Renovated hanok renews dying village

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Sitting on 2310 square meters (24860 inches) of land, Hwasuheon Cafe in Mungyeong, North Gyeongsang also accepts pets. [HAN EUN-HWA]

The population of Mungyeong in northern Gyeongsang is expected to reach zero over the next 29 years.

According to the Korea Employment Information Service’s Regional Extinction Risk Index, Mungyeong is the third most likely to disappear soon after Sangju, North Gyeongsang and Gimje, North Jeolla.

As rural populations continue to age with low birth rates and no influx of young people, 105 of Korea’s 228 municipalities are at risk of disappearing over the next three decades, or 42 percent of the total.

A ruined hanok

Last year, 80,000 tourists visited a cafe in Sanyang-myeon, the smallest town in Mungyeong, inhabited by 4,000 residents. The city’s total population is 71,000. The city has no other tourist attraction and is only a mountainous and sunny village of onion producers.

The sudden popularity of the city is due to the Hwasuheon Cafe which was a hanok (Korean traditional house) for over twenty years. A team of five young men and women transformed the house into a cafe and guesthouse in 2018. Although none of them have ever had experience running a cafe, the company is flourishing.

Hwasuheon has set up various photo spots to attract young visitors who like to take photos. [REPLACE]

Hwasuheon has set up various photo spots to attract young visitors who like to take photos. [REPLACE]

The JoongAng Ilbo, a branch of the Korea JoongAng Daily, visited Hwasuheon on April 22.

The cafe is located in Hyeon-ri, Sanyang-myeon and appears to be in the middle of nowhere, at the entrance to the village next to vast onion fields. The village of Hyeon-ri has 40 residents, but attracted tens of thousands of visitors last year despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

The village has always been a group of the Chae family. The hanok named Hwasuheon was built 230 years ago in 1790, but when people started to leave the village, it was neglected. Even though a guard would stop every now and then, the empty hanok eventually began to crumble.

The large abandoned hanok just outside the village quickly became a local nuisance. A building materials dealer offered to buy the house and demolish it, but the townspeople wanted to keep the hanok and decided to call on the town for help.

Hwasuheon is surrounded by old houses and onion fields.  The village is one of the most rural areas in Mungyeong. [MUNGYEONG CITY]

Hwasuheon is surrounded by old houses and onion fields. The village is one of the most rural areas in Mungyeong. [MUNGYEONG CITY]

Director Um Won-sik of the Mungyeong City Culture and Arts Department answered the call. He is originally from Sanyang-myeon and already had an interest in Hyeon-ri.

“Hyeon-ri has many old houses that show Mungyeong’s identity,” Um said. “I was considering designating it as a historic village one day.” For Um, a man’s abandoned hanok was a treasure that embodies the identity of the region.

“When people leave and houses collapse, history goes with it,” Um said. “Compared to other countries, Korea lacks storytelling. Old spaces are crucial in keeping the stories of the region alive.

Mayor Ko Yun-hwan of Mungyeong also agreed on the importance of the hanok, and the city bought and renovated it.

Hwasuheon before renovation, neglected for two decades. [MUNGYEONG CITY]

Hwasuheon before renovation, neglected for two decades. [MUNGYEONG CITY]

The question that remained was what to do with it. In 2017, the city actively sought out young talent who could make the most of the hanok.

Do Won-woo, 29, and Kim Yi-rin, 31, are a married couple and members of Replace, the team that turned Hwasuheon into a cafe. Do was born in Daegu and previously worked as an insurance salesperson. Kim was born in Busan and worked in an IT company in Tokyo, Japan.

“I was good at my job, but I got burnt out in my fifth year,” Do said. “I wasn’t sure I could do it when I was old. ”

Do and Kim met in college and got engaged as they searched for something to do and a place to settle down after the wedding.

From not so hot to hot

Hwasuheon's left building has been extensively repaired, but the right building has retained much of its original form. [REPLACE]

Hwasuheon’s left building has been extensively repaired, but the right building has retained much of its original form. [REPLACE]

It was then that the couple heard about North Gyeongsang’s’ Youth U-Turn Jobs Project ‘, now called the’ City Youths’ Countryside Dispatch System ‘(translated), which aims to save nearly extinct municipalities from the city. province. The project pays a team of young people, aged 15 to 39, 30 million won ($ 26,900) per person per year for up to two years, to settle in northern Gyeongsang and open a business. .

Do and Kim combined their knowledge to form the five-member Replace team and joined the project.

They were able to settle anywhere as long as it was in northern Gyeongsang. The team searched the entire province for six months. Due to a limited budget, the team mainly searched for abandoned schools, train stations and houses and eventually encountered Hwasuheon in Mungyeong.

“Unlike most other cities hostile to foreigners, the head of Hyeon-ri Village and Mungyeong Town was ready to actively help us,” Do said. “So we settled down here.”

Despite the fact that there was no surrounding shopping district, the group decided to target potential young visitors and promote the hanok on social media.

Seats outside the cafe [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Seats outside the cafe [SCREEN CAPTURE]

They wanted to open a cafe, but none of the team had relevant experience. Although the city renovated Hwasuheon, it was not suitable for use as a cafe. So Do started visiting land use planning experts and franchise cafe owners. Whenever Do was rejected, he would simply visit the next person and continue to learn how to strategically place props and decorate the space.

The team put together the food and drink menus themselves, using local produce and telling the story of the region: eight types of grain from the Mungyeong region are powdered and made into a drink while omija (magnolia berry) ade is made with nearby Dongno-myeon omija. These are common ingredients, but reinvented with a touch of youth.

Ade with plums and plum tea [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Ade with plums and plum tea [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Mugwort Iced Latte [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Mugwort Iced Latte [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Hanok coffee gradually gained recognition through word of mouth. On average, 50 to 100 visitors stop there on weekdays and up to 800 on weekends. Over 30% of visitors come from Seoul and Gyeonggi areas.

Hwasuheon has added eight employees since opening; two from Seoul and six from Mungyeong.

“I was wondering if it was worth living in Seoul,” said Lee Seung-hwan, one of the additional employees. “I wanted to try to work in the provinces, so I came here.

The team also added more facilities. They turned an old brewery in Sanyang-myeon into a bakery and cultural complex, and a 1940s Japanese-style house into a photography studio. All of these spaces were previously neglected.

SOS of the communes

Seats outside the cafe [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Seats outside the cafe [SCREEN CAPTURE]

As the Replace team moved to Mungyeong, Lee Woong-hee, CEO of hosting startup H2O Hospitality, received many requests for help from Korean municipalities.

Lee had developed a platform that automates and enables unmanned hotel operations using information and communications technology, dramatically reducing fixed costs. He was put in charge of managing the Lifull Stay hotel chain of the Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten – a total of 3,800 rooms – some of which were old abandoned houses that Lee renovated into hotels.

“Some [Korean] municipalities created hanok villages for tourism which ended up being neglected, and old houses became a problem as provincial towns disappeared, ”said Lee.

“There were a lot of requests, but I hesitated to take on the task because I didn’t feel ready.

Mugwort latte [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Mugwort latte [SCREEN CAPTURE]

That was until he met Replace. Lee and Replace will join forces to revive neglected houses and Hanok villages, as well as add an element of storytelling, with the help of technology. They are currently planning new projects in other parts of northern Gyeongsang.

“There is an endless amount of content material in the provinces,” Lee said. “If we find out and refine these stories, I’m sure the younger generation will respond.

“The problem of ‘spaces left behind’ in the provinces is very serious. They are not even empty houses anymore, they are whole empty villages, ”said Um, who first recognized Hwasuheon’s potential.

“I think we need to rekindle the spaces that are needed to maintain the structure of a village, continue to tell stories and maintain cultural identities,” he said. “So maybe regions that are almost extinct can find a breakthrough. ”

BY HAN EUN-HWA [kjdculture@joongang.co.kr]

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