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Presenting intangible cultural heritage in Bucheon

BICHE posterMonday 3 May 2010. Bucheon, a city of around 850,000 people in Gyeonggi-do just 40 minutes’ drive West from Seoul, is home of the Bucheon World Intangible Cultural Heritage Expo (BICHE), an annual event which showcases some of Korea’s finest performance arts and crafts alongside those of a dozen or so invited countries. The first expo was held in 2008, and sadly last year’s event was cancelled at the last minute, along with so many others, at the height of the bird flu scare. 2010’s Expo will be bigger and better than 2008’s, with 15 countries participating.

Yoo Gill Chon, secretary general of the BICHE organising committee
Yoo Gill Chon, secretary general of the BICHE organising committee

As part of my little project on the way that Korea preserves and presents some of its traditional culture, I thought this international expo an ideal case study and made an appointment to see members of its organising committee. How is it possible to get the average person interested in traditional cultural heritage?

“Every year, at Chuseok time, 10 million Koreans head back to their home village. Tradition and heritage is deep down in people’s bones,” says Mr Yoo Gill Chon (유길촌), the secretary general of the BICHE organising committee. “But nevertheless, our intangible heritage is at risk and needs support and preservation. The purpose of our expo is to help keep it alive.”

But it’s not just an exercise in preservation. While clearly the presentation of some of the finest crafts and performance arts is a laudible end in itself, the theme of the 2010 Expo is also forward-looking: “Discovering the future in tradition: a search for the DNA of future industries.” The possibility of earning revenues from culture and heritage is not a new one, but it is unusual to hear it so explicitly stated.

We visit the expo site: the Bucheon Visual Culture Complex (부천영상문화단지), a large out-of-town area currently used as a film studio. Scenes from the blockbuster Korean war epic Taegugki were filmed there, as well as several popular TV dramas. A 1950s-style tram is in the street, and round the corner a TV crew is working on an episode of the latest drama.

Seogakjang (서각장) – wood block lettering artisan
Gyeonggi-do Intangible Cultural Property No 40
The art of engraving letters or pictures onto wooden blocks, a skill which combines calligraphy and sculpture.

Jokagjang (조각장) – metal sculpture and engraving artisan
Gyeonggi-do Intangible Cultural Property No 39
The traditional engraving technique of making various patterns by carving, hardening or making grooves in the surface of gold or silver utensils and filling them with gold, silver or copper wire.

Strangely, though, in a corner of the complex are seven recently built hanok-style houses, which serve as studios and genuine living accommodation for some of Gyeonggi-do’s intangible cultural property holders. In one is Yi Gyu-nam (이규남), who preserves the art of carving the wooden calligraphy you see above temple doors and under palace roofs, and in another is Gwak Hong-chan (곽홍찬), a metal engraver.

There is a shop where the works created by these craftsmen are sold. This little compound is part of Gyeonggi-do’s ongoing commitment to preserving its intangible heritage: any day of the year apart from Monday, any member of the public can visit these studios to see the craftsmen at work.

During the expo itself, there will be much more to see. The compound will be expanded, at the expense of demolition of some of the film sets, and more craftspeople installed. Elsewhere in the area, exhibition halls and performance spaces will be built. Korean traditional music such as pansori will be performed, and possibly the highspot of the festival will be a rare performance of Jeju Chilmeoridang Yeongdeunggut outside of Jeju-do1. This Shamanist ritual is held in the second lunar month to pray for calm seas, an abundant harvest and a plentiful sea catch. It’s another of Korea’s UNESCO-registered items of intangible cultural heritage, and a reason I’m going to find an excuse to come back to Korea in the autumn this year.

Demonstrating sword-making techniques to children at BICHE 2008
Demonstrating sword-making techniques to children at BICHE 2008

But it is not just Korea’s intangible cultural heritage which is being showcased. Heritage from South America, Europe, Africa and Asia will be on show. The budget of the expo is 9.2 billion Won, a bit of a shoestring considering the effort involved: construction of the site, sponsoring of the international teams to come to Korea, a permanent headcount of 43 people, boosted to 500 with volunteers during the time of the expo. About 20 percent of the money is coming from the Ministry of Culture, with provincial, city and corporate sponsorship making up the difference.

A performance at BICHE 2008
A performance at BICHE 2008

With 2008 being the first year of the expo, they had ambitious targets for visitor numbers, but really they couldn’t know with any certainty how many were likely to turn up. In the end, the expo had around 300,000 visitors (the target was 1 million), of which there were only around 1,000 foreigners. The lack of foreign interest is unsurprising in the first year, as there was limited effort to attract them. But feedback from the visitors last time was overwhelmingly positive, which gave the organising committee encouragement for the future. This year, the expo is being marketed more actively, with information being passed to Korean embassies and cultural centres overseas.

Map of the BICHE expo area, Bucheon

In a site of 266,000 square metres, there will be three theatres, dining facilities, outside spaces, and an “experience centre”. Particular emphasis is placed on “experiencing”, whether through trying your hand at a particular craft, flying traditional Korean kites, or attending the live performances: over the course of the 20 day expo, there will be different live performances every day, from Korean folk songs to Cambodian court dancing. Crafts on display will range from Korean wrapping cloths to German arrow-making.

Although 2010 is only the second time BICHE has happened, the investment in the expo complex itself bodes well for the future. Identifying profitable industries or cultural contents from traditional heritage is never certain – for each Dae Jang Geum there are several other dramas which never attract many export dollars – establishing Bucheon as a national, and indeed international, centre for showcasing intangible heritage is a far-sighted move.

BICHE 2010 will be held from 28 September to 17 October 2010 at the Bucheon Visual Culture Complex (부천영상문화단지), Bucheon, Gyeonggi-do.

More photos of BICHE can be found on LKL’s Flickr page


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