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. 

Panoramic view of Busan - Photo: Lubo Jurik

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.

In Gamcheon - Photo: Gamcheon Facebook page

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.