Goodbye to Hwigyeong-dong, Dongdaemun-gu, Seoul

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The author, on one of his last visits to Hwigyeong-dong in late summer.

As this neighborhood is about sixty-five percent demolished, I offer a visual eulogy for Hwigyeong-dong. Located quite close to Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Station on line 1, and a short hop, skip, and a jump from the old Imun-dong redevelopment, this site offered many pleasant surprises over the six or seven visits to the area.

I already shared my findings in my initial visit to Hwigyeong-dong in a blog post from March 20th. So, here are highlights from some of my trips there from March 2021 to this past summer.

March 7: Friendly Cats, Ghost Clothes, and Straw Effigies

On this day, I met up with artist Lee Joo-young and another ex-pat explorer named Luisa, who runs a wonderful Instagram account that documents hangeul (and its hanja character) meanings through signboards around Korea. The winter air lingered, but the sun made it a great day to shoot the neighborhood. Mixed in with the rather bland, brick apartment buildings were some gorgeous hanoks with flying eaves.

Next door to one of those marvelous flying eaved hanoks was a nondescript shaman’s house. What the building lacked in external style was made up of the cool, shamanic remenants. Inside we found bujeok, incantation papers (another form of bujeok?) used to invoke good luck, or perhaps a safe passage to the afterlife for the recipient.

On top of those discoveries, we also came across paper ghost clothes (a first, but not the last) and two straw effigies, which were quite an exciting find. Burlap covered the straw effigies, and on the heads was the name of one person written in red. Traditionally, writing someone’s name in red means someone has passed on. It’s quite baffling why there were left behind. Whoever prepared the effigies and ghost clothes for a future ritual must have gone in a rush and forgotten about them. Perhaps the shamanic did not perform as the client didn’t pay?

April 11: Bodhidharma, Cat Cafe, and O.B Beer Boxes

About a month later, I came back on my own. Not much had changed since then, but we tried to explore parts of Hwigyeong-dong we hadn’t before. The first place I went to was the abandoned cat cafe, I saw Jon made it inside on his first visit, so I made it a priority to see in myself. I think this might be the first abandoned cat cafe for me. While the original cats left and moved on, streets cats moved in and took over the place until the demolition crew tore it down.

I spent a lot of time in a nondescript one-story house. Like many things in life, it’s better to suspend first impressions until given a thorough investigation. This house is no exception; all the aspects that make this place memorable are the left behind artifacts. What I loved most was the handmade bujeok. The former resident made DIY bujeok with white athletic tape; I applaud them for their ingenuity to bypass the exorbitant prices shamans charge for making bujeok.

Also, I got into an old market I’d had my eye on for a while on this visit. It was next to a film photo processing shop with the cool Agfa and Han Bo Color signs. Deep down, I wanted to save these and hang them on my wall, but I also didn’t want to become a hoarder. Even though I took pictures of the place on the first visit, I didn’t see the pictures of the O.B Beer boxes until I placed them here on this blog.

May 2 and 19: The Last Thorough Explorations of the Area

By May, I’d seen most of the places I wanted to see. This section of Hwigyeong-dong isn’t huge, and it wasn’t as vast as the Imun-dong redevelopment but still provided lots of photographic opportunities. I felt a sense of finality on May 19th, and I visited a section of the Imun-dong site. It’s mind-boggling to think about the thousands of lives lived and hundreds of buildings that once stood here.

To the right background, once stood the Imun-dong Won Buddhist temple.

I’ll leave you with one last picture from one of my last half-hearted visits to Hwigyeong-dong; it was late July, and I passively looked for ways in through the metal-grating fence. Another joy of urban exploring Korea’s neighborhood is encountering the street cats, many are shy, but sometimes you have a sweet encounter with the friendly ones. I don’t always bring food for the cats, but I enjoy offering my furry friends a treat while exploring their territory.

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