Sunday, January 14, 2024

Experimental artists challenge 'suffocating' conformity in 1960s Seoul

Update: The lecture can be watched here.

This Tuesday, January 16, I will give a lecture for the Royal Asiatic Society titled “'We feel like we’re suffocating’: Experimental Artists Confront Conformity in Seoul, 1968-70.” My latest Korea Times article, "Experimental artists challenge 'suffocating' conformity in 1960s Seoul," gives a preview of the lecture. For more information about the lecture see here (note that the lecture will be given at a new venue).

I’ll be leading a follow-up excursion to Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art to view the Kim Ku-rim Exhibition on Saturday, January 20, at 2:00. (The exhibition has a 2,000 won admission fee.)

This lecture is based on years of digging through the weekly magazines that began proliferating in the 1968. The first few years saw some of them publishing risque material, including nudity, but the government's crackdown on the artists featured in the lecture also affected the weeklies, and they become less interesting after 1970 (though, to be clear, they still had lots of interesting material, just less so than before). 

Two sources I recently discovered were the websites of Gang Guk-jin and Kim Kulim, which have digitized a lot of newspaper and magazine articles from that time.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Running with the Devils in Itaewon, 1968-70

Larry Tressler performing with the Devils (and the girl group Happy Dolls) at Seoul Citizens' Hall, June 1970. (Courtesy of Larry Tressler.)

A decade or more ago, I bought CD reissues of the first two LPs by the Devils, a Korean rock band active in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and was surprised to see, in the accompanying booklet, photos of the band with an American. “Who in the world is he?” I wondered. In 2022, I found out it was Larry Tressler, and conversations with him (on Facebook, email, and in person during his visit to Korea in October) provided the basis for my latest Korea Times article.

Not included in the article is this list of songs (covers) that the band used to play:

From what I remember, some of the songs in our normal set included:

Proud Mary – Ike and Tina Turner

Soul Man – Sam & Dave

Security – Otis Redding

I’ve Been Loving You Too Long – Otis Redding

Na Na Hey Hey, Kiss Him Good bye – Steam 

Land of a Thousand Dances – Wilson Pickett

96 Tears – Question Mark & the Mysterians

Born To Be Wild - Steppenwolf

Everyday People – Sly & the Family Stone

Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival

Get Back – The Beatles

Evil Ways - Santana

Dock of The Bay – Otis Redding

My Girl – The Temptations

I Got That Feeling – James Brown

Arirang (Sung by me, the American, in Korean)

하얀집 / White House [based on the 1968 song ‘Casa Bianca’ by Marisa Sannia, and sung by the Pearl Sisters] - it was classic back then - with a rock beat.  

Nima – Pearl Sisters

Released in late 1968, the latter song was the first rock(ish) song to become a hit in Korea, making the Pearl Sisters and songwriter/guitarist Shin Joong-hyun hugely popular and ushering in the age of Americanized pop music in Korea.

Many thanks to Larry for sharing so many of his memories.

[Note: The Devils were unique due to their focus on soul music, though covers of such music are absent from their LPs (their first album only features a cover of 'Proud Mary'). A number of the rock bands that had come out of the US Eighth Army stage (미군무대) scene recorded English-language covers of rock songs such as the Key Boys (Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild") and Shin Joong-hyun and the Questions (Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"), or devoted entire sides of their LPs to covers, such as He6 ("Proud Mary," Steam's "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye," The Archie's "Feeling So Good", Fifth Dimension's "Aquarius Let The Sunshine In," and Santana's "Evil Ways"), Trippers (Santana's "Evil Ways," CCR's "Molina," Tony Orlando and Dawn's "Knock Three Times," the Archie's "Feeling so good," and Glen Campbell's "By the Time I get to Phoenix"), and the Pearl Sisters (though they sang their covers of songs like Scott McKenzie's "If you're going to San Francisco" or the Temptations' "Get Ready" in Korean).]

Thursday, January 04, 2024

Tim Hortons betrays Korea!

So, Tim Hortons (aka the Church of Canada) opened up a franchise or two in Korea in 2023, with plans to expand to 150 stores within... a time frame... in the future. You might be able to guess how much I care about this.

Now, don't get me wrong - Timmies was a staple of the Canadian (or Ontarian) experience by the 1990s. If you're not from there, I'd explain it by saying it was an omnipresent experience, unless you lived in a rural area like I did and didn't get one until...sometime in the mid 2000s (by which I mean 2005 or so). But there was one or two in Peterborough, a city 45 minutes from home, and I learned to stomach developed a taste for coffee drinking Tim's double doubles (double cream, double sugar), but the real draw was the donuts. 

To be honest though, I preferred Country Style Donuts' donuts to Tim's... their cherry crullers were to die for (though a friend who worked there later told me how many eggs went into a batch of those donuts - I think it was 48 eggs per dozen... those things were heavy... but delicious). At any rate, Tim Hortons and their drive throughs were all over the place on highways in Ontario, so they served as a good way to refuel with caffeine on hours-long drives across wide-open Ontario spaces, as bathroom stops, or, as time went on and their menus broadened, a place to grab a slightly-wider range of sandwich and soup options, in addition to donuts and coffee. But my memories of working in Guelph, Ontario, in the late 1990s, feature runs to Tims to grab a cardboard flat that would hold 4 or 5 coffees to bring back to work for your coworkers, and in that way Tims contributed to fuel the office and retail grind of suburban Ontario (I can't speak for the rest of Canada). 

But now, Timmies has opened up franchises in Gangnam, the 'Beverly Hills' of Korea, or whatever. And while the the company and its Korean partners are clearly banking on a "premium" image to propel sales in Korea ("Canada's greatest most popular coffee and donuts!"), this is being undone by Korean media outlets keen to question things foreign and - more importantly - the throngs of Koreans who have studied in Canada, which can't help but make me chuckle, considering the effort the Canadian embassy was putting into promoting university or English language study in Canada a decade ago (when I had contacts there), which I'm sure continues now. 

The Korea Times reports on the woes of someone who studied in Canada years ago:

Stepping inside Korea's first Tim Hortons that opened last month, however, he scanned the menu and was disheartened to see that everything was way more expensive than he remembered. A medium-size cup of black coffee was 3,900 won ($3.97 Canadian). The same is sold in Canada for $1.83. 

"I was hugely disappointed," said Kim who expected prices similar to Canada's. "If Tim Hortons in Canada sold their double-double and French Vanilla at the same prices as here in Seoul, I would have never gone there and neither would local patrons there."

Similar woes are reported by a former language student in Canada who "couldn't accept the fact that the brand's prices are almost on par with those of other high-end coffee brands here. 'I don't get why they raised the prices to the levels of other coffee brands here. Is this some kind of localization?'"

Um... yes? Obviously? The only way to feel you're at some place on the cutting edge of hip in Korea is to feel a bit (or a lot) sore in your wallet at the cash register. If you want cheap, you can go to campus cafeterias, but you're not going to find the Instagram influencers businesses are increasingly spending their advertising budgets on there. Thinking Timmies could expand here by undercutting local budget places would be a good way to guarantee they close up shop within a few months. 

Mostly, though, I'm surprised at the focus on coffee and the lack of mention of anything about the cost of their old fashioned glazed or their timbits. What of their sandwiches? Do these coffee drinking philistines care nothing about Canadian cuisine?!? 


I don't remember Timmies having anything like Country Style's cherry crullers, but apparently last year, for a limited time, Tim's brought back "cherry sticks", which I don't remember from back in the day (trust me, I would have noticed if they had something like a cherry cruller), but which is very similar. Those things were heavy bars which could likely take out someone's eye if you aimed just right. 

The second thing to note is that, whatever fun I may poke at Tims, whenever I've gone home and eaten one of their donuts (an obvious choice since Tims is rather ubiquitous at this point), I've thought they were delicious, but when this prompted me to have a Dunkin' Donuts donut in Korea, I'd remember that Koreans like their sugar spread throughout their food, and not concentrated into a singular point like the bottom of a gravity well the way Canadians do, and I'd wrinkle my nose at the local donuts' blandness and avoid them thereafter.