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Hi, I’m Colin Marshall

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

On my new Substack newsletter Books on Cities, I write long-form essay-reviews on exactly that.

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.

I’ve previously appeared on a Seoul urbanism radio feature on TBS eFM’s Koreascape as well as 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.

Books on Cities: Sam Anderson, Boom Town (2018)

When I fantasize about living in Oklahoma City, I mentally install myself in the Regency Tower, a 24-story downtown apartment building put up in the late 1960s. By comparison to the surrounding built environment — newer, for the most part, than even the city’s mere 131 years would lead one to expect — the Regency ranks as a classic. It has also proven itself as a survivor, standing as it was just a block away from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building when the latter was destroyed by the 1995 car-bombing that remains many Americans’ sole association with the Oklahoman capital. The Regency sustained only cosmetic damage, despite a proximity to the blast such that an axle of the explosive-packed Ryder truck crushed a car parked nearby. It was that VIN-stamped part, in fact, that hastened the capture of Timothy McVeigh, the embittered Gulf War veteran who’d masterminded the bombing.

Sam Anderson includes such memorable facts all throughout Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis. The book was published in 2018, three years after my own first visit to Oklahoma City. I stopped there, as I imagine more than a few do, in the middle of a cross country road-trip. Interstate 40 had already offered up the likes of Barstow, Flagstaff, Albuquerque, and Amarillo, and later would come Memphis, Knoxville, Asheville, Raleigh. Of the time I spent in all these places, somehow my evening, morning, and afternoon in Oklahoma City left the sharpest impression. This owed less to visiting the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, now the affecting if somewhat literal Oklahoma City National Memorial, than to the surprisingly robust urban gestalt I sensed while walking around its environs.

“OKC is in the midst of a downtown renaissance,” Anderson writes, “a growth whose improbability — after decades of busts and self-inflicted disappointments and unspeakable tragedies — has made the place almost legendary among contemporary American cities.” On nearly every stop of the road trip I heard locals express surprise at the revitalization of their city center (“I’d never have believed downtown could be like this”), but in Oklahoma City I felt it right there on the streets. That impression could have been enhanced, I admit, by the pumpkin festival, which happened to be going on in the Myriad Botanical Gardens beneath Devon Tower, the brazenly out-of-scale “850-foot glass skyscraper that is the most literal possible monument to the city’s grandiose self-image.” And it certainly didn’t bring me down to have a cappuccino at Elemental Coffee, which in the book’s acknowledgments Anderson calls “my OKC office.”

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Korea Blog: Youjeong Oh’s Pop City Reveals How K-Pop and K-Drama Have Transformed their Homeland

If you read the Korea Blog regularly, you more than likely have an interest in Korea. And though it’s far from guaranteed, you may well also be a Westerner of one kind or another. If both of these conditions hold true for you, then the odds say — albeit with plenty of room for exception — that your interest in Korea was sparked by the fruits of the “Korean Wave,” which over the past couple of decades has crashed onto many a shore throughout the non-Korean world. Though some definitions encompass film, comics, and literature, the Korean Wave as popularly understood consists primarily of two cultural forms: pop music and television dramas. And as Youjeong Oh argues in Pop City: Korean Popular Culture and the Selling of Place, their popularity in foreign countries has been powerful enough to alter the landscape of South Korea itself.

The operative phenomenon is, in a word, tourism. From far and wide come both “K-pop” fans seeking closer proximity to their singing idols and “K-drama” addicts hoping to re-live emotional moments from their favorite shows. Local economies have rapidly adapted to cater to them not just in Seoul, home of all the big entertainment companies and management agencies, but also across the rest of the country, where dramas often film their most memorable scenes. Both types of tourist inevitably encounter disappointments: major K-pop stars are seldom if ever publicly seen when not in concert, and the drama sets maintained as attractions, often in far-flung areas, tend to be smaller and situated in much less romantic contexts than they look on television. Yet the enthusiasts, as their demographics shift with time and their interests change with the trends, have for most of the 21st century kept on coming.

Oh uses a more descriptive term than enthusiast: “As celebrity involvement is often tantamount to worship,” she writes, “visiting a destination associated with the adored star can be perceived as a pilgrimage.” For many tourists, coming to Korea is an “overwhelmingly pop culture-focused journey to attend concerts and television shows, to go on pilgrimage tours to entertainment agency buildings and restaurants operated by K-pop stars.” I won’t pretend not to have made any such pilgrimages of my own, at least if visiting the pubs and coffee shops that have appeared in Hong Sangsoo movies counts. Such a practice may reflect the fact that I came to my own fascination with Korea through Korean cinema — or that I’m not a middle-aged Japanese woman, the demographic group who first proved the economic value of the obsessed foreigner not just to the Korean entertainment industry, but to Korean cities as well.

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

Korea Blog: the First Korean “Comfort Woman” Novel, Kim Soom’s One Left

When a 92-year-old woman by the name of Lee died at last year, all of South Korea took notice. Her passing reduced to eighteen the official count of surviving Korean “comfort women,” who as girls were kept in sexual servitude to the Japanese military during the Second World War. Six months later, University of Washington press published an English translation of a Korean novel that imagines the future, inevitable and surely not far off, when that number falls to one. But an official count is just that, as Kim Soom reminds us with the character of One Left‘s 93-year-old protagonist P’unggil, a former comfort woman who never registered herself as such with the government. The death of the second-to-last member of the acknowledged group plunges her into an extended recollection of her own experience, which constitutes this “first Korean novel devoted exclusively to the subject of the comfort women.”

Georgetown University Korean studies professor emerita Bonnie Oh emphasizes this distinction in her foreword to the English version of One Left (한 명), translated by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton. (Previously on the Korea Blog, we’ve featured their translations of Kim Sagwa’s novel Mina and Yoon Tae-ho’s comic Moss, as well as What Is Korean Literature?, a study co-written by Bruce Fulton.) The novel also, she adds, “rebuts denials of the validity of the comfort women’s claims by synthesizing an intense personal story with painstaking historical research.” The idea of a novel as a vehicle for rebuttal, or for argument of any kind, will give some Western readers pause, though it’s hardly unheard of in Korea. Cho Nam-joo’s Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, which appeared in English last year, was nothing if not a novel-shaped set of claims about the lousy lot of Korean women in the 21st century.

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

Books on Cities: Jan Morris, Hong Kong (1988/1997)

When Jan Morris died this past November, her fellow writer of place Pico Iyer saluted her on Twitter as “the kindest, shrewdest and most indefatigable master portraitist of cities.” Most of this portraiture she executed in the form of essays: “The Know-How City,” to name just one example, a 1976 Rolling Stone dispatch on Los Angeles from which I’ve been quoting ever since I began writing about the place myself. Though an author of many books, including the imperial-history Pax Britannica trilogy, she treated relatively few individual cities at that length. When she did, she chose subjects with which she already had decades of acquaintance: Oxford, Venice, Trieste, New York. “I have been writing about Hong Kong on and off for thirty years,” she in her eponymous volume on that city, “and I come back to it now primarily as a student of British imperialism.”

Those words come from the 1997 edition of Hong Kong, a publication timed to coincide with the colony’s return to China after more than a century and a half of British rule. The book had first come out nearly a decade earlier, in the wake of Morris’ major works on the Empire. Though not exactly an apologist for imperialism, Morris was hardly among its severest critics. For some of those countrymen who worked to paint the map red she expresses condemnation, but for others she expresses admiration, and that this ambivalence would one day become “problematic” doesn’t seem to have escaped her. “However things go after 1997,” she writes at the very end of the book, “I dare to claim this: that the British are bringing their rule in Hong Kong, and with it the record of their Empire as a whole, to a conclusion that is not ignoble.”

But then British Hong Kong, “the final edition of the last great imperial colony,” was in Morris’ view “only just a British colony at all.” An especially visible aspect of this exceptionality is its famously large and densely packed population, overwhelmingly Chinese and in the main bearing few traces of influence by 156 years of British rule. “On the surface, and in the tourist brochures,” Morris writes, “Chineseness in its most fantastic forms is honored in the everyday life of this British colony.” And below that surface, “in a thousand ways old tastes, habits and techniques resist all challenge.” In multiple senses, China had always loomed at least as large there as Britain, what with the vast Middle Kingdom just over the mountains and the colony’s handover (a consequence of Britain’s limited lease on not Hong Kong Island itself but the later-acquired peninsular territories) long recognized as inevitable.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Korea Blog: Indie Synth-Electro-K-Pop Queen Neon Bunny’s Journey from Seoul to the Stars

From time to time since the 1960s, South Korea and North Korea have blared propaganda at one another through hulking stacks of loudspeakers aimed into the Demilitarized Zone. These border blasters came down in 2018, during a period of thaw in North-South relations, but in the years leading up to that point the mutual sonic provocation had become unusually aggressive. This provided fodder to many an odd-news corner in the West, which seized especially upon the fact that the South had been mixing K-pop songs in with its denunciations of the Kim Jong Un regime. “Now, they haven’t said exactly what music they’ve been playing, but I hope it’s some of the better K-pop stuff,” said comedian-commentator John Oliver on a 2015 broadcast of his show Last Week Tonight. As examples he rattled off names surely unfamiliar to most HBO viewers at home: Uhm Jung-hwa, Jo Sung-mo, TVXQ, Neon Bunny.

How avidly Oliver really listens Korean music isn’t clear, though he did heap praise last year on a member of boy-band BTS, the highest-profile pop singers ever to come out of this country. “It’s frankly shame-inducing that K-pop has produced him, while American pop fans are stuck with Adam Levine,” said Oliver (undiminished though Korea’s own enthusiasm seems for the likes of Maroon 5). Just this month, BTS chalked up a couple more achievements that attest to their rise in the global zeitgeist: a performance at the Grammy Awards, followed by a report in the Onion in which they thank the “Horrifyingly Exploitative System That Got Them Where They Are Today.” The latter purports to quote one of the BTS boys expressing the group’s “heartfelt appreciation to the corporations and shareholders who never gave up on draining us of all personality and remaking us us into easily interchangeable commercial objects.”

BTS’s vast self-described “ARMY” of fans, a demographic not known for its sense of irony, took great exception to this bit of satire, and not wholly without cause. Among successful K-pop boy-bands and girl-groups, one could indeed find much clearer-cut examples of standardized industrial production. But the article nevertheless reflects a persistent distaste felt by many Western holdouts against the “Korean wave”: while the United States of America may have invented the pop star all but genetically engineered to meet consumer demand, Korea appears — as with other adopted foreign practices — to have taken it too far. And as has been argued elsewhere, Korea’s hit machine absorbs so great an amount of resources financial, cultural, and attentional within the country that other kinds of music, even other kinds of pop music, go begging. Or in the case of performers like Neon Bunny, one of Oliver’s picks, they go crowdfunding.

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

Korea Blog: The Vertiginously Satirical Sci-Fi of Bae Myung-Hoon’s Tower

Bae Myung-hoon’s Tower (타워) comprises six interlinked stories, which take place almost entirely within a single building inhabited by 500,000 people. To that setting I imagine Western readers reacting with the look of the stunned distaste I sometimes receive when, back in the United States, I describe the standard form of middle-class housing in Seoul: clusters of 10, 20, 30 buildings, rising to 20, 30, 40 stories each. That verticality alone signals dystopia to many Americans, but to no few English as well — most notably J.G. Ballard, whose 1975 novel High-Risedramatizes the swift and total breakdown of society that occurs in, and is seemingly caused by, a luxury apartment complex of the titular form. No such fate befalls Beanstalk, the 674-story tower imagined by Bae, though it does experience a few close calls, subject as it seemingly is to constant threat from within and without.

Beanstalk isn’t just a building but a sovereign nation unto itself, locked in an ongoing Oceania-and-Eastasia-style geopolitical conflict with the distant country of Cosmomafia. This perhaps reflects the interests of the Seoul National University international-relations scholar Bae was when he began to build a readership as a writer of fiction. But in just over 250 pages, he also describes or alludes to aspects of Beanstalk and life within it in a range wide enough to reflect active fascinations with structural engineering, urban development, terrorism and antiterrorism, geographic information systems, literature, military strategy, Machiavellian politics, and Buddhism. The state of nirvana is invoked several times, once as a fighter pilot downed in a vast desert feels death’s approach (little knowing that the Beanstalkians have banded together to comb through satellite photos, facilitating his rescue), and again when an Indian elephant plunges from a 321st-story window.

The elephant is called Amitabh, a name borrowed (as Bae revealed in a recent podcast appearance) from Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan. Show business bears more directly on the life a celebrity dog known as Film Actor P, another of Tower‘s non-human characters, who not only figures into several of its stories but turns up again in the last of its appendices to give an “interview.” You may at this point suspect the book of an unconventional structure, either by the standards of novels or those of short-story collections. Nor is it formally homogenous, with one epistolary story breaking up the omniscient third-person voice and two of the appendices constituting excerpts of texts referred to in the foregoing narratives: a sociological study of one of Beanstalk’s floors and a myth-like tale of a polar bear (who eventually does manage to attain nirvana) ostensibly by “Writer K,” star of the second story.

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

Korea Blog: Hotels of Pyongyang, a New Photo Book on the Magnificent Kitsch of North Korean Hospitality

Despite having dominated the Pyongyang skyline for three decades now, the Ryugyong Hotel has never opened for business. Topped out as the end of the Soviet Union plunged North Korea into economic crisis, the building stood for most of that period as an angularly mountainous 105-story concrete husk. With a motionless crane still perched on its peak, the seemingly abandoned hotel offered Western observers rather too convenient a symbol for the North Korean project as a whole: ostentatious, even menacing, but all too clearly struggling and ultimately doomed to catastrophic failure. Yet in the late 2000s the project finally resumed, taken over by an Egyptian construction firm, and soon thereafter the Ryugyong was at least decently covered in glass. In recent years that façade has been fitted with LEDs, which at night enable it to screen vivid nationalistic imagery and slogans at a colossal scale (if in an awkward shape).

Where once North Korean officialdom seemed to expect citizens to ignore the Ryugyong, now it presumably expects the opposite. But even as nothing more than a propagandistic billboard, it would have been a glaring admission had it not appeared in Hotels of Pyongyang, a new photo book by James Scullin and Nicole Reed. Having yet to admit its first guest, the Ryugyong is shown only from the outside and at a distance, much less intimately than the ten other institutions of hospitality included here, most of them built in what contributing historian of socialist architecture Jelena Prokopljević calls “the golden decades of North Korean construction over the 1980s and 1990s.” To Westerners they’ll look considerably older, and surreally well-maintained at that, but “visitors from the former Communist Bloc,” adds North Korea scholar Leonid Petrov in his own short essay, “are amused by similitudes and feel very much at home.”

Whatever the origins of the beholder, it isn’t hard to understand the fascination of these hotels. Reed, an Australian photographer experienced in the urban environments of Japan and Hong Kong, captures views of interiors for the most part free of human beings, all the better to highlight the distinctive elements of their décor. Often these include ersatz plant life, faux-Roman columns, approximate-looking leather upholstery, clashing geometric patterns, mirrored surfaces (or surfaces kept buffed to such a shine that they might as well be mirrored), elaborate antimacassars, and large-scale paintings of glorified North Korean landscapes and cityscapes. Numerous inexpensive forms of multicolored lighting introduce even more variety into color schemes not just heavy on grays and browns, as one would expect, but also greens and pinks similar to those that coat the exteriors of Pyongyang’s many humbler buildings.

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

Books on Cities: Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt, The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design (2020)

When a podcast hits it big, it becomes something else: ideally a streaming television series, that most prestigious of all 21st-century cultural forms. But rare is the podcaster able to resist a book deal, and rarer still the podcaster who proves as skilled with the spoken word as the written one — or rather, whose manner translates naturally from the earbuds onto the page, podcasting being a medium driven more by personality than content. The leap is easier for those non-conversational shows, essentially textual to begin with, built around scripted or constructed narratives. If any such podcast were to produce a city book, it was going to be 99% Invisible, one of the most popular and respected podcasts of its kind. Not that there are many others of its kind: what Walter Benjamin said about great works of literature also applies to podcasts, if less so to podcasts-turned books.

99% Invisible debuted in 2010, before we knew podcasts could hit it big. Just a month into its run I wrote it up in Podthoughts, a review column I then contributed to podcast network Maximum Fun. “As unsuitable as design and architecture would seem as podcast subjects, I can’t get enough shows about ’em,” I wrote, beginning the piece in a manner I certainly wouldn’t today. “Design and architecture” was, I recall, a vogue pair of terms in the 2000s, as well as how 99% Invisible‘s early adherents described its subject matter — not inaccurately, but even in those days without doing justice to its true ambit. Under the broader mandate of exposing the “design work underlying the built environment,” its first few episodes covered a variety of topics including, as I listed them, “toothbrushes, space travel, the TransAmerica building, and, my personal favorite, city flags.”

I didn’t describe 99% Invisible as a podcast about cities then, but I suspect its creator, public radio producer Roman Mars, wouldn’t flinch at my doing so now. In the past three months alone, he and his collaborators have put out episodes on such urban phenomena as the skyways of Minneapolisunder-bridge bat infestations in Austin, Texas, the adobe buildings of Santa Fe, and the recovery of “ghost streams” beneath cities, in addition to a five-part miniseries on homelessness. A decade ago, the city per se had less cachet than “design and architecture,” a situation that now seems to have reversed. I can relate to the change 99% Invisible has undergone in that time, given that I’ve made a similar journey myself. Even the other podcasts I thereafter chose to review — Curious City on Chicago, Dear HK on Hong Hong, Monocle‘s The Urbanist — revealed where my interests lay.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Korea Blog: A Beloved Children’s Story Turned Psychedelic Rural Reverie, Go Yeong-nam’s The Shower (1978)

Given the increasingly frequent attempts of late to overhaul the American Young Adult canon, I’m not sure how many kids read Bridge to Terabithia these days. But when I was a grade-schooler in the early 1990s, Katherine Paterson’s 1977 novel of a country boy and city girl who imagine their own fantasy kingdom apart from the adult world was still quite popular. Everyone seemed to have read it, for the very reason that everyone else seemed to have read it; not wanting to references to go over our head was one factor, though so was its appearance on school-issued summer reading lists, if not actual class syllabi. But the book does still figure, so I’ve read, into English curricula in lands from Ireland and Australia to Singapore and the Philippines — though it’s less well-known here in South Korea, at least compared to a Western novel like Demian.

One possible explanation is that this country already had its own Bridge to Terabithia, and one readable in a much shorter span of time: “The Shower” (소나기) by Hwang Sun-won. “No Korean short story is as beloved as this one, published while the Korean war was still in progress,” writes translator Brother Anthony of Taizé in a foreword to his own English rendition. “In part, the popularity comes from its great simplicity of language and content. It is a tale that school children can easily understand, and be touched by.” Its themes “include nostalgia for a lost innocence, the fragility of human life, the contrast between ancient rural ways and the difficulties of modern city life, and the simplicity of true joy.” Hwang expresses all of these through the brief encounter between a boy native to the countryside and a girl newly arrived from Seoul.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that everyone in Korea has read “The Shower.” Familiarity with the story runs deeper here than that with any piece of literature in the United States, Bridge to Terabithia included. But seeing as these works have been acclaimed long enough for the statute of limitations on “spoilers” to have expired, it will do no harm to either to say that, late in both stories, the girl dies. In Peterson’s novel, if memory serves, she drowns attempting to cross a stream on the way to her and the boy’s woodland hiding place; in Hwang’s story, she contracts an unspecified illness after getting caught in the titular rainstorm. The boy, in both cases, is left with a sense of responsibility for the girl’s death, a burden partially alleviated by the exhilaration of having drawn a step closer to the expanse of maturity.

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

Books on Cities: Mark Kingwell, Concrete Reveries (2008)

We who write about cities obviously have an interest in the city as a subject. But I suspect we value it even more as a nexus of subjects, an ostensibly concrete object of focus that in practice allows us to write about anything at all. History, architecture, cinema, technology, politics, society, fashion, food: these are just a few of the fields lying nearest to hand, but an enterprising observer can draw a convincing line of thought between the city and practically any given phenomenon, concept, or idea. This holds even truer for those who take as their subject not the city in particular, but place in general. The books of Pico Iyer, Colin Thubron, and the late Jan Morris, which I often take as examples, may in American bookstores be shelved under travel, but I consider them — more grandly but more descriptively — the work of “writers of place.”

I don’t consider Mark Kingwell a writer of place, at least not primarily, and I’m never sure where I’ll find his books in a store. This owes in part to an admirable intellectual breadth: in the past twenty years, he’s published prolifically on a range of subjects including citizenship, cocktails, baseball, trout fishing, and Glenn Gould. In his latest volume, 2019’s Wish I Were Here, he deals with the hollowing-out of our lives by “the Interface” of high technology — especially the internet and social media — that surrounds us with increasing completeness. Concrete Reveries, published just over a decade before, deals with another of the senses of loss that, though obscure, nevertheless pervades modern life: “the placelessness that is a logical outcome of the modern experiment, where time and space are first abstractly created, then systematically annihilated by the pursuit of speed and the cult of efficiency.”

The first casualty of that annihilation is “awareness of the real facticity of life, what the phenomenologist Edward Casey calls ’embodied implacement.'” Kingwell is a philosophy professor, though apart from a penchant for terms like “facticity” and citation of figures like Edward Casey, his books don’t read like philosophical treatises. Though dense with references, the material referenced is often non-philosophical: Adorno, Benjamin, Deleuze, Foucault, Habermas, and the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus make appearances, but so do Woody Allen, Don DeLillo, Death Race 2000, and Troy McClure. As that last suggests, Kingwell comes steeped in the popular culture of the twixt-Boomer-and-X North American intellectual. But he also demonstrates proper reverence for Lucky Jim, reproducing in full Kingsley Amis’ unimprovable description of the agonized morning after a binge (“His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum”).

Read the whole thing at Substack. See also my interview with Mark Kingwell on Notebook on Cities and Culture.