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Down at the heels, S. Korea shantytown digs them in anyway

SEOUL, South Korea — Most mornings, when the slanted dawn light hits the nearby Tower Palace luxury high-rises, Cho Su-ja can’t help but stare, struck by their grandeur.

The 72-year-old grandmother lives in a two-room shack with plastic flooring, sandwiched between other shacks built from planks of wood, corrugated tin, castoff door frames and bamboo screens, like a jumble of shipwrecks.

But Cho doesn’t envy her wealthy neighbors, not one bit.

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She’s proud to be one of the original inhabitants of Guyrong village, a ramshackle shantytown sprawling alongside the exclusive Gangnam area, the highest-priced real estate in South Korea.

And she’s fighting efforts by Seoul officials to bulldoze her community of 1,200 shacks and move her and 2,000 others into low-income apartments that will be part of a new mixed-use community to be built on the same site.

“I love it here, to get on my hands and knees and plant my flowers in the spring,” she said. “I open my door to the sweet smell of acacia flowers. This area may not look like much, but to me it’s heaven. And I’m not leaving it for any matchbox apartment.”

For decades, the village has been a catchall for South Korea’s down and out, a collection of outcasts that turned no one away. There are women whose husbands died suddenly, leaving them to raise their children alone; couples who lost jobs and businesses and had nowhere else to turn; men without work, homes or families because of alcohol or bad luck.

Here, homes and people crowd on top of one another. In the summer, when the windows are open, coughs and conversations next door are easily heard. There is little rhyme or reason to the place, just shack after shack taking on the haphazard form of words in a Scrabble game.

Some people are surrounded by concrete; others, like Cho, are lucky enough to have a patch of dirt for a garden. Pity the poor souls who live next to the outhouses.

But residents of Guyrong — whose name translates as “three dragons rising to the sky” — say they have worked hard to build a community. A volunteer force patrols the narrow alleyways, and every year there’s a spring festival in which children offer the elderly red roses as a sign of respect. Neighbors collaborated to install a fire extinguisher at nearly every shack. They built churches, stores, a barber shop and a beauty salon.

The first residents arrived in the 1970s, a time of military rule and no social safety net. Back then the village was isolated, its shacks climbing a wooded hillside at the southernmost reaches of Seoul.

Then something new began to buffet these people who had already seen their fair share of bad luck: Rich people moved in nearby.

High-rises sprouted as the area south of the winding Han River became the Beverly Hills of Northeast Asia’s newest tiger economy. The area became home to tycoons and actors. Auto industry titans Hyundai and Kia opened their headquarters just down the road.

The Tower Palace high-rises sit across a busy four-lane road that serves as a security wall for the wealthy. There is no interaction between the two sides; neither would dream of crossing into the realm of the other.

To the north, past Tower Palace and out of sight of Guyrong village, sprawls Gangnam, with its riches and fantastic lifestyles that the poor can see only on their daily soap operas.

For years, as Guyrong residents watched the havens for the rich spring up, they rejected talk by officials about possibly being shooed off the state-owned land as squatters. But last April, the Seoul government finally put its foot down, announcing plans to have a state-controlled firm develop the area.

For those in Guyrong, the decision was devastating. Residents have strung banners that read: “We’ve been here for decades. We’ll die before we’re pushed out.”

Officials are just as resolute. They say they worry about the welfare of residents, citing floods each spring and a recent fire that burned a dozen shacks but miraculously killed no one. The new units, they say, will mean a better life.

“I’m surprised these people have stayed this long. I couldn’t live a month in this place, not a week,” said Kim Jin-kuk, a Seoul housing official who mans a trailer here to ensure that no one else moves in. “The city wants to help, but they’re fighting us.”

The debate exposes South Korea’s vast wealth inequality, a widening gulf between rich and poor in a society that prides itself on providing for everyone. A recent government report said that disposable income among the poorest 20 percent of families fell 5.6 percent last year, but increased 23.3 percent among the richest 20 percent. The poorest receive a small government handout, but the rest are in the ranks of the working poor who exist on less than $10,000 a year.

Although Seoul has its share of the have-nots, the most destitute end up in Guyrong, where families burn coal for heat, sending up black plumes of smoke. Until a few years ago, residents carried their water from a nearby well. Without indoor plumbing, they still use outhouses and portable toilets.

Most say the outhouses are the worst hardships they endure: freezing in winter and stultifying in the summer. On a recent morning, with the temperature just above freezing, an old woman in a nightgown and with curlers in her hair walked out of one of the stalls, clutching a roll of toilet paper in her hand.

All around her were signs of poverty: Flat-topped roofs were lashed with tarps to help keep out the cold. Stacked rocks and tree stumps stopped the coverings from blowing away.

A hunched man carried a bucket of coal, passing a feral dog that ambled down the street. Nearby, a tailless cat scampered over a garbage can. A rooster crowed as a woman in high heels and business attire hurried past a noxious creek. She kept her head down like a suspect fleeing a crime scene, as though ashamed to live in a place so poor.

Choi Joug-ja, a woman in her early 70s, tended to her tiny store that sells a few canned goods, beer and snacks. Guyrong is a hard life, she said, but she has learned to be happy here.

She moved to the shantytown with her husband in 1989. He assured her it would be for just a few weeks, but time slipped away. He died in 2004. She’s still here, and now she doesn’t want to leave.

“I’m comfortable. This is a community,” she said. “I’ll be lonely in some apartment. A lot of elderly people here feel that way. They’ll be alone. And one day you’ll find them dead.”

Cho Su-ja is equally stubborn. Her two sons have tried to move her from Guyrong, but she refuses.

“I’m not ashamed,” she said. “People ask and I tell them: I’m proud to live here. But we’re fighting against people with a lot of money. It doesn’t look good.”

Not everyone wants to stay. Some of them say a government-subsidized apartment would be a step up in life. One cold winter morning, a man who was walking his dog along a rutted dirt road said he had lived in Guyrong for 27 years and couldn’t wait to leave.

“No matter where they put us, we’ll have our families. We’re happy,” he said, declining to give his name because he said he was too ashamed at the thought of anyone knowing he lived here. “The definition of happiness is being with the people you love, isn’t that true?”

But some mornings, the sunlight hitting the nearby high-rises is almost taunting in its beauty.

“Yes, I see them. How can you not?” the man said. “But that’s someone else’s reality, not mine.”
 

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