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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.)

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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.”

¤

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?”

¤

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.

¤

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.”

¤

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

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Loving It or Listing It in China

By Austin Dean

A sure sign of adulthood is an interest in real estate. There comes a moment when you’re home with your family over the holidays, watching television with your mom, and think to yourself, “That was a good episode of House Hunters, but I can’t believe they paid that much for that house.”

Spending time in China only catalyzes this change, as it often seems that the entire country is participating in a never-ending conversation about real estate. At the individual level, your friends tell you about their plans to sell, buy, swap, and trade up, and question you about American real estate prices and practices: “How big of a house could I buy in San Antonio for $200,000?” (Don’t underestimate the soft power of the San Antonio Spurs.)

Everyone also argues about the big picture: Is there a real estate bubble? If so, what would that mean for the Chinese economy? Is the real estate developer Evergrande too big to fail? Why are Chinese companies buying so many trophy real estate assets abroad? Of course, like any question with lots of money at stake, people disagree.

Let’s actually elide these questions and talk about a related but under-explored area: interior decorating and home remodeling.

A few years ago, this was actually a big topic, and one framed around a very specific question: Why did Home Depot fail in China, and why was IKEA succeeding? One theory held that when you go to Home Depot “you’re asking for help to solve an existing problem that you have — you want to install a ceiling fan, you want to put new windows in or you want to build a deck.” But perhaps many Chinese were not that interested in solving those problems by themselves. As a Wall Street Journal headline put it “Home Depot Learns Chinese Prefer ‘Do-It-for-Me.’” IKEA, on the other hand, was selling an experience: that of walking through showrooms and trying out furniture, eating Swedish meatballs and lingonberry sauce in the restaurant, and piling one’s cart high with inexpensive knick-knacks in the marketplace.

Beneath the debate about the different fates of Home Depot and IKEA in China is a deeper truth: given the choice, most people would like to change something about their homes. That is where home remodeling TV shows come in.

One show, Jiaohuan kongjian (Switch a Room), concentrates mostly on decorating, with a few smaller projects requiring drills and saws thrown in for good measure. Somewhat surprisingly, it airs on the finance channel of Chinese Central Television. To use lingo people at the finance channel would understand, you get the idea that this type of show is outside the network’s “core competency.”

Each episode focuses on improving the look and feel of two apartments. Usually based in a big city — Beijing, Shenzhen, Shanghai — most of the apartments are pretty unremarkable: two bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen, and a living room. The people living in them often have a kid.

The show doesn’t do a good job fleshing out these people as characters. As Mao Zedong might say (and HGTV understands), a good home-decorating show needs “contradictions”: there must be tension and conflict, even if it’s only about what color to paint a wall. These contradictions, and how they get resolved, are at the core of any decorating show. It’s not really about the color of the paint, but the people making the decisions. Because the characters on Jiaohuan kongjian aren’t well drawn out and developed, you won’t find yourself hoping that the couple featured in the show end up with more light in their living room or a cool new dinner table.

The producers of Dragon TV’s Mengxiang gaizao jia (Dreams Transform a House), on the other hand, must have watched their HGTV, as they really know what they’re doing. Each episode usually begins with some kind of drama: a couple fighting, an accident, or problems with remodeling. It sells itself not simply as a decorating show, but a reality-decorating show. The remodel is simply a setting for the rest of the drama.

The other big difference is the homes themselves and what the renovators do to them. There are no cookie-cutter apartments on Mengxiang gaizao jia. Instead, as a real estate agent might say, the properties featured on the show have character: an old-walk up in Shanghai, a six-story house in Guangzhou, a Beijing courtyard complex. (Others, choosing a less charitable adjective, might say the houses are crappy.) The show is about major overhauls: ripping down and rearranging walls, changing the layout, and building a new house around an old frame. Naturally, this isn’t cheap. While Jiaohuan kongjian generally spends 20,000 yuan (about $3,000) on redecorating each place, Mengxiang gaizao jia spends a lot more, often between 200,000 and 300,000 yuan ($30-45,000).

Mengxiang gaizao jia also highlights the conundrums faced by ordinary Chinese. The show excels in giving the micro-history of a family, a house, and a neighborhood. In one episode, it chronicles the story of three generations of a family living in one quarter of an old Beijing courtyard-style house in the center of the city. Husband and wife, daughter and son-in-law, and granddaughter all crowd together in a 39-square-meter apartment. They don’t even have a proper bathroom. The son-in-law and the daughter actually have access to a much larger apartment in a different part of the city. So why are they living in such cramped quarters? The schools in that area of the city happen to be excellent. It’s a classic case of people living in a small, cramped apartment in a good school district (Xuequ fang).

The “contradictions” in Mengxiang gaizao jia arise both naturally and with the help of the producers. In the episode with the 39-square-meter apartment, a neighbor objects to many of the changes proposed by the person in charge of the renovation. And, as it happens, that person in charge is actually from Japan. As the Beijing couple note at the beginning of the show, how can a Japanese person redesign a home in China? The people have different styles of living! Now we have multiple layers of “contradictions” and a very watchable program. Naturally, the “contradictions” get worked out over the course of the episode. The neighbor backs down and the Japanese architect wins over the Beijing couple.

As Home Depot found out the hard way, China isn’t yet a nation of rehab addicts. But there are quite a lot of fixer uppers waiting for a property brother to come along and do a solid renovation. At the end, their owners will face that classic HGTV conundrum: love it or list it?

KB - Korean Los Angeles guide

A Korean Travel Writer Reveals the Los Angeles Even Angelenos Don’t Know

By Colin Marshall 

I moved from Los Angeles to Seoul in part because I prefer living as a foreigner to living as a native. But I continue to appreciate Los Angeles, and still plan to spend a significant chunk of my future in it, for that same reason: not because I feel like a native there, but because I and everyone else there feel, in one way or another, like foreigners. The city’s role first as a magnet for the rest of America, then as a magnet for the rest of the world, has long since obliterated any assumptions one Angeleno might hold about another. We’re all “foreigners” there, all to some degree outsiders, whether Los Angeles-born-and-raised or immigrants from elsewhere in the country or another country entirely: Mexico, England, Armenia, China, Ethiopia, Korea …

Anna Kim (안나킴, in her Westernized Korean spelling) came to Los Angeles from Korea, not as an immigrant, nor even as a particularly long-term resident. But her older sister who preceded her to Los Angeles did emigrate, establishing a life there first and thus providing Kim with someone to visit and a place to crash. And so, putting a few months of Los Angeles time in here and there, doing different things each time, Kim performed the surely inadvertent as well as deliberate body of research that went into her book LA 도시 산책, which literally means “L.A. City Walk,” but whose cover also bears the English title Los Angeles, Portrait of a City — followed by the Korean subtitle 사람은 도시를 만들고, 도시는 사람을 만들다, which translates to the Churchillian observation that “people make the city, and the city makes people.”

I picked up Portrait of a City on my very first visit to Korea, eagerly following the wise dictum that, when studying a foreign language, you should study materials in that language on subjects that interest you most. Few subjects interest me as much as Los Angeles, and so finding an in-depth volume on the city written in Korean felt to me like happening on a sacred object, especially given the Korean publishing industry’s respectable design standards for travel essay books. Given the lower level of my Korean skills at the time — and Kim’s distinctive writing style, which a Korean friend described to me, with a slight sneer on her face, as an odd mixture of the too-elevated and the too-casual — actually understanding the thing proved a bit of a struggle from page one, but sheer fascination carried me through the years of off-and-on reading it took to get through.

Before Portrait of a City, Kim wrote a book on that other American metropolis called 뉴요커도 모르는 뉴욕, or The New York Even New Yorkers Don’t Know. Given the potential to market as a series, it actually surprises me that she didn’t call her Los Angeles book The Los Angeles Even Angelenos Don’t Know. It certainly reflects the content, since the author’s regular but temporary presence in the city galvanizes her to explore farther and wider and participate in a range of cultural activities than even some who live in Los Angeles for decades do.

The book organizes its essays into geographic sections, each fronted by a nifty isometric map of the area in question with a red line delineating the maximally interesting walking route through it. This comes without the posturing I too often see in writings about Los Angeles that focus on the city as experienced on foot: “They say ‘nobody walks in L.A.,’ but they’re wrong. I walk in L.A., and I’m here to tell you that you can do it too,” that sort of thing. (Maybe it has to do with the fact that Missing Persons never blew up here.) Kim not only assumes from the outset that her readers will walk in the city, she specifically selects places to write about for their accessibility by bus and train.

Not for her, then, the comforts of the exurbs, or even that quintessentially Los Angeles territory: the technically-urban neighborhood within the city limits that nonetheless feels like an exurb. She does begin with a nod to greater Los Angeles’ internationally brand-namiest places with sections on Beverly Hills (the book’s first essay titled “Beverly Hills Is Not Really Los Angeles”), Hollywood, and — reflecting South Korea’s intense interest in higher education and the best-known institutions thereof — USC and UCLA. But the journey gets deeper thereafter with sections on Bunker Hill, Downtown’s historic core, Koreatown, the Pueblo, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Santa Monica, and Venice Beach.

Korean travel writers often focus on observing, say, the deliciousness of lattes sipped in the boulevard cafés of various world capitals, but Kim, apparently a bred-in-the-bone history buff, displays a more rigorous interest in the city. This manifests especially in an architectural consciousness stimulated almost everywhere she goes: she pays attention, of course, to the likes of Capitol Records Building, the Bradbury Building, Disney Concert Hall, and Union Station, but also to the whimsically exaggerated (and only faintly sinister) cottages of Beverly Hills, the Herald-Examiner Building (which leads her to consider architect Julia Morgan’s entire career as a precedent of the late Zaha Hadid’s), the football-themed gargoyles perched around the USC campus, and the Department of Water and Power headquarters, at which she marvels as the Civic Center’s Taj Mahal. (Weirdly, the symbolic and eminently tour-able Watts Towers gets the short shrift, just a few sentences alongside a small photo.)

Kim also devotes a substantial essay to the downtown campus of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, well known to many Angelenos and architecture buffs everywhere simply as SCI-Arc. Her nose for buildings also takes her to the Bonaventure Hotel, for my money one of the most fascinating structures in Los Angeles, an occasion to tell the story of how her sister — the one who settled in the city — received her marriage proposal in its top-floor revolving lounge, but had to wait two hours alone for her now-husband, who’d descended to the parking garage to collect the ring and bouquet from the car, to find his way back up through the hotel’s notoriously bewildering interior.

It comes as no surprise, then, that when Kim inevitably gets around to writing about the Church of Scientology, she writes about their penchant for buying, preserving, occupying, and iconifying old buildings. But in introducing that controversial and high-profile religious organization, she describes it as a profit-driven cult whose members “believe that the human soul is a reincarnation of an alien,” words whose starkness might shock a Korean-speaking Westerner used to reading those of an American media that, fearing Scientology’s legal and economic wrath, hew to such comparatively diplomatic terms as “controversial and high-profile religious organization.”

Kim grapples with LA’s diversity throughout the book. She calls to schedule personal training sessions at a Koreatown gym and soon after meets her trainer: “a brawny black man standing like a mountain range with his arms folded.” Flustered, she breaks into a sweat and he face turns red. “Don’t be scared of me,” he says to her in Korean, turning out to be the son of an American G.I. and a Korean woman who spent the first 20 years of his life in his mother’s homeland. Elsewhere in Koreatown, she passes the Gaylord Apartments on Wilshire Boulevard and, interpreting its grand sign as literally meaning “Lord of the Gays,” shruggingly imagines it as a luxury residential complex for upper-class homosexuals.

Kim no doubt wouldn’t imagine such a place in Korea, a country with a long way to go in terms of officially accepting, or even acknowledging, the full range of human sexuality. But as with most everything else she writes about in Portrait of a City, she neither judges the concept, nor, as would accord with the dismissively observational tradition first established by visitors from the east coast, does she write it off as just one more act in the circus that is Los Angeles. She regards the city as a challenge to be navigated, understood, and with sufficient persistence mastered, even during such trying times as when she discovers the searchable online geographical database of California sex offenders and falls into a paranoia about how many of them could live just doors away.

She reserves more of her instinctive judgment for people from her own side of the world, as when a Japanese tour guide through little Tokyo starts tearing up while talking about World War II. Kim at first has little sympathy, finding this behavior typical of “a war-criminal country that tries to cry away its sins.” But then they reach the Go for Broke Monument, where she learns, and finds herself moved by, the story of whom it memorializes: the Japanese Americans, including a relative of the tour guides’s, who turned against Japan in order to protect their families.

On another tour, this one through Union Station, she learns of the ruins of the old Chinatown, hastily vacated in the late 1930s to make way for the grand new railway terminal, through their artistic incorporation into the building itself:

Suddenly the tour guide spoke in the tone of an Indiana Jones-esque archaeologist. “But take a look here. So far I’ve figured out the meaning of every symbol in this station, but with this strange one, I just don’t know. Maybe someone here does?”

At a glance, it looked like a round form of the Chinese character 車. What, this, some kind of mysterious ancient Egyptian hieroglyph? “It’s a Chinese character that means ‘coach’ or ‘car,’” I answered, chuckling. The elderly whites in the group all stared at me, wide-eyed.

Sheesh. He’s led this tour for the Los Angeles Conservancy for something like ten years, with at least a few dozen participants each week. How regrettable that all this time, there hasn’t been one Asian who could read that character. Isn’t this Los Angeles, the American city so well-known for its large Asian population? I mean, 車 is a simple, common character that any Chinese, Korean, or Japanese could read.

The first generation of immigrants were busy making a living, and the second-generation kids don’t have any special interest in this kind of thing. The first generation has a strong tendency to keep to themselves, so one doesn’t see them in mostly-white meetings like this. Second-generation Asians are so fully assimilated into American culture that they’re lucky to understand the language of their parents’ country, let alone its writing.

Actually, the young Chinese lady who’d led my tour through Chinatown was like that. She said her mother immigrated with her when she was a toddler. She was a rare model student in having such a strong interest in her roots that she led English-language tours of Chinatown, but when I asked her what a character on a sign meant, she flinched. “I can’t read Chinese,” she answered timidly. For heaven’s sake, a Chinese Chinatown tour guide who can’t read Chinese — to someone like me, born and raised in a Chinese character-based culture, that’s preposterous.

A book like this underscores, for a student of Korean such as myself, the extent to which anything written in the Korean language begins with the understandable assumption of a Korean readership. Would a Korean reader better understand why Kim, when she decides to finally give one of Cole’s famous French dip sandwiches a try, freaks out at the cut and color of the meat and eats only the crust of the bun dipped in au jus? In any case, they’ll certainly appreciate the fact that she writes up pieces of Korean Los Angeles wherever she can find them, such as the home of independence activist Dosan Ahn Chang Ho transplanted whole to the USC campus, his actor son Philip’s tucked-away star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the Korean saint featured on a tapestry at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Kim also finds, here and there, points where Los Angeles could do well to Koreanize further. Spending an evening at the Chapman Market, the ornate drive-through grocery store restored by Korean owners into a popular bar and restaurant complex, she envisions a day when its central parking lot will become a setting for more outdoor cooking, eating, and drinking, the kind of public social life visible in almost every neighborhood here in Seoul. That day still hasn’t quite come in Los Angeles, a city slow to realize the potential of its public and quasi-public spaces, but these kinds of observations make me wish Portrait of a City would come out in an English translation accessible to more of the people making the city (and getting made by it) today.

Even in the original Korean, non-Korean-speakers with an interest in Los Angeles will find things to enjoy in this guidebook to the city superior to pretty much any published in English in the past couple of decades: they can still follow Kim’s suggested walks, for instance, and seek out the places she photographs, some of which they may not know no matter how thoroughly they’ve explored.

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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Mao Badges — Red, Bright and Shiny (And Open to Every Form of Capitalist Speculation)

By Helen Wang and Paul Crook

In his new book, The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962-1976, historian Frank Dikötter devotes almost two pages to Mao badges. “By 1968, the national output stood at more than 50 million badges per month,” he writes, but even that “was not enough, and a thriving black market emerged to compete with the state.” He notes that there were “illegal markets” that were in reality “hardly hidden from view, a few of them attracting crowds of over 10,000 punters, spilling over on to the streets and blocking the traffic.” Even though “(l)ocal officials decried these capitalist activities as ‘extremely disrespectful towards our great leader’… there was not much that they could do, since Red Guards and other revolutionary organisations policed the markets.”

I’m grateful to Dikötter for reminding readers of the importance of Mao badges and drawing attention to the economic activity associated with them. They are objects I’ve thought about a lot, especially since the early 2000s, when the British Museum was offered a donation of over 200 Mao badges (duplicates from a private collection in China) and my Head of Department, after agreeing to accept the gift, told me to write a catalogue. At the time, the most relevant English-language sources were Bill Bishop’s 1995 M.A. thesis “Badges of Chairman Mao Zedong (毛主席像章),” the first in-depth analysis of Mao badges ever written in English; and Melissa Schrift’s book, Biography of a Chairman Mao Badge (2001), an anthropological account of collecting Mao badges. I consulted various other sources, including catalogues of Chinese collections of Mao badges, but these tended to take a huge amount of background knowledge for granted. My catalogue, Chairman Mao Badges. Symbols and Slogans of the Cultural Revolution (2008), was designed along the lines of a traditional British Museum coin catalogue, i.e. an object-based work that could be used as a reference guide. When I sent a copy to a Mao badge expert in Beijing, he wrote back, confused as to why the British Museum collected such material, and why it would go to the trouble of producing a catalogue of a collection that was, frankly, not very impressive. I explained that the British Museum was a museum of history, that these were historical relics of the 20th century, and that the catalogue was written so that non-specialist English readers could access the history behind the objects.

The British Museum collection of Mao badges currently stands at about 350 pieces. It’s part of the UK’s national collection of badges from all over the world. Since the catalogue of Mao badges was published, every so often I receive emails from people who have their own Mao badge collections, often numbering in the hundreds or thousands. One such person is Clint Twist, who, with only a little encouragement a couple of years ago, set up what is probably the first English language website devoted to Mao badges — and tweets a Mao badge almost every day @clinttwist.

More recently, I discovered that one of the British Museum volunteers, Paul Crook, had been a teenage Mao badge dealer in Beijing in the 1960s! Paul — who was recently interviewed by the BBC for a segment on posters from the Mao era — kindly agreed to talk about that time, vividly confirming Dikötter’s statement that “badges were the most hotly traded pieces of private property during the first years of the Cultural Revolution, open to every form of capitalist speculation.”

Helen Wang

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My parents were teachers at the Foreign Languages Institute in Beijing, and when the Cultural Revolution started in 1966, and all the schools were closed, they thought it would be a good idea to take us on a trip to England until it blew over. If nothing else, it would give my brothers and myself a chance to brush up on our English. But when we returned, the situation was even more chaotic than before.

I had just finished primary school and had yet to start middle school, so was “between schools.” Although drawn in to various activities, including a month’s work experience at the No 2 Machine Tool Plant (at the age of 13), I was often at a loose end for over a year, until schools started again for me at the beginning of 1968. So I just kind of hung around. I discovered a Mao badge market that was open a few afternoons a week. It was near the zoo, and the Russian Exhibition Centre it may even have been in the taxi yard opposite the zoo. There were about three or four places in Beijing which I frequented to trade Mao badges: there, Qianmen, and a couple of other places. Mostly I used to go the one near the zoo, and take my badges pinned to a piece of cloth. Some traders had their badges pinned to the insides of their Mao jackets, and would open out their jackets so people could see the badges.

The value of badges at these markets was never to my knowledge measured in money, but always in Xiao Maotou (literally: Little Mao Heads); a fairly plain larger badge might be worth 3 or 4, but at the top end some newly designed ones of good quality could easily go up to 20 or 30. The valuation fluctuated daily, so the shrewd dealer who could anticipate trends in the market could make quite a killing.

I never excelled in this, but engaged in a bit of “insider dealing” which brought advantage because, as a foreigner, I had access to the Friendship Store, which always had a supply of rather elegant badges that weren’t generally available. It began when a friend wanted me to buy some of those badges for him. I started out doing it as a good turn, but then got the idea of taking some advantage by asking a premium: to be given one badge I did not already have for every 10 badges I bought for people from the Friendship Store. This seemed a neat way to get round the handicap of my communist education, which had taught me I should not charge more for anything than I had paid myself. Still, when my father found out about my stealthy capitalist tendencies sometime in the summer of 1967, I had a stern lecture, and eased up. In any case, schools were starting up again soon after that, and the badge markets were clamped down on in ’68 or ’69.

The Friendship Store had a good stock of Mao badges, but here I had to pay for them in cash (7 to 8 fen for the plain Xiao Maotou; and 10 to 20 fen for fancier badges). My clients had a keen eye: they would distinguish between Beijing Maotou (Beijing-style Mao’s head, with softer lines) and Shanghai Maotou (Shanghai-style Mao’s head, with sharper lines). But what people really wanted to collect were the series of badges, and gather a full set, just like collecting sets of stamps. When young people set off to travel the country in search of new experiences and see places associated with Mao’s rise, they would collect badges wherever they went. Badges from the revolutionary sites of Yan’an, Gutian or Zunyi, had extra value, as they came from further away. It was a kind of revolutionary pilgrimage.

There were the army sets the basic one being the five-pointed-star badge above a bar badge reading Wei renmin fuwu (Serve the People). These were made in four batches, and it was desirable to get one from each batch. You could tell the batch by the number on the back of the badge.

Then the army, navy, and air force started issuing their own badges. And new stylistic variations crept in. And there were fakes of some of the particularly prized issues around that time too, in ’67-68, because of the margin they traded at: where one issue might trade at a mere 15 “small Mao heads,” another might fetch 20 or 30, or even more.

Then the ministries started competing on the badge front. And you got the nuclear works badges as well.

Sourcing was the key thing the geographical and political significance – things like the launch of the satellite in 1970, when they played the first lines of the music of the Maoist anthem Dongfang Hong (The East is Red).

The really big Mao badges I have are from 1969, and the time of the 9th Congress, when everyone made sure to wear nine badges. I think it was some time around then when Mao made his famous comment “Huan wo feiji!”(Give us back my airplanes!), having calculated that the amount of aluminum used to make badges could have made three planes!

I’ve still got about 400-500 badges, including a hundred from a US collector who wanted to swap his entire collection of badges for a chunky Korean War medal I had somehow acquired. He wanted it badly it may have been a precious metal one, and he may have got a good deal, but I can’t remember now.

Paul Crook

 

KB - female writers 1

The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea

By Charles Montgomery

In my years in Korea, I never met an author humbler or nicer than Han Kang: she was always willing to answer emails, give an interview, or do a public appearance. Which is why it is pleasant to note that last week, in a “stop the presses” (or perhaps “restart the presses”) moment for Korean literature, she won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for her harrowing and brilliant The Vegetarian.

Mention should also be made of Kang’s excellent translator Deborah Smith, whose prose is both literary and readable, and who shared in the prize. Kang’s achievement immediately became the biggest “win” in Korean translated literature, surpassing that of Kyung-Sook Shin’s 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize winner Please Look After Mom. It comes at the same time in Korea that four of the last six winners of the prestigious Hyundai Munhak Award for Literature (2010-15) and four of the last six Yi Sang Awards (2010-15) were given to female writers.

These victories are the tangible residue of a surprising change in the world of hanguk munhak, or Korean literature, in which female authors have become dominant in Korea, and doubly so outside Korea in translation. This might seem an unlikely outcome from a country that, just 50 years ago, still referred to female writers as yeoryu jakka, or woman authors, while the men were simply referred to as jakkanim — authors, honorifically.

To understand the magnitude of this change, we need to take a quick ride in the Wayback Machine. Historically, Korean women were essentially barred from being authors. First, there was the problem of language: classical Korean literature was written in Chinese, a language women were not taught. Second, there was the problem of the social order. To become a writer one almost necessarily had to be a yangban (a word that implies scholarly aristocracy as well as administrative and military service), an option not open to women as it was either passed down hereditarily along the male line or awarded by test score to successful, and always male, applicants.

During this period, virtually the only literary work by women was produced by gisaeng (something like geisha) and they tended to produce formulaic laments about not being able to be with the yangban they loved. This began to change, ever so slightly, during the Joseon Dynasty when, officially in 1443 (though it actually took a few years), King Sejong decided to create a native Korean alphabet called hangul, which slowly became the language of literature. (Very slowly, in fact: even today, some Chinese characters, or hanja, remain in use in South Korea.)

Unhappy with the effective illiteracy of Koreans uneducated in the Chinese language, King Sejong pushed to make it easier for “normal” Koreans to read and write, by imagining a new set of letters: natively Korean, easy to learn, based on the position of the speech organs used to pronounce them, and formed by two- and three-letter syllables. “Being of foreign origin, Chinese characters are incapable of capturing uniquely Korean meanings,” declared the ruler himself. “Therefore, many common people have no way to express their thoughts and feelings. Out of my sympathy for their difficulties, I have created a set of 28 letters. The letters are very easy to learn, and it is my fervent hope that they improve the quality of life of all people.”

Because hangul could be quickly learned and was suited to the Korean language, it could be taught to all: even to the poor, and particularly to women. In fact, Hangul was sometimes known as the “language of the inner rooms” (a dismissive description used partly by yangban in an effort to marginalize the alphabet), or the language of the domain of women. Hangul entered use humbly enough, primarily in diaries. Many Confucian scholars and some kings were not proponents of hangul, considering hanja the proper language of literature, and its official usage and acceptance varied over the centuries. It did, however, give a textual voice to all those who could never before write their thoughts down.

As the Joseon Dynasty waned in the late-19th century, Korean literature went through a brief period of so-called “enlightenment” before falling to colonial Japan. At the start of this era, there was a window for female authors, due in part to a “modern” emphasis on “free love” (not “free love” as we’ve known it since the 60s, but the right to choose your spouse) and education for women. After Japan’s defeat in World War II closed the colonial era, literature reverted almost wholly to an all-male endeavor. Then, of course, came the defining issue for the remainder of the century: the Korean War, which dominated the country’s discourse in most fields, literature being no exception.

In the second half of the 20th century, women remained on the periphery of Korean literature by nature of the subject matter considered appropriate. The division of the country, both physically and psychologically, became the primary issue, which meant that most fiction centered on political struggle, ideological separation, and national bifurcation. But as the Korean economy and society changed, often incredibly quickly, so did the national estimate of Korean “problems.” The war receded, Korea modernized, industrialized, and internationalized, and this brought women to the front and center of Korean society, with many of them finding themselves at writing desks.

Park Wansuh began by writing on themes that roughly fit into “division literature”: mothers and daughters left abandoned by husbands, fathers killed or disappeared during the ear. In Who Ate Up All the Shinga, perhaps her most representative work on these themes, she tells the semi-autobiographical story of deciding to become a writer. Later in her career, Park began to pivot to a new theme, one that would shortly become central to many female writers who arrive on the scene shortly after her: the alienation and spiritual dispossession of women in the newly industrialized and modernized Korea.

KB - female writers 2

This kind of fiction can be found in Park’s Identical Apartments (included in the recent collection The Future of Silence: Fiction By Korean Women) and Dalkey Archive’s book of her short works, Lonesome You. Once Park became popular — and she was one of Korea’s most beloved writers — the walls began to crumble, and a new woman’s fiction emerged from the pens of such writers as Eun Hee-kyung (Poor Man’s Wife), Ch’oe Yun (There a Petal Silently Falls), Shin Kyung-Sook, Bae Suah (Nowhere to Be Found), and others.

As this process occurred in Korea, important changes were taking place in the greater spheres of publishing and reading. A recent study, for instance, reveals that translated fiction sales have doubled in the United Kingdom since the turn of the century while general fiction sales have dropped. The numbers have been particularly impressive in Korean literature, which went from selling 88 copies in 2001 to 10,191 in 2015. Alongside this increase, and to some extent pushed by it, the nature of what was translated has changed from a tightly gate-kept “representational” literature to a wider range of stories which are much more accessible to non-Korean readers.

To put it rather bluntly, the older more traditional critics who used to control Korean literature have been to some extent pushed aside, and publishing, thankfully, has been moved to overseas locations. The Literary Translation Institute of Korea (LTI Korea) has been at the forefront of this effort, but it has also been spurred on by the efforts such individual translators working both alone and in concert with the LTI  as Deborah Smith, Sora Kim-Russell, and Kim Chi-Young — mostly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, women.

At least six elements converged to bring women to the forefront of Korean literature translated into English (or indeed French, Polish, Spanish, etc.). First, the creation of hangul made writing possible for women. Second, Korea’s modernization brought at least the idea of equality to the table. Third, industrialization created a new class of autonomous “economic woman” who theoretically has access to the same avenues of expression that men always had. This began during the colonial period but primarily took place during and after the economic boom under the military rule of president Park Chung-Hee. Fourth, internationalization raised awareness of new models from the overseas lands in which women were perceived to enjoy all forms of expression.

Fifth, as economic and social changes occurred across Korea in the late 20th century, women lost their traditional positions. Women felt a new and distinctive form of alienation, having lost the diminished but understood traditional role of eomma, or mother. Shin Kyung-Sook’s Please Look After Mom is one of the works that directly addresses this loss and the nostalgia it creates for the “good old days” while others focused on the anomie that resulted.

Finally, changes in the publishing market resulted in better books being chosen for translation, smoother language in the translations themselves, and an increased interest in Korean literature overseas at the same time female writers were coming to dominate the Korean domestic market. Taken all together, these historical trends have resulted in a riches of Korean fiction by women eager to dig into meaty, contemporary issues related to sexism, commodification, and the role (or non-role) of the individual in Korean society and the world at large.

Increasingly, these writers are focusing on individual, character-driven fiction that resonates with Western readers. This represents a strong break with mainstream Korean fiction, so often driven by vast historical and social forces beyond the control of its characters. These forces remain quite evident in the fiction mentioned here, but its focus has shifted to the psychological and practical responses of particular individuals in the face of these overwhelming influences.

Fortunately, much of this fiction seems to be finding a home in English. The happy result of this for readers looks like a new “Korean wave” of literature driven by women. It would be unfair to say male writers are not doing some of the work, but at this point in time it seems that the bulk of this work is being done by women.

And where to dip in to these newly open waters? Interested readers could profitably begin with any of the novelists named above, or collections like the aforementioned  The Future of Silence or Questioning Minds: Short Stories by Modern Korean Women Writers. These works, all quite literary and based on solid, comprehensible plots, even as they often veer into the surreal, may eventually lead you down a wormhole, but you’ll surely enjoy the ride.

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. He currently lives in Oregon. He can be found online at ktlit.com.

*Lede (photo source: LTI Korea Han Kang interview).