Incheon: Past, Present, and Future

Incheon is an industrial port city located on the west coast of Korea, best known for it’s airport, which is the main gateway in and out of South Korea. Incheon International Airport, located on an island off the Incheon mainland, is world-renowned, recently rated the world’s best airport for the 10th year in a row.

Incheon actually has an interesting history beyond it’s recently built airport (which opened in 2001). Even more recently, in 2003, some of it’s land was used to build a “city of the future,” which hasn’t quite materialized yet.

I was inspired by this blog post to day trip to Incheon and visit some of the remaining buildings from the city’s colonial and international past. In 1876, Japan invaded Korea and pretty much forced them to sign the Treaty of Ganghwa, which opened up Incheon and other cities as trading ports. In addition to Japanese settlements, Incheon also had a large community of Chinese and Westerners.

In the 1880s, Incheon acquired a large Qing Chinese settlement, as thousands of Chinese migrated to work as traders and shopkeepers. However, strained relations with the Chinese starting in the 1930’s caused the community to shrink, and then in the 1960’s when South Korean president/military dictator Park Chung-hee restricted the property rights of Chinese in Korea. Today, Incheon’s Chinatown still exists as the country’s only official Chinatown, but very few residents are actually Chinese.

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Incheon’s Chinatown gate, which is right outside of Incheon station.

Incheon’s Chinatown is pretty small and perhaps only a shadow of what it once was, but it’s a lively place on a Saturday afternoon and has plenty of snacks and cheap trinket shops. I had planned to eat a jajangmyeon lunch here (Korean version of the zhajiangmian Chinese dish) but ended up getting into Seoul later than expected so I ate lunch there and only grabbed snacks in Chinatown. Most of the restaurants in Chinatown seemed to serve Korean-Chinese food, so I’m not sure it’s the best place to go for authentic Chinese. I did like the pumpkin mooncake and spicy lamb skewer I got there though.

I went to the information center and got a map of the Jung-gu district. It has the locations of the various colonial buildings in the area. My path for the day was to start at Chinatown, then go up the hill to see Jayu Park, then make my way down to view the colonial buildings.

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The restaurant where jajangmyeon was invented. The owner left years ago but it is now a museum.
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Reconstructions of Chinese style shops.
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There’s a few shops selling this hollow Chinese bread, but I didn’t try any since the lines were long.
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There’s a lot of murals depicting Chinese history and landmarks, and plenty of children enjoying themselves on the weekend.

Not far from Chinatown is Jayu Park, at the top of a short mountain that isn’t too difficult to climb, though tiring. Jayu means “freedom” and it’s Korea’s first Western style park.

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At the top, there’s the Korea-USA Centennial Monument, celebrating 100 years of Korea-USA relations, which began in 1882 when the U.S. signed a commerce treaty with Joseon Korea. There’s also a good view of the port from the monument.

From here, it’s a short walk to the statue of General MacArthur.

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MacArthur’s plan to take back the capital Seoul from North Korea through Incheon was a major turning point for the United Nations, who were losing to the Communist forces up until then. After this battle, the UN had a string of victories and almost took the entire Korean peninsula until the Chinese intervened and won back the North. The statue of the general was established in 1957 to celebrate his victory in Incheon.

Near the MacArthur statue, I followed this sign to get to the Jemulpo Club, a former social club for Incheon’s international community of Chinese, Japanese, Americans, British, Germans, and Russians. It was designed by a Russian architect in 1901.

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Right across from the club is the History Archive of Incheon, located in a pretty hanok. I didn’t go in though, I think it may have been closed when I was there.

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There’s plenty of signs in the area directing to the various colonial buildings — there’s an Anglican church in this area as well, but I didn’t visit it cause I was too lazy to walk there. From here I kept walking downhill.

I came to the main street of the former Japanese settlement, which is mostly reconstructed buildings with obviously fake exteriors.

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Former city hall, built by the Japanese during colonialism.

The church is original I think. The building on the right is also original, a former Japanese office, now used as a cafe.

Near the Japanese settlement are these stairs, separating the Qing and Japanese settlements by using Chinese stone lanterns on the left and Japanese style on the right. Up the stairs, there’s an old Chinese house in view on the Chinese side and Japanese style buildings on the other side.

 

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Statue of Confucius at the top.

Next to the Chinese side of the steps is this old Chinese house, built either in 1925 (according to this guy’s Flickr page, or in 1939 or 1947 according to Robert Koehler’s blog, linked above. So I have no idea. But it’s a nice building, nonetheless.

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From there, I walked down toward the port and a few old bank buildings.

Walking down further, is an old Japanese warehouse, now used as a cultural center.

After that, I was back in Chinatown, near a sign with a big bowl of jajangmyeon on it.

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I walked to Incheon station and went one stop away on the subway to Dongincheon, where it’s about a 15 minute walk to Dapdong Cathedral, founded by French missionaries and designed by the same priest that designed Myeongdong Cathedral. It was originally built in 1897 but the current church dates to 1937.

I had planned to make my way to the colonial Incheon Post Office, but it was getting dark by then so I decided to give it a miss. It seemed a little out of the way from Chinatown on the map.

Okay, so now I’ve covered the present and past. But what about the future?

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Only 15 years ago, Songdo International Business District was just a few marshes. Today, it’s supposedly a “City of the Future.” It has a waste disposal system using pipes that suck the trash into the underground where it’s sorted into recyclables or just burned. It has a slick Central Park with some modern futuristic architecture.

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As it’s a new city, Songdo doesn’t yet have the population numbers it’s aiming for, and it isn’t expected to be fully finished until 2018. Before I visited, I heard it was completely empty, but it actually had a few people walking around when I was there, and I went on Lunar New Year’s Day, one of the quietest days in Korea. On a regular day, it would probably  have more people, so I don’t think it’s necessarily a ghost town anymore, but probably not bustling with activity either (I haven’t been back since).

Behind Central Park, there’s a canal mall with a lot of stores and restaurants, which were mostly all closed when I went cause of the holiday. The park is nice, with a lot of pedestrian bridges and cool buildings, but probably not a whole lot to do. However, it provides a contrast from the old style colonial buildings in the Jung-gu district, and perhaps represents the future aspirations of the people and government of Incheon.

I’m not sure what’s really in store for Songdo, maybe it’ll live up to it’s aims to become a futuristic and prosperous business city or it’ll remain a relatively quiet place with some cool buildings. It’s a bit more out of the way from Seoul, to get there take Line 1 bound for Incheon then get off at Bupyeong, change to the Incheon 1 line and get off at Central Park station. It’s about a 15 minute ride from Incheon Airport.

For more information on colonial buildings in Korea, this blog is really interesting and worth a look. The writer provides the history of the buildings and a map showing their locations. If you live in Korea and want to check out colonial and early modern architecture in or near your city/town then it’s a great resource. The blog owner’s Flickr page is also linked above.

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2 thoughts on “Incheon: Past, Present, and Future

  1. Thanks for writing about Korea’s early modern history and referencing my blog! These old buildings need as much public awareness as they can get because the unprotected ones are still getting torn down. I’m happy to see that Bank No. 58 is getting some work done, too.

    Regarding the construction date of that Chinese house, the Division of Tourism Promotion of the Jung-gu Office sponsored a guide book (in English, too!) that states it was “built by the Chinese in 1925 and is currently used by a Chinese for business and residential purposes.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t say anything else about its history – and it may have just been a generic row house anyway. Regardless, it is unique to Korea and, at this point, incredibly rare. Cheers~~

    Like

    1. Hey, thanks for the comment and information about the row house. I agree it’s unfortunate so many early modern buildings are getting torn down or just aren’t maintained. I’m also glad that Incheon at least is preserving them. Thanks again~

      Liked by 1 person

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