For whatever we lose (like a you or a me),
It’s always our self we find in the sea. ― E.E. Cummings,
Every time I come back to Seoul, it feels more and more familiar. It’s growing on me but is still a city I can’t comprehend. Lots of Koreans clearly look to Seoul for the action, with money and opportunities flowing through like white water. Skyscrapers impose themselves on villages and places, with this fast-paced megacity pushing out-of-date and less fashionable traditions out.
A great example of Korea’s transformation is Cheonggyecheon stream, cutting through the heart of Seoul and Korea in a sense. Starting near Gwanghwamun Square and Gyeongbokgung, this creek has some stories but is far removed from its place in recent history. People now come to spend time by some clear water and green space but that’s only been a recent possibility.
Just after the Korean War ceasefire, many people had no choice but to move away from their homes and find a better life in the cities. Cheonggyecheon was popular for migrants seeking opportunities, as the stream had long been neglected. Formerly known as Gaecheon or “digging out,” Japanese Colonial Officials renamed it Cheonggyecheon or “clear water stream” and wanted to cover the waterway in an effort to clean up the area.
Resembling something closer to a sewer, it had lost favor with the Japanese. Their plans never moved to action and the stream lived on until Park Chung Hee – long-time president with a “forceful” reputation – oversaw an elevated freeway’s construction above Cheonggyecheon in the 1970s.
Walking around, it’s hard to believe this place was largely unknown and overshadowed by a massive highway for so many years. Mixed feelings surrounded Cheonggyecheon’s revival in the early 2000s. Corruption and convictions seem commonplace when big money flows through construction projects. Nevertheless, the stream reopened in 2005 and has grown into a huge attraction for visitors from all over the world.
Walking up to the entrance after passing through Gwanghwamun Square and all the action connected to it really forces one to feel like this is the true heart of Korea. It makes sense that Cheonggyecheon begins right next to so many of Seoul’s most important places. Korea’s financial district surrounds Cheonggyecheon’s starting point and the President’s living quarters or “Blue House” is not too far away.
Nowadays, a more important segment of the population is making itself known here. Through a movement start by Korea Youth United, umbrellas stand above Cheonggyecheon with a message promoting energy savings and for more attention to be placed on preserving the Earth. It’s clear that this beautiful stream offers views of beautiful water and greenery. Cheonggyecheon and its surrounding plaza both capture so many things important to Korea and us all. Cheonggyecheon stream pumps life and spirit into Korea, physically and symbolically.
Have you ever visited Cheonggyecheon stream? How’s it feel to walk around this important part of Korea? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments section below!