“Chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change. It’s growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating, really” – Walter White, Breaking Bad
These were the prophetic words spoken by Walter White to his chemistry students. It proceeded his lung cancer diagnosis and subsequent leap into the world of crystal meth cooking to fund his treatment. To do this, he went about his business under the pseudonym ‘Heisenberg’, which became the catalyst for his inner transformation.
What was particularly fascinating about this character study was that the metamorphosis was never linear. As the Heisenberg persona gradually grew darker and more menacing, we were still able to catch glimpses of the mild-mannered Walt of old. Conversely, he’d undergone too much of a transformation whilst harnessing his inner urges to ever truly return to his former self.
Much like Walt, Seoul is a city that’s undergone its own dramatic changes. It too has hustled its way to notoriety, casualties strewn along its bloody path in a concentrated effort to recoup lost wealth and status, battling back against all odds to become a major player on the world stage. Neighborhoods here put their best faces forward: Myeong-dong is the shopping mecca. Bukchon has its traditionally-styled homes. Gangnam’s coasting off a purported sense of style.
Stepping off a bus within the Gangnam district limits is Guryong. No chic cafes or nightclubs are found here though. Coal heating is standard while toilets comprise of communal, terraced outhouses with nothing more than a hole in the floor. It’s a shanty town. In the race to modernize during for ’88 Olympics, Guryong got left on the starting blocks. The people here were swept aside during the rest of the Gangnam’s meteoric rise to power.
Insulation is draped across shacks made of wood and metal, which give way to cracked paving stone that twist labyrinthine paths through the village. Laundry is hung in the walkways alongside shoe racks, cupboards and refrigerators. The communal living space residents share reaps a certain type of mentality. Front doors are often open. Security isn’t such a priority. People aren’t so uptight. Everything’s ground level. People are literally grounded. You meet people like ‘Mask’. His friends call him this because his face resembles a traditional Korean dance mask.
Acknowledging his leopard prints, he assured us that it’s his son who has the stylish gene. Mask Jr is studying to be a fashion designer in Paris but doesn’t know when or if he’ll return home.
I took his portrait, truly evocative of a dance mask, and promised to return with a print.
In the belly of the beast, a drone flies over the city’s latest face-lift. Hundreds of millions of tax payers dollars have manifested themselves in the form of a modern monstrosity — or marvel — dependent on whose eyes pass judgment. Just a stones throw away, Korea’s favorite historical landmark, an ancient fortress gate, has suffered a restoration process as rotten as it’s new timber frames. Corruption, affluence, over-ambition. Welcome to Neo Seoul. This is the Heisenberg effect.
It’s not just the city that’s moulding itself in the name of self-improvement. From television dramas to theatre posters, music videos to endless skin care products, the country is obsessed with cutting-edge aesthetics. Going under the knife is the standard practice on the Peninsula to achieve such results. A promise is a promise, so we returned soon after.
Yet there was something about this lost world worth returning to in it’s own right. It’s an illegal settlement in the eyes of the government, so the residents manage this area as a self-sustaining community.
Folk paintings displayed along the ventricular alleys presented idyllic scenes of days gone by.
While not an idealized vision of rural harmony, Guryong has an organic rhythm incomparable to the burgeoning, ever-expanding concrete jungle of it’s surrounding metropolis.
Walking around here strips back the accepted fabric of society we’ve come to accept as reality. The hodgepodge of tangled wires and strewn furniture lay in stark contrast to the polished Gangnam sidewalks. A local shopkeeper told us that our friend Mask was out of the village that day, so we left his portrait with her, and headed back.
It was then we saw quite a strikingly beautiful example of humanity.
“Name one thing in this world that is not negotiable” – Walter White
Tiny, frail, yet spirited and dressed with panache. Resilience personified. Like Mask, we stuck to a polite hello at first and passed by before they stopped us to chat. Conversation led to introductions, to laughter and to a sense of connection helped as always by Secret Map model Esther Jie’s bilingual charms. Old folks are well aware of their status in Korea’s youth-obsessed society. Guryong’s shanty-dwelling residents know that their neighborhood is less than desirable. Luckily, her friends talked her into a portrait, on the promise that we’d come back and deliver the prints. Seemed like a solid negotiation. On the crowded subway home, snaking through the city’s hazy, monotone landscape, the thought of a return trip to Guryong was appealing.
This mild-mannered village is the Walter White to Seoul’s Heisenberg. It’s humble and seemingly content to live within it’s means. It’s not always visible, but it’s always there, beneath the charade of towers and lights that mask the city’s humble beginnings.
“I’m in the empire business”, said Walter in his Heisenberg state. As the empirical towers dominate the skyline over Guryong, the spirit of Heisenberg has swept the metropolis. Seoul’s clearly in the empire business – and it’s boundless ambition may someday be the end of this village. Even so, traces of the city’s elements, places like Guryong and it’s people, will never be too far away. They themselves are microcosms of growth, decay, and transformation. It is fascinating, really.
Update: We returned with not only a print, but a full page spread in a Korean Photography Magazine. She was close to tears with happiness and said we could come back to see her anytime we wanted. Unfortunately, as of summer 2015 the government announced they were to demolish the neighborhood in favor of real estate development.
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