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[Weekender] Dead poets’ salons
Traces of literary figures remain in the rustic alleys of SeoulBy Kim Hae-yeon
Published : Sept. 11, 2021 - 16:01
Culture critics attribute this significant drop in reading after the teenage years to “reading fatigue” stemming from pressure to digest books faster and more efficiently while still in school.
Indeed, book programs offered with good intentions are at risk of ending up as mere one-time events, so that the public perceives reading as just another task to be put off until it’s time for new year’s resolutions.
Though it takes some effort, once one successfully journeys into a book an exciting encounter awaits. And whether a book is fiction or fact, behind the creation and re-creation of the stories stand writers, unseen and unnoticed, but always present at the very moment one opens a chapter to read.
Finding the traces of literary figures and taking a moment to follow in their footsteps may be a relaxing way to explore the spirit of the well-known writers away from crowded festivals.
The Korea Herald visited four sites in the alleys and hillsides of Seoul where literary figures would drop by to read, write and contemplate on the issues of the day with their peers. The history of the four places dates back as far as the 1920s.
A secret den of literary figures during the Japanese occupation: Suyeon Sanbang
Located in Seongbuk-gu, some 4 kilometers north of Changdeokgung, is a secret den called Suyeon Sanbang, where writers and artists dropped by for a free exchange of ideas during the Japanese colonial rule.
Lee Tae-jun, a Korean pioneer of short stories, lived here from 1933 to 1946 before moving to what is now North Korea. Lee named the house Suyeon Sanbang, meaning “a house by the mountains where people gather to read and study.”
Remembering an avant-garde modernist: Lee Sang’s House
The space was brought back to life by the National Trust for Cultural Heritage in 2009 thanks to a public fundraising campaign. Now an exhibition hall stands on the site of the home where the poet lived for some 20 years, since the age of 3.
Lee began writing in the 1920s, delving into such themes as the endless search for spiritual resistance and the repetitive struggles of a broken mind. He subverted the rules of language and forms in literature, producing works that combined surrealist lexicons and sentences with coded numbers, and sketches and drawings featuring eccentric shapes. The writer’s modernist verses surpassed the public’s imagination and are still studied by scholars today.
Lee was imprisoned in the late 1930s for simply communicating with other Korean artists in Japan, and charged with thought crimes against the Japanese Empire. He died in a hospital in Tokyo at the age of 26. Representative works by Lee include a collection of poems titled “Crow’s Eye View” and the novella “Wings.”
Admission is free of charge, and the archives can only be read on site.
A place to ponder freedom and democracy: Hakrim Dabang
In 1956, long before Daehangno was established, a cafe opened across from the former building of Seoul National University’s College of Liberal Arts.
Hakrim Dabang was named after Hakrim-jae, an SNU festival. A “dabang” was a modest-sized coffee shop where small groups would gather. Among students of the time, the coffee shop was known as the “25th classroom.” After the lectures were finished in the college’s 24 classrooms, the coffee shop served as a place where freedom of thought and freedom of speech reigned.
Sharing the painful history of the student-led April 19 Revolution of 1960, when the people rose up against the autocracy and corruption of President Syngman Rhee, Hakrim Dabang kept its lights on throughout the 1980s for writers and student activists to gather and plan a series of pro-democracy movements.
Literary writers such as Yi Chong-jun, Jeon Hye-rin, Cheon Sang-byeong, Kim Chi-ha, Hwang Sok-yong and Kim Min-ki were frequent patrons of Hakrim Dabang.
Traces of those who came and went can be found in the stairwells’ chipped paint, the love notes scribbled on the walls, and the dusty LPs and posters stacked by the entrance.
A cafe of love and friendship: Dok Dabang
Beginning in 1971, when it opened, the cafe was a favorite go-to place for writers of the era, including novelist Song Sokze and poet Gi Hyeong-do.
Sinchon was a place where students from three nearby colleges -- Yonsei University, Ewha Womans University and Sogang University -- would gather in the ’80s and ’90s. Dok Dabang served as a meetup for love, friendship and camaraderie among the students. With no smartphones to send texts, students would post handwritten notes on the bulletin board, hoping they would be read by the intended recipients. Now an icon, the board still stands at the entrance.
Novelist Kim Young-ha mentioned the cafe a few years ago during a TV appearance, calling it one of his favorite places to read and write quietly. If you’re lucky, you might notice him there working on his next novel.
By Kim Hae-yeon (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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