All posts by LARB Blog

An English Ceramicist in Korea: a BBC Radio Journey of Bumbling and Discovery

By Colin Marshall

When I think of my favorite travelers to read, I think mostly of Brits: Jan Morris, from Wales; Colin Thubron, from London; Pico Iyer, born in Oxford to an Indian family and raised part-time in California. But none of them, however much I wish they would, have written at length on South Korea.  In the peripatetic late chapters of her life after more or less quitting England, Isabella Bird Bishop alighted in Korea and produced a book still read by Korea enthusiasts today, though she did it back in the 1890s. The very well-known Simon Winchester and the less well-known Clive Leatherdale did get out here more recently — but by “more recently,” I mean the 1980s.

So it made for a relatively important new chapter in the history of British visitors to Korea when Roger Law arrived this year to put together Art and Seoul, a five-part series for BBC Radio 4. Law, whose name may not ring a bell to non-British readers, began his career as a caricaturist in the 1960s, going on in the 1980s to co-create the popular satirical puppet show (yes, really) Splitting Image. The show’s end in 1996, and thus the end of the arduous work of public figure-lampooning puppetcraft it demanded, gave Law a chance to pursue a new artistic dream: studying ceramics in China.

At some point in this East-oriented period of his life, Law took a glance over at the work of his neighbors on the peninsula and found himself captivated by the moon jar, in his words “a misshapen round pot, and it looks so simple — but it’s not. To me, it’s the very essence of the Korean soul.” He sets what he sees as this “quintessentially Korean” object against the “pretty flashy” pottery of China where “everything has to be perfect — perfect” and the “artsy-fartsy” pottery of Japan. “Korean pottery has a simplicity, an earthiness about it,” he observes, “that seems to me to be very Korean.”

This realization gave Law that most useful possession of the Westerner in Korea, a straight answer to the question of what got them interested in the country. He can just say the pottery, while others can say the music, the movies, the television dramas, the food; I usually give the slightly more complicated answer of the language, inextricably tied up as it is with so much else. But those of us who decamp for Asia can usually point to one element above all that fascinated us enough to motivate us to do so. And when we get here, we face a big question: does the piece of the culture for which we originally fell represent the culture as a whole? In Law’s case, will all of South Korea possess the same captivating simplicity and earthiness as the moon jar?

Yes and, inevitably, no. The series’ first episode does find Law beholding the very human and often faintly strange beauty of Korean artist-craftsmanship, manifest in pottery and otherwise (he also visits artists working with such different materials as the mulberry-paper pages of old-fashioned school textbooks), but also grappling with one of the machines the subway to get it to dispense a T-Money card (“their version of an Oyster card”). It startled me to suddenly hear their recorded commands, a sonic fixture of my daily life here, broadcast from an island on the other side of the continent, but where they hit me with a shot of unexpected familiarity, they hit poor Law with a shot of bewilderment. “The machines only really deal in Korean,” Law speaks into his recorder, “and, uh… I have no Korean.”

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He goes on to seek help, in vain, from one of the subway’s volunteer “old-age pensioners, even more old and confused with technology than I am,” with whom “you can spend hours jabbering away, they in Korean, you in English, getting more and more confused.” In this and other respects, he places himself in the role of the bumbler (albeit an intelligent bumbler) abroad, one that, with his self-deprecating jokester personality and the sense of adventure just underlying his grumbling, he plays wholeheartedly, making bits out of such minor struggles as his inability to pronounce so much as a Korean name. Only Brits can really pull this off; an American trying it just looks like more of a yokel than usual. (And it doesn’t suit every Brit. When Thubron goes to China, for instance, he sits down and learns Mandarin, a task I suspect many a British traveler of his and Law’s generation would consider an indignity.)

Law’s quest to gaze upon the true nature of Korean ceramics soon leads him down several standard paths for the observer of 21st-century Korea: the “nightmare” education culture; the robust plastic surgery industry (“I can’t tell the difference between the before and after,” he rightly observes); the temple stay (“there’s an awful lot of shoes-off, shoes on with this Buddhist business”); the taste of “the national dish, kimchi” (the popping sounds of whose fermentation, which I myself had never heard before, he gets on tape); and the vanishing culture of the haenyeo (해녀), the strong-willed and inexorably aging lady divers of Jeju island.

But in his time on Jeju, Law also visits such nonstandard institutions as the local teddy bear museum (“I hate to admit it, but I’m actually enjoying this”), and in his exploration of the unignorable Korean film industry, he chats with critic Tony Rayns (long a beater of the drum for the better Korean cinema) in Chungmuro, the former “Hollywood of Korea.” The directors, screenwriters, and producers have long since vacated it, but it remains one of Seoul’s mostly unacknowledged fascinating neighborhoods. And at least he doesn’t make the obligatory trip north to the Demilitarized Zone, to return the grim stares of the North Korean border guards and ponder aloud the inscrutable menace of the Hermit Kingdom.

Having enjoyed Art and Seoul — and wishing I could hear more broadcasts like it, about Korea or anywhere else — I come out of it still wondering to what extent the moon jars Law loves so much reflect the entirety of Korean culture. On one level — the most visible level here in Seoul — Korea looks like doing its level best to de-simplify and sophisticate the earthiness out of itself. But lamenting this sort of thing can border on poverty fetishism; to hear some Westerners tell it, Korea hasn’t been itself since its first skyscraper topped out, a line of thinking that rolls you down the slippery slope toward denouncing indoor plumbing. But the distinctive “rustic flair” of Korea, as I once heard it described, does exist, and it does bring something important to the table that those drawn to the country and its culture don’t feel in China or Japan.

I personally find Korea’s enduring mixture of modernity and everything else the exciting thing, and Law’s radio journey provides an entertaining overview of just that: the high-tech subway and its low-tech volunteers; the new cultural institutions springing up left and right, all of them with their occasional rough edges and bits of eccentric content; the much-promoted vacation spot dotted with phallic garden gnomes; the trendy cuisine that still uses blocks of Spam. “It’s not looked down upon here,” Law says of that infamous canned meat, inadvertently highlighting the wide streak of earnestness giving all this its appeal: “You don’t have any Korean pythons singing about it.”

You can listen to all the episodes of Art and Seoul at the BBC’s web site.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Reach for the SKY

By Colin Marshall

As I first got acquainted with Korean culture, I started to wonder why Koreans talk about Harvard so much. I couldn’t help but notice that, when the subject of college came up in any Korean context, it was only a matter of time before someone mentioned Harvard (or rather, as Korean pronunciation renders it, 하버드 — habeodeu). Browsing the tables in Korean bookstores, I noticed that authors with even the most tenuous connection to Harvard got it loudly emblazoned on their books’ covers. I knew, of course, that Harvard has a long history in America, respectable ivy-covered brick buildings, and a great deal of East Coast cachet, but I couldn’t come close to explaining the evident depth of this Korean Harvard obsession.

I learned the reason behind it from my Korean language-exchange partner back in Los Angeles, after I laughingly brought up the well-known television drama Love Story in Harvard (러브스토리 인 하버드) in order to explain its misuse of the preposition. “They think Harvard is the American Seoul National,” she explained, describing for me the way her countrymen conceive of their schools in a purely vertical hierarchy, with Seoul National University (her own alma mater, incidentally) sitting undisputedly at the top. These Harvard-obsessed Koreans, it seems, simply turned around and applied that same thinking to America (the “number one” country to many of them, going by a purely economic hierarchy), assuming that the first American university they’d heard of must occupy the top spot.

When I meet new Korean people, I rarely sense any unbridgeable cultural gaps — unless, that is, the topic of conversation turns to higher education, which among Koreans (even those long out of college without school-age children themselves) it often does. Sometimes they look surprised when they realize that I don’t give the proverbial two shits about where they went to school, or when I tell them that not every American student who could get into Harvard applies to it (or even considers it), or when I express admiration for those who didn’t go to college at all.

We’ve certainly got our Ivy-League-or-bust types, I try to tell them, but the savviest American students think more in terms of finding the one college out of the possible many that best suits their personality and desires on a variety of axes: academic focus, but also sports, location, social life, architecture, food, exercise facilities, selection of arcade games, and so on. But that, in the main, doesn’t figure into a college-applying Korean high school student’s calculus: they study the hardest they can, get the highest test scores they can, and, no matter their set of interests, go the “best” college they can — grappling with no ambiguity about which one that is.

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If they can’t get into Seoul National, they’ll try for Yonsei University. If they can’t get into Yonsei, they’ll try for Korea University. These three schools together form the acronym SKY, the goal of the hard-cramming students featured in Reach for the SKY (공부의 나라), a documentary by Steven Dhoedt and Choi Wooyoung now making the festival circuit. Its Korean title translates literally to “The Country of Studying,” and that means studying for one particular exam: the College Scholastic Ability Test (대학수학능력시험), better known as the Suneung, the Korean equivalent of America’s SAT.

The Suneung, though, happens on just one day each year: if you get sick, you have to tough it out or wait a year and retake it; if you get an unsatisfactory score, you have to wait a year and retake it; if you sleep in, you call the cops and they’ll bring you to your test center on the back of a motorbike, lights, siren, and all. The exam books come the morning of, delivered by armored cars under heavy security. Not only do all the other students delay their classes that day, the stock market delays its opening. Airplanes stay grounded during the listening portion of the English section. All day long, radio and television news keeps the nation posted on the test’s progress. After the Suneung’s conclusion, evening programs closely examine that year’s questions and answers, to the intense interest of all tuning in.

Korea, it would seem, is not like America. But foreigners of many nationalities will no doubt do a lot of tsk-tsking as they watch Reach for the SKY, so vividly does it illustrate the national sacrifice of adolescence in the name of admission to a name-brand university —  “brand” being the operative word. Seoul National surely offers a world-class education, but who can deny that it sells, above all, the perception of itself as the best school in Korea? For decades, the country’s education system has presented its young students with a deal they can’t refuse: study morning, noon, and night, and you’ll be set if you get into one of the right colleges, with their implicit promises to hand their graduates a ticket to a comfortable future without making any major demands on them, especially by comparison to the agonies of high school.

Alas, that social contract, like so many others in Korea (and elsewhere in the developed world), has begun to break down. The increasing pressures for academic performance combined with the falling returns on that performance have made Korea a champion in one division above all: suicides between the ages of 15 and 25. A spate of articles have appeared over the past year on the phenomenon of “Hell Joseon” (헬조선), a label a growing number of young Koreans have seen fit to stick on their country that combines the name of Korea’s 14th- through 19th-century feudal dynasty with, well, Hell, describing a stultifying, unforgiving society lorded over by a small, insular elite and a vast, remote officialdom, shot through with injustice, nepotism, futility, and absurdity.

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It infuriates those who see themselves as living in Hell Joseon that the older generations, who came of age and worked through most or all of their careers during an era of huge economic growth, have nothing to offer but a parental dole and the nagging advice that they have only to work harder to kick their stalled lives into gear. Back in the second half of the twentieth century, when Korea was developing in a straightforward manner under the commands of a strong state and a handful of conglomerates, hard work by itself could generate real returns, but today the correlation looks rather murkier. The resultant frustration has driven a fair few Koreans to escape Hell Joseon any way they can, if not through suicide then at least through emigration, but sometimes the condition follows them outside Korea, continuing to provoke troubling behaviors.

Take, for instance, the bizarre story of Sara Kim, a Korean student at Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (which, among Koreans, enjoys an obsession comparable to the one over Harvard), who attained celebrity status as a “Genius Girl” back in her homeland for her unprecedented admission to both Harvard and Stanford (the object of a similar if less intense mania). But Sara’s story soon unraveled, and Korea soon found out that she’d made it all up, going so far as to fabricate acceptance letters from both schools, then impersonate a professor in order to silence the early rumors that she’d done so. I heard a Korean radio interview with her, aired shortly before the house of cards came down, wherein she told of receiving a wholly fabricated congratulatory phone call from none other than Mark Zuckerberg (a Harvard man, albeit a dropout, so America forgives him for it) in what now sound like the chillingly placid tones of the truly disturbed.

We witness some of the kind of pressure that can cause psychological breakdown and worse in Reach for the SKY, especially in scenes captured in one of the boot camp-like academies (known, colloquially, as “Sparta schools”) meant for students who want to repeat the Suneung for a higher score. Sleep an extra hour, their instructors insist, and you’ll be a failure. Nod off during a lecture and you’ll be a failure. Spend time chatting with your friends and you’ll be a failure. Catch too long a glimpse of a student of the opposite sex (Sparta schools keep them strictly separated) and you’ll be a failure.

These academic rigors might sound appealing to the kind of parents, and indeed students, who think American education has gone a bit soft. The problem is that none of these students, from the laser-focused study machines who coast into a SKY school on a perfect Suneung score the first time to the third-year repeaters bound to wind up at one of the “BMW” schools (the triumvirate of Baejae, Mokwon, Woosong, holding down the other end of the scale), learn anything useful, or even particularly meaningful. Their flood of blood, sweat, and tears pour into one goal and one goal only: penciling in circles, just quickly and correctly enough, on a multiple-choice exam.

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Along with all that blood, sweat, and tears flows a veritable Han River of money. Reach for the SKY gets access to Kim Ki-hoon, who, as the most famous teacher at Korea’s biggest supplementary education company, pulls down the equivalent about $4 million a year. He does it teaching English, yet can’t speak the language confidently himself, and neither can the great majority of all these thousands upon thousands of high-schoolers ostensibly cramming it into their minds. I’ve met many Koreans who exude shame at their lack of a command of English after having studied it so hard since grade school, but they haven’t really been studying how to speak English; they’ve been studying how to complete a section of the Suneung.

Thus all that anxious work, spending, and superstition (Reach for the SKY shows one parent and daughter consulting with a fortune-teller, surely just the tip of the iceberg) of a Korean’s first seventeen years goes toward nothing more than their being fed into a sorting algorithm, with nothing to show for it at the end of it but a qualifying score for a top college or a lack thereof. All that human energy — energy its possessors could have spent writing novels, coding apps, playing in bands, cooking new dishes, building robots, learning to actually speak other languages — gets squandered on jockeying for position against other Koreans. One common defense of the Suneung discounts its pointlessness in light of its sheer fairness (overlooking the advantage of the wealthy in paying for private institutes and tutors), but it reminds me of the same defense used for all of history’s indefensible societal arrangements: “At least you knew where you stood.”

Then again, American higher education, with its grotesquely inflating price and its hazy constellation of goals and benefits nobody agrees on, has also devolved into a racket. Just think of all the students and parents scrutinizing the tea leaves of U.S. News and World Report. “Here is this third-rate news weekly, aimed at businessmen who don’t like to read,” wrote Tom Wolfe in I Am Charlotte Simmons, “trying desperately to move up in the race but forever swallowing the dust of Time and Newsweek, and some character dreams up a circulation gimmick: Let’s rank the colleges. Let’s stir up a fuss. Pretty soon all of American higher education is jumping through hoops to meet the standards of the marketing department of a miserable, lowbrow magazine out of Washington, D.C.!” It looks as preposterous, from this distance, as anything in Reach for the SKY.

Whenever I hear an American high-school student talking about college applications, I ask them why they want to go to college. Usually I get nothing but a deer-in-the-headlights stare in response, but the kids who can come up with an answer tend to say something not especially coherent about how they want to stay in the middle class, which entered its death throes at least twenty years ago. I don’t style myself as any kind of giver of advice, and by the time the receivers have reached high school it’s probably too late, but I stress to them my own regret at not having taken time between high school and college to do something other than school: to do, in their own cases, the writing, coding, playing, cooking, building, speaking, whatever pursuit actually aligns with their interests and abilities — anything, needless to say, except test-taking. But as Reach for the SKY underscores, if anyone could really use a gap year, it’s the Koreans.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Christmastime in Seoul

By Colin Marshall

Korean winters start out pleasant enough, waiting until the new year to bite. This I’ve heard from longtime Korea residents who’ve experienced many more Christmases here than I have — which is to say, any Christmases here at all. So despite the growing cold and occasional snow flurries, I won’t expect a white Christmas in Seoul, but since Los Angeles long ago trained me not to even conceive of that as a possibility, I can’t count it as a disappointment. Even in non-weather respects, I’ve looked forward to experiencing just what form Christmas takes in Korea, and the run-up hasn’t disappointed.

Some Western visitors to Seoul come away thinking of Korean society as crassly commercial and consumeristic, a damningly alliterative impression that I can’t easily argue away. America, of course, gets similarly criticized, but there we try to deflect it by pretending to yearn for some sort of vaguely imagined, possibly even unwanted non-commercial holiday ideal. But Korea isn’t fronting; people here directly acknowledge the role of commerce in their lives all year round, and in so doing, I would submit, acknowledge how much potential it really has to add interest to their lives.

Take Christmas decorations, with which Seoul really does it up — or, rather, with which the businesses of Seoul, from humble Chinese-made merchandise stands to pubs with their liquor bottles repurposed into tree ornaments to grand department stores, really do it up. It might comes as a surprise to an American that Seoul still has grand department stores, with concierge desks and escalators taking you from high-end foods to cosmetics to apparel to housewares to restaurants and seasonal enthusiasm and everything, the likes of which we think of enclosed suburban malls and big-box stores as having long since crushed in the United States.

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In this and other respects, for better and for worse, Korea brings to mind midcentury America, or at least a certain impression I have of midcentury America. I’ve heard a few different middle-aged American friends living here, people with actual living memories of midcentury America, observe that Korea “hasn’t reached the 1960s yet,” although when they say the 1960s, they of course mean the era that began around 1966 or 1967, burned out in the early to mid-70s, and either did or did not change everything. They mean the time after A Charlie Brown Christmas, the beloved television special that celebrated the 50th anniversary of its first broadcast this year.

I listen to A Charlie Brown Christmas‘ immortal soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi Trio every year, but only re-watched the show itself for the first time since childhood just the other day. I did it partly in anticipation of the new computer-generated Peanuts movie (here just called Snoopy, or rather, 스누피), but partly because christmastime in Seoul put me in the mind of the America in which it debuted. Even then, as we all know, the crudely animated Charlie Brown bemoaned, in an unusually articulate but genuine child’s voice, the increasing commercialization of Christmas. The story embodies this disapproved-of phenomenon in the form of the aluminum Christmas tree, an item popular in the late 1950s and early 60s, and one for which a market might well remain in Korea, given the way everyone seems to go in for the artificial tannenbaum here.

A Charlie Brown Christmas‘s proffered antidote — which still startles and even haunts, no matter how many times you’ve watched it — comes spoken by the security blanket-toting Linus, who takes the stage, orders the lights dimmed, and recites by heart Bible verses on the birth of Jesus. That, too, seems somehow suitable in Korea, a country whose Christianity doesn’t let you ignore it. A friend of mine here, despite having “grown up in church” in America’s south, still remembers the impression made on him when he first arrived in Seoul by night, all the better to see the city’s many bright red neon rooftop crosses illuminated against the skyline.

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Just how Christian is Korea? Both surprisingly so and surprisingly not so. I find that Americans who’ve never been here often have the impression that Korea’s religiosity goes so wide and deep as to border on making the place some sort of theocracy, an extrapolation they’ve made from the highly Christian Korean community in America — or, in any case, the highly visible Christian Korean community in America, what with its churches dispersed all over the country that provide helpful starting points for the new immigrant, devout or otherwise.

In South Korea itself, Christians make up between 25 and 30 percent of the population, not a terribly huge number outside the context of northeast Asia. But compared to China and Japan, Korea really is quite Christian indeed, and the only one of the three to recognize Christmas as a national holiday. Still, many people in the one-percent-Christian Japan, not a conventionally religious society but one that has shown great avidity for foreign icons and practices, look forward to Christmas. They look forward not least to the big Christmas fried chicken meal they eat with what has become a near-religious regularity since a savvy Japanese Kentucky Fried Chicken marketing executive first sold it to his countrymen as an “American tradition” in 1974.

Japan, we might say, sees Christmas as a primarily American holiday, and thus an opportunity to celebrate things they consider quintessentially American — things such as the Colonel’s secret recipe. But so, in its way, does Korea: this most fried chicken-loving of all societies hardly needs another occasion on which to go to KFC, but the American associations of Christmas take other forms here. Some Korea-watchers have, convincingly, framed the country’s adoption of Christianity in line with its adoption of capitalism and, in the fullness of time, democracy: the trifecta, in other words, that would lift into prosperity. After all, didn’t it work for America?

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The perception of faith as a means to satisfaction on Earth has a good deal of traction here in Korea, as it does in America, but I wouldn’t call it a settled issue. The controversy over it appears with some regularity as a theme in books and films, none of which have handled it more deftly, to my mind, than Lee Chang-dong’s picture Secret Sunshine (밀양), the story of a widow whom moves to the small town of the title, endures another sudden tragedy, and finds herself both drawn in and repulsed by the local Christian church. In scoring the rare victory of discomfiting both adherents and critics alike, it merits a spot, despite not being a “Christmas movie,” in the holiday viewing canon.

It certainly makes for a change of mood from many of the other high-profile trappings of the season in Korea, which tend to push Christmas as a kind of romantic couple’s holiday in the style of Valentine’s Day. Given the name, it won’t surprise you to learn that A Twosome Place, one of the country’s most popular chain coffee shops, goes especially full-bore with its Christmasization, bringing out all possible thematically appropriate decorations, desserts, special beverages, slogans (this year, “Twosome Twinkling Night”) and promotions, one of which includes a free Christmas gift if you collect enough stamps on your loyalty card during the holidays. My girlfriend has taken it as a mission to earn this gift, and so we’ve spent a lot of time lately at our local Twosome Place, drinking our way (as a couple!) toward the planner or the tumbler or whatever our reward turns out to be.

This project has entailed many hours of exposure to the music piping out their speakers, which underscores the popular Korean conception of Christmas as a — or maybe the — time for lovers as well as the bias here toward the recent and the poppy. Thus eschewing the “Silent Night”s and the “Little Drummer Boy”s of the world, it opts instead for Wham’s “Last Christmas” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” — near-exclusively, over and over, down a seemingly bottomless succession of cover versions in both languages. And so, as in much of the rest of the world, Christmastime in Seoul becomes, in certain respects, something of an endurance test. If you need me, I’ll be listening to Vince Guaraldi until Christmas.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Transcript of a Lost Stand-Up Monologue

This is the fifth in a series of “Provocations,” a LARB series produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016). All contributors are also participants in the conference.

By Richard Burt

Some months ago I checked my email and was excited to find that one had been sent by A** W*****z and was an invitation to me to participate in this conference. I mean, A*y W*l*n*! For reals. Like I say, I was really happy to get the invitation. And of course I was going to accept. Continue reading

Consolations of History: A Q&A with Yan Geling

By Alec Ash

Yan Geling is a Chinese novelist, born in Shanghai, who lives in Berlin and travels frequently to China. Her novel The Flowers of War was made into a film starring Christian Bale, and she has won wide acclaim both inside and outside of China. Her new novel in English, Little Aunt Crane (translated by Esther Tyldesley) is a wonderfully empathic story of a young Japanese girl, Tatsuru, who stays behind in China after the end of World War Two. Tatsura becomes the second wife of a Chinese heir, and befriends the first wife Xiaohuan during the decades of political tumult that follow. It’s an enjoyable read and a fresh narrative perspective on Chinese history. I asked Yan Geling some questions on email about her process, intentions, and themes.

ALEC ASH: How did you first begin to learn about Japanese colonists left behind in China after the end of World War Two, and why did you want to write about it as a subject for your novel Little Aunt Crane?

YAN GELING: Years ago, one of my childhood friends told me a story about twin brothers in her class who intrigued her. Her classmates discussed them behind their backs, saying that there was a woman in their house besides their mother who seemed to have a mysterious position in their family. This woman would kneel down to tie the boys’ father’s shoelaces and make everybody take off their shoes before entering the house. Later my friend and her classmates discovered that this mysterious woman was not a Chinese but a Japanese who was sold to this family in a sack during the Japanese retreat from China, and she was the twins’ natural mother. I was amazed by the story and couldn’t help imagining how all of them had lived in secrecy and harmony in a Chinese neighborhood. After I moved to the U.S., I told the story to many friends in artistic and literary circles, and they all thought it was good material for a novel. One of my author friends even bought me a kimono to encourage me to write it, but not until 2007 did I muster enough courage to create a novel whose main female character was Japanese. What also made it possible to carry out expensive research in Japan was that my husband was reinstated in the U.S. Foreign Service as a diplomat, and we moved to Taiwan in 2006. By then our financial situation allowed me to hire interpreters to help me do research in a village in central Japan that had been divided in two, with one half of its farmers going to Northeast China as colonists in the early 1930s.

History is hugely important in understanding contemporary China, especially its fraught relations with Japan. What can Tatsuru and Xiaohuan’s friendship teach us about China today?

I don’t know. I don’t think a novel has a function or a mission such as teaching somebody something. Instead, I think a novelist, by writing a story in the most vivid way, with poetry of language and by sharing it with the public, is willing to discover the truth about the story together with the readers. I have written stories about women suffering during wars and after wars, because I think that no matter who wins or loses, women on both side are the ultimate victims. Their bodies are the last part of a defeated country to be conquered, to be violated. They are the mothers, wives, and daughters of soldiers whose lost lives leave voids in the women’s lives, too deep to be filled. In this sense, Xiaohuan and Crane (Tatsuru) have a shared understanding and sympathy with each other beyond their own knowledge.

In both this novel and in The Flowers of War, finding humanity in the midst of chaos is a recurring theme. So much of China’s recent past has been a litany of horrors, yet you focus on small acts of kindness and bravery. Does this mean you’re an optimist?

I think the Chinese are a people of survival. We are all wonderful survivors. We have risen in population during the last century, a century in which wars and famines have happened all the time. We have survived natural and political disasters almost every other year during the last sixty years. Without optimism I don’t think my people could live until today. I have gone to poor rural areas in China and seen destitute people joke and jest and laugh. I can imagine Chinese at the bottom of society, surviving like them over thousands of years. They must have a good sense of humor to go through hardship, and they must have learned how to steal whatever small pleasure they can to hold on to their dear life. I can’t imagine that any people could survive so many centuries of sorrow if to live only means to suffer. They have learned to steal joy, however little, out of the overall suffering.

You served with the People’s Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution as a dancer in an entertainment troupe from the age of 12. What were some of your other experiences in the PLA, and how did they influence your writing later?

I think my becoming a writer has much to do with my tough upbringing, including my experience in the army. When the Cultural Revolution took place, I was seven, and it was human nature playing itself out before my eyes. Unfortunately, I was too young for that. And because my father, a writer and a freethinker, had an unpopular political status, I was ostracized and felt very marginal in the army performing troop. It bothered me at the time, but I discovered later that I benefited from it when I started to write. I believe all artists and writers should be independent from the mainstream, so they won’t take the values system or moral standards of the mainstream for granted. On the contrary, they should make it their duty to question and doubt the way of life and way of thinking of the mainstream. Now I am glad to live overseas as a Chinese writer, to remain independent and critical of both sides.

Who are some of your favorite Chinese authors, both in the past and today, and why?

I never use the word favorite when it comes to literature, because I like too many authors whose styles are very different from one another. I like Cao Xueqin, author of Dream of the Red Chamber. I also like my contemporaries, such as Mo Yan, Wang Anyi, Yu Hua, and Jin Yucheng.

For another sample of Yan Geling’s writing, read Disappointing Returns, an extract from her latest novel in Chinese, translated by Dave Haysom on Read Paper Republic

Watching Korean Literature Go International at the Seoul Book and Culture Club

By Colin Marshall

I intend, in the fullness of time, to give Korean literature at least its fair share of coverage here on the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ Korea Blog. But where best to begin? Readerly types newly arrived in Seoul might well ask the same question about how to take a first step into the realm of letters here, and in response I would direct them to the Seoul Book and Culture Club, keep-uppable with online through either Facebook or Meetup.

Hosted by Scottish expatriate cultural impresario Barry Welsh (whom I interviewed last year on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture), the Book and Culture Club has put on live events with such literary luminaries as poet (and prime Korean Nobel Prize candidate) Ko Un, Please Look After Mom author Shin Kyung-sook, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself author Kim Young-ha (whom I profiled here in the LARB), The Vegetarian author Han Kang, Native Speaker author Lee Chang-rae, and Drifting House author (as well as another interviewee of mine) Krys Lee, all of which they conduct bilingually, in both Korean and English.

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Just last weekend I attended a Book and Culture Club event which gathered onstage four young Korean writers (“young” meaning, given the high barrier to entry of Korea’s literary scene, younger than fifty) for a discussion of the direction of Korean fiction today, all of whom now have a novella out in a dual-language edition from ASIA Publishers. Lee Jangwook, a poet, critic, and Russian literature specialist in addition to his work as a novelist, wrote Old Man River (올드 맨 리버); Lee Kiho, who specializes in telling stories of societally marginal characters in unusual forms, wrote Kwon Sun-chan and Nice People (권순찬과 착한 사람들); the Korean-Chinese Geum Hee, whose work focuses on the lives of North Korean refugees, wrote Ok-hwa (옥화); and Baik Sou-linne, who grew up in Paris from junior high on, wrote Time Difference (시차).

It might seem an odd choice to introduce writers to the Anglosphere with novellas (and short novellas at that), a form that English and American readers never seem quite sure what to do with. But if you want to understand Korean literature, you have to understand the place of the short form. Lee Kiho, the most famous author of the bunch, explained that short novels have the importance they do here not despite the fact that they don’t sell well, but “because they don’t sell well,” creating the perception that, unlike longer novels, “they’re not under the influence of capitalism.” (Plus, he added, “they’re more convenient for the writers” — no small matter.)

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In the interviewer’s chair sat Charles Montgomery, teacher in the English Interpretation and Translation division of Seoul’s Dongguk University, editor of KTLit.com, and just about the most enthusiastic American (or otherwise) advocate for Korean literature in translation I know. (I also happen to have interviewed him myself on Notebook on Cities and Culture.) He lead the writers into a conversation that ranged widely, especially in the geographic sense, given that most of them had written stories set in or involving (or came with the personal experience of living in) lands outside Korea. An underlying question: has Korean literature truly begun to internationalize?

Lee Jangwook suggested that it might simply have begun to reflect the age of global capitalism in which we find ourselves. Baik Sou-Linne pointed to the current rise of “traveling novels” in Korean literature, mentioning the increasing proportions of Koreans who, like her, lived abroad at an early age. It all made me think of Douglas Coupland’s definition of the relatively new genre of “Translit,” composed of novels that “cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present.”

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Yes, I would very much like to read Korean Translit, especially of a kind this latest generation of writers could well master. But would Koreans themselves like to read it? Montgomery brought up the OECD-collected statistic that, despite Korea’s impressively high literacy rate, it ranks poorly indeed in terms of how much reading its citizens do for pleasure. In this as in other areas of culture, more attention from the wider world — increasingly drawn, I would think, by a more history-spanning, geography-spanning outlook on the part of the writers — might stoke more attention back home. Korea’s promoters have long shown an obsession with the country’s international rankings (especially its sometimes unflattering OECD rankings), and perhaps that will bring those lagging pleasure-reading numbers up.

Or maybe we just need a better definition of reading. Lee Jangwook described the established notion of “good reading” as, quite possibly, nothing more than a stereotype. Maybe, he argued, it can involve something other than alone time with a paper book; maybe it can happen online too, and maybe the amount of active discussion, criticism, and knowledge that results from it counts as much as the volume of reading done in the first place. The very role of literature, added Geum Hee, has changed: it doesn’t tell you what to think anymore, but gets you to reflect on your life. Nobody argued against the idea that the time of the writer as societally anointed “grand master,” seemingly prolonged in Korea, has ended. In the straightforward words of Lee Jangwook, “It’s about time we burst that bubble.”

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Korean Punk and Indie Rock in a K-Pop World

By Colin Marshall

After years of solo study, I first started taking Korean language classes at Los Angeles’ Korean Cultural Center. While sampling the levels on offer to find one that matched my ability, I noticed a trend. The classes started out huge at the beginner level, thinned out at the intermediate level, and got quite small indeed at the advanced level. That, you’d expect, but the type of people enrolled also changed on the way up: the ranks of the beginner class heaved with students brought there by their love of Korean pop music, or “K-pop” (perhaps you’ve heard of it), while, by the advanced class, they’d almost all fallen away, leaving, for the most part, me and a bunch of Korean-Americans finally interested in communicating with their grandparents.

Global interest in K-pop rose alongside my own interest in Korea — a pure coincidence, I can assure you, unless you buy this business about the pan-pop-cultural “Korean wave” supposedly crashing against shore after shore over the past decade or two. But there’s no arguing with all those Big Bang, Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, and 2NE1 enthusiasts packing the Beginner A classrooms: more so than the movies or the television dramas, the country’s disproportionately huge number of subtly different idol singers, girl groups, and boy bands have, for better or for worse, defined for the world what the world has begun to call “Korean cool.”

“Japanese cool is quirky, the sum of the nation’s eccentricities,” writes Jeff Yang at CNN. “Hong Kong cool is frenetic, representative of the society’s freewheeling striving spirit. American cool is casual: It’s cool that’s anchored in doing without trying, it’s about being quintessentially effortless. By contrast, Korean cool could not be more effort-ful,” with its “candy-colored, otherworldly aesthetic,” its performers “invariably dancing in perfect sync,” having been “recruited as adolescents and trained for years in groups that are required to live, take classes, eat, sleep and rehearse together until they’ve achieved a transcendent level of harmony.”

Growing up in America, I had plenty of time to grow weary of American cool, with its unceasing pressure to go your own iconoclastic way — as long as you do so as visibly as possible, and in such a way as to make it seem as if you not only don’t notice the eyes on you, but that you didn’t want to turn them toward you in the first place. The defining memory of the cultural landscape of my adolescence: “alternative rock” wasn’t just a commercial radio format, it was the most popular commercial radio format. There, as in many areas of mainstream culture, the substance didn’t quite match the image.

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My last memorable disappointment with this sort of thing came the first time I heard the actual music of Lady Gaga. Had the compositions of her songs sounded half as bold as the her outfits looked, we’d have had a revolution in pop, but as it stands, her outlandish appearance only casts into relief the blandest elements of her only faintly-adventurous-by-mainstream-standards hits. By the same token, if the compositional wing of the K-pop industry spent half as much energy pushing their music into new territories (rather than tweaking and refining whatever the last big group did) as the video and stage-show producers do with those candy colors and perfect synchronicity, I’d have started studying Korean out of a love of K-pop myself.

“K-pop looks good,” says Bernie Cho, the Korean-American president of Korean music distribution and marketing agency DFSB Kollective. “Some would say it sounds good,” he adds, making the biggest laugh line of Us and Them: Korean Indie Rock in a K-Pop World, a new documentary by academics Stephen Epstein and Tim Tangherlini. It follows up on Our Nation: A Korean Punk Documentary, which they put out in 2002. I caught a screening last week of both films, back to back, at Seoul’s Club Ruailrock (롸일락), followed by live sets from a few of the bands featured therein — some closer to punk, some closer to rockabilly, some other brands of rock entirely, all of them united in the cause of not being K-pop.

Taken together, the documentaries constitute a fascinating portrait of not just the evolution of Korean punk and indie rock, which has had to develop on the thin margins of Korean life, but of Korean life itself. One friend remarked that the screaming girls at the foot of the stage in the early 2000s seen in Our Nation looked, even just by comparison to the screaming girls at the foot of the stage in the early 2010s seen in Us and Them, almost North Korean — that is to say, they looked less affected by the sort of cosmetic surgery-crafted standard look that, in the years between the two movies, has influenced the image of everyday South Koreans and positively defined the image of the South Korean pop star.

That counts as only one of the many things a young Korean rocker might have to rebel against. As I grew up and watched some of my friends get into punk, I have to admit I wondered what they saw in it, or rather heard in it; as a score, it might well have suited the crumbling New York or London of the 1970s, but the suburbs of Seattle in the 1990s? (Not that the theatrical booze- and pill-fueled angst of that era’s “alternative” rock struck me as relatable either.) But now I wonder how any Korean high-school student, subject to the all-consuming morning-noon-and-night pressure of Korean social and academic expectations, could do without the catharsis punk provides.

When Westerners imagine East Asian interpretations of Western music, they often imagine a sort of rigidly imitative formalism, the kind out of which Dave Barry got a few miles when he went to Tokyo and observed the street rockers and dancers of Harajuku, a scene that, he writes, “served as heartwarming proof that rock music is indeed the universal language of the young, and the Japanese young cannot speak it worth squat.” He perceives “a Hipness Gap, a gap between us so vast that their cutting-edge young rockin’ rebels look like silly posturing out-of-it weenies even to a middle-aged dweeb like myself. They buy our music, they listen to our music, they play our music, but they don’t get our music.”

But Dave Barry Does Japan came out in 1992, and this is the 21st century; we’ve long since transcended ideas of “getting it” and “not getting it,” right? Don’t we we now have a zeitgeist that renders Japanese reinterpretations of vintage Americana a worthier object of fascination than the genuine articles? And besides, this is Korea, a culture characterized less (in the view of its own people) by constant self-possession than spontaneous emotional outburst, and less by the disciplined replication of things foreign than by their indiscriminate mixture. This sensibility gave the first wave of Korean indie rock, reflected upon in Our Nation, its particular appeal.

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Epstein, in an article on both documentaries for The Asia-Pacific Journal, writes about 1989, his first year in Korea, a time when, “long before the term K-Pop was coined, Korean popular music was rife with anodyne but often overwrought concoctions and Western soft rock was ubiquitous,” a mixture he experienced as “a mild form of aural torture.” But when he returned in 1997, things had changed. “How did punk rock get to Korea when eight years ago I couldn’t even imagine that there would be anything like this?” he asked himself. And as for the new sounds themselves, “Imagine listening to pop music for your whole life, and then suddenly over the course of a year, somebody introduces you to Nirvana, the Sex Pistols, Green Day, Led Zeppelin, all at once. What kind of music are you going to make?”

That question lies at the heart of Our Nation and Us and Them‘s project, as it will presumably lie at the heart of whatever documentary on Korean punk and indie rock Epstein and Tangherlini make next. They chart a kind of internationalization of the music: first, Koreans adapted the threads of Western rock for their own expressive purposes (an early compilation carried the title Joseon Punk (조선펑크); a later band  branded themselves as playing “kimchibilly”); then, as the foreign population of Korea grew, the Westerners themselves joined in, forming mixed-nationality bands with the Koreans; now, Korean bands have begun to play in the West, and Western bands come to play in Korea — the sort of ongoing transoceanic musical exchange that must warm the heart of any cultural globalist.

But will there come a point, I wonder, when we stop calling it Korean music? For all their close scrutiny and impeccable assumption, even improvement, of the form of the postwar American greaser, those Harajuku kids Barry ridiculed, “all dressed identically in tight black T-shirts, tight black pants, black socks, and pointy black shoes,” each one with a “lovingly constructed, carefully maintained, major-league caliber 1950s-style duck’s-ass haircut,” come off no less Japanese — and, in a way, more Japanese — for it. He witnessed a mastery of varying surfaces, even foreign surfaces, but a mastery itself rooted in a deeper place. In the words of Pico Iyer, “Japan is ready to change its clothes so often in part because it changes its soul so rarely.”

How often does Korea change its soul? An ultimately unanswerable question, but one that any watcher of Korean popular culture can’t avoid. Our Nation and Us and Them reveal a subculture more porous, more subject to permanent influence, than any of my acquaintance in Japan, and perhaps, so far, a more fruitful one for it. I get the sense of K-pop, which by nature seeks an ever bigger market, moving toward a kind of linguistic dilution and geographical nowhere-ness that might one day, for all the soft-power value of the brand at the moment, let it cast off what Epstein calls its “Special K” and become a kind of (alas, even blander) global pop music. Will Korea’s punk and indie rockers, in their oppositional manner, show the way down a more interesting path of musical internationalization?

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

When Old Blue Eyes Was Red: The Poignant Story of Frank Sinatra’s Politics


By Jon Wiener

I remember Sinatra who didn’t pal around with rich Republicans. During the early 1950s, at my Sunday school in St. Paul, Minnesota, one of the highlights of the year was the annual screening of The House I Live In, a short film starring a young and skinny Sinatra. In it, he told a gang of kids that racial and religious differences “make no difference except to a Nazi or somebody who’s stupid.” He sang about “The people that I work with / The workers that I meet. . . . The right to speak my mind out / That’s America to me.” The House I Live In, made at the peak of Sinatra’s popularity, won him a special Academy Award in 1945. Four years later his career was in ruins, in the wake of charges that he was tied to both the Mafia and the Communists. Forty years later his career was legend, his politics solidly conservative.

At first glance Sinatra’s political Odyssey from left to right seems to have followed a well-trod path. “Maturity” has been defined by figures as different as John dos Passos and Jerry Rubin as the abandonment of youthful ideals. But Sinatra’s case is different. Beaten down as an activist leftist, his career destroyed by the right-wing press, he made a stunning comeback, then found himself snubbed and abused by the liberals whose views he shared. Only then did he sign up with his old right-wing enemies.

The House I Live In was a turning point. The Cumulative Index to Publications of the Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), a handy list of everyone named as a communist in 20 years of committee hearings, indicates that in the eight years following The House I Live In Sinatra was named 12 times. The New York Times Index for 1949 contains a single stunning cross-reference: “Sinatra, Frank: See US—Espionage.” Sinatra reportedly denied the reports that he “followed or appeased some of the CP [Communist Party] line program over a long period of time.”

But once the allegations had been made, Sinatra’s image in the press changed dramatically. He was first linked to the Mafia in a February 1947 gossip column that reported he had been seen in Havana with mobster Lucky Luciano and other “scum” and “goons” who “find the south salubrious in the winter, or grand-jury time.” The columnist’s source, and the source of many subsequent Mafia-Sinatra stories, turns out to have been Harry Anslinger, a crony of J. Edgar Hoover. Anslinger served as head of the federal narcotics bureau and was out to get Sinatra because he was a “pink.”

“Frank’s big nosedive,” as the pundits called it, began on April 8, 1947. That was the night he punched Hearst gossip columnist Lee Mortimer at Ciro’s celebrated Hollywood night spot. The Hearst papers went wild, running whole pages on the incident, repeating the Mafia story and HUAC charges. “Sinatra Faces Probe on Red Ties,” a headline read. Soon gossip titans Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, and Dorothy Kilgallen were heaping abuse on him. Overnight Sinatra was transformed by the right-wing press from the crooning idol of bobby-soxers into a violent, left-wing Mafioso.

Overnight Sinatra was transformed by the right-wing press from the crooning idol of bobby-soxers into a violent, left-wing Mafioso.

Sinatra said he punched Mortimer because the columnist called him a “dago.” In fact Mortimer had been calling him some other things in print. He wrote about what he called “the crooner’s penchant for veering to portside” and reminded readers that Sinatra had been named in HUAC testimony as “one of Hollywood’s leading travelers on the road of Red Fascism.” Mortimer, nephew of the editor of the Hearst-owned New York Mirror, pledged that “this column will continue to fight the promotion of class struggle or foreign isms posing as entertainment”–like The House I Live In.

How pink had Sinatra been? HUAC’s sources were pretty disreputable. The first to name him was Gerald L. K. Smith, a raucous native fascist. In 1946 he told the committee that Sinatra “has been doing some pretty clever stuff for the Reds.” Sinatra was named again in HUAC testimony in 1947 by Walter S. Steele, a private Red-hunter who had once accused Campfire Girls of being “Communistic.” Jack B. Tenney, a California state senator who headed a state version of HUAC, reported in 1947 that Sinatra had taken part in a dinner sponsored by American Youth for Democracy, which J. Edgar Hoover had declared a communist front.

Between The House I Live In in 1945 and the big 1947 HUAC hearings, Sinatra had in fact moved much closer to organized left-wing political activity. In 1943, when riots broke out in Harlem, he went uptown to speak at two integrated high school assemblies, urging the kids to “act as neighborhood emissaries of racial goodwill toward younger pupils and among friends.” Shortly after, when white students in Gary, Indiana, boycotted classes at their newly integrated high school, Sinatra spoke in the school auditorium and sang “The House I Live In” What other star at the top of the charts has thrown himself into the civil rights struggle so directly?

In May 1946 Sinatra issued what Billboard called “an anti-Franco blast.” The statement was remarkable for two reasons. First, the only people who still remembered the support that Spain’s dictator received from Hitler and Mussolini were real leftists. And second, there was Sinatra’s Catholic background. The comment caused the Catholic Standard and Times of Philadelphia to label him a “pawn of fellow-travellers.”

Sinatra moved closer to the Communist Party in July 1946, when he served as vice president of the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions. Known by its asthmatic acronym, HICCASP had been a broad coalition of pro-Roosevelt liberals and leftists, ranging from Thomas Mann to Rita Hayworth. Sinatra became an officer during a faction fight in which Communists pushed liberals out of the organization and steered it toward Henry Wallace’s leff-wing challenge to Truman in 1948. Sinatra wrote an open letter in the New Republic to Wallace at the beginning of 1947, calling on him to “take up the fight we like to think of as ours—the fight for tolerance, which is the basis of any fight for peace.” Within three months headlines appeared linking him to the Communists.

A month later he was fired from his radio show; six months after that his New York concerts flopped. Soon his personal life was falling apart as fast as his career. By December 1949 his affair with Ava Gardner had become an open scandal. Columbia Records was trying to get back the advance they had given him. In 1950 he was released from his MGM film contract, and his own agent, MCA, dropped him. He was a has-been at 34.

After Sinatra’s stunning 1953 comeback in From Here to Eternity, he remained a Democrat. He sang “The House I Live In” at the Hollywood Palladium at a 1956 campaign salute to Adlai Stevenson. He returned to the political wars with new energy during the spring of 1960. He had two projects that season: working for the Kennedy campaign (Sinatra’s version of “High Hopes” was the official Kennedy campaign song) and breaking the Hollywood blacklist that had barred left-wingers from working in the movies ever since the 1947 HUAC investigations.

The second project was announced shortly after Kennedy won the New Hampshire primary. The New York Times headline read, “Sinatra Defies Writer Blacklist / Hires Albert Maltz for his job filming of ‘The Execution O’ Private Slovik.’” Maltz had written The House I Live In. In Execution of Private Slovik, a recently published novel, told the story of the World War II G.I. who became the only American since the Civil War to be executed for desertion. “This marks the first time that a top movie star has defied the rule laid down by the major movies studios” 13 years earlier, the Times explained. Sinatra would produce, Robert Parish was to direct. Slovik would be played by a TV tough guy named Steve McQueen.

Sinatra, asked if he was fearful of the reaction to hiring a blacklisted writer, had a defiant, I-told-you-so response. He quoted his own 1947 statement criticizing HUAC’s witch-hunt: “Once they get the movies throttled, how long will it be before the committee gets to work on freedom of the air? . . . If you make a pitch on a nationwide radio network for a square deal for the underdog, will they call you a commie?”

A square deal for the underdog seemed to be exactly what Sinatra was after—for underdog Maltz, who served time in a federal penitentiary for refusing to name names, and also for Slovik. According to director Parish, Sinatra regarded Slovik not just as a victim of an unjust system of military justice, but as “the champ underdog of all time.”

“They’re calling you a fucking Communist!” Harry Cohn, king of Paramount Pictures, shouted at Sinatra. The attack had come, predictably, from Sinatra’s old enemies in the Hearst press. Editorial writers for the New York Mirror reminded readers that the guy who just hired a Red had once had a “‘romance’ with a dame to whom he was not then married.” (Sinatra must have murmured, “Hey, that was no dame, that was Ava Gardner!”)

John Wayne found Sinatra’s Achilles’ heel. Asked for his opinion on Sinatra’s hiring of Maltz, Duke said, “I don’t think my opinion is too important. Why don’t you ask Sinatra’s crony, who’s going to run our country for the next few years, what he thinks of it?” Sinatra responded with “A Statement of Fact,” for which he bought space in the New York Times. In it, he declared that connecting candidate Kennedy to his decision to hire Maltz was “hitting below the belt. I make movies. I do not ask the advice of Sen. Kennedy on whom I should hire. . . . I have, in my opinion, hired the best man for the job.”

Just as the controversy seemed to be dying down, the Hearst papers ran the banner headline: “Sinatra Fires Maltz.” The Times and the trades contained a new ad signed by Sinatra, headlined simply “Statement”: “Mr. Maltz had … an affirmative, pro-American approach to the story. But the American public has indicated it feels the morality of hiring Albert Maltz is the more crucial matter, and I will accept this majority opinion.”

In an interview shortly before his death in 1985, Maltz recalled the incident. “Sinatra threw down the gauntlet against the blacklist,” he said. “He was prepared to fight. His eyes were open. The ad firing me was ridiculous. The American people had not spoken; only the Hearst press and the American Legion had. Something had come from behind that caused him to change his position.”

Maltz brought out his scrapbooks. Among hundreds of faded clippings was one from Dorothy Kilgallen’s gossip column. “The real credit belongs to former Ambassador Joseph P Kennedy,” she wrote. “Unquestionably anti-communist, Dad Kennedy would have invited Frank to jump off the Jack Kennedy presidential bandwagon if he hadn’t unloaded Mr. Maltz.” Kennedy’s campaign advisers worried also about Sinatra’s Mafia aura and expressed the hope that the singer would keep his distance from the senator. But, the advisers said, they hoped Sinatra would help with a voter drive in Harlem, “where he is recognized as a hero of the cause of the Negro.”

After the election, JFK asked Sinatra to organize and star in his inaugural gala. The singer proudly escorted Jackie, but Jack was the one he cared about. In a gesture of classic macho deference, Sinatra offered to share a prize girlfriend, Judith Campbell Exner, with the president. Kennedy liked the idea and began an affair with Exner. (Sinatra’s hit that year, appropriately enough, was All the Way.) Then Sinatra Went too far; he introduced Exner to Chicago Mob leader Sam Giancana.

J. Edgar Hoover’s ever-present eyes and ears quickly discovered the liaisons. Bobby Kennedy, in the middle of a campaign to crush the Mafia, put a stop to his brother’s involvement with Exner. The Kennedys had been planning to stay with Sinatra in Palm Springs. He’d remodeled his house in anticipation of the presidential visit. At the last minute, JFK announced they’d stay instead with Bing Crosby—who wasn’t even a Democrat. To the public, it was an inexplicable snub.

Sinatra always was, as Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins puts it, “a virtuoso at storing wounds.” He got even with Bobby in the 1968 California primary by supporting Humphrey. Then he discovered the Humphrey campaign had the same reservations that the Kennedy campaign had had, and he quietly left.

As youth culture flowered in 1966, Sinatra married Mia Farrow; he’d just finished an album he called September of My Years. He was 51, she was 21, five years younger than his daughter Nancy. A sixties rebel, Mia cut her hair short and wore pants, and opposed the Vietnam War. Sinatra’s friends explained the attraction: “He digs her brain.” Soon, however, she was denouncing him and his pals: “All they know how to do is tell dirty stories, break furniture, pinch waitresses’ asses and bet on the horses,” she said. She left him to join the Beatles in India, meditating with the Maharishi.

Sinatra announced his retirement in 1971. “The principle activity of his retirement years,” New York Times music critic John Rockwell writes, “was his political shift from left to right.” The key moment seems to have come when the House crime committee held a new investigation of Sinatra’s Mob ties in 1972. The committee was headed by Democrats including California senator John Tunney, an old Kennedy friend for whom Sinatra had raised $160,000 with a special show. The main evidence against him was the testimony of a confessed hit man who said that a New England Mafia boss had boasted that Sinatra was “fronting” for him as part owner to two resort hotels. The committee called Sinatra. “That’s all hearsay evidence, isn’t it?” Sinatra asked. “Yes, it is,” the committee counsel admitted.

Always a public man, Sinatra explained the shift in his political thinking in a New York Times Op-Ed piece he wrote just after he appeared before the committee. His old politics of standing up for the little guy had been altered. Now he embraced the right-wing populism that defined the principal oppressor of the little guy as big government. And he saw his subpoena as a prime example of government oppressing a little guy. Sinatra became a Reagan Republican. “It didn’t gall him as much as he had thought it would,” reported columnist Earl Wilson.

His turn to the right coincided with a deepened contempt for women and his most offensive public behavior ever. At a pre-inaugural party in 1973, he shouted at Washington Post columnist Maxine Cheshire, “Get away from me, you scum. Go home and take a bath. . . . You’re nothing but a two-dollar cunt. You know what that means, don’t you? You’ve been laying down for two dollars all your life.” He then stuffed two dollar bills in her drink, saying, “Here’s two dollars, baby, that’s what you’re used to.” He made that kind of language part of his concert routine for several months, to the evident enjoyment of his new right-wing following.

President Nixon invited him to perform in the White House in 1973—something the Democrats had never done. He sand “The House I Live In.” Twenty-eight years earlier, he had sung it for students at newly integrated high schools. Now he was singing for the man who began his career as a member of HUAC from 1946 to 1950, when the committee smeared Sinatra. The president beamed with satisfaction, and Pat Nixon kept time by nodding her head. At the end of the program, for the first time in his public career, Sinatra was in tears.

© The New Republic, March 31, 1986.  Reprinted with permission.

12 Things That Are Banned on the Chinese Internet

This is the fourth in a series of “Provocations,” a LARB series produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016). All contributors are also participants in the conference.

By Louisa Lim

1. The Golden Toad

A 72-foot tall golden inflatable toad was supposed to bring “good luck and fortune” to Yuyuantan park in Beijing, which was no doubt hoping to attract crowds with the “biggest aerated toad in Asia.” Instead, it brought mirth to millions of Chinese internet users, who immediately seized upon the toad’s uncanny resemblance to former Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin. The term “toad” has long been used as a proxy to talk about Jiang, and has been banned for Weibo searches since 2011. “Golden toad” was a later addition to the blocked list, which already featured “Chairman Toad,” “Toad + death” and “Toad + critically ill” after rumors spread that Jiang had either died or was on his deathbed (point of fact: he still hasn’t croaked). Other blocked terms include ‘elder’ and ‘prolonging life’. The internet has even spawned self-described “toad fans,” a term used to imply nostalgia for the relatively relaxed era when Jiang Zemin was in power. Continue reading