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Los Angeles Review of Books Podcast: Lisa See

I talk with Lisa See, author of novels at the intersection of Chinese history, American history, and women’s history. Her novels include Peony in Love, Snow Flower and Secret Fan, Shanghai Girls, Dreams of Joy. Her latest is China Dolls, a story of the Chinese nightclubs of wartime America that takes place in the Chinatowns of both San Francisco and Los Angeles. You can listen to the conversation on the LARB’s site, or download it on iTunes.

Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E50: Something Like a Bohemia with William E. Jones

williamejonesColin Marshall sits down in Los Feliz with artist, filmmaker, and writer William E. Jones. They discuss what one learns by viewing a city through the prism of its gay porn; how Los Angeles gives away the least of itself in that form as in others; home he introduced Fred Halsted’s “gay porn masterpiece” L.A. Plays Itself to Los Angeles Plays Itself maker Thom Andersen, and how the movie helped fund Chantal Akerman’s first projects; Selma Avenue, once the “hustler central” of Los Angeles; the city as he came to know it in the movies before he came to know it in real life; the Los Angeles tendency to identify with specific neighborhoods; how truly coming to know the city somehow requires both driving and not driving; what made he and Thom Andersen decide to make a “useful” book of their conversations; his examination of the nonsexual elements of the gay porn, and the other work that got him a reputation for a time as “the porn guy”; his resolution not to create around any obvious unifying concept; why Morrissey’s robust Latino fandom confounds people, and how it ties into Los Angeles’ long strain of musical Anglophilia; the similarities between the industrial decay of northern England and the forlorn provinciality of Southern California suburbs; how city centers, to an extent excepting Los Angeles’, have fallen to “fabulous wealth and enormous corporate power”; the way places never turn out quite as intended here, and what it means for civic pride, the force that begins a city’s slide into decadence; what kind of a town Los Angeles has become for experimental film; the city’s ability, now at stake, to nurture “something like a bohemia,” which Glasgow has done where London hasn’t; and what traces of Fred Halsted’s Los Angeles survive today.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E49: The Micro and the Macro with Noé Montes

noemontesColin Marshall sits down in Koreatown with Noé Montes, photographer and publisher of El Aleph Books. They discuss what MacArthur Park, that place “beyond any laws or organization,” means to him; what difference the much-discussed light of Los Angeles makes for a photographer; the city’s sunsets, beaches, palm trees, and the ultimate fact of its being “kind of ugly”; the New Yorker who told him he “just doesn’t get” Los Angeles; the pleasures of living in a city that doesn’t need defending; the impossible task he once considered upon photographing each and every block; the “synoptic vision” he gained upon seeing Los Angeles as a Borges-style “aleph”; when the LAPD took him up in a helicopter, and what understanding of the city he gained thereby; how Los Angeles works best at two levels, the very macro and the very micro; the “layering of information” in the city’s built environment; his work with Metro, an organization now in the process of “actually connecting the city”; how he first gained an awareness of Los Angeles. growing up in the agricultural parts of California, as a place from which others fled; the importance of the desert, not just as a photographic subject but as a boundary to the city; the contrast in pace and sense of possibility he found upon coming here from New York; the feeling that the definition of Los Angeles is happening right now; his realization, after becoming a full-time photographer, that “this is all I could have done”; the “extraordinary access to be nosy” provided by photography (and indeed interviewing) that allows him to discover the unknown “great work” going on in the city; the vast amounts of money he’s seen poured into photographic ephemeralities; the African family he once saw holding hands before a giant pyramid of cereal; the “failed modernism” and other supremely photographable qualities of Mexico City; and what we can learn about Los Angeles from the photography it produces.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

KoreAm magazine profiles me and my relationship to Korea

A white guy living in L.A. like it’s Seoul. That’s Colin Marshall. Living in the Koreatown district of Los Angeles, a city where people drive to the park to take a walk, his main form of transportation is his two feet.

Marshall recently traveled across South Korea, from Seoul to Changwon to Busan, for six weeks and wrote a five-part series for The Guardian about his observations of the country. It was the Seattle native’s first time visiting Korea, though his depth of knowledge on its culture and current events makes him seem like a frequent visitor there, if not a native.

Marshall, 29, speaks conversational Korean. He has been studying the language ever since he got hooked on Korean films during his youth.

I met with Marshall, who had just returned from Korea, at a Koreatown cafe, and he shared his thoughts on Korea’s forward-thinking disposition, disregard for red lights and why the East Asian nation is “so close” to being the perfect country.

How was Korea?
That was actually my first time, but it wasn’t really surprising to me. I’ve been living in Koreatown here and studying Korean and all that, so it wasn’t like a shock. I was already familiar with the surroundings. People say that Koreatown here is like Seoul of 20 years ago. I saw a lot of similarities. In a way, some Koreans here are actually more conservative than the ones in Korea. They come to America and keep the level of conservatism they had back home, whereas the country itself has gotten more progressive.

You were born and raised in Seattle. What made you want to move to Koreatown in L.A.?
Language practice and Korean food. It’s also the densest neighborhood in L.A. That affords you a lot of advantages. I can walk everywhere. It’s usually walking, train or biking.

You’ve traveled in and written about London, Copenhagen, Osaka and Mexico City. What’s special about Korea?
Seoul is always forward-thinking and changing. That’s really nice. To an extent, it’s almost bothersome because the past isn’t always bad [laughs]. But to better understand that, you have to realize that to Korea, the past is poverty. It’s unpleasant. So it’s always looking forward. Europe is all about protecting what’s already there. And what’s there is often pretty nice, too. I mean, in London, a couple of those subway lines are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Read the whole thing at KoreAm.

Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E48: No One Place to Eat with Matthew Kang

matthewkangColin Marshall sits down in Culver City with Matthew Kang, food writer, editor of Eater LA, author of the blog Mattatouille, and proprietor of the Scoops Westside ice cream shop. They discuss the difference between eating on Los Angeles’ west side and elsewhere in the city; how he manages to sell that health-conscious region on ice cream; the willingness of eaters, nowadays, to get back to the occasional bit of unhealthiness; how he prides himself on introducing unusual flavors to the public through the friendly medium of ice cream, even when kids’ parents insist they “just get the chocolate”; how he got into food writing through Yelp during his previous career as a banking analyst; his explorations of Los Angeles through the Zagat guide and as a “hugely involved commenter” on Eater; what he experienced on his Koreatown days in childhood, an ideal place for him as it provides “Korea, but not in Korea”; what it meant to him when he discovered a time capsule of a greasy spoon buried in a Beverly Hills office building; the parts of town that put up with “a little less B.S.” from customization-crazed customers; the balance between “I want it the way I want it” and “Just give me what’s best”; the conversations he had with his parents and fellow Asian Americans when he left his banking career behind for a live of travel and food; the shift in downtown’s Grand Central Market, and what it says about Los Angeles’ wider social and food cultures; how your background matters less here, and how long that might last; food as his conduit for understanding not just Los Angeles but Seoul, Istanbul, Chicago, and Nagoya; how the current coffee-culture boom manifests itself here, where he divides time into two eras, before Intelligentsia and after; how Angelenos can make sure not to provincialize themselves; the exhilaration he feels at certain perfect “Midnight City” moments in his car; and how Los Angeles offers a seemingly infinite variety of places you should eat, but no one place you must.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E47: Waking Up in the Unknown with Jim Benning

jimbenning_600Colin Marshall sits down in Santa Monica with Jim Benning, travel writer and co-founder of World Hum, home of “The Best Travel Stories on the Internet.” They discuss why Mexican food on other continents sucks so bad; the nature of a “weather lifestyle” site he previously edited; the old question of travel versus tourism; his relationship to the label of “travel writing”; whether hatred or love for a place can produce anything but uninteresting writing; our need for “hidden gems”; how Los Angeles offers the world within it, yet rewards travel outside of it; that feeling you get upon first waking up in a completely unknown city; the American traveler’s anxiety about entering a foreign McDonalds; his multimedia production “Starbucks Versus the Traveler“; the English and American traditions of the travel writing of ignorance; the rant for a single-language world he found in his old diaries; the lost world of the Pan Am vacationer and the United States’ “new humility”; LAX and the many other ways that Los Angeles seemingly hasn’t internalized its own status; the obsessions, like surfing, that take you places you wouldn’t have known to go otherwise; having a relationship with a place as you would a person; his mid-1990s Orange County “Drive-Thru Life“; his search for the stories that make him feel like he feels when he’s traveling; and where in town he currently goes for his tacos.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

An Urbanist’s Tour of South Korea, Part Five: Busan, “City of Tomorrow” – and Yesterday

Just as Changwon brands itself the ‘Young City’, other Korean conurbations come with slogans of their own. Seoul, of course, has a few: ‘Hi Seoul, Soul of Asia’ is an awkward English one; only marginally better is the Korean slogan which translates as: ‘The Seoul We Create Together, the Seoul We Enjoy Together.’

But nowhere is as zealous about its self-applied label than Busan, South Korea’s second largest city, located all the way across the country on its southeastern coast. Maps, buses, construction sites: all periodically remind us that we are in ‘Dynamic Busan, City of Tomorrow’.

This slogan strikes me as, in equal parts, apt and mistaken. While I feel bullish about Busan’s future, that has nothing to do with the seaside metropolis’s firm grasp on the 21st century. The appeal of Busan – indeed, a reason to prefer it over Seoul – comes not from what it offers as a city of tomorrow, but what it offers as a city of yesterday.

As a rare piece of territory not captured by the Northern army during the Korean War, Busan came through the 1950s intact, serving during wartime as the capital of the Republic of Korea. The city incurred far less involuntary demolition in that era, so has endured a less thoroughgoing redevelopment since. If you are seeking ‘old’ urban South Korea, you’ll find it here – or at least, more of it than elsewhere.

Read the whole thing at the Guardian.

An Urbanist’s Tour of Korea, Part Four: Cycling Through Changwon and Elsewhere

Not long ago, so South Korea residents of 15 or more years tell me, taking a bike to the streets of Seoul would have indicated a death wish. But then somehow, in less time than it took to rise from dire poverty amid the wreckage of war to the kind of envy-of-Asia wealth it enjoys today, the country became surprisingly bikeable. I still don’t feel half as comfortable riding the streets of Seoul as I do those of bicycle-loving Copenhagen, or even bicycle-tolerating London, but nor do I fear for my life on them. Then again, given the behaviour of the drivers here, perhaps I should.

In many respects, South Korea’s cities feel so distinctive because everyday Koreans don’t observe the letter of law as rigidly as their counterparts in other developed countries – certainly not, when it comes to traffic, with the fearful near-piety of Americans. Hence the Korean tendency to take red lights as more ‘cautionary suggestion’ than ‘implacable command’.

I got a group of North American expatriates swooning for their old continent by asking if they remembered how, when you stood in the middle of a pedestrian crosswalk back home, cars would refrain from driving into it. In urban South Korea, rather than trusting that the law will save them, drivers and pedestrians go by each situation’s human context, which they examine and respond to accordingly.

Read the whole thing at the Guardian.

An Urbanist’s Tour of Korea, Part Three: New-Built Villages in Paju and the “Ubiquitous” City of Songdo

With more than half of the country’s population of 50 million living in the Seoul metropolitan area, South Korea’s other cities, even those with strong infrastructure and attractive surroundings, can seem eerily hollowed out. Certainly, the farther I travel away from Seoul on my urbanist’s odyssey, the older the average age of the people around me gets.

Governments at several levels have launched ambitious, verging on the surreal, efforts to recalibrate the balance between Seoul and the jibang(the word literally means ‘region’, but is often used derisively to refer to ‘anywhere other than Seoul’). Two such projects in particular demanded visits on my whistlestop tour.

I first heard of Paju Book City from a friend employed at a publishing house there, who makes the 90-minute commute north by bus from Seoul every day. His situation seems typical: few people actually live there, instead travelling in only to work in one of its many publishers, bookstores, book cafés and art galleries.

Paju Book City – with a touted ratio of 20 books to every human – arose as “a place devoted to planning, producing and distributing books by well-intentioned publishers”, according to its website, in the dramatic, slightly contorted English typical of Korean publicity materials. “Our [purpose] is simple and clear: the city aims to recover the lost humanity.”

Read the whole thing at the Guardian.

An Urbanist’s Tour of Korea, Part Two: The Cheonggyechon Stream and Dongdaemun Design Plaza

The streets of Seoul strike me as a uniquely rich and incongruous mixture of the urban future and the urban past. As soon as I emerge from the city’s subway system – so admirably planned, so meticulously engineered, so impeccably maintained – I step into a reality where street names and addresses suddenly lose their meaning. Much of this has to do with an only recently revised building numbering system, based inexplicably on the date of construction.

Verbal directions are delivered with a similarly disorienting rusticity: “Walk five minutes toward the mountain, turn right at the fried-chicken place, then go past two other fried-chicken places and turn left into the first alley you see, the one with all the trash cans. It won’t have any markings.”

I find myself walking between, on the one side, gleaming towers with lavish, celebrity-endorsed shops offering personal glamour and “wellbeing” in all its latest manifestations; and on the other, makeshift sidewalk eateries and converted trucks making their simpler pitches for produce, liquor, fortune-telling and glistening haystacks of fried food. Both ends of the commercial spectrum do a lively business long into the night, but I never quite shake the memory of stopping for street-food and finding myself in the path of a lorry whose driver has decided to get up on the sidewalk.

Street life here exists in a delicate balance: to some (often Koreans), it can seem tilted too far toward bygone decades of poverty; to others (often foreigners), too far toward blander, more sanitised and monument-strewn times ahead. If I grieve for anything, it is the pojangmacha – informal outdoor eating and (especially) drinking establishments, operated by night out of wagons or under tents, best patronised in the rain at the tail-end of a long evening out.

Read the whole thing at the Guardian.