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Cheonggyecheon: Seoul Streamin'
A walk down the waterway that cuts through downtown of the Korean capital
Colin Moore (Colin89)     Print Article 
Published 2007-12-06 18:04 (KST)   
Night view
©2007 Culture News
Above Cheonggyecheon
where our hopes flow
As a bridge of meeting
that brings people together
As a bridge of rest that
brings nature to people
May this bridge be there
with Seoul citizens all
the time.

-- Inscription at Samilgyo (Bridge), Seoul

Touchy feely speak or not, there may be something to it. The stream known as the Cheonggyecheon is an urban getaway with a twist, a revamped sliver of 600 year old Korean history that cuts through the city between stone walls. Simply put, it's a park by a river in a trench. Though to stop there would be insincere. It's six kilometer length is cut into sections, marked by the 22 bridges and crossroads that run across it. Below them, the canal is constantly changing, an elongated bento-box of tastes. Sections are distinguished by the very features that keep the experience fresh. Stepping stones, elfen bridges, digital screens, and water-walls crop up along the way, but the adventure is in not knowing what's coming. Other areas are marked by statues and plaques, spouting something close to lyrical sentiment. The messages could just as easily come off as fairy-tale sonnet speak, given the Korean wave of happy ubiquitous well-being, used to promote everything from toothpaste to green tea lattes. Still, the heart is there. Korea seems to excel at finding sleeves long enough to wear it on. Thus, the Cheonggyecheon.

The shell
©2007 Colin Moore
Central Business District. The 50 foot sea shell is painted in thin ribbons of red and blue, and lined in yellow skin. Given its size, the colors give it an impressive amount of air. The city can thank its designers, Coosje Van Bruggen and Claes Oldenburg, for the effect. It practically floats at the head of Cheonggye Plaza, the more polished end of the canal. Facing the hole of the shell and a minute's walk to the right, is an older symbol of Korean history, the statue of Joseon-era war legend Yi Sun-sin. Chest puffed out, the Admiral watches over "Seoulite Street," the road leading to the city's main transportation hub, Seoul Station. Like everything else in the downtown core, the statue cranes necks, the result of a world that's built vertically. But compared to the nearby heights of Donga Ilbo and the Seoul Finance Center, the pagoda shell cowers. Art is art but big business is clearly the new dynasty. All the same, the canal isn't lacking attention.

A group of teenagers pose for cell phone pics. They're wearing the collared shirts and ties that can only be formal wear, but don't be fooled. It's not the humungoid beach shell on protein powder they've dressed up for. Korean education strikes again. School may be out for summer, but not for the weekends apparently. Alice Cooper would balk. They stand in front of the plaque that gives the names of the artists... and something else. Call it a delicate description, equal parts vague and necessary. "The vertical shape creates a dynamic atmosphere representing the restored vitality of the stream and the cultural aspect of Seoul's urban development." It's how you'll find the canal marketed wherever it's marketed. Symbol of progression. Symbol of life. More concrete information is available 50 meters downstream. Another plaque set into another wall gives an abridged history of the stream, 250 years worth whittled down to a handful of sentences.

From the early 1900s until the years following the Korean War, the focus on the country's economic development pulled rural populations to the city. Communities built up along the Cheonggyecheon with a shantytown aesthetic that did little for the condition of the stream. Archival photos show women washing clothes and children playing in the squalid conditions, a valued resource with all the delicacy of a Dickens locale. In 1958, it was with covered in cement for road space, then again into the 70s by an elevated highway. It was a time for Seoul to modernize, even at the expense of burying cultural relics. Times have changed. After a 30-year growth period spearheaded by a number of powerful family-owned companies (chaebol), no one is doubting that Korea is a country with economic "uumph." Now, it can backpedal. Presidential hopeful Lee Myung-bak has said as much. To drop a name at the mention of the canal's restoration is to drop his. During his tenure as Mayor of Seoul, he described the birth of a new urban culture that "strikes the right balance between nature and humanity," of which the Cheonggyecheon plays a part. But the naysayers are the first to question the purity of it all, at a cost several sources estimate at being 900 billion won. Lee has also been linked with controversy surrounding closed-door sessions with developers, eased building restrictions, and the bribery that might connect the two. Dynamic Seoul might come at a price yet.

©2007 OhmyNews
The first sign of moving water begins at the base of the pagoda shaped shell. It trickles out of a small hole into a finger shaped groove cut into the plaza floor and winds along the tiles towards the actual stream. In a long line of eye candy it ends at the next piece, a black rectangular pool with fountain capabilities. There are two ends to the Cheonggyecheon, but the impression is that it all begins here. Watching from the pool, the water magically commands itself to be, then gushes over a waterfall into the 20-foot high trench. In reality, it's supplied by groundwater and two other sources, including the Hangang (River), at a volume of 120 kilotons per day.

At 40 centimeters it's a temptation for some. If you happen to see anyone under ten standing in over their knees, chances are dad's stuck a foot in first. There's more than legs in these waters though. All in all, the waterway is said to contain close to 500 species of plants and animals including carp, purple eulalia, mandarin ducks, and the unforgettable leech. Along with the Jungnangcheon, the stream that connects the canal to the wider Han River, the Cheonggyecheon is one of three migratory conservation zones in the area. On this night, three college-aged youth lean over within earshot of the waterfall, taunting fish with an empty coffee cup. Could be they're planning to take a little conservation home. The walkways here hang over the water in refined curves and zigzags, like something cut from a defunct ice age. If this is the future, it impersonal but sanitized. Don't be surprised to hear music down the way. The main plaza at street level holds almost weekly entertainment but the canal is prime busker territory. Foreign quartets and local folk musicians make regular stops.

A strong baseball throw from the waterfall is one of the standout features of the Cheonggyecheon, the Gwangtonggyo Bridge. Its pillars contain stones taken from the tomb of the concubine of Taejo, a Joseon dynasty king. It was also commonly used as a route for royal events and kite flying back in the day. What sits underneath the bridge could aptly be called the time tunnels. As the stream narrows from the waterfall, it veers to the right and passes under a boxy tunnel. It's clean and smoothly cut, and at night lit blue for futuristic effect. The left tunnel favors the past. Two sets of granite columns, massive biblical chunks set one on top of the next, are painted by red lights. You can almost smell the manual labor. It adds to the feeling of ages, and walking downstream though it makes a certain amount of sense as the canal gets less cosmopolitan from here.

Supyo Bridge
©2007 Lee J.K.
The Joseon Dynasty is one of history's longest monarchies and Korea's last. Most of what you'll discover as traditional Korean both in customs and culture comes from this period. National Treasure 853 sits just past Gwangtonggyo Bridge. It's a woodblock map from the early 1800s, a bit outdated as an aid for lost tourists, though you're more likely to be distracted by what's beside it. In 1795 King Jeongjo and Queen Mother Hyegyeonggung paid a visit to the tomb of their respective father and hubby in Hwaseong, the present day city of Suwon. Today a family of four might make a go of it jammed in a Kia Optima, but for the 22nd monarch of Joseon more prep-work was involved. The evidence is on the wall. The court appointed artwork is a tiled depiction of that day's procession, painted like elongated Peanuts characters in formal costume. High ranking officials. Common soldiers. Flag bearers and eunuchs. The figures are shown in profile, drawn with enough detail to give a feel for their style and occupation. The Royal palanquin is easy enough to spot in the center of the work. Picture the Queen Mother somewhere within the horse drawn box, escorted by gunmen and court soldiers with whips.

Somewhere a 23rd century prison movie titled "Zargon 5" is missing a set piece. The Samilgyo Bridge is rimmed with a half moon shaped metal cage. It glows like a space-aged bug light, cobalt and brilliant enough to color everything under it with a cool country sleigh ride feeling (or something back of a video store curtain). One young couple doesn't seem to mind. They're huddled up on one of the many waterside rest-stops. It's another popular reason to pay a visit: the lover's getaway, but just as much the social getaway. Even well into the colder weather, people can be seen spending time by the stream, sitting on chunks of stone that could easily double as Star Trek mise en scene. What better way to kill an hour than to stare at moving water with a raspberry mocha in hand, and an inkling of Captain Kirk at your back?

©2007 Park H.Y.
If you'd rather touch history than a loved one, Dongdaemun is another 20 to 30 minutes downstream. The horseshoe shaped East Gate, National Treasure No. 1, sits just left of the main intersection. You'll know the area from the crowds bunching up on either side of the canal. The water's long stilled by this point, so naturally it's time to shop. Pyeong-hwa Shijang is a second-world shopping warehouse made up of scores of kiosks the size of Japanese shower stalls. Try to time your arrival to the setting sun. The grime rushes behind longer and longer shadows until the neon breaks out on the surrounding buildings, fake urban beauty. If you're game, stay. The canal joins in the street level excitement with stage performances that one can watch from the Dongdaemun overpass above. Tonight they're blending traditional Korean drumming and American pop rip-offs, however well sung. The MC is a Kim Jong-il look-alike from the eyebrows up. His suit shines like black saran wrap. It's surreal enough, so if you're in any sense a Coppola fan, you'll give half a lookout for helicopters and Playboy playmates. It's not likely. Skirts and shorts are crawling up in all parts of the city, but the canal tends to bring out the conservative in people.

For a piece of Korean history used, buried, and brought back from the dead, the city around it can't help but still be archaic in parts. The end marked by Cheonggye plaza is upscale enough under the watchful eyes of City Bank and AIG. Beyond Samilgyo however, the financial institutions and five dollar coffee shops start to scale down. The streets running towards Dongdaemun are dominated by small business and market culture, electronics, shoes, and discount apparel. Jean jackets are the new suit coat while black plastic bags outsell Louis Vuitton by some sickening ratio. But the city has a plan. It's partially revealed inside the Cheonggyecheon Museum, in Seongdong-gu, where some of the billions that it's earmarked to rejuvenate the nearby neighborhoods and industry are shown in the form of snow-white models. The skeptics are out, including some of the local vendors. Dongdaemun World Design Park is a complex planned for construction next spring. Its purpose is nothing new: to inspire and invigorate, but building it means the marketers currently selling in nearby Dongdaemun Stadium will have to move once again. The city has held hundreds of meetings in consultation and assured them a home close by, but the concern still hangs. Where do the have-nots figure in the new and improved Seoul.

Towards the end of the stream, further outside downtown
©2007 Lee H.D.
You're nearing the end. Stay below, along the water, and you'll pass through the hubbub into even quieter terrain. Ahead, two pieces of chipped highway pillar stand in the middle of the stream, decapitated giants stubborn enough to stay put. Soon, the flora and fauna will take over. In some places it's enough to block your path completely, though no worries. From maps to wheelchair access, things have been planned out well ahead of time, and a bridge directs you around the swaying rushes and tear-shaped leaves. When the wind blows through them it's hard not to stare. It's nice to watch something move that isn't fuel dependant. The canal is wider now. Maybe it's a reward for getting this far. Where there's a path there's more land around it, creating the possibility of a picnic, or simple sit-down. Families and friends usually try it on. They seem to enjoy it. Even in the dark, when their faces can't tell the story, the numbers do. Estimates peg the number of visitors to the canal at 50,000 per day, more than double that on weekends. What they come to see is anyone's guess, but they come.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Colin Moore

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