My friends are hosting a Christmas party in a renovated wood and brick house in Mullae-dong.
The building retains the wonderfully high ceilings and original wooden beams from when it was first built in the 1940s, and the dress code is inspired by the era—whatever that means. I welcome the opportunity to dress like Lauren Bacall but it’s strange when I consider how American that association is.
For me, the 1940s in a U.S./Western context recalls WWII, classical Hollywood cinema and film noir, empowered women joining the workforce and a distinctly somber but elegant (perhaps this is our romanticization of the past) wartime look that’s now familiar again thanks to recent fashion industry revivals.
Korea in the (early) 1940s was a colony of Japan. I’m sure there was an urban subset of Korean elites, perhaps Japanese sympathizers, perhaps members of a disintegrating yangban (양반) class. But what I imagine is something much closer to this: poor, oppressed, rural.
I don’t quite know how I feel about this. On an arbitrary scale of merely aware to guilty, closer to aware. Maybe close enough to uncomfortable to remark on it.
Mullae-dong is the birthplace of South Korea’s steel and cotton manufacturing industry. The cheap real estate makes it an attractive neighborhood for artists. They work in warehouses-turned-studios alongside steelworkers and carpenters, although the two groups keep slightly different hours. The former are praying for the rent to remain down. According to a friend familiar with the neighborhood, some see their stay in Mullae as an exile from Hongdae, which is still considered something of a central area for art. The latter want the magic touch of government money—the buildings are still low and dilapidated, and the streets look almost foreign, resembling little of either the shiny and modern Gangnam or the tourist-friendly traditional Insadong.
This recently renovated restaurant/cafe is probably a step towards gentrification (and higher rent).