In Seoul to pursue a K-pop dream, Singaporean Lydia Wong lives in a box, quite literally.
Home to her is a 3 sq m room with no windows, and walls so thin she can hear her neighbour's every move. But it comes equipped with everything the 24-year-old needs - a small bed occupying half the room, a study desk with a mini fridge and fan on it, shelves above her bed to store books, clothes and a tiny TV, and a rod suspended from the ceiling for hanging her clothes.
The room, which is smaller than a typical Housing Board flat bathroom, is stuffy and claustrophobic.
But Miss Wong, who arrived in Seoul in February to study the Korean language, said it is cosy and affordable enough "for a poor student like me". She shells out just 250,000 won (S$304) a month for rent, with Wi-Fi and utilities included.
"Initially I was worried about having no windows, but I soon got used to it," said the K-pop fan who dreams of finding a showbiz-related job here after finishing her course in November.
"I'm quite an adaptable person and I don't require a lot of things to live, just the basic needs."
The room is hot in summer and cold in winter. I had to wear three layers of clothing when it's cold.
SINGAPOREAN LYDIA WONG, who sleeps with the door of her gosiwon ajar because the tiny room is too stuffy
Miss Wong lives in a gosiwon, a boarding house-like form of housing unique to South Korea. It started out in the 1980s as cheap one-room accommodation of 3 to 6 sq m for students to isolate themselves for months to cram for examinations, with shared facilities like bathroom and kitchen.
Rice, kimchi and sometimes instant noodles are provided for free in the kitchen.
But since the early 2000s, such gosiwon, which literally means exam room, have become an alternative home for a variety of people who cannot afford to pay for other types of housing because of rising living costs and a fiercely competitive job market, particularly for young people with youth unemployment at 8.4 per cent, much higher than the nationwide rate of 3.4 per cent.
Boarders include job seekers, foreigners who came here to learn the Korean language or find a job, labourers, jobless people and, in some instances, families.
Even Korean-American singer Andy Lee, a member of boy band Shinhwa, openly admitted that he once stayed in a gosiwon during the 1990s, when he was living in Seoul alone, away from his family in the United States.
To cater to growing demand, the number of gosiwon has almost doubled in the past few years, from 6,597 in 2010 to 11,457 last year, according to official data. Almost 80 per cent of these gosiwon are located in Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi province.
In 2011, there were 138,805 people living in gosiwon, with over 62 per cent of them unemployed, according to a 2013 report by the Seoul metropolitan government.
There is no official demographic data of gosiwon dwellers, but local news reports indicate that fewer than half are students cramming for exams. In some poor areas, up to 90 per cent are middle-aged people with no jobs, and some of them can live there for several years.
Gosiwon are popular because they are cheap, costing just 200,000 to 500,000 won a month, and they do not require tenants to pay sky-high rental deposits, unlike in the traditional rental housing system.
Only about half of Koreans - 53.6 per cent last year according to Statistics Korea - own their homes. The rest rent, forking out huge lump-sum deposits known as jeonse, that could be 50-80 per cent of the property's value.
A typical 25 sq m studio apartment, for instance, can require about 50 million won in jeonse. The landlord will usually invest the money, keep the profits generated (which is considered the rent) and return the original sum at the end of the two- to three-year tenancy. This was a win-win situation until falling interest rates led landlords to raise jeonse, sometimes to as high as 90 per cent of the property value, making it unaffordable to many.
An alternative monthly rental system known as wolse also requires a big deposit, on top of monthly payments. The same studio apartment can command a 10 million won deposit in addition to 400,000 to 600,000 won monthly rent.
For those with no savings or wealthy parents to help them pay for either jeonse or wolse, gosiwon are an affordable option. But a gosiwon is "closer to a coffin than a room", as novelist Park Min Kyu described in a 2004 short story about his stay in one such lodging.
VILLAGE OF MINI-ROOMS
In Silim-dong in south-western Seoul, near the prestigious Seoul National University, there is even a gosichon, or exam village.
The residential area is filled with buildings that have been converted into one-bedders for rent, cram schools and lots of cheap dining options and cafes catering to the needs of students mugging for
their dreams - be it passing the state bar exam or the civil service entrance exam, or entering the university of their choice.
One of the residents, Mr Lee Sung Jin, 32, is studying for the bar exam in March next year. He lives in a gosiwon that is a steal at only 120,000 won a month. "I went for the cheapest gosiwon and it doesn't matter that the room is small, because I need it only for sleeping," said Mr Lee.
Mr Charles Chu, who runs the four-year-old BoBo Memberstel located near Seoul National University subway station, said students cramming for exams make up only 60 per cent of his tenants. About 20 per cent are office workers and the rest foreigners.
As the business grew more competitive with more gosiwon springing up, Mr Chu decided to shift his focus to attract foreigners who come to Seoul to learn Korean or on exchange programmes. He said most tenants leave within six months, but there is a guy who has stayed on for four years.
"He doesn't have his own house and has to live apart from his family members. Gosiwon is the only place that he can afford to rent," said Mr Chu.
While they used to spring up around universities, gosiwon can now be found all over the capital city, with fancy Konglish - Korean-English - names like gositel, livingtel or oneroomtel.
Near City Hall, where many major companies have offices, there are gosiwon that target white-collar workers. Many prefer to live in crammed quarters near their office than spend long hours commuting.
Even in Seoul's outskirts such as Dobong, Geumcheon and Jungnang, which are not filled with colleges or major offices, the number of gosiwon has increased 50 per cent from 2009 to 2013, according to official data.
And in the upscale Chungdam-dong in Gangnam district, there are also gosiwon that pride themselves on being a stone's throw from the luxurious Galleria Department Store.
Chungdam Livingtel, for instance, advertises itself as a "hotel-style full-option premium livingtel right in the middle of Gangnam", complete with a coveted address that many can only dream of.
Living in a gosiwon is not all rosy, though, as residents often have to forgo their privacy in the shared space, and are not allowed to have guests. The living conditions vary, depending on how old the place is.
Miss Wong, who lives near Konkuk University in eastern Seoul where she attends language classes, said her windowless room is stuffy and she sleeps with the door ajar, secured by a door chain.
"The room is hot in summer and cold in winter. I had to wear three layers of clothing when it's cold," she said.
The tiny rooms, with walls made of wood and filled with books and papers, can also be a fire hazard.
A fire in a gosiwon building in Seoul's Sincheong-dong that killed 11 people in 2010, which followed a 2008 fire that killed seven gosiwon residents in Gyeonggi province, triggered public concern about safety.
The government then imposed new regulations that require gosiwon built after 2010 to have fire sprinklers, and started to inspect gosiwon in 2012 to make sure they comply with safety standards.
A set of new rules announced in June, including wider corridors, thicker walls and mandatory CCTV systems, aims to enhance the safety and comfort of gosiwon residents.
Miss Wong said fire is a concern, but "there are fire extinguishers at every corner" in her gosiwon block.
The good thing about living in a gosiwon is that she never feels lonely, said Miss Wong, who has chatted with fellow residents, including office workers and those who come from the suburbs to look for jobs.
Mr Park Jee Hoon, who moved to Seoul from south-western Jeolla province to attend college, used to live in a gosiwon but has upgraded to a 16 sq m one-room which he shares with a friend. They split the monthly rent of 370,000 won. The so-called one-room is like a mini studio flat complete with its own kitchen and bathroom, and commands deposits ranging from a month's rent to a few million won.
Now working as a waiter at a restaurant near his home in Silim-dong's gosichon, the 21-year-old has taken a break from his computer technology studies to think about his future.
"If not for cheap accommodation like gosiwon, people like me can never afford to leave our hometowns to find a job in Seoul," he said.
As for Miss Wong, if and when she finds a permanent job, she hopes to move from her gosiwon to a one-room. "I'd like to have more space and a window," she said.
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