Meet the Architect of Haebangchon's Famous "Kimchi Pot Wall"

"Go to Noksapyeong Station, exit two. Keep walking until you see the wall of kimchi pots."

These are the most commonly-given directions to Haebangchon, Seoul's funky and warm expat neighborhood where you can listen to English-language rock and mingle with internationals. Those "kimchi pots" are more accurately termed onggi, and they're examples of the beautiful, curved pottery that Koreans have used to ferment food since the Joseon Dynasty. This particular collection of earthenware jars is no accident. It's a work of art created by one the most famous dealers in traditional Korean ceramics, Ms. Youngun Shin. For decades, Ms. Shin has been at the vanguard of introducing the peninsula's pottery to the international community. Her story is emblematic of the efforts of northern-born Koreans who settled down near Yongsan Garrison, using their storefronts to transform Haebangchon into the artistic neighborhood it is today.

Haebangchon, literally translated, means "Freedom Village." It earned this moniker after the Korean War, when refugees from northern provinces set up homes there. Ms. Shin's first business lessons were at the "38th Parallel Market." Her mother - a devout Buddhist from a rich family - sold shoes, stationary, and dried fish, back when the border between the Soviet-controlled North and the U.S.-controlled South was porous. Despite the early death of her father, Ms. Shin's family enjoyed a comfortable life when the "two Koreas" were merely administrative districts.

And then the war came.

When the communists invaded, the Shins fled their home, using enterprise as a means of survival. "I remember hiding during the day and walking around at night," she recalled. "My mother had a little market stall where we sold tteok (soft rice cakes), silk, and used clothes to civilians. Even as bombs rained down on us, we kept selling. I still remember seeing dead bodies in the street."

Despite the war's heavy death toll across the peninsula, all of Ms. Shin's immediate family members survived. She attributes this good fortune to the fact that her mother's family often donated to the poor. "God was watching out for us," she remarked thoughtfully, while cutting up pears in her studio apartment. It lies adjacent to the landmark "Kimchi Pot Wall" and her ceramics shop, Hanshin Onggi.

After the war ended, a local matchmaker arranged for Ms. Shin to meet Seok-taek Han, a Korean soldier who was stationed at Yongsan Garrison. The two formed a close bond. Together, they settled down along the main street of Haebangchon, which was one of Seoul's busiest roads at the time. They quickly established a household that doubled as a shop. Back then, such arrangements were technically against code, and Seoul City Hall tore down their house an incredible twenty-one times. After years of struggle, a wealthy and politically-connected neighbor stepped in to help. He made it possible for Ms. Shin to buy the land from the city in 1970. She built the current store in 1988, and it took her five years to pay off the mortgage on the tiny plot of land she had purchased.

"During that time, my six children walked to school rather than taking the bus," she explained. "They shared one school textbook between them. We did everything we could to save money." Twenty-three years later, Ms. Shin's wall of onggi has evolved into a landmark closely associated with Haebangchon. Residents think of it with great affection, and, in the minds of many expats, it has become symbolic of the neighborhood.

Originally, it was her husband's idea to stack up the earthenware pots against the wall of Yongsan Garrison. "He thought it would be a good way to advertise our wares," she explained. "Today, workers call the garrison entrance near my house the Kimchi Box Entrance!" Both American soldiers and Korean nationals seek out her unique gallery to purchase traditional pottery. You could say the appeal of the store is that it saves collectors the ninety-minute bus ride to Gyeonggi Province, where most traditional ceramics are produced. Yeoju and Icheon have been at the heart of the industry since the Joseon Dynasty, with approximately eighty factories and three hundred kilns housed in Icheon Ceramics Village alone. But in recent decades, the business has become dominated by Catholic Korean families.

Ms. Shin explained: "When Christians first came to this country, they were brutally persecuted. Many of them fled into the mountains. The clay is perfect for pottery-making there, so it became a family trade that was passed down through the generations. Many of my suppliers are the descendants of those original Catholic families. I am so impressed by their kindness."

Today, Ms. Shin carries on her own family religion based in Buddhism. A large painting featuring Guanyin looks down protectively over her studio. The connected shop serves as a bridge that connects the rural, art-producing provinces with the bustling metropolis of Seoul. On average, the establishment makes about 1.5 million won in sales per month, with large onggi being the most popular item. While Ms. Shin's primary customers are Americans and Koreans, international collectors also seek her out, often looking to send souvenirs home.

"Those onggi are a very traditional Korean thing," said Yoojeong Lee, a Korean language instructor teaching expats in Haebangchon. "One of the major populations here is elderly folk. So they need those pots for making ganjang (soy sauce), doenjang (fermented beans), and gochujang (red pepper sauce)...but today, most of those ceramic shops are gone. So for the young people, it's a source of nostalgia."

Austin Buckley, a long-term resident of the neighborhood, expressed similar sentiments about Ms. Shin's establishment. "That row of pots is the first thing that greets you. If someone has never been to HBC, most times, people will say: 'Meet me at the kimchi pots!' And when you venture up the street, you slowly discover all that this place has to offer. Much has changed here in the past few years, but the shop has remained. Its presence is a constant. Somehow, that's really comforting."

Ms. Shin predicts that Hanshin Onggi will remain open for years to come. Her daughter-in-law, who studies the ceramic arts in Yeoju, is currently learning the skills necessary to keep the store in operation. "We plan to stay in business for another generation," Ms. Shin assured. "My daughter-in-law even has plans to install a kiln here. Some people worry about gentrification in Haebangchon, but we have absolutely no plans to sell our land."