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Korea Blog: “Wangsimni, My Hometown,” a Gangster’s Pledge of Devotion to Korea


If you want to go see a movie in Seoul, you might well go to Wangsimni. Right above the neighborhood’s station on the central circular subway line stands a high-rise shopping complex whose multiplex theater boasts the largest IMAX screen in the country. It went up less than a decade ago, in 2008, but Seoul changes quickly. This has held true at least since the end of the devastating Korean War, when the capital of the new state of South Korea had nothing to do but develop. Still, Seoul remained in fairly rough shape a decade later, in the early 1960s, the time in which the protagonist of 1976’s Wangsimni, My Hometown (왕십리) last saw his homeland.

The disoriented but stylishly dressed Joon-tae first appears onscreen in a once deeply familiar Seoul, made strange in just fourteen years. As he struggles to place himself through the window of a cab, the driver asks what he’s looking for. “I don’t see the trolley,” says Joon-tae. “It’s been at least ten years since they got rid of the trolley,” the driver tells him. Joon-tae asks about another railcar he used to ride in his youth. “Trolley, railcar… that’s all history.” An Angeleno in the same era and in the same situation would have had the same conversation. Where did all the streetcars of the far-reaching Pacific Electric and Los Angeles Railways go?

Their disappearance looked dramatic enough to convince some of a conspiracy, but larger processes had converged to turn the city into something other than it had been before. Just as Los Angeles discarded the trappings of the late 19th and early 20th century it spent as a booming, barely-tamed settlement (and, to an extent, giant real-estate hustle) on the edge of the continent, Seoul discarded the trappings of the late 19th and early 20th century it spent as a subject of the Japanese empire. But that mid-1970s Angeleno riding back into town might also wonder about something else: where did all these Koreans come from?

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

Los Angeles Review of Books: W. David Marx’s “Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style”


Forty years ago, four Japanese writers and photographers came to town and invented Los Angeles. Or rather, they invented an image of Los Angeles they could distill, package, and sell — first to Japan, then to the rest of the world — with the debut issue of Popeye, published July 1976. Described in its own subtitle as the “Magazine for City Boys,” Popeye would go on to stake out and ultimately dominate its territory in the world of Japanese men’s style print media, one of the most internationally visible branches of that country’s still shockingly robust print media ecosystem.

Popeye celebrated its 40th anniversary this year with a special 831st issue that contained a complete reprint of the first, with its extensive report on the lifestyles of the young and Californian, including instructions on how to jog, surf, skateboard, and hang-glide; seven pages of nothing but sneakers; and, most in-depth of all, a 27-page feature on the campus of a distant school called the University of California, Los Angeles. “It was all totally new,” the magazine’s first editor Yoshihisa Kinameri recalled to the Los Angeles Times. “In Japan at the time, students had maybe two kinds of sneakers, and they were cheap and not stylish at all. […] In Los Angeles, people looked happy and cheerful. It was magical; it was like heaven.”

The issue raised Japanese interest in UCLA to such a pitch that the bookstore in Ackerman Union, the subject of its own two-page spread, had to put up Japanese-language signage in order to handle the flow of tourists desperate for letterman jackets and gym shorts in blue and gold. This localized craze foreshadowed corporate Japan’s buying spree across the United States in the late 1980s, which was to be fueled by the asset bubble that briefly enriched the Japanese beyond even their own wildest dreams. It also came as a colorful moment in the story of Japan’s interest in American clothing, and specifically menswear, which W. David Marx tells in Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style.

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

콜린의 한국 이야기: 옥상에서


우리 아파트는 15층 건물의 6층에 위치하고 있다. 나는 이따금 옥상에 올라가서 동네를 내려다본다. 우연히 옥상에 갈 수 있다는 것을 알게 되었다. 6층을 지나서 계속해서 계단을 올라갔다. 올라가면서 주변은 조용해지고 계단에는 화분에 심는 식물로 만든 작은 정원들도 있었다.

대개는 계단에서 담배를 피우는 사람과 전화통화를 하는 사람들이 몇 명 있지만15층에는 전혀 없는 것 같았다. 옥상에는 주거할 수 있는 공간을 짓지 않아서 아주 평화롭고 생각하기에 좋은 것 같다. (나는 거기에서 그렇게 생각하면서 때때로 맥주같은 음료를 마신다.)

처음 갈 때가 늦겨울이라서 눈이 조금 남아 있었다. 그리고 봄과 여름에 몇 번 다시 옥상에 올라가면서 동네가 변하는 걸 보게 되었다. 날씨가 점점 더워지면서 옥상에서 내려다본 작은 집들의 옥탑에 여러 가지 색들은 다시 보이게 되었다. 아파트 건물 바로 뒤에 있는 주민회관의 옥탑에서 할아버지들께서는 바둑을 다시 두기 시작하셨다.


우리 동네의 건물외관도 변화하는 것을 느낀다. 나는 지난 몇 달 동안 몇 개의 오래된 건물을 철거한 것을 알아차렸다. 오래된 건물 철거가 끝나기도 전에 새로운 큰 건물이 빠르게 지어졌다. 나중에 알고 보니 그 건물은 또 다른 새로운 아파트의 모델하우스였다. 우리 아파트의 옥상에서 내려다보니 다양하게도 벽돌로 지은 저층의 주택과 멀리 있는 고층의 건물들도 보여진다.

앞으로는 우리 동네에 큰 고층 건물들이 들어와서 전체적으로 전반적인 모습이 지금보다 훨씬 높아질 거라고 확신하지만 내가 맨 처음에 이사온 작년 가을과 비교하고 이동네에 이사한지 1년이 되는 이번 가을과 비교해봐도 당분간은 여전히 지금의 모습이 유지될 것이라고 생각한다.

Korea Blog: Nam June Paik and the Society of Screens

KB - Nam June Paik Show 1

Video monitors started appearing on Seoul’s subway trains long before I arrived here. More video monitors — or, to be precise, old televisions — started appearing on those video monitors a few months ago, announcing a big show of the work of video artist Nam June Paik. (Paik made his name in the West, literally, with not just unconventional Romanization but a Western-style re-ordering that put his given name first and family name second.) The straightforwardly titled Paik Nam June Show (백남준 쇼), which runs through October at Seoul’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza, commemorates the tenth anniversary of the death of the most creative old-television enthusiast ever to live, as well as, for a time, the most famous Korean artist — and quite possibly the most famous Korean — in the world.

“I start in 1960, first time television sets become cheap, become secondhand, like junk,” said Paik in a 1975 profile by New Yorker art critic Calvin Tomkins. “I buy thirteen secondhand sets in 1962. I didn’t have any preconceived idea. Nobody had put two frequencies into one place, so I just do that, horizontal and vertical, and this absolutely new thing comes out.” He refers to his discovery that manipulating the electronics television sets use — or then used, anyway — to produce an image could produce, in an unpredictable fashion, another, stranger image.

This led to his creation, with Japanese engineer Shyua Abe, of the more controllable Abe-Paik Video Synthesizer, and ultimately to his status as the father of video art, builder of television robots, television cellos, television-watching Buddhas, and television maps and flags of the United States of America. While other artists began to use video around the same time he did, when the gear came down in size, down in price, and out of the studio, none displayed quite the same intensely zealous interest of the early adopter.

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

Guardian Cities: 45 Years of Reyner Banham’s “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies”

reyner banham los angeles

“Now I know subjective opinions can vary,” the journalist Adam Raphael wrote in the Guardian in 1968, “but personally I reckon LA as the noisiest, the smelliest, the most uncomfortable and most uncivilised major city in the United States. In short, a stinking sewer…”

Three years later, Raphael’s words appeared in print again as an epigraph of Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies – the most exuberantly pro-Los Angeles book ever written. Ever since publication, it has shown up on lists of great books about modern cities – even those drawn up by people who consider Los Angeles anything but a great American city.

Somehow, this book that drew so much of its initial publicity with shock value (“In Praise (!) of Los Angeles”, sneered the New York Times review’s headline) has kept its relevance through the decades, such that newly arrived Angelenos still read it to orient themselves. But what can it teach us about the Los Angeles of today?

An architectural historian a decade into his career when he first visited, Banham knew full-well that his fellow intellectuals hated Los Angeles. How and why he himself came so avidly to appreciate it constitutes the core question of his work on the city, which culminated in this slim volume.

The “many who were ready to cast doubt on the worth of the enterprise”, he reflected in its final chapter, included a “distinguished Italian architect and his wife who, on discovering that I was writing this book, doubted that anyone who cared for architecture could lower himself to such a project and walked away without a word further.”

Read the whole thing at the Guardian.

Korea Blog: the Freakishly Fluent Foreigners of “Non-Summit”

KB - Non-Summit 1

“Whatever you do,” fellow foreigners here in Korea occasionally tell me, “don’t go on television.” Easy enough advice to follow, you’d think, though many Koreans, upon meeting a Korean-speaking non-Korean, almost automatically insist that they should go right before the cameras. Flattery in the absence of anything else to say aside, the response reflects a real viewer demand. Recent years have seen a flowering of shows about foreigners in Korea, and not just EBS’ documentation of the home and work lives of the various Canadians, Jamaicans, Vietnamese, and Russians who wind up married with children here. You can easily channel-surf your way to other shows, hit shows, that have made their foreigners into stars.

If you often fly on airlines that serve South Korea, you’ve probably noticed among their canned television a program with the curious title of Non-Summit, originally from the cable network JTBC. Pitched as a comedic G20 meeting, most of the show takes place around a U-shaped table. On its sides sit eleven or so men in their twenties and thirties, all of various non-Korean nationalities — English, Canadian, Japanese, Italian, Chinese, American, Belgian, French, and Australian on the 2014 debut. At its head sit three slightly older Korean men who preside each week over a discussion of current events in Korea as well as in the countries of the “representatives”, the more emotionally charged — whether in the nationalistic sense or in the realm of mild scandal — the better.

The episodes’ overarching issues range widely: fashion trends, the War on Terror, pre-marital cohabitation, the generation gap, sad pop songs. All these discussions, apart from the readings-out of each country’s news item under discussion, happen entirely in Korean. This by itself, even two years into the show’s run, constitutes a real element of novelty, since most of the foreigners who appeared on Korean television before had a patchy to nonexistent command of the language. Even Non-Summit‘s closest precedent, KBS’ all-foreign-women Global Talk Show, never seemed overly concerned with its panelists’ language ability. (Its Korean title 미녀들의 수다, or “Beautiful Women’s Chat,” sheds some light on its priorities.)

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

Los Angeles Review of Books: Donald Richie’s “The Inland Sea”

inland sea photo

“IT IS PERHAPS TRUE that the best way to get to know a people is to sleep with them,” writes Donald Richie about halfway into The Inland Sea, “but this is complicated in Japan.” That hardly stops him from trying, however. In this account of a journey through the towns and villages of the titular “landlocked, lakelike body of water bounded by three of Japan’s four major islands” appear a memorable cast of partners: an island girl, barely of high-school age, who invites herself into Richie’s room; a brash, young yakuza cast into exile as a Buddhist acolyte; a sailor, even younger and more severe, who quashes his sexual urges with buckets of cold water; a pouting prostitute with whom a bar owner all but swindles Richie into spending a dire evening; a kept woman whose name he never catches, but with whom he imagines an entire blissful life together as, late in the book, they talk until sunrise.

Most of these episodes end with Richie indirectly but firmly rebuffed, and even his possibly successful couplings receive no more acknowledgment than such ambiguous lines as “he had walked me back to my inn, had come in for a cup of tea, had asked more questions, had finally spent the night.” (“Foreigners are nice,” says another young man, alone with Richie in a dark field. “They’ll do things that Japanese don’t do.”) But the author, who first came to Japan in 1947 as a typist and then a reporter for the US occupation force, was no mere sex tourist; by the time ofThe Inland Sea’s first publication in 1971, he had already established himself in Japan as a journalist, film critic, novelist, and interpreter of a host of Japanese subjects, from flower arrangement to phallic symbolism.

Though he certainly knew the country well enough to put together a solid travelogue, Richie was also no run-of-the-mill travel writer. The Inland Sea displays the writerly virtues most evident in a later book, well-known when published in 1996 (under a bewildering variety of titles, from Geisha, Gangster, Neighbor, Nun to Public People, Private People to Japanese Portraits) but much less so today. Each of that book’s chapters presents a prose sketch of one of the many Japanese people Richie knew, a group that included major film-world figures like the director Yasujirō Ozu (on whom Richie also wrote the definitive study) and the late midcentury cinematic icon Setsuko Hara, as well as literary celebrities like Yukio Mishima, the closeted ultranationalist whose infamous ritual suicide ended his futile attempt to overtake the Japanese government, and Yasunari Kawabata, who took his own life shortly after winning the Nobel Prize.

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

So What Is this Los Angeles Book I’m Writing?

MacArthur Park

You may have noticed it in various bio blurbs that have appeared over the past few years, but my ongoing projects include a book about Los Angeles. It began as a yearlong series of essays I wrote for the southern California public television station KCET in 2013 and 2014, though revision after revision — guided in part by friends who have much more experience writing books about place than I do — has rendered their content nearly unrecognizable. A sense of the project’s perspective has also come through when I’ve written about Los Angeles for the Guardian, in my Where Is the City of the Future? series on Byline, and even on my Los Angeles, the City in Cinema video essays.

I’ve tentatively titled it A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City. (From what I can tell, if you don’t come up with a subtitle yourself, the publisher will stick you with an even stupider one.) Everyone asks what I mean by “stateless,” and so I’ve explained many times that I use the word for its double meaning, which highlights Los Angeles’ great double-edges: I call it stateless because no one country lays an especially strong cultural claim to the city, and I call it stateless because it hasn’t attained, and may never attain, a basically fixed urban form in the way that New York or Paris or even San Francisco have. (Hence the joke of its unmasterability.) As for “primer,” it comes from a speculative “art” exhibition Dennis Hopper and David Hemmings talked about putting on in the sixties.

You may also have noticed that I don’t actually live in Los Angeles right now. After four years there, I moved to Seoul last November — with an eye toward ultimately splitting my time between the two cities in a kind of 21st-century bicoastalism, but that’s an even longer-range project. Older, more accomplished writers of place have told me, credibly, that you can better write about somewhere when you get outside that somewhere, so I figured I’d do one or two revisions on the other side of the Pacific. One of those older, more accomplished writers in particular gave me another piece of advice that I now think about on a daily basis: if you really figure out the structure of a book, the content takes care of itself.

So here I find myself, in the capital of South Korea, determining the ideal structure for a book, its content already written, about Los Angeles. I’ve wanted to avoid putting myself under the gun of any contractual deadline, but have also come to realize that I could instinctively keep reworking it until the grave. Concepts for books on other cities, not least Seoul, have also taken shape in my head, but if I ever want to realize them, I’ve got to finish first things first. Thus I’ve got to accept the words of Paul Valéry: a work is never actually finished but, cast to the flames or to the public, simply abandoned. And so I’ll complete the last of my own pre-abandonment revisions of A Los Angeles Primer by the end of this year, before casting it into the hands of whichever friend’s agent seems most suited to the book it becomes.

(If you suspect yours is, let me know!)

Korea Blog: Lost in Seoul, a New York Poet’s Memoir of Marrying into a Transforming Korea

KB - Lost in Seoul

Book-length first-person narratives by Westerners in Korea have so far come in two waves: one in the 1890s, and another in the 1980s. Or perhaps, given that they produced only a handful of works each, long-form first-person narratives by Westerners in Korea have had more like two splashes. But though few in number, these books have held up through the decades: here on the Korea blog, I’ve already written about Percival Lowell’s Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm: A Sketch of Korea and Isabella Bird Bishop’s Korea and Her Neighbors, both published in the 1980s, both earnest, witty, and by modern standards massively detailed attempts to replicate in text the life and landscape of an obscure and frustrating but ultimately endearing country few of their readers could imagine, let alone visit for themselves.

The second wave, or splash, of Korea books happened in the run-up to the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, an event now regarded as the reconstructed South Korea’s debut on the world stage. Simon Winchester, the writer of popular history and a traveler of British Empire vigor, took the whole country on foot and published his experiences in 1988 as Korea, a Walk Through the Land of Miracles. The journalist Michael Shapiro spent a year here around that same time, chronicling the country’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy in 1990’s lesser-known The Shadow in the Sun: A Korean Year of Love and Sorrow, which interspersed his high-level political observations with everyday ones about life in the country he briefly called home.

That same year, another American Michael, the poet and playwright Michael Stephens (also professionally known as Michael Gregory or M.G. Stephens) came out with Lost in Seoul and Other Discoveries on the Korean Peninsula. An inversion of Shapiro’s proportion of the political and the personal, the book draws on the New York-born, New York-raised, New York-based Stephens’ marriage to a Korean woman, and five or six of the visits they made, young daughter in tow, back to her homeland in the 70s and 80s. Its fourteen essays, all framed by his interactions with the pseudonymous family Han and their culture, find ways deal with Korea’s history, language, and politics, but also its variety of cultures: commercial, military, shamanistic, drinking.

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

Where Is the City of the Future?: Where Geography Loses All Conventional Meaning

CotF Los Angeles 4

Both Los Angeles’ parking lots and its surprising presence and surprising absence of rapid transit suggest a distinctive relationship with physical space. So does the tendency of people who grew up hometowns not especially close to the city itself to describe themselves as “from Los Angeles.” Suburbanites do this everywhere, of course, ostensibly out of not wanting to have to explain the exact location of Evanston or Somerville or Gresham to everyone they meet. But “Angelenos” do it with what strikes me as a unique degree of license, the equivalent of people from Half Moon Bay claiming to be from San Francisco, or people from Parsippany, New Jersey claiming to be from New York.

This freedom of geographic perception, shall we say, manifests in more everyday ways as well. “Even the things near me aren’t near me,” marveled one friend who’d moved from San Francisco years before, but others, even those who’d spend spent less time in Los Angeles than he had, would routinely describe places five, ten, fifteen miles away as “close.” I soon came to realize, the “close”-ness of a destination ten miles away in one direction doesn’t necessarily imply the “close”-ness of a destination ten miles away in another. The concepts of near and far, in Los Angeles, had more to do with ease and difficulty than, strictly speaking, with geography.

As when grasping for explanations of most other oddities of Los Angeles (or indeed American) life, many instinctively blame the cars, even those who profess to love them. The reliance of the city’s population on personal motor vehicles has, in recent years, become something of an overstatement, at least for those who live in or practically in the city proper, rather than in its many surrounding Half Moon Bays and Parsippanys. But as an animating idea, it remains relevant indeed: the car as icon, the car as tool of urban freedom, the car as agent of urban corruption, the car as whipping boy. One wonders how Angelenos processed their experience of the city before widespread automobile ownership.

Read the whole thing at Byline.