Gamcheon in South Korea’s biggest port city Busan was once a hilltop slum. Thanks to an unusual move by a group of villagers, artists and local officials, it is now a picture pretty collection of art studios, shops and residence buildings and a major tourist attraction.
A hilltop slum far from the bustle of a city is not where one might expect quality pasta or bangers and mash. The young proprietor of The Plate, a café-cum-restaurant in an artfully crammed house, is naturally proud of his achievement. “I had initially thought of doing a Korea War-themed guesthouse to take advantage of the local history and my major in tourism studies. For now, this will have to suffice.”
Bang Seung-hwan, 35, grew up near Gamcheon Culture Village, a community on a steep hill overlooking the southern port city of Busan that has developed over the past seven years into a model tourism destination. Swelling in the midst of the Korean War (1950-53), which saw a mass exodus of refugees to Busan, Gamcheon was for long a hodge-podge collection of dilapidated houses occupied by the poor and elderly.
Now this village of less than 9,000 people attracts some 160,000 visitors each year. It has been heralded as an exemplary case in urban renewal. The resident cooperative committee has set up a social enterprise to operate souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants, a guesthouse and even a parking lot. The place also draws young entrepreneurial spirits like Bang.
Not in their wildest imagination did villagers expect this level of success. “At the start some residents were opposed to the idea. They said, ‘Why not basic necessities? What’s this talk of art?’” said Jeon Soon-seon, vice president of the village’s resident cooperative committee.
The idea that gave rise to Gamcheon’s transformation was simple. Many people had been fleeing the village due to poverty and objectionable living conditions, so more and more houses became empty. The plan, collectively formulated in 2009 by artists, villagers and local officials, was to invite artists to occupy such spaces at no rent and contribute works of art that could then be used to decorate the village. With a seed grant of 100 million South Korean Won (KRW) from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the project almost immediately showed result, attracting some 30,000 visitors by 2011.
The birth of a social enterprise
After the first batch of artists produced a large mural and nine sculptures, other artists also came, contributing more works. Taking advantage of the growing appeal, the villagers incorporated in 2012 a social enterprise with the capital of only 24 million KRW. The entity grew to include nine different businesses catering to the needs of tourists. 120 fee-paying members participate in the enterprise – essentially a co-op – and among them 20 sit on the cooperative committee that oversees the whole project.
Villagers make up most of the committee members, but some local politicians and artists are given seats so that they can offer advice.
Gamcheon is now a postcard-pretty enclave, colorful and full of art in ways that South Korean towns rarely are. This country’s cities are dominated by uniform apartment buildings. Even in small villages beauty is rarely a main concern and garbage tends to pile up at every turn. Gamcheon, by contrast, is strikingly clean. A trio of young Malaysian women couldn’t stop themselves from gushing despite December’s bitterly cold air.
“I like how the village looks layered. It feels very much like Europe. We don’t have a place like this in Malaysia,” enthused Rozzie Wang, 29.
The downside of success
Objections to the village’s metamorphosis come, improbably, from decades-long residents. “Without such people we would be poor, but the bad thing is that old-timers have mostly left and all the merchants are outsiders. Locals are either renting out or selling their homes,” claimed a small shop owner on the village’s main street, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another shop owner, Kang No-mi, 62, was equally negative. “It’s definitely inconvenient because of these outsiders. Sure, there are some good things like the new road, but it makes no difference to my life.”
Both women complained that many residents received no real benefits from the boom in tourism. Noise is a particular concern; outsiders come at all times of the day and night and talk loudly, completely oblivious to the residents’ discomfort.
As if punctuating that point, a group of smartly dressed middle-aged men and women from Seoul showed up. They caused a small ruckus, shouting into mobile phones and at one another while trying to take selfies.
Such urbanites also gall the shop owner who asked for anonymity. “I see other Koreans coming here and they say aloud things like ‘How can people live in places like this?’” While beauty is certainly a draw for some visitors, Gamcheon’s appeal for well-to-do Koreans lies partly in prettily packaged poverty, which some might term a mild form of ‘slum tourism.’
Striving for balance
Financial benefits for the village as a whole are undeniable though, in spite of the old-timers who reject the notion. The nine businesses the village operates collectively generated a revenue of one billion KRW in 2016, Vice-President Jeon said. The village social enterprise hires 25 regular employees and 120 part-timers. Then there is the vibrancy of simply having people in the streets.
The urgent task for the village committee is to balance the expectations of visitors and the demands of the villagers for a quiet life. Jeon explains that to this end, rules forbid businesses from operating after 6 pm in summer and 5 pm in winter. Building exteriors cannot be modified. Franchises are forbidden.
Yet she, too, is ambivalent about the village’s commercial success, “Frankly, I wish that only a reasonable number of people would come. I want the village to be seen as a true outdoor museum, but I also want it to be a place where residents can live well.”