The Hyundai Apartments lie on the hill of Yangjeong, looming over the city and the vacant walled-in compound that used to be the US Army base, which, three years back, re-located to more strategically useful environs. Busan, it seems, no longer needs defending. The apartments are a city unto themselves, housing a good twenty thousand people in clusters of imposing, obscene concrete towers. These housing blocks aren’t so different than any of the countless others found on The Peninsula; they are efficient and impersonal, a corporate take on the socialist experiments that one finds in Europe. Contrary to those Stalinist nightmares, however, these ones are mostly clean and crime-free.
The Hyundai Apartments lie on the hill of Yangjeong, looming over the city and the vacant walled-in compound that used to be the US Army base, which, three years back, re-located to more strategically useful environs. Busan, it seems, no longer needs defending. The apartments are a city unto themselves, housing a good twenty thousand people in clusters of imposing, obscene concrete towers. These housing blocks aren’t so different than any of the countless others found on The Peninsula; they are efficient and impersonal, a corporate take on the socialist experiments that one finds in Europe. Contrary to those Stalinist nightmares, however, these ones are mostly clean and crime-free. Children play unattended, impromptu fruit markets come and go without incident, mothers gab on the sidewalks, and grandfathers kill the afternoons playing baduk (a game with black and white round tiles) and sipping rice wine with their friends, trading literal war stories and relaxing in the warmth of the rough, milky booze.
These days, I regularly find myself visiting The Yangjeong Hyundai Apartments. They are located near enough to my house that I usually walk there and back. Busan can really be a terrific city for walking, especially if you stick to the sidestreets, and lately I’ve been exercising by walking AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. If I have the time to get there on foot, and if it’s not pissing down in sheets, I walk. It accounts for several good hours of exercise each week, helps to keep the fat off, and, most importantly, stimulates my mind. Nothing jump starts my head like a vigorious walk. It’s an essential part of my writing process.
I’ve lived in Busan for five years now, and despite my deep familiarity with its environs, I’m often surprised. The strangeness of this place still regularly grabs me, but almost only when I’m out on foot, open to the experience. Cars, buses and motorized machines are designed to protect us, to cut out stimuli, to cocoon their riders. That’s why the only way to truly take in any city is to get off your ass and walk.
Tonight I left the canyons of the Hyundai Apartments and walked down the hill toward the subway station, along the main, busy road. Once I crossed the big intersection, I turned onto an sidestreet and picked up the pace, trying to warm myself in the early winter air that’s now moved in. I stopped to take a piss in an empty parking lot behind a small building. A mount of earth with a small tree lay to my left, on which was wood scraps and a decent heap of junk. I heard a noise and several feral kittens peered out, taking me in with frantic, black eyes. As I moved toward them they disappeared into their unseen cat warren.
As I continued, I passed a high-steepled church, on which was a huge lit up star. Several strings of lights connected it to the ground, one of the few real reminders of the upcoming Christmas holiday. As I walked out of the range of the lights, things got very dark, and I entered into an aread of extremely narrow alleys, going between walled city homes and shuttered businesses. In almost any other city I’d fear for my safety, but one of the epically amazing things about Busan, and Korea in general, is that you can wander the streets at all hours of the night without ever looking over your shoulder (women, excepted, there are loads of “byuntae ajosshis” out there). This is something that cannot be overstated. When I go back to America, I always have to recalibrate my guages for more dangerous surroundings – even in the relatively low-crime streets of Seattle.
Eventually the alleys opened up and I came upon City Hall and the Police Headquarters next door. I imagined North Korean missles slamming into both and causing their collapse, like some Busan mirror of 9/11. I often entertain dark fantasies of war and destruction when I walk alone. I always have. Living in a place that’s technically still at war just heightens this strange tendency.
Eventually I got into the alleys of Yeonsan-dong, which is my neighborhood. I saw it coming a long ways off, lit up by garish neons signs advertising the multitude of karaoke rooms (norae bangs) and love motels that make the area what it is. Middle-aged couples staggered down the road hand-in-hand, buzzing from soju and beelining to rent rooms for a one-night trysts. The pork restaurants were full of tables of red-faced patrons bellowing over masses of empty green bottles, and one karaoke room beckoned me with a life-sized photo of a Slavic-looking woman pulling up her dress, revealing an inviting, bare, chubby white ass. I looked around at the blinking lights for room salons and “booking” night clubs, while watching young men in shiny suits stand outside, puff on skinny cigarettes, and attempt to lure in attractive women. I walked past some of the few remaining soju tents (pojang macha) in town, where customers clustered around oil heaters and downed grilled eel, complemented by the ubiquitous liquor. I felt the urge to join them, but before I knew it, I was at the main Yeonsan-dong intersection, a six-legged pinwheel choked with busses, taxis, and shiny black sedans. Koreans drive big cars for such a small country.
I descended the stairs into the cavernous station and entered that underground world that Korea does so well. Shops sold knock-off bags and skin cream (the cosmetic industry if off the charts here), pop music was piped in, and near the exits, a couple of leather-faced ancient-looking women sold bunches of sesame leaves, green onions, and mystery grasses, shoots, and stalks. One hawked tiny, potted plants for about a buck each. They’re always there, in their colorful, baggy, pajama-like pants, crouched on blankets and looking at each passerby with hope and not just a little desperation.
The street I live on is being torn up, part of a neighborhood “beautification” program that I don’t really disagree with. They’ve finished one side of the road, and now they’re working on mind, replacing the treacherous and uneven pavement with very walkable and smooth brick sidewalks. A Paris Baguette has moved in, and in a month or two, the big Jai Apartments, much more personally designed than the Yangjeong Hyudai, will open their doors and the hardscrabble residents of Yeonsan-dong will find themselves mixing with a softer, more monied breed. I don’t always like gentrification, but a little may do this area some good. It’s not like they are driving all the artists out. There really aren’t any to begin with.