Staged authenticity and the legacy of King Jeongjo!


As the eruption of Vesuvius fell into remission aided by the miracle that is imodium, I began to consider that I actually could now press ahead with the weekend ramble to Cheonan and Suwon. As my bus returned from Cheonan on Sunday, every hour on the hour, we decided to visit Suwon and the “Folk Village” first.  After some amazing treats and coffee at a fantastic bakery we headed towards Suwon.

On entering the attractions initial enclosure from the expansive car park, the visitor is met by various shops and restaurants which fail to impress; are these laid out for the American visitor or the glutenous local Koreans? Adjacent to the entrance the visitor is afforded the opportunity to “dress up” and ponce around in traditional Korean garb………sick and not in the yooffull treatment of the word! Globally tourists revel in constructed experiences from computer assisted virtual travel and opportunities to dress up as locals. This use and treatment of space in a post-modern tourism setting is not at all my cup of tea it reflects the homogenisation of global society and the developed worlds quest for the real, the true, the authentic. It’s all patronising bollocks, why can’t we just enjoy ourselves? At this point I despaired but do not always judge the book by its cover!

The word “village” imagineers tiny huts, tools, some interesting cultural facts and Suwon Folk Village’s staged authenticity surpasses that of places like “Iron Bridge” in Shropshire, UK, it did not seem as “in yer face”. There were various wattle and daub, straw or tiled crested huts and officious buildings transported to the attraction from localities around the province. We gazed at inventions and crafts, and visited a temple enshrined in a wooded environment by a beautiful stream. The livestock and limited Suwonites dressed as historical residents added to the atmosphere without becoming too twee or staged. The tourism term is a “living museum,” which eerily conjures up Disney style animatronics (of which their were some) or scary waxwork corpses (of which there were more) but SFV was still very interesting and engaging. Korean lifestyles of the early 1900s were portrayed in fine detail proffering an agrarian economy like that of Europe some 200 years before. The industrial revolution appears to have reached Korea much later but boy how they exploited that by embracing new technologies over the past 40 years.

We began with the handcrafted pottery (on the right day/time, you can join in and make your own ceramics) and looked inside a hut containing gigantic barrels of kimchi. These giant barrels (past waist height) are entombed 2/3 of their length in the ground and camouflaged with hay. The concoction ferments in the ground and inevitably you gain access to the Pandora’s box and out pops Korea’s most renowned food: kimchi! Love it or hate it, if you stay in Korea long enough, you’re force-fed the wretched stuff until you finally succumb to its unique sapor or despise it forever. I believe it’s pretty common, given our penchant for politeness that foreign visitors are pressured into consuming food they have never tried or don’t like. It is actually a very mothering and giving gesture in Korean culture which initially affords politeness but later merits a “sod off”. Most native teachers grow to love most Korean food but just not all of it, particularly the dreaded Hongeo hoe.

Hongeo hoe, or hongeo sashimi, is rotten raw skate fish where the uric acid (pee) stored in the fish’s flesh turns to ammonia. When you put fish seeping with ammonia in your mouth it stimulates a gagging reaction.  While Korean hongeo fans (Miss Kim) rave about the distinctive and unique flavour of this acquired taste, they usually try to mask it with copious quantities of makkeolli – a kind of Korean rice wine. Hongeo is hands-down one of the worst foods I have ever eaten. As soon as I stepped into the Sushi specialty restaurant in Chungju and was introduced to this torturous food I knew my adverse reaction to anything Sushi had been inrretrieveably enhanced. Since that fateful day this monstrous inedible behemoth of the food world has sat across me on the dining table some 5 times, needless to say we are still not friends!

We strolled from the traditional homes left, up a hill and through a gateway towards a hidden temple which was deserted.of tourists and peaceful.   The grounds were home to many butterflies and it appeared a single inhabitant who was watching TV behind some jade coloured shuttered doors. Returning to the main complex we turned left to the governor’s office, the landlord’s residence and to the fortune teller’s dwelling were a female actor sucked on a fag. Beyond this was a pavilion and an ancient tree, decorated to welcome visitors to the village. The market place or food court and mall, contained various craft shops and some reasonably priced outdoor restaurants serving traditional Korean fare. Crossing the river we made our way past more traditional houses, including a scholar’s house, and a school were a typical early 20th century class was taking place. from here we passed the opportunity to “tie dye”, returning to the exit for the short 30 minute journey to the wall of Hwaseong Fortress. In all a really good experience, recommended.

In October of 1789, King Jeongjo ordered the remains of Prince Sado, his father, to be moved to a new site at Mt. Hwasan and he relocated government offices and residents originally occupying the site to the eastern slope of Mt.Paldalsan. This corresponds to the downtown area of modern Suwon. The construction of Hwaseong Fortress began in January of 1794 and lasted until September 1796. The fortress was about 5.74 kilometres in circumference, the rampart 5 metres high and the breastwork 1.2 metres high.  This undertaking, the fruit of a king’s filial piety towards his deceased father, gave rise to an unprecedented modern city which was built harnessing new techniques made available by Silhak a school of philosophy keen on scientific and practical learning.  The enterprise is also remarkable in that it is one that had a broad-based participation involving all segments of society from top to bottom. I still bet there were a few chiefs ordering around many indians!  The building of Hwaseong was preceded by a careful study of the fortress construction technology of China and Japan from which the most advanced features were borrowed.  The fortress is also noteworthy for the use of new construction equipment including hoisting machines and a variety of carriages never before employed in projects of this type.

The wall features Chi, Gangnu, Ramparts and Poru and represents the peak of engineering technology of the Joseon Dynasty. The wall of the Hwaseong Fortress has a uniquely designed “Chiseong” (turret), a portion of the wall that juts out, aiding in the detection of and attack against invading enemies. King Jeongjo was well aware of the deficiencies of other fortress walls constructed without the provision of the Chiseong’s. The walls of the fortresses constructed prior to Hwaseong were vulnerable to enemy attacks and had often fallen during foreign aggression.  Hoping to avoid the same devastating outcome, he added sixteen Chiseong (turrets) around the outer walls of the fortress. The unique design of the “Ongseong (semi-circular protective wall)” that encloses the Janganmun and Paldalmun (in the shape of a pot) also served the same defensive purpose as the Chiseong (turret).

Spending time on the Hwaseong Fortress the walking route covers 5.7 kilometers and takes about 3 hours to complete on foot, this showcases the unique features mentioned above.  We had only a couple of hours so travelled from the car park, up past the trolley bus stop climbing some steep stairs for a further 10 minutes to Changyongmun. From the West command post and crossbow platform there are spectacular views of the growing city of Suwon. There are a number of eateries and places to drink along the wall and a linear park follow its circumference on the outside of the wall. There are many places to empty your bladder so it came as a great surprise to us in seeing first an elderly man whip out his pee pee and later an elderly woman squat behind a bush. We presumed they were married or siblings to exhibit such exhibitionist toilet habits some 100 metres from a public loo. here’s an extract from Robert Neff’s bog on Korea.

In the countryside, Korean adults warned little boys not to urinate in the rivers and streams that provided water for their small communities. The boys were told that if they did, the guardian spirits would cause their male appendages to fall off.

In the cities, little boys often ran naked through the streets and would stop and squat wherever they pleased when nature called. Their little bottoms were sometimes licked clean by the many dogs that roamed the streets and, on occasion, these dogs became too zealous with their licking and ended up nipping away their young master’s manhood.

Either the guardian spirits were on vacation or the dogs had been eaten for lunch during our visit to Suwon! All hail the saviour of Korean manhood, the dog stew!

If you are of infirm body or mind another option to view the wall is to take the dragon train. It runs through some of the fortress and makes it easy to see a lot without having to walk all the way. It’s a great option for families with children or older senior citizens (like you I hear the cry). In all a great experience at little or no cost to the visitor.

Returning to Cheonan, we had a lovely meal at one Frank’s mothers favourite restaurants before heading into town to the expats favourite Banana Bar. If reinforcing Western values and irritations is your cup of tea then Banana Bar in Shinbudong, across the road from Shinsegae Department Store is a great place to fellow expats and some Koreans. They have Pool competitions, open mic nights, quiz nights and a full stage for performers and bands are available. On our visit there was an 80s night for which one bar person had bothered to dress up as Boy George, he looked more like Jack Sparrow! You can call 010-3424-6309 and speak to Mr Oh if its hard to find the place.  It doesn’t get going until after 11:00pm and many gigalo’s arrive after 1:00 am when they think the alcohol has relaxed the female expats to the extent that they are likely to be less inhibited and more amorous! So glad I am not 21.

The next day after a breakfast at Paris Baguette (some rolled toasty thing with scrambled egg inside and bacon on the outside…..lovely) we headed out to Gakwonsa Temple (각원사).  Before we arrived we took a detour to another temple, Seongbulsa (Seongbul Buddhist temple) affording great views of Cheonan and is set into the hillside on a plateau. From here we drove back down the mountain turning right and upwards to Gakwonsa which has undergone so much recent reconstruction that it almost seems like a new temple. Gakwonsa Temple is located at the foot of Mt. Taejosan a few kilometres east of the downtown area of Cheonan. Most people come for the massive statue of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). This awesome statue was put in place by 1976, and it was the largest statue in all of Korea until the statue of Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) was constructed at Beopjusa Temple in 1988. The detail of this aging green coloured bronze statue (This cultural leper insisted it was concrete) of Amita-bul is stunning and inspiring. The serenely seated Buddha weighs 60 tons and is of bronze, it sits 15 metres in height, the ears are nearly 2 metres in length. Having been completed on May 9, 1977, it was enshrined for the reunification of North and South Korea. The statue is seated on a lotus-bud base, it’s left arm lies on its lap and the right hand is raised. It’s almond shaped eyes catch your attention as they graciously looks out over the city and it’s valley below. It’s calmness and status are only surpassed in my eyes by the Seokgamoni-bul stone statue at Seokguram Hermitage in Gyeongju (see earlier posts). The complex was extremely busy, Frank cynically suggested they were all praying for the kids to do well in national exams.  This sort of goes against Buddhist philosophy in that it is really a focus on attainment of status and wealth through attaining qualification.  Here lies a dichotomy for modern Korea.

From here the Independence Memorial Hall of Korea. Firstly when you arrive the scale is staggering and well to put it bluntly cold”, the first thing you meet is The Monument to the Nation.  This expresses the soul of the nation and is designed to resemble the wings of a bird flying up in the sky and the hands folded in making a prayer. It is deemed to express the perpetual spirit of the nation in the past, present and future. It also represents the Koreans will towards sovereignty and the independence of the nation. There is a sculpture carving of the Althea and Taegeukgi on the front and back. There are mosaic pieces that symbolise the four faiths, Cheongryeong, Baekho, Jujak and Hyeonmu, on the four sides in the monument. It is a large monolithic structure that is 51m high. Crossing over a bridge we watched families feeding the masses of Koi Carp that inhabit the lake.

There is a long processional walkway, Taegeuk Square which is supposed to raise the spirit of national independence and patriotism, a total of 815 national flags symbolising national liberation were raised in 2005, the 60th anniversary of Korea’s liberation. The square leads to The Grand Hall of the Nation.  It is the symbolic structure of the Independence Hall of Korea. It is the size of a soccer field being 126m in length, 68m in width, and 15 stories high and with a height of 45 metres it is the largest tile building in the oriental region. It sports a doubled roof designed to resemble the Sudeoksa (temple) and Daeungjeon from the Goryeo dynasty. Inside The Statue of Indomitable Korean is located at the center of the Grand Hall of the Nation. It is supposed to be a symbolic structure that invigorates patriotism and express the independent spirit and strong will of Korea. It is composed of 274 granite stones that weigh 3~4 tons each. Its posture expresses the undying spirit for sovereignty, independence, peace and prosperity of Koreans who received the energy from Mt. Baekdu. The lake of Mt. Baekdu is engraved in the centre at the back. On our visit a dance competition was taking place that included a disabled team, the first time I have experienced this form of inclusiveness during my six months in Korea.  A cause for celebration and an proper setting.

The museum part of the complex is extremely well done but overwhelmingly dark, as one who falls asleep at the cinema I found this atmosphere trying.  In saying that the exhibits are well presented and tell a true moving story about the history of Korea and a moving recollection of the tyranny with wich the evil Japanese tried to a destroy a nation and its true culture.  It seems to me we know about the holocaust, we know about Polpot and other dictators and it is time the world understood more about what life was like for Koreans under the Japanese.  Three examples are the forcing of young women into prostitution to service the ruling army, the torture of Koreans was widespread and also all Koreans (including Franks mother) were forced to learn Japanese at school. In this way the Japanese thought they could supress and control the Korean people….how wrong they were.  The exhibits show the extraordinary people who fought against this and eventually this led to independence for the Korean people.  The Japanese still lay claim to the Dokdo Islands, with the atrocities they carried out it would seem reasonable for them to cede ownership, without conflict, to the Koreans.

From here we took another 30 minute drive to the shrine of General Lee Sun-Shin (1545-1598).  Hyeonchungsa Shrine as its better known is located in Asan-si, It was built-in 1706, and named the following year.

During the Japanese Invasion of 1597 the General was informed that 500 Japanese war ships had assembled in Noryang and were set to return to Japan. On November 19, 1598, Yi persuaded the unwilling Ming Naval Commander to attack the Japanese fleet together. Under Yi’s brilliant leadership and superior tactics, the Japanese naval fleet lost most of their ships and soldiers in the battle. Unfortunately, during the course of the battle, Admiral Yi was hit by a stray bullet fired by a retreating enemy soldier and died. But before his death, Yi said, “Since the battle is at its peak, do not announce I am dead,” further testimony to his strong sense of patriotism. Admiral Yi Sun-shin’s tomb is located on Mount Eorasan in Eumbong-myeon, Asan-si, and every year a religious service is held to pay tribute to Admiral Yi at Hyeongchungsa Temple.

In 1932 during the Japanese occupation, a treasure preservation committee was formed to protect the shrine. Afterward, the shrine was rebuilt by the government, it’s area greatly enlarged. The shrine museum contains Sipkyeongdo, a pictorial biography of general Lee Sun-Shin’s portrait and his life story. Also here is the Nanjung Diary, designated National Treasure No. 76, and his Long Sword, Treasure No. 326. The old house he lived in is also located in the complex along with the archery range. The setting here on the hillside is stunning and the family house is simple but striking.  Walking back down the hill through landscaped gardens and past the ornamental lake and beautiful bridge it is easy to imagine how tranquil this place must have been prior to the rapid development of the Korean economy. I have decided to give myself and award the National Treasure No. 007 (is me) because I have been shaken but have not stirred from my ambition to promote Englishy to the countryside schools of Korea.  My shrine will be located in the re-cycling pen at Sang Ji City Ville, Bongbang Dong, Chungju-si! Contained in my shrine will be a Macbook Air, iPhone and iPad without which my life in Korea would probably have terminated by now :-).

Our final destination was the actual tomb of the General at Mount Eorasan, some 20 minutes drive away from the shrine and set into a bowl on the hillside. Frank used to visit this place to collect his thoughts prior to him leaving Korea for the States.  It’s a very peaceful scene with a lotus pond sitting below the burial mound which is perfectly manicured and maintained. The clearing where the tomb sits glows as you enter through a processional route flanked by bamboo. A footpath circles the slope which leads up to the tomb which is overshadowed by pine trees. It’s a serene place, very unspoilt and very rarely crowded, a great place to end this trip to Cheonan and Suwon. Frank gave me a lift back into Cheonan where I boarded my bus for the return to Chungju, the journey taking 1 hr and 55 minutes.

3 thoughts on “Staged authenticity and the legacy of King Jeongjo!

  1. You must have tried so many unique food in Korea! I wonder how kinchi, Hongeo hoe and dog-stew taste like! 😀

      • Ah, it might be very upsetting for you whenever you see a restaurant selling dog-stew. I can totally relate to that. I have never eaten a dog and probably would never try it; but I have been in many situations where I have to show the ultimate sense of understanding about dog-eating. Some of the local tribes in my hometown are known to consume dog as normally as we consume the chicken, so I have to always prepare my diplomatic smile whenever I attend their traditional events where they usually serve dog-meats.

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