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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: Korea Has Started Using English Names — But When Will It Stop?

As it spreads across the world, Starbucks has come to serve many functions, not least giving the kind of travelers inclined to complain about the global homogenization of place an Exhibit A to point to. Such travelers make those complaints with a special intensity when in Seoul, which in addition to a robust local coffee-shop economy boasts the highest number of Starbucks locations per capita of any city in the world. I take a slightly brighter view of the green mermaid’s ongoing journey from Seattle to omnipresence, and not just because they offer those twin lifebloods of the 21st-century writer, coffee and reliable wi-fi: Starbucks stores, despite and indeed because of their efforts to hold every aspect of their experience steady across cities, countries, and continents, have ended up becoming the places where pure contrast forces the host culture’s deepest-seated characteristics into view.

Not that you’d know it at first glance — nor, sometimes, at a closer second glance, which in a Korean Starbucks might well take in the baristas’ nametags, nearly all of which bear, in bold, chalky, Roman capital letters, names like SALLY or RYAN or ANGIE. You’d expect that in Denver or Syracuse, but in the capital of South Korea, let alone the much smaller towns all over the country, and pinned to the chests of an all-Korean staff serving a mostly Korean clientele, the effect is surreal. It turns out to have come down from corporate: “Starbucks staff are required to have nicknames,” writes the Korea Times‘ Kim Young-jin. “The reason, company officials say, is to create a culture in which all ‘partners’ are equal.”

That in opposition to Korea’s established corporate culture, “notorious for long working hours and a rigid chain of command,” where employees, as a rule, address each other not by name but a title that locates them unambiguously in the organizational hierarchy. More than a few Korean companies have followed Starbucks’ suit. “Kakao, one of South Korea’s largest Internet companies, decided three years ago that all employees would go by English nicknames,” writes Rachel Premack in the Washington Post. Additionally, “companies in English education, tourism, trade or other globally focused industries typically have English nickname policies. They want to accommodate foreign business partners who can’t decipher between Lee Ji-yeong and Lee Ji-yeon.”

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

This week’s city reading: the cases for coffee-shop laptopping, Monocle magazine’s apartment-building, and Seoul street-eating

In Defence of the Coffee Shop Laptopper (Kate Symondson, Times Literary Supplement) ‘Data scientists and an entrepreneur-blogger, Sam Floy, created a series of heat maps correlating “on-the-up” neighbourhoods with coffee shop density. This “Coffee and Chicken shop method”, as it has come to be known, demonstrates that homebuyers ought to opt for an area where there is a high density of coffee shops, a low density of chicken shops, and low house prices.’

What Happened to the American Boomtown? (Emily Badger, New York Times) ‘The places that are booming in size aren’t the economic boomtowns — the regions with the greatest prosperity and highest productivity. In theory, we’d expect those metros, like the Bay Area, Boston and New York, to be rapidly expanding, as people move from regions with high unemployment and meager wages to those with high salaries and strong job markets. That we’re not seeing such a pattern suggests that something is fundamentally amiss. The magnets aren’t working.’

Los Angeles Is Ready for the Next Mobility Revolution (Julia Wick, Citylab) ‘The importance of the basics—and the depth of the gulf between our varied, glittering futures and the daily reality of being a transit-dependent Angeleno—was particularly apparent once I exited the mobility revolution and made my way to the bus stop. I narrowly dodged one of the candy-colored rolling mules as I exited the temporary festival grounds, and then walked a supremely pedestrian-unfriendly half-mile to catch an express bus that spent 20 minutes circumnavigating downtown traffic before even beginning its westward crawl.’

Monocle: You’ve Seen the Magazine – Now Buy the Apartment (Rupert Neate, The Guardian) ‘Patrons sipping lattes and cappuccinos at the Monocle cafe in London’s Marylebone district said they’d be keen to move into a Monocle-designed apartment if they could afford it.’

How Did the Tube Lines Get Their Names? A History of London Underground in 12 Lines (Jonn Elledge, Citymetric) ”Since the integration of the tube network under the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933, the city authorities have succeeded in creating precisely no new major underground railways without naming them after the royal family. And this is why we will never have true equality in Britain.”

The Allure of Pojangmacha (Yoon Min-sik, Korea Herald) “Despite the overpriced and sometimes questionable food, dim lights, inconvenience of plastic tables and chairs along with not-so-friendly owners, Koreans continue to seek comfort in the flimsy red tents of pojangmacha.”

Los Angeles Review of Books: David Sedaris and the American struggle with foreign languages

“THE INEVITABLE finally happened,” writes David Sedaris in his diary entry of April 6, 1999. “My French teacher faxed Andy at Esquire saying my articlehas had the effect of a bomb at the Alliance Française.” That piece, which became the title essay of Sedaris’s 2000 collection Me Talk Pretty One Day, tells of the French classes he took at that cultural institution’s Paris headquarters. It gives a starring role to his fearsome instructor, a fount of pronouncements translating to “You exhaust me with your foolishness and reward my efforts with nothing but pain” and “Every day spent with you is like having a cesarean section.”

She even breaks the classroom’s French-only rule in order to chastise Sedaris all the more harshly: “‘I hate you,’ she said to me one afternoon. Her English was flawless. ‘I really, really hate you.’ Call me sensitive, but I couldn’t help taking it personally.” While she does, on occasion, single Sedaris out for lavish praise — “Bravo,” she once shouts, taking his hand and holding it up high, when he correctly answers a trick question about the passé composé — she also displays a penchant for hurling insults as well as pieces of chalk at her students, and she makes more than one declaration of hatred. “I had used falloir in the subjunctive rather than the imparfait,” he reflects after enduring another, “so I guess I deserved it.”

Traumatic though they may sound, Sedaris’s learning experiences under this manic figure, first written down in his diary which in turn provided material for the Esquire piece and others, fueled one of the bursts of popularity that has made him the best-known humorous essayist writing in English today. Still, as the class comes to its end, he confides in one entry that he wishes he’d never published his account. “I meant it at the time, but since then things have changed. She’s still moody, but I think she’s a good teacher. I can see that now, whereas I couldn’t before.” He regrets having “failed to mention her wit, and her skill as a teacher. That is what I have to apologize for, my laziness.”

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

This week’s city reading: saving New York’s brutalism, imaginging Pessoa’s Lisbon, finding St. Petersburg’s revolutions

Let’s Not Destroy New York’s Brutalist Masterpieces (Thomas de Monchaux, New Yorker) ‘Perhaps there is something about the half century that creates a blind spot: too recent for reverence, too distant for love—or even understanding. To the supersonic sensibilities of 1963, the idea that a train station should evoke the Roman Baths of Caracalla was perhaps as enervating as it is to us, in our era of swipes and likes, that buildings not constantly beguile, ingratiate, and soothe.’

Lisbon: Beyond What the Tourist Should See (Casey Walker, Los Angeles Review of Books) ‘Surely Pessoa knew where to get the stiffest drink or hear the greatest fado, knew where to consult the most reliable expert on the occult and which buildings housed the political clubs bristling with argument over the burgeoning regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, a man who would go on to strangle Portugal for the better part of the 20th century. Pessoa doesn’t ever seem to have had much interest, sexually, in women — or in men — but in all his time lingering in coffee houses and restaurants, in long and solitary walks around the city, he must have learned the places of surreptitious assignation, courtship, and romance.’

St. Petersburg: The City of Three Revolutions (Owen Hatherley, Architectural Review) ‘The city’s palatial Metro is studded with bronze, steel, porphyry and glass monuments to unnamed insurgents and their named leaders. It works almost as a narrative, going from Lenin speaking to workers on a giant relief in the entrance to Narvskaya, to the central Uprising Square, where state power is seized in ceramic medallions. A statue of Lenin commands the classic totalitarian urbanism of the Moskovsky (Moscow) District, with its huge squares and castellated apartment buildings for the Soviet elite.’ (See also my interview with Owen Hatherley on Notebook on Cities and Culture.)

In Paris, Life’s a Beach (Claire Berlinski, City Journal) ‘We predicted a traffic nightmare. We thought that businesses in the center of the city would be destroyed by the impediment to deliveries. We were wrong.’

To See the Future of Cities, Watch the Curb. Yes, the Curb (Aarian Marshall, Wired) ‘What you do with the curb sets the tone for your whole city. And through this grey chunk of concrete, local governments are starting to communicate how they’ll handle their entire transportation systems. Favor a system that asks citizens to share resources, by making room for, say a bikeshare program, and you say one thing. Favor private parking for residents, and you declare war.’

Is This Red, White, and Blue Elephant Worth Saving? (Benjamin Schneider, Citylab) ‘Rather than being a well-functioning space, the Thompson Center has from its infancy been primarily an aesthetic statement, another page in the architectural canon. Its angled glass walls, combined with a faulty air conditioner, created a severe greenhouse effect the summer after the building opened. Employees would set up umbrellas over their desks to block the heat and glare.’

And as a bonus:

Confident Philadelphia Officials Preemptively Raze Center City To Make Room For Amazon Headquarters (The Onion) ‘“We’re willing to do whatever it takes to ensure Amazon chooses Philadelphia, whether that requires tax incentives, infrastructure upgrades, or filling the Schuylkill River with concrete to create more parking,” he continued. “I’m sure it’s just a matter of time until it’s all official.”’

Korea Blog: Yoo Jae-ha’s “Because I Love You,” 30 Years After His Untimely Death

Thirty years ago this month, a Korean singer-songwriter by the name of Yoo Jae-ha died at the age of 25. Had the car accident that killed him happened a few months earlier, before he released his first and only album Because I Love You, Korean pop music, now better known as “K-pop,” might have taken a different sonic direction entirely. Though he died believing it had failed, his record has not just risen to the status of a beloved pop masterpiece but emanates an influence still clearly heard in hit songs in South Korea today. The posthumously granted title “Father of Korean Ballads,” as well as a music scholarship and yearly song contest, honor his memory, but on some level they also acknowledge that Korean pop music may never see — or more importantly, hear — an innovator like him again.

Born in 1962, a year that places him in the middle of the country’s culturally and politically influential “386 Generation” (comparable to the mighty Baby Boomers in America), Yoo grew up as the fifth of six children in a wealthy household full of prestige foreign products, not least a record player. Learning the accordion and cello in elementary school, he picked up the guitar and started singing in fifth grade. While the other kids his age goofed around outside, the reserved Yoo — who in adolescence increasingly modeled his look after that of his idol, Bruce Lee — stayed indoors learning the songs of the shaggy-haired (but nonetheless squeaky clean) 1960s folk-rock duo Onions. In middle school he developed impressive guitar skills and started his own band, called Fresh, only to abandon it for the study of classical music.

But even at that early stage, Yoo’s idiosyncratic nature proved incompatible with any established musical path: he enrolled in classical piano lessons, but neglected his exercises and wrote his own pieces instead. He went on to study composition at Hanyang University in Seoul, where he developed his skills at lyrics and arrangement while attaining proficiency with not just the piano and guitar but the violin, keyboard, and other instruments besides. In his final year there, he found his way to playing keyboards with The Great Birth, the band lead by Cho Yong-pil, a singer then already established and well on his way to the Elvis-like fame he enjoys in Korea today. Yoo even gave Cho “Because I Love You” to record years before making it the title track of his own album.

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

Seoul Urbanism on TBS eFM’s Koreascape: Seoul’s development seen through TV commercials

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, building on a piece I wrote for the Los Angeles Review of Books Korea Blog, we talk about the development of Seoul as you can see it over sixty years of television commercials. These spots advertise things like Lucky household goods, the 63 Building (subject of our first Seoul urbanism segment), the Kia Pride, the 1988 Summer Olympics, the ill-fated Sampoong Department Store, and the Seoul Cityphone (the predecessor of the kind of cellphone service literally everyone in Seoul seems to have today). They also reveal a culture scrambling to change fast enough to keep up with the economy of a rapidly developing country — and an even more rapidly developing capital.

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: Korea’s 1990s sitcom about life in Los Angeles, “LA Arirang”

Not long after I started studying Korean, I signed up for a Japanese class, Japanese being the closest language I could find classes for in Santa Barbara at that time, in hopes of meeting a Korean international student with whom to practice the one I really wanted to learn. I soon did, and he invited me to a meal at his favorite Korean restaurant in town (or rather, one of Santa Barbara’s few Chinese restaurants, but one that happened to serve Korean dishes on the side). It turned out he had something more on his mind than introducing me to the food of his homeland. “I have a question to ask you,” he said after ordering, and nothing I could have considered in that moment would have prepared me for what came out next: “What is the American dream?”

I recall mumbling an unconvincing answer about small businesses, big houses, two-car garages, and green lawns — or at least I found it unconvincing myself, having ceased dreaming about suburban comforts the moment I realized alternatives existed. But clearly this teenager from a small city in South Korea, abroad for a none-too-intensive few semesters of community college in a California beach town, considered the definition of the American dream a much more urgent matter. A decade later, I wonder if, in the impressionable years of childhood, he’d ever watched LA Arirang (LA 아리랑), a mid-1990s family sitcom essentially all about the Korean vision of the American dream, small businesses, big house, two-car garage, green lawn and all.

If you’ve ever attended a Korean choral performance, you’ve almost certainly heard “Arirang,” the old folk song anointed by UNESCO as a piece of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and generally regarded as the unofficial anthem of the Korean peninsula. It comes in many regional variations, most from the different parts of the countryside and at least one from Seoul, and so it makes for a sufficiently clever joke to suggest, in the title of a show set in the city with the highest Korean population outside Korea itself, that the time might have come for “Jeongseon Arirang,” “Jindo Arirang,” “Miryang Arirang,” and all the others to make room in the canon for an “LA Arirang.”

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

Los Angeles in Buildings: City Hall

The thin spread of development over great distances; the strict separation of residential buildings from those of commerce and industry; the caps on height and density: these conditions may now look like Los Angeles’ most crippling and intractable disorders, but they once promised a cure for all that ailed the American city. The bigger Los Angeles boomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the more those in charge of its form did to retain the feeling (or so they imagined it) of the small inland towns from which so many new Angelenos had arrived. To others this unusually low-rise new city offered an escape from the much-bemoaned “dark, walled-in streets” amid “concrete canyons” of the industrial metropolises of the east coast and Europe. And so, for 36 years, just one structure loomed especially large over Los Angeles’ undisturbed horizontality: City Hall.

A 1905 ordinance having prohibited the construction of buildings taller than 150 feet, for many years “you couldn’t see the Los Angeles skyline from the City Hall observation deck,” as Los Angeles Times architecture critic John Pastier put it, “because you were in it.” But you could see the results of a resolve, spelled grandly out in a 1910 city planning committee report, to arrange “the development of our great city along broad and harmonious lines of beauty and symmetry.” Those words evince the local influence of the “City Beautiful” planning movement then in vogue across the country, as does the design for Los Angeles’ Central Library by Bertram Goodhue as well as that of the next important building that went under construction: City Hall, designed by the trio of John Parkinson, Albert C. Martin, and John C. Austin, the leading architects of 1920s Los Angeles.

The city’s municipal government had occupied five different locations over the previous 75 years, starting with a rented hotel in the 1850s and by 1888 occupying an acclaimed Romanesque Revival building on Broadway. (“An honor to the commonwealth,” the Los Angeles Times said of the structure which has since become a surface parking lot next to the newspaper’s own garage.) But the time had come for a more serious work of governmental architecture, which, under the banner of Allied Architects, the dream team of Parkinson, Martin, and Austin looked more than able to provide. As the designer of the Braly Block, the Security Building, and the A.G. Bartlett Building, then the three tallest in Los Angeles, Parkinson had already contributed to the city much of what height it had. Austin brought to the table a monumental sensibility developed in projects like the Hollywood Masonic Temple and Shrine Auditorium. Martin, founder of the architectural firm that would grow over successive generations into the formidable A.C. Martin Partners, had drawn up the impressive Thomas Higgins Building and Million Dollar Theater downtown.

Read the whole thing at KCET.

Seoul Urbanism on TBS eFM’s Koreascape: the first Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism

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 we visit the very first Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, a months-spanning celebration and an exploration of how cities across the world have found innovative ways to use, preserve, and improve their urban and natural “commons.” At one of the Biennale’s main exhibitions at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, we learn from more than fifty different world cities — Rome with its historical cultural spaces, Bangkok with its street food, Reykjavik with its hot tubs, and even Pyongyang, by a replica of one of its high-rise apartments — what Seoul could incorporate into the next phase of its history.

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

Los Angeles Review of Books: Down with the English Language

Linguistic Life in South Korea once moved me to write a short essay in Korean called “영어에 대한 네 가지 거짓말” or “Four Lies About English.” The first lie, to translate it back into that native language of mine, holds that English speakers can live comfortably in every country in the world; the second, that all those countries have agreed to communicate in English with each other; the third, that because the people of countries like Sweden or Germany speak English well in addition to their native languages, Koreans can and should do the same; and the fourth, that anyone unable to master English is a fool. These particular misconceptions, though I could have included others, have taken root in Korean society to the extent that many Koreans grow flabbergasted when I try to disabuse them.

Not that I alone can do much to mend Korea’s deeply unhealthy relationship with English, a language now slathered liberally on every surface of its cityscapes — except the advertisements for cram schools and practice apps, which shame their readers for having spent years and years studying English without any speaking ability to show for it. Japan, a country I visit often, hasn’t caught as virulent an “English fever,” as Koreans call it (or as I called it on LARB’s Korea Blog last year, “English cancer”), and so, despite my far weaker command of Japanese than Korean, I always feel a weight lift from my mind when I go there, taking comfort in the unambiguous fact that the language of Japan is Japanese: those I address in it will never, ever reply in English — and were I to speak in English, most of them would reply, often at length, in Japanese anyway.

The Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura, however, does believe that her countrymen labor under “the feeling that they ought to know English,” an “irrational obsession, a paranoia that has spread across the nation like a plague.” As in Korea, it happens because “most people, despite years of suffering from mandatory English courses in junior high, high school, and college, end up with little or no grasp of the language,” and so, “feeling defeated, and blaming themselves for the defeat, ordinary people have succumbed to a kind of mass hysteria, convinced despite all evidence to the contrary that they can and must master the language.” Mizumura makes this diagnosis in her treatise The Fall of Language in the Age of English, a surprise hit upon its original publication in Japan in 2008 and recently translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter.

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