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Hi, I’m Colin Marshall

… a Seoul-based essayist, broadcaster, and public speaker on cities, language, and culture.

You’ll find my essays here. I write for outlets including Guardian CitiesOpen Culture, the Times Literary Supplementthe Los Angeles Review of Books (including its Korea Blog), KCET, Boom: A Journal of California (and guest-edited its issue on architecture, infrastructure, and the built environment), Bookforum, Boing Boing, Put This On, The Japan Foundation, The Millions3QuarksdailyThe Quarterly Conversation, and Maximum Fun.

Each month I appear on a Seoul urbanism radio feature on TBS eFM’s Koreascape. Previously, I hosted and produced the world-traveling podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture [RSS] [iTunes], which evolved from the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas. 

My video essay series The City in Cinema examines cities (especially Los Angeles) as they appear on film.

My public speaking, which I’ve done in places like Portland’s Hollywood Theatre, the San Francisco Urban Film Festival, Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Chapman University, California State University Long Beach, and the Seoul Book and Culture Club, usually covers this same suite of cities-and-culture-related topics.

You can also keep up with me on Twitter and Facebook as well.

Korea Blog: The Explosively Controversial “Kim Ji Young, Born 1982” Comes Out in English

The tagline of last year’s cautiously anticipated film Kim Jiyoung: Born 1982 (82년생 김지영) promised to tell “your story and mine.” The picture itself delivers only to the extent that you or I happen to be a Korean woman in early middle age, and even then to the extent that our background aligns with the title character’s. But that was more than understood, given the frenzy of attention already drawn by the picture’s source material: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, the debut novel by a former television writer named Cho Nam-joo. As I wrote here on the Korea Blog two years ago, this plain tale of a woman’s life of struggle and frustration in the realms of school, family, work, employment, and childrearing became an unlikely bestseller not long after its publication in late 2016.

At the same time, Cho’s novel also became an even less likely object of fierce controversy. Battle lines were drawn across society over its diagnosis of the plight of Korean womanhood in the 21st century. Social media, by its very nature, stoked the flames: on Instagram, an all-powerful force in Korea, the book’s familiar cover became a declamatory flag to hoist up in selfies. But however long a moment Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 enjoyed, trends have a way of simmering down here no sooner than they’ve boiled up. Translations into other languages began appearing not long after the book turned into a social phenomenon, but the English-language publishing industry seems, true to form, to have dragged its feet. Published just this year, Jamie Chang’s rendering of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 can now give English-readers a clearer idea of what all the fuss was about.

I am not, it will be noted, a Korean woman in early middle age. In normal times this wouldn’t need saying, but these days — from what I gather watching the culture wars now raging on Western social media — one can’t be too careful about declaring one’s identity. By some lights, I’m disqualified from writing about this book entirely. Did I, like Kim Jiyoung, go through childhood making do with what was left after my brother had his fill? Was I tormented by boys at school and told simply to endure it? Have I felt the pressure exerted by an entire extended family to produce a son, and the judgment when I didn’t? Was I forced to quit a job I enjoyed (apart from being expected to make coffee for the higher-ups) when I did have a child, who turned out to be a daughter? Do I have to travel to my in-laws’ home every holiday and cook them food for days straight? Have I lived in fear of strangers’ hands on the bus, or of the pornographers’ cameras potentially hidden in every restroom stall? Have I withstood all this only to be derided as a “mom-roach”?

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: In Praise of Pilsa, the Highly Uncreative Korean Method of Learning to Write

Many Western expatriates start feeling their days in Korea are numbered as soon as they become parents. “We’ll have to leave before the kid starts school,” I often hear; the combination of urgency and vagueness reminds me of Los Angeles parents insisting that one “just can’t” send one’s children to whichever local public school their address assigns them. Whether by leaving the country or by shelling for an international (in most cases, read: ersatz American) school, the Western parent — and increasingly, the Korean parent of means — instinctively avoids the Korean education system. What if the kids are subject to overly strict hierarchies? What if they don’t get enough English? What if they have to engage in “rote” and “uncreative” East Asian forms of learning?

Come off glazed and harried though they may, Korean students seem at least to internalize some knowledge in the classroom, which is more than I can say for myself or most of my classmates in the United States. The dreaded Suneung, Korea’s infamous do-or-die college entrance exam that for some families constitutes a reason to emigrate in itself, essentially tests one’s ability to memorize and, as Westerners might put it, “regurgitate” large amounts of information. But given the reliability of retention and recall as a proxy for general intelligence, the Suneung does a decent job as a sorting mechanism. Westerners who find that hard to believe also doubt the effectiveness of other unfamiliar Korean educational traditions: pilsa, for example, the practice of copying published texts out word-for-word by hand.

Just as I have yet to meet a single Korean unaware of pilsa, I have yet to come up with a proper English equivalent of the term itself. Some have suggested “transcription” or “copying,” but neither brings quite the right activity to mind. In Korean I’ve heard the task in which Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener is supposed to be professionally engaged referred to as pilsa, an apt label insofar as most Americans’ response to the prospect of doing something like pilsa is that they’d prefer not to. But the practice isn’t completely unknown in the West, and in some quarters it’s become a routine suggestion to aspiring writers looking to hone their craft: take the circulation, in recent years, of stories about the pilsa-like practice of no less an icon of American letters than Hunter S. Thompson.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

New Yorker: The Best Movies in the Korean Film Archive

Americans are attuned to Korean film like never before. The awakening came with the dominance of this past year’s Academy Awards by Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” whose four Oscars included not just Best International Feature Film but Best Picture, an unprecedented victory for a non-English-language film. In the past twenty years, critics and film-festival habitués have consistently ranked South Korea’s film industry among the most exciting in the world, but many more casual moviegoers, it seems, still required the imprimatur of the Hollywood establishment before sampling its fruit.

Whatever they think of Bong’s visceral tale of class warfare in Seoul, viewers new to Korean cinema will notice a lingering, distinctly un-Hollywood-like aftertaste. They may wonder what other impressive, unsettling pictures have come out of a country whose most popular cultural exports, historically, have been elaborate (if rigorously formulaic) pop-music videos and television dramas. The answer is on YouTube, where the Korean Film Archive (kofa) maintains a channel of nearly two hundred movies, from the nineteen-thirties through the end of the twentieth century, all free to watch and with English subtitles available. Created in 2011, the channel has become an invaluable resource, especially now that so many of us are desperate for streaming entertainment.

Part of South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, kofa is just one product of the government’s considerable support for its domestic film industry. In addition to restoring the often poorly preserved films from the past, kofa also operates a free film library and theatre in Seoul’s Digital Media City, both of which I’ve frequented since arriving in Korea. In that time, I’ve often been asked why I came here in the first place, and for that I can credit another government-funded organization: the Korean Film Council (kofic), the distributor of the Korean classics on DVD that I happened upon one fateful day in my university’s library. Despite having prided myself on the breadth of my viewing habits, I’d never seen anything quite like those Korean movies, by turns carefully constructed and seemingly improvisational, each one colored by a range of emotions that Western genre conventions punctiliously separate.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

일기: 안드레스 펠리페 솔라노, 외줄 위에서 본 한국

나는 안드레스 펠리페 솔라노의 <외줄 위에서 본 한국>을 한글본으로 읽지 않았다. 그 이유는 한글로 읽는 부담을 피하고 싶기 때문이 아니라 스페인어 읽는 실력을 유지하고 싶었기 때문이다. 많은 미국인들이 학교에서 스페인어를 공부해야 되고 나 역시 초등학교 때부터 그 방식을 따라왔다. 그러나 학교 교육만으로는 외국어를 유창하게 구사할 수 없을 뿐만 아니라 외국어에 대한 관심이 있었어도 그 관심을 쉽게 잃게 된다.

내가 스페인어에 대한 흥미를 다시 갖게 된 때는 학교에서 전혀 공부하지도 않은 한국어를 독학하기 시작한 이후였다. 영어 원어민인 나에게는 한국어가 어려운 편이어서 한국어에 대해서 좌절할 때마다 더 쉽게 실력을 향상시킬 수 있는 다른 외국어가 필요했다. 어느 정도까지 이미 알고 있었고 한국어보다 영어와 비슷한 스페인어는 그 역할과 완벽히 들어 맞았다.

그 당시 한국어 왕초보이면서 스페인어는 중간 수준의 언어를 구사할 수 있는 나는 한국어와 스페인어를 동시에 독학하면서 스페인어 뿐만 아니라 한국 문화에 대해서도 동시에 배울 수 있는 책들이 있다는 것을 알게 되었다. 첫 번째로 읽게 된 그러한 책은 내가 한국에 이사오기 전 로스앤젤레스에서 열린 스페인어 책 축제에서 찾은 레온 플라센시아 뉼이라는 멕시코 작가의 <나의 서울 생활기>라는 에세이집이다. 그 다음으로 최근에 읽게 된 책은 정확히 콜롬비아 작가인 솔라노의 <외줄 위에서 본 한국>이다.

나는 로스앤젤레스에 살 때 번역을 배울 생각도 없었지만 결과적으로 한국문학번역원에서 2년 동안 공부하게 되었다. 한국문학번역원은 국제 교수진 중 솔라노를 포함한 스페인어 원어민 교수들이 있고 그 도서관에서 솔라노의 책을 찾았다. 그 책에서 솔라노는 한국문학번역원의 교수직과 영화 배우까지 여러 다른 직업을 하면서 한국에서 사는 경험을 묘사한다. 그러한 방식으로 살고 있는 그는 지금 한국에 산지 10년이 넘었다.

솔라노의 이야기는 한국에서 몇 개 월만 보내고 나서 <나의 서울 생활기>를 쓴 뉼의 이야기와는 전적으로 다르다. 스페인어를 쓰는 두 작가의 공통점 중 또 하나는 한국에 대한 책을 썼을 때 한국어를 거의 한 마디도 하지 못 했던 점이다. 솔라노와 뉼이 이야기하는 경험들은 한국에 처음으로 방문하기 전에도 한국어를 몇 년간 공부했던 나의 경험보다 더 힘들고 더 재미있다고 할 수 있다.

한국어를 공부할 뿐만 아니라 로스앤젤레스의 한인타운에 한동안 살았던 나는 한국에 도착 했을 때 문화 충격 같은 것을 전혀 느끼지 못했다. 한국에서 처음부터 비교적으로 편안하게 살게 된 나는 가끔 한국을 모른 채 신선한 눈으로 볼 기회를 놓쳐서 아쉽다는 생각이 들 때가 있다. 모국에 익숙한 한국인 뿐만 아니라 한국을 이미 알고 있었던 외국인에게 어떻게 보면 준비되지 않은 상태로 한국에 온 뉼과 솔라노의 책들은 한국의 문화 충격을 간접 경험할 수 있는 소중한 기회를 준다.

책 속에서 두 작가는 한국 생활에 대한 불평을 하면서 스스로가 한 문화적인 실수에 대한 이야기를 들려 준다. 예를 들면 뉼은 배가 고플 때 단체를 위한 고깃집에 혼자서 가고 따뜻한 나라에서 온 솔라노는 겨울이 될 때마다 얼어 줄을 뻔하다고 하며 계속해서 여러 다른 방식으로 글에서 언급한다. 솔라노는 한국인 여자와 결혼했고 그 부인과 같이 서울에 살긴 하지만 문화적인 측면에서는 한국에 살지 않는다고 할 수도 있다. 그 이유 중에 하나는 솔라노의 집이 다문화 동네로 알려져 있는 이태원에 위치해 있기 때문이다.

서울에 살고 있는 모든 서양인들이 알고 있듯이 이태원에서는 매일매일 주로 외국 음식만을 먹고 외국인 친구만을 만나며 영어로만 말해도 전혀 지장이 없다. 솔라노의 생활 뿐만 아니라 생각도 여전히 해외에 몰두해 있다. 사진에 관심이 많은 것 같은 솔라노는 일본인 아라키 노부요시와 미국인 윌리엄 이글스턴 같은 유명한 동경하는 사진작가들을 언급하다. 나도 그 사진작가들의 작품을 좋아하고 솔라노의 서울 생활에 대해서 읽으면서 아라키와 이글스턴 외에 다른 아는 이름들을 더 많이 인지하게 되었다. 캐나다인 가수 레너드 코헨과 독일인 소설가 W.G. 제발트 그리고 대만인 영화 감독 허우샤오셴을 비롯하여 미국인 라디오 방송인 울프먼 잭은 내가 인지하고 있는 이름들을 포함한다.

책의 초반부에서 외국 문화에 심취해 있는 솔라노가 한국 문화에 관심이 많이 없는 것처럼 보일 수도 있지만 결국에는 나도 좋아하는 두 소설인 김훈의 <칼의 노래>와 김영하의 <빛의 제국>을 스페인어 변역본으로 재미있게 읽은 것을 담담히 이야기한다. 한국 영화들을 가끔 보는 그가 가장 긍정적으로 이야기한 것은 1981년에 나온 임권택의 <만다라>이고 나는 그 사실을 알고 나서 <만다라>를 다시 보고 싶게 되었다. 내 생각에는 <외줄 위에서 본 한국>은 2010년대 초에 쓰여져서 솔라노는 그때 이래 한국 문화와 생활에 훨씬 더 익숙해졌을 수도 있겠다는 느낌을 가졌다.

더욱이 한국을 신선한 눈으로 보는 그가 이 책에서 인상적으로 묘사한 것들과 내가 여전히 인상적이라고 생각한 것들이 교차한다. 예를 들면 밤 지하철 안에서 술이 취한 사람들이 크게 바닥에 토할 수 있는 것이다. 그 것은 아무리 역겨워도 어떻게 보면 서울이 살기 좋다는 사실을 역설적으로 반영한다. 세계 여러 도시에 산 적이 있는 솔라노는 지하철 안에서 토하는 것을 보고 나서 서울에 살면서 가장 폭력적인 행동이라고 그 경험을 책에 적었다.

Korea Blog: Rediscovering Korean Cinema, An Academic Look at the Zombies, Mutants, Criminals, and Prostitutes of South Korea’s Silver Screen

I live in Korea now in large part because I discovered Korean cinema in college — or rather, because I discovered Korean cinema right after graduating college. Though an avid film-viewer since I was a teenager, I somehow passed all four years at my university without partaking of the DVD selection at its library. Whatever I was looking for when I first went to have a look at it, I found something else, something life-changing: a wide selection of Korean movies, dating from the early 1960s to the mid-2000s, all distributed by the Korean Film Council (KOFIC). (One of the university’s librarians, I later heard, was a fan of Korean media, and made sure to receive all of KOFIC’s releases.) I checked out a few of its movies on DVD and, over the following years I stuck around town after graduation, proceeded to watch nearly all of them, intent on understanding this expansive film culture then entirely unknown to me.

Or rather, almost entirely unknown to me: when asked to name my first Korean film, I remembered having seen Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area (공동경비구역) as part of my sole film-studies class. Released in 2000, that thriller got traction in the West by dealing with the intrigue at the border between South and North Korea, the latter being the only Korea that interested most of the world at the time. More than a few other enthusiasts may remember Joint Security Area as their gateway into Korean cinema, but nowhere near as many as came in through Park’s 2003 film Oldboy (올드보이). Though based on a Japanese comic book, that tale of incest, abduction, revenge, and more incest did much to define Korean cinema — and to place it, not quite rightfully, under the heading of “extreme Asia” — in the 2000s. I actually screened it myself, at one of my frequent movie nights; as I recall, my friends’ reactions varied.

Bong Joon-ho’s politically charged mutant-monster movie The Host (괴물) fared better, as I recall, when it played on campus not long thereafter. Back then few American moviegoers knew Bong’s name; thanks to the performance of his class-warfare satire Parasite (기생충) at this year’s Academy Awards, unprecedented for a non-English-language film, that has changed. Korean cinema just last year marked its official centenary, but the pre-Parasite and post-Parasite divide has the potential to become its new B.C. and A.D., and this new era will see a great many Western viewers looking to get a handle on it. When I was watching through all those KOFIC DVDs, I could find almost nothing in the way of related reading material in English apart from poorly translated monographs on individual directors. But a number of such books have been published since then, including the brief introduction I still recommend most often, Darcy Paquet’s New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Los Angeles Review of Books: What Do They Know of English, Who Only English Know?

Until age 24 I lived, as many Americans do, without leaving my native continent. I first applied for a passport out of the humiliating need to go to no farther than Canada, whose entry process had recently become more stringent. But not long thereafter I went genuinely abroad, taking a 25th-birthday trip with my dad to New Zealand. The country appealed by being far enough away to necessitate my first long-haul flight and by not being overhyped as a destination (or at least it wasn’t, before the Lord of the Rings films). Best of all, it was English-speaking, and not just in the sense that its waiters, station attendants, and hostel owners could communicate with twentysomething backpackers. The de jure official Maori native language aside, New Zealanders speak almost nothing but English, and with a fascinating accent and slang as well. (Even as I came to understand the appeal of world travel, the allure of such exotic-sounding beverages as the “long black” and “flat white” convinced me of the appeal of coffee.)

A decade later I write this essay in South Korea, the decidedly non-English-speaking country where I’ve lived for years, motivated in no small part by an interest in its language (its abundance of coffee and coffee shops, so essential to the working process of the essayist, also plays a part). Not long ago I returned from a trip Taiwan, a destination also chosen out of interest in its language, or rather in its lingua franca, Mandarin Chinese (I did consider learning Taiwanese Hokkien, its most widely spoken local language, but couldn’t find much in the way of study materials). Now and again, my Mandarin-learning project has brought to mind a local news segment I saw back in New Zealand. It told of the introduction of immersion Mandarin classes into certain primary schools. Interviewing a teacher, the reporter closed with a question asked out of seemingly genuine concern for the students: “But aren’t you afraid their little brains will explode?”

It seems New Zealanders share with Americans and other Anglophones not only the English language, but also the perception of bilingualism as an impressive, potentially life-threatening achievement. Eddie Izzard expressed this attitude best: “Two languages in one head? No one can live at that speed.” That quote appears more than once in the work of Gaston Dorren, a Dutchman who’s made his name over the past 20 years writing books about languages. In his first, 1999’s Nieuwe tongen, he examines the languages of migrants to Benelux, the politico-economic union of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, and in the more recent Vakantie in eigen taal he focuses on his native Dutch. 2012’s Taaltoerisme (“Language Tourism”), a kind of linguistic European travelogue, came out two years later in an expanded English translation as Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages. His latest book Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages takes Lingo’s concept global, considering the distinctive characteristics of the world’s 20 most spoken languages.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

일기: 김영하, 여행자 하이델베르크

소설가 김영하는 <여행자>라는 책의 마지막 장에서 나는 도시를 사랑한다라고 말했다. 소설가가 아닌 나도 그러한 말로 자기 자신을 묘사할 수 있는지 모르겠다. 내가 강릉 안목해변 작은 서점에서 <여행자>를 산 이유 중 하나는 바로 김영하가 언급한 그 사랑을 느꼈기 때문이다. 김영하의 외국어 번역본도 널리 읽히는 소설들로 유명할 뿐만 아니라 최근에는 성공한 여행 에세이집도 한 두 권을 냈다.

2007년에 출판한 <여행자>는 김영하 작품들의 대부분과 달리 소설도 아니고 에세이집도 아니다. 이 책은 단편소설과 에세이를 혼합한 사진들까지 들어 있는 한 도시를 다방면에서 조망한 그만의 해석을 독자들에게 전달해 주는 새로운 개념의 메개체이다. 그 안에 담긴 소설과 에세이 그리고 사진들을 모두 조화롭게 연결해주는 독일에 있는 하이델베르크시의 매력은 <여행자>의 전반적인 분위기를 만들어 냈다. 뮌헨 공항을 제외하고 독일에 가 본 적이 없는 나는 이 책을 읽기 전에 하이델베르크가 옛 성이 있는 인기가 많은 관광지로만 알고 있었다.

김영하는 이 글을 쓸 때 하이델베르크를 세 번째로 방문했다. 첫 번째 방문은 그가 20대 때 한 유럽 기차 여행이었고 두 번째 방문은 독일 프랑크푸르트의 큰 책 축제에 간 짧은 방문이었다. <여행자>를 장식하고 있는 풍부한 사진들은 김영하가 세 번째 하이델베르크 도보 여행을 하면서 찍은 것이다. 한국인의 시각으로 보는 독일이라는 나라가 가지고 있는 특징들은 나를 김영하와 같은 세대인 배수아 소설가를 생각하게 만들었다. 내가 아는 배수아라는 소설가는 독일어를 잘 하고 유렵에서 많은 시간을 보내면서 독일에 있는 한국인 주인공들이 자주 등장하는 소설을 쓴다.

김영하가 <여행자>에서 들려 주는 단편 소설은 배수아 작품과 마찬가지로 독일 배경과 한국인 인물들을 자연스럽게 녹여낸다. 그 소설의 주인공은 전문적인 작가로써 매년 프랑크푸르트 책 축제에 참여하는 한국 남자이다. 그는 독일에 갈 때마다 독일에 살고 있는 한국 여자와 불륜 관계로 만난다. 그러나 그 여자의 남편은 카그라 증후근이라는 정신질환을 앓아서 아내가 아내인 척하는 타인으로 착각해서 어떻게 보면 불륜이 아닐 수도 있다.

<여행자>는 두 번째 부분을 구성하는 에세이의 주제가 소설과는 완전히 다르다. 그 에세이에서 사진기에 관심이 많은 김영하는 하이델베르크의 일상 생활 사진을 찍은 콘탁스G1에 대한 개인적인 이야기를 풀어낸다. 브랜드 인지도가 높지 않아서 저렴한 편이지만 품질이 좋은 렌즈가 장착된 콘탁스G1을 소유한 사람은 아마도 사진 덕후일 가능성이 높다. 예를 들면 김영하가 예전에 광화문에서 우연히 마주치게 된 유명한 프랑스 철학가 장 보드리야르가 가진 사진기도 바로 콘탁스G1이었다. 그 이야기에 몰입한 나의 개인적인 관심사와 <여행자>의 내용은 잘 맞았다.

도시에 대한 에세이를 쓰는 직업을 가진 나로써는 김영하 같은 뛰어난 작가가 도시를 어떻게 보는지 또한 글 속에서 도시를 어떻게 이용하는지에 대한 궁금증이 커져만 갔다. 김영하는 불문학자 김화영이 말한 한 번 간 곳을 또 가는 것이야말로 여행의 묘미라고 보는 관점을 인용했다. 어느 도시라도 친구를 방문하는 듯이 긴 기간동안 여러 번 가야 그 도시를 진정으로 안다고 생각하는 나에게 김화영의 관점은 큰 인상을 주었다.

뒷편 책날개의 글에 따르면 <여행자>는 여덟 대의 카메라로 여덟 개 도시를 담는다라는 연재의 첫 번째 책으로 출판되었다. 인터넷을 검색한 후 여전히 일본 동경을 다루는 두 번째 책만 나온 것을 알게 되었다. 만약 김영하가 아름답든 추하든 사진 찍기 좋은 것들이 풍부한 로스 앤젤레스에 간다면 수집한 사진기 중 어느 것을 골라서 가져 갈 것인지 나는 아주 궁금하다. 요즘 김영하의 여행에 대한 새로운 책의 관심이 더욱더 높아지고 있어서 공백 기간이 있었던 <여행자>의 연재를 8편까지 쓰게 되길 바란다.

Korea Blog: The Coronavirus Breaks Out in Itaewon, the “Gays-and-Foreigners” Seoul Neighborhood Celebrated in a Hit Netflix Drama

They say you can find anything in Itaewon. To find Itaewon itself, you need only head toward the very center of Seoul, right next to the old United States Army base. To orient yourself within Itaewon, you need only know three landmarks: “Hooker Hill,” “Homo Hill,” and “Halal Hill.” Though unlikely to appear on an official map of Seoul, those place names hint at the variety of pleasures on offer in Itaewon and almost nowhere else in Korea, at least not in such high concentrations. Visitors come with desires for exotic cuisine, foreign-language reading material, plus-size clothing, and specific varieties of companionship (paid or otherwise) not easily satisfiable in the rest of the city. Just as one can pass a night in Los Angeles’ Koreatown that feels like a night in Seoul, one can pass a night in Itaewon that feels like a night in Los Angeles — a city that, at its best, offers the world in microcosm.

Young Koreans in search of international good times increasingly find them to Itaewon, which now ranks among Seoul’s top date destinations. (Not long after I first met my girlfriend, who went to college in Canada, we went to Itaewon for a taste of Korea’s most credible poutine.) That may surprise those who know other urban areas that have developed next to US military bases, places where a “date” seldom involves dinner. And indeed, the longer a Westerner has lived in Seoul, the more likely that Westerner is to have vivid memories of Itaewon decadence and depravity (whether or not they’re willing to recall them). As recently as the 1980s, such long-term expatriates have told me, the neighborhood really was majority-foreigner, and most of the Koreans one encountered there after dark were, to varying degrees of legality, on the job. But after September 11, 2001, the curfew the US military imposed on its bases, including Seoul’s Yongsan Garrison, leaving Itaewon’s nocturnal economy with no alternative but to attract a Korean clientele.

Today Yongsan Garrison is gone. After a prolonged relocation process, the US Army has as of last year left Seoul for a new, $11 billion camp in the city of Pyongtaek. It leaves behind in Itaewon the other societally indigestible bloc that has, over the past few decades, come to define the image of Westerners in Seoul: English teachers. To the same degree that Korean students “studying” abroad spend their nights and weekends partying in the Koreatowns of the West, Western college graduates who come to Seoul for easily landed jobs in its English “education” industry spend their nights and weekends partying in Itaewon. They may well also run their errands and even live there, attracted by the ease of the area’s lingua franca, a ragged “global English” spoken not just among Westerners and Koreans but Southeast Asians, Middle Easterners, and denizens hailing from every other region of the world besides.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Architectural Review: Hyundai Card’s Gapado Project

Within South Korea, you can hardly get further from the capital Seoul than the island of Gapado. The journey requires a 70-minute flight to Jejudo, the country’s largest island, then a trip across it by car or bus to a port on its south coast, and from there a 15-minute ferry ride. The first impression is that it is unprepossessing: amounting to less than a third of a square mile of land rising just 67 feet above sea level, Gapado remains barely distinguishable from the horizon until the boat reaches the shore. On arrival, the boat docks at a ferry terminal, its original two storeys reduced to just one and its concrete face adorned with new metal lettering in a distinctive lower-case font which further emphasises the island’s horizontality.

The ferry terminal belongs to a collection of buildings redeveloped on the island over the past eight years by Hyundai Card, the country’s largest credit-card provider and a subsidiary of the Korea-based conglomerate best known for its cars. Its success in the crowded Korean credit-card market has hinged, in part, on the strategy of constructing a profile as a kind of cultural organisation, building cultural facilities for the exclusive use of its customers. In Seoul alone, these include a collection of ‘libraries’ (AR online, 14 February 2018), two of which were designed by local architecture firm One O One, who also worked on the Card Factory at the company’s headquarters. It was natural then that the practice was also selected to handle the architecture of the Gapado project: not just the new ferry terminal, but all of its remodelling and rebuilding efforts across the island.

As soon as one leaves the Seoul metropolitan area, one senses a sharp fall in population density and a sharp rise in that population’s average age, especially pronounced on the 3,358 islands off the South Korean coast. Located between Jejudo, a perennially popular domestic vacation destination, and Marado, another island famous as the country’s southernmost point, Gapado had more than 1,000 residents in the 1980s but its population has fallen in recent years to under 200 – the island’s elementary school has maintained a student body of about 10. 

Read the whole thing at Architectural Review

Korea Blog: Selling Your Body to Seoul in Kim Ho-seon’s “Yeong-ja’s Heydays” (1975)

Watch enough Korean movies from the late 1950s through the 80s, and you start to notice what looks like an obsession with prostitution. Pictures from the end of that period — 1988’s Prostitution (매춘), for instance, which has spawned at least five sequels — tend to make it obvious. Earlier ones deal explicitly with prostitution as a theme less often than they tell stories naturally involving prostitutes. In many cases their characters come from the ranks of the so-called “Western princesses,” the working girls of the Korean War’s aftermath whose clientele consisted exclusively of American servicemen. With their uncertain American-style names and American-style dress, they project a combination of abjectness and shrewdness — a distinct shame accompanied by a slightly higher-than-average level of material comfort — in which Korean filmmakers once found a useful symbol of their country and its relationship to the United States.

As the movies show it, South Korea changed dramatically in each of the five or six decades following the war, and most of these transformative eras produced their own kind of cinematic prostitute. In the mid-1970s, when the time of the Western princess had passed, the best-known such figure was the title character of Yeong-ja’s Heydays (영자의 전성시대), who doesn’t enter the film in the profession. Or rather, she does — and in the middle of getting arrested in a raid at that — but within minutes we see her as she was before the fall, a nearly unrecognizable young maid fresh from the countryside working at the house of a factory owner. Shyly she greets a worker named Chang-soo, come to make a delivery to his boss; smitten, he resolves that night to make Yeong-ja his. But the wedding will have to wait, given his fast upcoming three-year tour of duty in the Vietnam War.

Service in Vietnam, as more recently depicted in Yoon Je-kyoon’s hit Ode to My Father (국제시장), wasn’t an unappealing option for able-bodied Korean men looking to earn US dollars. For that film’s everyman protagonist, the war is one stop on the semi-sentimental journey through South Korean history that eventually reunites him with his beloved, a Korean nurse he first meets in his time as a coal miner in Germany. For Chang-soo, it’s a prelude to another, more painful and ill-fated struggle: his campaign to win back the heart of Yeong-ja, who in the intervening three years has turned into the foul-mouthed, lip-licking lady of the night incarcerated at the beginning of the film. She’s also minus an arm, the result of a crash during her brief stint as as a bus conductor, one of her attempts to make a living after the factory owner’s wastrel son forces himself on her. (His mother, despite having harshly dressed him down for previous behavior, blames Yeong-ja and fires her on the spot.)

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.