|A typical village on the outskirts of Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, in 1976 / Courtesy of Steven L. Shields|
By Steven L. Shields
I met archivist Lee Shin-ja of the Cheongju City Archives in a serendipitous turn of events. We discussed an entirely different matter when my history with Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, came up.
I was a lad of 20 when I lived in the city for almost a year, back in 1976 while studying the Korean language. Being an avid hobbyist photographer and an inherent anthropologist, I took photos of the city and its environs, places, buildings and seemingly random scenes.
|The bridge into Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, in 1976 with an international flair was always a welcome sight. / Courtesy of Steven L. Shields|
Ms. Lee was enthralled and asked if I would share some of those photos with her. I sent some, and soon that few became almost 100 scenes of the city and daily life in the mid-1970s. Ms. Lee facilitated the city archives acquiring my collection, which I gladly donated for their historical records.
During my first visit to the archive a few months ago, I noticed a couple of late-model Hangeul manual typewriters in a hands-on corner. I stunned the staff when I sat down at one and began typing. Most of the staff are too young to remember manual typewriters. I had learned to type Hangeul on an even older model. I also was able to fix the ribbon mechanism on both machines so they would type properly.
I also had the chance to meet Cheongju Mayor Lee Beom-seog, and share some of the photos with him that I had taken in 1976. He and I discussed my memories of living in the city almost 50 years ago.
When I came to the city in 1976, a handful of U.S. Peace Corps volunteers were already at the language training school I attended. I also befriended a Roman Catholic priest there from Brooklyn, New York. He arrived in Korea toward the end of the Korean War and remained in the country until retiring in the early 2000s.
|Steven L. Shields, age 20, tries his hand at rice-planting in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, 1976. / Courtesy of Steven L. Shields|
The city was then quite small, with the population below 200,000 (it's now above 831,000). Along its outskirts were kilometer after kilometer of strawberry fields and rice paddies. Here and there, a small village of thatched-roof houses occupied the hillsides above the fields. Only the main streets in the city were paved. Roads in and out of the city were often quite rough, depending on how much mud there was after a rain. I recall the train station (no longer extant) in the northern part of town did not have a paved plaza in front.
|Lunch with the farmers after planting rice was real food at its most honest and spicy best! / Courtesy of Steven L. Shields|
I lived near City Hall, built in the early 1960s. So in 1976, it was not an old building. It was done in a modern style (for the times) of three stories of concrete and block. In succeeding years, the city added a fourth story on the roof. After more than 60 years of service, the building will be demolished, and the city will build a modern facility. In the meantime, the city government is in temporary housing.
|Cheongju City Hall in North Chungcheong Province displays the prominent motto on the roof-line reading "Destroy Communism for Reunification," in 1976. / Courtesy of Steven L. Shields|
In those days, government buildings and schools carried giant-sized mottos about opposing or destroying communism to reunify the country. Every morning at dawn the loudspeakers would blare out the Saemaul song, the Yebigun song and Park Chung-hee's classic "Nadui Joguk."
Life in the city was rather slow-paced and laid-back. The region is known for its particular "drawl" when speaking. Sometimes walking across town was faster than waiting for the city bus. Since the city's oldest parts were generally flat, walking was easy. The narrow, tree-lined city streets are long gone, but the newly widened streets with a few trees along the path evoke that distant memory.
At the behest of Mayor Lee, Royal Asiatic Society (RAS) Korea and Cheongju City have signed an agreement of cooperation. RAS Korea is honored to work with organizations with common goals. We will work together to collect and preserve Korea's important documentary history.
|Rev. Steven L. Shields shows Cheongju Mayor Lee Beom-seog some of his photos in the Cheongju City Archive holdings. / Courtesy of Steven L. Shields|
The archive's collections are extensive, including official government documents and ordinary citizens' documentary history and artifacts. Many collections are available for research and viewing, but digitized collections are not generally available to the public. The archive, located in its recently opened headquarters building adjacent to the former police headquarters (which has been turned into a citizens' services center), sponsors regular lectures about the city's history.
|The headquarters of Cheongju City Archives in North Chungcheong Province, opened about five years ago, has hosted the Citizens' Archive Hall since December 2022. / Courtesy of Steven L. Shields|
The staff comprised of both civil servants and trained professional archivists work aggressively to preserve the official government records and collect artifacts and documents from ordinary folks like me.
|Archivist Lee Shin-ja, Rev. Steven L. Shields and Archives Department Head Lee Gyung-ran stand below the author's plaque on the wall of the Archive Hall. / Courtesy of Steven L. Shields|
Rev. Steven L. Shields is president of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea (www.raskb.com) and columnist for The Korea Times. Visit raskb.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about the society.