Busan, South Korea’s second largest city, is comprised of staggering hillsides and narrow flatlands sit on the East Sea coastline. In the late stages of the Joseon Era (1392 – 1897), ports were opened in this seaside city. Given its strategic location, Busan was an economically sound starting point for businesses to transport their goods to parts of Korea and Japan at low cost. This led to a long and continuing history of economic prosperity.
During the Japanese Occupation of Korea (1910 – 1945), Busan’s flatlands and hillside zones were officially segregated into Japanese and Korean territories, respectively. With the opening of the ports and the birth of a factory economy in the early 1900s, Koreans of all socioeconomic backgrounds flocked to the city. Merchants hoped to make their fortunes in the ports, and farmers and peasants came in search of a better life. Many merchants’ entrepreneurial efforts failed, and they were forced to live in the less costly hillside areas. Their neighbours, once countryside workers, were now labourers and factory hands. As the colonial city developed, many more Koreans were relegated to the hillsides. These areas at once isolated certain groups of people and helped them create communities in which they found peace and comfort.
Following the devastation of the Korean War (25th June 1950 – 27th July 1953), Gamcheon Village was established as a refuge for those displaced by the chaos. In its early days, Gamcheon was a hastily built shanty town. As the years went on, brick houses were constructed and the village expanded.
In 2009, the South Korean government wanted to cast positive attention on Busan’s hillside villages. To do this, they created the “Gamcheon Village Art Project”. Developed by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the initiative was a call to local artists to transform the village into a national gem. Paid for through public funding from these branches of government, the 2 – 3.5 billion KRW project (approximately 1.7 – 2.9 million USD) has aided in the artistic evolution of many villages, Gamcheon being one of them. For their work on Gamcheon, artists embraced the theme, “Dreaming of Busan Machu Picchu”. Sitting between two hills, Gamcheon’s distinctive look of levelled and stacked houses makes it easy to see the general comparison between the village and the ancient Incan citadel.
The art project was a resounding success. Its visually appealing alleyways and walls decorated with murals, sculptures, and art installations, draw in almost two million visitors every year. Work on Gamcheon was restarted in 2012, and is an ongoing project to this day. Ever-changing and ever-beautiful, no two experiences are the same. Having explored the colourful site myself, here are Five Reasons to See Gamcheon Culture Village.
Take in the Street Art
From the get-go, the culture village is a place where your eyes always have something to admire. Near the start of the main road, a charming mural of a clear blue sky overtakes the entire side of a building. Called “Gifts from Heaven”, the mural features looming buildings surrounding the frame as brightly coloured gifts fall from the sky above. These are imagined presents from Santa Claus for the local community. In this way, the mural was designed as a visual representation of Gamcheon Culture Village’s festive nature. Another stunning creation is Jin Yeong-seop – “Fish Crisscross an Alley” – a narrow alley is a communication channel for the villagers, a laundry place for mothers and a front yard for families. The free movement of fish infuses vitality into what would otherwise be an unremarkable urban space.
Strike a Pose
Le Petit Prince
In 1943, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, an accomplished French aristocrat, had no idea that he was about to captivate the world. Confronting difficult themes of our place in an-ever changing world, Le Petit Prince resonates with readers of all ages through fantastical imagery and deep contemplation.
In Gamcheon Culture Village, the spiky-haired prince sits on a short column that overlooks the residential districts and the ports beyond. The fox sits a ways from him, a space neatly arranged between the two that is perfect for whimsical photographs.
Every port city needs a lighthouse, and Gamcheon is more than happy to oblige. Located close to the contemplative prince, a one-story building shaped in the likeness of a lighthouse, is a great stop for those who appreciate nautical aesthetics. Clever illusion painting gives the impression that the single room space is larger than it is. A single rectangle, cut out of the middle of the three-walled construction, gives a perfectly framed view of the sea.
The Harry Potter Stairs
Its name alone has visitors flocking to the book-like staircase. Cheon Doeok-Su – the “Wish wells story” – was inspired by local lore about a young man whose faith and dogged determination rescued the village. When droughts ravaged the country, streams dried up and the skies were empty of clouds. Everyone in the village was suffering. A young man wanted to change this. Fighting his hunger and thirst, he began digging a well. His neighbours and loved ones begged him to stop, saying that he was wasting his efforts. But he persisted, working through hot days and long nights. When he could work no more, the young man collapsed to the ground. Looking up to the sky, he begged God to give him a lifetime of pain, if He would promise to take such pain away from others. Touched by this youth’s selflessness, the skies opened and rain poured down onto the village. The enchanting staircase, holding literary wonders such as JK Rowling’s “Harry Potter”, Stephen King’s “The Shawshank Redemption”, and Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot”, these book titles lead visitors up to the well, which has never been dry.
Stay Cool in a Cute Café
There is no shortage of cafés in Gamcheon Culture Village. Shying away from the peak of summer sun, we relaxed in the cool air conditioning of Star Child Café. Located near Grand Budapest Doll Hotel, the café windows provide marvellous views of the staggered houses. Charming murals decorate the white walls, from a brunette princess whose flowing hair flies over an open window, to a giant heart of varying shades of pink with the word “Love” in its centre. Enjoying fresh smoothies and energising ourselves with cups of coffee, we admired Star Child’s quaint charm as we waited for the peak of the afternoon heat to pass.
Support Local Artists
There are a number of galleries and independent shops scattered throughout the village. Selling handmade jewellery, candles, clothing, and postcards, visitors can experience the double joy of supporting local artists and purchasing unique souvenirs to remember their visit.
My personal favourite was WiGilho Gallery. Founded and designed by printmaker and illustrator Gilho Wi, his designs capture the local culture of life for people who live by the Korean harbour. Much of Korea’s history is linked to the sea, as the ocean surrounds all of the country – excepting the north. People hoping for a better future, escaping rural poverty, and fleeing the conflicts of war made their homes in the Korean south. Wi is an admirer of the distinctive landscape that port-side cities provide. Not wishing for the challenging history associated with these cities to fade from modern recognition, Wi uses bold colours and exotic traces to call attention to the culture and history of places such as Gamcheon Culture Village.
The best way to see the village is to lose yourself in it. A blend of tourist spots and local residential housing, the spirit of the village is alive in the smiling faces of its elderly, and the entrepreneurial spirit of artists who have helped bring funding and global support to this small corner of the world. Back alleys and staircases run through the village like small veins, each connecting you to local and tourist spots and offering different perspectives of this growing community.
Things to Know Before You Go
Ride, Don’t Walk
Gamcheon Culture Village is, above all things, a hillside community. Beyond its array of colours, it is not an easy stroll to what some call “South Korea’s Santorini”. Taxi drivers in the area are all familiar with the village. From Toseong, the closest metro stop, the fifteen-minute uphill drive cost approximately 4500 KRW – a very reasonable 3.7 USD.
A fun afternoon
With photo-taking, wandering, and eating the local food, Gamcheon Culture Village is a great place to spend anywhere between one to three hours in the afternoon. Open year-round, I highly recommend visiting the area between three and four in the afternoon. The worst of the day’s heat is done, and you’ll also be able to admire the sunset bathe the village and set the colours alight.
Remember it’s a Neighbourhood
Due to its international acclaim, it can be easy to forget that people still live in the village. Be mindful of its residents. Ask before taking photos of people and their pets, and remember to keep your voices down so as not to disturb people in their daily lives.
A village built for survival, Gamcheon Culture Village has helped to elevate South Korea’s second-largest city to a cultural hub that welcomes visitors from both near and far. If you’re a fan of stunning photos and handmade crafts, give Gamcheon Culture village a try!