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Hi, I’m Colin Marshall

… a Seoul- and sometimes Los Angeles-based essayist, broadcaster, and public speaker on cities and culture.

I write for Guardian CitiesOpen Culturethe Los Angeles Review of Books (including its Korea Blog), and I’m now at work on the crowdsourced urbanist-cultural-travel journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? as well as a book called A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City. I’ve also written for Boom: A Journal of California, KCETBookforum, Boing Boing, Put This On, The Japan Foundation, The Millions3QuarksdailyThe Quarterly Conversation, and Maximum Fun.

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, 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.

Boom: Our Car Culture Is Not a Problem; Our House Culture Is

Like so many fascinated by Los Angeles, I grew up worshiping the Case Study houses. With their crisp edges, clean lines, muted colors, and vast planes of glass, they struck me as the perfect objects of aesthetic desire, especially when seen through the loving, era-defining eye of architectural photographer Julius Shulman. I think of the most famous of all his images, the one of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22: one party-dressed lady perched on an ottoman, another relaxed in a faintly Corbusian chair, both visible through seemingly endless floor-to-ceiling windows and cantilevered over the illuminated grid of the city below. But somewhere along the way I lost my religion.

“Los Angeles is the most beautiful city in the world, provided it’s seen at night and from a distance”—an apocryphal quotation and Shulman’s photograph have reinforced each other and a certain idea of Los Angeles’s peculiar appeal in our collective conscious. Appreciation for the city requires distance from the city, and the distance attained is an index of the success achieved. Look at any well-known picture of a Case Study house, taken by Shulman or a less legendary residential photographer, and you never see Los Angeles, at least not at any level of detail at which it feels real. When the city appears at all, it does so almost as an abstraction: a blanket of lights or a distant skyline, visibility dependent on the smog level of the day. Los Angeles functioned not as a setting for the Case Study houses, but as a backdrop.

But the city isn’t a backdrop. It’s the main event. It’s where I eat and drink, where I buy books and watch movies, where I meet friends, and, indeed, where I actually live. The city is where things happen. The city is where I want to be. Why don’t these houses want to be there too? The Case Study program sprang from laudable, democratic ideals, but they are the ideals of a different era. Our cities still need good affordable housing, but it’s time to change our vision of that housing: it should not be in the shape of a house distant from the city.

Read the whole thing at Boom: a Journal of California, whose new issue “Recoding California” I guest-edited. It features work by such other noted observers of Los Angeles and Notebook on Cities and Culture guests as Christopher HawthorneNoé Montes, Alissa Walker, Carren Jao, Eric Brightwell, and Jim Benning.

Korea Blog: An Interview with Robert Fouser

Robert Fouser first lived in Korea in the mid-1980s, going on to become a professor at Seoul National University and a high-profile commentator on Korean society, culture, and urban issues, especially the preservation of traditional the Korean houses known as hanok, one of which he purchased and restored himself. Later he lived in Japan, teaching the Korean language to Japanese university students.

Now based again in his American hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Fouser has returned to Korea for a few months to promote two newly published books he wrote in Korean: Conditions for Citizenship in the Future: A Manual of Democracy for Koreans (미래 시민의 조건) and Seochon-holic (서촌홀릭). I previously wrote about him on the Korea Blog when he led the Royal Asiatic Society on a deep Seoul walk. We sat town to talk about Korea today at Cafemoon, my coffee spot of choice by Seoul Station.

How do you describe these two books to someone unfamiliar with Korea?

Conditions for Citizenship in the Future is basically, “What is democracy? What is citizenship? How does that relate to what’s going on in Korea today?” The younger generation in Korea has lots of complaints about society. They think society is stagnant, not changing in the way they want. What the book argues they should do is participate in the democratic process, to stand up as citizens. It’s a call for younger people in Korea to take a more proactive stance in their politics. Seochon-holic is a collection of essays on things I’ve felt in Korea, my perspective on Korea. About half of it is related to urban issues, mainly preservation versus development, because I was involved in hanok preservation.

How much do you credit the younger generation’s idea of Korea as“Hell Joseon?” Is it a legitimate complaint?

From an objective perspective, it might not be, because no society can guarantee people a job, happiness, or anything like that. If you look at how younger Koreans perceive the world — that they have to be perfect, that they have to have all these accomplishments, they have to look a certain way, this pressure to promote yourself, to package yourself, to market yourself — it’s very real. That’s what’s driving the complaint: they’re expected to have all these things, but some of them take money, and there’s a feeling of not being able to get ahead.

But the Korean War left the country in a state of total material want. How did it go from that to such high material expectations?

In the ’50s, right after the war, there was stagnation, but in the ’60s, [South Korean president from 1961-1979] Park Chung-hee created the concept of “the Korean dream”: focus on industrialization and turn Korea modern, in a way into a semi-Japan. Park was familiar with the Japanese mass-scale development model because he had been a military officer in Manchuria. So he created this idea that “we all work hard, the country grows, and you get a piece of the growing pie.” For most Koreans, that turned out to be true. It actually worked. The standard of living rose dramatically as the economy developed.

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

Where Is the City of the Future?: So Close Yet So Far

Cotf Los Angeles 3-2

I spent a few of my years in Los Angeles hosting a podcast called Notebook on Cities and Culture, which began with me interviewing writers, comedians, filmmakers, architects, and other such cultural types not just in a variety of locations around the city (often wherever the interviewee of the week felt willing to meet, as effective a manner as any of getting to know the terrain) but also, in one way or another and no matter the subject more directly at hand, about the city. In later seasons, the show expanded and had me recording in places like San Francisco, Toronto, Mexico City, London, Copenhagen, Osaka, and finally Seoul, where I live now. No matter the city under discussion, Los Angeles served as a basis of comparison. While a guest there might offhandedly say that “here, of course, you need a car,” a guest somewhere else might offhandedly say something like, “Now, in Los Angeles, of course, you need a car, whereas here…”

Usually I cut them off right there, declaring that I’d got along without a car in Los Angeles just fine. This motivated one listener to come up with a Notebook on Cities and Culture drinking game: take a shot every time Colin says he doesn’t have a car in Los Angeles. I endorsed it, not just for its inherent humor value but also because it allows its players to feel, in a visceral way, the persistence of myths about the city. My own experience, and that of more and more friends I came to know as time went on, told me you don’t need a car there, but most of the people I talked to about the city insisted that you do. This held truer among those not resident in Los Angeles at the time than those who were, but even lifelong Angelenos — the ones who’ve presumably seen the past thirty years of new urban rail construction happen before their very eyes — held fast to the perception of private automobile dependence.

This isn’t to say that Los Angeles has never suffered from that disease of twentieth-century America, booming into its own as it did in twentieth-century America. “One way or another, a member of the L.A. middle class should have his (or her) four wheels to be effective, and few but the very poor — the Negroes, Mexicans, old people, and less fortunate students — are without them,” wrote the New Yorker’s Christopher Rand in the mid-1960s. These poor may ride on buses, but preferably for short hauls only, as a citywide bus trip takes up hours. There is no other cheap way to move unless one counts walking, which is thought eccentric, is seldom adequate for the time and distance involved, and is not encouraged by the city’s layout: some streets have no sidewalks along them; many others are dreary stretches scaled to the automobile.”

Read the whole thing at Byline.

Korea Blog Podcast: English Fever or English Cancer?

Do all South Korean students need English in order to be a success? And why are students learning to score well on tests rather than to actually speak English? Seoul-based essayist, broadcaster, & Los Angeles Review of Books Korea Blog writer Colin Marshall joins Korea FM’s Chance Dorland to discuss the negative consequences of Korea’s ESL industry he describes as a cancer.

You can find this podcast here, more Korea Blog podcasts here, and my original Korea Blog post on Korean English education here.

Guardian Cities: Los Angeles and the ‘Great American Streetcar Scandal’

guardian cities los angeles traffic

The last train on the last line of greater Los Angeles’ Pacific Electric streetcar network made its last run on 9 April 1961. You can see the final days of this once-robust public transport system for yourself in the short film Ride the Last of the Big Red Cars.

This footage of the remaining “red cars” (as the Pacific Electric’s fleet was commonly known) strikes an elegiac tone, especially to modern Angelenos. They have little more than history books and the rose-tinted memories of old-timers from which to reconstruct the heyday of urban rail in Los Angeles, a city which spent decades after the disappearance of the red cars saddled with the reputation as a car-dependent, smog-choked, freeway-bound yet traffic-paralysed dystopia – and not without cause.

The Pacific Electric, along with the “yellow cars” of the Los Angeles Railway, made up the young southern California metropolis’ rail transit system throughout the first half of the 20th century. At the peak of their combined coverage and accessibility, they made Los Angeles’ public transportation the best in the country, if not the world. Why, then, did they vanish from the cityscape by the mid-1960s, their tracks yanked from the streets and their rolling stock tossed on the heap (or sent to Argentina)? What forces could have replaced the proud red and yellow cars with a fleet of plain old buses, the likes of which so many Angelenos still disdain today? It looks, to some, like the work of a conspiracy.

Read the whole thing at the Guardian.

Where Is the City of the Future?: You and a Bunch of Parking Lots

CotF Los Angeles 2

“There are three great cities in the United States: there’s Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York — in that order,” wrote no less an authority on the built environment than BLDGBLOG author Geoff Manaugh in a much-sent-around reflection on the city. “I love Boston; I even love Denver; I like Miami; I think Washington DC is habitable; but Los Angeles is Los Angeles. You can’t compare it to Paris, or to London, or to Rome, or to Shanghai. You can interestingly contrast it to those cities, sure, and Los Angeles even comes out lacking; but Los Angeles is still Los Angeles.”

Manaugh posted that piece in 2007, less than a decade ago but still a time when Los Angeles’ detractors as well as its boosters could argue, in all seriousness, that it may not, strictly speaking, count as a “city” at all. But what, then, to call it? I’ve heard “constellation of villages.” I’ve heard “megaregional core.” I’ve even heard varying numbers — six, seventeen, 72, 88 — “suburbs in search of a city.” In Manaugh’s starker view, “L.A. is the apocalypse: it’s you and a bunch of parking lots. No one’s going to save you; no one’s looking out for you. It’s the only city I know where that’s the explicit premise of living there – that’s the deal you make when you move to L.A. The city, ironically, is emotionally authentic. It says: no one loves you; you’re the least important person in the room; get over it. What matters is what you do there.”

I once put Los Angeles with the internet and the United States of America in a group of things people hate if they can’t filter. By that I meant that these wide experiential spaces offer no one experience in particular — or, more accurately, they offer a greater infinity of possible experiences than most spaces, leaving it to you to perceive and navigate your way to a satisfying one. If you go to America or on the internet thinking you’ll find nothing but base, meaningless, brain-deadening expanses, you’ll find nothing but base, meaningless, brain-deadening expanses. If you go into Los Angeles thinking you’ll find nothing but a bunch of parking lots, you’ll find nothing but a bunch of parking lots.

Read the whole thing at Byline.

Korea Blog: Korea’s English Fever, or English Cancer?

A young Korean lady walks down the street, textbooks in her arms and earbuds in her ears. Suddenly, a plaid-shirted, down-vested white guy walks up to her: “Hi, excuse me, I need directions to Gangnam Station?” Sweat streams down the girl’s face. A Korean fellow in a suit picks up a newspaper and takes his seat on an airplane. Suddenly, the middle-America-looking lady seated next to him reaches over and points at the page he’s opened: “Hey, I was reading that article, and…” Sweat sprays in all directions from the top of his head. In a school library, in a cafe, other Koreans mind their own business on their computers, and still more Westerners suddenly approach: “Hello? Excuse me? You speak English, right?” “Hi, I’m so sorry to interrupt…” Further torrents of sweat pour forth.

I chuckled at this series of television commercials for an English-assistance smartphone app called Speakingmax the first time they came on, but it’s fair to say they’d grown less funny by the twentieth. The repetition of these ads (and their strange jingle-adaptation of Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell”, of all songs) bothers me less than their underlying assumptions, more clearly visible with each viewing. Why on Earth do all these Westerners assume they can approach a stranger in a foreign country — a country with its own language — and simply begin yammering in English? And why do these Koreans feel so obligated to respond in English, and so unable to respond in English, as to induce such a violent endocrine reaction?

Each of these Speakingmax commercials carefully sets up a they-asked-for-it scenario, going to far as to spell out on the screen what flame they’d inadvertently held out to the foreign moth: he could see her English textbooks, she saw him reading an English-language newspaper, she saw him studying for some high-profile English exam like the TOEIC or TOEFL, he saw English-language news on her laptop screen. So sure, the Westerners all had some reason to believe that these particular Koreans could speak at least a little English, but not to at least try to open the conversation in Korean — much less to launch into it in full-speed English — strikes me as inexcusable. And given all the foreign actors’ bland accents, it also offers evidence that the “ugly American” stereotype (no matter how much more boorish other countries’ tourists have become) remains alive and well.

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

Saturday, May 14: KoreaFM Live with Chance Dorland, Robert Koehler, Travis Hull, and Colin Marshall

koreafm logo

Come join me on the afternoon of Saturday, May 14th at the Seoul Global Cultural center, where I’ll appear on stage to record a live KoreaFM podcast alongside Chance Dorland, my co-host on the Korea Blog Podcast (and past Notebook on Cities and Culture guest); Robert Koehler, for years and years the man behind the well-known blog The Marmot’s Hole and now co-host of The Marmot’s Hole Podcast; and Travis Hull, founder of the notorious group Only in Korea (OinK) as well as the co-host of The Only in Korea Podcast. Come prepared with plenty of thoughts and questions of your own; we want to make this a lively and thoroughly audience-participatory conversation.

Details from the Facebook event page:

Date: Saturday 14th May.
날짜: 5월 14일 토요일

Time: 4:00pm to 6:00pm.
시간: 오후 4시부터 6시

Admission fee: FREE
참가비: 무료

Place: Haechi Hall in Seoul Global Cultural Center
(5th Floor M Plaza in Myeong-dong) (www.facebook.com/SeoulGlobalCultureTourismCenter)

Full directions are here www.seoultourism.kr/2013/eng/center/center3.asp

장소: 서울글로벌문화체험센터 해치홀 (명동 M플라자 5층)
오시는 길은 다음 링크를 참조하시기 바랍니다.
www.seoultourism.kr/2013/eng/center/center3.asp

Guardian Cities: How Singapore Became the Most Meticulously Planned City in the World

guardian singapore

On 12 May 2015, a Singapore court sentenced Amos Yee, an outspoken 16-year-old video blogger who had been tried as an adult, to four weeks in jail.

Yee had been hauled up six weeks earlier on charges related to materials he had posted online: one for violating Section 298 of the country’s penal code by making “remarks against Christianity, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of Christians in general”; another for obscenity; and another for violating the Protection from Harassment Act 2014 by making “remarks aboutMr Lee Kuan Yew which were intended to be heard and seen by persons likely to be distressed”.

Most of this came as a result of Lee Kuan Yew Is Finally Dead!, a video posted four days after the death of the first prime minister of Singapore. In it, Yee offered a withering assessment of the independent city-state’s founding father, which was in stark contrast to the laudatory tributes pouring forth from elsewhere.

“On the surface, he seemed quite successful,” says Yee in the video. “He turned Singapore from a small seaport into a bustling metropolis, rife with skyscrapers and its own casino. World leaders seemed to like him, most notably Margaret Thatcher, and many foreigners and millionaires wish to invest in Singapore. But you look deeper, and you find out what the true nature of Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore is.”

Read the whole thing at the Guardian.

Korea Blog: “Factory Complex” Examines How (But Not Why) Korean Working Women Have it Bad

Last week I spent a few nights downtown at the venerable Seoul Cinema (established 1964, which more than qualifies it as one of the city’s grand old institutions) for special screenings from this year’s Wildflower Film Awards (들꽃영화상), an independent and low-budget production-oriented celebration organized by my friend Darcy Paquet, an American film critic based in Korea since the 1990s. The mix of six movies shown over three nights kept things varied, including comedy as well as drama, stories about younger as well as older generations, and a couple of documentaries in there with the fiction films, one of them especially striking in its visual adventurousness: Im Heung-soon’s Factory Complex (위로공단).

Darcy writes in a column about documentaries as a window into Korean culture that the film, which won the Silver Lion at the 56th Venice Biennale, “is two things at once, a history of women workers in Korea and the different issues they have faced throughout the decades, and also an abstract and beautifully realized work of art. [Im] has a background in painting and video installations, and his documentaries contain a unique blend of social insight and art.” The images he crafts to illustrate the hardships endured over the decades by female employees in electronics factories, garment-making sweatshops (shown here in Korea as well as, during an especially grim middle section, Cambodia), call centers, grocery stores, airplanes, and elsewhere will haunt even those viewers not normally inclined to watch documentaries about labor conditions in Asia.

The film’s interviews with past and present low-level members of such industries constitute a parade of indignities suffered by the rank and file of Korean working women: the electronics assemblers having their heads shaved during treatment for cancers contracted at the Samsung plant; the grocery-store cashier showing us the pieces of cardboard on which she and her co-workers had to eat their lunches after their store’s (unnamed but easily guessable) Christian-run parent company converts the break room into a prayer room; the stewardess, fearing the ever-present threat of a negative customer evaluation, smiling and nodding at the passenger seated across motioning for her to open her legs a little wider.

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