Korea is in a constant state of change. This can be both a point of pride and frustration. Facets of Korean life that are inefficient are often bulldozed and replaced with something thought to work better. The results can be hit or miss. Wangsimni, just north of the Han River, is no different
In 2002, the Seoul City Government initiated the New Town Project. Aimed at reducing the gap between newer Gangnam and older Gangbuk, 337,200 square meters of Wangsimni was leveled. Now called New Town District 3, the area is block after block of uniform high rises and matching rectangular buildings.
Like other neighborhoods, Wangsimni has undergone a world of change since it came into existence. What was once simple pastureland became an artery of industry during Japanese colonialization and later lived in the shadows of the ill-fated elevated expressway over Cheongyecheon. Today, Wangsimni is a place whose identity and future are at odds.
Let’s take a walk.
For most people, their knowledge of Wangsimni ends at the convenient transfer station beneath a large Enter-6 shopping complex that looks like a giant zamboni. Wangsimni is actually a much larger, informal area covering a large swatch of Seongdong-gu, where the original village once was.
The neighborhood around Sangwangsimni Station, particularly Exit 4, is old. Uneven roads meander next to mismatch villa-style houses and cement block businesses. Often, the roads are more like narrow corridors, lined on either side with dozens of closet-like food stalls and stores, their goods often spilling out onto the road in front of them. Stores selling houseware and cheap goods, from kimchi pots to pencils, dot the neighborhood. Outside, in the shade of a rainbow-colored canopy that lets the sun peek through rips in the fabric, handheld AM/FM radios are for sale. These radios, given that they are for sale all through the neighborhood, provide the soundtrack of old Wangsimni – a tinny Korean trot with a nice layer of static.
The people walking around the neighborhood here are mostly elderly. The only evidence that there are children is a make-shift arcade outside a trinket store: an old TV in a box hooked up to a Nintendo Gamecube. On warmer summer nights, kids will sit down on the street next to the drying chili peppers and play until after sunset.
There is a rumble of an engine with no exhaust. An old man drives down the main road on an improvised tractor. On the back are stacks of tied-up cardboard and bags of crumpled up plastic bottles. Next to the recyclables is a bowl of Jeju oranges and a handwritten sign that names a price. The driver looks straight ahead with his hands comfortably on his lap and the wagon seems to be operated by a few levers that he controls with his feet.
The wagon leaves stains of sooty exhaust fumes that dissipate and are quickly covered up by the pleasing smells of Wangsimni. There are two stalls selling fresh mandu. The ajumma sit in the shade behind the steamer as the white clouds drift into the street and disappear into the sky. A bit further down the road there is the sweet smell of jokbal (seasoned pig’s trotters), a local favorite that can be bought at seemingly every other restaurant.
Vendors are everywhere. Next to a butcher is an ancient woman eating rice, manning a table that is wedged into a large alcove cut into an old brick building. Bowls of kimchi, quail eggs, seaweed and a dozen other dishes sit under plastic covers – a haphazard effort to keep out the bugs. Next to her is an ajumma sitting cross-legged on the ground. She pays no attention as I walk by. From the aluminum arm of her canopy hangs a number of long fish: brown and dried in the sun. Their bellies are split open and held that way with a tooth pick. They look like a macabre Christmas decoration. This part of Wangsimni is set in its ways. In the three years I have lived in this area, it has hardly changed.
If you were to take the subway to Wangsimni Station, you would get another experience entirely. The neighborhood outside Exit 6 is a kind of battleground that pops up on the outskirts of every college on the planet. It is the buffer between the undergrads of Hanyang University and the rest of the world. As a result, it is home to a few blocks of realtors who specialize in studio apartments, cheap restaurants, hofs, and cafés that come and go at an alarming rate.
Until August 2015, Ssamji Park, a small square outside Exit 6 was nothing but a meeting place and dumping ground for cigarette butts, empty beer cans, and vomit from the night before. After the Seongdong-gu government designated the area as “Hanyang University Food Culture Street,” an attempt was made to clean up the area. It has been partially successful. Today, “No Smoking” banners hang from poles above the square. While people often ignore the banner, the area is better maintained and sometimes the stage for evening concerts.
Restaurants in the area have also improved appearances, having added English menus to 40 restaurants who were sponsored by the government to do so. Signage has also tried to capitalize on both the increasing number of people coming to the area to eat and the growing international student population at Hanyang University. As a result, some businesses have thrived but many others have collapsed. Older restaurants, usually single-dish mom and pop operations, have been folding rapidly since last summer. Modernity in this part of Wangsimni looks cleaner, but it has also resulted in a huge number of gimmicky samgyeopsal restaurants, juice bars, and cafés, seemingly all owned by celebrity chef Jong Won Paik. Seemingly, while parts of Wangsimni are struggling with modernization, others have lost entirely.
Wangsimni continues to be a place that is representative of the past and present of Korea. It’s future, though, is quite up in the air.
Sangwangsimni Station (Line 2, Exit 4) will take you to the edge of the old neighborhood. Take any right and you can explore.
Wangsimni Station (Line 2, Line 5, the Jungang line or Bundang line, Exit 6) will take you to Hanyang University Food and Culture Street.