If we stay around Gwangju long enough, chances are that we begin to notice changes in local visual culture. New buildings erected, old shops gone, recent trends in shopfronts, parking systems or trash collection may be what readily catch the eye. This noticing is even more prevalent when returning to a familiar area after several years absence. Such was my experience after returning to Gwangju after a multi-year hiatus abroad, and after living elsewhere on the peninsula.
One such observation reveals not what has changed, but rather, what has resisted it. When spending time downtown and in the surrounding satellite communities, I noticed how impromptu tent kitchens, or ‘po-cha’ were still visible. Having largely disappeared in other urban centers around the country, these tent pubs and their attached kitchens could still be seen in several spots around the city. Due to their flimsy, improvised-look, these were some of the first drinking establishments which jumped out at me when visiting Korea the first time many years ago. Crammed into streetside parking spaces and large curbs, these tents seemed to provide a space where social classes could mix more freely than in other economically segregated neighborhoods.
The photo above shows a relatively normal scene within one of these ramshackle kitchens at the rear of a streetside tent. Built against a brick wall outside a series of love hotels, the kitchen has made itself a relatively permanent fixture within the local see-scape. With tarp overhead, a middle-aged woman is kept warm and no-doubt, slightly oily by the steamy splatter of countless dishes cooked within. While meant to be temporary, this scene reeks of permanence, of a tradition deeper than what can be easily removed through the revision of local city zoning ordinances. This stays, behind the purely visual changes to a city. While I look forward to these shifts in visual culture, I also am taken to task to feel and photograph what ultimately remains the same.
[Image taken with a Nikon FE2 with a 50mm f1.4 ai-s lens and shooting Ilford Delta 3200.]
(Photo & Text by Marty Miller)