Skip to content

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.

“Where Is the City of the Future?” Begins Today: The Stateless City

CotF Los Angeles 1

“Los Angeles is the city of the future,” goes the old joke, “and it always will be.” That makes it as suitable a point from which to begin this exploration of the world metropolises of the Pacific Rim, as does the fact that I spent the past four years living there. But I didn’t move to Los Angeles in the first place because of its promise of a vision of things to come — though having arrived from Santa Barbara, the small, wealthy coastal town built a hundred miles up the coast with legally mandated Spanish Revival quaintness and home, primarily, to “the newlywed and the nearly dead,” any proper city would have seemed excitingly dynamic. Santa Barbara boasts certain lifestyle advantages, no doubt, but all of them put together couldn’t ultimately compete with my sheer fascination about Los Angeles, which drew me down as inexorably as a tractor beam.

This phenomenon didn’t begin with me; Los Angeles has had that effect on people for well over a century. During the city’s first major population boom in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, other Americans came in to populate it from all over the rest of the country: Midwesterners who’d already made their modest-to-immodest fortunes, for instance, or farmers whose agricultural careers back home had, for one reason or another, come to an end. But as the decades wore on, farther-flung foreigners, especially western Europeans, got wind of this city that had grown with strange suddenness near the southern California coast, one that looked and felt in some ways like the urban areas they knew, but in most others resembled them not in the least.

One of my favorite expressions of this mixture of wonder and disgust takes the form of a two-minute segment of a 1969 French television documentary. “At the feet of this kingdom another decorative city bustles about and whispers,” intones the narrator (whose calm Francophone delivery puts me in the mind of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, but then most things do) over footage of various representatively twentieth-century buildings and streetscapes captured from, of course, a passing car. “A blue, flat city: Los Angeles. Fractured into multiple working-class areas that ignore each other, inhabited by individuals who live together but never meet, a city wedged between the desert and the ocean, constantly under threat, its heaving heart torn, dislodged, deprived of a center by the existence of the desert.”

Read the whole thing at Byline.

Korea Blog: When Conan Came to Korea

I first moved to Los Angeles not long after Conan O’Brien did, or more precisely, after he and his team resigned from the stewardship of The Tonight Show which had relocated them from New York just the year before. But it didn’t take him long to get back on television, and news of his exploits in Los Angeles swept through my Koreatown circles when his new venture, a cable show simply called Conan, aired a bit where he and Korean-American actor Steven Yeun hang out nakedly — and, for O’Brien’s part, with characteristically comedic anxiety and discomfort — in a neighborhood Korean spa. (Well, not exactly a Koreatown spa, but Wi Spa, big complex over in Westlake popular with non-Koreans. Close enough.)

And so, now that I’ve moved from Los Angeles to Korea, it only makes sense that O’Brien would follow to shoot a whole series of special segments on life in the Land of the Morning Calm. (Which does have its precedents: Conan has made a thing of location shows in places like Cuba and Armenia, and Anthony Bourdain brought his show here last year.) “A while back, I got a letter from a fan who lives in South Korea,” he says by way of introduction, showing her letter (written an exam form) and the boxful of Korean snack foods she also sent along. He decided to take this young lady up on her invitation to her homeland, “and that’s when I found out that even though my show does not air in Korea, thanks to the internet, I have some fans there,” hundreds of whom, instigator “Sunny” Lee included, turned up to greet him upon his arrival at Incheon International Airport.

The Noryangjin (in O’Brien’s no doubt deliberately clunky pronunciation, “no-ree-on-gone”) fish market, a PC game cafe, the set of a television drama, a tae kwon do demonstration, a traditional restaurant, the Bonkwangsa (“bo-gwong-sow”) Buddhist temple, theJoint Security Area at the Demilitarized Zone on the North Korea border, a K-pop video: the journey passes through many of the spots even a casual Korea-watcher might expect, Conan makes some more Korean fans, Korea gains some more of that ever-desired positive exposure in the West (and for that reason the shows’s producers must have found the country reasonably cooperative), and we all get entertained along the way.

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

Korea Blog: Capturing Seoul’s Street Style

Last month we featured the work of Seoul-based Korean-black American street photographer Michael Hurt here on the Korea Blog. But while those shots all capture something essential about the life of the city, most of them depict the Seoul of at least a decade ago — the equivalent, surely, of something like 25 years of change in Los Angeles. Since then, Hurt himself has also changed, going from pure street shots to a kind of hybrid of street and fashion photography, all part of a discipline of “visual sociology” that he continues to develop through his academic work. Since these two chapters of his career have produced such different images of Korea, I thought it best to give each its own post. When he posted the brand new series of shots of the subject above, I knew the time had come to put in work on this one.

“This is a young lady I met on the last night of Seoul Fashion Week,” Hurt says. “To me, this kind of picture is the quintessence of Korean life and what one could call street fashion. One reason I connect very strongly with the real lies in the fact that, when it comes to representations of Korean reality outside of Korea, there is this strong Korean desire to dress up that reality to the point that it becomes nothing more than a superficial tourism commercial. People ask me whether these images are good or bad for people outside of Korea to see or whether I’m trying to advocate something such as smoking or sexiness or some other ridiculous thing.”

And what does he say in response? “The image I am recording, especially ones such as this one of the young lady smoking, are the most truly and socially real documentary photos that one could take. And in this post-1950s, reality television-reared, ‘I Want My MTV’ generation and its Photoshop- and YouTube-enhanced media environment, nobody wants carefully censored, government-curated, 1984 -esque tourism-bureau representations of reality. If those old fogies in suits could make Korea look cool with pictures of Korean traditional dress, dance, and flowers and other shit, Korea would’ve looked cool decades ago. And that’s why I love this fucking photo.”

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

Korea Blog: Why Korea Needs Alain de Botton (and Why Alain de Botton Needs Korea)

Cast your mind back, if you can, to the internet of the late 2000s, through which blew a fierce blizzard of Stuff White People Like copycats after copywriter Christian Lander’s satirical blog about “the Unique Taste of Millions” blew up and produced not one but two “real” books. None attained anything like Stuff White People Like’s explosive burst-of-the-blog-book-bubble success, but some of them at least cracked a few good ones in the attempt. Even the English-speaking Korean national behind Stuff Koreans Like, a short-lived blog even by these standards, made a few astute observations on his countrymen and their enthusiasm for pictures of food, the Nobel Prize, travel essay books, slapstick, “taking white people too seriously,” Harvard, and the writer Alain de Botton.

“Swiss-born English-language essayist Alain de Botton is the sum of what every Korean essay writer consciously or subconsciously aspires to be,” reads the relevant entry. “Calm and subtle prose, lightly worn erudition, even attended Harvard at one point. Alain de Botton may very well be the Perfect Modern Korean Essayist.” You can see the evidence of de Botton’s large and ever-growing appeal in this country at every major bookstore, from whose shelves dozens of images of his face look sagaciously out from little paper banners wrapped around translated editions of his many books, like Essays in Love (왜 나는 너를 사랑하는가, or “Why I Love You”), The Consolations of Philosophy (젊은 베르테르의 기쁨, or “Young Werther’s Happiness”), and Status Anxiety (불안, or simply “Anxiety”).

Just last weekend, the man himself stopped by Seoul to deliver a lecture at Korea University’s grandest hall, whose attendees snapped photos of themselves beside posters bearing his image for hours beforehand. (Though most bought their tickets early, I found some available at the door — for those who wanted to pay nearly $140 a pair.) Some had registered to attend through Korea University itself, and some through The School of Life Seoul (인생학교 서울), the local branch of the international educational organization co-founded by and closely associated with de Botton (and here run by writer-entrepreneur Mina Sohn), which offers classes on how to be creative, manage stress, relate to your family, travel like a philosopher, and face death.

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

Korea Blog: Three Young-Ish Korean Novelists on the Plight of the Young-Ish in Korea

Back in December, I wrote up a Seoul Book and Culture Club event featuring four Korean writers as a spectator. This past weekend, I experienced another as a participant, and specifically as the interviewer who talked with another group of Korean writers about their stories, all recently put out by ASIA Publishers in compact dual-language editions. I highly recommend these books (and all their predecessors in ASIA’s “K-Fiction” series) as learning tools to anyone studying the Korea language at an intermediate or advanced level. I also highly recommend, should the opportunity arise after reading the books, getting up on stage and talking to their authors about them.

This time we had three writers: Chang Kangmyoung, author of Fired (알바생 자르기); Kim Min-jung, author of The World’s Most Expensive Novel (세상에서 가장 비싼 소설); and Kim Ae-ran, author of Where Would You Like to Go? (어디로 가고 싶으신가요). All three stories, so it seemed to me after reading them and considering them together, have to do with the condition of “young-ish” Koreans, those in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties who, while hardly kids, have for a variety of economic, societal, or personal reasons not quite made it to what the generation before them would have considered a full-fledged adult life. This sort of thing as provided fodder even in America for trend piece after hand-wringing trend piece, but the society of South Korea, a country that more recently came to the end of a much more dramatic period of growth, has felt it with special acuteness.

Chang Kangmyoung deals with this this most directly in Fired, which comes with its own nonfictional appendix explaining how the South Korean economy has changed with each generation. Hye-mi, a part-time front-desk worker at a mid-sized Korean company who turns up late, takes long lunches, spends hours on the internet clicking around travel and music sites, and never makes it to after-work company dinners. But rather than telling it from Hye-mi’s point of view, Chang makes a protagonist of Hye-mi’s supervisor, who at first feels sorry for her young-ish underling but then, when the aggravations built up, decides to get rid of her, running into a host of unexpected difficulties in the process.

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