Pop concerts, oppa, cosmetics, bingsu and topokki. Name me the list of things you love about Korea and it is probably going to fill beyond an A4 paper. I know that from the numerous requests I have with my return luggage space – yes you are basically a human carrier the moment you tell people that you are going to Korea.
Today’s story is not about any of the above – because I literally had none of it. Arriving in Seoul on my hiking attire at 6am, I headed straight to Dobongsan with an army of geared-up grandpas amidst the heavy rain.
The foggy view from Dobongsan gives me a good glimpse of the Seoul Metropolitan Area. It houses around 25 million people, this ever increasing number is a combined result of planned urban expansion and economic migration. Tens of thousands of Koreans flood to Seoul every year seeking for job and study opportunities – many of whom are youths with difficulty finding a long-term secured housing. Apartments in Seoul are notoriously expensive and often designed as shoebox studios, making it hard for migrants to share a place together. Out of self-mockery, the migrants developed its own terminologies to describe the situations they area in – the ‘Min Snails’ are the ones with unstable residences, the ‘grasshoppers’ who move in search for cheaper alternatives on a frequent basis and the ‘marathoners’ staying far from city and commutes on average 3 hours a day to Seoul.
Part of my trip to Seoul this time round is to understand how the society has developed an innovative mechanism to help address the issue. Even without the HDB system and intervention from the political realm, it seems like the economy has been able to find its own way in solving social issues. I visited the ‘Min Snails Housing Co-operative’, a co-operative established in 2014 by a group of students motivated by the desire to source and provide alternative housings for youths strapped of cash and stripped of dignity. The cooperative rents large apartments and houses under long-term rental agreements with a fund pooled together by cooperative members and funding from the city government, and sublet individual rooms to its cooperative members at an affordable price. On average, rental under the cooperative is only 50 to 80 percent of the market rate.
Taking full advantage of the large co-living space in the large apartments, the cooperative encourages various social activities among its members. Shared libraries and communal dining area are set-up under full acknowledgement and support of the tenants, and the use of these common spaces are governed by a mutual agreement drafted and led by the occupants themselves. The full ownership of the space transforms the rented apartments from simply houses to warm-hearted homes for the people away from their families. Far away from Seoul is where the youth’s families are – probably with a mixed feeling, hoping that they would earn a good living in the capital yet partially saddened by the separation at the same time. The economic inequality across different regions in South Korea has caused much impact in the everyday lives of its citizens – while the dwellers in Seoul are desperately searching for a place to stay, the roamers in the countryside are looking for jobs on the vast land in the mountains.
A 4.5hours bus ride away from Seoul is Gurye, a small, picturesque farming town with a population less than 30 thousand. I will not forget that sparkles of luxuriant vegetation when the beaming rays cast on them. Thanks to its quaint country sights, its economy has been well-sustained and supported by Korean travellers seeking for a break from the city. Yet, the town continues to face a population drain as more and more of the youths move to nearby metropolitan city Gwangju opting for an urban lifestyle. Gurye is not the first town and definitely not the last one in such dreadful situation. Thousands of towns in Korea are threatened by a dwindling population and economy, and the call for community rejuvenation is compelling.
To better support local economy and community, iCOOP, Korea’s consumer co-operative group, opened Gurye National Dream Park as an eco-friendly organic food cluster with a full-fledged production line of ramen, flour, dumplings, oil and snacks. Raw materials used in the production are sourced locally in small-scale farms to guarantee a reasonable income for rural producers. The production process also provides more than 300 employment opportunities in the park. Beyond direct benefits to Gurye residents, the industrial complex is also envisioned to function as a theme park to promote ethical consumerism to Koreans and foreign travellers.
Tapping onto Gurye’s blossoming tourism industry, the National Dream Park offers a unique experience for visitors who wish to learn more about food production and processing. Staring through the glass wall, food is more than just delicacies that we enjoy during meal times. They embody a year’s harvest, hours of work along the production line as well as numerous testing and tasting in labs. They feed us, and they feed possibly thousands and thousands of families in rural Gurye.
I had the honour of joining GSEF Global Youth Camp as a representative of Singapore National Cooperative Federation and NTUC First Campus Cooperative. As a spokesperson of Singapore’s Cooperative Movement, the camp presents an excellent platform for networking and sharing with 100 other participants from 26 countries across 4 continents.
The Global Youth Camp spans across 4 days and is fully packed with learning visits, plenary talks and breakout sessions. The structure of the camp has been designed in a progressive manner to facilitate in-depth discussions based on a theme of participants’ choice. Ideally, the participant will follow through the same theme for a full-fledged learning experience.
From the plenary session, it is evident that there is a global effort to transform the current economic system to a social economy – where production and consumption are ethical and fair. The new social economy that we are looking for promotes common values and places people before profits. With a humanitarian approach, social economy could potential engine social innovation and supports social development.
A breakout session was held with 30 participants on the discussion of community building and engagement. We attempted to unpack “local community”, examine its elements and explore the relationship between the community and its people.
Comfortably seated back home in my HDB flat with a bowl of ramen, my thoughts travel far and wild. We travel far to look for a simple and rustic lifestyle, yet we live in disparagement and often take the privilege that we have been entitled at home as granted. If home is a place where we find comfort and seek shelter in, how do we then move beyond the four walls and create a communitarian living in a racially and culturally viable HDB estate? And for that bowl of ramen that I am staring at right now, I now wonder if my money went to that farmer planting the wheat, or that Korean supermart buzzing with crowd downstairs.
The post is bought to you by MeiQi, an aspiring Sociologist, in conjunction with SNCF on GSEF Global Youth Camp – held in Seoul and Gurye from 22nd to 25th August 2017.