Listening to Women’s Voices at the Euljiro Redevelopment Sites

Interview with the ‘Euljiro Area-wide Women’s Union’ Fighting to Preserve Euljiro

Park Ju-yeon 2021-01-20

“There is a women’s history at Euljiro, too; it’s just that their presence hasn’t come into view. We want to record their history before these traces disappear.” (Euljiro Area-wide Women’s Union)


Stretching from Chungmuro to the Euljiro 3-ga subway station, the alleyways of the Sinseong, Sampung, Cheonggye, and Sewoon Sangga (shopping arcades) teem with shops selling hardware, metal parts, lighting, tiles, and wallpaper, among other products. This is Euljiro, known as the mecca of the Korean manufacturing industry. What first came to mind when I thought of this neighborhood were echoes ringing out from heavy machinery, the men who operate them in workwear, and dim spaces where dirt and metal dust have settled in layers.


Since the oldest alleys in the area date back 50 years, and the newest have been in place for at least a decade, the Euljiro area consists of weathered, shabby streets. Signboards from the 1960s and 70s like those seen in period TV shows or movies evoke a sense of déjà vu; passing through narrow pathways, one encounters not-quite-tidy piles of objects, and machines covered with dust. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call the neighborhood “grimy”. This area has been long considered a candidate site for redevelopment, and the Sewoon Renewal Promotion Project, launched by the Seoul metropolitan government in 2014, is a precursor to the demolition that has now also begun.


▲ Drag king performer Azangman and artist Moon Sanghoon of the Euljiro Area-wide Women’s Union (Vest lettering says “Defend the Right to Survive”.)  ©ILDA

However, voices that argue the area should not be razed are growing louder. Many of those speaking up for the preservation of Euljiro and its history have been working and living in the area for years, but they are not alone. Many young artists and—though Euljiro is often perceived as a masculine space—young women who want to protect the area are speaking up as well. I met with the Euljiro Area-wide Women’s Union to listen to their stories about acting in solidarity for the preservation of the neighborhood.


Redevelopment Under Reconsideration, But Demolition “Still Ongoing”


“The name we came up with initially was ‘the Euljiro Area-wide Violent Protesters,’” says artist Moon Sanghoon, one of the founders of the Euljiro Area-wide Women’s Union, with a laugh. Moon and drag king performer Azangman began their activist efforts by launching a Twitter account under their current organization name, which contains a more gendered nuance. But the group’s initial idea of calling themselves “violent protesters” illustrates how deeply affected they felt by the prospect of redevelopment.


Though the mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, announced that the city government would reevaluate proceeding with the project due to intensifying opposition, the reality at Euljiro is that “demolition is still ongoing” and “destruction continues, whether it’s day or night”. Even now, “renters who have called Euljiro home for decades are being evicted,” say the Union founders, expressing their frustration.


▲ A demolition site.  ©ILDA

Moon and Azangman also say that they “cannot comprehend” the city’s plans to construct a high-rise residential complex in Euljiro once the area has been demolished. Moon explains, “Since it will be a multipurpose building which isn’t entirely residential, there will be some shops included in the facilities. But stores in the hardware section require use of machinery that produces a lot of noise, and need a very firm foundation to operate hefty machines made of heavy metals. They cannot be relocated to a multipurpose building like the one that will be built.”


Store owners who run such shops face a choice between going through the arduous process of finding a new location, or shutting down their business. Mikwangchil, one of the few women-owned shops in Euljiro, had to close due to the effects of redevelopment.


Even if there are payouts for relocation or business losses, there are additional reasons that make relocation difficult. Currently, Euljiro is an ecosystem in which the work of one store owner is closely linked to others’, so continuing business outside of this space is nearly impossible. This is why some have ultimately chosen to shut down their businesses. The young artists watching shopkeepers make such difficult decisions cannot help feeling heartbroken.


A Space to Collaborate with Master Artisans—What Euljiro Means to Young Artists


There isn’t a grand reason why young artists have gathered in this old and shabby area that has long been targeted for redevelopment. Because the area is old-fashioned, rent is cheap; this was reason enough for young people with little financial resources to settle down here. But a more important reason is that Euljiro is full of master artisans. For artists envisioning and creating new projects, there is no better place to be.


Moon, whose studio is near Jinyang Sangga in Chungmuro, spoke about Euljiro’s importance to her as an artist. “I’m happy to live in Seoul because Euljiro exists. Euljiro is why I live in Seoul. I don’t know what I’ll do if it disappears.” Euljiro is quite literally a lifeline to Moon as an artist.


“For artists and art students, Euljiro is a treasured place. You might have an idea for a piece but struggle with bringing it to life, but when you come to Euljiro, there are master artisans with diverse skills and years of experience who will listen to your dilemma and give you suggestions.” One can acquire skills in Euljiro that aren’t even taught in schools.


▲ Despite a sign that says “Venture the streets of Euljiro”, demolitions continue at full force.  ©ILDA

The Seoul Metropolitan Government and Jung-gu District Office also provided support for young artists to gather in Euljiro. The Sewoon Again Project and the Jung-gu Renaissance Project were launched as attempts to create spaces for manufacturing industry workers and young artists to meet and collaborate. But the young artists who gathered in Euljiro on this promise are now witnessing the demolition of countless shops and the exodus of artisans who were their (potential) collaborators. Even if a sleek multipurpose building is constructed in their place, the space will no longer be useful for young artists.


 “I cannot believe the way that Korean society perceives and treats master artisans,” says Azangman, a drag king performer who studied art in the UK. She added, “In the UK, art colleges would hire artisans, pay for their work and lodgings to have them educate the students and pass on their technical skills. This is how highly their skills are valued. In addition, the artisans’ techniques are considered trade secrets, so students must sign a contract to learn about them, and even then the core techniques are not included in the class. But at Euljiro, an artist can work with the artisan and study their techniques by observing them as they work.”


“A space like this is incredibly rare. If this neighborhood disappears, the artisans will not know how and where to pass on their skills, and the artists will be unable to receive that education. We won’t be able to find each other.”


Women’s Voices Also Exist at Euljiro


This is not to say that Euljiro is always friendly toward young artists who are women. Since long ago, many spaces in Euljiro have centered men. Some artists recount unpleasant conversations they’ve had in the area with middle-aged men. Perhaps the presence of women has been erased from the history of Euljiro in the name of tradition. But especially for these reasons, the Euljiro Area-wide Women’s Union states that it is important to “speak out as women”.


The organization’s Twitter profile reads as follows: “Let’s protect Euljiro, the sand castle that women’s labor built; Union of Feminists for the Protection of Euljiro; Euljiro Women Artists’ Union; Euljiro Women Artisans’ Union; Euljiro Union of Feminist Queers”. Naming feminists, women artists, women artisans, and queers one by one, the Union recognizes these groups’ presence in Euljiro and emphasizes the importance of their voices.


“Images of men may come to mind when thinking about Euljiro or the redevelopment issue, but there are women’s voices here too. It saddened me to think that their voices were going unheard,” says Moon. “I wanted to talk about how this space wasn’t solely created through men’s power (labor).”


▲ Signs that are clearly decades old attest to Euljiro’s long history.   ©ILDA

Even if the typical skilled artisan at Euljiro is a man, the ones who feed him and make it possible for him to go to work, or the ones who manage day-to-day operations are probably women. Yet the value of women’s labor is too easily overlooked. It would be a great loss if Euljiro were to disappear with only the voices of men passed on to posterity, while women’s work remained hidden without having once received proper recognition. This is why Moon and Azangman began to participate in solidarity efforts to preserve Euljiro—they felt it was essential to record women’s voices.


It’s intriguing that there are a lot of women amongst those fighting to preserve Euljiro, including activist Park Eun-seon, who is the activist at the forefront of the Union for the Preservation of Cheonggyecheon-Euljiro. This is rare in activist movements against redevelopment, which are often known to be aggressive environments. Why is this the case? The context is that there are a lot of women artists who found studio space in the “old and cheap” Euljiro neighborhood. Speaking of the relationship between Euljiro and economically disadvantaged young women artists, Moon says, “I don’t know all the artists who work here, so these are not exact statistics, but I believe about 60 to 70% of the artists working here are women.” In other words, Euljiro is a women’s space, too.


Who Was Displaced, Who Has Disappeared


The Euljiro Area-wide Women’s Union states that it doesn’t oppose redevelopment entirely. But redevelopment as it is currently taking place has been proceeding without any discussion about historical preservation—which, the organization argues, is an essential conversation.


In response to a question about what she hopes more people will pay attention to, Moon made a suggestion from an activist viewpoint: “Rather than simply understanding redevelopment as an attempt to renew an old area, we should look at the bigger picture and think about why this country or the metropolitan government has a stake in this kind of construction project.” Azangman said, “I would like to produce a video that illuminates the work of women, which has been obscured behind the work of male artisans,” expressing an artist’s considerations on what should be recorded and archived.


The day after the interview, I took a walk around the Euljiro area. It was my first time venturing into the neighborhood’s numerous alleys. As I passed by a demolition site imagining what it’d be like to see a new building there, an excerpt from Rebecca Solnit’s Call Them by Their True Names came to mind. It is a quote from a start-up founder about an old neighborhood and the homeless population.


“I know people are frustrated about gentrification happening in the city, but the reality is, we live in a free market society. The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city.”


Euljiro is an old neighborhood in the center of the city. People know that when this space has been razed, a huge, glamorous new building will take its place. And someone will be able to occupy that new space. This person may be a "wealthy worker". Thus far in Korean society, it has not mattered who disappeared or was displaced in the process of gentrification. But now, women who want to pursue answers to these questions have started to raise their voices.


By Park Ju-yeon

Published January 31, 2019

Translated by Moon Hoyoung


*Original article:


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