Little ceramic birds with smirking human faces, towering metal flowers and a cow-hide patterned building: these are just a few of the quirks that await you in the charming and reclusive Gamcheon Culture Village.
Nested high in the hills of Saha-gu, this quirky art-filled suburb has emerged from the dust of poverty and war to become one of Busan’s more unique architectural and cultural offerings. Although it attracts thousands of camera-toting tourists every year, the village has recently attracted renewed interest by winning the 2012 UN-HABITAT Asian Townscape Award as well as a cultural excellence award from Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
While these awards will bring attention and prestige to the village, they will also bring some much-needed money. Gamcheon has long been home to the city’s poorest residents. In the 1940s, only 20 or so houses dotted the hillside, but that number swelled dramatically at the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. War refugees fled their homes for the relative safety of Busan, the only area of the peninsula that remained free from fighting. Within a year, Busan’s population grew from 880,000 to 1.4 million people, and a half million homeless refugees needed a place to liveâand fast. Approximately 4,000 people moved from the crowded port areas surrounding the Jagalchi Fish Market to nearby Gamcheon, erecting some 800 makeshift homes using scrap iron, wood and rocks.
Those shanty homes were built up into the brick-and-concrete Lego-like houses that you see today partially thanks to a man named Chol-je Cho. Cho founded Taegukdo, a religion that believes that the Taeguk, or yin and yang symbol, represents the true meaning of life and the universe. Practicing again after persecution and suppression during the Japanese occupation, Cho and his followers converted nearly 90 percent of the refugees living in Gamcheon with their gifts of rice and candy. With this help, residents were then able to funnel their earnings into rebuilding, and in 1955 the area became known as the Taeguk Village when Cho moved the religion’s headquarters there.
Although better established by the 1990s, Gamcheon and the Taeguk Village remained poorer than the rest of Busan, which busied itself by erecting skyscrapers and high-rises. In 2009, the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism stepped in with the Dreaming of Machu Picchu in Busan project. Reparations were made, artists were hired to paint murals and 10 artworks were installed, some created with the assistance of the residents. In 2010 the follow-up Miro Miro project saw the addition of 12 more works, including alley paintings and path markers perfectly suited to the project as miro means ‘maze’ in Korean. These days, visitors can see trick art, sculpture, and even rooms or buildings remodeled around a singular art concept, such as the Book Cafe shaped like a giant coffee mug, or rooms interpreting themes such as ‘peace’ or ‘darkness’.
While the village’s remaining 10,000 residents are now used to the influx of tourists, photographers and filmmakers, they are still wary of them, and many do not care to be the subject of photos. The village is open from 9:00 to 5:00, and is free of charge. For more information, and to buy the illustrated souvenir tourist map, you can head to the village’s Haneul Maru Tourist Information Center and Observatory, where you’ll also get a great view of the city.
Getting there: Take Line 1 to Toseong Station (???). Walk straight out Exit 8 following the road until you reach the bus shelter in front of the PNU Cancer Center. Take mini-bus 2 or 2-2 to the top and get off at Gamcheon Elementary School (??????).
You can check out Jessica’s blog, ROKin’ Around Korea here.