Five years ago, I lived in Gwangju for a month at the Asia Culture Center with researchers and artists from India, Bangladesh, Spain, Malaysia, China and beyond. I had just finished my graduate studies in the U.K., and while they finalized Brexit, I spent that autumn in South Korea. The ginkgo trees were bright yellow and so were the fields of rice.

Researchers were housed in what seemed like a converted office building. It was an odd time. Imagine living and sleeping in a former office or classroom with one narrow bed shoved into the corner of a giant room. The showers were military style, too, with exposed stalls and no doors. President Moon Jae-in’s son, an artist, was rumored to also be a fellow, living on one of the upper floors. The upper floors were rumored but not confirmed to be more luxurious.

Established in 2015, the ACC itself flaunted an architectural sprawl, but it was strangely divorced from the surrounding universities and neighborhoods. A sign explained the area’s history. Before they demolished the housing for the ACC’s construction, the area was already a public square. Cue the bureaucratic confusion: Auditors entered and replaced chairs. The ground floor had a library ostensibly, but no way of checking out the books. Roving groups would enter an artist’s studio at random and commandeer the space for a meeting without advance notice.

Enigmas aside, the researchers made the time in Gwangju interesting. Jolly Jaesub, a Gwangju native and Minjung art historian, became our guide. He ensured we knew about the 5.18 massacre. We gathered around his desk one day, and he showed us a still from the 1996 film "A Petal" (adapted from Ch’oe Yun’s novella "There a Petal Silently Falls." "Look!" he said with an enormous grin. "‘That’s me!" And he pantomimed getting shot and pointed to one of the dead bodies lying across the screen, or rather, dozens of extras playing dead on film. In another photo, he smiled with three extras whose foreheads and shirts were smeared with fake blood. He wanted to play a part in retelling the democratic history of his city.

Proposing a day trip to the 5.18 national cemetery, Jaesub generously continued to guide us. He drove us there. A tour guide in a knit orange vest pointed out notable tombstones. An enormous statue at the entrance was said to symbolize a pair of hands. They held up an oblong stone. Some said it represented jumeokbap, fistfuls of rice quickly assembled and distributed to those who protested and fought. Others said it was a cracked egg symbolizing the spirit of democracy emerging from adversity.

An Oxford lecturer in our group, or "the communist from Kerala," as he put it, asked for a photo of himself with the tombstones. He held a fist up in solidarity. "For the comrades," he said.

Later, the Indian and Malaysian scholars commented that they found the cemetery inspiring and sobering. A place of truth, if not reconciliation, argued. A state that chooses to no longer suppress but memorialize its part in a terrible, bloody history. They envied the official governmental gesture and wondered what might happen if their home governments did the same. Afterward, we ate chimaek.

Over emails, Jaesub shared the protest song "March for the Beloved" (1981) written for "a soul wedding" between the departed bride and her activist. He noted that the democracy protesters in Hong Kong picked it up, singing it in Cantonese. It’s the way of liberation movements, I think: Nobel peace laureate and journalist Maria Ressa noted in her memoir "How to Stand Up to a Dictator" that the peaceful People Power protests that ousted Marcos in the Philippines sparked pro-democracy uprisings around the world — in South Korea in 1987, Myanmar in 1988 and China and Eastern Europe in 1989. If authoritarians learn from each other, so too must the laboring left.

Esther Kim is a freelance writer based in Taiwan. She was a senior manager at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York and Tilted Axis Press in London and a publicist at Columbia University Press. She writes about culture and the Koreas.

QOSHE - Gwangju and the echoes of democracy - Esther Kim
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Gwangju and the echoes of democracy

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13.05.2024

Five years ago, I lived in Gwangju for a month at the Asia Culture Center with researchers and artists from India, Bangladesh, Spain, Malaysia, China and beyond. I had just finished my graduate studies in the U.K., and while they finalized Brexit, I spent that autumn in South Korea. The ginkgo trees were bright yellow and so were the fields of rice.

Researchers were housed in what seemed like a converted office building. It was an odd time. Imagine living and sleeping in a former office or classroom with one narrow bed shoved into the corner of a giant room. The showers were military style, too, with exposed stalls and no doors. President Moon Jae-in’s son, an artist, was rumored to also be a fellow, living on one of the upper floors. The upper floors were rumored but not confirmed to be more luxurious.

Established in 2015, the ACC itself flaunted an architectural sprawl, but it was strangely divorced from the surrounding universities and neighborhoods. A sign explained the area’s history. Before they........

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