One Sunday afternoon in Seoul, I was suddenly seized with the sudden desire to visit the Cheonggyecheon Museum, a museum dedicated to the development around Cheonggyecheon. I had been told that it had been a controversial river project in Seoul.
In the 1960s, the slum-surrounded Cheonggyecheon River had been completely covered over and built over to form a highway, this highway falling into disrepair after a few decades, and then a turnaround decision in 2005 to remove the decaying highway. With half an hour to spare before closing time (they do not allow people in half an hour before closing time), I rushed over on a very slow bus to Cheonggyecheon. Somehow, I made it exactly five minutes before the cut-off time, giving me a good half-hour at this small museum.
Model of the Cheonggyecheon Area
Collage of Cheonggyecheon
The highway was removed in pieces
It was restored fairly recently, starting from the launch of the Cheonggyecheong Restoration Project on July 1 2003 with the dismantling of the Cheonggye Elevated Highway. And it was completed in October 2005. Coming at the cost of over 386 billion won and rising, it was said to have received much public criticism because of the staggering costs and lack of ecological/historical authenticity, but they went through with the project with the official reasons being as follows:
“The rebirth of Seoul as a human, environmentally friendly city”
“The Recreation of Seoul as a 600-Year capital of New Cultural Spaces”
“Removal of obsolete Structure for Safety of Citizens”
“Balanced Development through revitalization of neglected neighborhoods”
I find it interesting to see what official statements are released to explain such a peculiar project to bring back a river that was basically no longer flowing and no longer in existence. Although it is debatable whether historical authenticity must be still retained in such a project where history is not a continuous line, I feel at least they made an attempt to put it back exactly where it used to be.
Very similar to the Singapore River, it was a heavily used river that had been neglected and heavily polluted at the time when they decided to build a highway over it. They didn’t really care about the historic value of the river at the time (it was used as drainage in the Joseon dynasty with texts written about it) and had covered it up because it was the fastest way to deal with a trash-filled river.
The highway itself was a symbol of Seoul’s success in industrialization and modernization in the 1960s when it was built to cover up the trash and waste from the slums. It involved engineering feats and huge amounts of resources to build the highway back in the day.
But by the time they had decided to restore the river, it had run dry and water had to be pumped back into it. 680 kilotons of construction debris had to be removed from the site (notably all the metals were fully recycled, and 95& of waste concrete and ASCON materials were also recycled) There was also contention on how certain bridges should be restored and how historical sites should be “recreated”.
Nevertheless the project went through and despite disagreements during the early process, it can certainly be said that the project was completely well-intentioned and has had a very good outcome. The green areas are an attractive, quiet place for people to rest in the middle of the city, and the resculpted bubbling brooks are now home to animals and fishes and plants. When I walked along it, many people were taking walks along the Cheonggyecheon or even having a nap or picnic by the river.
Can you imagine Singapore turning around and saying “Wait! We made a mistake in urbanizing all these areas so heavily and we’re going to put a green belt back exactly where it once was!” I have a feeling they do not have this same understanding of of how geographical locations are also important.
I was reading about how the Koreans also have the same school of thought about fengshui which is known as “pungsu” over there. One of the main ways of maintaining good fengshui is through “hyol” (blood) which means: to bury your ancestors in a place with advantageous energies. The other most common method is obviously to build your own house in a place with good pungsu as well.
The very feature that had given Seoul its good pungsu was the Cheonggyecheon, because it is a small stream that runs from the mountains into the huge Han River. It was this feature that attracted monks to advise the early Joseon rulers that this was the perfect site for the capital. And thus Seoul had also grown around the Cheonggyecheon, which lies in the middle of it. Of course, as cities develop, some things are bound to be lost and forgotten, which is what happened to Cheonggyecheon until it was identified to be by the then-mayor of Seoul to be restored in 2003.
While not completely unproblematic itself (as its detractors will argue that it is being used as an extravagant symbolic action to show off Korea’s efforts in urban redevelopment) the Cheonggyecheon is about breathing life back into a part of Seoul that has always been here and has history and stories in the area. They didn’t just abandon it and try to build the lovely green stuff back into a brand new spot. They went back and tried to make it better.
In Singapore, there is a willingness to destroy the old cemeteries and nature reserves at Bukit Brown without a second thought, coupled with an almost contradictory interest in creating new “green” areas or “gardens”. I wondered why they would meddle with the graves of so many our ancestors. Did the city planners view every last shred of Singapore’s history as being completely disposable?
To be fair, it is good that Singapore has an interest in gardens. Compared to Seoul, Singapore is actually very green, but if one looks closer, then this greenery is also nothing more than an artificial construct.
To be willing to destroy the original sites of nature in Singapore, and to build the new Gardens by the Bay on a completely new, reclaimed site which is of no significant emotional or historic value, strikes me as a schizophrenic decision in urban planning, when we could be preserving and building on what we already have, like how the Koreans have rehabilitated and brought life back to the historic Cheonggyecheon.
It also reminds me of the difference between how Singaporean and Koreans handle enbloc sales. In the popular Gangnam area, apartment block residents band together to have their blocks demolished so as to build a newer and more highly valued apartment block in the exact same location – with the caveat that they can move back into the same place later (and capitalize off their investments in that very same land). Compare this to the popular Singaporean scheme of conducting enbloc sales where people sell off their houses and its land permanently to the whimsies of another land developer, without maintaining any further interest in the area. The private condos in Singapore are often demolished only to make way for another condo, causing many residents to move from older estates and to be scattered like the wind.
Maybe Singapore needs to learn from the Koreans and their system of building on the places that they already have.