Friday, February 29, 2008

Blog war!

Joe Mondello over at the Joshing Gnome documents the simmering antipathy between English language Korea bloggers and Ajumma bloggers, known as 와이프로거. Woe to anyone who would suggest that this is hilarious piss-take on the sniping seen in the English language blogosphere. This is most certainly a troubling aspect of the complex relationship between English language and Korean language bloggers, and when I get the chance, I'll research it further.

Oh, and I think the best way to commemorate the ascendancy of Lee Myung-bak to the job he's being aiming for since before he became mayor of Seoul would be to look upon this solemn photo.

From here.

We wouldn't want the city hall environs to look like the Gileum new town, one of his pet projects while mayor, now would we?

Thursday, February 28, 2008


I saw the movie Chaser almost two weeks ago and it's doing quite well, as the Joongang Ilbo tells us it sold 1.7 million tickets in 10 days. I enjoyed the movie, which certainly doesn't follow the rules of a typical thriller, but which is also pretty bloody at some points. One scene (an example of 'not following the rules') I really didn't like, but it made some sort of sense in view of a later scene. Worth mentioning is that it's obviously based to some degree on the serial killer Yoo Young-Chul.

A Korea Times article mentions other aspects of the film:
"Yes, it is,'' Na said bluntly when asked if the movie was a social criticism. "Fury prompted me to write the story,'' he told reporters following the film's press preview in Seoul.
One scene juxtaposes police sleeping in their car with a scene of horror, to which the audience I saw it with reacted audibly. The Joongang Ilbo article mentions it a bit about the shooting:
The shoot was tiring because filming went two months over schedule ― bad weather caused huge delays ― and the scenes were physically demanding. "Most scenes were shot in the dark and in heavy rain,” Kim said.
The final scene took 40 hours to shoot. No wonder they looked tired. Also, Mark at Korea Pop Wars wondered whether the scenes of chases through hillside alleyways were actually shot in decidedly non-hilly Mangwon-dong, which is where the film is set. Here, perhaps, is the answer:
The chase sequences mainly take place in Mangwon-dong, but Kim’s role demanded that he spend a good portion of the film sprinting through Oksu-dong, Pyeongchang-dong and Bugahyeon-dong.
At any rate, it's nice to see such a low-budget film doing well. If you're not put off by some realistic bloody scenes, it's well worth your time.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Monday, February 25, 2008

people of mystery, in photos

Via Korea Beat, I learned of the display of the oldest known photos of Koreans, taken in 1863. As the Donga Ilbo describes them,
The six pictures of the Korean delegation to China were taken at the Russian legation in Beijing in January 1863. Three members of the delegation appear in one of the pictures. A British missionary at the time collected the photos and took them to Britain.
They were confirmed the oldest in 1999 and have been brought to Korea for the first time from London. All six photos are displayed here. I'd thought Felice Beato took the first photos of Koreans (during the U.S. 1871 expedition, ), but I guess his photos are just the first taken in Korea.

It might be interesting to read the opening of Frederick McKenzie's 1908 book, The Tragedy of Korea (contemporary NYT review here) for its description of the annual tributary visit of Koreans to the Chinese capital:

I have no idea if any Japanese people would have taken photos of Korea between 1876 and 1883 (a history of Japanese photography can be found here), so the next photos to be taken after 1871 may well have been by Percival Lowell. Lowell, an American who served as the counselor and foreign secretary to the 1883 Special Mission from Korea to the United States, lived in Korea for several months starting in December 1883, and wrote the book Choson: Land of the Morning Calm (1886). He also took numerous photos, which can be viewed here (click' search').

Friday, February 22, 2008

Applying the same standards

Last week Brian in Jeollanam-do drew attention to the "shameful scene" of Japanese tourists posing for photos in front of the ruins of Namdaemun. There is a remote chance that they were thinking,"We are certainly not gleeful to see that a monument Kato Kiyomasa restrained himself from destroying has now fallen due to the inability of those in power here to preserve their own history." To be sure, this photo, and others like them that were publicized in the Korean media, became the most-viewed story on Cyworld News.

On an unrelated note, it's nice to see that, two prime ministers later, this website is still operating. I couldn't help but be reminded of yet another similar scene I witnessed almost three years ago:

Here's a shot of three after the photo above was taken, revealing the location:

For those who don't recognize it, this is the Kwangju Uprising National Cemetery. These middle school girls were posing for a photo in front of a cemetery where hundreds of those killed or wounded at a time when Korean soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians are buried. Though they are not Japanese, and are indeed Korean, I'm sure that the netizens who criticized the Japanese tourists seen above will be very interested in these photos, as the girls seen here show a similar cavalier attitude posing in front of a symbol of national tragedy, one where people - in large numbers - actually died. If anyone with a naver or daum blog would like to post these photos there, feel free, but please do leave a link to this post. I'm certain that those who posted comments criticizing the Japanese tourists above were not motivated at all by hatred of Japan, and would apply the same rationale to these girls. If you do choose to post my photos on a Korean portal, do let me know, so I can prepare myself for the deluge of nasty comments directed at these girls.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Dongdongju affirmation

A Canadian has made the (entertainment) news in Korea. Why? Because when she was back in Canada, she had a soju party with 5 other people and they drank 22 bottles of soju. Best to focus on this news item, as I'm sure there aren't any other stories with the number 22 in them these days.

This story was told by Dara, a Canadian participant on Misuda. I'm left wondering whether the ability to drink 4 bottles of soju creates a good impression or a bad impression. Okay, I'm not really wondering that at all.

The caption above reads "Dara's tale of drinking dongdongju in Canada!" Are viewers supposed to think,"Wow, foreigners drink our traditional alcohol in their home countries?" Do these viewers really need to have Korea's existence affirmed like this? I really don't think KBS does its viewers any favors by pandering to a desire for benign foreign attention, but then, since it likely helped play a part in creating this desire over the decades, such pandering isn't going to disappear anytime soon.

By the way, a worthwhile post on Misuda is here.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Further towards the surreal

According to this article translated at Korea Beat,
Kim, who has been homeless for three years, admitted, “for a long time I went [to Namdaemun] and cooked ramen and drank soju but…” According to Kim, about one week before the fire he ate ramen and drank alcohol with at least 10 other homeless people on the second floor of the gate. He recalled, “Sungnyemun was like a summer resort for us. A whole bunch of us would get together and all sleep up there jammed together.”
So what you're saying is that homeless people were using Namdaemun for shelter until it was burnt down by a man who was pissed off about the lack of compensation he got for selling his home.

Monday, February 18, 2008



It would be pretty nifty to know that a tree your father planted was to be part of the new Namdaemun.

Original Post:

I found this at Youtube. It's titled 다시 되돌릴 수 있다면 (If we can go to the PAST). It got me from the beginning with the shot of the magpie.

A very good post (with lots of photos) on a visit to the ruins can be found over at liminality.

In this overhead photo of the ruins, the curve of what would have once been walls can be seen:

Here's what those curving walls looked like in 1904:

Namdaemun can be seen in the distance in this photo, taken from Namsan.

One last, odd thing. Remember the ad campaign for "I am Legend"? I'm sure many people looked at the different posters of cities around the world in ruins and thought they looked pretty nifty.

At the movie theatre the other night, I noticed a booklet for the film Jumper. On each page is a shot of the main character standing on top of a famous building. The final shot, one designed for the Korean market, featured a scene which, as of a week ago, brings about a much different reaction than the one its designers envisioned.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Butting in

[update: Do read the comments for the reply to this post.]

In the comments to my last post, an anonymous commenter left the nastiest reply I’ve ever received, but it’s not without its merits, considering what I posted. Lesson to relearn - don't post quickly when you're tired and try to finish quickly so you can go to bed, especially when you're trying to be funny (and when your typical humor is too dark to be considered funny by most... or is simply not very funny at all).

I actually had a different title and beginning which would have worked better, but didn’t think it was complete and was too tired to finish it and so removed it and changed the title at the last moment and just posted it. The title as posted came from the fact that I noticed it was then Valentines Day, and associated it with the “Easter-style chocolates” I conjured up at the end of the post (which were meant to make fun of my own culture’s weirdness in celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ by telling children a giant bunny left chocolate eggs in the night). I've reinstated the (what I still feel is incomplete) original beginning at the top of the post (and have made clear how I changed it).

Reading what I wrote again made me see that there was a rather large gap between what I was thinking about and how the post turned out. I meant to criticize the media coverage and look at the phenomenon of people crying in front of media cameras in Korea, much as I did in this post. I think that if you read that post, you’ll see that while I might have poked a bit of fun, it was aimed at the media and how people react in the presence of cameras. I should make clear that I didn’t intend to criticize the people themselves who were going to Namdaemun, but the way in which it was turning into a media event. Of course, with the title and the caption under the photo of the children, it would be difficult not to think I was making fun of these people. That's not what I intended, and as strange as putting a photo of a building on an mourning altar might seem, I do realize that they are mourning the death of a symbol, much as the people in Pyeongchang months ago were mourning the death of their dreams of Olympic glory (and of their hope for a rise in land prices in the area).

I do think that the media's presence near, and coverage of, large groups of people influences their behavior and that the dissemination of the images of these groups' behavior in the media influences the behavior of those who observe it as spectators, and that this is a fascinating phenomenon. One only needs to see how media coverage of crowds near city hall during the 2002 world cup drew more people to city hall to be not only a part of that crowd, but also to be subject to that coverage. I just didn't do a very good job of conveying any of this in that last post. Sorry about that.

Now to reply to some of the complaints posted by my anonymous commenter.
these people are revering the past, they are revering something that lasted the test of time, at least within their imaginations, and they are bowing down to that image. and what they are bowing down to isn't profit... it isn't superficial beauty.... it isn't faddish or cutesy or trite. it's truly something noble. something gorgeous. something that has been there "forever" and was supposed to be there till the end of time. they mourn its passing... and that's a bad thing?
'Faddish' isn't the right word, of course, as that would refer more to something like this:

half price!

But it might be worth noting that the number of people visiting Namdaemun has increased markedly since in burned down. As for the popular imagination, allow me to say this:

The burning of and near-total destruction of Namdaemun is best thing that has happened to it since the dawn of the media era - as far as its place in the public imagination is concerned.

Suddenly, a landmark to which most people rarely given a passing thought has been destroyed, and its name (its proper name, at that) is on the lips of everyone. This is, of course, only human nature. While what Mr. Chae did to the actual, physical Namdaemun was terrible, what he has done to make people aware of Namdaemun's place in their shared history ensures that his name will soon be forgotten and drowned out by a million TV news reports, newspaper articles and websites shouting the name in unison "Sungnyemun."
let them mourn in peace without your holier-than-thou "we need a good sense o[f] proportion" thinking. it's their loss not yours, so butt the fuck out why don't cha?
As far as sense of proportion goes, allow me to restate the point of this post a little more succinctly: Nobody died. It's a building. Not only that, it's a building made out of wood, and made in style which the craftsmen currently rebuilding Gyeongbokgung and Gwanghwamun are very familiar with. Another thing worth pointing out is illustrated by this photo:

From here

It hasn't been entirely destroyed. It's even possible that some of these pieces of wood date back to the original structure and that some of them will be incorporated into the newly rebuilt Namdaemun. Of course, that doesn't take away from the fact that it burned and collapsed unexpectedly on live television, something I didn't realize until I read this comment. I can understand that this must have been shocking to see live, and would have had a markedly different effect than looking at photos of its collapse on naver, which is what I did. When I watched a video of it collapsing the next day, I have to say, it was an entirely different experience, and not a very pleasant one. But this all goes to reinforce just what a media event this was, which was what I was (clumsily) discussing in my last post. It's also interesting to note that it's precisely Namdaemun's central location that helped make it so easily accessible (to the general public, the arsonist, and the media covering the fire and the mourners) and which helped cement it in the nation's imagination (as well as the fact that it's more aesthetically pleasing than Dongdaemun).

As for me "butting the fuck out", please let me know what credentials I need to post about this topic. Do I need to have lived here for a certain amount of time? Do I need to have Korean ancestry? It might also help if you let me know what other topics I should not be commenting on. Is it okay to criticize the response of the police, fire department, Cultural Heritage Administration or president to the fire as long as I don't comment on the media's coverage of the public response? As for the "theirs" and "yours" distinction you make, you might want to direct your anger at this uppity foreigner who poked his nose into Korea's business and had the gall to point out that a house in Insa-dong that once belonged to a former prince had been turned into a parking lot (without a peep from the media).
they mourn something twice as old (if even in their imagination) as your own fucking country.... have a bit of feeling whydoncha?
As my country is 140 years old, Namdaemun would actually be about four times as old as my own fucking country, which would make Namdaemun about 10 times older than the Republic of Korea. As long as we're keeping count, I mean.

The burning of Namdaemun has certainly been the first big 'gust' of the year...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

One of those moments


Before I published this post, I removed the introduction and changed the title. After receiving some criticism for this post, I decided to reinstate them in the hope that I wouldn't sound quite as cynical as I did. When this was first published, it was titled "A great place to go for Valentine's day" (don't ask why, I'm not sure myself). Under the photo of the children was the caption "Don't cry, honey. Wait until you're in front of the cameras." Yeah, that was a bit much. I'd like to change more, but won't. The reinstated bit goes from here to the beginning of the Joongang Ilbo article.

Years ago, a few weeks after moving to Korea, my supervisor pulled me aside and told me to keep an eye on one of the students. When I asked why, she told me that they boy's mother had had a bad dream about him the night before, and was worried something might happen to him.

It was one of those moments when I remembered that, despite the cellphones and traffic and supermarkets that seemed like home on speed, I was living in a very different culture.

I had another one of those moments when I read this Joongang Ilbo article:

Mourners visit gate, creating a funereal climate
Tears shed at altar at Namdaemun

Shaking off the bitter cold, a stream of mourners continued to visit Namdaemun yesterday to see the rubble with their own eyes and pay their respects to the ancient structure. In the grass plaza behind the 610-year-old gate, a makeshift mourning altar was set up with apples, pears and soju on a picnic mat. A traditional funeral song blared from a speaker.

Visitors waited in line to offer a flower and bow twice, as is done at a traditional mourning altar for a dead person.

That's such a nice photo of... it.

Children were among the mourners, as well. “I want to see your beautiful face again as soon as possible,” read a letter written by an 11-year-old elementary school student, placed in the midst of piles of flowers.

“The gate disappeared so unexpectedly, so Koreans are in shock. The gate was a representative symbol of our country and people think of it as a living creature,” said Yang Yoon, professor of psychology at Ewha Womans University.

Ah, so that's why, then. I guess it has nothing to do with the presence of cameras, which mean that this is being shown on TV and in the newspapers and on the internet, and which means these people have a large audience in front of which they must act appropriately (by, say, shedding tears), which then draws more people to take part in something that makes them feel like they're part of a larger group. Right? I mean, we've never seen the presence of cameras cause people to suddenly break down crying before, have we?

I just wonder how people are going to act when the newly rebuilt Namdaemun (or Sungnyemun, as everyone has gotten into the habit of calling it since Sunday) is unveiled in a few years. I don't think there are many Confucian rituals for resurrection. Christians have a popular one, of course. If the media here follow the lead of the west, perhaps in a few years children here will love celebrating Sungnyemun's resurrection. I mean, who wouldn't love hunting for Sungnyemun- shaped chocolates that were hidden by a giant bunny?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Collapse in perspective

The collapse of the Seongsu Bridge on October 21, 1994, which killed 32 people.

The collapse of the Sampoong Department Store on June 29, 1995, which killed 501 people.

The arson and collapse of Namdaemun on February 11, 2008, which killed no one.

(and not everything was destroyed...)

It's interesting how the destruction of a symbol can stir up the same emotions as catastrophes that leave dead and injured in their wake.


The Metropolitician takes on the media for blowing things out of proportion.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A bad start to the (lunar) year

Fire Destroys National Treasury No. 1. Nice proofreading, Korea Times.
6-century-old National Treasure destroyed in fire from the Joongang Ilbo.
Three from the Chosun Ilbo:
Fire Destroys Historic Seoul Landmark
Shock at Destruction of Historic Seoul Landmark
Gate That Survived 600 Years Consumed by Fire in Hours

Via the Marmot, I found out that Namdaemun had caught fire; by 2 am the tower pavilion had collapsed. The photos below are from here.

More photos can be found on flickr by someone who was there. According to Wikipedia, Namdaemun was last repaired in 1962, due to damage it sustained during the Korean War:

The damage to Namdaemun paled in comparison to Gwanghwamun, of course:

It's sad to see it destroyed, but unlike most landmarks that fall under the wrecking ball in Seoul, we all know that it will be rebuilt (much as Gwanghwamun is being now). And who's to say it hasn't been replaced before (especially after the Imjin War or Manchu invasions)? If Seoul City couldn't get the amount of time the passageway beneath the gate had been closed for (see here, here, and here for more on this and lots of old photos of Namdaemun), then I'm not sure I'm so willing to believe that it has existed basically unaltered for 610 years.

At any rate, seeing as Gwangbok Palace has been undergoing a restoration for years now, and Gwanghwamun is being rebuilt, it's obvious that the skills and knowledge exist to rebuild Namdaemun. One question that remains for me: to what degree is Namdaemun a national icon? Does it mean much to people living in the provinces? Whatever the answer is, I'm sure it will be the topic of several conversations tomorrow.

[Update:] I'd posted this above, but now realize it's not Namdaemun. I'm not sure where it was taken.

First sunset of the lunar new year

Taken from the top of the Millenium Tower at Jonggak Station, February 7.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Rejecting the call

The (who else?) Joongang Ilbo has an interesting article about changing attitudes towards having the wife's mother help raise the children, something I've found relatively common among the working women with young children I've taught, many of whom have moved to the area to be close to their mothers. Some stats:
According to a recent survey, more and more young married couples are seeking help from the wifes’ parents. In an Internet poll of 336 single men and women in their 20s and 30s conducted by marriage consulting firm Duo, 54 percent said they are willing to live with the wifes’ parents, something that was nearly unheard of a generation ago. Asked about getting help with household work from the parents of working women, 81 percent said they approve of the idea.

In a reversal of the tradition that a family does not get involved in the family affairs of married daughters, growing numbers of working mothers seek comfort and security from their own mothers rather than their in-laws. Mothers of working moms are thus facing new hardships as they are called on to help raise grandchildren and perform other tasks.
The twist? Many grandmothers are tired of putting up with it:
Lee Jeong-sun, 70, said she spent four years taking care of her 8-year-old granddaughter and 4-year-old grandson. She then devised a strategy to prompt her daughter to stop asking for help ― she started using foul language in front of the grandchildren when she watched soap operas on TV. “My daughter decided to send the kids to kindergarten,” Lee said.[...]

Park said her friends joke about the situation and swap tips on how to send the grandchildren back to their daughters. “Daughters hate it when we bring kids to the elderly community centers or use our broken English with them,” Park said. “When we do that, the daughters soon take the children back to their own homes.”
The entire article is worth a read.

Laying blame

The Joongang Ilbo has an article (which crashed firefox) here about the historic Jeong-dong neighbourhood behind Deoksugung, where many European and American legations (as well as the precursors of Ehwa and Baejae Universities) were founded in the late 1800s. I thought it well worth a read, as it's a subject I'm interested in, having written about it before here and here. For current photos of the remnants of the western settlement there, Robert Koehler posted a collection here. I couldn't help but notice this quote at the end of the article, however:
“Architecture is about identity,” Cho says, pointing out the lack of architectural continuity between Western buildings in Jeong-dong and traditional Korean buildings. Hundreds of hanok, Korean houses, were pulled down to allow the imperial powers of the late 19th century to erect their baronial buildings, she points out.
To see the area being talked about, this (circa 1920) map shows the Russian, U.S. and British consulates behind Deoksu (there "Keiun") Palace. Add another square centimeter or so to get an idea of just how much of Seoul was destroyed by the rampaging westerners erecting their "baronial" buildings. Forget the Japanese and the hanoks like these which were destroyed while Korean presidents ruled the country, blame the westerners!

For some reason this reminded me of this quote from the director of the upcoming Nogun-ri movie (which I mentioned here):
It is going to tell the relationships that people had in the small community and how intimate and beautiful they were, and ask them (the U.S. military) if they knew what they were doing. They were destroying these beautiful human beings.
Best to forget the fact that South Koreans noncombatants were overwhelmingly victimized by their own army, or partisans, or North Korean soldiers and look at the beauty destroyed by the U.S., which would have been responsible for a tiny fraction of those killed in the south (though far more in the North, due to 3 years of saturation bombing).

Considering the number of historic areas in Seoul being wiped off the map regularly (because they aren't old enough to be considered historical or, if they are, are not in the proper area that has been set aside for preservation), complaining about the destruction of hanoks in a tiny fraction of Seoul due to the presence of westerners seems ridiculous. How can someone complain that “Western architecture competes with nature, but Korean architecture tries to blend with the landscape,” in a city where traditional Korean architecture exists only in sealed off tourist areas where it serves no practical function, and where communist-style concrete apartment blocks dot the landscape? In this context, the old buildings the Europeans and American missionaries - and Japanese - left behind now make for some of the genuinely oldest and most beautiful buildings in the city.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Inspirational ideas

The Joongang Ilbo conveys the best idea the Seoul Government has had in years.
Starting next year, Seoul residents may be required to have a microchip inserted into their children to make it easier to search for a lost child. The Seoul Metropolitan City Government yesterday announced revisions to the ordinance on the protection of children and will receive feedback from the public through Feb. 20.

If the law is passed by the city council, it would go into effect in April or May 2009.
Under the proposal, a parent would register the child at a district office and have a microchip, containing a registration number, inserted in the child. Failure to comply could bring a fine of 200,000 won ($212).

The microchip is 8 millimeters long and inserted at the base of the child’s neck. “A child might feel a little pain when the chip is inserted by a syringe but the chip would not harm a child’s health,” said Kim Woon-kyu, an official at the city government.
It goes without saying that paying bills is never a favourite activity, but in Korea it's even more depressing, what with images like this appended to the bill:

As it says, Park Su-jin went missing on her way to (or from) school in Cheonan at the age of sixteen in October 2004. She has scars on her upper lip and left knee and is left-handed except when she writes. Needless to say, if they operated scanners to scan these chips at the door of, say, every bus and train station, it would make much easier to find these children. Of course, when you consider that these children will grow into adults one day, it might be best to insert chips into everyone.

Okay, the actual article is about inserting chips into pets, but I thought it would be interesting to take a costly and likely ineffective idea and take it to an illogical outcome. Worth mentioning, though, is that while at first I though the idea was, well, nuts, and wondered just who would be getting the government contract to make these chips, it is worth nothing that the article didn't mention the cause for this policy (like this article did) that 16,000 pets were abandoned in Seoul in 2006 - an eightfold increase since 2000 - which makes you wonder just how many dogs are purchased every year in Seoul and what percentage of them are abandoned. Still, it seems like a perfect example of a Korean government agency's claustrophobia-inducing desire for order and control (in a bodily-invasive manner- remember the 1995 plan to drug test every child in the country?) mixed with a belief in the effectiveness of advanced technology - no better illustrated than by the popularity of KTF and SK's cellphone service that translates dog barks. Yes, people really are that stupid. I can't help but remember the Gregory Henderson quote, "In the non-socialist world, I have so far sensed nothing comparable to the South Korean shadowing of the private by the public sphere." The fact that the government feels the need to inject tags into pets betrays a deep distrust of its own citizens (and lack of infrastructure for abandoned dogs - as the case of the animal shelter forced to close in Daejeon shows).

I can't help but think that this plan would seem more at home in Bong Jun-ho's Barking Dogs Never Bite than in today's newspaper, but then Bong is always satirizing Korean society, so it makes complete sense. And think of the film possibilities - the chips are made in Gaesong, and a North Korean general tweaks them so that the pets will tear out the throats of their owners on his command. You could mix comedy (as if a pack of chihuahuas would really be that scary) with horror (they feast on peoples' eyes, as in Hitchcock's The Birds). Mix in the dogs hiding in apartment stairwells as soldiers hunt for them (as in Aliens: "They cut the power!" "How could they cut the power? They're animals!") and you'd have a potential classic on your hands. Never underestimate government policy when it comes to inspiring bizarre blends of horror and comedy.


The Chosun Ilbo has an article on this here - apparently Britain already has this, as does, my co-worker tells me, New Zealand. It's nice to see Korea is importing only the best foreign ideas.