issue 263 - January 1995
PHOTO BY RICHARD SWIFT
Pig village and the
The slums of Seoul, South Korea, are hard to find
while in Bangkok, Thailand, they’re hard to miss –
but the slum-dwellers of both have plenty in common.
The slums of Seoul are, by and large, hidden affairs. This city of over ten million has the appearance of a slightly threadbare metropolis of the industrial world. ‘Pig Village’ is on the eastern outskirts of the city. Corrugated shacks jammed between a high-rise development and an expressway are home to about 3,500 people. Yet you can walk through them in just 10 minutes.
It is always an education to meet the people who live in Third World slums. The way the Western press ‘massifies’ such people as an undifferentiated hoard of victims leads one to forget the obvious – they are people with hopes and dreams, good days and bad days, just like the rest of us.
Mrs Oh moved here 12 years ago, just when Pig Village was making the transition from livestock storage to human habitation. She says in the first couple of years she thought the constant smell of the animals in her nostrils would drive her mad. The smell was washed away by a flood – ‘the only time I have ever been glad for a flood’. Mr Lee has lived for 10 years in Pig Village and says he has never locked his door.
They both tell the story of a 12-year-old boy temporarily housed here while his family waited for reassignment to a high-rise. Once the move had been made he kept coming back to Pig Village each day after school. When asked which place he preferred his answer was philosophical: ‘Housing better there – living better here’.
Both Mrs Oh and Mr Lee agree that this community of narrow passages and cramped, poorly-lit rooms has a strong collective sense of itself. Some of the small living spaces are home to as many as five or six people. Most are immaculately clean. Heating (Korea has very harsh winters) is through hot-water pipes that run under the floor. This is so effective that as we talked I had to keep shifting my seat as the floor became uncomfortably hot under me. Electricity and clean water supplies are erratic.
Both of them also feel that the sense of community spirit or Chong – a Korean word meaning ‘warmth for one another’ – has dissipated since 1987, the year the Olympics came to Seoul. House prices in the area have shot up sevenfold since then. Now rents are going up, people are being divided into ‘legals’ and ‘illegals’ (only 15 per cent are said to be ‘legal’) by a government which is dividing the community against itself.
Despite a modern gloss of fancy luxury hotels and ‘air-con’ buses Bangkok is still very much a Third World city. Here you can’t miss the slums. The largest of them all is the downtown area of Klong-toey, near the port.
It is here you find the Catholic-run Human Development Centre and a man known to Bangkok as ‘Father Joe’. Unusually for a missionary and social activist, Joe Maier from South Dakota lives right in a part of Klong-toey called ‘Slaughterhouse’ that is populated by Christians who are engaged in the killing of pigs – a practice long prohibited to Buddhists.
Next door a Cambodian refugee family of six is jammed into a single room. Father Joe has a big heart and a mouth like a longshoreman. He’ll tell you the escalating price of ‘visiting the pig’ as a form of sexual release in Thai prisons – his indicator of inflation – or point out a woman in the Klong-toey streets who specializes in selling six-year-olds. Father Joe is mostly free of moral judgements about the residents of Klong-toey – ‘people are people,’ he shrugs. But he is a tireless fighter on their behalf. They need him. The Human Development Centre runs schools, adult education and an AIDS-education program to combat the HIV epidemic that has blossomed in the sexually free atmosphere of Thailand.
Housing is very poor in Klong-toey and the low-lying streets and narrow lanes that divide the wooden shacks are pools of stagnant water: ‘Easily drained, if the city administration cared,’ snorts Father Joe.
Thanks to Thailand’s economic boom the land here is valuable – and vulnerable to real-estate speculators. Fires get started sometimes by accident, sometimes… who knows? There was a big one just before I visited and several hundred burnt-out residents have now set up camp under the neighbouring expressway – their only roof.
Father Joe is quick to get into an argument with his colleagues over how soon people should move back into the burnt-out area. They say that life amongst the charred rubble will be just too difficult. He is more concerned about the speculators getting their hands on this part of Klong-toey and people ending up with no place to go at all.