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(Yonhap Feature) A town past its glory days but hard to let go
By Robert Koehler
Contributing writer
SEOUL, Jan. 18 (Yonhap) -- "You have to wait a bit. Is that OK?"

   Barber Lee Nam-yeol beams as he works on a customer's hair at Seongu Iyongwon, a man who clearly loves his work. His scissors dance about the customer's head, making delightful music not unlike that of the "yeot" (Korean taffy) sellers of yesteryear. "They've played this sound three times on the radio," he says with pride.

   At Cheongpa-dong in central Seoul, life remains rooted in the 20th century. For the visitor, the chaotic low-rise neighborhood on the hills overlooking Yongsan is a virtual outdoor museum of Seoul's dramatic modern history. To explore its markets and narrow alleyways is to travel back in time to a bygone era now seen largely in films and TV dramas.

The barber shop at Cheongpa-dong that stands as is since it opened in 1927 (All photos courtesy of Robert Koehler)

Lee Nam-yeol at work at his barber shop

Cheongpa-dong is considered a "seomin," or working class, neighborhood, populated by low-income families. The low-rise homes and gritty alleys that climb the hillside bring to mind what Koreans call the "daldongne," or "moon neighborhood" shantytowns that dotted Seoul in the hard decades after the 1950-53 Korean War.

   This wasn't always the case, however. Jung Hae-seung, a life-long resident of the neighborhood who operates a stationery shop near Cheongpa Elementary School, explains when he was a student here in the 1960s, Cheongpa-dong was a place of great affluence. "Bukchon and Cheongpa-dong were the richest neighborhoods within Seoul's old four gates," he says. "Many of my school friends became judges and prosecutors." The development of Gangnam, southern Seoul, led to a fall in status, though. Says Jung, "Now all the rich live in Gangnam."

   In the 1920s and 1930s, Japanese colonialists settled in the hillside neighborhood to take advantage of its spectacular views of Mt. Nam and its proximity to Yongsan Station. They built houses of a mixed Japanese-Western design; many of these have long since been lost, but a few still remain.

   After Korea regained its independence in 1945, the Japanese homes were acquired by well-to-do Koreans, while other residents built homes in traditional Korean hanok style. In the 1970s, many single and dual-story homes for low-income families were erected, to be joined in the 1990s by small, low cost apartments and larger unit homes. Small clothing factories set up shop, too, due to the proximity of Namdaemun Market.

A view from above offers an odd mixture of old, worn-down homes of Cheongpa-dong and high-rises of neighboring Yongsan.

The result is a haphazard, fascinating mix of styles that record the neighborhood's history like the strata in rock cliff. The alleyways are winding and narrow; concrete steps wedged between the homes help locals navigate. Along some alleys, wall murals or simple reliefs add a bit of color. Many students from nearby Sookmyung Women's University reside up here, too, giving the neighborhood a more youthful vibe than you might expect.

   It's unknown how long Cheongpa-dong will remain the way it is. From its heights, you can observe the high-rises under construction in Yongsan below. Many changes have already taken place. One shopkeeper, a long-term resident in the district, complains that many of the old homes have disappeared, and the once plentiful junipers and flowering trees have mostly been uprooted.

A typical alleyway seen at Cheongpa-dong

The sprawling Malli Market, the commercial heart of the neighborhood, is still colorful and vibrant, but Park Ok-jae, who runs a dumplings shop near the market, says it's lost a step. Many of the clothing factories have shut down, he says, and of those that remain, "they employ only two or three people, rather than seven like they used to."

   The opening of bus service hurt the market, too. "When the buses started several years back, they began taking people to the big supermarkets," says Park. "If you go to the big stores like Emart, you can find everything."

   Back at Seongu Iyongwon, however, life goes on as it has since Lee's grandfather -- Korea's second licensed barber --opened the shop in 1927. Lee himself has been cutting hair for 48 years. If not for the customer in the chair and another customer waiting patiently in a corner, you could mistake the place for a museum display. The exterior is charmingly ramshackle, while inside, everything is old, and old-school. Old-fashioned briquette stoves provide warmth and heat the water used for shampooing and washing.

   The window glass and the windowpanes are original, the cracks repaired with tape. An ancient LP player sits on a shelf. When asked if his shop might disappear into history like so many other older buildings in Seoul, Lee responds in a matter-of-fact way, "Not while I'm around."

   Lee's clientele includes politicians and corporate leaders, and stories in the local press and blogosphere have brought the shaggy-of-mane from far and wide. He's got about 20 foreign clients, and former Democratic Labor Party chief Roh Hoe-chan stops by every 20 days for a trim. On this particular Sunday, Lee is in a good mood; he recently received an award from the civic organization National Age of Success, the only barber to be so honored.

   Lee specializes in what he calls "traditional Japanese" haircuts. He cuts the hair at 15 to 45 degree angles; this, he says, allows the hairstyle to keep its shape for a long time. According to Lee, it takes about 15 years to master. Even after 48 years, he's not resting on his laurels. "I've yet to perfect the technique. This might be a never-ending task."

Getting there
Cheongpa-dong is best reached via Seoul Station. Depart from the West Exit and take a cab to the Malli Market. Seongu Iyongwon is hidden in an alley just above the market.