Festival]


Opposition from local merchants

Whereas property owners welcomed the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project (CRP) as it increased the value of their land, most tenant-merchants opposed it as they expected it to increase rents or force them to relocate their shops entirely.

“Tenant-merchants displayed the fiercest opposition to the CRP. Well-established industries within Cheonggyecheon area were interdependent. Relocating an industry – button makers, for example – would force another industry – shirt makers – to follow. The merchants opposed the project, but eventually gave in because of political persuasion and policy promises. … In the end, though, the restoration of Cheonggyecheon meant a reduction in the district’s commercial area and led to the relocation of stores to which merchants and their families had been long attached. To others, particularly the street vendors, it simply meant abrupt job loss. As a result, the CRP met with a great deal of resistance. A survey among the 3,265 area merchants reported that 95.75% of those surveyed opposed the CRP.”

[Source: Lah, T. J. “The Huge Success of the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project: What’s Left?” Citizen Participation: Innovative and Alternative Modes for Engaging Citizens (2011)]

Due to growing concerns among the general public over excessive gentrification, the Seoul Metropolitan Government vowed to take a set of anti-gentrification measures in an effort to sustain the uniqueness of cultural communities and secure the home of original residents and business owners in six neighbourhoods. However, in February 2017, it was reported that a research team had found that “gentrification in five areas of Seoul is developing faster than it was 10 or so years ago”. It seems then that the realisation that “no one benefits once a popular district loses its unique identity and visitors stop going there to spend money” has not led to sufficient enough measures to halt Seoul’s gentrification.

The indomitable HONG Seung Il

When I first visited Cheonggyecheon in the early naughts, the restoration project was already underway but the area looked nothing like it does today. However, to my pleasant surprise, once you walk downstream, further away from Cheonggye Plaza where the stream originates, you will stumble upon quite a few of those businesses that once dominated the area. In one of the narrow shops, I spotted two cats and stopped to perhaps take a photo of one of them who dozed in one of the shelves, amid tools and piles of those customary Korean work gloves, dipped in red or green latex. As I petted the second, more active cat, the shop owner, Mr Hong Seung Il, appeared and between my limited Korean and his broken English, we struck up a fairly long and warm conversation.

I learnt that Mr Hong was born in 1946 in Hamgyongnam-do**, a province bordering on the Sea of Japan (East Sea) in what was then the Soviet-occupied northern half of the Korean peninsula, now part of North Korea. His father was a merchant and able to relocate his family to Haebangcheon, located in the southern valley of Namsan, a 262m peak in the heart of Seoul. Mr Hong’s company is called Five Star Packing Shop, which he wrote for me under the Chinese characters on his business card, and represents one of the aforementioned well-established, interdependent businesses. For over four decades, he has supplied the craftsmen and traders in the area with his merchandise, some of which you can see stacked up behind him.

Mr Hong's business card

Turning our conversation to politics, I asked Mr Hong what he thought of former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, whose brainchild the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project had been, to which he responded with a half-tortured, half-smirking grimace. He seemed to somewhat agree, however, when I mentioned that I had heard a fair number of Koreans label the stream’s restoration the one positive legacy of his presidency. As we moved on to talking about the recently elected president, I asked what his impression was of Moon Jae-in’s cabinet – and there it was again, that half-tortured, half-smirking grimace, and we both laughed, before he surprised me with an assessment of the cabinet in English: “The good, the bad and the ugly.”

His cats which first drew me to his shop are two and nine years old and when I asked if I could take a portrait of him, he picked up the older one who had been dozing earlier and posed together with her. His portrait proves, in my view, that asking for permission to take someone’s photo does not have to result in photos that look ‘posey.’

My encounter with Hong Seung Il was one of my favourite moments since I returned to Korea and I will soon stop by his shop again to bring him a hard copy of his portrait.

Street photography ethics

Instead of writing another post on the subject of ethical photo-taking, I wanted to focus on my encounter with Mr Hong and the area where his shop is located. That said, the following quotes are something to keep in mind when you are taking photos of people in public spaces. I recommend reading the articles they are taken from.

“Don’t photograph others as you don’t want others to photograph you.” – Eric Kim

“Street photographers need to sometimes stop and rethink their whole approach.” – Nicholas Goodden

“Between [the extremes of being an aggressive and timid street photographer] is the intersection of empathy and taking vivid and captivating pictures that tell the story of a person or a place or a moment in time.” – Jill Corral

Which articles, including your own, would you recommend on the subject of street photography ethics? And while I’m asking questions, which female street photographers of colour fascinate you? Maybe it’s the result of an unwanted, subconscious bias on my part but I’ve found that searching for street photographers via Google or Instagram yields mostly white, male photographers, so if you could recommend any female street photographers of colour, please leave a comment below.

Ordinary people are special

If you’d like to get to know more Seoulites, please take a look at the Humans of Seoul project and the Koreana magazine’s series “An Ordinary Day”, the latest instalment of which you can find here.

* The particle ‘gu’ denotes a district. In everyday conversation, it is often dropped, hence Jongno can refer both to the street and the district.
** The particle ‘do’ denotes a province, and the preceding ‘nam’ means south.

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