Hongdae and Gentrification

I’m from Korea and currently studying in the UK, so I know a bit about Korea.. and I wanna tell you about it.

Hongdae (situated in Seoul, Korea) used to be known as an incubator of indie bands and artists. It was known for cheap accommodations and being located near Hongik University, which was known for its prestigious art college, it became a place for creativity and the hippest community. The streets were filled with art studios and expressive street art as well as being the heart of live music in Korea, building it’s unique culture and a history of their own.

However, as expected from a country so deeply bought into capitalism, Hongdae’s culture and it’s artists faced the danger of gentrification, which is expected from the neo-liberalist approach Korea was taking.

Indie musicians perform at a festival as a protest against gentrification

As a result, a place and community of individuality and creativity faced commercialisation. Like a typical Korean-style gentrification the more hip the place was the harder it was hit with gentrification. It faced introduction of global chain stores as well as “mainstream” clubs and other consumerist measures, making it one of the busiest tourist destination in Korea currently.

I have a personal experience with gentrification. As a kid, I was brought up in Mapo-Gu Mangwon-dong in Seoul, where we had a very close knit community of families that came together to independently build a school (which I attended) that would be different to the conventional ones in Korea. The parents did not agree with the excessively intensive teachings, and wanted to build a school that encouraged its students to learn and experience broader and to not neglect some creative disciplines such as art. This project of building a school, further led to forming a close knit community where we shared independent cafes and restaurant.

Sung Mi San School

Expectedly we were hit with big cooperative business’ gentrification plan to use our local mountain, Sung Mi Mountain, as a space to build a private school. However the mountain represented our community, since many events were held there and also we were very proud to live near a calming green space in the middle of busy and hectic life in Seoul, which was the reason why the school that was built by the families were named after the mountain, Sung Mi San (San means mountain). Therefore the news of destroying the mountain to build a school and housings for the good of businesses, were met with rage and dispute within our community resulting in demonstrations and protests against it. The reaction from the businesses was violent as they, regardless of the resident’s opinion, came with excavators. (My martial art teacher, at the time, even lied in front of the excavator to stop them)

Sung Mi Mountain during construction of a school and housing.

This resulted in the use of half of the mountain to build a school and residential areas, and this remains fairly well known, within those interested, as an incident where the community was not broken by gentrification. This experience of gentrification and my growing fascination of Hongdae, although I was not alive to experience the Hongdae before gentrification, inspired me to write about it.

Hongdae live street performance

Hongdae still remains as a boisterous and dazzling place. It boasts lit clubs and is always packed with students. (when I say packed, I really mean really fucking packed… it’s packed almost 24/7 excluding the awkward hours from 4am to 8am). It also has many indie shops selling clothes from trendy to vintage as well as quirky cafes, and is one of my favourite place to go when I go back to Korea.

Hongdae at night

However it is important to be reminded of the culture and the history of the place where communities were forced out by the cooperate businesses, and to further look out for places that are currently under the similar attack. Why? Because these independent communities create culture of their own where similar people can pursue their dreams and ideas. They are the places of innovation and creativity, and to lose that will be a great tragedy.