Ikseon-dong: Seoul’s Hottest Poverty Porn Destination

by

If you plug Ikseon-dong, the name of a central Seoul neighborhood, into your preferred search engine, you’ll come up with countless photographs, many of which look the same: shabby low-rise buildings with wooden doors along narrow alleyways. One recurring image is Ikseon-dong shot from above, contextualizing it as a flat cluster of humble structures surrounded by skyscrapers, a pocket of old-world charm in one of Seoul’s most bustling areas.

 

Ikseon-dong offers visitors the chance to feel like they’re stepping into Seoul’s past, a time before the city was covered in interchangeable residential and commercial buildings. One article described entering Ikseon as “a bit like discovering a long-thought-extinct species in the jungle.”

What is absent from these representations of Ikseon-dong, and the flowery blog posts many of them accompany, are the voices of the people who live there, who are often reduced to being described in such zoological terms.

According to a recent report by OhMyNews, a left-of-center online outlet, long-time residents of Ikseon-dong are less than thrilled to be the objects of visitors’ fascination. One local resident said that the photo-seeking hordes make her and her neighbors feel like “animals in a zoo,” that she asks them to not take photos, but they click away regardless.

The OhMyNews story describes the photos of the neighborhood that circulate online as “poverty porn.” Pornography is not necessarily sexual; the writer William T. Vollman defines it as consisting of two essential components: One, the intention to give pleasure, and two, the effect of offending some of those who view it.

Perhaps the images of Ikseon-dong are genuinely intended to give pleasure, to hark back to a simpler time in South Korea, a time when groups of happy-poor middle-aged women spent afternoons sitting in a circle peeling garlic, when children played outside instead of sitting indoors staring at screens.

Maybe people who aren’t poor travel to low-income settings searching for sensations of cultural authenticity that are no longer palpable in the places they themselves live. They seek neighborhoods where people still know each other, where local customs haven’t all been eradicated.

Or it could be that in an overworked, hyper-competitive city like Seoul, people are fascinated by people who appear free from the burdens of ambition, who have opted to remain out of the rat race and in their unglamorous setting, somehow managing to not be driven mad with wealth envy. Maybe they’re seeking the cliche of the happy poor, a triumphant human spirit that finds contentment amid material scarcity.

Regardless of intention, not everyone in Ikseon-dong appreciates these uninvited guests, or the changes they can affect on the neighborhood when they spread online. Ikseon-dong was the topic of a KBS documentary last April, which significantly boosted the neighborhood’s profile. After it aired, landlords raised rents to levels locals couldn’t afford, pushing many to move away seeking cheaper housing elsewhere.

Jeon Eun-joo, a researcher at Sungkyunkwan University’s Urban Architecture Lab, told OhMyNews that around 30 percent of the neighborhood’s residents have moved out over the past three years.

This phenomenon of recreational gawking at those less fortunate is by no means limited to Seoul. Fishbowling poor communities is now an actual industry. A traveler who wants more than a beach or conventional sightseeing can visit the ramshackle Mumbai neighborhoods that inspired the movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” the South African townships that saw the bloodiest uprisings during the Apartheid era, and the Brazilian favelas depicted in “City of God.”

I understand the allure. I grew up in a milk-toast middle class setting, on tree-lined streets in Toronto, and as soon as I began traveling abroad in my early twenties, was drawn to taking long, aimless walks around the poor neighborhoods in whatever city I was visiting.

Naturally, I wasn’t always welcome. I once wandered out of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, to a tent village on the city’s outskirts, a place where recently arrived migrants set up makeshift shelter. While walking along the rutted mud road that led into the village, a car pulled up next to me, and a man leaned out of the passenger-side window and tried to yank away my camera. I managed to keep it from him and scurry away.

Later that evening, when I told the story to a Mongolian interviewee, she explained that the man wasn’t a thief; she said local residents don’t appreciate photo-seeking tourists, and that he would have smashed my camera on the ground in front of me.

I maintained this fascination when I moved to South Korea to work as a journalist. More than once I went to Guryong Village, a shantytown within view of Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district. (Journalists like nothing better than a stark juxtaposition, two opposite ends of a spectrum somehow coexisting side by side.) I took long subway rides to the so-called “moon villages” (poor hillside neighborhoods) where an unimaginative writer like me can frame interviewees as living in poverty while gazing down upon wealth.

My normal approach to journalism is to get as close to the story as I can, to whenever possible, physically visit the place I’m writing about. Meet people face to face, exchange small talk, get a sense of the texture of their lives as individuals. This kind of immersion can infuse writing with power.

But when we go to a neighborhood, we change it, often in ways that aren’t beneficial to the people who live there. I came to feel that in showing up for one day to poke around, get quotes and take photos, I might be making the residents feel like objects and fueling a superficial fascination.

This might be the first story I’ve ever written where I deliberately defied that instinct to get close to the story. I didn’t want to be another camera wielding dork in Ikseon-dong. Though I have been there, and often spend time in areas nearby, after thinking about it for this essay, I don’t plan to wander through there any time soon. I think it is better to let the people who live there alone, to experience the place they live as a neighborhood, not a zoo.

Cover Image: “틈으로 보다.. 익선동에서.. #” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by yollstory.com

Comments

comments

  • Insoo Jeon

    Interesting! May I respectfully offer a brief critique of the aim of the website and the general thrust of the stories? You have named it ‘Korea Expose’. Yet your coverage is overwhelmingly only about Seoul. I understand that you and many others think that Seoul IS Korea, but in your heart of hearts, you know that’s not true. Your website very rarely covers Busan, Daegu, Daejeon, Gwangju, and so many other medium and small-sized communities. I completely understand that you do not have the resources to do so, and that you most likely would like to cover the entire country. However, wouldn’t it be better to reflect honestly and rename the website ‘Seoul Expose’? Your website is thought-provoking and has an academic feel that I like. I understand that the founder is academically trained, and it tends to reflect well on the website content and the careful, studious nature of the excellent stories. I know that you know that Korean Studies is also unapologetically and overwhelmingly Seoul-centric, and it is sometimes called to task for this. In my opinion, it is one of several fatal flaws of Korean Studies that prevents it from becoming a respected and respresentative field of area studies. Since the website is mostly about Seoul and has deep connections to academia, it would be a great gesture if you would seriously consider acknowledging the nature of your wonderful stories and think about changing the website name to Seoul Expose. Renewed thanks for all your diligent work and best of luck in the coming year. Looking forward to more great stories like this!

  • Robert

    I’m not sure if the place’s popularity on social media is necessarily because of “poverty porn.” Yes, it’s relatively poor – although given the rate of commercialization, I’m not sure how long that’s going to be true – but it’s also a remarkably beautiful neighborhood, not to mention home to an increasingly number of trendy cafes, bars, restaurants and shops. People photograph it because it’s old, not because it’s poor. And in a city where much of the city’s history has been bulldozed out of existence, what remains takes on a special meaning.

    For what it’s worth, I sympathize with what’s happening in Ikseon-dong. The neighborhood I’ve lived in for over the last 10 years, Gyeongnidan, has transformed beyond recognition over the last couple of years thanks to tourism, commercialization and gentrification (I’m one of the last guys living on my alley, and God knows when I’ll have to go). That said, I’m not sure there’s much anyone can do to stop it, either in Ikseon-dong or Seongsu-dong, Seochon, Euljiro, Sangsu-dong, Yeonnam-dong, Mangwon-dong or any other newly trendy neighborhood. The young creative types who were setting up shop in Ikseon-dong for that first piece were all well aware of what had happened in places like Hongdae and Garosu-gil and seemed determined to make sure it wouldn’t happen there, but as I was talking to them, all I could think was, “Good luck with that.” Young people with ideas and no money move to neighborhoods with low rents and do cool stuff. Other young people see the cool stuff and want to do cool stuff, too. And other people want to see the cool stuff and Instagram it. Neighborhood becomes hip and rents go up. Rinse, cycle and repeat.

    And frankly, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing – Ikseon-dong is not what it was five years ago, but at the same time, it’s become a very vibrant neighborhood with some interesting things going on. Ditto for Euljiro, Seongsu-dong, Yeonnam-dong and elsewhere. Cities change, neighborhoods change. It’s probably more important to find ways to soften the blow on locals – especially renters – when those changes inevitably happen.

    If you don’t mind me asking, Steven, why Ikseon-dong? As far as I know, the pain of gentrification hasn’t kept you away from my formerly working class, residential neighborhood, despite the fact that many of my neighbors – some of whom were elderly and/or on assistance – were forced to move their homes or businesses, either because of rising rents, or because the living environment had become unbearable, or because their customer base disappeared? I can assure you, Gyeongnidan has just as many people Instagraming shots of cafes, bars and gritty alleyways were people as Ikseon-dong.

  • Robert

    I should probably copy edit my comments before I post them 🙁

  • Glenn Sundeen

    I am sorry, but I am one of the “camera wielding dorks” you refer to. I also have the added insight in that 20 years ago I lived in Ikeon-dong, or in neighbouring Gwonnong-dong (across one street from Ikseon-dong). There is no doubt that these old and low-income neighbourhoods are changing, but I think you have directed your scorn onto the wrong people however. It’s developers who up the rents and drive the residents out. Photographers and other visitors arguable have saved some of these neighbourhoods from being bull-dozed for those high-rise complexes that have wiped out so much of traditional Seoul (i.e. several traditional neighbourhoods are now protected from the wrecking balls, albeit sometimes without their original residents like Bukcheon, but that is another matter.)

    Another point I disagree with you on is that residents of these types of neighbourhoods usually don’t want their environment documented because of the extreme stigma of being poor in this country. I have encountered this many times in Korea. People tell me to go elsewhere and take photos of “beautiful parts of Seoul” rather than their neighbourhood, not understanding that their neighbourhoods can hold great interest and beauty. I have visited similar neighbourhoods in places like Hanoi and Bangkok, however, where people felt less stigmatized. Of course if “hordes” of photographers are descending on anyone’s home, it can be intimidating, understandably leading locals to feel objectified, but photographers, like journalists, have the power to document, beautify, personalize and empower the residents of these low income neighbourhoods. If we didn’t, a significant portion of humanity would go unnoticed, misunderstood and ignored.

  • Sungsoo

    Interesting dialogue. Thanks for the post and replies.

  • Shannie

    Great piece. I enjoyed reading this.