A short visit to Jeonju over the weekend revealed much about urban policy in Korea today. Jeonju has long been famous for food and traditional arts. In recent years, the revitalized hanok neighborhood has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Korea. The city has also become known for the Jeonju International Film Festival and the Jeonju International Sori Festival.
On Saturday afternoon, the hanok neighborhood of traditional-style Korean houses, or “Hanok Village,” as it is officially designated, had crowds more akin to Myeong-dong in Seoul than a quiet cultured area in Jeonju. The crowds were larger than those in Bukchon, the first hanok village in Korea to become a tourist destination. The visitors were mostly Korean, but had accents from all over the country, which suggests that Jeonju has a truly national appeal. Long lines formed in front of places selling food and the sidewalks were full of street vendors.
This isn’t the Hanok Village I remember from a visit three years ago. Crowds were manageable and traditional arts and crafts had a strong presence. The back alleys were quiet and the houses appeared occupied. Restaurants and cafes coexisted well with the arts and the residents. Bukchon and Samcheong-dong had already become crowded and commercialized, so the Jeonju Hanok Village seemed refreshing by comparison.
What happened? Like its cousins in Seoul, the Jeonju Hanok Village is a victim of its own success. The Jeonju Hanok Village has its roots in a hanok preservation district that was formed in 1977, six years before the hanok preservation district in Bukchon. Restrictions were weakened in 1987, but the area avoided the construction that destroyed many hanok in Seoul because it had become a slum with poorly maintained houses. To revive the area, a new plan to preserve the hanok and promote traditional culture was announced in 1999 and work began in 2002. As national policy turned to promoting traditional Korean culture as “cultural contents,” the city, provincial and national government focused their efforts on the Hanok Village. In 2010, Cittaslow, the “slow city” movement that originated in Italy, designated the Hanok Village as a “slow city” for its cultured atmosphere.
In just 10 years, sustained government support turned a problem area into an award-winning cultural attraction that became the pride of Jeonju. With the awards and media attention came fame, which triggered the market forces that brought commercialization. Like its cousins in Seoul, rising rents forced out the artists and craft shops, which gave way to restaurants, cafes, cheap souvenir shops and guest houses. These, in turn, attracted larger crowds, which expanded the market for yet more of the same.
The interesting question, of course, is why hanok villages are among the largest crowd drawers in Korea in 2014. Restaurants, cafes and shops, after all, are found in greater concentrations in established shopping districts in city centers, many of which are struggling to attract people.
Traditional culture occupies an odd position in Korea. Every government since the 1960s has promoted it in a number of ways. In the 1970s, for example, the government of Park Chung-hee promoted a nationalistic and militaristic version of traditional culture that focused on building statues of famous historical figures and the restoration of the Seoul City Wall, the Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon and important relics in Gyeongju. In the 1990s, the focus shifted to returning important sites to their later Joseon-period appearance. Other efforts have focused on reviving traditional cultural ceremonies and supporting traditional arts and crafts.
For all the effort, however, traditional culture is distant to Koreans because it is so removed from everyday life. Older generations remember growing up at a time when much of traditional culture was seen as “backward,” whereas younger generations remember growing up at a time when it had already disappeared. As with so many other things in Korea, the pace of change explains much of this cultural dissonance.
In this context, hanok villages with their comfortable cafes provide an aesthetically pleasing backdrop for outings with friends and family. They are different from the overbuilt concrete neighborhoods where most Koreans live. In many ways, they are like the ornate and colorful hallyu films and dramas set in a popularized “traditionalesque” past.
As long as there is demand for “traditionalesque” backdrops for socializing, hanok villages have a bright future. Planners and traditionalists will continue to hold to the dream of happy residents reliving tradition in yangban refinement. Reality, which is so clearly visible on a spring weekend in Jeonju, however, suggests a far more popular meaning for hanok villages.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser is an associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University. ― Ed.