David Kilburn, who died on October 7 in Seoul aged 76 after a short illness, had an eclectic career on three continents as an advertising executive, journalist and entrepreneur. However, it was his activities as a conservation activist in his adopted home of Seoul that won him both fame and notoriety.
Based in London’s Convent Garden in the 1970s and then branching out across the world, Kilburn carved out a uniquely personal niche as a writer, photographer and tea expert. An unmistakable figure in his broad-brimmed hats and Issey Miyake suits, the grey-bearded Kilburn was the epitome of the Englishman abroad.
In 2001 he founded a successful tea retailing business in Seoul, the Tea Museum. But his time was increasingly consumed by his relentless campaign against the destruction by property developers of Seoul’s traditional cottage homes, or hanok.
His uncompromising stance on heritage preservation bought Kilburn into fierce opposition to many vested interests in the construction industry, and their powerful allies in Seoul’s law courts and local government offices – and landed him in hospital after a 2006 assault.
Ad man in Asia
David Kilburn was born in Widnes, then in the county of Lancashire, in 1943. He attended King’s School Chester, and subsequently graduated with a chemistry degree from Birmingham University in 1966.
After nearly three years at London advertising agency Leo Burnett, Kilburn, in 1972, he began a 10-year stint as an international account handler at Ogilvy & Mather, culminating in two years spent establishing the agency’s new Dubai office.
In 1985 David moved to Japan and became the Asia correspondent for Ad Age and then Adweek. From then on, he would divide his time between Tokyo and Seoul.
During a pivotal era in the expansion of advertising agencies and global brands across east Asia’s booming economies, David’s unrivaled access to the movers and shakers of the advertising business in Asia during the 1980s and 1990s made his reporting essential reading for marketers and agencies. Few journalists were better able to unravel the complexities of Korean and Japanese advertising agency ownership and joint-venture arrangements.
As an acknowledged expert on marketing in both countries, Kilburn maintained a close relationship with his alma mater Ogilvy & Mather, as the agency navigated the choppy waters of the East Asian brand communications sector, particularly during the region-wide financial crisis of 1997.
Worth fighting for
After marrying his Korean wife Jade in 1987, Kilburn in 1988 acquired a traditional Korean house – a hanok – in the Kahoi Dong (also spelled Gahoe Dong) sub-district of Bukchon. Bukchon is a neighborhood of narrow alleys that wind over a low hill between Seoul’s two most prominent medieval palaces.
Hanok are wooden framed and beamed, single-story cottages with underfloor heating systems. In cities, they are usually tile-roofed and set around courtyards. As an authentic, early 20th century hanok, David and Jade Kilburn’s home would go on to be featured in many articles in the world’s leading newspapers and magazines.
The media interest was merited. The Kilburn’s home was, by the late 1990s, a very rare sight.
South Korea developed at breakneck speed in the 1960s and ‘70s and ‘80s. Urban property prices soared. Attitudes shifted. In this rapidly modernizing nation, newly urbanized Koreans looked down upon hanok as old fashioned, uncomfortable and inconvenient.
As a result, property development did what colonization and war had not: It wiped out traditional housing. Seoul’s districts of old cottages set around narrow, ambient alleyways, disappeared under fleets of bulldozers. Forests of high rises sprouted and the city took on a new face.
Bukchon was one area that – due to height restrictions near the palaces, Seoul’s top tourist attractions – escaped the apartment builders, but even so, approximately half of Bukchon’s hanok were gone by the mid-1990s.
New problems arose when hanok started to regain some cachet in the late 1990s. The trend propelled the well-to-do into the district and compelled City Hall to start offering funds to owners for hanok renovation. These developments – so promising on the surface – would prove disastrous. A new wave of demolition began as old hanok were razed. In their place, bright, shiny new neo-hanok rose.
The area’s few surviving traditional hanok needed a champion.
‘Renovation’ = destruction
Kilburn – a fragile, genteel figure – took on a late-in-life role protesting the destruction of the architectural heritage of his beloved neighborhood, which he called “a living museum of how Koreans used to live.”
As an activist, Kilburn furiously alleged that many of City Hall’s “renovation” funds were, in fact, being used to fund destruction. He became a thorn in the side of City Hall, railing against the trend in voice, in print and online, and was a sought-after interview subject on the issue.
He also made enemies of property developers and building companies as he faced down construction workers destroying hanok. In 2006, the expatriate was hospitalized after being physically assaulted by a construction foreman. (The foreman would subsequently sue the activist, alleging that Kilburn had assaulted him.)
Though he recovered from his injuries, in his latter years, Kilburn lamented that his efforts to preserve hanok had been insufficient.
He told the co-author of this article of his distress that his formerly neighborly district was now mostly silent at night. Residents had been displaced, while the wealthy owners of the neo-hanok did not usually live in them. Instead, they tended to use them largely as weekend homes, or as settings for such activities as music recitals, poetry readings and wine tastings.
He also noted how Chinese tourists, bused into the “traditional” neighborhood, would ask, “Where are the real hanok?” Kilburn’s home is one of the few that have been preserved in what has been dubbed by City Hall, “Bukchon Hanok Village.”
Today, across the city and across the country, agonizingly few hanok remain.
Of those that do, only a tiny number function as they were intended to – as homes. Preferred practice is to convert them into cafes, bars, restaurants and galleries. Some have also been turned into guest houses and hotels, a trend that ironically offers visiting foreigners an experience Koreans have largely rejected – that of sleeping under wooden beams in a cosy bedroom set off an internal courtyard.
Kilburn’s activism was not limited to heritage conservation. In recent years in London’s Trafalgar Square, he frequently joined the “silent protest” in support of justice for the families of the victims of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster.
His curiosity and enthusiasm never waned; Kilburn rigorously followed current affairs and maintained a lively interest in the visual arts, including visits to the latest exhibitions on his visits to London. He was also an astute collector of Asian artifacts, including furniture and porcelain, especially items related to his interest in tea.
The enduring legacy of Kilburn’s hanok conservation work in Korea can be viewed at www.kahoidong.com, which contains extensive documentation in several languages, over 50 videos and hundreds of photographs.
David Kilburn is survived by his wife, Jade.