Korea's low-profile Changwon a site to see

by Niall J. Ruddy
Groove Korea (groovekorea.com)

You would be hard-pressed to find many travel blogs that single out Changwon as a must-see highlight for anyone traveling through Korea. In spite of this low profile, the city was remarkable enough to warrant a mention in The Guardian’s recent series of articles on the peninsula. So what would a visitor find extraordinary about this city described on its website as a “world masterpiece” and an “energetic city”?

Changwon is the provincial capital of South Gyeongsang Province and, with a population of just over a million residents, the largest city in the province. It is Korea’s first planned city, based around the Australian capital of Canberra, and developed toward its present status as a modern industrial hub in the 1970s when it was given the romantic title “Industrial Base Development Area No. 92.” In 2010 the adjoining cities of Masan and Jinhae were incorporated to create the current mix of picturesque mountains, factory complexes, modern residential areas and traditional markets, all set within the Masan bay area.

Wandering around the city, what often strike visitors first are Changwon’s wide, open spaces. There are many boulevards and parks in the metropolitan area, which lends the city a polished, pedestrian-friendly air. The main park, Yongji Lake, is directly behind Changwon City Hall and contains Yongji, housing an impressive nightly fountain and a light show projected onto water. Next to this is a large grassy space set among small, forested areas where couples of all ages mingle with joggers, cyclists and young families.

The city is also home to the Sangnam Sijang (market), which offers everything from florists to butchers to clothing stores and is open any date that contains a 4 or 9 (14th, 19th, 24th, etc.).

Core of the community
Area residents say the strength of the community is what distinguishes the city from others in the region. Rosamond Clay, a Jinhae resident of one year, points to O’Briens pub as a gathering place for many expats in the area.  The pub hosted a fundraiser for a teacher in Masan who had an accident in India, raising more than $20,000 for her rehabilitation.

“I’ve never seen a community pull together so well if someone has gotten into trouble and needs help, or if someone has been hurt and needs money,” Clay says. “I think it’s got a lot to do with how good the community is.”

O’Briens is located in the Jungang-daero area, where a majority of the nightlife occurs, and is in good company with a variety of comfortable and well-stocked, foreigner-friendly bars, including BK House, Biskachy, International Pub (or IPs) and Next Bar.

To discover more about the foreigner hub that is O’Briens, I turned to Sam Piper, a veteran Changwon expat, and sometime barfly.

“They’re so helpful; and it’s not just that the bar is fantastic, but it also offers Western food, or sometimes they’ll get products or even cosmetics from home to sell in a mini-mart to try and help people feel settled,” he says. “On top of that, everyone tends to meet there so it’s given birth to all the clubs and groups in the city, too, and if they need help, people use the Facebook page to ask questions or get information. It really is the focal point of the community.”

The bar was opened by long-term expat Austin Buckley. A native of Cork, Ireland, Buckley originally came to Korea in 2002 to coincide with the World Cup, which featured the Irish national team. After teaching for a while and opening the original iteration of O’Briens in Busan, the bar moved to its current location in Jungang-dong, Changwon. Buckley says his clientele is the best thing about his bar.

“I’ve been really lucky over the years,” Buckley says. “O’Briens has a nice mix of engineers and teachers. It makes the place feel a little bit more like home, younger and older people just having a drink. Thankfully, there is very little drama; people here have no time for it. It’s great to have a clientele who respect the bar enough not to let anything happen. I’m very grateful for that.”

Cultural enterprises
A gripe heard from many people living outside of Seoul is that most other cities in Korea have few, if any, cultural enterprises. Changwon has you covered. Over the last couple of years there have been numerous plays arranged and performed by the expat community, including “The Vagina Monologues,” “The Foursome” and “Lend Me a Tenor.”

There has also been an art exhibition, “Through the Eyes of Others,” organized by Mike Han at the Gowoon Gallery, featuring 12 expat artists’ works based on their experiences in Korea.

With regards to music, there have been several bands based in Changwon. Though it is hard to maintain a music scene with people constantly leaving, there is currently a healthy selection of places to satiate your aural cravings; the foreign bar Next is the first place to come to mind, with its open mic every month and a great sound system. Another venue called Monk has a large stage, a baby grand piano and shows by frequent high-quality acts. On top of that, there is a live venue/practice space called Feedback with the feel of an underground rock club. For listening to music there is a vinyl bar, one of the few outside of Seoul, called Drum, with a cracking selection of vintage albums.

Stuart Thompson is a popular local musician who has been a resident in Changwon for the past two years. Despite playing guitar since age 11, the U.K. native had only tested his performance skills at a few open mics; since arriving, however, he has been a large part of the burgeoning music scene.

“My favorite place to play music, bizarrely, is at an underpass beneath a main road, Jungang-daero, which has the most amazing acoustics,” he says. “I love taking my guitar down there and trying to get the locals, usually sauced, dancing on a Friday or Saturday.”

He says that although the music scene is coming along, it can be difficult to maintain momentum with such a high turnover rate. “I’d love more people to get behind it, as the city has so much potential with the sense of community and number of venues,” he says.

Fitness and free bike rentals
With a background in fitness and a stint in the British army’s officer training corps, Clay, the Jinhae resident, was able to highlight the many exercise opportunities in Changwon. Like many Korean cities, Changwon is surrounded by mountains, which are easily accessible from most neighborhoods.

“There is a massive ridge that stretches from Changwon to Jinhae, which is amazing for hiking,” Clay says. “From the top you can see all the different wards (divisions). When the Jinhae cherry blossom festival happens in spring, the view contains a breathtaking mix of pink flowers and glass-fronted buildings. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

There is also a wide variety of sports that residents can watch or play. Within the city limits alone there is a soccer team, an Ultimate Frisbee team, a bowling league and an ice hockey team, all of which are open to foreigners. There’s even a Gaelic football team that, despite being based out of Busan, boasts a lot of members from Changwon. The city’s pro teams include a basketball team and two football teams — the Changwon LG Sakers, Gyeongnam FC and Changwon FC, respectively — as well as the NC Dinos baseball team that plays in Masan. Finally, there is a shooting range and rock climbing practice wall, which Clay pointed out is “amazing for a city of this size.”

Another interesting feature of Changwon is the excellent Nubija service, a bike rental system that has unmanned stations all over the city and is particularly useful for casual or short-term visitors.

Chang-wonderful
It would be remiss not to mention the website Changwonderful.com, set up by two former residents, Tim Robinson and Heather Heinrichs, purely for the love of the city. A quick look at the site and its cornucopia of information shows the dedication to the community some residents have, and there is no better example of the strength therein — except, perhaps, Robinson’s tattoo of the city’s mascots, Chang-e and Won-e.

They started the site because there wasn’t enough English information about Changwon. “When I arrived I felt like the only information out there was word of mouth,” Heinrichs said. “Facebook was useful, but it left a lot of helpful people answering the same questions over and over. So with Tim being an excellent designer, and me having lots of free time and a general know-it-all mentality, we formed Changwonderful.”

As to why they wanted to help, she concluded, “The people in Changwon are the reason. I loved being active in a warm community.”

Perhaps The Guardian’s endorsement was more about the perks of a well-planned city than simply run-of-the-mill tourist highlights. Overall, Changwon has a lot to offer both its long-term residents and the people who pass through town for the weekend: a place to enjoy the great outdoors or take in your favorite sport in a packed stadium; a place to lose yourself in the rush of live music; a place to socialize; a place to cut loose with a community that will be there to help you when you need it. Cities all over Korea tend to blend together visually and, while Changwon offers a few aesthetic differences, what makes it special is more significant: the people.

Groove Korea website

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