Skip to content

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.

Open Culture posts on David Lynch

Since 2012 I’ve written about all manner of topics at Open Culture, and you can find a selection of some of my favorite posts over the years in the Open Culture section of my essays page. I often write there about filmmakers, and few filmmakers as often as David Lynch. Here are all my posts on the auteur of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks, and much else besides:

Korea Blog: Notes on the Camp of the Pyongyang Pub, Where Seoulites Eat and Drink Like It’s North of the 38th Parallel

North Koreans aren’t especially hard to come by in Seoul. Here and there around the city I’ve had the chance to attend a few talks given by defectors from the other side of the border, the most recent of which happened as part of the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. That day’s North Korean was a 35-year-old guy whom the host asked to discuss aspects of daily life in Pyongyang, like dating culture and how girls there wear their makeup differently than they do in Seoul — at least to the extent that he could remember them. A small North-South cultural exchange club had done its part to bring him onstage, and as part of their regular series of events they also held a North Korean cooking class last weekend. There I learned to make ogeurangjuk (오그랑죽), a kind of porridge with rice, adzuki beans, and gnocchi-like dumplings made of potato, potatoes being an agricultural specialty of the North as well as the northernmost province of the South.

Our teacher was a genuine North Korean, a woman who’d arrived in South Korea just one year before I did. I wondered whether I would struggle to understand her Northern accent and vocabulary, but I needn’t have; not only did she speak more or less like a Southerner, she’d also acquired a Southerner’s command of English — or rather, Konglish — loanwords. (She also introduced herself with an English name, “Jessie,” which she uses on her North Korean cooking Youtube channel.) One of the shockinghan things she found upon arriving in the South, she told us, was how sweet Southerners eat their own porridges. Ogeurangjuk, by comparison, has what one might call an understated flavor, hence the bowls of salt provided at each cooking station. But the salt wasn’t enough for another of the Northerners present, a voluble young guy who helped out with the cooking and cracked jokes at every opportunity. He dug through all the cooking supplies in the kitchen until he came upon a bag of sugar, his exaltation at the discovery of which suggested a ready assimilation to Southern tastes.

But like a surprising number of others in his generation of South Korea-resident North Koreans, he didn’t take great pains to conceal his national origin. He even popped up in a recent Youtube video, produced for a channel created by national news agency Yonhap’s Unification Media Institute, about the Pyongyang Pub (평양술집), a newly opened eating and drinking establishment meant to give Seoulites a taste of the Northern capital. But by all appearances it does so less to encourage unification, or even to promote cultural exchange, than to capitalize on a potential trend, a practice not unknown in the South Korean marketplace. It has also benefited from stirring up controversy: it made the news back in September, before it even opened, when it was ordered to take down the portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il hung on the building’s exterior in the same manner — North Korea travelogues never fail to mention it — as they hang, by law, in each and every North Korean home.

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

Open Culture posts on self-improvement

Since 2012 I’ve written about all manner of topics at Open Culture, and you can find a selection of some of my favorite posts over the years in the Open Culture section of my essays page. Below I’ve gathered my posts having to do with how to improve your habits in writing, thinking, learning, and other areas besides:

Doing

Learning

Thinking

Writing

Korea Blog: An American in Taiwan — with a Korean Tour Group

South Koreans couldn’t go freely abroad until 1989, at which point the repressed desire to do to so turned into potent fuel for a still-blazing travel industry. This industry has a media side, producer of books and television shows in a quantity and variety surprising to even the most travel-minded foreigners. It also has a tourism side, comprising the countless companies offering package trips of various lengths to countries and cities all over the world. Or at least I gave up trying to count the companies when I checked in at Incheon Airport last week for my own first Korean package tour, three days and three nights in Taiwan, a popular foreign destination for Koreans since Koreans have had foreign destinations to make popular.

Proximity has something to do with it: reachable within three hours’ flight, Taipei is closer to Seoul than even most American tourist-destination cities are to Los Angeles. Taiwan has also had a place in my own consciousness at least since I began watching the films of Taiwanese auteurs like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, and Edward Yang, but my investment in Taiwanese cinema as a whole never quite matched my investment in the Korean and Japanese varieties. My knowledge of Taiwan itself lagged behind proportionately, though at some point it began to look like a manageable entry point into the unignorable Sinosphere, without the burden of intimidatingly vast size and historical complexity presented by mainland China itself — and, more practically speaking, without the extra charge for a tourist visa.

Korea and Taiwan also have a deeper commonality as fellow members of what Dutch Asia specialist Ian Buruma calls “the old Japanese empire” in God’s Dust, a book based on Buruma’s travels around Asia in the 1980s that I happened to throw into my bag as I left for this trip. In it, Taiwan and South Korea share a chapter that takes as its theme the shape of Japan’s colonial legacy. “Modern Seoul looks more like Tokyo every day,” Buruma writes, “with its neon-lit coffee shops, its bric-a-brac modern buildings and its neon-lit pleasure areas tucked away behind the steel and glass.” In Taipei “Japanese culture is everywhere, in a Western guise, its origins blurred, suppressed, or forgotten,” a phenomenon that “makes the surface of modern Taiwan so familiar to anyone who knows Japan.” Everywhere in the South Korean, Taiwanese, and Japanese capitals are “forms of modern kitsch twice removed from their source, and thus they almost defy interpretation.”

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

Korea Blog: Learning Korean with Duolingo, the Mercilessly Addictive Language App

Over the past few weeks I’ve plunged into addiction: an addiction to Duolingo, the language-learning app that has claimed more than a few formerly normal lives since it launched for the public seven years ago. Or perhaps the word “normal” is excessive, given that the population most susceptible to Duolingo addiction distinguishes itself precisely by a willingness to stare at a screen and grind through foreign-language quizzes for hours at a time. Sensing, perhaps, the fate that could befall my already shaky time-management system, I avoided looking up or learning anything about Duolingo when first I heard of it. My Korean teacher brought it back to my attention a year or two ago, when he started using it out of a “Despacito”-stoked interest in acquiring a little Spanish. He mentioned to me that the app had recently added a Korean-language course, suggesting I give it a try and let him know my opinion on its effectiveness.

Even without the assistance of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, Spanish would still be the most popular language among English-speaking Duolingo users. Of the 23,400,000 English-speakers studying the language of Cervantes through the app, I wonder how many are my fellow Americans trying to ameliorate their embarrassment about their lack of functionality even after enduring five to ten years of compulsory Spanish classes in school. In second place after Spanish (albeit with about ten million fewer learners) comes that alternative bane of the Anglophone schoolchild’s existence, French. Despite the French language’s much-bemoaned loss of status and claim to universality over the past century, becoming francophone nevertheless remains an aspiration for many of us, not least, as I wrote about in a LARB essay last year, because of the high regard in which the French hold their language, and the high standard of its use to which they hold themselves.

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

Guardian Cities: the Rise of the City Critic

“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy,” wrote EB White in his 1949 essay, Here Is New York. White sizes up both the positive and negative potential of the teeming Manhattan with the familiarity of a native and the heightened awareness of a visitor. A longtime contributor to the New Yorker magazine, White also wrote the classic children’s book Charlotte’s Web and co-wrote the influential writing guide The Elements of Style. In Here Is New York, he takes that versatility further, giving us a new way of seeing the city in an early example of what we might today call city criticism.

Given how long we’ve relied on the work of critics on film, music, food, and much else besides, as well as the ever-increasing relevance of cities in our lives, it’s time we recognised city criticism as its own distinct category of writing. But what is city criticism — or rather, what isn’t it? Despite dealing with the built environment, it isn’t architecture criticism, not in the sense of treating structures like sculptures, indulging in a “collective obsession with idiosyncratic starchitect buildings,” writes Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic. Architecture matters in city criticism only to the extent that it explores “what’s designed and built in the context of a broader narrative,” writes Curbed urbanism editor Alissa Walker. “What’s happening in the surrounding community, what political efforts hindered progress, and, conceding all those externalities, can the project still best serve the audience that it is intended to serve?”

To Walker, city criticism isn’t about buildings, but about people: a city critic must be “someone who’s going to all the public meetings and listening to what all the elected officials say, [but also] out in the city itself, riding buses, hanging out at coffee shops, talking to people about how that policy affects them.” Yet city criticism isn’t reportage. Like movie or restaurant reviewers, city critics write from their own perspectives, in distinctive voices enriched by knowledge and experience, but wearing their erudition lightly. City critics understand that places reveal themselves through details encountered by chance, glimpsed and overheard.

Read the whole thing at the Guardian.

Korea Blog: Old Man Gobau, the Unflappable Comic-Strip Star Who Witnessed South Korean History

Start asking Korean high-school students what career they want, and — assuming they’re giving the honest answers rather than the prestige answers — it won’t be long before someone says they want to be a comic artist. Or rather, they’ll probably say “webtoon” artist, that being the term of art for the form of comics now seen on screens all around the country. Unlike the horizontal newspaper comic strips I grew up reading in America, webtoons read vertically, from top to bottom, not for any reason to do with the now horizontally-written Korean language but for better scrolling on a cellphone. Though digital, the format also harks back, if inadvertently, to the progenitor of all modern Korean comics: Old Man Gobau (고바우 영감), whose four vertical panels appeared in national newspapers daily for 45 years, from not long after the Korean war until the final year of the 20th century, and whose creator Kim Seong-hwan died last month at the age of 86.

Only the rare teenager has thus actually read Kim’s strip, given that its long run — the longest of any comic strip in Korean history — ended the same year the oldest among them was born. But most of them will recognize Gobau himself, with his round spectacles and the single hair sprouting from his flat head. In one of the 14,139 daily strips in which he stars, Gobau explains that he began with three hairs but lost one during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and another during the Korean war. That Kim made it to the end of his life with much more hair than his signature creation was a stroke of luck, given all he’d experienced: born in Japanese-occupied northern Korea in 1932, he had the misfortune to be 17 years old at the outbreak of the war. It wasn’t long thereafter, in hiding from the North Korean troops sweeping every occupied Southern city for able-bodied young men to conscript, that he came up with the name Gobau, meaning a strong or stubborn rock, which he first adopted as a nom de plume.

“A high-school student and part-time magazine illustrator when North Korea invaded,” journalist Andrew Salmon writes of Kim in The Asia-Pacific Journal, “he recorded the dramatic events of those days in unique style: with that blend of delicate Oriental watercolors and the sensitive pen cartoons that would later become his trademark. After Seoul’s September 28th 1950 liberation, he was employed as a war artist by the Ministry of Defense, but it is his early sketches that capture what it was like to be a civilian on the peninsula in the midst of total war.” The sights Kim saw, drew, and painted included the smoke and flames of the fighting drawing ever nearer; hopelessly ill-equipped South Korean troops, North Korean tanks rolling through a fallen Seoul; his terrified and disconsolate countrymen; and plenty of dead bodies, both Southern and Northern. He then bore witness to the waves of joy and sorrow that accompanied South Korea’s transformation from an impoverished, shell-shocked half of a country into an industrial society that quickly joined the ranks of the world’s most highly developed nations.

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

From my interview archive: architecture critics Christopher Hawthorne, Alex Bozikovic, Owen Hatherley, and Jonathan Meades

I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

In trying to understand a place, I begin with its architecture. This puts rural environments at a disadvantage against urban ones, granted, but as you may have guessed I spend most of my time in cities anyway. That cities would become central to my personal and professional worldview seemed a vague possibility when I began the public radio show The Marketplace of Ideas in Santa Barbara in 2007, and had become an obvious fact by the time I moved to Los Angeles and turned it into the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture in 2012. Somehow I never did any architecture-centric interviews on the former, but I wasted no time doing them on the latter.

The first Los Angeles interviewee to come to mind was the architecture critic who had helped familiarize me with the city even before I got there: the Los Angeles Times‘ Christopher Hawthorne. His yearlong “Reading L.A.” project coincided with the final months of my preparation to move and my first few months in Los Angeles, and the following year I was able to read his series on the boulevards while getting to know those boulevards first-hand. In between came our interview, recorded in the back garden of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, just one of the hidden-in-plain-sight aspects of Los Angeles — the garden, not the hall itself, which couldn’t be less hidden in plain sight — of which he and his work have made me aware.

Not long after I took Notebook on Cities and Culture worldwide, a listener recommended I record a season in Toronto, a city to which I admit I’d never given much thought. (This had less to do with its being Canadian than its being on the eastern half of the North American continent; I’d been making occasional trips to Vancouver since childhood.) Naturally, I first looked up Toronto’s most prominent architecture critic, the Globe and Mail‘s Alex Bozikovic. Through talking with him and other experiences there, I came to realize how much Toronto and Los Angeles have in common, less on their surfaces than in their depths: long stretches of obsession over attaining “world-class” status, for example, or reputations as “ugly” that few particular vistas justify and a modern identities built on the sheer variety of its population’s foreign origins.

The more cities I visited, the more instinctively I looked for architecture critics to interview in them. This naturally made a conversation with Owen Hatherley as essential in London as the brown sauce on the English breakfasts we ate while recording. It was equally essential, in a different way, that I book a flight from London to Marseilles to interview Jonathan Meades — not, strictly speaking, an architecture critic, but something closer to a generalist critic who happens to write a great deal about buildings and the build environment. (He also happens to live in Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation, which I certainly wasn’t going to miss chance to enter, let alone record an interview inside.)

At the time of our interview, Meades had just finished production on his documentary Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry, at the end of which he delivers one of my favorite architectural statements of all time:

The destruction of Brutalist buildings is more than the destruction of a particular mode of architecture. It is like burning books. It’s a form of censorship of the past, a discomfiting past, by the present. It’s the revenge of a mediocre age on an age of epic grandeur. It’s the cutting down to size of a culture which committed the cardinal sin of getting above its station, of pushing God aside and challenging nature. It’s the destruction, too, of the embarrassing evidence of a determined optimism that made us more potent than we have become. We don’t measure up against those who took risks, who flew and plunged to find new ways of doing things, who were not scared to experiment, who lived lives of perpetual inquiry. Here was mankind at its mightiest. Brutalism has to go. For it is the built evidence of the fact that once upon a time, we were not scared to address the Earth in the knowledge that the Earth would not respond, could not respond.

In the years since these interviews I have, of course, moved to Seoul, but just last month Christopher Hawthorne made his first visit here in his current capacity as the City of Los Angeles’ Chief Design Officer. A couple years ago, Owen Hatherley came to write up one of my own top hangouts, Sewoon Sangga. And having spent more time in Toronto this past year, I’ve made sure to catch up with Alex Bozikovic and have him fill me in on what has gone on there, architecturally and otherwise, over the past half-decade. (I’m happy to report that Robarts Library still stands in all its Brutalist glory.) And as for Jonathan Meades, well, what I wouldn’t give to read his take on Asia. Is there a publication we can convince to send him out here?

Korea Blog: When Expats Podcast (or, the Pleasures and Sorrows of Teaching English)

Before I moved to Korea, I prepared for the experience in part with podcasts, both Korean shows to further familiarize myself with the language and English-language ones made by Westerners already in Korea. But that was half a decade ago now, and all the Korea expatriate podcasts I’d enjoyed — Seoul SyndromeChance and Dan Do Korea, and other titles that escape me — have vanished down the internet memory hole. But for every Korea expat podcast that fades away, at least one rises in its place, and now as then an iTunes search will turn up a handful of shows whose makers have managed to put out episodes in the past few months. Having logged a few expat years myself at this point, I thought I’d tune in to the offerings of the current crop of Korea-based Westerners with microphones to hear how their perspectives on life in the Land of the Morning Calm compare with my own.

Listening took me back to the period of my American life during which I wrote “Podthoughts,” a weekly podcast review column for the podcasting network Maximum Fun. These were the years 2008 to 2014, a time when podcasting itself had yet to become quite as powerful a cultural phenomenon as it is today. A decade ago, the mainstream still seemed to regard listening to podcasts, let alone producing them, as a niche hobby, if it regarded them at all. Now everyone even mildly famous is expected to host a podcast or two, and every subject, no matter how obscure, is expected to have at a show dedicated to it. In my columns I used the shorthand TTWGBAC to denote what then just felt like the most common genre of podcast, Two Twentysomething White Guys Bullshitting About Culture; these days, that demographic’s penchant for podcasting is taken as given, whether for the basis of jokes or calls to diversify what has rapidly become a medium more relevant, in some ways, than the mainstream.

Not much has changed in the world of Korea expat podcasting, whose standard form could be called Two Twentysomething White Guys Bullshitting About Korean Culture, except the guys now tend to be thirty- and fortysomethings. And while there are sometimes more than two of them or they’ve brought aboard a female co-host, they do, for the most part, remain white. But the lack of ethnic variety is less disappointing than the lack of occupational variety: like most podcasters, Korea expat podcasters have day jobs, and as far as I can tell, those day jobs all involve teaching English. “Let me guess,” a man I met in England as soon as he heard that I live in Korea. “You graduated college, couldn’t find a job, went to Korea to teach English, and decided to stay.” I’ve experienced countless variations on this interaction in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere, and have everywhere given the same response: no, I’ve never taught English myself, but 99 times out of 100 you’d be right.

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

From my interview archive: the biographers of Nick Drake

I came to the Nick Drake party earlier than some, but later than many: much later, certainly, than Patrick Humphries, Trevor Dann, and Peter Hogan, all of whom I invited on The Marketplace of Ideas to talk about Drake and his music for the 40th anniversary of his debut album Five Leaves Left. All three interviewees had written books about Drake’s three albums, once almost forgotten but now long since rediscovered, and the short life during which he recorded them.

Five Leaves Left‘s 50th anniversary passed last July (somehow I’d previously been under the impression that the album had come out in September), and in the past ten years the body of Nick Drake-related literature — along the Byronic legend of the man himself — has expanded further still. More books have come out, of course, but so have more radio and television documentaries, as many of which as possible I rounded up for my Open Culture post on the semicentennial of Drake’s debut. Drake’s fans exhibit a stronger fascination than ever, and his music also somehow sounds less dated than ever.

The startling timelessness of Drake’s records, especially Five Leaves Left, has fomented a great deal of speculation among musicians and recording engineers alike. “I’ve never been attracted to hypersensitives or depressives,” Robert Christgau wrote recently about the lack of attention he’s paid to Drake over the past 50 years, and when I first heard Five Leaves Left back in high school — a time when nothing could have exceeded my contempt for acoustic guitar-strumming melancholy — I might have been expected to dislike it too, but the crispness of his sound, as well as the complexity of his idiosyncratic guitar tunings, appealed to the audiophile and obscurantist within me. (My favorite band, then as now: Steely Dan.)

“What ‘timeless’ means to me is that is sounds like it was made yesterday,” Dann said to me in our interview, especially when compared to other records from 1969. “You’re talking about the era of records like ‘Get Back’ by the Beatles, you’re talking about Led Zeppelin I. Those records, when you hear then now, they’re great records, great performances, but the recording of them is somehow mushy and old.” The same might even be said of a more directly comparable if slightly newer album like Colin Blunstone’s One Year, which I also keep on high rotation. But “you put Five Leaves Left on now — bang. It sounds like he’s in the room with you. I think that is one of the great attributes those records have, this sound so shiny and new and modern whilst at the same time touching some very deep and subconscious themes.”

The great thing now about Drake’s music now is, of course, that “he died all those years ago, so we’ll never know him. So (a), he never gets old — he’ll always be that beautiful man making that beautiful music — and (b), he never says the wrong thing in an interview. He is exactly who he is, and he always is able to be discovered by a new generation and owned by them.” And so the party continues.