Where Fools Fear To Tread — A Snapshot of Korea (Seoul and Busan)

 INTRODUCTION

2000px-Flag_of_South_Korea.svg

In June, Una and I went to the Philippines and Korea on vacation. Since people will invariably ask me to clarify “North or South?” the answer, is South. Perhaps I’m wrong to think that this would be obvious since I usually assume that “Korea” means “South Korea “. More than 12 million travelers annually visit Seoul alone whereas only a handful of Westerners are permitted to undertake small, highly controlled and supervised group tours of North Korea. If someone were to describe themselves as a fan of K-pop or K-dramas, its doubtful that anyone would assume that they were referring to North Korean acts like Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble or North Korean dramas like The First Chief of Oil Department — but there you have it. Interestingly, I think, most Koreans whether from the North or South refer to their countries as something other than “Korea,” which is an exonym derived from the Chinese name for the country, 高麗, or “Gāolì.” North Koreans often refer to their county as “조선,’ or “Joseon,” after the famed dynastic kingdom. South Koreans, on the other hand, usually refer to the country simply as “한국,” or “Hanguk,” which translates to “country of the Han.” 

Anyway, we spent much of our time exploring the city with our friends Colin and Jae, who live in (and in Colin’s case, write and talk extensively about) Seoul. We also spent a few days in Busan… but before I get to that, a brief history of Korea…


A BRIEF HISTORY OF KOREA

Korea
Watercolor and Ink map of Korea (by Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography)

Koreans are an East Asian people native to the Korean Peninsula and areas of neighboring Manchuria. There is archaeological evidence that suggests that their proto-Korean ancestors arrived in the Korean homeland from somewhere in North Asia, and arrived during the Bronze Age. The oldest artifacts yet discovered have been dated to roughly 8,000 BCE. The oldest written references to Korea’s Gojoseon Kingdom date from the 7th century BCE. In the 3rd century BCE, the Jin state arose in what’s now South Korea. From 57 BCE-688 CE, the kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje, and Sillathe Three Kingdoms — between them controlled all of modern Korea and part of Manchuria. Silla was later divided into the Later Three Kingdoms, which were re-unified under Wang Geon‘s Goryeo dynasty in 936.

During the Goryeo period, civil service was introduced, laws were codified, and Korean culture is regarded as having flourished both by Koreans and their neighbors. The Japanese work, the Tale of Genji (源氏物語) was written during this period and makes several interesting references to Korean culture. In the first chapter, for example, Korean ambassadors and fortunetellers are sought by the Japanese court and their advice is dutifully followed. Later in the work, the Japanese court holds a ceremony which showcases Korean musicians, dancers, diviners, and physiognomers. Korea’s strength lessened in the 13th century when pressured from the outside the Mongol Empire.

Korea’s fortunes reversed in 1392 when Yi Seong-gye established the Joseon dynasty. That dynasty prospered until the late 16th century when it found itself embroiled in conflicts both foreign and domestic. Joseon responded by turning inward, resisting modernization and contact with outsiders. The Korean Empire was established in 1897, and in 1905 signed a protectorate treaty with the Japanese Empire.

In 1910, Japan annexed Korea and began its long, brutal occupation. Some 7,000 Korean protestors were slaughtered in what came to be known as the March 1st Movement of 1919, which marked increased Korean resistance and a Japanese crackdown. In response, the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea formed in exile in China, where it began directing resistance against the Japanese. Under Japanese rule, the Korean language was suppressed and Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names. Korean artifacts were destroyed or looted. Some five million Koreans were conscripted for labor and an estimated 400,000 died fighting for Japan in World War II. Nearly 200,000 women, mostly from Korea, were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese troops, often referred to as “comfort women.”

World War II ended in 1945. Korea was divided at the 38th Parallel into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (supported by the USSR and China) and the Republic of Korea (supported primarily by the USA). In 1950, under the leadership of Kim Il-sung, North Korea attempted to reunify Korea by force, using Soviet tanks and artillery, invaded South Korea in the Korean War, which ended in 1953 with a ceasefire. South Korea would for decades be governed by military rule but democratic reforms were gradually introduced and by the mid-1970s, it’s economy had overtaken that of North Korea. Meanwhile, North Korea’s economy has decayed, especially since after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its primary benefactor, in 1991. Today the IMF, World Bank, and UN rank South Korea as having the 11th highest nominal GDP, just below Canada. North Korea, on the other hand, occupies the 113th spot, just below Gabon.

Kim Il-sung was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-il, who was in turn succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-un. If further proof were required that North Korea had largely embraced its status as a dynastic monarchy, statues of Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx were removed from Kim Il-sung Square and “Juche,” not Marxist-Leninism, is the current governing philosophy.


KOREA & TAIWAN

I’m struck by some of the similarities between the Koreas and the “two Chinas” — the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan). No doubt my willingness to compare and contrast Taiwan and South Korea in part stems from the fact that prior to this year, Taiwan was the only country in Asia which I’d visited but even after visiting the Philippines and South Korea, I find my thoughts returning to the two neighbors at opposite ends of the East China Sea.

Both are small countries which are largely overshadowed on their regional stage by China and Japan — both of which have long histories of invasion and occupation. Both were liberated from Japanese occupation in World War II only to find themselves embroiled in civil wars which ended in stalemates. For decades, both were governed by right-wing dictatorships, backed by the US, and opposed by nominally Communist “Peoples Republics.” Both slowly liberalized, quickly industrialized, and as their economies flourished were labeled (along with the city-states of Singapore and Hong Kong) the “Asian Tigers” or “Asian Dragons.” Both only became truly democratic around 1990. Both are now highly urbanized countries with highly developed economies. In both countries, ’80s German Eurodisco hitmakers Modern Talking were hugely popular. 

There are notable differences between Taiwan and South Korea too, especially it seems to me, in terms of their “brands.” For example, Metro Los Angeles is home to the largest communities of Koreans and Taiwanese outside of their respective homelands. Every Korean seems to be aware of their status whereas the status of Taiwanese remains mostly unacknowledged. Koreans, locally, have two well-known enclaves, Koreatown and Little Seoul. “Little Taipei,” on the other hand, has been applied unconvincingly and infrequently to two suburbs — Monterey Park (now majority Chinese) and Rowland Heights.

Korea’s brand even has a name, “한류”, or “Hallyu” — meaning “Korean Wave.” Korean pop music and television dramas are popular throughout much of the world. In Los Angeles, there are at least eight Korean radio stations and Korean television networks including KBS, MBC, SBS, and several local Korean television stations are all represented. Gogi-gui (colloquially known as Korean BBQ, even though not barbecue), bingsu, Korean supermarkets, Korean tacos, and norebang are all widely popular with Koreans, Koreaphiles, and average Angelenos — all of whom seem aware of their Korean-ness.

Taiwan, it seems to me, has a brand problem. People my age, who grew up in the 1980s, no doubt remember seeing “Made in Taiwan” labels affixed mostly to cheaply produced plastic toys and appliances although now we’re more likely to own flat screen television and high-end bicycles made there (guilty on both counts). Meanwhile, most Angelenos are familiar with KTV, bobacheese foam tea, night markets, Mongolian BBQ (which is neither Mongolian nor barbecue), and supermarkets like 99 Ranch Market — but my suspicion is that most non-Taiwanese realized that all have roots in Taiwan. There are no Taiwanese television stations and there is just one Mandarin radio station. Although I imagine that their storylines are interchangeable, I know of no one who watches Taiwanese dramas and have yet to even meet a single soul previously acquainted with Pili (霹靂). Even more frustrating, even though restaurants like Pine & Crane and Din Tai Fung seem always to have long lines of eager diners waiting to get in, I’ve never heard anyone correctly identify them as Taiwanese and I recently left a comment in Eastsider LA pointing out that Pine & Crane is Taiwanese, not Thai, and nor is Thailand the same thing as Taiwan.


Anyway, cultural awareness (or cluelessness) aside, I wanted to visit Seoul for many of the same reasons that I wanted to visit Taipei; in part, because despite living in Los Angeles, I’m attracted to clean, modern, and functional metropolises. As an American, however, I’m apparently something of an outlier. Most of Taipei’s visitors come (in descending order) from China, Japan, and South Korea. Most of Seoul’s visitors come from Japan, China, and Taiwan, which together account for 75% of tourists. The rest nearly all come from Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Americans who visit Asia, meanwhile, are far more likely to head to Bangkok or Tokyo.

Korea is one of the world’s most ethnically homogenous states and for that reason, foreigners tend to stand out. There are currently only about one million non-Koreans living in South Korea — most of whom are either Chinese or Japanese. In Seoul, as of 2011, only 2.8% of the population were foreigners, and of them, two-thirds were ethnic Koreans from China. After them, the largest group of foreigners were ethnic Chinese, who comprised just .29% percent of the population.

Although I can’t put my finger on it, most Koreans strike as unmistakably Korean in appearance. I’m also not sure why — but in Hollywood, it seems to me that a disproportionate percentage of Asian-American actors are Korean. This leads to Korean-Americans playing characters of various Asian ethnicities and, although I’m not the sort of person who would suggest that people only play characters with the same genetic admixture as they have themselves, I sometimes feel like Korean actors playing non-Koreans requires my subconscious to jump through extra hoops, however unlikely. Thus I assumed that Hoshi Sato, played by Linda Park, was a Korean Starfleet officer who’d been raised by Japanese adopters. Similarly, when Grace Park’s character was named “Kono Kalakaua” on Hawaii Five-O, I thought that it must be some sort of honorific title bestowed on her by Hawaiians. More recently, I assumed that Dong Nguyen, a character played by Ki Hong Leeon on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, would eventually explain why he was pretending to be Vietnamese, and that part of the joke was that only someone as naive as bunker-raised Kimmy would buy his character’s terrible Vietnamese accent. 

Koreans weren’t always as common in Hollywood, nor were Korean characters. Philip Ahn, one of the few Korean-American actors of the Classic Hollywood Era, spent most of his career playing Chinese and Japanese characters. On M*A*S*H, set in Korea during the Korean War, nearly all Korean characters were played by Japanese actors. It wasn’t until 1994, with All-American Girl, that a series was built around Korean-Americans and although it starred Margaret Cho and was based on her Korean-American family, she was the only Korean in the cast.

The vast majority of the world’s Koreans still live in Korea or China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, and it was only in the 2000s that America’s population surpassed one million, making them the fifth largest population of Asian-Americans, after those of Chinese, Filipino, Indian, and Vietnamese descent.


Many Seoulites seemed to be on the same sartorial page. In my memory, most were clothed in blue and white, often striped — or occasionally in black and white, dull pink and white, mustard, or forest greens. All of the women seemed to wear the same coral shade of lipstick, which more often than not, matched their eye makeup. Many women wore dresses but lest their shoulders be revealed, paired them with white undershirts. I counted about four pairs of exposed female shoulders — all of which belonged to women who were apparently visiting from elsewhere. Korean modesty is apparently reserved only for women’s upper halves, as I was frequently scandalized by the shortest of shorts and skirts which could almost have passed for wide belts.

flower boy
Dewy skinned flower boy in a subway ad with post-it love notes

There was generally a huge gulf between the fashion of pop idols featured in subway posters and those actually riding the subway — although not quite as wide with young men. Some actually looked like pop idols, characterized as they were by dewy complexions and shiny lipgloss. Colin told me were known as flower boys or 꽃미남. In Korea, there’s a fairly old precedent for effeminate men, dating back at least to the Silla Kingdom, in which there was a group of elegant warriors.  However, the modern version seems likely to owe more to the popularity of yaoi manga (or “boys love” manga) which became popular in Korea after a ban on Japanese imports was lifted, and K-pop boy bands.

It was only when looking at photos from my trip that I realized that there had been more variety to the way people in Seoul were dressed. In every photo, I could see a man with an untucked button-up shirt, tennis shirt, or T-shirt and not every woman was dressed as if ready for a 1960s Mediterranean cruise… but in one regard, my memory proved infallible. Virtually no one in Seoul has tattoos — or visible ones, anyway.

In the US, nothing is more emblematic of middle-American normalcy than the tattoo. I don’t have a single subcutaneous rendering, which often makes me feel as if I’m regarded at the very least with suspicion by straight society. Seeing neither a dolphin or Chinese character, people lock the doors on their hybrids when they see me crossing the street. Without a swallow on my neck, a spider web behind my ear, or even a single tattooed tear I make myself less employable. With not even a finger mustache or even winged pocket watch, most wouldn’t even trust me to walk their dogs. In Korea, though, only licensed medical doctors are allowed to provide tattoos — and what doctor could reconcile scarring someone with a Pinterest quote and their pledge to “first do no harm”?


BOOZE IN KOREA

Koreans have a reputation for being a booze-loving culture — and it is not an undeserved one — nor do I generally disapprove… although after trying OB and Hite, two popular macrobrews frequently sold in plastic two-liters, I wondered why such underwhelming beer was tolerated. Turns out it was largely due to government regulations which have were relaxed in 2011 and have since opened the door for microbrews, although I saw none for sale in convenience stores or restaurants and therefore didn’t sample any.

It’s worth noting that whilst Koreans consume more alcohol per capita than other Asians, of the top 30 booziest nations, 26 are European and Korea only ranks 17th, falling between Finland and FranceI read somewhere that there are 1,000 different types of Korean alcoholic beverages and that they are generally divided into three categories: gwasilju (fruit liquor), jeungryuju (distilled liquor), and takju/yakju (rice liquor). A sake fan since the age of ten, soju was naturally the first Korean liquor that I tried. Cheongju, apparently, is more similar — but I don’t recall having seen it for sale anywhere whereas soju is everywhere. 

Like sake, soju is made from rice. Sometimes it has about the same alcohol content and at other times, quite a bit more. I saw a group of three older men outside a 7-Eleven with four empty bottles between. One of the men walked into the store and bought another round and I surmised that a single bottle for myself might be sufficient. By the time I’d drunk half the bottle, I was lying bed and watching television whilst the rum spun around me. I also didn’t like the flavor much. 

Alley
A narrow alley which lead to나물먹는곰

One afternoon we went with Colin and Jae to a makgeolli (막걸리) bar called 나물먹는곰. When they still lived in Koreatown, Colin and Jae once brought iCing, an incredibly refreshing grapefruit and rice brew, to a croquet match. With makgeolli, they were two for two. Looking at the bowls of milky liquor, I thought to myself that it resembled nigori (which is generally too sweet for my tastes). The makgeolli, however, was surprisingly pleasant and given its popularity with elderly farmers and young rappers, it seemed to make sense. At one point, Colin asked me whether or not I had a go-to Korean karaoke song yet. I replied that it was, I supposed, Yoo Jae-ha 우울한 편지,” which I picked up after repeated listenings to the soundtrack for Bong Joon-ho’s film, Memories of Murder (살인의 추억). As we drank makgeolli, what song should float down from the speakers? 

makgeolli bar
Inside 나물먹는곰

I was struck by the enviable bar density in Seoul, and how open they seemed. In the US, for example, many bars have darkened windows or none at all whereas in Seoul they were warm and inviting, revealing seemingly every night, small groups of friends enjoying a night out. The only “scuffle” I saw was a disagreement between colleagues all of whom were insisting on paying for everyone else. In retrospect, I don’t remember seeing and hostess or booking clubs — both of which are common in Los Angele’s Korean neighborhoods — but I hadn’t remembered them until I’d returned and thus hadn’t looked for any.

I also expected to see more wine than I did. A couple of years ago I watched the film, The Housemaid (하녀), in which the characters all seemed to be constantly engaged in the swirling, swishing, and sniffing of wine in glasses so comically huge that I at first thought it was some sort of joke. A couple of films later, however, it seemed to me that giant glasses of wine were, like marinière shirts and images the Eiffel Tower, sings of an at least superficial Francophilia. Thinking about it a bit more, I wondered whether or not that might have something to do with the French-bent of Korean patisserie chains like Paris Baguette, Paris Croissant, and Tous Les Jours, which seem to be popping up around Los Angeles like so much rising dough.

bakery
Upstairs at the charming bakery, 안국 153

Could Francophilia also account for the dominance of coffee and café culture in Korea? I have difficulty understanding how anyone familiar with tea wouldn’t embrace it wholeheartedly and situated between the tea-drinking titans of Japan, China, and Taiwan, how could it be that Koreans consume less tea per capita than even Americans? A bit of research revealed that historically, tea was primarily consumed in Korea by Buddhist clergy and royalty. Buddhism went into decline during the Joseon Dynasty, which I suppose may’ve had something to with a related decline in the popularity of tea. There are Korean tea varieties, though, including nokcha, hwangcha (like oolong), and hongcha (“red tea”) but these days, “Korean tea” usually refers not to teas at all but rather, tisanes — tea-less beverages widely referred to in the West as “herbal teas,” despite their being no more herbal teas than they are herbal coffees or herbal wines. 

Coffee apparently came to Korea much later, in the 19th century, and most humans seem to love a good false binary. Why someone couldn’t greatly enjoy both tea and coffee is to me a mystery. There are Asian countries in which both are popular, and yet usually one is significantly altered. Both are apparently popular in Vietnam, but cà phê sữa đá is often so strong that I’ve sometimes wondered how its legality is tolerated. Both coffee and tea are quite popular in Taiwan, too, although there they constantly tinker with the latter, by creating things like salted tea, boba, cheese foam, and stuffed crust versions.

Koreans, by and large, have thrown in their lot with coffee, though, which was introduced by the Russians. The first coffee house opened in Seoul in 1902 and so, probably didn’t have WiFi. Dabangs (다방) were apparently somewhat elitist spots until the 1960s when members of the public were no longer restricted from visiting them. In the 1970s, students and young couples began to frequent them and DJs played music on request. The first Starbucks opened in Seoul in 1999 and as of 2015, there were somehow 17,000 coffee shops in Seoul, including both mom and pop coffee bars and Korean chains like Caffé Benne, Cafe Droptop, Coffee Bay, Hollys Coffee, Mango SixTom N Toms, and A Twosome Place


KOREAN CUISINE

Seoul restaurant
After a meal at the charming 나물 먹는 곰

Korean cuisine has evolved, like most cuisines, over centuries of development by combining indigenous traditions with foreign influences. Like many Asian cuisines, it’s centered around combinations of rice, vegetables, and meat. One thing that makes Korean cuisine somewhat unique, however, is the centrality of side dishes, known as banchan (반찬). The most famous banchan, no doubt, is kimchi (김치) whereas the most popular Korean item in the US, I’d wager, is gogi-gui, the name of which translates to “meat roast” and the most popular varieties of which are probably bulgogi and galbi. However, as a vegetarian of some 27 years, I’ve never had either and can only comment on the strong, smoky scent which they seem to impart to people’s hair.

Back when I was in college, in Iowa City, I lived around the corner from a Korean-Japanese restaurant called Aoeshe — although I don’t recall the Korean-ness being acknowledged except indirectly, through the presence of grills in the middle the tables and bibimbap on the menu. Neither was the Korean-ness obvious to me at the adjacent market, cautiously named East-West Oriental Foods, and where I did much of my grocery shopping. When I moved to Los Angeles I found myself on a few occasions joining friends at gogi-gui places and unsure of which banchan were vegetarian, I frequently felt personally aggrieved as I drank beer which I didn’t much care for. I had better luck at Korean bars, where there’s another class of food — anju (안주) — which whilst not especially nourishing, includes things like fried peas and jeon, which are easily distinguishable from meaty anju like moon snail salad or pig’s feet.

Vegan Buffet
한과채 and issues of Thinking Bus – 이화보이스

Not used to ordering off-menu, it took me a while to learn that this was often the best vegetarian option. Most cooks have turned out to be willing to whip together something animal-free, although aside from being vegetarian, I’m not at all picky. In fact, in my 18 years of living in Los Angeles, I’ve only found cooks unwilling to make anything vegetarian at four establishments; three of which went out of business and one of which is Saigon Flavor. Seoul, too, proved as easy as any other to be vegetarian and one of our final meals was at 한과채, which Google translates for me as “One and a half.” It’s a vegetarian buffet in Jongno and as we arrived between mealtimes, the staff instead prepared and brought us dish after dish until I couldn’t eat anymore — and then chastised us for not eating enough of the burdock


KOREAN MUSIC

In less than 20 years, Korean music has gone from being something with which almost no non-Koreans had any familiarity to something with which nearly every American has at least some. In the 1990s, the so-called J-pop of Japan enjoyed something of a cult following in America. I’m no expert on Asian pop music by the appreciation (and naming) of K-pop seems to be, in many ways, an outgrowth of Japan’s idol similar idol scene. 

 

My own tastes in Japanese pop of that era were mostly limited to Shibuya Kei groups like Pizzicato 5, Plus-Tech Squeeze Box, and Capsule — and have moved backward since, to the pre-rock era of enka music. Even so, I was no abler than any other American to avoid the onslaught of Psy‘s 2012 hit, “Gangnam Style,” which was only the second Asian-language chart-topper here since Kyu Sakamoto’s “を向いて歩こう,”  retitled “Sukiyaki” in the US and which was a hit in 1961.

The first Korean song I remember hearing was “Arirang” (아리랑), the ancient and unofficial anthem of Korea, and a song which my classmates and were taught to sing in fourth grade. Traditional Korean music dates back to prehistoric times and includes folk music and music performed for religious rituals. There are a variety of folk styles, or “Minyo,” including Jeongak, Nongak, Pansori (sometimes referred to as Korean opera), Pungmul, Salpuri, Sanjo, and Shinawi. Later styles of court music include Chinese-derived Aak, Korean-derived Hyang-ak, and Dang-ak — which is a fusion both traditions. 

Trot (트로트), also known as ppongjjak, is a genre which emerged in the early 20th century, during the Japanese occupation. The name derives from “Foxtrot,” an American ballroom dance style popular in the 1910s. Trot, to my untrained ears, though, sounds more like enka, which I know was influential not just in Japan but also Taiwan and Korea. However, due in part to the lingering negative associations with Japanese cultural influence, its origins apparently remain the subject of debate. Whatever they may be, I enjoy a lot of it, including the music of Lee Mi-ja (이미자), Tae Jin Ah (태진아), Song Dae-kwan (송대관), and my favorite, the Moon Joo-ran (문주란). Next to nothing has been written in English about Moon but from what I’ve learned, the singer with the disarmingly husky voice is from Busan and that’s pretty much all that I know.

In 2011, a non-trot singer from the pre-K-pop era was “discovered” in the West when her 1973 album, Now, was released on compact disc and 180gm LP by American reissue label, Lion Productions. The artist, Kim Jung Mi (김정미), was a singer of a somewhat who occasionally veered into psych-folk territory. She was previously “discovered” by Shin Joong Hyun (신중현), a famous producer and heavy psych guitarist sometimes referred to as Korea’s “Godfather of Rock.” Kim released five albums, all of which strike me was worth seeking out, as is the musical output of Shin. Also of the rock era and, in my opinion, worth a listen is Sanullim (산울림), a trio formed by three brothers: Kim Chang-wan (김창완), Kim Chang-hoon (김창훈), and Kim Chang-ik (김창익).

Like probably every culture, Korea also has an “indie” scene, or “인디.” I’m pretty new the scene but so far I’ve heard and enjoyed some of what I’ve heard by Big Baby Driver, Casker, Earip, Fromm, Hermin, Hourmelts, Lucid Fall, Siwa, Taro, and Yozoh. My favorite contemporary Korean artist, without a doubt, is Linus’ Blanket (라이너스의 담요), which began as a band but is now the solo project of singer/songwriter Yeongene. In a remarkable coincidence, she told me early in the year that she was going to play a show at Maria Callas Hall on the day we were to arrive in Seoul, which also happened to be the day before my birthday. It was a magical performance, although my lack of sleep was catching up with me and as she performed Bart Howard‘s “Fly Me to the Moon,” I was briefly unsure whether or not I was dreaming.

Cat Cafe (2)

Cat Cafe
Cats sleeping at Cat Café

KOREAN CINEMA

The first films made in Korea were likely the travelogue films by American Burton Holmes. Dongdaemun Motion Picture Studio opened in 1903. Koreans began making films in 1919, when both Loyal Revenge (의리적 구투 ) and Scenes of Kyongsong City, were released. A number of respected Korean films were made in the 1920s, during the Japanese occupation, including Person of destiny (풍운아) , Vole (들쥐), Good bye (잘 있거라), Mute Samryong (벙어리 삼룡), and Finding Love (사랑을 찾아서). The late 1950s and ’60s were Korean Cinema’s “Golden Age” and by the 1970s, the quality of Korean cinema is generally considered to have declined. 

However, it was in 1976 that the first film in the world was released on VHS, Kim Ki-duk‘s The Young Teacher (청춘교사) — I made a point of knowing this when I worked at Amoeba Hollywood. It was not, it should be noted, the director of the same name who makes painful-but-strangely-rewarding art house movies but the guy who made the Godzilla-inspired Yongary (대괴수 용가리).

I think the first I heard of Korean cinema was Shiri (쉬리), which when released in 1999 seemed to garner more attention than any previous Korean film. When Amoeba Hollywood opened in 2001, Il Mare, Joint Security Area, My Sassy Girl, and My Wife Is a Gangster were all big sellers. A couple of years later, Old Boy became one of the biggest sellers of all the store’s DVDs. I remember actor Bill Paxton was really enthusiastic about Korean cinema. I finally got around to watching a Korean film when a copy of Green Chair (녹색 의자) came through. Soon after I watched 200 Pounds Beauty (미녀는 괴로워). Sufficiently intrigued, I began regularly attending the Korean film screenings at the Korean Cultural Center Los Angeles. Some of what I saw I disliked but other films, like Rough Cut (영화는 영화다), I really enjoyed — and even when the films were bad, there’s sometimes pastries and coffee and it’s always free. Over time I discovered Korean filmmakers of whose films I wanted to see more films: Bong Joon-ho (봉준호), Hong Sang-soo (홍상수), Kim Ki-duk (김기덕), Lee Chang-dong (이창동), and So Yong Kim (김소영).


KOREAN TELEVISION

As popular as Korean cinema now is, Korean television seems to be far more so. Although I’d never at that point watched even a minute of Korean drama, as the DVD buyer I studied which MBC and SBS box sets sold. Eventually, a distributor of KBS dramas made sure we stocked those too, although they generally seemed to sell less. My interest in Korean television remained mainly academic. South Korea began broadcasting television in 1956. Eyes of Dawn (여명의 눈동자) and Sandglass (모래시계) were domestically popular in the 1990s but it was in the 2000s that Korean dramas conquered Asia and much of the world. Dae Jang Geum (대장금), Coffee Prince (커피프린스 1호점), and Boys Over Flowers (꽃보다 남자) were all big sellers and I used to get promos, but rather than watch them I’d pass them along to my then girlfriend’s mom. I don’t remember why, but I decided to watch Soulmate (소울메이트) in its entirety, and I enjoyed it enough but found the commitment to 22 episodes was something I wasn’t keen to repeat anytime soon… and I was as compelled by the “documentary truths” as I was the plot. 


KOREAN LITERATURE

At Amoeba, I had a co-worker who claimed to have a photographic memory — a claim which I very much doubted. I remember thinking to myself that if she had a hypothetical photographic memory, she could surely look at something written in Hangul for a second, and then accessing her photographic memory, accurately write it down even though she couldn’t have known the words’ meaning. I’m not sure why I thought of Hangul, although I’ve long appreciated its elegance. For the majority of the history of Korean literature, Korean was written in Chinese script — known in Korean as Hanja. Korean poetry had emerged by the 2nd century BCE and literature which predates the Joseon dynasty, is usually classified as Classical Korean literature.

Hangul, unlike ancient alphabets, was a deliberate creation, designed and debuted in 1443 in part to combat illiteracy. It was thus not always highly regarded in Korea, where it was widely disparaged by the ruling class as vulgar until the 20th century. Hangul is sometimes referred to as “아침글,” or “writing you can learn within a morning” and Jeong Inji famously said of the characters that “a wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.” Although I don’t claim to be either wise or in possession of a photographic memory, before visiting Korea I decided to have a crack at learning the alphabet and was astounded that I learned to do so fairly well within an hour (although months later I’m still shaky on the diphthongs — and waiting for me to sound out signs in Korean is liable to drive you insane).

Although I’m fairly comfortable with Hangul, and thus able to sound out a few greetings and loan words, I learned almost none of the Korean language. I would, however, like to — in part because it seems like a handy language to be familiar with (it’s the fifth most spoken language in Los Angeles) — and in part because it strikes me as one of the most mellifluous languages. When I need a break from the news or music, I sometimes listen to the dulcet tones of Korean radio presenters without having any idea what they’re talking about — although there’s the danger that if I knew what they were selling (skincare products? desktop humidifiers? Jesus?) it would be less enjoyable (see also: Reggaeton).

Someday, though, whether in Korean or translation, I’d like to read more Korean literature, which is why I’m including a bit about it here even though I’ve not read any. There are two notable historical records compiled in Classical Chinese during the Goryeo era: Historical Record of the Three Kingdoms (三國史記, 1146) and Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms (三國遺事, 1285). The earliest known work of Korean fiction is New stories from Mount Geumo (金鰲新話), written by 15th century author Kim Si-seup (김시습). During the Japanese occupation, Choe Nam-seon (최남선) and Yi Kwang-su (이광수) emerged as important authors. Some of the best known post-war authors include Gong Ji-young (공지영), Park Kyung-ni (박금이), and Hwang Sun-won (황순원).


TRANSIT IN KOREA

Korea is widely celebrated for its enviable transit network. People I know who’ve flown with Asiana or Korean Air have had nothing but good things to say. Lists of the world’s best urban rail networks are frequently topped by Seoul Metropolitan Subway. Like all the best subway systems, the Seoul Metro’s stops have vending machines, shops, public restrooms, and zero buskers performing the hits of Stone Temple Pilots. There are buses and taxis, of course, too — but for those who prefer trains (most of us), they handily connect to every major Korean city, and indeed, most major Korean cities are connected to one another by the ultra-modern Korea Train eXpress (KTX).

Like many visitors to Korea, our first stop was the coastal city of Incheon (인천), Korea’s third largest city and home to about 3 million residents. It’s Korea’s second busiest port and home to South Korea’s largest airport, Incheon International. It’s also home Incheon Bus Terminal and Incheon Subway, all of which make it a major transportation hub but as with many transportation hubs, it was not a place in which we lingered long. The airport is located on Yeongjong Island, and as we made our way to Seoul under a gray sky, I was somewhat surprised at how empty the countryside we crossed was, dominated by vast mudflats (it was low tide), green fields, and occasionally dotted with villages, farms, beaches, and the odd industrial looking buildings.


SEOUL

Seoul Metro
Inside a not-very-crowded Seoul subway

Seoul is both the capital and most populous city in South Korea. The Seoul Capital Area is home to about 25,600,000 people, nearly half of the country’s population — and about two million more than live in all of North Korea. It’s almost exactly the size of Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley and yet more than seven times as densely populated. Despite this — or perhaps because we’d previously been in Manila, the world’s most densely populated city — Seoul never to me felt especially crowded or congested except occasionally on the subway.

myeong dong
Myeong-dong (명동), a busy shopping area

I’m not entirely sure how this is achieved except that at any given hour of every day, a significant number of Koreans in transit must’ve been spread across sidewalks, buses, subways, and even automobiles. I suspect, too, that many were hidden from view inside the imposing residential superblocks of high-rises, which along with office buildings in many ways define the Seoul cityscape. 

Alley with lanterns
An alley with lanterns and restaurants

There were nearly always people about — only in Gangnam did I walk on mostly empty sidewalks and overly wide streets. From most streets, the pedestrian will notice the entrances to alleys and I love exploring alleys — especially when they’re not just liminal spaces in which dumpsters are stored and urinated next to. Most of the alleys are formed from the spaces between the seemingly chaotic clusters of Korea’s older, one and two story landscape. There are plenty of dead ends — but getting lost is part of the fun. 

seoul alley
A quiet alley near our lodging

Seoul is home to 25 districts: Dobong (도봉구), Dongdaemun (동대문구), Dongjak (동작구), Eunpyeong (은평구), Gangbuk (강북구), Gangdong (강동구), Gangnam (강남구), Gangseo (강서구), Geumcheon (금천구), Guro (구로구), Gwanak (관악구), Gwangjin (광진구), Jongno (종로구), Jung (중구), Jungnang (중랑구), Mapo (마포구), Nowon (노원구), Seocho (서초구), Seodaemun (서대문구), Seongbuk (성북구), Seongdong (성동구), Songpa (송파구), Yangcheon (양천구), Yeongdeungpo (영등포구), and Yongsan (용산구). 

Insa-dong
Insa-dong (인사동)
market and statue
Sejongno (세종로), looking north with statue of Sejong the Great in background
market
Sejongno looking south

We stayed in Jongno and most of our explorations were on the north side of the Han River. In fact, the only time we ventured south of the Han was when we went to Gangnam to see Linus’ Blanket. Gangnam, incidentally, translates to “south of the river” but the description of it as Seoul’s Beverly Hills seems equally accurate and handily sums up my relative disinterest in further exploring it. 

View of Seoul Tower
N Seoul Tower, built from 1969-1971

Though undeniably quite modern, Seoul’s history is surprisingly long. Many believe that Wiryeseong (위례성), which became the capital of the Baekje kingdom in 18BCE, was located inside modern-day Seoul. Seoul was made the capital of Korea in the 14th century, during which time the “Five Grand Palaces” (Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung, Gyeongbokgung, and Gyeonghuigung) were built.

Gyeongbokgung Palace
Gyeongbokgung Palace (closed when we tried to visit) 😦

That said, very little remains of early Seoul. Most of Seoul was leveled during the Korean War, though, which no doubt contributes to the city’s modern character — although there are clusters of historic homes and buildings here and there. Here’s a fascinating map of Seoul’s buildings, showing their age and decade of construction made by Hanbyul Jo.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza
Dongdaemun Design Plaza (동대문 디자인 플라자)
Jongno Tower
Jongno Tower (종로 타워)
Bosingak
Bosingak Belfry (보신각터)

Although Seoul is home to some 115 museums (including in subway stations) Seoul isn’t a “museum city” in the way that many European towns are, seemingly trapped in amber and home to no buildings taller than the town’s tiny, centuries-old church. As a former packrat who lost nearly all of his possessions to moves and actual rodents, I know a certain sense of liberation that comes with no longer feeling forced to preserve every receipt or “historic” building. Perhaps most of Seoul knows it too, and the willingness to move onward and upward is also evident in its well-known adaptive reuse projects. 

Cheonggyecheon puppet showCheonggyecheon

There’s Cheonggyecheon, a sort of managed stream and recreation space where once there was an elevated highway. We also walked along Gyeongui Line Forest Park, a linear park created when the Gyeongui Railway was moved underground.

Highrises
Residential ighrises
Gyeongui Line Forest Park.
Gyeongui Line Forest Park

More recently, the park-like Seoullo 7017 opened atop another disused, elevated highway — similar to Paris’s famed Promenade plantée but for whatever reason more often compared to New York’s derivative High Line, created eleven years later.

Seoullyo 7017 panoramaSeoullyo 7017 (2)Seoullo 70717 at night

We headed to Seoul’s “skygarden” toward the end of our visit and there once again met up with Colin and Jae for drinks and dinner.  Before they arrived, though, I sat on one of the benches and was joined by an apparently drunk old man. “아저씨” he said, and gestured to me and the tote slung over my shoulder like, I suppose, a purse. “,” I replied. He made a sweeping gesture of the city, said something I didn’t understand and gave a thumbs up. I gave a thumb’s up as a reply and then he pinched me. At this point, a police officer appeared and shot him a stern look. I got up and walked away but continued to watch the action unfold. The officer then turned his back to the old man, who appeared to slink away in shame. In a later incident, we saw a man accidentally drop a glass bottle on the pavement, which shattered. The woman with him, Colin informed us, admonished him to clean up his mess quickly, as there were foreigners present. 


GETTING TO BUSAN – KTX

Seoul Station
KTX trains in Seoul Station

Although we took a bus from Incheon to Seoul, to get from the latter to Busan, on the other side of the country, we took KTX from Seoul Station. The high-speed rail (or, as it’s known outside of the US, “rail”) service began operation in 2004 and its trains average 305 kilometers an hour (or 190 mph for metric-resistant readers in the US, Liberia, and Myanmar). Currently, there are fifteen lines in operation, two more are under construction, and two more are in the planning stages. The most popular route was the one which we took, between Seoul and Busan.

Seoul Station restaurants
Pink restaurant stalls inside Seoul Station

BUSAN

Busan at night
View of Busan at night, including the Gwangandaegyo Bridge (광안대교) and a marina

Busan (부산시) is South Korea’s second largest city — the metropolitan area is home to about 4.6 million people. It’s a port city — Korea’s busiest, in fact, and that port character permeates the city in the way that ports usually do. People in Busan seemed generally to be rougher, louder, more cheerful, and more expressive on the whole than their polite, reserved counterparts in Seoul — if in some cases less well dressed.

Isolation
The empty streets around our hotel

Though hardly underdeveloped, the character of Busan seemed served to underscore the preeminence of Seoul. It also reminded me more of Koreatown than did Seoul. That said, the neighborhood in which we stayed, Marine City (마린시티), was neither gritty nor bustling. We stayed in a hotel in Haeundae and although our accommodations were pretty luxurious and the view stunning, it felt rather isolated from the city proper.

Songdo pano
Panorama from the skybridge at Busan Songdo Beach (부산 송도해수욕장)

Whereas all of Seoul’s subway stations seem to have working escalators. Busan’s mostly have stairs. Whereas Busan is 162 square kilometers larger than Seoul (slightly smaller than Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley), and spread along the coast rather than organized roughly in a circle, the Busan Metro, has only six lines compared to Seoul’s 21. Whereas the smaller Seoul has 287 kilometers of subway, sprawling Busan’s metro covers only 168. Finally, whereas we explored Seoul entirely by foot or by train, in Busan we additionally relied on taxis and buses — in once instance traveling the wrong direction on the latter, traveling from Gamcheon Culture Village (부산 감천문화마을) to a bus station in Gamman-dong, instead of Songdo Beach, although when I explained my error to the driver, he seemed both amused and exasperated as he pushed us onto the bus traveling in the opposite direction.

Map of Gamcheon.jpg

Gamcheon pano.jpg
Panorama of Gamcheon

Gamcheon Culture Village was one of the main reasons that I wanted to visit Busan — that and for the simple fact that it’s Korea’s second largest city. The film, Mother (마더), was filmed around there — a film which I saw sitting unbeknownst at the time next to its director at LACMA

Gamcheon Culture Village is a bit like a Korean favela, albeit a hillside slum which has been successfully transformed in recent years into a veritable tourist attraction. When we visited, the main streets were all crawling with visitors and we joined them in popping into art spaces, shops, and posing for pictures. Interestingly, though, straying from the main roads into any of the many winding alleys and steep stair streets meant encountering more cats than people.

Stairway in Gamcheon
Looking down a stair street in Gamcheon
Busan cat
One of Gamcheon’s many cats along a quiet stair street

Busan is just 49.5 kilometers from Japan, but most of those I recognized as foreigners were clearly Russian. Nevertheless, English seemed to be the universal language used to communicate with non-Koreans. Also strange was the fact that an area near the city’s old Chinatown is where many Russians seemed to congregate — but is for some reason known as “Texas Street.”

 

Busan is currently divided into fifteen gu/districts and one gun/county: Buk, Busanjin, Dong, Dongnae, Gangseo, Geumjeong, Haeundae, Jung, Nam, Saha, Sasang, Seo, Suyeong, Yeongdo, Yeonje, and Gijiang. Low mountains hug the northern and western edges of the city, and parts of the city are rather hilly. “Blessed” with a subtropical climate, it is sometimes characterized as Korea’s “summer capital” and, as it never fell to North Korea, there was less need to rebuild although there are several newer commercially developed areas including Seomyeon, Gwangbok-don, Busan Das Hakap, and Centum City.

Map of Old Busan
“Old Memories of Busan” by wi, gilho

EATING IN BUSAN

Being a coastal city, people in Busan presumably eat more seafood than do their landlocked fellow Koreans. When regularly asked whether or not, as a vegetarian, I eat seafood. I’m obliged to clarify that I do eat sea vegetables but not sea animals, which inevitably leads to more confusion. I suppose it’s because we live on land that most of us dismiss thousands of edible aquatic plants as “seaweeds” while at the same time we have no problem regarding the flesh of fish, mollusks, crustaceans, echinoderms, and marine mammals as something other than meat. Arguments aside, I only spent three days in Busan and thus couldn’t draw any real conclusions about its food.

Night Market
The night market near Seomyeon Station

A little research, however, compels me to reveal what I’ve learned — that characteristic dishes of Busan include a variation of pajeon called dongnae pajeon (동래파전), a version of naengmyeon called milmyeon (밀면), and dwaeji gukbap (돼지국밥). I can’t remember all that we ate, or exactly what. Our first stop for food was a sort of night market near Seomyeon Station, I believe known as Seomyeon Food AlleyDue to its proximity to our hotel, more than anything else, we also ate at a chain, Dr. Robbin, and a nominally-Taiwanese restaurant, Red Door.


CONCLUSION

We probably could’ve just flown back to Los Angeles but we ended up crossing the country once again to fly out of Incheon. This time the train was packed and for most of the ride, I stood between cars, along with other passengers without assigned seats. A young woman fainted and everyone rushed to her aid, giving up a seat, buying her water and snacks, and thereafter routinely checking on her condition. I’ve thought about it a few times since I’ve been back, wondering whether or not people would rush to the aid of a stranger here. It’s given me a lot to think about so I’ll just leave it at that for now. Until next time!

Dokdo
Diorama of Liancourt Rocks (독도) in a subway station

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in generating advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other varieties of spam. Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from 1650 GalleryHe is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiTwitter, and Weibo.
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2 thoughts on “Where Fools Fear To Tread — A Snapshot of Korea (Seoul and Busan)

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