Skip to content

Hi, I’m Colin Marshall

… a Seoul- and sometimes Los Angeles-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: “Travelogue Korea” and the Dream of Isolation

A Korean friend I knew back in Los Angeles often talked about a recurring fantasy of hers: to drive through empty American states like North (or sometimes South) Dakota for hours and even days on end, not setting eyes on another soul all the while. Though, like any self-respecting American, I do enjoy a good long road trip, and even drove across the whole country before moving abroad, her vision always truck me as more terrifying than tantalizing. Where would you get decent coffee? What if the car breaks down? Could you even get a cellphone signal out there? How long before everything would inevitably go full Deliverance?

After I started watching Korean television, though, I began to understand. Soon after getting satellite television hooked up at home in Los Angeles specifically for the Korean channels, I settled on a favorite program: Travelogue Korea (한국 기행), which airs every night on the educational network EBS. Somehow, in a country about the size of Indiana (and of a considerably smaller size than Dakota North or South), the show has found hundreds upon hundreds of episodes’ worth of places to go, paying special attention to the inhabitants of remote islands, small farms, fishing villages, and rural hamlets.

But then, as I wrote about in Gangneung — a veritable megalopolis compared to the average Travelogue Korea destination — South Korea feels much bigger than it is when you’re traveling through it. Some of this has to do with the sheer concentration of the country’s population, half of which lives in the Seoul metropolitan area alone. When you pass out of it, two changes become apparent: not just a dramatic drop in the density of inhabitants, but a rise in their average age. Hence the venerability of so many of the episodes’ stars, and some of the themes on which it focuses: long lives, almost-as-long marriages, the continuation of long traditions, the flavors of local food, the variety of local dialects.

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

Times Literary Supplement: Suzy Hansen’s “Notes on a Foreign Country”

Not long ago, a curious artefact of American culture suddenly went viral: a short promotional video for a casual dining chain called Sizzler, once one of the most popular in the country. “All across America, a song of freedom rings, a song that’s growin’ stronger every day”, declares its soaring ballad. “That’s the Sizzler way: get a little freedom in your life.” This startlingly unironic song plays over similarly earnest footage of dogs chasing frisbees, hard-hatted construction workers frowning at blueprints, and sailors smooching their girls at sunset, all intended as a promotion of the restaurant’s then new buffet feature.

Though the video’s sensibility feels closer to the 1950s than the twenty-first century, it dates from 1991, the year of the first Gulf War. “Mostly what I remember of this war in Iraq was singing on the school bus”, writes Suzy Hansen in Notes on a Foreign Country. She sang “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood, at whose MTV clip – an even more crudely sentimental piece of red-white-and-blue mythology than Sizzler’s – she recalls tearing up. Like me, she grew up in the suburban America of the 1980s and 90s, and there received the standard-issue education of our generation, its lessons haphazard and strangely contextless. “History, America’s history, the world’s history, would slip in and out of my consciousness with no resonance whatsoever”, she writes of herself on the cusp of adulthood.

Her outlook began to sharpen when she left her blank hometown of Wall, New Jersey, for the University of Pennsylvania. She later found a job at the New York Observer and worked there until the age of twenty-nine, when she won a two-year writing fellowship from the Institute of Cultural World Affairs. Created by the globally minded son of an American plumbing parts magnate, the ICWA fellowship, in the words of a prospectus from the programme’s foundation in the mid-1920s, sends holders abroad to attempt the task of “interpreting a people, or a group, to itself and to others”. Or, as Hansen more bluntly puts it, “the committee wanted to see what would happen if they dropped an ignorant person into a foreign place”.

Read the whole thing at the Times Literary Supplement (free registration required).

Korea Blog: The #MeToo-ing of Ko Un, Korea’s Best Hope for a Nobel Prize

It pleased me to watch Wonder Wheel, Woody Allen’s most recent film, at one of my favorite art houses in Seoul. Though hardly an Allen devotee — I’ll probably never get around to a good third of his filmography — I wouldn’t have enjoyed quite the same freedom, back in America, from the expectation to interrogate the morality of my viewership. “It would make life easier if Woody Allen’s movies were as easy and as right to condemn as his behavior,” declares the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody in his own piece on the picture. “But that’s not my experience of his movies, and this makes it difficult both to watch and to write about them,” as he has done, unfailingly, with “considered queasiness.”

Those two words also describe the feeling with which, from the other side of the Pacific, I’ve watched the movement that has made, or attempted to make, Allen into a pariah, including but hardly limited to the sordid combing-through of his work (and even his archives) for evidence of deviant desires. It brings to mind my reaction to another American movie I watched in Korea, the still-untainted (but also less artistically respected) Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire, which I happened to catch on television not long before the floodgates of sexual-misconduct accusation opened onto Hollywood. Despite its place in the zeitgeist, I’d never actually seen it before, and I found myself astonished by the distance between its depiction of American life and the reality of American life today: the 1990s it portrays looks much closer to the 1950s than the 2010s.

When I brought this up to a friend who also grew up in America in that era, he pointed out the seemingly total disappearance of moral panics. Back then they’d been so common, and sparked by what now look like the most trivial phenomena: violent video games, “explicit lyrics,” a too-irreverent quip on the part of Bart Simpson. “A moral panic is always a reaction to something that has been there all along but has evaded attention — until a particular crime captures the public imagination,” wrote Masha Gessen, also in the New Yorker, late last year. “Sex panics in the past have begun with actual crimes but led to outsize penalties and, more importantly, to a generalized sense of danger. The object of fear in America’s recent sex panics is the sexual predator, a concept that took hold in the nineteen-nineties.”

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

Architectural Review: Amorepacific headquarters, Seoul, by David Chipperfield Architects

The world has come to know South Korea, one of the most rapidly developed countries in human history, through its exporting industries, but none of the Korean-made products that first won wide international use — ships, automobiles, electronics — presented the world with much of an image of Korea itself. In fact, Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and the other conglomerates responsible for such a large chunk of the country’s impressive economy once took pains not to present themselves explicitly as Korean at all. Not quite so, however, with the Korean cosmetics industry, which has risen to global dominance, in part, on the back of the story of Korea’s distinctive beauty culture and set of natural resources.

No company has told that story as convincingly as Amorepacific, and its considerable success has afforded it the opportunity to hire David Chipperfield Architects to design a new headquarters in Seoul, not just a building but the realization of a vision. That vision comes nearly as much from the mind of Suh Kyung-bae, Amorepacific’s CEO and South Korea’s second-richest man, as it does from the minds of the architects. Having made the official decision to construct a new building in 2009, Suh reached out to more than 50 world-renowned architectural firms, and after many a meeting determined that DCA’s design, which started as three high-rises but evolved into a single cube with holes cut into its sides, best incorporated his preference for open, permeable space and addressed his many concerns about environmental sustainability.

Making a statement against the closed-off corporate high-rises inhabited by the aforementioned conglomerates, Suh insisted on a building open to the public on its bottom floors. There under its atrium, when the installations finish, they’ll find not just places to buy Amorepacific’s cosmetics, but shops full of flowers and tea (from Osulloc, the Amorepacific-owned prestige tea brand) and even, in the basement, the Amorepacific Museum of Art. Suh inherited not just the leadership of Amorepacific but an apparently true belief in the power of beauty — as manifest in natural landscapes and manmade works of art as well as on the faces of his countrywomen — from his father Suh Sung-whan, who had begun growing the company from a small hair-oil business run by his mother in 1945.

Read the whole thing at the Architectural Review (free registration required).

Korea Blog: Is Simon Winchester’s “Korea” a Classic Travelogue or Cultural Offense?

“This book has a precious little to recommend for itself. It reads more like a white man’s fantasy.” “The vaguely creepy paternalistic narration was extremely off-putting.” “I found his voice to be a little bit too ‘male.’” “It would have been a good book if he had left his commentary out of it.” “I have to say I was pretty offended at times.” All these judgments come from the Goodreads user reviews of Simon Winchester’s Korea: a Walk Through the Land of Miracles, a book published well before the era of free-for-all internet commentary. It didn’t, however, come out as long ago as the complaints quoted here might make you imagine: 30 years have passed, and in that time has Winchester’s view of Korea, as well as the Korea he viewed, grown hopelessly outdated?

Whatever the answer to that question, the book has held its place on the very short list of essential long-form travelogues of modern Korea. In fact, it nearly constitutes that list by itself, the other possible candidates having fallen quickly out of print and into obscurity after the small burst of interest in the run-up to the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Winchester, too, wrote his book with the Games in mind, wanting to see as much as possible of the country that had charmed him as a Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent before it opened itself more fully to the wider world. As much as Korea has changed since then — not least due to its late-1980s conversion to “near-beer democracy,” as he calls it, so painstakingly scrutinized by many of those other forgotten volumes — something about Winchester’s take on it has endured.

“With all the enthusiasm of a naif,” Winchester remembers in the introduction, “I planned a book that would present a series of ruminations about the Korean people, who are quite unsullied by the evils of money making, are uninterested in the mechanics of power seeking, and had long forgotten the miseries of battle. I would, I vowed, go straight for the kokoro, the often-ignored, rarely understood heart of modern Korea.” Two things stand out here: first, that few would now (or even them) call the Korean people “unsullied by the evils of money making,” and second, that kokoro is the Japanese word for heart, not the Korean one. He does explain his use of the term toward the end of the book, but too late to steady the shaken confidence of a reader familiar with east Asian languages.

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

Guardian Cities: Gangneung in the Spotlight

The 2018 Winter Olympics will soon open in Pyeongchang, South Korea – which has taken pains, of varying effectiveness, to prevent the world from confusing it with Pyongyang, North Korea. But the games won’t be limited to the tiny mountain town of Pyeongchang itself; with a comparatively enormous population of 213,658, the nearby coastal city of Gangneung can lay claim to being the true Olympic capital.

Located on the other side of the country from the megacity of Seoul, Gangneung’s relatively remote seaside location has long made it an attractive destination for Koreans looking to get away from it all. Now, with the opening ceremonies approaching, it is scrambling to make itself a destination for the entire world. The mood has something in common with the capital’s Olympic Games 30 years ago, but can they introduce Gangneung to the world the same way they did Seoul?

Gangneung today exudes a mixture of readiness and unreadiness. A newly built line of the KTX, Korea’s high-speed train network, began service last December, originating in Seoul and terminating at Gangneung’s gleaming new station. Outside the station wait dozens of equally shiny taxis, each equipped with “empty” signs in both Korean and English (an accommodation not even seen in the capital), and two large-scale figures of the official 2018 Olympic mascots, Soohorang the tiger and Bandabi the bear – smaller versions of whom peer out from shop windows throughout town.

Read the whole thing at the Guardian.

Korea Blog: Letter from Gangneung, the Real Capital of the 2018 Winter Olympics

A whole new line on the KTX, South Korea’s high-speed train system, opened just last December. It connects Seoul to Gangneung, a modest coastal city on the opposite side of the county, reducing a trip that formerly took more than six hours to what now takes less than two — an hour and 55 or so minutes, to be more precise, and one can only imagine the pressure on the engineering team to get the trip time down to the more marketable side of two hours. Still, it couldn’t have been as intense as the pressure to get the line up and running before the Winter Olympics, many of whose events take place in the place where it terminates, and without the presence of which it probably wouldn’t have been built at all.

The name Gangneung might sound unfamiliar even to Olympics fans. Didn’t the games go to a city called Pyeongchang? Many know that name, or some variation of it, because of the official pains taken to differentiate it from Pyeongyang, the capital of North Korea. (Hence some branding that renders it PyeongChang or Pyeong Chang.) And indeed, Pyeongchang does have a stop on the new KTX line, but that tiny mountain town makes Gangneung, which itself has fewer than 215,000 people, look like an urban colossus. Though competition venues have gone up all over Pyeongchang County, it’s Gangneung, the biggest city in the area, that can in some sense lay a more convincing claim to Olympic-capital status.

Always game to ride a fast train, new or old — their existence, after all, being one of the most compelling reasons to leave America — I recently caught a KTX out of Seoul and rode it all the way to Gangneung. Getting to Seoul Station that day involved making my way past hundreds of oldsters, almost all of them waving the flag of the Republic of Korea. The ones that weren’t held the Stars and Stripes instead, seemingly an even more meaningful symbol to Koreans of a certain age. Either way, they’d all come to demand the same thing: a boycott of the Olympics due to what they consider the illegitimate impeachment and replacement of Park Geun-hye, daughter of Park Chung-hee, the strongman under whose 18-year rule they’d seen the country grow prosperous enough to first host the Olympics under his successor in 1988.

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

Seoul Urbanism on TBS eFM’s Koreascape: Six Distinctive Urban Characteristics of Seoul

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 time, with Kurt on vacation, I talk to Na Seung-yeon about six distinctive characteristics of Seoul’s urban space as a whole, including its high-rise apartment complexes; its short-hop “village buses”; its culture of rooms, or bang (방), purpose-built for singing, watching movies, and playing board games; its outdoor eating and drinking spots known as pojang macha (포장 마차); and more. While each of these have potentially positive and negative kinds of impact on urban life, all of them together make the experience of Seoul feel different than that of any other city.

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

Korea Blog: French Nobel Laureate J.M.G. Le Clézio’s New Novel of Korea, and the Love of Korea That Inspired It

Like any country afflicted by an inferiority complex, South Korea has shown an avid interest in winning Nobel Prizes, to the point of scrutinizing and attempting to adapt for itself the customs of the nations (and even ethnicities and religions) that have managed to produce large numbers of Nobel laureates. But apart from the 2000 Peace Prize, awarded to pro-democracy activist and then-president Kim Dae-jung, the dream remains elusive. A few Korean or Korean-born scientists have come up as potential future winners, but the hopes of recent years have been repeatedly pinned on the poet Ko Un, who, at the age of 84, continues — to the great frustration of Korean culture’s global promoters — not to win the Literature Prize.

Nevertheless, Korea does have a Nobel-winning champion in French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, whose receipt of the Literature prize in 2008 occasioned a scramble to make his work available in the non-Francophone world. Even before being granted the sacred object, however, he’d already become something of a public figure in Korea, having arrived here the year before to teach French language and literature at the prestigious Ewha Womans University. “Le Clézio was a Nobel literature prize candidates in 2007, and reporters camped outside his house in Seoul on Oct. 11, the day the winner was announced,” writes Esther Lee in an early-2008 piece in the Joongang Daily. “Asked if he knew reporters were waiting for him, he laughed. ‘I was out that day, riding the subway,’ he said. The award went to Doris Lessing.”

The article also points out Le Clézio’s enthusiasm for Korean literature, “which he describes as dynamic and multicolored.” The Nobel’s arrival in 2008 provided him with an enlarged platform to promote it, especially in his homeland: “Korean literature is written in a hard language, without affectation, pity for oneself or satisfaction,” he wrote in a Le Figaro, “but is always imaginative and allusive with self-deprecating humor that characterizes the Korean people.” A decade on, he has, in a sense, contributed a work of his own to the body of Korean literature with his new book Bitna: Under the Sky of Seoul, a short novel of connected tales set in the Korean capital.

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

Korea Blog: How Korea’s Version of TED Talks Aims to Heal Korean Society

Come to live in South Korea, and you’ll find that everything you used to use in the old country has a locally made equivalent in Korea. That goes not just for goods but for services, even — maybe especially — services on the internet. For nearly 20 years, Koreans have done most of their searching not on Google but on a portal site called Naver, which also offers its own, much more functional (in Korea, that is) map application. They look up restaurants not on Yelp but Diningcode, find apartments not on Craigslist or Zillow but Zigbang or Dabang, and have long done their messaging through a service called Kakaotalk. Alongside the Korean Wikipedia exists the jokier but often more detailed Namuwiki.

Those named are hardly the only options, since each category with any potential user base at all tends to produce an abundance of Korean competitors, no single one of which ever seems to attain complete dominance. Apart from the government’s reluctance to allow the release of detailed map data to foreign companies (ostensibly in the name of national security), this situation hasn’t arisen, for the most part, as a matter of policy, but from the perceived need to address the supposedly unique expectations and problems of the Korean consumer, which itself might go all the way back to the exports-good-imports-bad developmental ideology of the 1960s and 70s. It has also given rise to a Korean equivalent of TED Talks, the series of short video lectures that for well over a decade have generated praise, criticism, and hundreds of millions of views.

Korea’s own TED Talks launched in 2011, calling itself “Sebashi” (세바시), a contraction of sesangeul bakkuneun shigan 15 bun (세상을 바꾸는 시간 15분), officially rendered in English as “The Fifteen Minutes that Changes the World.” Most of its videos run over 15 minutes, some well over; however much its creators have copied from the TED Talk format, they haven’t applied its famously rigid 18-minute limit. TED curator Chris Anderson has justified that length as “long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention,” with the added advantage of being “the length of a coffee break.” Many a Korean office worker combines coffee break and cigarette break, meaning they take them outside, even during a chilly Seoul winter like this one.

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