Gwangju, Korea’s City of Light

words & photos: Alex Forster

우리 [uri], meaning “we” or “our” if translated into English but often used in place of “I” or “my” in Korean. “Uri” reflects the very strong sense of community and the heavy presence of the collective in Korea. By extension, it embodies the idea of “one country one people” very much felt in Korea and the pride that comes with it. For example, when talking about Korea, Koreans will say “우리나라 uri nara” meaning “our nation” or “우리말 uri mal” for “our language” as opposed to saying “Korean.” Lastly, it can also be attached to a person’s name to convey a sense of attachment.


This feeling of connection through the community is even more present on a local level in the city of Gwangju, as a result of historical events. The name Gwangju “광주” is based on the Chinese characters “光州” meaning “City of Light.” Gwangju is situated in the South-West of the Korean Peninsula, in the Honam region, about a one-and-a-half-hour train ride from the capital city Seoul. Although it is lesser-known than Seoul or Busan, Gwangju it is definitely worth visiting!

Today, many cultural sites in Gwangju revolve around the Gwangju Democracy Movement (also called 5.18). This Democratisation Movement took place in May 1980, as a reaction to the extension of martial law to the whole of Korea. In order to bring awareness to the horrors that took place in Gwangju and to make sure it is remembered as a key event for Korea’s democratisation process, the majority of sites have been preserved and are accessible to the public. The Jeonil Building (전일빌딩 245), for example, is one of them. Nowadays, it hosts a museum and exhibitions related to 5.18 and on the rooftop, visitors can also admire a panoramic view over the city. Another important site to learn about the history of 5.18 is the May 18 Democratic Archives in the city centre, only a few blocks away from the Jeonil Building. It offers the most comprehensive narration of the events in a well-laid out exhibition centre on the topic of 5.18.  

View over the May 18 Democracy Square from Jeonil Building’s Café 245 (카페245). © Alex Forster, 2021.

View over the May 18 Democracy Square from the top of the Jeonil Building. © Alex Forster, 2021.

Locations:

  • The Jeonil Building 245: Gwangju, Dong-gu, Chungjangdong Geumnam-ro 245 (광주광역시 구 충장동 금남로 245).
  • The May 18 Democratic Archives: Gwangju, Dong-gu, Geumnam-ro 3ga geumnam-ro 221 (광주광역시 동구 금남로3가 금남로 221).


The city and the people of Gwangju have put in a lot of effort into developing their cultural assets. The emphasis on culture comes from its reputation as a lesser-developed area that became attached to Gwangju. Following the idea of rehabilitation of the city, an art biennale was created and was unsurprisingly named the Gwangju Biennale. It started in 1995 and it last took place in 2021, with a slight delay because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Artists from all over the world participate, which is a welcome step to help place Korean art on the international scene, and vice-versa to bring a sense of internationalisation to Gwangju. 5.18 is often taken as a starting point for those exhibitions, sometimes held in major sites of the Uprising such as the Old Armed Forces Hospital, and to put art in context.    

Locations:

  • The Gwangju Biennale Exhibition Hall: Gwangju, Buk-gu, Biennalle-ro 111 (광주광역시 북구 비엔날레로 111)
  • The Gwangju Old Armed Forces Hospital: Gwangju, Seo-gu, Hwajeongdong 325 (구 국군광주병원, 광주광역시 서구 화정동 325)

Gwangju’s region has quite the reputation in Korea for its food, for its excellent taste and for dishes special to the Jeolla provinces that make up the Honam region. If coming to Gwangju by train, the area surrounding the Songjeong Market is a great place to start exploring the Jeolla cuisine. The 떡갈비 tteok-galbi is a speciality from the Gwangju area made from minced beef short ribs or a mixture of beef and pork meat. 

Tteok-galbi and accompanying side-dishes at the Songjeong Tteok-galbi, KRW 13,000 per portion (equivalent of 10€). © Alex Forster, 2021.

Restaurant recommendation: Songjeong Tteok-galbi 송정떡갈비: Gwangju Gwangsangu Gwangsan-ro 29 beongil 1 (광주 광산구 광산로29번길 1) 

Continuing on the topic of food, cafés are springing up like mushrooms in Korea and Gwangju is no exception. Every one of them has a different atmosphere but their best-selling drink is probably the ice americano. An easy drink to sip at a café (for hours) or to quickly grab and take away, the ice americano is a solid classic in Korean cafes and could almost be considered as the national drink. Although it contains ice, it is a four-season drink. An “얼죽아 eoljuga” is a person who drinks ice americano whatever the weather, it is short for “얼어죽어도아이스 eoreojugeodoaiseu” meaning “even if I freeze to death, with ice it is.” Korean cakes and patisseries tend to be quite sweet; the combination of a simple cool coffee balances out the taste. It is also usually the cheapest drink a café has to offer.  

At the café Moreless. © Alex Forster, 2021.

*At the café Moreless with an ice americano (KRW 2,000) and a scone (very Korean 😉). © Alex Forster, 2021.

Café recommendation: hidden a few streets behind the city’s main square can be found (the style of the chairs made me go there) Moreless 모어레스: Gwangju, Dong-gu, Jungang-ro 196 beongil 31-19 (광주 동구 중앙로196번길 31-19).

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  1. manuel martìnez

    I should visit gwangju!

    Liked by 1 person

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