In the shadow of Gangnam
If you weren’t looking for the Guryong panjachon, you wouldn’t know it was there. Nestled into the side of a mountain and purposely hidden from view by a ragged fence of cloth and sheet metal, this panjachon, literally translating as wooden board town, won’t appear on any tourist maps. And while many people are aware of its existence, they couldn’t tell you how to get there if you asked.
From the outside, Guryong is little more than a symbol of Korea’s social inequalities, but within its corrugated steel walls exists a real community, where people live their lives paycheck to paycheck, charcoal briquette to charcoal briquette.
Starting in the 1960s, Korea — as with much of East Asia — adopted a guiding principle that rising incomes would lead to better standards of housing. This philosophy depended largely on the growth of private companies, and was also supported by favorable interest rates and mortgage financing packages, along with improved means for the public to attain them.
However, particularly due to rapid urban population growth, Korea’s housing supply fell short of demand. Not only did prices skyrocket, but shortages of affordable housing led to the growth of slum settlements, particularly in urban areas such as Seoul.
The Guryong panjachon was established by residents who were pushed out of their homes by a government keen to clean up Korea’s image for the 1988 Summer Olympic Games.
Over the course of several months I visited this panjachon about a dozen times, ultimately forging truly unique relationships with a few of its community members and gaining insight into one of Korea’s most stigmatized neighborhoods.
GLASS AND STEEL TOWERS
After passing under the large metal gate that straddles its main road, the first thing I notice are the hikers; the community sits at the base of a mountain, making it a popular weekend trek for outsiders. Though middle-aged men outfitted in the latest mountaineering gear are a common sight on or near any Korean mountain, there is something especially strange about seeing them here. The juxtaposition is glaring; to my left is a steady stream of people dressed in brightly colored polypropylene hiking clothes, the latest in moisture-wicking technology, and to my right is a drab sprawl of one-story shacks. Mounds of charcoal briquettes, pink and black, line the road and spill into the ditch. There must be tens of thousands of them, and I am told later that this is one of the ways panjachon residents have found to generate income. Further along the road, which wraps around the community in a wavy crescent shape, is evidence of the community’s dangerously improvised infrastructure. The ground is scorched, and twisted metal bars are all that are left from what was once a cluster of houses. Fires are common in this panjachon, often caused by jury-rigged gas systems or the innumerable, densely woven electrical cables above the rooftops siphoning electricity from Seoul’s power grid. The hikers linger nearby, smoking cigarettes and chatting as they contemplate the wreckage.
From here I turn off the main road and follow a small track of packed earth that cuts through the heart of Guryong.
Every piece of land that isn’t occupied by a house is used for urban farming. I am surrounded by small rice fields and compost heaps. Scarecrows made of old t-shirts and dried grass stand watch. As I reflect on the resourcefulness of people in adverse situations, several elderly women pass by, some who flash cheerful smiles, and some of who look on with thinly veiled mistrust, like I am some sort of intruder. I can’t really tell if I am welcome or not.
Moving deeper into the panjachon, the hikers begin to become scarce, apparently not interested in deviating from the walking route. In front of me, basking in the sunlight on the roof of a house is one of the roughest looking cats I have ever seen. His face is an impossible mass of scar tissue centered around two glowing eyes the color of Post-it notes. His fur is mottled grey and looks to have the texture of a coconut husk. As I step forward and take his picture he stares at me with great indifference. He is clearly in charge here.
For such a small community, there are an incredible number of churches; wood and metal crosses dot the skyline. I scan the horizon and try to count them, but I am distracted by the view of Gangnam. Sitting in the shadow of Korea’s wealthiest neighborhood seems to be one of the cruelest aspects of life in this panjachon — certainly one of the country’s poorest. Every setting sun lights up the glass and steel towers of the former, and they seem to glint imperially, reminding panjachon residents of everything they do not have.
A ‘KOREAN DREAM’
On this particular day I am looking for Guangfan Piao, a Chinese immigrant laborer and truck driver. I had been visiting Guryong for several months in an attempt to make local connections, but no one seemed willing to speak with me — until Guangfan called out one day with an enthusiastic “hello foreigner!”
He can usually be found in the recycling yard where he lives and earns a living by collecting metal and cardboard from around Seoul and reselling it to city landfills. As I pass through the yard’s front gate I see a sleepy looking man in sagging long underwear. After squinting at me for a moment (a nurse friend of mine, after seeing some photos of him, thinks he may have glaucoma in his left eye), a broad grin spreads across his face. Thin and weathered, his features are deeply lined, signs of a lifetime spent working outdoors.
He also happens to be urinating onto a large pile of garbage.
The yard is small but obviously well used. While normally bustling with activity, this is Sunday, the one day of the week when the workers are off. A two-story mountain of cardboard boxes lines the southern wall, uninterrupted except for a small niche where two white dogs are chained up, barking constantly at their restraints. An aged and rusted garbage truck has been backed up to the pile, waiting to be loaded.
On the opposite wall is a gnarled pile of scrap metal. Guangfan, almost proudly, demonstrates the sorting system. There is aluminum siding from a construction site in Sindaebang, rebar from a demolished highway, and steel from old car parts. Despite the impression of disorder, everything is in its proper place. Green glass on the left, brown glass on the right, stacked in rough pyramids. The plastics pile is a mixture of shattered garden furniture and forgotten children’s toys, the stickers of their once blue eyes peeling away.
There is a small housing block as well, divided into three rooms. The unit closest to the front gate is reserved for the manager and his wife, and is slightly bigger than the others. A sliding glass window is set into the wall so he can monitor the yard’s daily happenings. The roof is piled high with mesh sacks of crushed beer cans and a random assortment of wooden beams. A faded Everlast punching bag hangs from an ancient chain, looking neglected and ravaged by weather.
Guangfan scolds me jokingly for a few minutes about being late and then ushers me into his house, a bare room with mildew-stained walls. There is no bed, just a dresser, a TV and a water-dispensing machine. Enormous bags of instant coffee mix, a calendar and a cheap wall-clock are the only adornments. He hands me a paper cup and we sit cross-legged on the floor, sipping the coffee, super-saturated with sugar and artificial cream powder. When these are finished, the cups are rinsed and refilled with some rice wine I have brought.
According to Guangfan, a combination of high unemployment and low wages, forced him to leave China in search of money to support his family. Granted a five-year Korean work permit, Guangfan left everything behind for the bright lights of Seoul. Now 67 years old, the courage it must have taken to make such a drastic life change is undeniable.
In a remarkably short amount of time he has adapted so well that it was unclear that he wasn’t Korean until he pulled a dog-eared Chinese passport out of his dresser to prove his date of birth. He speaks Korean fluently and his neighbors smile at him amiably whenever they pass, addressing him by his adopted Korean moniker of Park Kwang-beom. This is his reality — his “Korean Dream.”
By Guangfan’s own admission, however, life in Korea hasn’t been easy. He misses his wife deeply; it has been over three years since he has seen her. He works six days per week, moving vast distances across Seoul to collect recyclables.
When he does get a day off, all of his co-workers go home to their families, leaving him alone in the compound with one other man who also lives there full time. There is very little for them to do other than drink soju and sleep.
Since the majority of his earnings are sent back to China, his recreational budget is small. Though he often makes a show of having cash, spending frivolously on other people, he buys almost nothing for himself.
But what is most striking about Guangfan and the other panjachon residents who live in the shadow of Gangnam is that they do not seem to complain. While wealthier Seoulites lament missed promotions or a cracked smart phone screen, Guangfan relishes simple pleasures. He takes joy in small gifts like a plastic pen set or a cheaply printed photograph of himself. He doesn’t seem aware of the fact that the rest of the city expects him to be unhappy.
The people here are nothing if not adaptable. As the city and the corporations who own the land debate what to do with the panjachon and its people, the future of the neighborhood is uncertain. Just over a year ago, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced redevelopment plans to be carried out in Guryong by the state-owned SH Construction. The long-term result is that the poor will either migrate to another slum or create a new one. None of the government’s initiatives will work here, say critics: These people are so poor that they will certainly find the government’s below-market priced housing to be unaffordable.
But as Guangfan said to me on my last visit, “(Living here) is not perfect, and often it is hard, but for now it is home.”
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here do not represent those of Groove Korea. To comment, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Luc Forsyth is an Asia-based photojournalist. To see more of his work go to www.lucforsyth.com or follow him on twitter @LucForsyth.