Monday, March 15, 2010

양화진 (Yanghwajin Foreigner's Cemetery in Seoul) and a review of Donald Clark's 1998 book

A wonderful piece of history that deserves better. I recently read Professor Clark's amazingly useful yet hopelessly impossible to find book and thought to myself how sad it is that more people don't know about Yanghwajin. History has a tendency to sink. The best way I could think to contribute was to write this modest post and to start a Yanghwajin page on wikipedia. Without further ado:

Title: The Seoul Foreigners' Cemetery at Yanghwajin: An Informal History with Notes on Other Cemeteries in Korea and Individuals and Families in the History of the Foreign Community in Korea
Author: Donald Clark
Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Seoul Union Church (1998)
ISBN-10: N/A
ISBN-13: N/A
Full Listing: Clark, Donald N., comp and ed. The Seoul Foreigners' Cemetery at Yanghwajin: An Informal History with Notes on Other Cemeteries in Korea and Individuals and Families in the History of the Foreign Community in Korea. Seoul: Seoul Union Church, 1998.
Not to be confused with a previous edition: Clark, Donald N. Yanghwajin Seoul Foreigners' Cemetery, Korea: An Informal History, 1890-1984, with Notes on Other Foreign Cemeteries in Korea. Seoul: Yongsan RSOK Library, 1984.

A treasure in every sense of the word: something that is hard to find but worth so much once obtained. I assure you its value is not lost on its relative obscurity. I'm simply shocked that there isn't more written on the foreigners' cemetery in Seoul known as Yangwhajin (양화진외국인묘지공원). Clocking in under 160 pages about half of which is actual written content with the other a sort of directory guide, it certainly isn't a long read but it certainly is a sad read and one that touches me on a personal level.

Regardless of one's politics, I must attempt to draw a parallel. If it seems reaching, please bear with me. This book and its history reminds me of another Korea-related topic known as the Comfort Women; not because the graveyard was wronged by the Japanese but because like the so-called Comfort Women, Yanghwajin, too is having itshistory quickly forgotten. Soon, all women directly affected by the Japanese military will pass away leaving only heartbreaking stories and hopeless pleas behind in their stead. Their memories and hardships will disappear without proper stewardship. Like the tragedy that is the Comfort Women, Yanghwajin has a story that deserves to be told, retold and preserved. I don't mean to draw parallels in terms of importance or sexual slavery or anything like that; it's just that both topics come to mind when I think of history on the verge of disappearing. I certainly mean no disrespect if that parallel is inappropriate. I simply feel connected to the cemetery out of respect for those who have came before me and for their accomplishments and contributions.

Yanghwajin has a history that is full of controversy and Clark's book accurately begins the tale with it's introduction to the cemetery itself and the unofficial steward church, the Seoul Union Church. As both histories are intertwined, to understand the cemetery and it's history, one must understand the plight of this church-without-a-home. Despite confidently proclaiming a permanent home at publication time, the church could not foresee that in 2007, its modest foreign congregation would be forced out of their chapel and away from the cemetery they had taken care of since its creation.

The book was originally published in 1984 and later updated, revised and expanded to include a map in 1998. Although I have not seen the 1984 version, I have been told that all pertinent information is also present in the 1998 version. If you ever are in the market to get a used copy, make it count and get the 1998 pressing as it includes much more content and is more accurate.

If one were to try to obtain a copy of the 1998 book, it's more than a little difficult. First of all, both editions have no ISBN number and therefore fly well under the radar. Secondly, the title doesn't exactly roll off the tip of your tongue. Asking for it by name will likely get one a reference to a modest museum attached to the church next to the cemetery. Unfortunately, the current church management who takes care of the grounds has their own materials to tell their version of the stories of the men and women interred at Yanghwajin but not so much in the way of how they acquired the rights to do so. Therefore, contacting the cemetery itself is not exactly going to work. Just for clarification, according to a personal correspondence via email with the author "The book was meant to be distributed at the cemetery, but as you surely know, that ship sailed a long time ago."

I scored my copy by politely emailing the current pastor of Seoul Union Church if he had any old prints left. Thankfully he did have a few left for a modest 5000원 each. Since I currently live in Seoul, he was able to mail them to me and I made a small donation to the church (in addition to the price of the book) for his efforts. I mention this story of how I acquired my copy not because I want to tell the world of my amazing emailing skills but because of the relative difficulty in obtaining this valuable book. The pastor just happened to have some old copies laying around, thankfully. Basically, if you're looking to read a copy, cross your fingers and hope that a local library has it on file or get friends with someone that bought one a while back because I'm not sure if any new prints are available. Otherwise, attending one of the church's services (currently on Yonsei's campus) is about the only advice I can offer. In hopes of curbing needless emails to the author, contacting the church and hoping for the best was also the advice of the Professor Clark.

If you are in Seoul and you want to experience some genuine history, you owe it to yourself to make plans to visit this cemetery. The current church does indeed have a modest museum that will help tell some of the story. To me, this is certainly better than nothing at all. Simple English language brochures are available and will help to pique interest about the fascinating stories that can be found there.

In closing, some might wonder why it's such a problem to have an organization with less than a high level of vested interest in the cemetery take care of Yanghwajin, take note of the example found in Incheon. The Chemulpo Foreigner's Cemetery, which predates Yangwhajin, was completely removed from its original place in 1965 and relocated without much of a fuss.

If you haven't been to Yanghwajin already, make it a point.


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