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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.

Korea Blog: Korea’s New Comfort-Woman Comedy “I Can Speak”

Over the past few months, a publicity blitz of the caliber usually reserved for Hollywood superhero spectacles has urged Koreans to see a I Can Speak (아이 캔 스피크), a movie about a straight-laced young civil servant who reluctantly gives English lessons to an old battleaxe. Or at least that’s how it looked at first: as more detailed press and advertisements came out, people started to sense something more complicated than the Korean Harold and Maude (if that) they might have expected. Soon word spread that it actually deals with one of the most dangerously controversial issues in the country today: the plight of the “comfort women,” the young girls forced into prostitution for the Japanese military during the Second World War.

Even typing that last sentence, especially the word “forced,” feels as if it might set off an international incident or two. On my first trip to Seoul I had several appointments that brought me the the vicinity of the city’s Japanese embassy, at that time a grim, prisonlike building, demolished in recent years after many denied requests for permission to do so. I knew a now-iconic bronze comfort woman statue (officially called the “Statue of Peace”) had been installed near it, but I somehow hadn’t imagined it sitting right across the street, its placid, accusatory stare pointing straight ahead. The Japanese government has requested the statue’s removal time and again, to no avail, since it appeared in 2011. Young volunteers watch over it 24 hours a day, and protests, often involving the surviving and now elderly comfort women themselves, have happened in front of the embassy each and every Wednesday for more than 25 years.

Other comfort woman monuments have appeared elsewhere in the world, including a lawsuit-drawing State of Peace clone in Glendale’s Central Park, and just this past summer five of them started riding Seoul city buses. While all this might make an observer unfamiliar with east Asian affairs wonder if the Imperial Japanese Army and its human trafficking operation remains a going concern, current Korean objections specifically target the official Japanese attitude toward those wartime exploits, even as the exploits themselves slip out of living memory. Japan, in this view, captured and enslaved somewhere between 20,000 and 400,000 unwilling young girls from not just Korea but China, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, and other territories besides, yet has consistently refused to properly apologize for or even fully acknowledge its crimes.

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

This week’s city reading: Los Angeles’ varied images, the return of the city-state, Amazon’s search for a city with decent transit

Will the Real Los Angeles Please Stand Up? (Mia Lehrer, Foreground) “The fact that our past Governor filmed Terminator scenes in the LA River, or that The Italian Job shows Mini Coopers racing down the concrete river bed, signaling to other cities that you can concrete over your river and have fun.”

A New Approach to Designing Smart Cities (David Galbraith, Design Matters) “One day, I’d like to design a truly modern, functional city with the character of a medieval hill town. Rather than a blueprint, I’d like to design a series of recipes for how to create it, from the community to individual human level, from street plans to door handles. This outlines how and why that approach could work, compared to how cities are designed today.”

Amazon’s HQ2 Hunt Is a Transit Reckoning (Laura Bliss, Citylab) “The emphasis on transit seems to be creating, in particular, something of a come-to-Jesus moment for cities where high-level service has long been an afterthought. Cities with legacy subway systems, such as Boston and Washington, D.C., have risen to the top of more than one ranking; so has Denver, with its relatively forgiving traffic and expanded rail investments. In weeks of speculation and showdowns, a lack of transit connectivity has been one of the the great presumed disqualifiers for other towns.”

How Seoul Is Reinventing Itself as a Techno-Utopia (Susan Crawford, Wired) “I got an advance look at what might turn out to be a powerful tool in his reelection: a visually beautiful data dashboard—its formal name is “The Digital Civic Mayor’s Office”—that is tied to the broad themes the mayor identified in 2014: How safe is the city, how welcoming is it to the very old and the young, how green is it, how open are its operations?”

Return of the City-State (Jamie Bartlett, Aeon) “As today’s centres of urban global capitalism, major cities are more similar to each other than the provinces of their own nation-states. They are all hubs of finance, tech innovation, culture, and characterised by high levels of diversity and inward migration. While the UK voted to leave the EU 52/48, London voted to remain 60/40. London, as is often remarked by visitors, is nothing like the rest of the country. The same can certainly be said of the US east- and west-coast behemoths.”

The Happy City and Our $20 Trillion Opportunity (Mr. Money Mustache) “The average American gets the most expensive car he can afford, and drives it as much as he can – for virtually 100% of trips out of the house. And yet he has a net worth of nearly zero, and subpar physical health, for most of his life. The average American city builds the largest roads and parking lots it can possibly fund, maximizing the amount of available space for vehicles, in a noble attempt to reduce traffic and serve its citizens. But the result is that cities become nothing but wide, well-engineered, fast, deadly expanses of concrete.”

NPR Music: BTS breaks onto the Billboard charts

Making it to the top of the Korean pop music charts demands no small amount of blood, tears, and sweat — and even more to break beyond it. Few current groups know it as well as the boys of BTS, the young septet who this week became the highest-ranked K-pop act ever on the Billboard 200 chart, as well as only one to rise into its top ten and to appear on both the Billboard 200 and the Billboard Hot 100 at the same time. Their success marks one more step in a long campaign in the Korean pop music industry, and the Korean entertainment industry as a whole, to cultivate a robust fan base as far beyond the borders of South Korea as possible. But how far, K-pop observers have long wondered, can this unabashedly glossy, visually oriented, and aggressively young music really go?

Though 21st-century Korea’s intensively trained (and even more intensively groomed) squadrons of boy bands and girl groups may seem indistinguishable, BTS has had a way of standing out since they made their debut in the summer of 2013. Like every major pop act, they came vetted by the country’s talent oligarchy, specifically as a product of Big Hit Entertainment, an artist management company founded by Bang Si-hyuk, former songwriting partner of top star-making record executive Park Jin-young (known to anyone with an eye on Korean pop culture simply as “JYP”). Before they turned up to Big Hit’s auditions, two of their members were art-school students and two were underground rappers; some point to the group’s own active participation in the writing and production of their songs, heretofore an unusual practice in the highly specialized world of K-pop, as one reason for their rapid and outsized success.

Certainly no other boy band of any nationality has put out a hit single inspired by the work of Nobel Prize-winning German novelist Hermann Hesse, as BTS’ members described last year’s “Blood Sweat & Tears.” Its elaborate music video even features a passage from Hesse’s Demian, a novel near-universally known in South Korea and beloved by several generations of its people. The words come recited by member Kim Nam-joon, better known as “Rap Monster,” who has emerged as the group’s breakout star as well as something of a self-styled intellectual, having placed high on IQ tests and South Korea’s university entrance exams — a high mark of distinction in a ranking-obsessed society — becoming fluent in English, and continuing, on his own initiative, the Japanese-language studies all the BTS members received as trainees.

Read the whole thing at NPR Music.

This week’s city reading: the future of Detroit, a farewell to London, and the failings of transit in the San Francisco Bay Area

Detroit Open City (Aaron Robertson, Los Angeles Review of Books) “The species of loneliness one feels in New York is not the same in Detroit. There is an overwhelming awareness that in a city this large, things should be louder. ‘Detroit is the biggest small town in America,’ I once heard someone say. The slogan rings true. It is a city in which people talk more about lonely places than lonely people. Abandonment is keenly felt not as a conclusive sense of emptiness, but as absence, the peculiar suspicion that something which should be there has been devoured or disappeared.”

Credit Where It’s Due (Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times) “Wong, who died Sept. 1 at 94, often pared down the buildings he worked on to a single memorable gesture. There’s the swooping roofline of the Union 76 gas station in Beverly Hills, among postwar L.A.’s singular landmarks. The peaked silhouette of the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco. The glowing cube at the heart of CBS Television City. Those forms were memorable in part because they matched the spirit of the age in California. They were a visual shorthand for the future.”

Iain Sinclair’s Farewell to London (Iain Sinclair, The Guardian) “There was no longer an obligation to carry a notebook or a camera. Or to endure the madness of being overwhelmed by random voices, mendacious signage, tags and scribbles, snippets of intrusive mobile-phone babble: along with the moral imperative of shaping white noise into a coherent narrative. The rough sleepers, ranters on buses, spice zombies, station beggars I sourced as potential characters were taking their revenge by welcoming me into their survivalist sodality. Did I look like one of them now? Did my skewed, eyes-down trudge transmit a different code, a new set of pheromones?” (See also my interview with Iain Sinclair on Notebook on Cities and Culture.)

Connect the World? The Bay Area Can’t Even Connect Its Trains (Joe Mathews, Public CEO) “We didn’t know how to bridge this transportation gap. My son wasn’t up for a long walk. There is as yet no shuttle from plane to train. The public bus that would take us in the train’s direction didn’t show up on time. Uber wasn’t picking up at the airport. My Lyft app kept crashing. And the four cabbies parked outside the airport all refused to take us, saying they didn’t want to give up their place in line for such a short, cheap trip.”

Collective Dust (Yolanta Siu, Places Journal) “Today, the district’s main street, Dorim-ro, is a stage for revolving storefronts, where trendy restaurants and cafes come and go. Rents have quadrupled in a decade. Many of the new businesses borrow the “otherness” of the factories by using Mullae’s name and industrial aesthetic, but none are affordable to longtime residents. Cultural conflicts are open and pervasive. Most technicians spend their entire lives working six-day weeks, and they find it hard to understand the irregular habits of artists and the creative endeavors that sometimes disrupt factory work.” (See also my segment on Mullae-dong with Yolanta Siu on Koreascape.)

Why Can’t We Get Cities Right? (Paul Krugman, New York Times) “It’s not hard to see what we should be doing. We should have regulation that prevents clear hazards, like exploding chemical plants in the middle of residential neighborhoods, preserves a fair amount of open land, but allows housing construction. In particular, we should encourage construction that takes advantage of the most effective mass transit technology yet devised: the elevator.”