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Korea's disappearing culture captured in photography

A woman smokes through a long, slender pipe called
A woman smokes through a long, slender pipe called "gombangdae" in this photo taken by Han Jeong-sik in 1980 in the southwestern city of Gwangju. Photographer Han recently released a photo essay collection, "The Highway Beside The Stable," which sheds light on disappearing aspects of Korean culture. / Courtesy of Noonbit Publishing house

Even bathroom culture changing with the rise of new money

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Han Jeong-sik's "The Highway Beside the Stable" is a collection of photo essays showing Korea in the incipient stages of urbanization and in transition between the pre-modern and modern eras.

The black-and-white photography is the author's personal account of extinct or disappearing elements of culture and his memories entangled with them.

With his camera in hand, the retired professor of photography zeroed in on lamps, "touring" realtors (called "ttutdabang" as they popped up for a few days at sites where large housing complexes were to be built, in order to attract clients, and then disappeared once housing contracts were signed), and a woman in hanbok smoking through a long and slender pipe.

Han, 81, discusses Korea's toilet culture in the section showing his 1980 photo taken in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang Province.

In the photo essay on "yogang" ― the Korean version of a chamber pot, which was a wide jar with a wide hole on top ― the author says the aesthetic image engraved on the jar seems to be associated with its main users: women.

Contemplating the Korean version of a chamber pot has led the author to explore older toilet culture in Korea. For older Koreans like him, he said the toilet was a "cultural place." He said he would read a novel there while "meeting his basic human needs." In old Korean houses, toilets were located outside the main structure. Together with their inconvenient location, dimly lit toilets became scary places to visit at night. This is how "yogang culture" was introduced for people to use at night. At night, the yogang served as an indoor toilet. In the morning, people would wash it with water.

Yogang culture has disappeared as toilets have been built inside homes since the housing construction boom and urban redevelopment that began in the 1980s.

Yogang, below, a portable toilet, is seen in this 1980 photo taken in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang Province. / Courtesy of Noonbit Publishing house
Yogang, below, a portable toilet, is seen in this 1980 photo taken in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang Province. / Courtesy of Noonbit Publishing house

Although nostalgic, the author tries to be realistic and reveals his frank feelings about the missed business opportunity.

He said he was envious of the new rich who assembled a great deal of money by taking advantage of the 1980s redevelopment boom. He said he would have been better off financially if he had been realistic when he was young and purchased land in Seoul's southern region of Gangnam before property speculation began.

If he were money-savvy back then, he said, he would have grabbed the opportunity and things would have been very different for him now.

"Sometimes I regret my career choice when I look back at my past. I would have been rich if I had purchased land there back then. But such business opportunities were missed because I was drawn to taking pictures," he wrote.

"I think the super-rich are born, not made, but if I were a little bit savvier about money back then, who knows? I might have turned out to be rich now."

He uses disappearing cultures and practices as literary motifs to spark his imagination and memories of his days when they were in vogue.

Released by Noonbit Publishing last week,
"Highway" presents the author's recollections and brief thoughts about objects at the time when he took them. Some of the four dozen photos show sights that don't exist any longer.

The 1979 photo he took at a hill in Seoul's southern district of Seocho shows two horses in a small makeshift stable in a field near the Gyeongbu Expressway connecting Seoul and Busan. A low-rise apartment complex seen behind tells observers it was taken when the massive urban redevelopment in Gangnam had already begun in the 1980s.

Han said it's an image of Seoul "back when tigers smoked" (a long time ago, referring to the era when tigers were depicted in paintings smoking pipes).

With the vintage photo, Han ushers his readers to the early 1970s when the nation was poles apart over President Park Chung-hee's plan to construct the highway to cut logistics costs.

"Public opinion was against the massive construction project. The two Kims of the opposition camp were also high-profile opponents," Han wrote.

The two Kims refers to the late Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung who were later elected president in 1992 and 1998, respectively.

"Despite their resistance, President Park pushed for it and the highway was constructed against all odds," he said. "Its enormous economic effect on the Korean economy made me think that political leaders sometimes need to be tough and push for their ideas to make things happen. What would Korea be now if he had given in and scrapped the highway project? We would never have experienced the affluence we are now enjoying…"

Photographer Han Jeong-sik / Courtesy of Noonbit Publishing house
Photographer Han Jeong-sik / Courtesy of Noonbit Publishing house

His fond memories of the past are reflected in a 1981 photo featuring Hwashin Department Store.

Calling the shopping center the face of Seoul for natives like him, Han said he remembers it was the tallest building in Seoul in the 1960s. He used to visit the cinema there to see movies. The department store was a symbol of affluence. The author said he was unable to visit after his father's death in 1945 as his family became impoverished with no breadwinner.

Due to financial difficulties, the department store was shut down in February 1987 and demolished months later. Jongno Tower currently stands there.

Together with his observation about disappearing traditions, Han talks about the failures of his career as a photographer. He said he took so many photos but he thinks many of them are not captivating.

Born in 1939 in Seoul, Han studied Korean literature at Seoul National University and taught photography at Chung-Ang University. He has taken photos for five decades. Since retiring from his job at the university, he has published several books and held exhibitions.


A woman smokes through a long, slender pipe called
A woman smokes through a long, slender pipe called "gombangdae" in this photo taken by Han Jeong-sik in 1980 in the southwestern city of Gwangju. Photographer Han recently released a photo essay collection, "The Highway Beside The Stable," which sheds light on disappearing aspects of Korean culture. / Courtesy of Noonbit Publishing house

Even bathroom culture changing with the rise of new money

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Han Jeong-sik's "The Highway Beside the Stable" is a collection of photo essays showing Korea in the incipient stages of urbanization and in transition between the pre-modern and modern eras.

The black-and-white photography is the author's personal account of extinct or disappearing elements of culture and his memories entangled with them.

With his camera in hand, the retired professor of photography zeroed in on lamps, "touring" realtors (called "ttutdabang" as they popped up for a few days at sites where large housing complexes were to be built, in order to attract clients, and then disappeared once housing contracts were signed), and a woman in hanbok smoking through a long and slender pipe.

Han, 81, discusses Korea's toilet culture in the section showing his 1980 photo taken in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang Province.

In the photo essay on "yogang" ― the Korean version of a chamber pot, which was a wide jar with a wide hole on top ― the author says the aesthetic image engraved on the jar seems to be associated with its main users: women.

Contemplating the Korean version of a chamber pot has led the author to explore older toilet culture in Korea. For older Koreans like him, he said the toilet was a "cultural place." He said he would read a novel there while "meeting his basic human needs." In old Korean houses, toilets were located outside the main structure. Together with their inconvenient location, dimly lit toilets became scary places to visit at night. This is how "yogang culture" was introduced for people to use at night. At night, the yogang served as an indoor toilet. In the morning, people would wash it with water.

Yogang culture has disappeared as toilets have been built inside homes since the housing construction boom and urban redevelopment that began in the 1980s.

Yogang, below, a portable toilet, is seen in this 1980 photo taken in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang Province. / Courtesy of Noonbit Publishing house
Yogang, below, a portable toilet, is seen in this 1980 photo taken in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang Province. / Courtesy of Noonbit Publishing house

Although nostalgic, the author tries to be realistic and reveals his frank feelings about the missed business opportunity.

He said he was envious of the new rich who assembled a great deal of money by taking advantage of the 1980s redevelopment boom. He said he would have been better off financially if he had been realistic when he was young and purchased land in Seoul's southern region of Gangnam before property speculation began.

If he were money-savvy back then, he said, he would have grabbed the opportunity and things would have been very different for him now.

"Sometimes I regret my career choice when I look back at my past. I would have been rich if I had purchased land there back then. But such business opportunities were missed because I was drawn to taking pictures," he wrote.

"I think the super-rich are born, not made, but if I were a little bit savvier about money back then, who knows? I might have turned out to be rich now."

He uses disappearing cultures and practices as literary motifs to spark his imagination and memories of his days when they were in vogue.

Released by Noonbit Publishing last week,
"Highway" presents the author's recollections and brief thoughts about objects at the time when he took them. Some of the four dozen photos show sights that don't exist any longer.

The 1979 photo he took at a hill in Seoul's southern district of Seocho shows two horses in a small makeshift stable in a field near the Gyeongbu Expressway connecting Seoul and Busan. A low-rise apartment complex seen behind tells observers it was taken when the massive urban redevelopment in Gangnam had already begun in the 1980s.

Han said it's an image of Seoul "back when tigers smoked" (a long time ago, referring to the era when tigers were depicted in paintings smoking pipes).

With the vintage photo, Han ushers his readers to the early 1970s when the nation was poles apart over President Park Chung-hee's plan to construct the highway to cut logistics costs.

"Public opinion was against the massive construction project. The two Kims of the opposition camp were also high-profile opponents," Han wrote.

The two Kims refers to the late Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung who were later elected president in 1992 and 1998, respectively.

"Despite their resistance, President Park pushed for it and the highway was constructed against all odds," he said. "Its enormous economic effect on the Korean economy made me think that political leaders sometimes need to be tough and push for their ideas to make things happen. What would Korea be now if he had given in and scrapped the highway project? We would never have experienced the affluence we are now enjoying…"

Photographer Han Jeong-sik / Courtesy of Noonbit Publishing house
Photographer Han Jeong-sik / Courtesy of Noonbit Publishing house

His fond memories of the past are reflected in a 1981 photo featuring Hwashin Department Store.

Calling the shopping center the face of Seoul for natives like him, Han said he remembers it was the tallest building in Seoul in the 1960s. He used to visit the cinema there to see movies. The department store was a symbol of affluence. The author said he was unable to visit after his father's death in 1945 as his family became impoverished with no breadwinner.

Due to financial difficulties, the department store was shut down in February 1987 and demolished months later. Jongno Tower currently stands there.

Together with his observation about disappearing traditions, Han talks about the failures of his career as a photographer. He said he took so many photos but he thinks many of them are not captivating.

Born in 1939 in Seoul, Han studied Korean literature at Seoul National University and taught photography at Chung-Ang University. He has taken photos for five decades. Since retiring from his job at the university, he has published several books and held exhibitions.


Kang Hyun-kyung hkang@koreatimes.co.kr

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