Behind the fence, a new world lives


Beneath this maeul at the end of Seongnam-daero, the ground is frozen.

Flowers were supposed to sprout with the spring here in this village; Now, however, its inhabitants work cleaning jobs in the city instead of cultivating petals.

The split between Seoul, one of the largest metropolitan cities in the world, and Seongnam, an up-and-coming suburban “City of the Future,” is marked on a busy street by a solitary yet welcoming tiger statue.

No statues are necessary, however, for the single, worn dirt path that leads quietly away from the busy sidewalk. Preoccupied passersby look into their phones, unwilling to notice the abject poverty right in front of them.

To the left, the path drops steeply into a stream littered with abandoned umbrellas and plastic wrappers. To the right, it opens up into a maze of houses constructed with planks of wood and covered with leftover sheets of felt. Just beyond the white fence that surrounds this community, metal shines under light; modern buildings tower overhead, workers stream out of subway stations, and cars race down the wide asphalt avenue. Just behind it, however, the din subsides people lug wheelbarrows of frozen water down a worn, quiet path.

This blend of houses, spent heating briquettes, and phone lines is now known in the area as Hwa-hwe Maeul, or “Flower Village.” Its residents first arrived here hoping to plant flowers, but the soil proved unwilling and the water came from the sewer.

As they settled the small village under the highways overhead they abandoned their floral dreams. Soon, more people came to the village looking for work, or more immediately, a place to live. For them, Hwa-hwe Maeul was not a first choice; nobody who could afford to leave would stay. But a combination of bad luck, freak accidents, or pure desperation brought them to Flower Village, often to stay for years, or in some cases, decades.

“I failed at a lot of things,” says Yongchul Kim, while settling on the bed in his living room. Mr. Kim first came to Hwa-hwe from the Yongsan district of Seoul after a major car accident stopped him from working any jobs.

Mr. Kim spends most of his days in the village center, and so do the rest of the maeul’s 184 households. They gather to watch TV on a shared screen and get their hair cut by volunteers who visit every month.

“Cut some off the top,” a woman requests, watching as the blades run over her hair and black wisps fall gently to the floor. Behind her on the sofa, a little girl is engrossed in a cartoon playing on her mother’s phone. Yeonsook Kim, the group’s leader, or Tongjang, carries tables and plates into the room.

Before noon, a representative from the power company drops by with the electric bill for last month. Ms. Kim reads it and sighs with relief. $160 for the town’s December, a number not has high as many had anticipated.

“That’s probably because we received some deductions,” Ms. Kim says. She invites us, a group of SIS students still wearing our backpacks and coats, to lunch even though we’ll be back in our cafeteria in an hour and the villagers have worked all morning with the food. Kim brings out a platter of rice and kimchi-jjigae (a Korean stew) over our protests with a smile and a simple command: “Eat.”

During one of the three fires that have broken out in Hwa-hwe, Mr. Kim’s house burned down once. He could do nothing but watch as it was engulfed in flames. The local government could not help either. Mr. Kim blames the building material for the damage the fires were able to inflict on the village.

“They’re all wood and glue,” he says. “There’s nothing we can do until it all burns down.”

Mr. Kim got an unexpected present two weeks ago, and it hops around the house energetically. His name is Coco, and he’s a windup toy that never runs out of energy. Mr. Kim doesn’t seem to mind. On a wall in his modest home is a family picture. “Taken years before my accident,” he says. “I don’t live with my kids anymore. My grandkids, my wife, yes. But not my children.

Despite the cold winter, the village center is warm. When the maeul’s inhabitants band together during these days, they talk about the “country mood” of the place. Unlike a city, where people lock their doors and rarely greet their neighbors, most of the people here are relaxed, friendly, and old-timers; some have even been here for 30 to 40 years.

Unfortunately, the future does not look as bright for the residents of Hwa-hwe Maeul. Every morning, they awake to the idea that at any moment they could be evicted from their homes by nightfall. The land they live on has seven private owners who allow them to continue living there out of generosity, and government officials have yet to respond to repeated pleas for help.

The people of the maeul don’t show it, however. In the kitchen, voices bubble in excitement and meals are served as soon as they are made. Everybody pitches in at some point, some making it a point to carry the utensils and others scooping the rice. Soon, cooks and waiters huddle around tables and begin eating. The TV plays in the background.

Cautiously consuming rice, I watch as men and women well into their sixties and seventies get up periodically to pass around packets of dried laver and make sure everybody is eating well. They laugh, point at the TV, converse, eat, and grandmothers ask us, with genuine concern, why we are not eating.

On Mr. Kim’s wall hangs a medal and certificates adorned in gold. They are from his grandchild’s karate adventures, and Mr. Kim is proud of him. They feature prominently, and the table and the rest of the wall are covered with plastic toys and crayons, presumably for school. “The village is far from school,” Mr. Kim says. “We have to take buses and still walk to just get there. I’m hoping my grandson is assigned to a closer middle school next year.”

Just a few meters beyond the maeul—visible above the houses’ roofs, in fact—are the buildings that make up our own school. Two years ago, we added a modern building to our campus. As I watch it loom large over the wooden shacks and gas tanks here. I realize that at this time, students at SIS will be served food in a cafeteria, a routine they expect without thought.

Here, airplanes scream overhead as we finish our meal. As we bid goodbye, we ask minister Kim one last question.

What does she, as a minister, pray for the community?

“Peaceful relocation to new houses away from here,” she says. “I just want everybody here to have peace.”