food / travel

Welcome To Gamcheon, The Korean Machu Picchu

Gamcheon – officially known as Gamcheon Culture Village
Gamcheon – officially known as Gamcheon Culture Village
Philippe Mesmer

GAMCHEON - It has been called the "Lego village," the "Korean Machu Picchu," the "Santorini on the South Sea…”

Gamcheon, in South Korea’s southern port city of Busan is indeed all of these – a multicolored village that looks like it was made out of candy, with its little green, yellow and blue hillside cubicle houses aligned in a terraced layout over a port and maze of narrow passageways in which to get lost.

You can tell Gamcheon is doing its utmost to distinguish itself from neighboring Busan, a city known for its beautiful beaches, Buddhist temples, film festival and bustling maritime sector.

In Gamcheon – officially known as Gamcheon Culture Village – you are somewhere else all together. You don't enter the village; you sidle in under the playful eye of gargoyles perched on the roofs of the first houses.

Then, suddenly, you bump into a bright mural. These works of art, painted on the corners of passageways, are not there by chance. In 2009, the South Korean ministry of culture freed up funds to rehabilitate certain working-class and neglected neighborhoods across the country. Gamcheon is one of them, and the result is amazing. Eleven local artists presented projects. There are gargoyles, murals, but also fish-shaped road signs and Little Prince sitting up on high, contemplating the village.

Initially reluctant, locals were eventually won over by the project. "Thirty-eight works of art are on display," says Lee Kwi-hyang, head of development for Gamcheon. “Empty houses were bought and transformed into galleries and cafes. Many artists moved here." There is a new monthly magazine, a new pottery workshop; and public baths were transformed into an exhibition space. New ideas for development are being discussed by the local villagers and the city of Busan. There could soon be an art market, and maybe even artist-in-residence programs for foreign artists.

A community of refugees

For the village, this is a new chapter in a history that started in the 1950s, in the middle of the Korean War. In June 1950, the North Korean offensive quashed South Korean forces and their American allies, who set up their line of defense at the extreme south of the peninsula, near Busan. The defeat led to an exodus. Busan saw its population increase by 40%. Among the refugees, Cho Je-chol, who founded in 1909 a religious movement called Taegeuk-do, which was at the forefront of the fight for the independence of Korea.

Once he had settled in Busan, Cho called his followers to join him. Kim Moon-sen, a member of the Taegeuk-do religion, arrived here from the central province of Gangwon: "My parents were killed at the beginning of the war," he says, "I came here with my two brothers."

The community settled in central Busan. After the armistice was signed in 1953, the port city – which was facing insalubrity issues because of overpopulation and poverty – tried to reorganize itself.

In 1955, Busan invited the Taegeuk-do community to relocate to Gamcheon. The community leaders agreed to the move, because Gamcheon’s water had the reputation of being very pure. Twenty-five families settled there in 1957.

Cho imposed strict construction rules. "The houses were built in a way that allowed a flow of movement and were not to high, so as not to block the view of the houses above," explains Baik Young-je, an expert in aestheticism at the Tongmyong University who is involved in the Gamcheon artistic project.

It was a poor village. Electricity only appeared in 1965 and running water in the 1970s. There was a primary school but the high school was too far, so the community had to build its own. The village was also plagued with a cholera epidemic in the 1960s.

Today, its structure has not changed much. "Gamcheon never interested property developers," explains Lee. “They didn’t see the economic interest.” In modern South Korea, people were more interested in bustling Busan.

The Taegeuk-do religious community dwindled because of infighting and the arrival of new inhabitants in the village, but the main temple still sits at the foot of Gamcheon. "Surrounded by two-headed mountains, this temple is the center of the universe," explains one of the community’s religious leaders. "In the past, Gamcheon could be translated as divine flux,” he adds.

Today it is mostly the tourists that are flowing in – in increasing numbers: 250,000 in 2011; 300,000 in 2012. A success that threatens the village’s tranquility, prompting Gamcheon to limit the hours at which tourists can visit.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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