I’d always known that Mokpo was a must-visit city for any self-respecting fan of early modern and colonial architecture, but I had no idea just how rich Mokpo’s modern cultural heritage was until today. I’m not sure if Mokpo’s tourism promotion officials would describe it as such, but the city is essentially one big museum to the Japanese colonial era. I don’t think even Gunsan has as much to see.
NOTE: Don’t forget to check out the Flickr slideshow for full-size photos.
Mokpo, like Chemulpo and Gunsan, was an open port, opening for trade on Oct 1, 1897. The Japanese, with considerable interests in the Jeolla provinces, were keen to develop Mokpo into a major regional port, and so they did, investing heavily in the city’s harbor and transportation infrastructure. Under the Japanese, Mokpo became one of Korea’s largest cities; it would remain so until the 1970s.
Former Mokpo Branch of Honam Bank
The fun starts with the former Mokpo branch of Honam Bank. This imposing red-tile structure was built in 1929, and is pretty typical of bank buildings of the period. Coincidentally, this was not a Japanese bBank — the Honam Bank was founded in 1920 by Korean businessman Hyeon Jun-ho. Granted, Hyeon was a landowning Jeollado colaborator who managed to escape punishment by the Special Investigative Committee on Anti-Korean Activities only to be shot by the North Koreans during the Korean War, but still, the founding of Honam Bank marked a milestone in the development of Korean capitalism. Minjok Jabon, Mansei!
Kim Young Ja Art Hall
Not far from the Former Mokpo Branch of Honam Bank is the Art Deco-esque Kim Young Ja Art Hall, formerly an office of Daehan Transportation and before that God knows what. I absolutely love this building, which isn’t a registered cultural property, but probably should be.
It’s unknown when this home was built and for whom, but what is known is that it’s one of the best examples of Japanese residential architecture in Mokpo. From 1970 until recently, it was used as a yeoinsuk inn, but now it’s in something of a transition. The guy who lives next door showed me around and explained about the place — Japanese architecture professors occasionally stop by look at it.
Old Japanese District
Mokpo, like Incheon, was divided up into foreign concessions. Granted, these concessions were abolished after Japan annexed Korea so you can find Japanese-style buildings all over the city, but the highest concentration of them are in the old Japanese concession around the former Japanese consulate and former Mokpo branch of the Oriental Development Company (see below).
Take time to wonder through the alleys here — you’ll find some remarkable examples of colonial architecture. Most of the photos above were taken in the neighborhood, although a few are from other areas such as the waterfront.
Old Japanese Church (?)
Today was especially cool since I spent much of it wandering around with a Japanese guy (a Korean lecturer at a university in Daejeon, and a really nice fellow) who, like yours truly, has a keen interest in early modern/colonial history and was in Mokpo to take in the historic sites. He said the sign above the door of this funky little building in the old Japanese district says it was a Christian church for Japanese. I guess this wouldn’t be completely unusual, since Daegu has an Anglican church that was built for Japanese settlers, but it doesn’t look like much of a church, does it?
Mokpo Ferry Terminal
OK, this has nothing to do with colonial history. It is, however, the biggest damn ferry terminal I’ve ever seen, and bustling with vacationers heading to Jeju Island.
Mokpo Central Church (Formerly Higashi Hongan-ji Temple)
The big cross above the entrance not withstanding, this doesn’t look like much of a church, either Mokpo Central Church may now be a Presbyterian house of worship, but as you can probably surmise from its appearance, it wasn’t always. The stone and wood structure, constructed in Japanese traditional style, was built in the early 1930s as Higashi Hongan-ji Temple, Mokpo’s first Japanese Buddhist temple. It is only one of two Japanese Buddhist temples that remain in Korea, the other being Gunsan’s exquisite Dongguksa Temple (which, unlike this one, is still used as a Buddhist temple).
The building has been used as a church since the 1950s, and played a role in the anti-Yusin movement of the 1970s, but controversy always seems to surround it. For some people, it couldn’t get pulled down fast enough. Even today, when mentioning I was visiting the place, I was told by two people it would soon be pulled down to build a parking lot. I’m happy to report, however, that won’t happen. A church official I spoke with said the church — now a protected cultural property — was quite safe, and at any rate, few people call for its destruction anymore. In fact, it’s become something of a tourism resource, which people coming from all over to check out the funny little church that looks like a Japanese Buddhist temple. He did note, however, that the church would move to a new building, while the old church would find some new use (possibly as a museum).
Frankly, most of the old Protestant churches I’ve visited have been disappointing since they often renovate their interiors. Step inside an old Catholic church, and it feels old. Step inside an old Protestant church, and often that’s not the case. Mokpo Central Church, however, feels old, and has an appropriately musky smell to it. I’m told visitors seem to like it, too.
Former Mokpo Branch of Oriental Development Company
This monster of a Renaissance-style building used to house the Mokpo branch of the Oriental Development Company, Japan’s answer to the British East India Company. The Oriental Development Company’s major concerns, however, were land (ahem) acquisition and subsidizing Japanese settlement of Korea. Only three former Oriental Development Company offices still exist in Korea (in Mokpo, Busan and Daejeon), and the Mokpo one is the largest. The current structure dates from 1923.
The imposing building is designated Jeollanam-do Historical Monument No. 174, and has been since 1999, yet not even this prevented the building from suffering near destruction when its previous negligent owner, the ROK Navy, began dismantling it due to fears it migth collapse. Cooler heads prevailed, and today, this symbol of Japanese colonial exploitation houses Mokpo Modern History Museum. The museum is worth seeing for its delightful collection of colonial-era photos of Mokpo. Not that you need to see the photos, really — this area of Mokpo has changed surprisingly little since then.
The museum is where I met the afore mentioned Japanese lecturer of Korean, BTW.
House Full of Happiness Cafe (Former Residence of Oriental Development Company Mokpo Director)
Right across from Mokpo Modern History Museum is a wonderful cafe called House Full of Happiness, which I read about in the papers last year. Its owner, a local interior designer, renovated one of Mokpo’s finest colonial homes — the beautiful former residence of the Mokpo director of the Oriental Development Company — for use as a cafe/wine bar. The results are stunning — this is what Incheon should have done with the old Chemulpo Club. It’s a great place to relax a bit before continuing your exploration of the city. The interior does a good job of utilizing the home’s exotic charm, and balconies on the first and second floor allow you to sip your beer while appreciating the cafe’s Japanese garden.
Give ‘em a call at 061-247-5887.
Former Simsang Public Elementary School
Also well visible from Mokpo Modern History Museum is former Simsang Public Elementary School, now a science lab for Yudal Elementary School. Built in 1910, this is where local Japanese sent their kids to study. It’s a massive building with a pretty cool roof.
Lee Hun-dong Garden
A short walk from Yudal Elementary School up the lower slopes of Mt. Yudal brings you to a real gem, the Lee Hun-dong Garden. The garden was created by a local Japanese in the 1930s, but after Liberation, it was purchased by lawmaker Park Gi-bae, and later still by Lee Hun-dong. If you like Japanese gardens, this is probably the best one in Korea, and is certainly quite charming. It’s divided into three sections, so be sure to explore it all. The garden has 113 species of plants from Korea, Japan, China and elsewhere.
A note of caution, however — it’s normally closed on weekends.
Former Mokpo City Library
Mokpo’s most famous historical landmark is former Mokpo City Library, which was built in 1900 as the Japanese consulate. Overlooking the old Japanese concession, it’s a beautifully ornate Renaissance-style red-brick building with some Japanese motifs thrown in for good measure. Inside, it has photos and other materials on Mokpo culture, although here, I’m only retelling what I’ve heard — it’s closed on weekends.
After Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, the consulate was turned into Mokpo’s town hall (just as was the case of Incheon), a role it would play in the post-Liberation era, too. Later, it was used as a library, and is now Mokpo Culture Hall.
Even without going inside to check out its nine fireplaces, it’s nice just to walk around the building to take in its refined charms. In back is a solid granite building that was believed to be a document archive and an air defense cave dug with Korean labor during World War II to provide a place of refuge in the event of an American bombing. There’s also the site of a Japanese shrine that has since been removed.
Old Missionary Residence, Jeongmyeong Girls High School
The Japanese weren’t the only foreigners in Mokpo — it had Western concessions, too, and it was a major base for American Christian missionaries. Jeongmyeong Girls High School in Yang-dong was founded in 1909 by missionaries of the US Southern Presbyterian Mission. The former missionaries residence you see above dates from 1912, and is one two stone buildings on the campus.
Yangdong Presbyterian Church
A short walk from the school takes you to Yangdong Presbyterian Church, built in 1910. The church itself was founded in 1897 by American Presbyterian missionaries Eugene Bell and William D. Reynolds. Yes, that Eugene Bell. As the first Christian church in Mokpo, its establishment was an important moment in regional history and culture.
You’ll notice that a number of the buildings photographed above, including Yangdong Presbyterian Church and the missionaries residence, were made of granite rather than brick. This is thanks to Mokpo’s plentiful supply of granite rock — even Mt. Yudalsan is quite craggy.