Gwangju is in redevelopment fever. New apartment and shopping complexes are sprouting up within the city itself. Gyerim-dong, Wolsan-dong, Yang-dong, Yu-dong, Im-dong, and Hak-dong are on a growing list of working-class neighborhoods being converted into high-rise apartments for the middle and upper-middle classes. When I first visited Gwangju in 2014, I was quite taken aback by the lack of apartments in the central area of the city. You could see these “new towns” pop-up around the outskirts of the town. Still, everything in the downtown/central corridor of Gwangju was relegated to obscurity, even historically significant locations connected to 5.18 were neglected. I was also equally struck by how many long-decaying neighborhoods were filled with unoccupied houses. Living in Seoul, I had gotten used to seeing entire blocks being demolished, and this was even before I got into urban exploration. It becomes a new normal as you stare out the bus window during daily commutes to and from work.
This section of Hak-dong has waiting for the guillotine to drop for years. Isaiah and I would come by here in 2018 while it was still, for the most part, an active neighborhood. These photos show that many people had begun to pull out years before that, foreseeing the inevitable. There were a few houses that had clearly hadn’t been lived for years and had been turned into community garbage dump sites.
As of 2020, this portion of Hak-dong is in the last stages before the demolition begins. All of the residents and businesses have been cleared out. The brown tarp is being assembled on the scaffolding. I visited with Isaiah in February this year, and almost all tenets have vacated. Namgwang Church remains the only holdout.
My wife and I drove our new car down on the Fourth of July weekend to visit Isaiah and Wooyeon. It was also an opportunity to meet Kallistratos Boteniates (not his real name), an urban explorer based in Ulsan. The drive down is much slower than taking the KTX, but it provided us peace of mind in these COVID-19 times. Also, it was fun to break in our new car. We arrived late on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Isaiah and Kallistratos had already been exploring Hak-dong when we reached the neighborhood. After hellos and introductions, Isaiah took us immediately to the former calligraphy school. I’d seen his pictures from his recent Gwangju News article and knew if there was one site I needed to explore, it was this place.
Even though the evening was setting in, we still had some light to explore the former calligraphy school. You can learn more about the man, Kim Yun-hwan, who ran the school from Isaiah’s recent article. With limited time and light, we tried to document the man and his place as much as we could in an hour.
The studio classroom was situated on the second floor of a bland yellowish building that I had walked by before on previous visits. When I saw Isaiah’s pictures of the hanja (Chinese characters) taped to the windows, I knew immediately where it was located. I had seen those characters and thought, “There’s got to be some cool stuff in there!” Never underestimate the Urbex Spidey Sense (TM).
Most of our search was focused on the second-floor calligraphy studio. We went through as much as we could. Each artifact discovered was more interesting than the previous one. I felt a kind of paralysis arise from overstimulation. The same feeling I got at Namgwang Hospital, the Nightmare Lab, and other locations that would rank personal favorites. Would I say this place is an instant classic? Yes, because 1) the wealth of artifacts left behind. 2) the quality and state in which the objects have been preserved. 3) the uniqueness of the location, having never stepped foot into a calligraphy hakwon before.
The third floor was the living space for Kim Yun-hwan’s family. We found a lot of stuff like magazines and letters dating back to the 70s and 80s. We didn’t have a lot of time to spend, so here are some of the most intriguing things I found.
I hope to go back to Gwangju in late August and check in with the place. At the same time, I am mentally preparing for it to be a pile of rubble by the time I return. If this will be the only visit, I will appreciate the opportunity to learn a bit about Kim Yun-hwan and his love of calligraphy.