<Essay> Exploring Old Things
The Hanok Boom Goes to Gyeongju
By Robert J. Fouser
In the history of tourism in Korea, Gyeongju occupies a special place. Tourism developed during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945) as Japanese interests put down deep roots in Korea. Japanese authorities sponsored archeological surveys as part of a broader plan to control the historical narrative on Korea. That narrative centered on justifying Japanese rule over Korea, which, despite numerous invasions, had maintained its independence and had developed a unique cultural identity. Many of the major archaeological surveys centered on Gyeongju, the ancient capital of the Silla Dynasty (57 BC–935 AD), which ruled Korea as a unified state from 668 to 935. Early archaeological surveys also focused on Buddhist temples as part of an effort to revive Buddhism to counter act the strong influence of Confucianism.
Promoting tourism in Gyeongju was also part of broader plans to integrate Korea into the Japanese economy. Creating new markets for Japanese business was one of the prime motivations for colonizing Korea. Hotels and tour companies were Japanese owned and most of the customers were Japanese, ensuring that the economic benefits of tourism stayed in Japanese hands.
One of the interesting buildings dating from the early years of Japanese tourism is Gyeongju Station. The first station was building in 1918 to bring tourists to Gyeongju. The current building dates from 1936 and reflects the monumental style of public buildings that were used to project state power in militarized 1930s Japan.
Defeat in World War II brought a quick end to Japanese rule, but Korea soon fell into political chaos that led to division in 1948 and the Korean War in 1950. Tourism in South Korea suffered, as did the broader economy, during this time. In May 1961, Park Chung-hee became president in a coup d’etat and began a push toward industrialization. As part of that effort, South Korea and Japan established diplomatic relations in 1965, causing business with Japan to grow rapidly. To earn badly needed foreign exchange, South Korea began to promote tourism with a focus on attracting Japanese tourists.
With its strong Buddhist heritage and name recognition from the colonial era, Gyeongju was a natural fit for Japanese tourists. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Korean government sponsored a number of projects to promote tourism in Gyeongju. Bulgugsa Temple was restored from 1969 to 1973 and Seokguram Hermitage in 1960s; hotels and shops catering to tourists were built in the surrounding area. The Gyeongju National Museum was built in 1968 and other important sites were restored during this time.
From 1972 until the assassination of Park Chung-hee in 1979, military rule in South Korea was particularly strong. Like many nationalist leaders, Park used history to promote national pride and, by extension, support for his rule. In the mid-1970s, he took an interest in Silla elite warrior group of male youth known as hwarang and began to promote Silla history and relics in Gyeongju as symbols of national pride. The interest in national symbols also prompted the government to develop strict architectural guidelines to encourage new buildings in areas frequented by tourists to be built in traditional Korean style, which was loosely defined as a one-story building with a gently curved tile roof.
Apart from the tourist village near Bulgugsa Temple, the remnants of 1970s traditional Korean-style architecture are most visible in the Hwangnam-dong area of Gyeongju. This large area sits south and west of grassy Silla tomb mounds. For centuries, the area was on the outskirts of town and had only a few large hanok estates. In the 1971, the government began to develop the area in traditional style to house residents displaced by various preservation projects. Shops, houses, and public buildings were built in traditional style, but like nearly all buildings built at the time, most built of concrete and brick. Houses were built to look like hanoks found in Seoul or Jeonju, but some appear larger because they have second-story lofts. Many of modern glass windows and other non-traditional features.
Because Hwangnam-dong is close to important historical relics, the government imposed strict rules regarding new construction. Height restrictions prevent the spread of small four and five-story buildings that are found throughout cities in Korea. Residents resented the restrictions but were able to update the interior of their houses. Over time, the area became run down as aging residents found home maintenance more difficult.
Fast forward to the early 2010s, when a hanok boom began to sweep the nation. The boom that began in Bukchon in the 2000s had spread to Jeonju and other parts of Seoul. Around 2011, several hanoks were converted into cafés and guest houses. This brought media attention and conversion of houses for commercial use began to the spread. Like Seoul and Jeonju before it, the city of Gyeongju began supporting hanok renovation in 2013. This encourage remodeling and rebuilding in traditional style similar to what is found in Bukchon and Jeonju. Gradually, some concrete hanoks were rebuilt in wood using traditional methods.
The construction of new hanoks, including the large Hwangnamgwan guest house and several two-story hanoks ignited a boom in the area. Commercialization centered on the main streets in the area, turning it into “Hwangnidangil Street,” which is a play on words referring to the rapid commercialization of Gyeongnidangil Street near Itaewon. The area is now full of hanok guest houses, cafés, shops, and young people posing for photographs for Instagram.
To the south of Hwangnam-dong is the Gyochon Hanok Village. Compared to Hwangnam-dong, the area feels like a trip back to the 19th century because it centers on Gyeongju Hyanggyo School and the Gyeongju Choi Buja Estate, an important example of an 18th-century rural estate. The school dates from 1492, but the original buildings were destroyed and rebuilt over time. Reconstruction of the school began in 1956 and has continued to this day. By contrast, the Choi Buja Estate retains many of its original features and shows how a landed gentry family would have lived in the later years of the Joseon Period (1392-1910). The men’s quarters are separated from the larger women’s quarters. The estate also has quarters for servants and a small shrine in the northwest corner of the property.
The recently rebuilt Woljeonggyo Bridge connects the area to the fields to the south. Completed in 2018, the bridge is still shiny, but like other recovered, restored, and rebuilt relics in Gyeongju, it too will age and blend into the landscape of this ancient capital city.
_Magazine Hanok N.21