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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: An Existentialist Seoul Bookstore Owner’s Message to His Countrymen, Goof Off for Once

No matter how much of an effort I make to explore Seoul, every so often something reminds me how much of the city I still haven’t discovered. That goes for the far-flung districts to which I haven’t yet made it as well as out-of-the-way parts of my own neighborhood, the same one I’ve lived in ever since moving here from Los Angeles. The first big hint of how much I might be missing out came when I happened upon a small bookstore not five minutes’ walk from my building, one nearly hidden on a quiet street running through part of an old neighborhood right next to one being scraped for a development of high-rises. Its storefront struck me as almost European, not least because of the dozens of empty wine bottles lined up on the ground outside. Even more intriguing was its name, written only on a sandwich board placed in the street: 퇴근길 책한잔, or “A Glass of Book on the Way Home.”

But one thing drew me in more than any other: the poster, taped up on the door, for Hong Sangsoo’s Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은 맞고 그때는 틀리다), a movie I wrote about here on the Korea Blog not long before discovering A Glass of Book on the Way Home. I’ve come up with few more reliable predictors of whether I’ll get along well with someone I meet here in Korea than whether they enjoy the films of Hong Sangsoo, which combine social comedy, formal experimentation, and a distinctive (usually budget-enforced) kind of rigor, with artistic results deeply rooted in both the culture of Korea and the culture of cinema itself. To get the biggest possible laughs at Hong Sangsoo’s movies requires a familiarity with Korea as well as resistance to taking the place too seriously; to fully appreciate them requires a sense of where cinema has been as well as a certain frustration with how timidly it has explored its possibilities thus far.

What Hong Sangsoo has done for Korean cinema, A Glass of Book on the Way Home’s proprietor Kim Jong-hyeon seems to have made it his mission to do for Korean life. Or rather, that has become a side-effect of his last few years of lifestyle choices, all of which might strike many of his countrymen as unthinkably radical: quitting a safe corporate job, couch-surfing through Europe, renting out a vacant former air-conditioner repair shop in an unfashionable area and turning it into a bookstore with no particular business plan. These and other decisions he explains in a new book called 한번 까불어 보겠습니다, which I might loosely translate as I’ll Goof Off for Once. In its 45 short essays, Kim lays out his philosophy of life as reflected by his thoughts on everything from travel (which he does by deliberately getting lost, a strategy whose employment he also recommends in daily life) to family (an entity that, in its controlling traditional Korean form, he rejects, though he does mention still living with his somewhat unconventional parents) to atheism and existentialism (“I am an existentialist,” he writes. “Don’t be scared”) to love and — in a chapter titled “I Like Sex” — sex.

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

Korea Blog: Philosophy, Dystopia, Fountain Pens, and Other Preoccupations of a Twentysomething Korean Book Vlogging Star

Sometimes, flipping channels at night here in Korea, I run across a show about Youtubers. Each episode features three different creators of online video content (or kontencheu, as it’s commonly rendered in Konglish) and documents each of them making a representative episode of their series. The host comments on the footage together with the vloggers, asking questions and making the occasional joke to complement the barrage of onscreen text and graphics that characterizes the modern TV aesthetic here. Some of the guests do cooking shows, some do comedy shows, and some go in more idiosyncratic directions. (The 29-year-old pharmacist who painstakingly recreates K-pop music videos, entirely by himself in his small room down in Daegu, comes to mind.)

Seeing this show reminds me how much television Korea makes — I haven’t watched even 10 percent of the channels in my cable package — as well as how much internet video it makes. When the world hears about Koreans broadcasting themselves, it usually hears about things like meokbang (먹방), those live streams of young people eating large quantities of food that made Westerners scratch their heads a couple years ago. But the society of screens cannot live by ingestion alone, and Korean vlogging has grown capacious enough to accommodate more esoteric pursuits, up to and including the reading books. America has its book vloggers as well, of course, but none of them seem to have reached quite the proportional level of fame quite as quickly as, say, Kim Kyeoul (a name she translates as Winter Kim, which doesn’t exude the same hippie-parents vibe in Korea as it would in America), creator and host of the Youtube channel Winter Bookstore.

Kim has put up more than 120 episodes since she started Winter Bookstore at the beginning of last year, most of them shot in front of her filled-to-capacity bookshelves, all of them dealing with one subject or another related to books. She leads tours of those bookshelves, she gives reading recommendations, she describes her own reading methods (not neglecting such details as her preferred style of marginalia-making and which brand of coffee-cup warmer she uses), she compares translations of foreign books and electronic reading devices, she reads sections of books out loud (including my personal favorite Los Angeles novel, Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man), she goes to publishers’ sales up in Paju Book City. Occasionally an episode crosses over with another cultural vlogger’s series, as when she gets together with a movie specialist to compare and contrast Stephen King’s The Shining with Stanley Kubrick’s version, or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? with Blade Runner.

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

Korea Blog: A Python in Pyongyang (and Well Beyond)

A few weeks ago I watched Monty Python’s Michael Palin toss an inflatable globe to a classroom full of North Korean schoolchildren. The sight took my mind back across the Pacific Ocean and more than a quarter-century in time, from my current home in Seoul to the childhood home in California where I first saw that same inflatable globe — or one very much like it, anyway — on Around the World in 80 Days, the series that made Palin, already long famous as a Python, a beloved television traveler as well. I’ve watched each and every one of what are now called the Palin’s Travels shows since, following along as the onetime dead-parrot salesman went from the North Pole to the South, circled the Pacific Rim, crossed the Sahara and the Himalayas both, and made his way through a great deal of the rest of the world as well.

The announcement earlier this year that Palin’s latest journey would take him into North Korea thus struck me as the logical extension of the enterprise. Any fan could sense that Palin has wanted to enter that most secretive of all countries at least since 1997’s Full Circle, whose Pacific Rim-tracing itinerary naturally included South Korea. Here he found, as he writes in the series’ companion book, a country tirelessly at work “making itself bigger,” channeling its historical resentment into an “intense commercial competitiveness” and an “almost manic drive to modernize in the international way.” Its sense of national destiny, it seemed to him, “transcends individual aspirations. Things like privacy, holidays and time off, which we value so much in the West, are considered luxuries, always ready to be sacrificed to the national effort.”

Palin’s travels took him through this country many years before I arrived, but his observations of the developmentalist South Korea in the mid-1990s, just before the Asian financial crisis took the wind out of its sails, jibes with other accounts of that time. Now, though, the bit about all the sacrifices for the national effort sounds more like a description of North Korea, which at that time Palin and his crew could barely even see over the border, let alone enter and shoot a documentary. “North Korea is not really interested in seeing you, especially if you’re from the West and carrying a film camera,” he writes in the book of his first serious obstacle to progress around the Pacific Rim. “Global glasnost has barely dented the protective shell of one of the last remaining communist dictatorships and the closest we can get to it is the Demilitarized Zone, the DMZ, which has separated the two countries since the end of the Korean War in 1953.”

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

A Wrap-Up: Seoul Urbanism on TBS eFM’s Koreascape

Each month for the past two years I’ve joined Kurt Achin, host of Koreascape on Seoul’s English-language radio station TBS eFM, for an exploration of one of Seoul’s urban spaces. With the end of Koreascape this month comes the end of the Seoul urbanism segment, and so we look back at all we’ve covered over the past two years. We also ask what the future holds for some of our past destinations, from the 63 Building to Ikseon-dong to Seoullo 7017 to Sewoon Sangga, and what they say about the likely direction of the city itself. Have a listen and you’ll surely gather at least a few ideas for your own urbanistic journeys in Seoul to come.

You can hear our previous explorations of Seoul’s architecture, infrastructure, and other parts of the built environment here or download them on iTunes.

Korea Blog: The Colors of Pyongyang, Seoul’s Shadow Self

Much of South Korea had some or all of last week off work, owing to the chuseokfall harvest festival. Westerners in Seoul take the opportunity to enjoy a quieter version of the city while Koreans take the opportunity (or if you prefer, adhere to the obligation) to spend the holiday in their family’s provincial hometown. Westerners married to or otherwise involved with such Koreans discover with a start that, contrary to expectations they may have had of a cultural experience rich with tradition, families here increasingly tend to spend chuseok on their sectional sofas, having an experience rich with television. The networks, for their part, always make sure to keep the week’s programming interesting, and this year they found themselves blessed with additional abundance in the form of a political event to analyze, re-analyze, and then analyze the analyses of: the third inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, capital of North Korea.

Not so long ago, relatively few knew what Pyongyang really looked like. At the peak of my own onetime fascination with North Korea, I had a hard time finding pictures of anything more interesting than looming concrete symbols like Monument to Party Founding and Juche Tower, the menacingly incomplete Ryugyong Hotel, and blue-uniformed traffic ladies standing sternly in the middle of otherwise deserted intersections. Now a single Google search turns up copious amounts of Pyongyang media, up to and including thorough visual documentation of its subway system, which those of us fascinated by North Korea used to half-suspect of being nothing more than a set piece orchestrated to impress visiting foreigners. Now even GQposts galleries of streets shots taken in Pyongyang — and, since everyone knows that the government deliberately uses the capital as a prosperous showpiece, other parts of the country as well.

With no desire to see the officially approved sights — standard guided tours, as I understand, schedule a great deal of time at the feet of those Pyongyang monuments — I’ve never looked into traveling up north myself. The geopolitical situation has made it nearly impossible for Americans such as myself to do it now anyway, but in longtime Seoul expatriate circles you’ll find plenty of Westerners, of various nationalities, who’ve been not just once but many times. The attractions of Pyongyang fare poorly in comparison to those of Seoul, of course, even with all the Chinese money poured into the former of late, but those who have spent time in both cities often make a point of how much more colorful the poorer, emptier, more repressive one looks by contrast. Why, they wonder, does the capital of South Korea — the better Korea, as we Westerners know it, indeed the good Korea, the one to which all those starving Northerners must dream of escaping in between brainwashing sessions — look so gray?

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

Quillette: #MeToo Casualty Ian Buruma Was the Editor We Needed

In September 2014, I flew to Toronto to record a series of podcast interviews with a few of the city’s cultural figures, mostly writers, all of whom I’d reached out to either because I already admired their work or because they came to my attention through trusted recommendations. The sole exception was also the one interview that fell through: with Jian Ghomeshi, host of Q, the CBC’s most popular radio show. Although I’d only heard a few of his broadcasts, Ghomeshi seemed too famous, and too closely identified with the city that would give these conversations their unifying theme, to ignore. But the arrangements proved unusually complicated, and a week before my flight one of Ghomeshi’s enthusiastic-sounding team—I remember e-mailing with an Ashley, a Debra, and a Cait—informed me that, “Unfortunately, we aren’t able to fit this in his schedule this trip, but please don’t hesitate to let us know if another opportunity presents itself in the future.”

No opportunity to interview Ghomeshi, at least the Ghomeshi listeners knew, would ever present itself again. While in Toronto, I mentioned my attempt to a friend who has spent much of his life in close proximity to the Canadian entertainment industry. “Oh, Jian,” he said, shaking his head, his tone a mixture of disappointment and resignation. From his subsequent elaboration I gathered that Ghomeshi was well known for his boorish behavior, especially toward women, during both his career as a broadcaster and his time as a musician before that. Though I’d never heard any rumors to that effect before, it didn’t exactly surprise me: something about the apparent pains he took to be seen publicly projecting just the right sensitive, tolerant attitudes—his ‘virtue signaling,’ as such behavior was not yet widely labeled—struck me as unseemly, in the same way that the loudest and longest moralizing on the part of a certain kind of American politician always seems to precede the revelation of his utter depravity.

The CBC suddenly fired Ghomeshi just a few weeks later, and the following month he turned himself in to the Toronto police, facing four counts of sexual assault and one of the even nastier-sounding “overcoming resistance by choking.” In Canada, this all became Trial of the Century material. But in the rest of the world, where most people first learned of Ghomeshi when he fell from grace, only spared its attention for the charges (three more of which, related to three more women, came in January 2015) and the verdict. Along with his decision to acquit Ghomeshi completely, Justice William Horkins also delivered a damning assessment of the credibility of the women who took the stand against him. “The evidence of each complainant suffered not just from inconsistencies and questionable behavior, but was tainted by outright deception,” said Horkins. “The harsh reality is that once a witness has been shown to be deceptive and manipulative in giving their evidence, that witness can no longer expect the court to consider them to be a trusted source of the truth.”

Read the whole thing at Quillette.

Korea Blog: Talk Like a Busanian

Foreigners living in Seoul seldom travel around the rest of the country as much as they’d like to, and Koreans living in Seoul seem to do it even less. Hence the popularity of a television program like Travelogue Korea (한국기행), which brings the remote island and mountain villages to Seoulites rather than the other way around. Part of the problem has to do with the sheer capital-centricity, unrivaled in Japan or even England and France, that makes Seoul the city where nearly everybody wants to live and almost nobody needs to leave. (I used to make fun of that, before I realized that I describe everyone in America as living in either Los Angeles, New York, or “someplace weird.”) But though Korea may not have any other cities in Seoul’s league, it does have other big cities, all conveniently connected by the high-speed KTX train, each possessed of its own distinct history and culture.

None has a culture more distinct than that of Busan, Korea’s second-largest metropolis. Located on the southeast coast, almost as far as a South Korean city can get from from Seoul and still be on the peninsula, Busan long served as the country’s main entrepôt, giving it a reputation as an international sort of place even in the centuries pre-modern Korea spent as a “hermit kingdom.” Historically, many of the arrivals into Busan came from nearby Japan (a distance one can now ferry across in three hours), and that cultural influence still manifests still manifests in the accents of the locals. I can attest to the conspicuousness of the effect Japanese sounds have on Korean speech; I happen to study Japanese as well as Korean, and speaking the former has had enough influence on the way I speak the latter that a Korean tells me I “talk like a Japanese person” at least once every few weeks.

Not that my Japanese skills, such as they are, have helped me get much of a handle on Busan-style Korean. Busanians speak with not just their own accent but in their own dialect, or saturi (사투리), which at its richest can leave Korean-speakers — even native Korean-speakers — accustomed to the relatively clear version of the language spoken in Seoul in a state of incomprehension. To put this in geographical perspective, Seoul and Busan lie about as far apart from each other as do Los Angeles and San Francisco; Angelenos and San Franciscans may not see eye-to-eye on everything, but it’s impossible to imagine ascribing their communication breakdowns to differences in regional speech alone. But then, California hasn’t had the oft-referenced “5,000 years of unbroken history” in which the various cultures within Korea have developed and differentiated.

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

Sewoon Sangga, the 1960s Megastructure Reborn: Seoul Urbanism on TBS eFM’s Koreascape

Each month I join Kurt Achin, host of Koreascape on Seoul’s English-language radio station TBS eFM, for an exploration of one of Seoul’s urban spaces. This month we explore Sewoon Sangga, the concrete megastructure that has survived half a century of change in Seoul and is now the subject of a revitalization effort like no other. Originally commissioned by Seoul mayor Kim Hyon-ok (nicknamed “The Bulldozer”) and designed by famed architect Kim Swoo-Geun (known for works like the Olympic Stadium, the SPACE Building, and the Freedom Hall), Sewoon Sangga opened in 1968 as Korea’s first large development mixing both commercial and residential space. Now, with the eight original buildings reduced to seven and much of the business for its electronics shops lost to other parts of the city — but plenty of activity still going on in its labyrinthine interior and on it wraparound public decks — the Dashi Seun (or “built again”) project is rethinking, remodeling, and augmenting Sewoon Sangga for the 21st century in an effort to bring together the expertise of the older generation already there with the enthusiasm of the younger generation of “makers” only just discovering the place.

Stay tuned for further explorations of Seoul’s architecture, infrastructure, and other parts of the built environment. You can hear our previous segments here or download them on iTunes.

Korea Blog: Short Skirts, Flying Chopsticks, and the “Worst” Korea Essay, Ten Years Later

In the summer of 2008, the New York Times ran “Urban Seoul,” a piece of about 800 words on life as an American expatriate in Korea. Its author, a writer in his mid-30s named Gabe Hudson, had arrived here the previous year to take professorship at at Yonsei University, becoming the founding chair of the creative writing program at its Underwood International College. This reflection on “the ups and downs of newbie life in Seoul,” as the Korea Joongang Daily‘s Richard Scott-Ashe writes, “sparked some lively debate on local blogs, foreign and Korean alike.” That’s one way of putting it. A decade after its publication, the collective Seoul expat memory still regards Hudson’s short essay as the standard-bearer for bad Western writing on Korea, the worst first-person sketch of the country to appear in a major publication this century.

One can criticize Hudson for writing about a foreign country from a place of ignorance, but he says as much himself up front. “I don’t speak Korean and most Koreans don’t really speak English,” he admits in the first sentence, “except my students, who speak as many as four languages and who bow to me when they walk by on campus.” A Korea-resident Westerner not speaking Korean is, as every new expat here discovers — some with a shock, some with relief — more or less par for the course. So is the expectation of English proficiency for students in Korea’s most prestigious universities, the top three of which, Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University, constitute the striven-for holy trinity of “SKY” schools.

That linguistic contrast alone could provide the basis for an entire book on Korean society, but Hudson confines himself to his own experience of awe and bewilderment. “When Ja-Won buzzes the front door to my apartment, an image of her face instantly appears on the silver Samsung video screen on my living-room wall,” he writes of the beginning of a night out with his Korean girlfriend. “When I step into the hall to greet her, the door behind me suctions itself closed, locks itself with a motor and speaks to me in Korean.” His description of Korea in the 2000s begins to sound uncannily like many a Western writer’s description of Japan in the 1980s: “In the elevator, all sharp angles and shiny silver, a computer monitor plays Korean commercials continuously.”

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

Korea Blog: A Traveler’s Video of Seoul Astonishes, while Official Promotion of Korea Embarrasses

A video that recently hit the internet may well turn out to be the year’s most effective piece of Korea-promotion — if not the decade’s most effective — and Korea’s official promoters had nothing at all to do with it. Titled “seoul_wave,” the seven-minute production presents a day in the life of Korea’s capital as hyperkinetically shot and painstakingly edited by an American “nomadic filmmaker on an endless world tour” named Brandon Li. This might not sound like high-priority viewing for those who actually live in Seoul, and I might never have watched it myself had not seen it praised by other expatriates here. Not the easiest group to please, they keep their knives perpetually out for cynical or ignorant Korea-boosting — in other words, for much of the Korea-boosting done to date.

Take, for instance, the Korea Tourism Organization’s “Have You Ever… ?” campaign. In its teaser video, published the very same day as “seoul_wave,” members of the boy band EXO ask questions like “Have you ever slept?” and “Have you ever been to a restaurant?” To which a variety of non-Koreans, mostly Westerners, provide responses, to the best of their ability, like “I’ve never slept like that” and “Never been to a restaurant like that.” Presumably they mean they’ve never slept like they could in Korea and never been to a restaurant like the ones they could go to in Korea, but the generic, not especially Korean-looking backgrounds against which the speak only muddy the meaning further. But the awkwardness goes deeper stil: the EXO boys’ words have clearly been dubbed over, a risky choice given the obsessiveness and hypersensitivity of K-pop fan bases.

“The ad resurrected memories of other embarrassing promotional campaigns,” writes the Korea Times’ Jon Dunbar, “most notably the city’s three-year-old slogan ‘I.Seoul.U’ and 2008’s cringe-worthy national tourist slogan ‘Korea Sparkling.’ And I almost forgot about the doomed slogan ‘Creative Korea.’” One might well wonder why official Korea, in the development of ostensibly Westerner-targeted ad campaigns, apparently consults no Westerners. “Actually, they do,” writes Dunbar, who for a couple of years worked for the culture ministry’s Korean Culture and Information Service (KOCIS), a body originally formed in 1971 as a propaganda apparatus under strongman Park Chung-hee. “The problem is, they don’t listen. They come looking for a rubber stamp, often late in the planning stage when it’s too late to change anything.”

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