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Guardian Cities: The Branding of Seoul

In November 2015, a much-publicised process of crowdsourcing ideas and putting them to a vote culminated in the city of Seoul unveiling its current English-language slogan: “I.Seoul.U.” It met with more ridicule from the local English-speaking community than most of the South Korean capital’s international PR moves (including, but hardly limited to, photoshopped versions for the long-suffering village of Fucking, Austria).

“The arrogance, the vitriol and the self-appointed expertise evident in this explosion of online bile is extraordinary,” wrote Korea Times columnist Andrew Salmon as he surveyed the announcement’s aftermath. He argued that “the obvious, natural focus for Seoul tourism promotion is China and Japan”, and thatthe stark simplicity of I.Seoul.U may well speak to tourists hailing from these high-potential target markets [who have], on the whole, a poor command of English”.

Furthermore, the unconventional, offbeat, and quirky strapline, as he described it, puts it alongside the Nike “swoosh” and legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser’s “I ❤ NY” – both “classic exercises in branding” exerting abstract emotional appeal.

Indeed, I.Seoul.U was seen as a step forward in Seoul’s branding. Whatever its innate strengths or weaknesses, the slogan has brought more attention to a city that has long suffered image problems. For most of the 65 years since its emergence from the destruction of the Korean War, both Seoul and South Korea in general have struggled to define themselves on the cultural world stage, despite going on to become one of the most impressive economic success stories in human history.

Read the whole thing at The Guardian.

Korea Blog: How Netflix’s Groundbreaking “Okja” Shows What Translates and What Doesn’t

On the day we caught Okja, the latest, Netflix-produced film by superstar Korean director Bong Joon-ho, my girlfriend and I went to a tonkatsu place we’d been meaning to return to — deliberately eating before the screening, not after. Everything we knew about the movie, posters for which went up in our neighborhood in Seoul months before it opened, suggested that we’d leave the theater after this tale of a girl and her giant, genetically enhanced pig with our desire for pork greatly diminished. Still, anyone familiar with Korea has to suspect that no movie, no matter how heartwarming, could take much of a bite out of this heartily carnivorous country’s formidable meat consumption.

Reports have it, though, that both Bong and Okja‘s young star Ahn Seo-hyun went vegetarian during production. At least they did during the shooting of the film’s final scenes set in a vast slaughterhouse for giant pigs, or rather Superpigs, that being the trade name under which the film’s evil corporation plans to market the titular Okja and her cheap, delicious brethren. The story opens in 2007, with that evil corporation — Mirando, certainly not to be confused with any other three-syllable multinational agricultural-product concern beginning with M — announcing a contest: having fortuitously discovered the Superpig, they’ve sent trial Superpiglets to every corner of the Earth, and in 10 years’ time will check back to see which country has managed to raise the biggest and most robust specimen, the key to solving humanity’s looming food crisis.

Korea-studies academics have already begun their field day over the culturally telling aspects of the film, beginning with how it treats almost as a foregone conclusion that the most impressive of the Superpigs would come from the Korean countryside. There, up on a mountain, lives 14-year-old Mija, her farmer grandfather, and Okja, who weighs seven tons and whose porcine features look hybridized with those of a dog and a hippopotamus. But their rural idyll shatters on the day, a decade after the first scene, when the Americans from Mirando huff, puff, and sweat their way up the steep trail to the family home (clearly no such challenge to the hardy septuagenarian in residence and his young charge).

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

콜린의 한국 팟캐스트: 교육과 사업 사이에 계시는 스티븐 리비어

한국어 교육학 석사학위를 받은 최초의 외국인인 스티븐 리비어 씨는 1995년에 한국에 오신 이후 재미있는 여러 가지 일을 해오셨다. 2000년대에 아리랑 텔레비전의 Let’s Speak Korean이라는 한국어 가르치는 방성을 진행하셨고 2008년에 10이라는 영어 잡지를 창간하셨다. 한국어 신문 칼럼을 쓰신 적도 있고 최근에는 새로운 SNS 컨설팅 회사도 설립하셨다. 여기나 아이튠즈를 통해 다운받을 수 있다.

Seoul Urbanism on TBS eFM’s Koreascape: Yongma Land, the Amusement Park Time Forgot

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, along with producer Jamie Lee and a few Koreascape interns, we make the journey to Yongma Land, a long-abandoned neighborhood amusement park in eastern Seoul that has recently drawn such crowds as couples on dates, engagement photographers, Instagrammers, and no small number of music videos and television drama shoots.

But though it has become beloved again, the question remains: who abandoned Yongma Land, letting all its attractions — its rideable space ships and squids, its Madonna and Bruce Springsteen portrait-adorned disco ppang ppang, its much-photographed merry-go-round — all go to seed? We dig into the park’s conflicting but always fascinating histories, even sitting down with the facility’s current owner to get his idea of how long Yongma Land has lasted this way, and can last this way, in a development-obsessed city like Seoul.

Stay tuned for further explorations of Seoul’s architecture, infrastructure, and other parts of the built environment. You can hear our previous segments here.

콜린의 한국 팟캐스트: 전통과 현대 건축을 아우르시는 다니엘 텐들러 건축가님

독일인 아버님과 한국인 어머님이 있는 다니엘 텐들러 씨는 한옥에 관심이 많기 때문에 독일과 한국에서 건축을 공부하셨다. 요즘 서울에서 전통과 현대 건축을 아우르는 어번 디테일이라는 건축 회사를 운영하시고 계세요. 여기나 아이튠즈를 통해 다운받을 수 있다.

콜린의 한국 팟캐스트: 외국어를 배우시고 한국어를 가르쳐 주시는 선현우 선생님

선현우 씨는 TTMIK으로 알려 진 한국어와 한국 문화 교육 웹사이트 Talk to Me in Korean를 설립하신다. 지난 거의 10년 동안 TTMIK은 팟캐스트와 동영상과 책으로 외국인 팬들에게 한국어를 가르쳐 주고 있고 선현우 씨는 나중에 TTMIK 오프라인 학교도 만들 생각이 있스세요. 여기나 아이튠즈를 통해 다운받을 수 있다.

Korea Blog: Why do Koreans Love Herman Hesse’s Demian Above All Other Western Novels?

Not long before moving from Los Angeles to Seoul, I went book-shopping with my Korean language exchange partner at The Last Bookstore downtown. Browsing the semi-organized upstairs stacks (often literal stacks, at least at that time), we came across a cache of Korean paperbacks from the 1990s. As I tried to find a book there that could teach me something more about Korean culture, it started to look like all of them were just Korean translations of Western literature, but my language partner thought I could fulfill my criterion nevertheless. “If you want to learn about Korea, you should read this,” she said, pulling down a Korean-language edition of Hermann Hesse’s Demian.

I knew the name. Like a fair few other American readers of my generation, I’d encountered Hesse on an English-class syllabus, but in the form of Siddhartha, his 1922 novel about of a young Nepalese man’s  journey to enlightenment. Demian, his 1919 novel about a young German’s journey to self-realization, aided by his preternaturally wise friend of the title, never even came up, but here in Korea it has attained such cultural importance that critic Lee Dong-jin, host of the Red Book Room podcast, can make this pronouncement: “There are two kinds of people: those who read Demian, and those who don’t.”

Given the enduring presence of the book on their country’s school curricula, most Koreans fall into the former category. Siddhartha probably entered American middle- and high-school reading lists thanks to the enthusiasm of post-seeker English teachers, but why does an austere Swiss-German novelist like Hesse, even given his interest in what would’ve back then been called Oriental thought, have so much to say to Koreans? They certainly don’t hesitate to pay tribute to the man today: Hesse-themed cafés exist here (notably in Paju Book City), and references to his work appear in even the most mainstream media: the boy band BTS, for instance, claims to have based their song “Blood Sweat & Tears” (whose music video now nears 150 million views on Youtube) on Hesse’s teachings.

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

콜린의 한국 팟캐스트: 문화적인 인플루언서 타드 샘플

미국인 문화적인 인플루언서 타드 샘플 씨는 지난 년 이상 동안 한국에 살면서 여러 가지 일을 하신 적이 있다. 몇년 전에 서울 서초에 있었던 양복점까지 운영하셨지만 요즘에는 Sample and Park이라는 컨설팅 회사를 경영하고 트위터에서는 Todd Sample Eats이라는 계정을 통해 한국에서 먹을 수 있는 외국 전통 음식에 대해 쓰고 계신다.  여기나 아이튠즈를 통해 다운받을 수 있다.

From my interview archive: four Los Angeles public radio stars

This year, 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.

“So when is KCRW or KPCC going to give you your own show?” a Los Angeles-based New Yorker writer once asked me just after we’d finished recording an interview. I told her it was a good question and one I’d wondered about on occasion myself, but by that point it hadn’t crossed my mind in some time; I’d already decided to move to Korea, and none of the experience I’d had with the city’s two public radio stations had proven particularly encouraging about my prospects with them. The one-on-one interactions I’d managed to arrange with individuals from those stations always felt positive, sometimes thrillingly so, but when encountered as organizations they tended to leave a surprisingly bad taste in my mouth.

Even before moving to Los Angeles, I’d remotely interviewed Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW’s Bookworm, and John Rabe, host of KPCC’s (now soon to end) Off-Ramp, on The Marketplace of Ideas. With my interest in the city’s public-radio culture thus stoked, and figuring I’d need some source of income lined up before making that move, I applied to a job with one of those stations and wound up with the offer of a one-day trial internship. (This was 2011, bear in mind.) So I came down from Santa Barbara, and one of a quartet of producers for the station’s flagship talk show sat me down in front of a computer and instructed me to “keep an eye on the headlines” scrolling by on their proprietary headline-watching application.

This was the day that Standard & Poor’s downgraded the United States’ credit rating from “outstanding” to “excellent,” so most of the news had to do with that. Every other headline was about rape: not one rape in particular, but various rapes. Though all four of the producers could see me, none again acknowledged my presence until the end of the day, six or so hours later. I didn’t know what would happen if I asked them whether I could go get lunch, so I just never did. The next week I received an e-mail from the producer who showed me where to sit (and who, in what I now recall as a bad sign, didn’t know where “K-town” was when she asked where I planned on living) saying they needed someone “with better news instincts.”

Not long after settling in Los Angeles, income stream be damned, I got an interview with the other station for a job that actually paid — a job whose nature I never really grasped, but a job with a major Los Angeles public radio station nonetheless. A friend with public-radio credibility had recommended me for the position, then insisted I apply for it so he didn’t “look like an asshole.” I wound up crossing town for an interview there not once but twice, sitting before three of the station’s people each time, getting along pretty well with everyone, but also sensing a deep, unidentifiable malaise permeating the environment, like nobody there knew what to do with themselves. (I later found out the reason, which had to do with changes at the top, but I had no idea at the time.)

Weeks went by before I could successfully extract their admission that I didn’t get the job; later I heard through the grapevine the mystifying explanation that my radio experience — that is, the fact that I had radio experience — had been a concern. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have bothered. Experiences in the years since have taught me that I’m not really suited to situations where I have to outshine other candidates in a set of fixed criteria. If you want to work with me, let’s talk; if you don’t want to work with me, I completely understand. What I can’t fathom is when you don’t know whether you want to work with me. If I have to convince six whole people that they want to work with me, I might as well throw in the towel and just enjoy a chat with them — which, as I recall, is more or less what I did.

Though I’d psyched myself up in the moment to perform as best as I could at both stations, I to this day feel regular waves of relief that I never got that job I didn’t understand (it had something to do with organizing the promotion of events on air, I think) or worse, the unpaid internship in that hellish newsroom. Yet I also still struggle to square this with the coolness and friendliness of all the Los Angeles public radio people I’ve met one-on-one, especially those I’ve interviewed: Silverblatt and Rabe I met face-to-face for second interviews on Notebook on Cities and Culture, and I later sat down on that show with Patt Morrison, formerly of KPCC, and Madeleine Brand, who jumped to KCRW after a high-profile dispute with KPCC (involving a guy who interviewed me about Who Framed Roger Rabbit last year, incidentally).

Sometimes I wonder what space I could have carved out for myself in Los Angeles public radio if I’d doubled down my efforts — starting a podcast focused on the city entirely instead of partially, say, or showing up at more of the events in that cultural sphere. It’s not an impossible vision, and not an entirely unappealing one, but my poor fit with most organizations of any kind, and more so the chasm between my broadcasting sensibilities and those in current public-radio fashion (Jesse Thorn once explained to me that “program directors hate it” when you interview a guest for more than half an hour), make it an unlikely one. (This may make me sound like William Gaddis saying he wouldn’t have been terribly surprised to receive the Nobel Prize for The Recognitions, but a call from a national public radio network begging me to fill a prime time slot with long-form conversation wouldn’t have struck me, after I started The Marketplace of Ideas, as too far out of the natural order of things.)

In any case, if anyone could have made a reliable contact for my entry into that world, I couldn’t figure out who. Angelenos get a bad rap for being “fake,” an accusation you can most of the time dismiss as incoherent slander. But sometimes the accusers are, I think, expressing an understandable frustration with the way you never quite seem to know the terms of the relationships you have there, especially with people of any level of fame. Another reason I don’t mind never having developed a career tying me full-time to Los Angeles is that it allowed me to move to Seoul, a city with a relatively clear social landscape and one in which, despite my thorough outsider status, I’ve got more traction in a year and a half than I got in four back there. And of all the things people here ask me to explain, nobody ever demands to know why I don’t have a car.

Still, the dream remains to spend, down the line, part of the year in Seoul and part of the year in Los Angeles. Apart from the writing on Los Angeles I do no matter where in the world I am, I don’t know exactly what I’d do in my Los Angeles months, but probably not public radio, a medium which still offers work of brilliance but whose self-regard as the thinking man’s alternative has lulled it into a disheartening complacency on the whole. It didn’t seem to see podcasts coming, for instance, and has been astonishingly slow to incorporate that medium’s discoveries and innovations. Besides, I don’t know where the intellectual land mines are buried in public radio — the same reason I don’t go into academia — and really, how many thinking men do you know who compulsively change the subject every five minutes?

Some of American public radio’s dysfunctions run even deeper, making me wonder whether — despite the admirable work of the figures I’ve interviewed and others — it can ever solve, or even acknowledge, its real problems. A few years ago a friend invited me to come watch a show taping at one of these major Los Angeles public radio stations, and during it I got to talking with its producer in the control room. “You should work here,” she suggested toward the end of our conversation. “You’re way too smart for this, but you’d have to volunteer answering the phones. Everyone starts that way.” I had to summon all my willpower to stifle the response already on its way out: “Yeah, I hear that’s how they do it at Google.”

Los Angeles in Buildings #6: the Biltmore Hotel

The Biltmore Hotel stands as one of the many answers Los Angeles has proposed, throughout nearly its entire history, to the question of what, exactly, it needs to finally become a “real city.” The list of required elements has expanded, and occasionally contracted, over time, but even putting aside all those strangely persistent Baudrillardian anxieties about whether it rates as a genuine place or some kind of postmodern accretion of simulacra, Angelenos seem never to have a definitive answer about whether Los Angeles has, quite literally, the right stuff.

At the moment, the city’s deficiencies in public transit and public space in general look like the ones to address; back in the second half of the century, it strove for real-city status primarily by building art museums, concert halls, and other high-profile cultural venues. But during and after Los Angeles’ initial population boom at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the city needed to worry less about reality than capacity, a need that demanded the construction of hotels. After the opening of the Pico House in 1870, an extravagant hostelry by the standards of the time and place, the importance of capacity gave way to that of luxury. By the 1920s, anyone looking across the continent to New York for a model of the real city (as many did, and quite a few still do) would have believed that Los Angeles couldn’t possibly enter the world class without a grand downtown hotel: not just a place for high-status visitors, but a reassuringly opulent icon for Angelenos themselves.

Unsurprisingly, as David Rieff writes in “Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World,” the job of designing the Biltmore went to a New York office, Schultze and Weaver, “a firm noted for its uncanny ability to ape the style of the great Spanish colonial architects like Churriguera while at the same time modifying them to suit the requirements of the Jazz Age.” The money, some $10 million of it, came arranged by banker Joseph Sartori, who, according to California historian Kevin Starr, “organized the six-hundred-stockholder syndicate behind the Biltmore whose leadership — Harry Chandler, Marco Hellman, Henry M. Robinson, Lee Phillips — proceeded from the same social groupings which had secured water from Owens Valley in 1913 and were about to improve the port.” Rieff describes projects of this kind as “less the work of individual entrepreneurs than the collective undertakings of the business establishment, and the amorphous Mediterraneanism of their design was an integral part of the selling of Los Angeles.”

Read the whole thing at KCET.