Site of the Korean government in exile a symbol of a long-standing friendship
An obscure three-story shikumen (stone-gate) building, tucked away in Shanghai's busy Xintiandi commercial hub, has become a site of pilgrimage for tens of thousands of South Koreans every year.
Since the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between China and South Korea three decades ago, six South Korean presidents have visited the Site of the Korean Provisional Government at 306 Madang Road in Huangpu District.
The place has been described as the "sanctuary of independence" by former South Korean President Kim Young-sam. Kim Dae-jung wrote "South Korea-China Friendship" in Chinese.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, over 200,000 tourists, many of them from South Korea, came to pay their respects to the pioneers of the freedom movement every year and learn about the history of their homeland's struggle in the early 1900s.
"It has become a spiritual home for many Koreans and a bridge of goodwill between the two countries," said Chen Rujie, the site's director of management.
Chen recalls a surge of South Korean tourists in 2019, on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the provisional government.
A senior government official laboriously climbed the steep steps to view the restored rooms and exhibitions one after the other. He presented a commemorative plate in appreciation of China's assistance in the establishment of the provisional government.
The Korean Provisional Government, a government in exile, was established in Shanghai in April 1919 by Korean patriots, in response to Japanese suppression of the March 1 Movement, following massive demonstrations and a campaign for Korean independence from Japanese rule.
The foreign concessions in downtown Shanghai were a perfect cover for the early members of the Korean government. National leaders like Syngman Rhee, An Chang-ho and Kim Ku were among those who served in the interim government.
Between 1926 and 1932, Kim Ku, known as the "father of the Republic of Korea," lived here, making it the headquarters for different independence groups both in China and abroad.
Experts from China and South Korea collaborated between 1988 and 1990 to dig out the historic site after local residents confirmed that the place was frequently visited by South Koreans.
In April 1993, the government of then Luwan District (now Huangpu District) relocated the residents, preserved the house and converted it into a small museum.
In 2001, the site was significantly expanded to incorporate the adjacent two shikumen houses. The original brick-and-wood building was also converted to concrete.
In recent years, the Huangpu District government initiated several other facelift projects to refurbish the entire lane-style neighborhood and restore the nearly century-old house's original appearance.
It now spans about 200 square meters and is divided into three areas for short videos, historical papers and exhibits. The previous decorations and life scenery have been fully restored.
A wooden table and chairs show how the provisional government leaders held secret meetings in the sitting room. The kitchen had a traditional stove, wooden shelves and a table that could be instantly converted into a mahjong table in case of attacks by Japanese spies.
The second floor recreates Kim Ku and his secretary's previous office, complete with waxen figurines and copies of the influential newspaper, The Independent.
The upper-floor bedroom has three beds that were used by Kim and other government leaders who would stay over after important meetings.
Apart from many Chinese calligraphy works that express "love others, love yourself" or "bright," the kitchen and bedrooms look exactly the same as those of local ordinary families in the early 20th century.
According to a site commentator, the decoration is inspired by the traditional living styles of local families because Kim and his colleagues lived there in the same way as their neighbors.
An exhibition in the two adjacent shikumen houses recounts how the government-in-exile was created and forced to relocate to numerous other Chinese cities during World War II.
The Chinese government's strong backing is emphasized. They provided them with shelter, offices, accommodation, military training and financial assistance.
In 1931, Kim organized a nationalist group, the Korean Patriotic Corps, in Shanghai. Yun Bong-gil, a member, ambushed and assassinated the Japanese military leadership in the city's Hongkou Park (now Luxun Park) on April 29, 1932. The commander of the Japanese Army and Navy died. Another member, Lee Bong-chang, tried to assassinate the Japanese Emperor Hirohito in Tokyo the same year but failed.
These targeted missions forced Kim to move the provisional government out of Shanghai to neighboring Hangzhou and Jiaxing in Zhejiang Province, Zhenjiang in Jiangsu Province, Changsha in Hunan Province, Guangzhou in Guangdong Province and later to Chongqing.
The provisional administration came to an end with the liberation of Korea from Japan at the end of WWII. Members of the government returned home and set up their political organizations in what became South Korea.
Due to COVID-19, the site is not yet open to the public.
"The site is a symbol of friendship, which will last despite the COVID-19 pandemic," Chen noted.