|Visitors walk around streets of China Town, adorned with red and gold colors, in Incheon, Wednesday. / Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
By Park Jin-hai
The city of Incheon, some 40 kilometers west of Seoul, invites visitors to take a historic journey to the late 19th century, when the country saw its first modernization, following the forced opening of the port in 1883 by foreign countries.
Over 130 years ago, the urbanscape of Incheon was "international," bustling with merchants from Japan, China, the U.S., Germany, France and Russia. Starting from Japan, China and then Western countries, foreigners resided within a special settlement with extraterritoriality.
The city exuded a cosmopolitan atmosphere with various foreign languages being spoken and rare imported goods being traded. Banks and hotels appeared and an expatriates' social club, the Jemulpo Club, was built. Through those exchanges, Incheon expanded into a modern city, initiating the modernization of the country.
When the late Joseon Kingdom was on its precarious way to becoming forcefully annexed by Japan in 1910, the country started to witness people clad in Western-style attire with modern educations. Those intellectuals later became icons of modernity called "modern boys" and "modern girls" in the late 1920s. Gathering at cafes over coffee, they talked about the changing world.
Following many recent popular dramas and films including tvN's megahit period drama "Mr. Sunshine," set in this unique time period ― when the Eastern culture of Korea collided with Western culture for the first time ― millennials have become fascinated by Korea's early "modern culture."
|Women in 19th century-style fancy dresses visit Incheon to find perfect spots for photos. / Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
Wearing clothes as if they were those "modern girls" in 19th century-style long, lacey dresses with cocktail hats with veils, they roam the historic streets of Incheon to find perfect Instagram photo spots.
"Since late last year, the early modern time theme has been really hot on social media. In February, I broadcast the Incheon tour show in a velvety dress on my YouTube channel and this time we came here again for another show and photos," said Kim Na-young, a 23-year-old YouTuber in a fancy retro-style chiffon dress, who mainly shoots travel themed clips with her high school friend.
"Wearing this costume and going about the old town, it feels like I'm traveling in time to the past. It is also meaningful that my friend and I share good experiences together to enjoy and reflect on later," she said. "I don't think this is a play culture only limited to young hipsters. I see many photos on social networks of middle-aged people and their families joining in this new trend."
Along with young hipsters, the streets are bustling with aged tourists in groups. For Kim Young-sook, an 85-year-old woman from Seoul, touring with a group of other friends, Incheon is the city of America's General Douglas MacArthur and The Battle of Inchon, an amphibious invasion and battle in the Korean War that resulted in a decisive victory and strategic reversal in favor of the United Nations Command in 1950.
"When I came here in my 30s, I came here to see the statue of MacArthur in Jayu Park on the hill. This time I also went up to the park to thank the American general. Without him, we could not have had a free country like today," she said. "Looking around I found many things have changed over the past years. This place was not as busy as nowadays."
|Old photo shows the view of Jemulpo in Incheon. The port was forced to open by foreign countries in 1883. / Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
The Boundary Stairways for extraterritorial districts governed by China's Qing and Japan is where visitors can witness the power struggle between two powerhouses.
The stone stairs themselves are divided in half. The western end of the steps was built in the Chinese style with their unique stone lanterns, while the eastern end is decorated with Japanese style stone lanterns.
Climb up the stairs and look down from Jayu Park, the country's first modern-style park, one side centers on China Town that today shows the Chinese style of architecture including a gold and red colored gateway, Chinese restaurants and street vendors selling Chinese street food and fortune cookies.
The other side shows the Japanese-Western eclectic architecture that Japan built incorporating Western architectural components.
|A group of children look at the replica of 1970s Chinese restaurant in Korea at Jjajangmyeon Museum in Incheon, Wednesday. / Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
Since Incheon Port was opened, many Chinese laborers from Shandong settled in the area, mainly working as rickshaw pullers or dock laborers loading and unloading cargo.
Those Chinese workers made their own community and from here, Jjajangmyeon, one of the most popular Koreanized Chinese foods, originated. The noodle dish topped with a thick sauce made of chunjang was served as a quick meal for laborers missing food from home.
Beginning with Gonghwachun many Chinese restaurants earned popularity. Gonghwachun was closed in 1983, but reopened as the Jjajangmyeon Museum in 2012. For its historical value, it has been registered as a cultural property.
Chinese merchants sold Chinese foods, accessories and silk here and bought alluvial gold from mines in Korea in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The once-booming Chinese streets were hit by the Korean War and the authoritarian Park Chung-hee government's hostile policies limiting the economic activities of Chinese Koreans.
However, since Korea and China normalized diplomatic ties in 1992, the streets regained their vitality. Today the streets are mostly occupied with Chinese restaurants and there remain some restaurants run by descendants of those early Chinese settlers. Currently, some 500 Chinese Koreans from 170 families reside in the region.
|Cafe Pot R, the former office of Daehwa Corporation, is registered as a cultural heritage for its architectural value. / Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
Remnants of colonial era buildings
Japan established a special settlement with extraterritoriality rights in September 1883, for the first time among foreign forces. Starting with 300 Japanese residents by the end of 1883, the population grew fast to over 4,000 in the 1890s.
Going through the 1910-45 Japanese occupation, the area grew fast to establish Japanese companies, hotels and banks, including the 1st Bank of Japan's Incheon branch, which is currently used as the Incheon Open Port Museum.
After liberation, however, many of the formerly Japanese-owned buildings have been demolished in the name of clearing away the remnants of Japanese colonialism or rapid urbanization.
The streets near Jung-gu Office, formerly used as the Japanese Consulate, are lined with wooden buildings in Japanese traditional architectural style. Among them is Cafe R, the former office of Daehwa Corporation. It is the first privately owned building, which was registered later as a cultural heritage for its architectural value.
"The conditions of many old Japanese public buildings have been relatively well-preserved as cultural properties. But those private buildings like mine have been lost to history, after the city was bombarded during the Korean War and even more from the government development plan for urbanization," said Baek Young-im, 56-year-old cafe owner who bought the old building in 2011. As an Incheon native and longtime social activist working with NGOs for city preservation, Baek knew the historical and cultural value of the building.
While studying old photos of the 1890s with experts on local cultural heritage, prior to her planned renovation, she learned the building's history dates back to before the 1890s and how it was used. "I changed my initial plan to renovate its interior, and decided to put my money to preserve both the exterior and interior of this building, consulting with experts."
It is the area's only remaining three-story wooden townhouse built in Japanese "machiya" style for both commercial use and residence. After her year-long preservation efforts, the cafe opened in August 2012. It sells Japanese Castella sponge cake and other desserts made of red beans, based on historical documents that recorded Japanese bakeries in the area earned money by selling those desserts in the early modernization era of Korea.
"I think we should not beautify Japan's colonial era. Surely it is a painful chapter of our history. This building was occupied by a Japanese company that exploited Korean laborers. But I also feel we need to preserve and remember those painful parts of history, so that the same history will not be repeated," she said, adding that she keeps the property in good condition, but doesn't like the idea of decorating it to make it "more Japanese" in order to draw more customers.
"This building housed a bank branch, an Oriental health clinic and then a storage house over the years after liberation. Older customers bring their children and grandchildren to share their own personal memories with this aged building. I have pride that my cafe stands like a living history that everyone can visit and enjoy," Baek said.
She said she wanted to set an example to others that individuals can actually make money by preserving historical buildings and using them as commercial properties, without entirely renovating them to the taste of today's customers. Following her lead, many people who bought properties nearby started to maintain the old Japanese architectural styles, at least on the exteriors.
In a corner of the cafe, books are for sale showing Incheon's modern history, alongside reprinted postcards featuring Incheon that Japan used to justify its colonial rule over Korea.
Walking down a few steps from the cafe, tourists can also visit Daebul Hotel Museum that replicated the first Western-style hotel built by a Japanese entrepreneur in 1888.
In order to look over the whole history of the early modern era, the Incheon Open Port Museum, formerly used as the Incheon branch of the 1st Bank of Japan, offers some helpful guidance. It exhibits photos and historical objects used during the period such as typewriters, wall-mounted telephones and music boxes along with explanations on the introduction of trains, postal service, Western schools and churches.
The Jemulpo Club, established in 1901 by a Russian architect, was a social club for foreigners in Incheon. Sitting within Jayu Park, the building, decorated in medieval European style with chandeliers, was an exclusive social place for foreigners and also served as the venue for dialogues concerning diplomatic concessions.
After the elimination of the settlement system in 1913, the Jemulpo Club was used by Japanese veterans, and later by North Korean battalions and American army officers during the Korean War. Incheon City now uses the cultural property for exhibitions and lectures for local people.