South Korea’s Lego Town and Silla’s Ancient Capital

Busan & Gyeongju, South Korea – November 2017

I went on a three week trip through Japan & South Korea with my friend Jeremy a couple of years ago. We spent the first half of the last week in Seoul with an excursion to the DMZ (demilitarised zone), then moved south to the seaside city of Busan for the last stop on our self-planned tour.

Busan is the second largest city in South Korea (after Seoul) and is situated on the southern coast of the Korean peninsula. Known for its beaches and Buddhist temples, Busan has a more laid-back vibe than Seoul, but is still a modern and bustling metropolis (at least by Aussie standards). It hosts the prestigious Busan International Film Festival and was a featured location in the movie Black Panther (I read somewhere the producers had planned to shoot in Singapore but a typhoon forced them to choose another site).

All we really had time for on the day we arrived was a visit to Haeundae, Busan’s famous beach. We ended the day with Korean fried chicken and beer (a meal which featured repeatedly throughout the Korean leg of the trip, because who doesn’t love fried chicken?).

One of the things all the guidebooks suggested doing in Busan was a visit to the slightly awkwardly named Gamcheon Culture Village. Gamcheon-dong is a neighborhood in Saha-gu, one of the 15 districts that make up Busan. The village sprawls across the sides of two hills and the valley between, facing the sea. It is known for its brightly painted colourful houses and steep winding streets, with narrow staircases stretching up and down the hillsides. Presumably because of this topography, the village has been given several somewhat aspirational labels in various media, including the “Machu Picchu of Busan” and the “Santorini on the South Sea”. (As well as the mildly less grandiose “Lego Village”.)

Originally one of Busan’s poorest shanty towns (slum, ghetto – take your pick), Gamcheon was settled by refugees fleeing the advancing North Korean forces during the Korean War in the 1950s, including many followers of a religion called Taegukdo (Gamcheon is still called Taegukdo Village by some). Most of South Korea fell to the North; the area around Busan was the only part of the peninsula not captured (the Pusan Perimeter – Pusan being the old name for Busan, like Peking is to Beijing). Many refugees moved into the suburbs of Busan, which became the provisional capital of South Korea during the war.

It remained a poor neighbourhood for half a century. Then in 2009, the government funded the “Gamcheon Village Art Project”, aiming to transform the village into an arts district to attract tourism. (Also referred to as “Dreaming of Machu Picchu in Busan”, but I’d like to posit here that there are hillside settlements which would be more appropriately comparable, like say, Cinque Terre.) Artists were permitted to stay rent-free in exchange for their involvement in the beautification. Houses and other buildings were fancifully restored and numerous street murals and sculptures were commissioned. Cafes and boutique stores opened throughout the area. The project was mostly completed by the end of 2010, although locals and artists continue restoring buildings, planting rooftop gardens and creating art.

The revitalisation of the area was hugely successful and Gamcheon Culture Village has become one of the most popular attractions in Busan (and South Korea), attracting nearly two million visitors every year. The project has also improved life for the villagers with a variety of free services like shuttle buses and other facilities.

The visitor centre provides a map which recommends different sightseeing routes (although it may be more fun to carve out your own route and get lost in the maze of twisting alleys). The map also highlights featured artworks, such as the creatively named “Fish Swimming Through The Alley”. Fish are a recurring theme here, which I suppose makes sense since fishing has always been an important industry for Busan, the country’s biggest port. (No visit to Busan would be complete without a visit to Jagalchi Fish Market, South Korea’s biggest. Incidentally, also featured in Black Panther.)

We set off in the direction indicated by the fish, and didn’t stray too much from the main road. A few ladies walked past dressed in hanbok (Korean traditional dress, rentable in many places such as Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul so you can pretend you’re Korean). There were some quirky shops, including one selling love-locks (a seemingly universal phenomenon – people love commemorating their love with their love-locks, evidently).

Suffice to say, this village is an Instagrammer’s dream. It’s not a stretch to say there is something to pose in front of every ten steps. The fact that the terraced hillsides overlook each other also means there are amazing viewpoints of the pastel-coloured Lego-like houses pretty much everywhere. The whole place is like the set of a Crayola commercial.

The next day we went on a day trip to the historic city of Gyeongju, less than an hour’s journey north of Busan by bus. Gyeongju was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla and was at one time the fourth largest city in the world, making it a relatively major player in world history that most people know next to nothing about. (Although we had read about Gyeongju while planning our trip, I had only really learned about Silla a few days prior when we visited the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.) The Silla dynasty ruled for almost a millennium from 57 BC to 935 AD. The Silla court and most of the kingdom’s elite made their home in Gyeongju. It remained the capital until the Joseon dynasty rose to power.

Nowadays many tourists make the trip from Busan to see the former imperial landmarks and some of the finest examples of Buddhist art in the Far East. (Buddhism spread to Korea from China in the 7th century AD and was adopted by the Silla kingdom.) It was designated as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 2000 and is often referred to as “the museum without walls”. Even for those who aren’t big on ancient cultures, Gyeongju makes a nice break from the bright neon lights of modern South Korea.

We visited Bulguksa Temple and the nearby Seokguram Grotto, together designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site for being “a masterpiece of Buddhist art in the Far East.” This required us to take yet another bus from central Gyeongju, towards the east and up a nearby mountain.

Bulguksa is a Buddhist temple complex comprised of a series of wooden buildings on raised stone terraces set into the hillside. It was designed to represent the land of Buddha (Bulguksa means Temple of the Land of Buddha). Photography wasn’t permitted inside any of the buildings but the courtyards and the building exteriors were more than sufficient camera fodder.

The burst of colour in the rows upon rows of hanging lanterns was also seen all over the intricately decorated pagodas and arches and gates. We had a nice time ambling around the grounds. It might have been low season as there really weren’t that many people around.

After checking out the temple complex we decided to head to the Seokguram Grotto, a hermitage built into the hill and located east of Bulguksa Temple. The grotto is an artificial cave containing a large granite statue of Buddha as its centrepiece, and has been designated as a Korean national treasure.

And look, honestly, maybe Bulguksa Temple set the bar a little high, but the Seokguram Grotto was kind of a disappointment. It was a bit of a trek from the main temple complex to get there, although the walk wasn’t unpleasant with some nice views. When we got there though, we found a small alcove with the Buddha statue inside walled off behind glass. Perhaps if I were Buddhist or a historian it might have been more significant or impressive.

In any case, it was getting late in the day by this stage. The sun had disappeared over the other side of the mountain, and everything was dissolving into colourless shades of grey. We retreated back down to Bulguksa Temple which happened to face west, allowing us to catch a last glimpse of the sun as it set over the ancient capital.

How Ipoh got its groove back

Ipoh, Malaysia – September 2019

During a short stopover in Kuala Lumpur recently, my parents and I took my grandmother on a day trip to Ipoh, which is a two hour drive away (not counting potential traffic jam delays).

The state capital of Perak and Malaysia’s third largest city, Ipoh sits nestled in amongst towering limestone formations, bisected by the Kinta river into an old town and a new town. It grew from a small village in the 1880s after tin deposits were found in the vicinity, and peaked during the 1920s tin mining boom. Unfortunately, the tin didn’t last and prices collapsed in the 1970s and 80s. Ipoh’s prosperity declined with the closure of the tin mines and the loss of its industry, and much of the population left to find jobs in other urban centres.

It remained a quiet, neglected town for some decades. There were few drawcards for visitors, and besides serving as a gateway to the Cameron Highlands the town rarely featured on tourists’ radars (perhaps only as a convenient stop to break up the journey from KL to Penang).

The British, who came for the tin, left some wonderful colonial architecture behind: a railway station, a town hall, schools and government buildings. Not to mention many shop-houses so typical of the period. Recognising the potential for tourism, efforts have been made to conserve this heritage in recent years, which has been rewarded by an accompanying rise in Ipoh’s popularity as a destination. The revived interest has generated a renaissance in the Old Town, where historic but dilapidated buildings have been converted into boutique hotels and cafes, done up in a manner which could be described as Malaysia’s version of hipster chic. Formerly a place most outsiders had never heard of, a few years ago Lonely Planet named it one of its Top 10 Asian Destinations – the only Malaysian town to feature. More than one press write-up has appeared with headlines like “Sleepy Ipoh awakens”.

My own interest in the place was piqued earlier in the year after reading a novel by Yangsze Choo, The Night Tiger, which was set in 1930s colonial Malaya, specifically in the Perak towns of Ipoh and nearby Batu Gajah. I had actually been to Ipoh once before as a child, but I retained little memory of this visit.

Food has always been one of the reasons to visit Ipoh, and most Malaysians would be familiar with regional specialties like nga choi gai (bean sprout chicken), gai si hor fun (shredded chicken noodles), heong peng (or heong peah in Hokkien, literally fragrant biscuit, a kind of flaky sweet pastry) and Ipoh White Coffee (kopi putih in Malay). We made our first stop in the New Town to get some bean sprout chicken (tauge ayam in Malay, or nga choi gai in Cantonese) for lunch.

There were two popular bean sprout chicken restaurants sitting on opposing corners of an intersection, Lou Wong and Ong Kee. We chose one, sat down and ordered the signature dish. The bean sprouts were the fattest I’ve ever seen. Apparently something to do with the quality of the soil. After lunch we walked a block away to another popular spot, Funny Mountain Tau Fu Fa (soy bean pudding). I’m far from a tofu connoisseur, but it was as good as any tau fu fa I’ve had.

Not far from where we were in New Town was a small alley dubbed Mural Arts Lane, where murals adorn the alleyway, as the name suggests. These depict scenes from Ipoh’s past, its regional customs and traditions, and ordinary local life. I left the folks to do their heong peng shopping and headed over to check out the street art.

I’m not sure if it’s usually busier but it was pretty much deserted when I got there and I had the whole street to myself. After walking the length of it, I met up with the others again and we crossed the Kinta river to the Old Town for some sightseeing, heading for Concubine Lane. Or more correctly, the Concubine Lanes (there are three of them). Back in 1892, parts of Ipoh’s Old Town were damaged by fire. As the story goes, Yao Tet Shin, the local mining tycoon who owned the lanes, rebuilt and presented them as gifts to his 3 wives:

  1. Wife Lane — Hale Lane (大奶巷)
  2. Concubine Lane — Lorong Panglima (二奶巷)
  3. Second Concubine Lane — Market Lane (三奶巷)

Lorong Panglima, better known locally by its Cantonese name Yi Lai Hong, is the most well-known, probably because it is the most developed, with shops, restaurants, cafes and a boutique hotel. Of course, because of this, it is the busiest one and also the most touristy. I would have to say that the street does sacrifice some of its authenticity, trading it for cuteness and a bit of kitsch, but it was charming nonetheless.

As innocent as the lane appears now, it was once apparently a notorious opium den, and as local folklore would have you believe, a popular meeting spot for adulterous trysts between rich tin traders or British officers and their secret mistresses back in the day – quite appropriate for its name, I guess. Many of the buildings on this street still retain a character which make it easy to imagine these sort of illicit activities happening at one time, behind red-curtained upstairs windows.

We all wandered around for a bit, checking out the stores which mostly sold souvenirs, and then my parents and grandmother found a cafe in which to cool down with some ais kacang (literally bean ice, a shaved ice dessert).

Meanwhile, I ventured further to see the other two lanes, Lorong Hale (Wife Lane) and Market Lane (Second Concubine Lane). Wife Lane was pretty quiet, and appeared to be more residential than Lorong Panglima.

Market Lane was also quieter, but at least more colourful, festooned with hanging umbrellas (this does seem to be a popular way of decorating streets now, not just here but around the world). There was also a mural of people eating curry noodles… opposite a place that sold curry noodles. Advertising?

Further beyond the lanes, I came across some nostalgic murals painted by Lithuanian-born artist Ernest Zacharevic who rose to fame for similar works in George Town, Penang. His murals, inspired by Ipoh’s heritage, evoked memories of the city’s past: bags of coffee dangling over a wall, a wise old uncle sipping coffee, a cluttered trishaw, a girl reaching for a birdcage. I’m pretty certain you can still buy hot beverages in a bag – this was something I remember whenever I visited my grandparents as a kid.

An hour or two later I went back to look for my family. My grandmother was standing at the top of Concubine Lane, shielding herself from the sun with an umbrella, as Asians do. I stopped to get the famous kopi putih (white coffee) at a kopitiam (couldn’t leave Ipoh without trying it!) and then it was time to go.

Ipoh has a lot of things going for it – the food, which I suppose has always been there, but now too all the laid-back charm brought back by its nostalgia-filled redevelopment. It’s amazingly photogenic. No longer just a stop on the way to Penang, it’s definitely a city coming into its own. I’m glad we got the chance to see it.

Dresden, the Baroque Phoenix of Saxony

Dresden, Germany – October 2015

“I was a prisoner of war held in Dresden. At about 10.30pm that night, the air raid sirens started their mournful wailing and because this happened every night no notice was taken. The people of Dresden believed that as long as the Luftwaffe kept away from Oxford, Dresden would be spared. The sirens stopped and after a short period of silence the first wave of pathfinders were over the city dropping their target flares.
As the incendiaries fell, the phosphorus clung to the bodies of those below, turning them into human torches. The screaming of those who were being burned alive was added to the cries of those not yet hit. There was no need for flares to lead the second wave of bombers to their target, as the whole city had become a gigantic torch. It must have been visible to the pilots from a hundred miles away. Dresden had no defences, no anti-aircraft guns, no searchlights, nothing.”
― Victor Gregg, author of Dresden: A Survivor’s Story, writing in The Guardian

I took a trip to Germany several years ago to visit my friend in Hamburg and spent a few days sightseeing before meeting him. I spent a few days in Berlin then hopped on the Deutsche Bahn bound for Dresden.

Dresden, situated on the river Elbe, is the capital of Saxony, a German state in the east bordering the Czech Republic and Poland. It was once the royal residence of the kings of Saxony and was known throughout Europe for its baroque architecture. Near the end of the Second World War it was so heavily bombed by the Allies that almost none of its famed baroque architectural masterpieces were left standing. A series of raids by the British and American air forces in February 1945 dropped nearly 4000 tonnes of explosive and incendiary bombs, killing around 25,000 people.

The reasons for the devastating attack remain controversial. Why Dresden? It was an undefended civilian town with little military significance, many claimed. Some have suggested that the bombing was to destroy German morale by traumatising (incinerating) civilians and obliterating cultural treasures. Others have countered that Dresden was actually a strategic transport hub, from which the German army sent troops to meet the Russians. The Allies maintained it was a legitimate military target containing not just architectural jewels, but also factories churning out weapons and equipment.

The timing of the attack has been questioned. The bombs were dropped late in the final months of the war, as the Russians were advancing on Berlin from the east and the Allies from the west; it appeared that the war was coming to an end anyway. The city had been spared from attack up until that point, and Dresden had seen an influx of refugees from Berlin escaping the Red Army. Some point out this meant there were even more civilians present than ever. It has also been claimed the bombing was meant to warn the Russians by showing what the Allies could do.

In any case, ruined and blackened Dresden in the aftermath became a focus for anti-war sentiment, peace demonstrations, and for some, a German sense of victimhood.

After the war, much of the city remained rubble for decades as initially the Russians opted to expend their efforts on rebuilding Russia, and then the Communist East German regime that succeeded them chose to rebuild areas of the city in a modern socialist fashion. In fact, some royal ruins and bombed-out churches were razed by the Soviets and East German authorities, in preference to costly repairs. (Fun fact: Vladimir Putin was based in Dresden when he was a KGB agent.)

Eventually restoration projects brought Dresden’s former glory back to life, and the city underwent particularly dramatic changes after the reunification of Germany in the early 1990s. These days walking through the town you might never appreciate the landscape of rubble it would have been 70 years ago. And yet some things do not seem quite as they should be – as aged, perhaps? The sandstone is a bit too bright, the facades a bit too clean. All the reconstruction has somehow lent Dresden an odd sense of being both old and new at the same time.

I had not planned any particular activities for my day in Dresden but I saw a lady in the main square holding an umbrella advertising one of those free walking tours and decided to join in there and then. This turned out to be a brilliant decision on my part.

We spent half a day sauntering around the city centre, escorted by our knowledgeable local guide who told many stories and kept us otherwise entertained for tips. There were a number of landmarks (all reconstructions) on the tour but a couple have stayed with me, even after all these years.

The Dresden Frauenkirche, meaning Church of Our Lady, is a Lutheran (Protestant) church built on the site of a Catholic church dating from the 11th century, which became a Protestant church during the Reformation, which was then torn down in the 1700s and rebuilt as a Protestant church by Saxony’s Catholic ruler who had converted from Protestantism but wanted to reassure his Protestant subjects that he was still down with Protestants (because people usually killed each other over that kind of thing).

Got all that?

During the bombing 300 people sought refuge in the crypt and the church managed to survive two days and nights before collapsing from the heat of the incendiary bombs. It had withstood previous attacks, including 1000 cannonballs (quaint) during the Seven Years’ War, but the Allied firebombs generated temperatures of up to 1000 degrees Celsius, causing the dome to cave in and the stone pillars to literally glow bright red and then explode. The charred ruins were left in a pile for another 45 years under Communist rule.

Rebuilding began after German reunification in 1994 with privately raised funds, and was completed in time for Dresden’s 800th anniversary. Dresden’s residents had salvaged parts of the destroyed church after the war with the hope that it would one day be rebuilt and these pieces were incorporated into the reconstruction. You can see the dark patina (word of the day) on the original stones that survived the firebombs, starkly contrasting with the newer, lighter sandstone.

High atop the apex of the church sits a gold cross, a gift from “the British people and the House of Windsor”. We were told a nice ending to the Frauenkirche story by our guide: the main craftsman of the cross, a British goldsmith called Alan Smith, was the son of one of the RAF bomber pilots involved in the original church’s destruction. (I checked this out, it’s true. The bomber’s name was Frank.) The cross that originally topped the dome before the bombing now stands twisted and charred next to the new altar inside the church. Frauenkirche, which had represented the suffering of Germany civilians in the decades after the war, was consecrated in 2005 as a symbol of reconciliation.

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for some sweet city views so I headed up the winding staircase to the top of Frauenkirche. Once through the little trapdoor, I was treated to a stunning 360 degree aerial view of Dresden and the Elbe river. The ornate spires and the still hazy air imparted a kind of unreal quality, made more so by the tiny people going about their afternoons in the squares and streets far below.

Later in the tour, we came across a prime example of Dresden’s baroque architecture, the Semper Opera House, originally built by and named after architect Gottfried Semper, but absolutely gutted by a fire in the late 1800s. Gottfried’s son Manfred rebuilt it according to his father’s plans at the insistence of Dresden’s citizens. This building was largely destroyed in the Allied firebombing and rebuilt as an almost exact replica in 1985, reopening with the very same opera that had been performed on the eve of its destruction 40 years before.

Our guide pointed out a screen above one of the entrances and explained it was playing a pro-refugee video featuring members of the opera and orchestra. The background to this was a flourishing anti-immigration movement that was really hitting its stride that year, the same year that Chancellor Merkel welcomed almost 1 million refugees into the country.

Every Monday, the guide said, thousands of Germans met in front of the opera house to rally against Muslims. The group leading these protests was called PEGIDA, an acronym for “Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes” (“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident”). PEGIDA was founded by a former criminal and began life as a closed Facebook group. Its first few rallies in October 2014 drew only a few hundred people. By January 2015, however, 25,000 people were out in force at an anti-Islamisation rally in Dresden, galvanised by fear and hate in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks in Paris.

There were similar demonstrations in other German cities but none were as popular as those in Dresden, a city with barely any Muslims (and few foreigners in general). Muslims only make up about 0.1% of Saxony’s population. But much has already been written on how xenophobia can prosper where so-called natives have little or no contact with the objects of their fear.

So it was that after months of these Monday anti-immigration rallies, pro-immigration counter-protests started up on Tuesdays. And perhaps the Semper Opera felt like it needed to weigh in or make some kind of a stand on the subject, given it was the backdrop to this weekly to-and-fro. As well as the video screen, I also saw a banner draped across one facade bearing a slogan which our guide translated as “Eyes Open, Hearts Open, Doors Open”.

It was interesting to me and perhaps a little sad that a city known through the latter half of the 20th century for peace demonstrations and stories of reconciliation like the rebuilding of Frauenkirche would once again become a political and idealogical battleground over an issue that goes to the heart of German identity in the 21st century. This debate has certainly not gone away and has shaped politics in Germany for many years now, as it has in many other countries, European or otherwise. To this day, protests and counter-protests continue in Dresden over this issue.

Post-script: in the course of my Internet research on PEGIDA (what, you thought I just knew all that off the top of my head?) I found out that Sir Arthur Harris, the RAF chief of Bomber Command who green-lit the firebombing of Dresden, had become an internet meme. “Bomber Harris” went viral after an activist protesting the rise in intolerance at an anti-PEGIDA rally invited British bombers to repeat the destruction of February 1945 – by painting “Bomber Harris Do it Again” across her naked chest.