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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: Stoked by a Racist Ad, a K-Pop Sex Scandal, and an Anti-Communist Massacre, Can the Korean Demand for Apology Ever Be Satiated?

However robust the Korean supply of public apology has been lately, it may never even come close to meeting the Korean demand for public apology. Longtime Korea observers know this, just as they know that the apologies, and more so the expectations for and rejections of those apologies, have only just begun to flow forth from the Burning Sun scandal. What began as a possible case of sexual assault at a Seoul nightclub of that name last November has, over the past few months, blown up to encompass drugs, embezzlement, prostitution, police corruption, and hidden-camera sex footage rings. This increasingly complicated affair has drawn such rapt public attention not least because of the identity of one of Burning Sun’s managers: Lee Seung-hyun, better known as Seungri, a member of top boy band Big Bang.

“I sincerely apologize to everyone who has been involved in or taken offense from the recent controversy,” Seungri posted to Instagram in February. “I am sorry that this official explanation and apology is overdue. Surrounding acquaintances have discouraged me from apologizing right away, lest the uncertain details that have already snowballed create even bigger misunderstandings.” But it seems that even apologizing on one of the most popular social-media platforms in Korea (and later in concert) wasn’t enough to save him: first he was suspected of ordering the procurement of prostitutes for the nightclub’s clients, then his agency YG Entertainment terminated his contract, then the police charged him with distributing a picture taken with a hidden camera, then they charged him with embezzlement, and the dirt is apparently still being dug up.

Seungri isn’t the only celebrity brought low by the Burning Sun investigation so far: trawling the group chat rooms shared by these K-pop stars on Kakaotalk, Korea’s messaging app of choice, the dragnet has also ensnared, among others, the singer Jung Joon-young, who had used those rooms to distribute his own sex videos. “I admit to all my crimes,” says Jung’s statement of apology. “I filmed women without their consent and shared it in a chat room, and while I was doing so I didn’t feel a great sense of guilt.” It goes on: “Most of all, I kneel down to apologize to the women who appear in the videos and all those who might be disappointed and upset at this shocking incident,” adding an intent to “repent for my unethical and unlawful behaviors, which constitute criminal acts, for the rest of my life.” But neither those words nor any others are likely to put his image on the road to rehabilitation.

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

Korea Blog: Listen to the Seoul of the 1980s, Real or Imagined, with Streaming Mixes of Korean “City Pop”

Japanese names like Katomatsu Toshiki, Ohnuki Taeko, Yamashita Tatsuro, or Takeuchi Mariya may or may not mean anything to you. Rest assured, however, that there are Korean record collectors to whom they mean a great deal indeed. I see more than a few of them in person whenever Gimbab Records, a shop not far from where I live in western Seoul, puts on one of their sales of Japanese “city pop” records. These hotly anticipated events have usually involved an especially well-stocked collector parking a van on the store’s narrow street — almost an alley, really — and dealing the sacred pieces of vinyl straight out of the back. The sacredness comes through in the prices they pay, which surely exceed even what they cost new back at the height of Japan’s economic bubble in the 1980s. I’ve never brought along the kind of cash I would need to buy even half of what I might want, and deliberately so.

Like most city pop fans around the world, I just listen to the stuff on YouTube — and in fact discovered it on YouTube in the first place. If you’ve never heard city pop for yourself, you’ll better understand it not through a description of its sound but through a Youtube trip of your own. A YouTuber who calls himself Stevem has put together a video essay, “What Is Plastic Love?,” that explains just how a Japanese pop single from 1984, obscure even in its own country, racked up millions of views seemingly overnight after someone made it available in streaming-video form. That song, Takeuchi Mariya’s “Plastic Love,” has for the better part of a decade acted as the most effective gateway drug for the potential city pop enthusiast. All that time, the digitization and uploading of this “strain of lite, easy-listening J-pop that drew on a variety of American and Asian influences including funk, soul, disco, lounge, and even yacht rock,” as Rob Arcand and Sam Goldner put it in their Vice guide, has continued apace.

City pop’s 21st-century fan base knows no nationality, and its members have mixed, matched, and even remixed its-ever growing selection of acknowledged tracks into a great many themed streaming mixes, often visually accompanied by clips of vintage Japanese television and animation. For my money, the  Chicago-based Van Paugam (whose work includes a brief history of city pop) has long made the best city pop mixes on YouTube, but earlier this year the Japanese recording industry — an aggressive entity, even by recording-industry standards — had his channel taken down, forcing him to start over again. You can still hear all of his mixes on Mixcloud, though, and not every city pop-minded YouTuber has suffered the same fate. Some have avoided it by diversifying their musical selections, even to the point of looking, or rather listening, outside Japan entirely: take, for instance, the recent appearance of city pop mixes from Korea.

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

Korea Blog: Fried Chicken’s Central Role in a TV Drama, a Police Comedy, and Korean Culture Itself

“Did you come because of the movie?” said a middle-aged man waiting a few places in front of me in line for fried chicken. He didn’t ask me, but a nearby family of four or five, and they had indeed come because of the movie, as had I. That movie, Lee Byeong-heon’s Extreme Job (극한직업), racked up more than 10 million ticket sales about two weeks after it opened in Korea January, a fairly staggering success in this country of 50 million people, especially for a comedy. The story of a bumbling team of detectives who stake out the headquarters of a drug-running operation by buying a chicken shop right across the street, it has made a fad of an unusual kind of fried chicken, one prepared with a marinade normally used for galbi, the beef short-rib dish available in Korean restaurants the world over.

Specifically, it has made a fad of galbi-marinade fried chicken available at the chicken shop I went to: Nammun Tongdak on the tourist-destination “Chicken Street” in Suwon, a large suburb about twenty miles from Seoul. Though it doesn’t have roots as deep as some of the other occupants of Chicken Street, its owners can claim to have put the dish on its menu two years ago, though they dropped it from the menu when it proved to be a slow seller, only bringing it back as soon as Extreme Job instilled in the public a jones for it, or at least an awareness of it. The movie’s main characters start using the recipe out of desperation: none of them have any experience frying chicken, so they have to make do with the culinary knowledge one of them picked up working at his family’s Suwon barbecue restaurant.

The hybrid dish immediately becomes a social-media sensation, and life has, to a degree, imitated art: even on a Monday afternoon, Nammun Tongdak had a line out the door and both floors filled with determined eaters. Though the taste of the chicken proved worth the trip — the Coca-Cola in the marinade gives it a metallic edge, though not an unpleasant one — I may never make another, not because of anything unpleasant about that particular chicken shop at all, but because there are so many to choose from, not just on Suwon’s Chicken Street but more or less everywhere in Korea. Known not by the Korean word for chicken used in other dishes but with the loanword chikin, fried chicken is, as any number of expat food bloggers might put it, not just a food in Korea but a way of life, a dish automatically chosen for so many gathering of friends, classmates, or co-workers.

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

My Interview on the Blunt Report Podcast: Korean Desires, Happiness, and a Frog in a Well

A few months ago, Konner Blunt came to Korea to record a few episodes of his interview podcast The Blunt Report, which “exists today to create interest and intrigue in the world around us.” You might remember me doing something similar with Notebook on Cities and Culture‘s Korea Tour, and now that I live in Korea myself, I seem to have gone from interviewer to interviewee.

You can hear “Desires, Happiness, and a Frog in a Well,” my 80-minute conversation with Konner about life in Korea, learning the Korean language, the task of observing and interpreting Korean society and culture, what one learns about one’s homeland when living abroad rather than just traveling, and much else besides at The Blunt Report‘s web site, on iTunes, or on Youtube.

일기: 전상인, <공간으로 세상 읽기>

나는 나 자신을 주로 도시에 대한 관심이 많은 사람으로 묘사한다. 그 것은 백 퍼센트 사실이긴 하지만 내가 관심 있는 것은 도시 뿐만 아니라 건축물과 길거리를 포함한 동네를 비롯하여 지하철과 같은 도시를 형성하는 여러 가지 시설물이다. 엄밀히 말하자면 나는 도시보다 도시를 구성하는 공간에 관심이 더 간다. 전상인 교수님의 <공간으로 세상 읽기>를 읽고 나서 나의 그러한 관심을 더 증폭시키기 시작했다. 이 책은 집과 터 그리고 길로 나눠져있고 각각 부분에 해당하는 종류의 공간의 역사나 현재를 조망하는 중요점을 다룬다.

이 책은 저자가 이야기하는 모든 종류의 공간을 도시와 연결하고 도시를 이루는 개별요소를 설명한다. 또한 나처럼 도시에 대한 책들을 많이 읽은 사람이 잘 아는 가장 유명한 도시 이론가인 루이스 멈포드와 이에 버금가는 제인 제이콥스와 이론가임과 동시에 건축가인 르 코르뷔지에와 같은 도시 이론가들의 작업을 자주 언급한다. 솔직히 말하면 내가 이러한 주제에 이미 친숙해져 있어서 이 책은 내가 읽는 다른 한글로 된 책들보다 훨씬 더 읽기 쉽다고 느끼게 된다. 그러나 이 책은 단순히 다른 사람들이 쓴 도시와 여러 가지의 공간들에 대한 것들을 요약하는 것뿐만 아니라 더 나아가서 사회학 교수님인 저자는 그의 관점을 모국인 한국의 도시와 공간으로 돌려 이 책을 통해 비판가의 역할도 맡는다.

공간빈국과 공간 후진국은 저자가 한국에 붙인 두가지 라벨이다. 그의 말에 따르면 오늘 날의 한국은 공간에 대한 본격적인 연구가 부족하기 때문에 공간들이 아무 계획없이 마구잡이로 설계되어서 그 공간들로 구성되어 있는 한국 도시들은 더 공들여 개발했던 다른 나라의 도시들에 비해서 매우 바람직하지 않다고 한다. 저자의 관점에서 보면 한국은 터를 어떻게 사용하고 그 위에 집과 길을 어떻게 놓을지를 완전히 새롭게 재고할 필요가 있다. 나는 이 책을 읽기 전부터이러한 서울에 대한 비판을 들은 적이 몇 번 있고 그 것의 이면에 담긴 생각을 이해하지만 전적으로 동의하기는 어렵다. 왜냐하면 저자와 나를 비교하여 누가 더 많은 도시를 방문했는지는 모르지만 나는 세계의 적지 않은 도시들에 가봤고 그중 제일 좋아하는 곳들 중에 하나가 바로 서울이기 때문이다.

저자가 말했듯이 서울을 제일 위대한 유럽 도시들과 비교하면 서울이 매력이 없는 곳처럼 보일 수도 있다. 하지만 내가 한국에 이사오기 전에 살았던 고속도로로 덥혀 있고 뒤죽박죽으로 건축된 로스앤젤레스도 마찬가지의 상황에 처해 있다. 어떻게 보면 가장 흥미로운 질문은 서울이나 로스앤젤레스와 같은 도시가 무엇이 문제인가가 아니라 서울이나 로스앤젤레스와 같은 도시를 왜 사람들이 즐기는가이다. 내 생각에 지난 백 년의 서양 도시 이론은 서울을 어떻게 개선할 수 있는지를 보여 줄 수는 있어도 새로운 21 세기에는 있는 그대로의 서울이 위대하다고 할 수 있는 유럽 도시들에게도 당연히 가르쳐 줄 것이 있을 거라는 것을 많은 사람들이 느낄 것이다.

Korea Blog: Luc Besson’s “Léon: The Professional,” a Cultural Phenomenon Going Strong in Korea for 25 Years

Léon: The Professional, the film that launched director Luc Besson into an international renown, came out a quarter-century ago this year. And in this case, “international renown” means he became known outside his native France not just in America but all over the world, and especially here in South Korea. Or rather, Besson the filmmaker has become less a household name in this country than Léonthe film has, and its name now seems known to more Korean households than ever. Most cellphone accessory shops stock Léon-themed cases, and as soon as I snapped one on my phone, everyone I encountered stopped commenting on its age — few Koreans today would be caught dead with an iPhone 5S — and started commenting on how much they love the movie the image on its back came from.

All this over a 25-year-old French hitman picture. The range of Léon merchandise available on the streets of Seoul — none officially licensed, naturally — hardly stops at cellphone cases: shirts emblazoned with drawings of Jean Reno’s rough-edged but ascetic assassin-for-hire and Natalie Portman’s smokingly, swearingly precocious orphan spill out of every other university-proximate clothing store. At the city’s frequent craft fairs young artists have applied their images to an ever-widening array of objects, often accompanied by the words “love or death” from the ultimatum so memorably laid down by Portman’s Mathilda to Reno’s Léon. Unlike London Review of Books tote bags, which last year enjoyed a moment in Korea as aesthetic objects more or less disconnected from their referent, Léon often gets referenced in its content as well, in text as well as on screen.

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

Korea Blog: Reading Tocqueville in Korea (Part Two)

Alexis de Tocqueville made his transatlantic journey in 1831 in order to discover what made America different from other countries, especially his native France and the rest of “Old World” Europe. “On my arrival in the United States, it was the religious atmosphere which first struck me,” he writes in the first volume of Democracy in America, published in 1835. “Americans so completely identify the spirit of Christianity with freedom in their minds that it is almost impossible to get them to conceive the one without the other.” He saw “Americans coming together to dispatch priests to the new states in the West in order to found schools and churches” and met “wealthy New Englanders who left their native land in order to establish the fundamentals of Christianity and freedom on the banks of the Missouri or in the prairies of Illinois. In this way, in the United States, religious zeal constantly gains vitality from the fires of patriotism.”

When I first started taking notice of Korea, gleaning what I could from the occasional visit to Korean restaurants and Korean-American classmates’ houses, I sensed how different a culture it really seemed to possess from that of, say, Japan and China, the countries with which Westerners tended to conflated it. Certain differences in sensibilities and aesthetics quickly make themselves felt (even someone completely ignorant of east Asian languages can usually identify Korean script, “the one that has circles”), but nothing stands out quite as much as the prevalence in Korea of Christianity. A Westerner visiting Korea for the first time might expect some kind of theocracy, extrapolating from the enthusiasm so many Koreans profess for the church back in the West, but in reality Protestants and Catholics (a distinction insisted upon much more fiercely than in America today) account for about 30 percent of the South Korean population combined.

By the standards of this part of the world, 30 percent is an impressive figure, but it might nevertheless strike our Westerner in Korea as a serious underestimate, especially if he arrives by night to see all the neon crosses that burn red along the Seoul skyline. There aren’t as many neon crosses as there used to be, but culturally, Christianity in Korea still punches well above its weight, stop just short though it may of Tocqueville’s observation, made in the second volume of Democracy in America, of the its being “intimately linked to all national habits and all the emotions which one’s native country arouses” and ruling “not only like a philosophy taken up after evaluation but like a religion believed without discussion.” But since America towered as an example of national success — and in a way, an object of worship itself — all throughout Korea’s development in the second half of the 20th century, its trifecta of Christianity, democracy, and capitalism must have looked like a magic formula to banish privation and humiliation to the past.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books (and part one here).

Talk at San Diego State University: “The Urban Future on Film” (2/14/19)

“Los Angeles is the city of the future,” the old joke goes, “and it always will be.” Certainly that holds true on film, where the southern Californian metropolis has been put to every possible cinematic end. Filmmakers have used Los Angeles to recreate the past, to portray the present, and most memorably to envision the future. The Japan-infused 2019 Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, first released in 1982, has ever since shaped the way we imagine urban dystopia; more recently, Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited sequel Blade Runner 2049 intensified and diversified the look and feel of the original to suit our present moment. What makes Los Angeles, even in more utopian futuristic movies like Spike Jonze’s Her, such a rich collection of materials for urban futures — and why has the presence of Asia, as well as the characteristics of Asian cities, nearly always been essential to those futures?

I’ll address these and other questions about Los Angeles’ urban future on film, both utopian and dystopian, at San Diego State University on Thursday, February 14 at 5:00 p.m. in Hepner Hall, Room 214. My talk comes as part of Futures Past & Present, at art show at SDSU’s Downtown Gallery considering “not only how the future has been forecast in the past, but also how our present reality will inform what is yet to come.”

Korea Blog: Reading Tocqueville in Korea (Part One)

“Culture is not necessarily our destiny,” wrote the high-profile Korean activist and later president of South Korea Kim Dae-jung in a 1994 Foreign Affairs piece. “Democracy is.” Kim made that claim as part of an argument against Lee Kuan Yew, three-decade prime minister of Singapore, who took a dim view of transplanting Western political institutions into Asian soil. Like many pronouncements heard in Korean public life, Kim’s framing of democracy as destiny possesses in forcefulness what it lacks in understandability: not that I’ve read all or even most of Kim’s voluminous writings, but try as I  might I’ve never been able to understand quite how he arrived at so unambiguous a conclusion. I keep thinking of the student protesters P.J. O’Rourke interviewed in the 1980s: “What’s this election all about?” “Democracy.” “But what is democracy?” “Good.” “Yes, of course, but why exactly?” “Is more democratic that way!”

But democracy has been compelling as a subject of discussion since the invention of the thing itself, and before the world began to watch in fascination as democratic (or at least quasi-democratic) institutions spread across Asia, it watched in fascination as they took shape in that grand experiment known as the United States of America. Of all the copious observations made on democracy in America, none have proven more enduring than Democracy in America, the French diplomat, political scientist, and historian Alexis de Tocqueville’s first-person study of that new country, its laws, and its customs first published in two parts in 1835 and 1840. “Everyone can see that a widespread revolution toward democracy is in full swing amongst us,” Tocqueville writes early in the first volume. “Some look upon it as something new and, taking it as an accident, are still hoping to be able to check its progress, whereas others” — the Kim Dae-jungs of the world — “consider it irresistible because they see it as the most sustained, longstanding, and permanent development ever found in history.”

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

Korea Blog: The Making of a Korean Monster in Kim Sagwa’s Bloody High-School Novel “Mina”

I often wonder why Korean kids almost never kill their parents. Not, of course, that I think Korean kids should kill their parents, but given all the stories one hears of the psychologically debilitating pressures faced by the youth in this country, and then how much of the time the agents of that pressure are the mother and father, one would think fatal lashings-out — deliberate or accidental — would be inevitable. The attempted explanations that come back when I wonder aloud about this are always flimsy: “Asians are socialized not to do things like that,” many have said, as if the children of other races were raised with explicit permission to to kill their parents. “They direct the violence inward,” others have said, which at least aligns with South Korea’s chilling youth suicide rate. And when they’re not killing themselves, Korean kids have, on occasion, been known to kill each other.

Youth-on-youth violence provides a subject for Kim Sagwa’s Mina (미나), a novel newly out in English translation by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton. (Those respected translators also brought into English Yoon Tae-ho’s comic series Mosspreviously featured here on the Korea Blog.) Now in her mid-thirties, Kim still counts as a more or less a young novelist, but she was even younger when the book, her first full-length novel, first came out in Korea a decade ago. Both Mina and the shorter-form work that preceded it won Kim accolades as a something of a voice of a generation in Korea, or at least the voice of a particularly disaffected generation in Korea, ineffectively educated and at best barely employed, given to enervated bouts of cursing and fulmination against society, often while drinking and smoking under legal age. Even in the hands of translators as long-established as the Fultons, the youth of the novel’s voice come through; imagine a twentysomething, female Thomas Bernhard directing her frustration and rage not against her small European country for its role in the Second World War, but against her small east Asian country for the rigidity and irrationality of its educational and economic class structure.

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