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The “Inspector Chen” Poems: A Look at the Man and His Verse

By Qiu Xiaolong

As fans of the “Inspector Chen” novels know, the Shanghai detective not only excels at solving crimes and navigating the complexities of politically tricky situations but also writes verse.  Now, thanks to Qiu Xiaolong, a poet and translator (as well as a writer of mysteries), a collection of Chen Cao’s poems has become available.  Here we provide an introduction to the volume penned Qiu, who unquestionably knows Chen and his poetry better than any other person on earth does—or ever could—due to the crucial role he has played in chronicling the versifying sleuth’s cases and writings.

— Jeff Wasserstrom

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Introduction to Poems of Inspector Chen

The poems in the present collection are compiled chronologically, to be more specific, in the order of their appearance in the novels in the Inspector Chen series. Less than half of the compositions in the collection appear in the novels, as fragments or whole poems, but even those published there in their entirety have been altered in small or substantial ways here.  Also worth noting is that some of the poems that appear in the novels could also have been written earlier, even in the days before Chen became an inspector.

Chen Cao started writing during his college years in the early eighties, a period sometimes described as a “golden” one for modern Chinese poetry.  After the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, a considerable number of young people burst confidently onto the literary scene. But Chen is more of an accidental poet. While majoring in English and American literature, he studied with the well-known poet and critic Bian Zhilin (1910-2000), and handed in several pieces written as a sort of homework. With Bian’s encouragement, Chen had them published in Poetry and other magazines. In the meantime, he started translating T. S. Eliot and other Western poets, which added to his visibility in the circle.  While doing research for his thesis on Eliot, he fell in love with a young librarian named Ling in Beijing Library. Some of his early poems turned out to be idealistic in spite of the modernist influence.

It did not take long for a different tone to be discernable in his lines. He parted with Ling after learning about her father being a powerful Politburo member.  He was concerned about his possible loss of independence in the event of such a family alliance. Then, after college graduation, he was assigned by the state to work at the Shanghai Police Bureau, an arrangement which was taken for granted in the then government policy: people were all supposed to work in the Party’s interests regardless of personal preference.

He worked as an unwilling cop, initially, translating police procedures, composing political newsletters, doing all sorts of odd jobs. His poems grew somber, leading him to be viewed as a “Chinese modernist,” a politically negative label. His membership in the Chinese Writers’ Association helped little.  Among his colleagues, he was seen as an unorthodox cop not dedicated to his real job.

But another surprising turn intervened. The Party’s new cadre promotion policy came with an unprecedented emphasis on a candidate’s educational credentials, thanks to which Chen was chosen to rise in the ranks. There was whispered speculation about his off-and-on contact with Ling, with some saying this contributed to his ascension. He was admitted into the Party, given real cases, and rose rapidly in bureau.  As the head of the Special Case Squad, Chen was fortunate enough to find a capable partner and close friend in Detective Yu.  In the early nineties, Chen was made the Chief Inspector of the Shanghai Police Bureau. From then on, his investigations are represented in the nine novels so far in the Inspector Chen series.

Notwithstanding the strenuous caseload, he finds the police work widening the range of the poetic subject matter for him; case inspire him to compose lines in response to the unimaginable cruelties, irrationalities, corruptions, insanities as revealed in his investigations. In A Loyal Character Dancer, he comes to the crucial clue through a poem in the background of the educated youth movement; in The Case of Two Cities, a Prufrock-like parody helps to throw light on his predicament as a Party member cop; in Red Mandarin Dress, studies of comparative poetics lends insight into a complicated case; in Don’t Cry, Tai Lake, examining the pollution of the nature as well as of the human nature prompts Chen into a sequence with a spatial structure; and so on. In each and every Inspector Chen novel, poems are produced or recollected.

Chen’s style is shaped by his police work too. In When Red Is Black, he comes across an incomplete manuscript of classical Chinese poetry translation by an intellectual murdered during the Cultural Revolution. To keep his pledge to the dead, Chen edits the manuscript, adding in some of his own translations, and has this published. Inspired by this process, he also introduces into his own poems a sort of dialogue with the Tang and Song masters, and this interplay between ancient and present-day China and sometimes shows up in snippets of old poems being inserted into his correspondence.

In his line of duty, Inspector Chen has to walk a lot, observing, canvassing, and thinking, around the city of Shanghai, particularly in the old sections of the shikumen houses and narrow lanes, coming upon not just clues that aid his investigations, but also sights that spur reflection in this man who is an independent-thinking intellectual as well as policeman.  He jots down fragments in a small notebook, like the Tang dynasty poet Li He who rode around on a donkey, dashing off the lines whenever obtainable, and dropping them into a cloth bag for composition later. That adds a touch of “found poetry” to Chen’s work.

In the meantime, poetry proves very meaningful for Inspector Chen in an unexpected way. It is not enough, he always believes, to merely focus on whodunit; it is imperative for him to try to reach a comprehensive understanding of the social, cultural and historical circumstances in which crimes and tragedies take place. With the Party’s interest put above everything else—above law—in the one-Party system,  he cannot but face the dire politics involved in investigations, staring long and frequently into the abyss (which in turn stares back). There is no way of solving completely the conflict between a conscientious cop and a Party cadre, but poetry-writing comes to provide a temporary escape from the mounting frustrations involved in confronting this problem. He compares the momentary break to the Song dynasty poet Su Shi’s metaphor about staying on the moon, much higher, but also much too cold to stay for long, though a necessary change for the moment.  A poetic perspective help keeps him from identifying himself with the authoritarian system, so that he may sees things from a much-needed distance.

His rise in the Party system brings about change in his experience as a poet. As an executive member of the Chinese Writers’ Association, he is often chosen as a Chinese representative to meet with western poets and writers, and on one occasions, to lead the Chinese Writers’ Delegation abroad, an experience chronicled in The Case of Two Cities.  Chen has a poetry collection published, but he soon discovers that it is done through a large amount paid by a Big Buck (influential figure) associate in secret, something done to curry his favor in the omnipresent cobweb of connections in China. It comes as a terrible blow to his conviction about the relevance of poetry in today’s society.

During the period, changes also occur in his personal life. Like in a proverb, however,  things go the wrong way eight or nine times out of ten, which cannot but somewhat inform his poems. But a follower of Eliot’s “impersonal theory,” he insists on separating the man who suffers from the poet who writes. In that, Chen also benefits from a tradition in the classical Chinese poetics, in which love poems are read as political allegories through the persona of a unrequited lover. For instance, “untitled poems” by Li Shangyin, one of Chen’s favorite Tang dynasty poets, are often interpreted like that, the way John Donne’s love poems are read for the metaphysical significance.

Along with the spectacular economic transformation in China, the literary scene too is changing dramatically. Not like in the early eighties, instead of being fashionable or politically meaningful with the authoritarian government persecution for any independent voice, a poet like Chen becomes marginalized. In the increasingly materialistic society, less and less readers have the time or interests for poetry. People no longer take it seriously. Even with occasional publishing still possible here and there, it’s more like decoration than anything else.

But with so much happening in the contemporary Chinese society, Inspector Chen has no choice but to continue investigating—and writing. He is becoming over time both a more cynical and disillusioned cop and a more cynical and disillusioned poet. He still remembers what his later father told him, quoting Confucius: “Knowing it’s impractical—almost impossible—to do it, you still have to do what you should do.”

 

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Bright Lies, Big City: Korean Authors and Seoul

By Charles Montgomery

The Korean relationship with big cities, particularly Seoul, mixes love with a strong undercurrent of hate. The love of Seoul is often clear: when I first got a job in Korea, which was in Daejeon, I called my best friend, who is Korean. Happy to hear that I got a job, he told the news to his wife, also Korean. “Where is the job?” he then asked. Woosong University in Daejeon, I replied, which he also dutifully relayed to his wife. In the background I could hear a small commotion, which was shortly interrupted by my best friend’s wife grabbing the phone from his hands and loudly yelling into it, “Why didn’t you get a job in Seoul? You won’t understand Korea unless you live in Seoul!”

Having come from Gwangju (another major city that, for historical reasons, I will talk about in my next piece), she regards Seoul with suspicion, if not contempt, but apparently still regards the capital the heart of Korea. Consider that, if you count the suburbs, Seoul contains nearly half of all South Korean citizens. Most high school students dream that they will someday attend one of the prestigious “SKY” universities: Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University, all in Seoul. Of the top ten universities in Korea, seven are in Seoul; of the top five, four are.

Most chaebol, the Korean version of the multinational, have headquarters in Seoul, and when the Korean government tried to move itself to Daejeon, the resulting foot-dragging and lamentation were so powerful that, in the end, only twelve of its offices made the move. Koreans even have a dismissive term for the land that is not in the city, sigol. The first literal meaning of this word is the countryside, but it more or less evokes the “sticks” or “backwoods.” The cities — and again, Seoul in particular — are also strongly associated with modernity, economic progress, and sophistication. Yet Korean modern literature has almost unanimously portrayed cities as uncaring dens of corruption, socially and/or economically destructive, and dangerous in every incarnation.

Yi Kwangsu, whom it is fair call one of the fathers of Korean modern literature, not only wrote extremely modern fiction for his time, but also wrote two extremely influential essays that defined the boundaries of modern literature. He was a proponent of modernization, education, and free love (as in, the ability to choose one’s own romantic partner). Yet in his fiction Seoul is nearly eviscerated, despite its apparent position as urban argument for all that he himself argued. Soil, his most entertaining novel, fully expresses his arguments and themes, strongly affirming the need for social and political change, but unexpectedly emphasizing the importance of the countryside in creating the modern world for Korea. Seoul, conversely, is portrayed as evil. In a close relationship to nature truth and beauty are found, and Seoul represents a turn toward a far worse, more Western world.

Its protagonist Heo Sung returns to his village and falls in love with a local girl whose down-to-earth virtues the story frequently contrasts with the corruption of the city girl whom he finally marries. He may admire the life of the villagers, but still has to return to return periodically to Seoul. The meaning of this is expressed in a concluding passage in the book: “When he got out at Seoul Station, he felt as if he had awakened from a dream. The swarms of fussy taxis, buses like frenzied women, toy-like rickshaws, the crowds of cold people who seemed to spread an iciness around them.” While Yi is a proponent of modernization, he astonishingly locates it in the rustic life of the countryside instead of the bballi-bbali hustle and bustle of Seoul, which only stands for the ruination of the Korean people.

Japanese colonialism and World War II turned Korea’s focus toward bigger and more immediate problems, and the overwhelmingly tragic reality of the Korean War and its bifurcated aftermath determined the course of literature in the 1950s and 60s. But with cessation of hostilities and the beginning of the regularization and modernization of the nation, the issue of the city returned — and the city was almost uniformly cast as the villain.

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Not all literature, of course, portrayed Seoul or other cities as malign. Sometimes it could be neutral, or even charming, as in Park Taewon’s A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist, a slice of Kubo’s life in downtown Seoul. In a very modern stream of consciousness, occasionally interspersed with forays back into memory, Kubo takes us on a tour of the city, traveling to Gwanghwamun (the area around the main gate of Geyongbokgung pakace), bars, teahouses, a train station, and even past a row of prostitutes.

Little black and white drawings by the well-known author (and Park’s friend) Yi Sang capture aspects of the vignettes Kubo relates, which make up of a story that lasts part of the day and late into the night. Kubo is looking for “joy” and companionship, though he sometimes shies away from it when it comes, and it doesn’t necessarily calm his sometimes agitated mind. As Kubo wanders, mostly as an observer, with poet friends or bargirls, he contemplates his own history, which leads the setting of his final, bargirl-surrounded semi-epiphany in which declares his rededication to writing and the happiness of others.

A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist presents Seoul as a kind of charming backdrop, but in general, the bleak view of the big city dominates. In Sung-ok Kim’s 1965 story “Seoul: 1964, Winter,” three men meet just as atoms might collide, and just as when atoms do collide, they create a short heat before careening apart. These characters are Kim, a 25-year-old-clerk; Ahn, a 25-year-old student; and an unfortunate 30-year-old salesman who has just received payment for selling the corpse of his just-dead wife to a hospital.

Seoul is a randomizer; it can bring people physically together, but it cannot have them bond. The three men never get past idle chitchat, even though the oldest is obviously traumatized and funding their time together. Whereas in the village long-standing relationships would have established the bonds, in Seoul there are no relationships, and therefore no bonds. At the end of the evening, the salesman does all but beg the two younger men to share lodgings with him, but they both opt for private rooms, a substantial breach of protocol on several levels that eventually leads to tragedy. Even though the three men have been brought together by circumstance, they do not have the tools connect.

Cho Se-hui’s The Dwarf (1978) continues along these lines. The work centers on the government-mandated redevelopment of Seoul’s Hangbuk-dong neighborhood during the 1970s. “Those who dwell in heaven have no occasion to concern themselves with hell,” notes a character in the book’s very first paragraph. “But since the five of us lived in hell, we dreamed of heaven… Each and every day was an ordeal. Our life was like a war. Everyday we lost a battle.” The eponymous dwarf is physically handicapped, only 117 centimeters tall and 32 kilograms in weight, and his family — father, mother, siblings Yeong-su, Yeong-ho, and Yeong-hui — stand for the entire Korea working class of the 1970s: oppressed, marginalized, and if need be discarded by the new economic structures of production, consumption, and distribution that the Korean state is avidly building.

The family’s house, built in an unauthorized area, is due to be razed. The government offers a “recompense” for the loss insufficient for the dwarf’s family (or any of the other families displaced) to rent new housing. His family sundered, the dwarf becomes ill and dies in a factory smokestack, most likely in an act of suicide. His children are forced to go to work in soul- as well as body-crushing factories, and the daughter eventually prostitutes herself in order to get the deed to the families’ property back. Every character is in some way reduced, and one gets literally whittled down. (It is worth noting that the kind of forced redevelopment portrayed in The Dwarf continues, albeit on a reduced scale, to this day.)

The Dwarf is an example of yeonjak soseol, a kind of novel form of intentionally connected series of short stories gathered together, as is Yang Kwija’s stunning, well-translated A Distant and Beautiful Place. Its stories were originally published in Korean literary journals between 1985 and 1987 under a rather less interesting title that translates to People of Wonmi-dong.

Situated in Bucheon, south of Seoul, Wonmi-dong sits in the shadow of Wonmi Mountain, and there those who have failed in Seoul and consequently been ejected from it struggle, mostly without notable success, to build lives for themselves and their families. Beginning with a rather obvious symbolic chipping of a prized piece of furniture, one story focuses on the small “chipping” price that such forced departure from Seoul extracts from family members,. It ends ambiguously, and also ominously, with the family safely in place in their new home but watched by an unknown observer who brings an air of creepiness to the conclusion.

No survey of Korean city literature in English would be complete without a consideration of Kyung-sook Shin’s worldwide success Please Look After Mom (2008), translated by Chi-young Kim. Telling the story of a family coming to the realization of what their mother has sacrificed and what she meant to them, this book is so anti-Seoul that NPR titled its review of the book “A Guilt Trip To The Big City.”

“Mom liked it when all of her children and grandchildren gathered and bustled about the house,” one character notes during a sometimes overly nostalgic and romantic reverie of what life was before Seoul intervened and split the family geographically (that old trope of Korean literature). “A few days before everyone came down, she would make fresh kimchi, go to the market to buy beef, and stock up on extra toothpaste and toothbrushes. She pressed sesame oil and roasted and ground sesame and perilla seeds, so she could present her children with a jar of each as they left. As she waited for the family to arrive, your mom would be visibly animated, her words and her gestures revealing her pride when she talked to neighbors or acquaintances.”

Seoul is presented as a threat to this family unity: “At some point, the children’s trips to Chongup became less frequent, and Mom and Father started to come to Seoul more often. And then you began to celebrate each of their birthdays by going out for dinner. That was easier. Then Mom even suggested, ‘Let’s celebrate my birthday on your father’s.’” And “eventually, quietly, Mom’s actual birthday was bypassed.” The family’s sundering occurs at Seoul Station: “Mom and Father rushed toward the subway that had just arrived. Father got on, and when he looked behind him, Mom wasn’t there… Mom was pulled away from Father in the crowd, and the subway left as she tried to get her bearings.”

When the daughter returns to find her mother, she is similarly buffeted: “So many people go by, brushing your shoulders, as you make your way to the spot where Mom was last seen. You look down at your watch. Three o’clock. The same time Mom was left behind. People shove past you as you stand on the platform where Mom was wrenched from Father’s grasp. Not a single person apologizes to you. People would have pushed by like that as your mom stood there, not knowing what to do.” In breaking all traditional social relationships, Seoul has broken the family as well, both  physically and psychologically.

Hwang Jung-Eun’s Kong’s Garden (2013), translated by Jeon Seung-hee, offers a glimpse of the experience of the postmodern city for the worker. In this future, the single unnamed female narrator never becomes anything more than that. Though education has historically meant everything in Korea, she comes to realize that this is not true. The recognition of this fact does not surprise her at all: when the narrator does realize that she has been nothing but a worker all her life, in a world of similarly little people working and dying, she displays no particular reaction beyond acceptance.

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This equanimity is particularly dystopian in that this narrator also physically loses her mother during the events of the book. She metaphorically moves from a land of light, a bookstore gloriously lit with 200 light bulbs, to a dingy sub-basement that might be shrinking due to mold, but which also seems to have a mysterious tunnel leading to an even deeper, darker, room. That sub-basement, it is strongly suggested, is tied by another tunnel to an even deeper world, one from which a stench-laden breeze occasionally wafts out. Beneath the darkness of the city lies an even darker underworld.

A larger story draws the narrator in when she refuses to sell cigarettes to Jinju, a young woman in the company of two intimidating men. The young woman immediately goes missing, and it is only this tragedy that makes the narrator important at all, even as it minimizes her. As the police question her about her final interaction with the vanished girl, the narrator realizes that “the more important the questions were, the more often I told them I didn’t know.”

With life little more than a long, boring economic calculation, the narrator’s father plans to die when he feels himself an economic burden. She herself, when not idly searching the internet for evidence of the corpse of the missing Jinju, finds herself — with her romantic options, economic opportunities, and number of relatives dwindling away — agreeing with George Orwell’s suggestion that, in such circumstances, you should “just die poor and with anyone,” an ending to which the book seems to be drawing her.

Another dystopian view, this one of what would happen in Seoul if the continuing trends of family decay and income separation were taken to their full extremes, appears in Cheon Myeong-kwan’s Homecoming (2014), translated by Jeon Miseli. The book opens with everyone north of the Han River living as pathetic wards of the state, with a strong market in human organ trafficking a partial result. These so-called “blankets” wait in line to submissively accept abuse and vouchers, which they need for food and other necessities. On the other side of the river live the ten percent of the population who are employed, clasped to the bosoms of conglomerates.

One blanket, the father of a young boy whose mother left home years ago, is indirectly approached about his half-Korean child. Adopted children have become myeongpum, or valuable goods, with a child who appears in good health at a premium. The father attempts to buy drugs for his asthmatic son, but the prices have gone up because “some of the rich are up to tricks,” buying up steroids because of their usefulness against diseases of aging. Driven to despair, the father decides he must sell his son. As a goodbye, he dressed up, puts on a “badge” (proof of being an office worker, which he has luckily found) and goes out for one last grand dinner with his son so they can share at least one last happy memory.

When the bill comes and the father cannot pay, it is suddenly taken care of for by an old man at sitting the bar. The ending, either a surprise or a deus ex machina depending on the reader’s outlook, allows Cheon’s final point: this is the Korean tendency to insist on long work hours taken to its ultimately absurd extreme. “I haven’t been able to come home because I haven’t finished my work yet,” says one character who hasn’t been home in many years. In this vision of Seoul, even the “successful” are not winning.

Korean modern literature has, in some ways, always been reactive, focusing directly on real issues of its era, and so serious literati might naturally choose to take on Seoul, attacking the very concept of the big city. For while Seoul, on one hand, symbolizes the tremendous prosperity Korea has attained, also symbolizes the destruction of the previous social systems that had seen Korean society through times of extreme hardship.

Thus, in the works discussed here, the authors to some extent assume the successes of the city, proceeding from that point on to comment on the failures that have resulted. This means that Korean literature asks particularly strong questions about modernization, economic progress, commodification, and even the creation and status of the financially unstable “precariat” class — which means these books should hold great interest to readers everywhere as the same economic and social trends that have swept over Seoul in last century sweep over us, and will continue to sweep away for the foreseeable future.

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.

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Outliving Dad

By Eric Lax

When my father died, in 1976, he had lived his allotted three score and ten years, plus two more. Two years and two months more to the day, to be precise. Six months before his death he looked like he would go on for decades. Then that February, a persistent cough led to the discovery of an enveloping mass around his lungs that was impossible to resect. On a hot August afternoon he rolled over to greet me when I walked into his hospital room and a minute later was dead in my arms.

Forty years later I still think of him many times a day: Wanting to have had more than 32 years with him; wishing he could have known the wonderful woman I married six years later and our two sterling sons; missing a conversation with advice as well as one of the long groaner jokes he loved to tell and told so well. And these days, I think of something else about him. On August 1, assuming that between now and then the bus with my name on it doesn’t stop to pick me up, I will have outlived him.

He was 40 when I was born and I saw it was not a drawback to have a father older than most, and so I was unconcerned that I was 42 and 45 when Simon and John were born. He taught me to love openly by telling me every day that he loved me, and he consistently demonstrated the bedrock importance of respecting others. Apart from the teenage periods when I felt he was completely clueless (I was amazed by how smart he got between my 17th and 18th birthdays), I hoped to be a lot like him and I measure myself and my abilities as a father and as a person against his, hoping to match them. For all those years he was ahead of me but soon he will be behind me. I’ll be the older with no more measurements against what he did at my then-current age.

He seemed immortal when I was a boy (for that matter, I thought I was immortal), and even for a while as the cancer consumed him it still seemed impossible that he would die, until suddenly it didn’t. By chance one day after the diagnosis, I reunited with a close friend since childhood on the M5 bus going down Fifth Avenue, a woman my father adored and who adored him as well, whom I had not seen in a couple of years. She invited me to dinner with her partner, a doctor. Over pasta and his exquisite red sauce, my friend and I reminisced about my father, all the while introducing him to someone new. We had drinks. We laughed a lot. Then midway through a sentence that I began in a light tone, tears erupted. “I don’t want him to die!” I wailed, and for the next 5 minutes I bawled and sniffled, unable to say more.

In the months after the surgery, optimism or disappointment—depending on the scans and X-rays—followed my father’s visits to the oncologist. In that time, we talked in bursts about our lives, catching up and filling in, saying what we wanted to say. I was with him the day after an appointment in mid-August. He asked me to answer the phone because his voice was weak from the chemotherapy. It was the doctor. His report was brief: the cancer had spread to the bones and there was nothing left to hope for, except an easy death. I struggled to keep tears at bay as I repeated the news to Dad. I told him I loved him very much and could not have had a better father. In an instant we had flipped roles; I was the father, offering succor. Then we flipped back. He was equally loving in reply but also remarkably calm, which stilled me. He was uncomplaining about his fate, I think in part because he had said some days before that life with the pain he felt wasn’t worth living, but also because, as an Episcopal priest with a deep understanding of and compassion for human frailty, he possessed abiding faith that there was something better ahead. He asked me to look out for my mother, and then, preferring pleasure to sorrow, suggested we get a beer and go outside to sit on a palisade overlooking the Pacific. I keep a picture in my office of him taken that afternoon, a broad smile on his face, a glass raised in salute. Two weeks later he was gone.

It is often said that one of the greatest lessons our parents can give us is how to die, and his grace carried to the end, as did my mother’s 20 years later through a torturous 2-year-long decline from ALS. Of course grace is something we hope to pass on to our kids in many ways, starting with how to live a life well. My sons are 26 and 29. I have not wondered much if or how they measure themselves against me or whether something I have done is a marker for them. (Although thinking on this, I am pretty sure that an evening involving a more than adequate sufficiency of Mai Tais at Trader Vic’s followed by jayrunning across a busy street is an experience they have resolved not to repeat with their teenage children.)

Many of us live in the shadow of our father. For some that shadow is an oppressive cloak that prevents us from either becoming or being seen for our own self. My father cast a long shadow but it at once sheltered me and offered a safe place to grow. His pride in any accomplishment I had was evident, even something as prosaic as growing taller than him. “A block off the old chip,” he would say. He looked a bit like the early film comedian Stan Laurel while my mother more resembled Ingrid Bergman. Sometimes he would add, “He has his mother’s looks, because I still have mine.” And I still have all he taught me as company for the mapless road ahead.

 

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Jason Y. Ng’s Street-Level View of Hong Kong’s Year of Umbrellas

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

Before my visit to Hong Kong in mid-October 2014, I was worried. The Occupy Movement was two weeks old and I’d booked a room at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, site of the Xinhua News Agency Headquarters and de facto PRC embassy before the 1997 Handover. It was a building rich in somber history, where mainland officials had worked during the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 and Tiananmen protests five years later. The Cosmopolitan is located in front of a large cemetery, and to get to the rest of Hong Kong you need to take a tram or bus. But with the Occupy Movement in nearby Causeway Bay and Admiralty, the trams weren’t running and the buses were re-routed.  When I arrived, I noticed the irony of banners near the hotel celebrating the 65th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, which occurred just days after students in Hong Kong shut down major thoroughfares around government headquarters in protest. I had a more immediate concern, however, than politics: How would my husband and I get to my three book events without public transportation?

We ended up walking to Causeway Bay’s MTR station for some trips and leaving an hour earlier than usual when traveling by cab for others. It wasn’t a big deal for four days. But what surprised me most about the Umbrella Movement was that my local friends — in their 40s,50s, and 60s — all seemed fine with the disruption. They encouraged us to visit Occupy and see the tent city on what was once the main artery of Hong Kong Island.

This was not the Hong Kong I knew in the 1990s when I was in college and grad school, and later an editor in academic publishing. Back then very few Hong Kong residents cared about politics, my field of study. In fact, not a few acquaintances declared my studies a waste of time. If one was going to give up precious work time to earn an advanced degree, they reasoned, it should be in business or finance.  Protests weren’t unheard of in Hong Kong then. But the annual June 4 vigils in Victoria Park dropped from 150,000 people in 1990 (the first anniversary of the massacre, and my first year in Hong Kong) to 35,000 in 1995. I didn’t know anyone who went to the protests, or even talked much about them.

Two decades later, I found the atmosphere in Hong Kong drastically changed, as had the politics and Hong Kong’s relationship with China. I knew that students and other activists had taken to the streets in support of universal suffrage. But it wasn’t until I read Jason Y. Ng’s new book, Umbrellas in Bloom: Hong Kong’s Occupy Movement Uncovered (Blacksmith Books, 2016), which was recently published in Hong Kong and is the first significant English language book on the 2014 movement, that I fully grasped all that is now at stake.

During the protests, Jeff Wasserstrom reported on the events for the Los Angeles Review of Books. He also revisited the movement in a commentary, written during a return visit to Hong Kong one year on, in which he reflected on what a difference the intervening 12 months had made.  He described a talk about the protest he gave at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival: “The intensity of the crowd’s interest was palpable — behind and informing all the questions and comments I received, including ones that challenged rather than supported my assertions, I sensed a genuine desire to think through the topic profoundly, and in a way that mattered.”

That also describes Ng’s book — thinking through the topic profoundly and in ways that mattered. Ng was a participant-observer. Although the Umbrella Movement is generally associated with student protesters, older activists, including legislators and clergymen, were also instrumental in starting it. Ng spent a lot of time in Admiralty, site of the tent city. He provided free homework assistance in English, essay writing, and law; he slept on the street and then returned to his law office during the day; his first-hand experiences of the Umbrella Movement bring his book’s pages to life.

Ng starts with a play-by-play account of September 28, 2014, when Occupy Central began. But he quickly moves into Hong Kong Politics 101, going back to the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, the contract that set into motion Hong Kong’s handover to China on July 1, 1997. The political system in Hong Kong is odd, according to Ng, and I would agree. Of the 6.5 million residents at the time of the Handover, only 800+ people could vote for the newly created chief executive of Hong Kong, the successor to the old London-appointed Governors of the colonial system. Those numbers have both increased over the years: now Hong Kong has 7.2 million people, yet a mere 1200 people and groups elect the chief executive.

As Ng explains, the reason the Umbrella Movement blossomed was because in 2007 Beijing had promised Hong Kong residents that they would be able to choose their chief executive by direct elections in 2017 and that representatives in the Legislative Council, or LegCo, would be directly elected in 2020. But Beijing threw a curveball on August 31, 2014, issuing an edict on electoral reform stipulating that the central government would form a Nominating Committee that would, according to Ng, “nominate two to three candidates for the office of Chief Executive in accordance with democratic procedures. Each candidate must have the endorsement of more than half of all the members of the Nominating Committee…” So much for free elections: the candidates selected would surely be those most amenable to working with Beijing. It was this “8/31 Framework” that brought out student protesters a couple weeks later. Before a month had passed, the Umbrella Movement was paralyzing the central district, generating admiring headlines in the international press, and being denounced by Beijing as an illegitimate struggle creating “chaos” that was tarnishing Hong Kong’s reputation and bad for business.

Throughout his book, Ng writes about the different student groups involved, including both university and high school groups, and how there was never one single leader who could unify the protesters. (Joshua Wong, who has received the lion’s share of attention in the Western press, was one leader among many.) The author does a great job of outlining the structure of these groups and their leaders, and in a way that reads like a thriller.

The last part of the book includes an analysis of what went wrong, what went right, and what’s to come. The students and other activists Ng met were dedicated at first, but as time passed and the protesters and public opinion started to change, the lack of leadership left the struggle without a chance for the kind of success seen in places like Tunisia several years earlier, where protests brought changes in governing structures.

Politically, Hong Kong is unique, Ng stresses. It’s not a city-state like Singapore, and, he claims, only a tiny minority would wish it to become that. It’s also not like other big PRC cities: Britain and the Beijing agreed in the Joint Declaration that it could retain a great deal of autonomy for 50 years after the Handover, or until 2047. Hong Kong has its own currency, its own laws and courts, and its own regional government. Ng writes that the Basic Law, which protects these rights in Hong Kong until 2047, is vague when it comes to direct elections. It mentions one person, one vote, but doesn’t spell out how that’s to happen.

The year and a few months since the streets of Hong Kong were cleared have seen troubling incidents occur. A growing fringe element has turned to violence — against the government and mainland shoppers — although it receives very little public support. Five Hong Kong Chinese booksellers were abducted and detained in China at the end of last year; two held overseas passports at the time of their disappearance. The government has also made moves to repress discussion of the Umbrella Movement. When I contacted Ng, he told me that every one of the Chinese books published about the Umbrella Movement has been pulled from Hong Kong bookstore shelves — not just the ones that present the struggle favorably, they are not even stocking books that criticize it. “It is as if the Movement had never happened,” says Ng.

His publisher, Pete Spurrier of Blacksmith Books, had a difficult time securing a printer for Umbrellas, he says. He finally found a local one that would cooperate after two — one on the mainland, one in Hong Kong — had turned him down. But Spurrier never thought about withdrawing publication of Umbrellas in Bloom, which is the third book in a series of Hong Kong books by Ng.  “Mainland authorities won’t worry too much about English-language books ‘spiritually polluting’ China,” Spurrier wrote in an email to me . “But still, I strongly feel that freedoms only exist while people continue to exercise them. We have freedom of speech and freedom of publication in Hong Kong, but the moment we feel too scared to exercise them, then they are gone. So we have to carry on publishing.”

At the end of his book, Ng sums up what I’d been thinking in Hong Kong during the Movement. People born after the 1980s are engaged in civic life more than ever before, with record numbers of registered voters. They are forming political parties and running for public office. As Ng writes toward the conclusion, “the seed planted by the Umbrella Movement…has taken hold.” The next Chief Executive election will be held next year, and still only 1200 people and organizations can vote. I will be interested in seeing what politically engaged Hong Kong youths do in the coming year, and know that, whatever tack they take, I can count on Ng, an astute tracker of local politics, to weigh in insightfully on their actions in essays and perhaps even in an epilogue to a second edition of Umbrellas in Bloom.

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Korea, Where Book Podcasts Draw Standing-Room-Only Crowds

By Colin Marshall 

If you want a seat, you’ve got to get there early — really early. Even then, plenty of others will have long since set themselves up in the prime spots, close to the action with food, drink, and reading material close at hand. I myself usually only manage to find a single chair in the back of the room when I arrive, about two hours ahead of showtime as always. I’m glad to get it, though, since I’ll stay there for the next six hours. Is this a concert by a big-name band? Some sort of political rally? Will they be giving away money? No, not quite — it’s a book podcast.

Since 2012, each weekly episode of Lee Dong-jin’s Red Book Room (이동진의 빨간책방) has offered  from an hour and a half to over three hours of segments including an in-depth discussion of a particular book between the show’s regular panelists, conversations with the authors themselves, readings of prose as well as poetry, and an opening monologue by the host followed by a short chat about the books he’s recently bought. That host, the titular Lee Dong-jin, first made his name as a film critic and remains well known as one, though over the years, and with increasing fame, he’s assumed the role of a prolific and high-profile all-around cultural critic, the likes of which America hasn’t had for a while now.

Lee’s self-confessed workaholism (a term that has settled, transliterated, into the Korean language) makes for certain times when you can’t go long without seeing him on television, hearing him on the radio, or reading him in print. As a member the highly culturally influential Korean generation born in the 1960s — Korea’s Baby Boomers, in a sense — he came of age in the era of mass media and seems to have transitioned without a hitch to the era of niche media, in part by keeping one foot in the old while setting the other in the new, bringing his fans along with him.

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Or at least it seems like they all show up on the nights that Red Book Room does its live tapings, even thought the announcement on the show’s Facebook page happens only a few days beforehand. They show up not to Lee’s basement, nor to the kind of theater where you’d go to watch a taping of, say, A Prairie Home Companion. They come to the Red Book Café (빨간책다방), a hiply designed three-story coffee shop in Seoul’s also-currently-hip neighborhood of Hapjeong (I walk back home through some truly lively streets afterward when the show happens on Friday nights) filled with books available to browse or buy, the selection curated by Lee himself.

In America, this might seem like a pretty unconventional operation, but in Korea, each of its aspects has a precedent. The concept of the “book café,” whether that means a coffee shop lined with shelves of books for sale or just to read with your americano, has so proliferated that even Maxim, Korea’s biggest manufacturer of traditional pre-sweetened instant coffee (also known as 다방커피, or “café coffee”), has opened a book café of their own, the Maxim Mocha Library. And opening a branded coffee shop has, in Korea, looked like a potentially viable extension of the podcasting business model for years now. Even Talk to Me in Korean, the educational podcast that helped me learn Korean, has opened a café that hosts game nights, language exchanges and other such activities.

But the Red Book Café goes a step further by having built into its third floor a full-fledged, wood-paneled recording studio. Through its window (or through the monitor mounted beside it, though it never shows anything but a feed of the host’s visage) the audience — at their tables, in their chairs, and often many, by necessity, standing — eagerly watches the book talk between whichever guest author might show up that night (Kim Young-ha, about whose own book podcast I’ve written here, has made an appearance), regular interlocutors like novelist Kim Jung-hyuk and film journalist Lee Da-hye, and of course, Lee Dong-jin himself, always wearing his trademark red glasses, who enters through a door labeled — get it? — “DJDJ BOOTH.”

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The exact opposite of the stereotypical basement podcast enterprise, both the Red Book Café and Red Book Room itself are productions of the publisher Wisdom House, though the former, with its diversely stocked shelves, hardly feels like a company store. The podcast, apart from a segment with the publisher’s editors, by no means focuses on Wisdom House books alone: Lee and company mix it up with not only books from a variety of publishers, but in a variety of genres both fictional and nonfictional, on a variety of subjects, and originally from a variety of countries.

Some of the Western books discussed on the show include big bestsellers like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point; Andy Weir’s The Martian, basis of the recent Ridley Scott movie; the print counterpart of the The Beatles Anthology; John Williams’ 1965 campus novel Stoner, which even in the West didn’t receive wide acclaim until the 2000s; and books even more popular in Korean than they were in English, like Bill Bryson’s Neither Here nor There, or much more so Hermann Hesse’s Demian, which nearly every Korean alive seems to have read.

Why spend your entire late afternoon and early evening in a book café when you could just listen to the episode on your iPod in a few days? Some of the appeal has to do with actually seeing who the podcast’s other fans are, though Red Book Room‘s nearly all-female crowd, ranging from their early twenties through middle age, aligns with what you hear about the demographics of book sales everywhere. But there’s interaction as well: at the end of each session, after Lee has recited the closing poem, one of his producers unlocks the mailbox (red, of course) mounted to the wall, pulls out the pile of notes listeners have written throughout the show, and delivers them to Lee to read aloud and respond to in an informal and often laughter-filled Q&A (some of whose jokes I get, and some I don’t).

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When that wraps up around 9 or 10 p.m, Lee emerges from the DJDJ booth with a stack of various books, all up for grabs to members of the audience, first dibs to those whose notes he’d read that night. One lucky attendee, their note chosen by Lee at random out of a shuffle, will get to take home any volume they like from the Red Book Café’s shelves. I’ve often browsed those shelves while awaiting my cappuccino, wondering which book I would pick, though in all the months I’ve been coming to Red Book Room‘s live tapings — and they’ve become a semi-regular event in my life to which I always look forward — I’ve never dropped a single message into the mailbox, let alone had one win me a book of my choice.

I’ll do it, I really will, but for now I don’t want to draw any more attention to myself than I do by my very presence, not just as one of the few men in the room, but always as the sole visible Westerner. One night, Lee read out a question a fan had e-mailed in, asking if the show had any foreign listeners, “like Chinese people or Japanese people.” Half the heads in the audience turned toward me, but I just shrugged. Before the taping I last attended, as the studio got ready to light up its “ON AIR” sign, one of the café’s aproned employees approached me. “Excuse me,” she said in halting English as more people came up the stairs to watch and those everyone already around us scooted their chairs closer to the studio window, “this floor closes at six.” When I responded, in Korean, that I thought there was a podcast going on, she backed away apologetically, but clearly still I’ve got a long way to go before I become a regular.

(exterior image source: G.G. Focus)

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

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‘Ten Years’ — More than Just a Lesson in Despair

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

The more that I heard about the Hong Kong independent film Ten Years during the first months of this year, the more certain I became that I would need to see it. The film was made on a tiny budget, not just a single movie, but five films-within-a-film, each by a different director, offering a multi-sided dystopian take on what Hong Kong would or at least might be like a decade from now. Mainland censors were so worried that Ten Years would win a prize at the Hong Kong film awards — as indeed it did — that they decided to prevent the ceremony from being streamed into the mainland. And I learned that there were vignettes in the film that touched on the history of Hong Kong social movements, as well as brought in tactics associated with protest in other parts of the People’s Republic of China.

As someone who has been concerned with censorship and demonstrations throughout his career, who has often written about dystopian works (albeit more often novels than films), and who has written several pieces in recent years on inspiring and distressing Hong Kong events, how could I resist feeling duty-bound to see this?

I worried, though, that dutiful would be precisely the word for what I might feel while watching Ten Years. When I see a film, I like it to appeal to the cinema lover as well as the scholar in me, and I wasn’t sure this one would do both. So, once I got a copy of the film loaded onto my computer, I found it hard to work up the enthusiasm to actually start playing it, fearing that seeing it would not just be depressing but would seem like a chore. Thankfully, though, I was ultimately proved wrong.

This didn’t happen immediately. The first two section of the film, while having their merits, both felt a bit didactic. The opening segment, about an orchestrated act of violence designed to allow stringent security measures to be introduced, was well done but predictable. The second part, meanwhile, which offered a more surreal look at the disappearance of local culture, felt too self-consciously symbol-laden.

Then, though, the third segment began and I was won over completely. It focuses on the tribulations of a Cantonese-speaking taxi driver in a Mandarin-dominated Hong Kong to come, in which mastery of the language of power separates haves from have-nots as clearly as ethnicity and race can in other sorts of colonial or quasi-colonial settings. Bullied and finding it increasingly difficult to ply his trade, the lead character becomes a kind of 21st-century counterpart to the rickshaw puller in Lao She’s classic Camel Xiangzi. But the director steers clear of didacticism, skillfully using nice touches of intergenerational drama (youth are shown having none of the trouble switching into Mandarin that plagues their elders) and sly bits of dark humor (for example, when the driver’s GPS stubbornly refuses to recognize the addresses he gives it, due to his accent and use of the local patois) to keep us engaged with the story and caring about the character.

I made it through the first three segments on an early May domestic plane flight, but only watched the rest of Ten Years very recently. This was because, though I had initially planned to finish it the day after I had watched the first parts, I got an email from a friend right as I landed, in which she told me that there would be a fundraising screening of the film in London late in May when we would both be in the city, and suggesting we go to that. I liked the idea of watching the rest of the film, which has not been released widely yet, on a big screen, so decided to wait to see whether the fourth and fifth parts were more like the first and second segment or the more engaging third one.

As it turned out, the London screening was cancelled, and due to how filled my time in England was with events and research, I didn’t get around to seeing those last two segments until my plane ride back to California. This timing, as it turned out, was eerily appropriate. I left England on June 3 and began watching the final parts of Ten Years right around the point, Beijing time, when June 4, the date associated with the 1989 massacre, was beginning, and each of the last two parts provided appropriate food for thought during the passing of this highly charged anniversary.

The fourth segment, the most discussed and most controversial part of the film, deals with an act of self-immolation, suggesting that Hong Kong’s predicament may become more and more like that of Tibet. One thing that activists in this segment set in the middle of the next decade ponder when discussing self-immolation is whether previous Hong Kong struggles, such as those of these last few years, would have somehow been more effective and powerful if one or more participants in them had died.

The final segment, another very effective one, also made appropriate June 4th viewing, but it would have been even more apt to have seen it a couple of weeks earlier. This is because it includes youth brigades who bear a strong resemblance to the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution, an event whose fiftieth anniversary was marked in mid-May. The difference between the youthful militants of this imagined future as opposed to the Red Guards of history is that, while the latter directed their iconoclastic energy not at things dubbed “bourgeois” or “feudal,” the former are shown lashing out against all that is seen as dangerously “local,” with a seller of carefully grown and healthful “local eggs” becoming a particular target of abuse.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the centrality of eggs in this segment until, after landing, I did some additional reading around about the film on the web and came to a smart review of it that Maggie Lee wrote for Variety. The “short’s egg motif,” she claims, “pays homage to Haruki Murakami’s manifesto about the egg that breaks against the high wall — a metaphor for the individual’s clash with the system.” Lee’s interpretation is open to debate, of course, but it struck me immediately as compelling, in part because in early June, I always think of a man standing his ground before a line of tanks, and Murakami’s line — “Between a high solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg” — captures so evocatively one reason that this Tiananmen image remains so enduringly powerful.

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“When We Were Kings”

By Peter Rainer

Excerpt from Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era (Santa Monica Press 2013).

IN NORMAN MAILER’S The Fight, his great book on the Muhammad Ali/George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle,” he begins by writing of Ali, “There is always the shock in seeing him again. Not live as in television but standing before you, looking his best. Then the World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautful man, and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded again of their lack of worth.”

This may sound like hyperbole but Mailer — like Ali — lives in the region where hyperbole can be transcendent. (It can also be bull). Mailer’s response to Ali in this passage is also our response to seeing him in When We Were Kings, Leon Gast’s amazing documentary about the 1974 Zaire fight and the events surrounding it. The film is unabashed hero-worship, but Ali is so clearly a hero here that we don’t feel swept away by gush. And because of what Ali has become — and George Foreman, too, with his newfound cuddliness — the movie is doubly poignant now. The documentary is, in essence, not much more than a record of what happened in Zaire, but it has been assembled with real feeling for the historical moment. It’s literally a blast from the past.

It’s also something of a miracle because it almost didn’t get made. Gast, who had already directed documentaries about the Hell’s Angels and the Grateful Dead, was initially hired to film the musical festivities surrounding the fight. He had in mind an African-American Woodstock complete with James Brown, B. B. King, the Jazz Crusaders, Bill Withers, the Spinners. Then, four days before the fight was scheduled, a cut to Foreman’s eye during a sparring session postponed the match for six weeks. Gast ended up training his cameras on Ali for much of that time, and what he came up with is the core of this movie.

It took almost 23 years to assemble. Returning broke from Zaire with 300,000 feet of celluloid — about a hundred hours — Gast spent the next 15 years processing portions of the film as he was able to pay for it. After finally untangling legal rights and acquiring completion funds, Gast and his newfound partner, David Sonenberg, an influential music talent manager, made the decision to insert additional fight footage and archival clips. They brought in Taylor Hackford to shoot and edit into the film look-back interviews with, among others, Mailer and George Plimpton and Ali biographer Thomas Hauser.

Gast includes snatches of the musicians doing their thing, but for the most part When We Were Kings is a musical in form far more than in content. It’s shaped like a musical — an opera, really — with arias of exhortation, massed choruses, and pomp. Gast knows how to syncopate the story; he gives it a pulse that finally makes it seem like the whole cavalcade of hype and holler is once again upon us.

Of course, we know how it all turned out: Ali, game but somewhat past his prime, stunned the world by knocking out the man most believed would demolish him. Gast builds our knowledge of the fight’s outcome into the film’s structure; there’s a retrospective thrill in seeing how hot the tumult got. It’s easy to forget now how geniune was the fear that Ali might be killed in the ring.

It’s the fear that underscores everything we see — the interviews with the sports commentators and trainers and fight organizers, with Ali’s giddy multitudinous African fans and even a worrywart Howard Cosell, who hyperbolizes about his concerns for Ali’s safety. Mailer makes the point during an interview that Ali must have recognized in his most private moments that Foreman could pulverize him, and the perception lends an extra dimension to Ali’s almost hysterical rants again his challenger. He takes up the African cry Ali boma ye — which means “Ali, kill him” — and is so rapturously insistent in leading the charge that the effect is frightening. It’s as if Ali were exorcising his own horrors right before our eyes.

Ali was attuned in a way Foreman wasn’t to the political momentousness of the event. “From slave ship to championship” was how he billed the fight, and his back-to-Africa oratory resonated with the Zaireans, who revered him not so much because he was a great fighter but because he stood up to the American government and refused induction into the Vietnam War. “No Vietcong ever called me nigger” was his mantra in all those years, and it made him a champion’s champion for people who sized up the racist implications of that war.

Ali had to demonize Foreman in the eyes of Africans; it was his standard operating procedure to run down his opponents before any fight. But Ali was faced with a problem in Zaire: In a match between two great black boxers in the “homeland,” how do you play up the racial angle? Ali was in fact much lighter-skinned that Foreman, but he castigates him as, in effect, white. “He’s in my country,” Ali says of Foreman, who had the misfortune to arrive in Zaire with his German shepherd — the very dog used by the Belgians to police the Congo.

Throughout When We Were Kings Ali comes on like — in Gast’s words — the Original Rapper. He successfully bleaches Foreman with his patter; he milks the press, the trainers, the camera crew. He says, “I’m not fighting for me, I’m fighting for black people who have no future.” Ali is not only a boxer of genius, he’s a politician of genius. I remembered being baffled by how wooden he was playing himself in “The Greatest.” But Ali — who has as much charisma as any movie star who ever lived — can come alive only by his own wit and instinct. To play a role in a movie, even if the role is himself, would mummify his genie.

When Ali lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta and we saw up close the effects of his Parkinson’s disease, the press covered the moment as if it were an unalloyed triumph. The commentators didn’t allow for our mixed emotions, our rage even, for what Ali had become — possibly owing in large measure to his having taken so many blows to the head from such fighters as George Foreman while we cheered him on. Ali is a hero still, but in a more complicated way. His presence is both an inspiration and an admonition. When We Were Kings brings back the unimpeded joy we once felt in Ali’s presence. It’s a movie in a state of denial — magnificent, unapologetic denial.

(1997)

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“Hell Joseon” and Korean Literature

By Charles Montgomery

On the surface, all is well with Korea: It is among the top economies in the world. Seoul is the epitome of “bright lights, big city.” K-pop and Korean movies seem ever-poised to take over the world. But under this shiny patina lies an emerging reality — or perception — of the country as “Hell Joseon.”

That term, coined by young Koreans primarily in their 20s and 30s to express the mounting impotence they feel in a country they describe as increasingly divided between a small percentage of Koreans living extravagantly and the vast majority of Koreans struggling in the precariat. “Joseon” references the Joseon era, an extremely Confucian and hidebound Korean dynasty which lasted from 1392 to 1897. Korean youth, at least, see modern Korea as a parallel to that time when circumstances of birth, sex, and education entirely determined the fate of every citizen.

How serious is the problem? In a survey on Naver, the most important social website and search engine in Korea, 88% of 21,000 “young people” reported that they disliked South Korea and wished that they could leave, a feeling expressed visually when the map above, with its satirical depiction of some of the society’s perceived issues appeared and begun to shoot around Korean social media.

According to this map, you enter the gates of Hell at birth, and unless you land in one of the “good” areas (“Government,” “Golden Spoons,” etc.), you continue through to less happy destinations like Tapgol Park, a famous hangout for unemployed elders, or the “Forest of Emigration,” which more than a few young Koreans dream of entering. In an extremely Korean touch, the basis of the map is the Hellfire Peninsula from the World of Warcraft, the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), which dates back over a decade and was once quite popular in Korea. (In fact, one of the “unknown” reasons Korea is so awesomely wired is that PC bang, literally “computer rooms” with machines rentable by the hour, had to have instantaneously responsive internet connections for such games to be played competitively.)

Hell Joseon map

But the idea of “Hell Joseon” is no game, and Korean authors have been exploring its modern manifestation for three decades. In literature, there has been a shift away from the problems that come to Korea from the outside world to those inherent in the modern Korean system, a system once seen as the answer to those traumas from without. Korean literature has always focused on various types of Hell, but in the past, Hell was externally imposed. During the colonial period Hell was simply the Japanese; after colonialism, Hell became the state of division, seen as a consequence of the Cold War between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.

A host of short stories provide evidence of this: Yi Sang’s seminal “The Wings,” as well as two stories from A Ready-Made Life: Early Masters of Modern Korean Fiction, Hyeon Chin-gon’s “A Society that Drives You to Drink” and the title story “A Ready-Made Life

“The Wings,” Yi’s emblematic story, is an allegorical complaint against colonial oppression as well as a description of colonization’s emasculation of the Korean man. It also represents an existential/Dadaist/surrealist withdrawal from the insanity of the colonial existence. At the time, writing a direct attack on Japanese colonialism was nearly impossible, so part of the joy of this story is unpacking the layers to find the theme at the core. “Ah! There were the marks of my imaginary wings,” says the narrator, describing his position. “Those are the wings that I had lost. I took a fleeting look into my mind to the pages of my dictionary and then, I realized that the ambition and hope had been erased.”

“A Society that Drives You to Drink” and “A Ready-Made Life” also explore the bleak landscape of the colonial era through the hopelessness of educated Korean men. Interestingly, similar to the modern situation, this bleak landscape is illuminated by the glow of false hope. Young Koreans visited Japan during the colonial period, most often to attain a degree. There they were introduced to the idea of modernism, yet with no hope of achieving it, not even any position available for a young scholar, upon their return home.

Education is counterproductive in “A Ready-Made Life,” leading only to dreams that cannot be fulfilled. Unable to find a job, the narrator chooses not to educate his son, a profoundly un-Korean decision. “A Society that Drives You to Drink” adds to this dilemma the institutional inequality between men and women: the frustrate male character, in this case driven to drink as well, has been educated beyond the understanding of his wife, resulting in their emotional estrangement. “The fellow who has his wits about him throws up blood and dies,” he declares. Hell is clearly in Korea, but it came “imported” from Japan.

After the war, the external Hell became the separation, and responsibility for that separation was often externalized or attributed to external philosophies. Three very different representations of this are “The Land of Excrement” by Nam Jun-hyung, “Human Decency” by Gong Ji-Young, and “The Guest” by Hwang Sun-won. “The Land of Excrement” is the story of Hong Mansu, an important name because it combines of a reference to the Korean hero Hong Gildong (to whom Hong Mansu claims a direct relation) and the Korean word for “longevity,” something Hong, hiding on Mount Hyangmi (roughly meaning “looking towards the U.S.”) and about to be pulverized by the artillery and bombs of the United States Army, does not seem to have.

Hong brought on this fate when he attacked the wife of a U.S. serviceman because her husband had misused Hong’s sister as a concubine. Hong is justifiably angry not just about that, but also because in the post-war celebration a GI sexually assaulted Hong’s mother, who subsequently went mad, abusing Hong along the way before finally dying. And so, as the book opens, Hong awaits his own destruction for his extremely limited attempt at revenge. The book also touches on poverty, social striation, and the alienation of the poor, but generally with the view these states had been hegemonically imposed.

“Human Decency” by Gong Ji Young pits a facilely “international” character who has had the nerve to look outside of Korea against a “true Korean hero” who has relentlessly stayed inside the grinder of Korean politics. The narrator, a reporter tortured by her abandonment of political purity, brings that angst to her work. In a Manichean construction of the good Korea versus the bad foreigner, she meets the “noble” rebel Gwon Ogyu as well as Yi Minja, who has lived an international life. The narrator both loathes and loves (but mainly loathes) Yi, and in this struggle seems to argue that to accept anything modern is to spurn Korean history and society, and in the end unreservedly embraces Gwon.

Both of these books directly identify the source of Korea trauma as external, but “The Guest” is a more subtle and thus controversial work. “Show me one soul that wasn’t to blame!”: with the slam of a hand and that short sentence, Hwang sums up one of the bloodiest chapters in modern Korean history, a series of atrocities in northern Korea that, while originally blamed on U.S. troops, was actually internecine fighting of the worst sort when people once friends, separated by Christianity and Marxism (each one a “guest,” in the title’s term), butchered each other.

Although both of these forces are in some ways as alien to Korea as the United States Army itself, Hwang’s book caused a firestorm of criticism from both North and South Korea, both of whom preferred to claim that all evil in these events was done by outsiders. While “The Guest” is the rare book that identifies the Hell of the Korean War as partly internally generated, the violent reaction against it demonstrates that the idea was not well received at home.

Today’s “Hell Joseon,” however, is almost uniformly seen to be a native Korean phenomenon. No longer are the boilers of Hell from England, its coal from Pennsylvania, its fireworks from China, its patent leather cloven loafers from Japan, its red satin capes from India. This Hell, a triumph of economic development, could be slapped with a “100 percent Made in Korea” sticker and placed in the gigantic shopping marts, in even bigger malls, in the bustling heart of Seoul. And this stance is almost entirely new to Korean modern literature. The works available in translation seem to be written largely by women, who suffer the normal indignities of society as well as the additional burden of sexism.

Bae Su-ah’s “Highway With Green Apples” is a melancholic tale with a narrator essentially unmoved by love, sex, or anything having to do with the future, except perhaps — and it is a “perhaps” — the idea of stepping entirely outside the rat race she lives in. Almost completely jaded, she explains herself as follows: “I am one week away from my 25th birthday. I hate being that age. That age is neither as fresh and full of life as 15 years nor as jaded as the afternoon of 35 years.”

She has just broken up with a boyfriend after a trip on which they bought green apples from a woman selling them on the roadside. Her mind, both consciously as well as through actions and seemingly unrelated thoughts, compares the simplicity of that roadside vending life to the complication and confusion, both essentially meaningless, of that of the “888,800 generation,” the number referring to the amount of Korean won earned full-time on minimum wage.

Bae’s narrator is a dropout, estranged from her family, and apparently without any strong personal relationships, and her story is about limitations, clearly symbolized by Bae’s repeated emphasis on the small living spaces of many of the characters and how their jobs and lives end up completely trapping them. The condition is a bit reminiscent of of stories like “Apartments” by the venerated Park Wan-suh,Christmas Specials” by Kim Ae-ran, or Eun Heekyung’s “My Wife’s Boxes” in Unspoken Voices.

“Identical Apartments” Pak Wan-suh, featured in Wayfarer: New Fiction By Korean Women, is one of the first stories of the “Hell Joseon” family, one told through the eyes of a married daughter of an extended family living in one large apartment. When they do move into their own apartment, the wife befriends the woman across the way and copies her style and cooking. As time goes by, the wife comes to understand that even then she has no individuality, that she is not much different from an insect in its colony, trapped in conformist amber and profoundly unhappy.

“Christmas Specials” begins with a lyrical scene of a man in a snowstorm, but quickly turns to themes of fecundity and space (represented by sperm and inns). The man still lives with his sister, but this evening is Christmas Eve, and with a packet of ramen under his arm he contemplates going back home and being able to enjoy the room alone. It will be the first time he has really had a space to himself since he had a rooftop room (a type of shabby little rooms tacked onto the flat top of residential buildings, brutally subject to the heat of summer and cold of winter, and often seen in Korea).

The next scene shows his sister and her boyfriend trying to find a “room of their own” on Christmas Eve for some romantic time together. They have set this night aside as one on which to just go out and have fun, carve out their own space, and do what they want to do, not what economics demand. The story alternates between the brother with his modern toys of separation (the computer, boring pornography) and the couple’s search for a romantic private setting. Nothing works out as it should, and events progress not as a tragedy but a gray, plodding, process of grinding down, a bleak depiction of the plight of young minimum-wage workers in modern Korea.

“My Wife’s Boxes,” in Unspoken Voices, is Eun Heekyung’s take on the country’s hellish sexual politics. This chilling story is slightly reminiscent of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in its representation of woman being smothered by an ostensibly well-meaning husband and a room that becomes a “tomb.” Compared to Gilman’s work, however, it has an uncertain narrative center in its husband whose wife has been institutionalized. As the story goes on, the underlying trauma of the marriage is revealed and works towards a tragic but in some ways logical conclusion based upon the premise that there is no real love in a modern relationship.

These stories do not find it necessary to allude to anything outside of Korean society to explain the tortured existences of their characters. Love is a lie, all relationships are commodified, and the world is divided into two groups: the largely unseen rich, and the much lower class to which these characters belong. Admittedly, Korean literature goes far beyond the terrain described here, but this terrain, originally mapped in the late twentieth century, is very different from that which preceded it, all its influences and consequences entirely Korean. As the late twentieth and early twenty-first century unspooled, Korean literature described a kind of Hell, the “Hell Joseon” yet to be named by the young Koreans of the last few years.

It is worth noting that the allure of an overseas life and the “failure” of Korean life seems tempered in those who have lived outside Korea. In my experience with my students, those who had lived overseas seemed more cognizant of the flaws of other countries. Korean media has created several interview segments showing the very measured view internationally experienced Korean youth have of the advantages and disadvantages of living outside their homeland. They seem to have adopted a “Hell World” outlook, which does help them understand Korea a bit more fully.

However, until the current Korean sense of economic hopelessness goes away, until the glass ceiling for women goes away, and until the fact changes that that the rich become richer while ordinary people remain relegated to the precariat, it is unlikely that the situation in society or literature will change. I am not qualified to judge what it means for those who live in it, but it makes for some interesting reading.

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University.

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Pico Diary #3

By Jon Wiener

At the Apple Pan, the guy waiting in line next to me says, “I started coming here in 1947, when I was eight years old.  My family came here once a week.  Always had the steakburger.  Across the street, where the Westside Pavilion is now, there was an empty lot.  Once a year the Clyde Beatty circus would come—they had everything, lions and tigers and elephants.  My brother and I would get jobs pitching hay for the animals.  You don’t know Clyde Beatty?  He was a famous lion-tamer, and he was big!  He was in movies and on the radio and eventually on TV.”

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Unknown

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What’s new at the newsstand?  I ask the guy there, a new immigrant.  He points to Vanity Fair, and says “Everybody is buying.”  The cover is glamour shot of Meryl Street 30 years ago, her head thrown back and eyes closed in what might be ecstasy.  He asks me, sincerely: “Who is it?”

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Dusk on Pico—you can see inside the shops.  Inside the Subway, three big guys in flannel shirts are playing cards.  At the karate studio next door, the teacher tells one of the adults in the class to attack him with a knife (it’s made of wood).  The guy lunges at him, the teacher grabs his arm, flips him around and onto the floor, and “stabs” the “attacker” with his own knife.

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Across the street the door to Pico Teriyaki House is open–for the first time in more than a decade!  I walk in—it’s full of men at tables of four, grilling meat on hibachis.  A guy at the first table says, “Can I help you?” 

I say “I’ve never seen this place open before.”

He says “we’re not open.”  Long pause. 

I say “private party?”

He says “yes.”  Long pause.

I say “Okay, thanks!”  and leave.

Next door the guy who runs the music shop is locking up.  I ask him what he knows about his neighbor.  “They were open for lunch about 15 years ago,” he said.  “I went once.  They had the greatest teriyaki I’ve ever eaten.  Ever since then they’ve been closed.  But the guy is in there every day. And every year his cars get fancier.  Something is going on there – but I don’t know what it is.”

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Jon Wiener lives south of Pico, near the Pep Boys at Manning Ave. Read the previous installment of the “Pico Diary.”