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Dreams of Myeongdong

Today’s Myeongdong, with its glossy storefronts, crammed alleyways, and lines of busy snack vendors yelling to be heard over the constant blare of K-pop tunes, is one of Seoul’s top shopping destinations. But the Seoul neighborhood was once famous for drawing a different kind of crowd.

Novelist and journalist Lee Bong-gu (left) was also called "The Count of Myeongdong." A video flashes images of the artists who gathered in Myeongdong (top right). A photograph of a Myeongdong alley after the war (bottom right).
Novelist and journalist Lee Bong-gu (left) was also called "The Count of Myeongdong." A video flashes images of the artists who gathered in Myeongdong (top right). A photograph of a Myeongdong alley after the war (bottom right).


“Myeongdong Narratives,” the latest exhibition at the Seoul Museum of History, explores Myeongdong’s past as the arts and culture hub of Seoul in the decades following the Korean War.

The displays are framed by images and mementos of the late journalist and novelist Lee Bong-gu, who was a regular fixture at the local dabang (coffeehouses) and tea rooms that set up shop amid the wreckage of war-torn Seoul in the early 1950s. Visitors get a glimpse into the scenes and memories that filled Lee’s novels, of struggling musicians, poets, painters, and actors gathering in the dabang to craft their art and dream of a better future.

“Though I forget her name now, her eyes and lips remain in my heart,” is the plaintive strain that drifts out of the overhead speakers at the entrance to the exhibition. A sign identifies the tune, familiar to many older Koreans, as “When Time Has Passed,” the popular song penned by poet Pak In-hwan and composer Lee Jin-seop at a Myeongdong bar in the ‘50s.

Dioramas of the Mona Lisa dabang (top left), Myeongdong bar Poem, and the Dolce dabang (right), where artists gathered to create their music, their paintings, and their poetry in the 1950s and '60s.Dioramas of the Mona Lisa dabang (top left), Myeongdong bar Poem, and the Dolce dabang (right), where artists gathered to create their music, their paintings, and their poetry in the 1950s and '60s.

Just a few steps away, a detailed map shows where colonial-era buildings, landmark music halls, and the former National Theater once stood, before urban development in the ‘70s removed the teahouses and transformed the neighborhood into a bustling fashion district.

In the next sections of the exhibition, dioramas of the famous Mona Lisa and Dolce dabang -- as well as Poem, a bar often frequented by Lee and his artist friends -- stand behind glass partitions. Vintage opera records, a leather-encased refrigerator, and a menu pricing a cup of ginseng tea at 200 won speak of a bygone era.

In the interviews projected on a blank stretch of wall, several white-haired artists who once called Myeongdong home recall times spent chatting over makgeolli and freshly fried vegetable jeon, sitting under the makeshift tarp roof of a building still awaiting reconstruction, and listening to an opera singer nearby rehearse his aria under the night sky.

Well-dressed women walk down the main street in '70s-era Myeongdong (left). A young girl peers up at a scene from an all-female theatre production (right).Well-dressed women walk down the main street in '70s-era Myeongdong (left). A young girl peers up at a scene from an all-female theatre production (right).

The photographs that line the exhibition trace the evolution of Myeongdong up to the present, from the all-female acting troupe that attracted a dedicated following of female fans in the ‘50s, to the well- dressed mothers walking down Myeongdong’s central street outfitted in the latest Western-inspired designs.

Displays showcase memorabilia from the ‘70s-era live music cafés C’est Si Bon and OB Cabin, favorite haunts for young people wanting a taste of beer and folk guitar. Pamphlets and news clippings from the ‘80s document the political rallies that were staged in front of Myeongdong Cathedral during the era.

A wall mural of a sketch of the Cafe Theatre (left) and a recreation of the park in the center of Myeongdong (right).A wall mural of a sketch of the Cafe Theatre (left) and a recreation of the park in the center of Myeongdong (right).


“Myeongdong Stories” will run until March 31. More information on the exhibition and on Seoul Museum of History can be found at: Seoul Museum of History website (Korean, English, Chinese, Japanese).

By Kwon Jungyun
Korea.net Staffwriter

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