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Admixing Empire: Asphalt, Colonial Difference, and the Built Environment in Seoul

Sat, March 17, 8:30 to 10:00am, Riverside Convention Center, MR 7


In 1930, civil engineers and laborers attached to the municipal public works department of Seoul (renamed “Keijō” under Japanese rule) repaved the city’s most prominent thoroughfare, Kwanghwamun (Sejongno today), in asphalt. A seemingly simple and innocuous act of public works maintenance, the Kwanghwamun paving project was only the latest of ongoing street improvements Japanese residents and colonizers in Seoul had undertaken since the 1890s. As the Government-General straightened, widened, and paved trunk lines in asphalt-macadam and tarmac following annexation in 1910, the Japanese Keijō municipal government initiated its own more comprehensive paving campaign, resurfacing select thoroughfares and backstreets in asphalt concrete. Regardless of the surface material, the spreading of pavements on the roadways of colonial Seoul was no simple act. Instead, laying an admixture blending locally-sourced broken stone with tar extracted from the Toyokawa tar pits in northern Japan, all conveyed to Seoul on Japanese-constructed railways cutting through the Korean countryside and applied according to plans drafted by civil engineers trained in Tokyo, street improvements in Seoul mobilized far-flung material, personnel, and technical networks that converged on Korea from around the Japanese empire. Carried out in the name of improving transportation, aesthetics, and hygiene in the Korean capital, moreover, such repaving projects were a key part of imperial strategies designed to justify Japanese colonialism by reifying colonial difference. Calling attention to the physical aspects of colonial discourses reminds scholars not only of the networks mobilized to materialize colonial rule but also the impact of imperialism on natural and built environments.