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The Gwangju Uprising from an American’s Perspective: a Q&A with The Seed of Joy Author William Amos

 

By Charles Montgomery

When I first came to Korea, I was under the strong guiding hand of my best friend Ed and his wife. She was from Gwangju, and so it was that many of my first experiences in Korea occurred there, the city where I met my first “Korean family” with whom I set out to tour the region. They quickly whisked me to the Gwangju 5-18 Memorial Park, which sprawls across over 200,000 square meters and contains a library, cultural center, education center, the Daedong Plaza and Owoldae Tower, and a variety of memorials, sculptures and monuments. Laced with footpaths, the park also contains the Mugaksa Temple — a Buddhist temple for the military, oddly enough.

The park is a vast and solemn memorial to a tragic incident in modern Korean history. The Gwangju Democratization Movement (also known by UNESCO as the May 18 Democratic Uprising, in honor of the day it began) took place seven months after the 1979 assassination of Park Chung-hee, president of South Korea since 1961. In the political confusion that followed, the local democratic movement in support of democracy rode on the back of a nationwide one, growing to such an extent that, in mid-May, the new President Chun Doo-hwan declared martial law across all of Korea.

In South Jeolla-do, of which Gwangju is the capital, this law involved the jailing of 26 politicians, including eventual Nobel Prize Winner and president of Korea Kim Dae-jung. Gwangju had a tenuous relationship with Seoul in the best of times and was also a historical nexus of political revolt, so even inside Korea it was one of the locations least likely to be happy with these actions by Chun’s government. In response, students began to mass at the closed gates of Chonnam National University. 200 students and 30 paratroopers initially clashed there, but the violence soon increased and quickly spread downtown.

When the protests became too much for the police to handle, over 500 more paratroopers were called in. They quelled the initial protests using tactics including clubbing and bayonetting; one Gwangju resident was clubbed to death during the battle. Events intensified over the next two days, with the army killing more civilians and residents burning down a radio station which had been broadcasting pro-government versions of the local events. May 20th saw the famous “taxi uprising,” in which infuriated taxi drivers led a pro-democracy parade, ferried wounded to hospitals, and used their cabs themselves as both barricades and weapons.

Just after noon on the 21st, the army fired on protestors again, and protestors ransacked local police stations and armories. Protestors acquired two light machine guns at the height of the battle, and eventually the military retreated from central Gwangju. From the 22nd to the 25th, Gwangju was “liberated,” and set up local governments and negotiating committees. At the same time, upon news of the events in Gwangju, local uprisings flared up and died down in other regions. On May 26th the army had been reinforced and was ready to re-enter the city. Democracy supporters prepared for one last stand, but on the 27th were decisively defeated in a 90-minute battle which began at about 4:00 a.m.

The Gwangju Democratization Movement was over, but its effects linger in the Korean psyche to this day, and as is traditional in Korea, what is made of the movement is largely depends on one’s political stance. That even affects casualty estimates, which, according to the BBC, the government put at 200 and other sources between 1,000 and 2,000. A few brilliant pieces of translated Korean literature centered on the Democratic Movement have been published, and we will discuss them here in two weeks. But as far as I know, only one non-Korean author has written a piece of fiction about this event: William Amos, whose book The Seed of Joy has recently been released on Amazon as a paperback and on Kindle.

“Paul Harkin, a US Peace Corps Volunteer from Indiana, comes to Korea on his first trip away from home.” says the book’s Google blurb. “The Peace Corps gives him more than he ever bargained for — from a comically inept public health official, to violent political strife in the cities, to a hard winter in a leper colony. But when he falls in love with Han Mi Jin, a troubled, politically active schoolteacher, he defies the Peace Corps, the United States government, and the Korean martial law authorities to take up her cause. Caught up in the bloodshed of the Gwangju Uprising of May, 1980, he wrestles with love and loss, freedom and responsibility.”

If anything, that description undersells how well the book deals with the actual details of the uprising. Intrigued by how a U.S. citizen would know about this event and why they would write an entire novel about it, I was lucky enough to catch up with Mr. Amos online and discover he is nearly a next-door neighbor, as he and his Korean-born wife now live in Boise, Idaho. He joined the Peace Corps and was sent to South Korea a year after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Upon his return, he attended Loyola University of Chicago School of Law, during which time he clerked for a Korean lawyer in Chicago. In the years since graduation from law school, he has worked as a federal investigator, a technical writer, a project manager, and a medical writer. He lives in Boise with his Korean-born wife. We sent a few messages back and forth, and he graciously consented to this interview.

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Without spoiling anything, tell us about your book.

The Seed of Joy is a fictional account of a US Peace Corps volunteer who lives in South Korea during the turbulent years of 1979 and 1980. The assassination of President Park Chung Hee and the Gwangju Uprising serve as the historical events that bracket the story. The main character, a naive young man from Indiana, falls in love with a Korean woman who violently opposes the Park — and forthcoming — regimes; through her, he is drawn into the student democracy movement and takes part in the tragic Gwangju Uprising. Many of the details of life as an expat in Korea come from my own experiences in Peace Corps/Korea, as I was a volunteer there at the time the story takes place. My life as a volunteer was far less dramatic, though. Aside from getting stuck in a major demonstration and riot in Seoul, it was the smaller things that struck me: the dearth of news, the arrests in public of college-aged men and women, and the tanks and armed troops that were stationed on city streets, to name a few.

Have you read any of the Korean books about Gwangju? 

No, I haven’t. I wrote most of The Seed of Joy while hardly anything was being written in Korea about the Gwangju Uprising, much less in English translation. One of my first dates with my wife, who is Korean, was showing her an early documentary from Korea about Gwangju and having her interpret it for me ten years after the fact; she was horrified at what she saw. The first popular depiction of the Uprising that I saw was the Korean drama Sandglass, in the 90s. That program gave me some vivid suggestions of what the Uprising looked like — the beginnings of a visual vocabulary, if you will.

The Chun government really clamped down on information about Gwangju. How much did you have at the time and where did you get it?

We volunteers had very little information while it was going on. No news came out of Gwangju through the Korean media. Even AFKN (the US Armed Forces Korea Network) couldn’t tell us anything. We knew something was happening, and that it was huge, because we’d seen demonstrations — some violent — elsewhere in the country. A lot of the information came out after the fact. Volunteers who were in Gwangju during the Uprising came back up to Seoul and told other volunteers what they’d seen and done.

Articles from Time and Newsweek — which were ripped out of local editions — were brought in from outside the country and copies posted in the Peace Corps office in Seoul. Of course, the local media showed exactly what the Chun government wanted them to show. I went to a movie after the Uprising and saw a newsreel of happy young people sweeping up the “mess” that the rioters had made in Gwangju. By that time I knew that it was all nonsense.

The Peace Corps story is really interesting particularly the tension between your Korean handlers and Western staff and the notion that you were not to be involved in anything political or controversial. How much of this is real and how did it play out?

Peace Corps volunteers have to be completely neutral on any point of political controversy. We were forbidden to play any role in protests or act in such a way that could be construed as taking sides, especially with those who opposed the government. We could talk about politics privately with our Korean friends as long as we made it clear that we were speaking for ourselves, not for the United States government. Some volunteers did break the rules. One got involved with some dissident friends and their activities, and was sent home. For the rest of us, we were frustrated at seeing oppression going on openly all around us while being unable to say or do anything about it.

The Western characters play semi-heroic roles in your book. Is any of this history, or is it a literary way of getting them to the center of the story?

It’s both. Several of the volunteers I’ve spoken with really did rise to the occasion in Gwangju. Many of them helped bring the wounded to hospitals and served as the West’s eyes and ears to events that were poorly understood at home. And that’s really what I wanted my characters to be: witnesses and interpreters for a mainly Western audience who otherwise would know little about Korea or the Peace Corps experience. This influenced how I worked out the plot of the novel: I made a timeline of major historical events and then worked on getting the characters to the right places at the right times. This often involved putting them right in the thick of the action.

You came to Korea before many Westerners did, as part of the second wave of Westerners in the Peace Corps. How different was Korea then, both from the U.S. at the time and Korea now (if you have much knowledge of that)?

We all were affected by culture shock in a big, though somewhat unexpected way. By the time I served there, in 1979, Korea was no longer a third-world country, for the most part. The Peace Corps/Korea program was at least ten years old by that point, and the challenges experienced by previous volunteers had abated somewhat by then. For example, I worked in the tuberculosis control program at a municipal public health center. All my coworkers were public health professionals — nurses, doctors, and the like. I was the least experienced person there.

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So we were living in a culture that was very modern on the outside, but still steeped in tradition on the inside. I loved the transportation system — it was easy to get just about anywhere by bus or train — and and I admired the Koreans’ spirit of self-sacrifice and hard work. I went back for a visit in 2010 and was blown away by the changes. Some of it was sad — Korea seems to have succumbed to the Western ideal of personal automobile ownership, for example, and the traffic everywhere is horrendous. On the other hand, the standard of living is much higher, and the country is now governed by a vibrant, messy, effective democracy.

And now the question you must have known you were going to get: were you really naked when you heard the news of Park’s assassination? Inquiring minds want to know.

Yes, I was! Houses didn’t have hot running water back then. If you wanted to take a bath, you went to a bathhouse, where you could get squeaky-clean using all the hot water you wanted. I had come up to Seoul on the evening of Park’s assassination and, of course, nobody knew about it until the next day. I went to a bathhouse near the Peace Corps office that morning, and, just as written in the book, I heard the news from a fellow volunteer while I was lounging in the tub. I felt doubly naked.

Coming out of the bathhouse, I saw what I hadn’t noticed before: Korean flags hanging everywhere and a shocked quiet among the people. Even the traffic seemed less bustling than normal. And, like the character in the book, I went out straight away to gawk at all the tanks on the street corners and the funeral shrine being built on the grounds of the capitol building.

How long were you in Korea?

My time in the Peace Corps was fifteen months, which is well short of the customary two years. I was sent home early for medical reasons. Years later, I went back for a few weeks in 1987 and for just over a week in 2010.

What were your overarching feelings/impressions of Korea?

It was the contrast between Korea and my home in the States that shaped most of my impressions. The first thing that struck me was the beauty of the countryside. Coming from Wisconsin, where the landscape is relatively flat, I was enthralled with the wooded mountains that just seemed to pop out of the ground everywhere. The hillsides covered in pink flowers in the spring and the gorgeous reds and yellows of the leaves in autumn astounded me.

The people were amazing — generous, friendly, hard-working. I was taken aback by the lack of personal space, something the Peace Corps trainers had warned us about in advance. It wasn’t just the crowded cities that took some getting used to; it was also the tendency of Korean men — friends and strangers alike — to plop themselves down just inches away when talking to me. I became accustomed to it eventually, of course, and was fine with it, but it was quite an adjustment at first.

The strictly hierarchical social order threw me for a loop, too. I quickly learned when to bow, and to whom, among other things, but I was pleased to see that, despite the stodginess of the system, my Korean friends were easy to connect with. Overall, I still look at my time there as the best, most interesting months of my life.

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As someone who came to the Gwangju Uprising and its history through friends, history, and literature, it was impressive to me to learn that Mr. Amos was only in Korea for slightly over a year. The Seed of Joy not only seems to catch the history and spirit of the Gwangju Democratic Movement, it also captures subtleties of Korean culture and the interaction between Korean culture and so-called “foreigners” with a roving and intelligent eye.

The book is not without its minor flaws (the framing structure and a sometimes obvious foreshadowing come primarily to mind), but those are insubstantial in the face of the much larger picture that Mr. Amos draws: one that catches both the joy and tragedy of a critical ten-day period in Korean history, one that paints a detailed picture of several loving but doomed relationships, and one that manages to capture an entire social system trapped in amber of its own production.

For a book from a completely unknown author, The Seed of Joy has a decent list of reviews on Amazon, many from Peace Corps volunteers of that era who boggle at how well Mr. Amos has caught the tenor of that time. It is good book for fans of recent history, romance, battles, and good storytelling in general, and one very interesting for me to read, particularly in light of the Korean fiction about this event that has been translated. And that is what we will turn to in two weeks, with a look at how Korean authors have weighed in on Gwangju.

Related Korea Blog posts:

Writing About Korea, in Korea, for Koreans — as an American: an Interview with Robert J. Fouser

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

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Taking Stock of Xi Jinping: A Q & A with Kerry Brown

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

I recently caught up by email with Kerry Brown, a prolific writer on Chinese affairs who has held a mix of diplomatic and academic posts and who recently moved to King’s College London to head its Lau China Institute.  I was eager to get him to reflect on Chinese politics, the subject he studies and the focus of a new book. It also seemed only natural to slip in one question dealing with Brexit, which has been dominating the international news cycle. 

Jeff Wasserstrom: A couple of years back, you published The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China, a book I reviewed favorably for the Wall Street Journal that was about a group of Chinese elite figures known as the “Princelings”—a term for children of revolutionaries leaders who were connected to Mao Zedong and the founding of the PRC.  That book was partly an effort to explain how one Princeling, Xi Jinping, emerged as the group’s most powerful member.  Do you see your new book C.E.O., China: The Rise of Xi Jinping, which is out in the U.K. and available in the United States as an e-book (with the hardcover version to follow soon), as a sequel to that earlier work, which brings in events of the last couple of years?  Or did you view writing it as offering a chance to provide a different sort of explanation for Xi’s ascent?

Kerry Brown: Obviously we know a lot more about Xi Jinping and the contours of his leadership, his preoccupations, and driving vision now than we did in 2013-4 when I wrote and published The New Emperors. The mystery of his ascension to power, however, has not gone away. Xi was not a spectacular provincial leader – at least in terms of generating GDP growth. Nor was he a member of the A list of elite families – Bo Xilai really belonged to that class, with his father Bo Yibo a member of the so called “Eight Immortals” who had a huge impact on post-1978 China. The ways in which Xi Jinping has transformed into this seemingly all-dominating, all-powerful figure has been remarkable. It was hard to see this sort of drive before 2013. One thing I do wonder a lot about is what precisely the relationship is between Xi and the other so called princelings. In many ways, he seems to have attacked much of their vested interest, keeping the families of past leaders Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng under close tabs, and using the anti-corruption struggle to wrestle whole parts of the state sector away from their control. You might almost say that he is an “anti-princeling” leader, a much more populist politician, trying to derive his appeal and power to the public, and instill fear and obedience in the Communist Party leadership and membership through that.

The fact that Xi looks and sounds so authoritative, however, is also something we have to be a bit careful about how we interpret. Appearances can be deceptive. Making oneself the “Chairman of Everything” can simply hide feelings of vulnerability and weakness. The simple fact is that there are real limits to what Xi can do. Unlike Deng Xiaoping, whose reform and opening up pragmatism in many ways still shape China, Xi has not articulated a new body of ideas that are proving transformational – not yet, at least. This might happen, but it would need to be in the one area that Deng’s ideas did not touch – that of political reform. Here, of course, a Chinese leader can really reset the agenda. So far, Xi has made clear that he absolutely won’t countenance any competition from another organized political force with the Communist Party. So in many ways, despite the radical tone and feel of his leadership, he still operates within the template supplied by his predecessors.

Sticking with the connections between the two books, the earlier one used an imperial metaphor in its title, while this one employs one drawn from the corporate world.  Could you tell us something about the thinking between those two choices?

 Politicians everywhere like to create narratives and masks they can present to the world. Xi seems to me to be an ambiguous figure. The most difficult thing to work out is his relationship with the Communist Party of China. Is he its servant, or its master? People state that Xi is a modern Mao. But the China of Mao Zedong with its mass mobilization campaigns, utopian idealism, and separation from the rest of the world, is long gone. The memory of Mao’s China for Xi too would not be a happy one – he was living in the countryside for most of it, with his father under house arrest. The one thing that Mao does offer is the model of how a Chinese leader can emotionally connect with the people. But, of course, the danger is that a charismatic, all-powerful leader can also start to turn on the Party, in the way that Mao did in the Cultural Revolution.

Since 1978, the whole objective has been to ensure that this sort of elite leader domination never happens. Leadership has been institutionalized. Succession and term limits have been introduced. Collective leadership structures set in place. If Xi is indeed starting to dominate, and create a power structure parallel to, and one day possibly dominating the Party, then I am surprised that there has not been much more internal dissent at an elite level. There would be people in the Politburo and Central Committee who would see this as undermining so much work the Party has tried to do in the last four decades. So the imperial and corporate models of Xi’s power are trying to find some kind of model we can make sense of him within.

Switching gears a bit, a lot of commentators have played with the idea of imagining what a reanimated Mao would think of today’s China, and I recently wrote an op-ed that played this what if game with a focus on how the former leader might view his latest successor as head of the Communist Party.  What, though, would you think that Deng Xiaoping, if somehow brought back to life, would make of Xi and the way he is steering the country?

Xi has not contested Deng’s central ideological position. In fact, he has sponsored the development of the idea derived from Deng’s mantra of market socialism, which is that the market is essential for reform, in the 2013 Plenum. He has also stuck by the utter centrality of the Party in China’s political life, and the need to maintain openness to the outside world on China’s terms. I don’t see Xi as being anything except a faithful follower of Dengism. He has articulated his central goals within the framework set out by Deng. So if Deng were to magically rise from his grave and look at what Xi is doing, I don’t see what he would object to. He certainly wouldn’t disapprove of the harsh treatment of rights lawyers, nor the clampdown on corrupt officials, nor the tolerance of a vibrant non-state sector. For people’s hearts, Xi might use the resources that Mao gives – but for their heads, he seems to me a Dengist through and through.

A final question, which brings in the issue making the most headlines globally just now.  Given your assessment of Xi and sense of what makes him tick, how do you think he is likely to feel about the Brexit vote?  

Xi reportedly stated to David Cameron when in the UK last October that he did not support an exit from the EU. Part of that was self interest. A UK which was potentially adrift from the European financial market and open trade area becomes  a far less attractive investment and currency destination. The UK is the largest host of Chinese students in Europe, and one of the largest technology transfer partners. Exiting the EU makes life a bit more complicated for China, because unless the UK can arrange a deal which preserves the openness of these areas, China will presumably have to look for another launchpad within the EU main zone.

Politically, though, nothing that Xi will have seen of the chaos in the UK immediately after the vote on June 23 and the clear lack of a plan B by the politicians to deal with what was happening will have endeared democracy to him. But he might have been impressed by the fact that despite this, so far at least, the UK remained stable, people get on with their lives, institutions are still able to function. China of course would be far less robust in dealing with a crisis like this. But I guess Xi would argue that it would never end up in such a position in the first place.

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Watching Our Words: on Brexit

By David Taylor

For many of us in the UK the past few days have been painfully difficult. Among those who wanted to keep Britain in the EU, there’s been a sense of shock, shame, and anger — not least at our own complacency. But the prevailing mood might best be described as elegiac. What I’m experiencing both personally and collectively seems to be something akin to mourning.

This might sound overblown, sentimental perhaps, but the truth is that we are grieving, for our disfigured present and, more profoundly still, for the array of possible futures — individually, politically, nationally, transnationally — that now seem suddenly and irremediably lost to us. These are the dissolving horizons I find myself tracing each time I look at my four-month-old daughter. Right now it’s impossible even to imagine what future we’re bequeathing her.

Such grief, as it’s wont to do, breaks apart our capacity for language. In speaking to my friends over the last four days, in reading and sometimes finding solace in their myriad thoughts and reflections on social media, what strikes me most is the desperate, self-acknowledged futility of our words as we attempt to give coherent shape to what’s happened and is still unfolding, as we search for ways to accommodate the referendum result to the nation — the Europe — we know or want.

We need this grappling. Perhaps it’s cathartic. Perhaps it’s really all we can do at the moment. But, however we voted last Thursday, we also need to remember the damage that words can and have caused. In thinking about the 52 percent — the 17.4 million people — who voted to Leave the EU, it’s vital that we keep in mind Raymond Williams’s sage words: “There are in fact no masses,” he tells us, “but only ways of seeing people as masses.” If this message reminds us how toxic are the images of “immigrants” pedalled by the likes of Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, then it should also caution us against simply caricaturing all Leave voters as xenophobes or racists. Nothing is to be gained by doing so.

Words have done real harm over recent months. The Leave campaign called on us to “Make Britain Great Again”. Britain was never “great”, or rather when it was “great” it was murderously so. But the Remain campaign wasn’t much better. In its incessant talk of “safety”, “jobs”, and “prices”, its corrosive negativity and refusal to think of “cost” in anything other than economic terms, it determinedly effaced the history and cultural complexity of the European project.

Since the result was announced, we have new problem words to contend with. Take “divorce”, for example, which been doing the rounds across the media. “Who’s going to handle the divorce negotiations?,” I heard one journalist ask an MP on TV yesterday. “What will Britain’s divorce from the EU look like?,” ponders the Financial Times. The metaphor of a broken marriage is a mistaken one, not least given that Britain will be leaving a union of 28 member states, but what should worry us is the narrative that it quietly and insistently imposes on past, present, and future: the endless bickering, the long and drawn out struggle, the enduring bitterness. The more entrenched this metaphor becomes, the more we give space to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And then there’s “revolution”, a word that’s been used over and over in the contexts of both celebration and shock in recent days — and by some distinguished political commentators and journalists. Whatever it is, the referendum result is not a strike against the political establishment by those who feel disenfranchised. I’m not suggesting that many of those who voted to take Britain out of the EU didn’t conceive of their choice in exactly these terms; I’m quite sure they did. But the political reality is somewhat different.

Let’s be clear. Concerns about immigration have come from the political centre in Britain. Over many years the likes of David Cameron and others have the deployed the rhetoric of soft xenophobia and British exceptionalism in order to score political points and win elections. Nigel Farage has pushed this rhetoric much further, of course, but he’s done no more than render explicit what was otherwise (barely) latent. Nor is he the outsider, the common man he claims to be. Rather, this privately-educated son of a stockbroker is a self-fashioned “maverick” who rhetorically positions himself against the very elite to which he in fact belongs (sound familiar, Americans?).

So there’s no revolution to be seen here — and, again, by using this word we accept a narrative that distorts and masks a reality that is far more disconcerting. For the referendum result shows just how effectively white, Oxbridge-educated men have sold their dangerous hyperbole to millions of people. Looking past the different campaigns and political parties, and the downfall of particular individuals, all I see is the strength, not the weakness, of the same old hegemony.

Call me a pedant, if you will. I don’t have any answers. I’ve no idea where we go from here, and yes, it hurts to admit this. But I do know something about words: their histories, their uses, their vital and perilous importance to us. And as we move forward I implore us all — whatever our nation, however we vote — to handle them with care.

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Isabella Bird Bishop: Pioneering Female Traveler and Prototypical Westerner in Korea

By Colin Marshall 

Korea scholar Matt VanVolkenburg writes one of my favorite blogs on Korean society and culture, Gusts of Popular Feeling. It takes its unusual name from a quote from the 19th-century writer Isabella Bird Bishop, who in her book Korea and Her Neighbors (which you can download free, in a variety of formats, at the Internet Archive) observed that “gusts of popular feeling which pass for public opinion in a land where no such thing exists are known only in Seoul.”  What can she have meant by that memorable if cryptic phrase?

“She was referring specifically to newspapers, what we consider modern public opinion as created through newspapers, through media,” VanVolkenburg told me when I interviewed him on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. “But ‘gusts of popular feeling’ — Koreans will sometimes ask me, ‘What does that mean?’ I’ll be like, ‘naembi munhwa,’” a phrase often used to describe the national temperament. “A naembi is a pot that heats up very quickly and cools down equally quickly” — munhwa means culture — “and I just thought that was a very poetic way of describing it.”

The coiner of that poetic phrase turns out to have led a colorful life indeed. The daughter of a reverend educated at home due to poor childhood health, Bishop published her first written work, a pamphlet on the arguments for free trade versus protectionism, at the age of sixteen. She first went abroad to the United States six years later, sending home letters that would become the material for her first book, the 1856 travelogue An Englishwoman in America. Over the next four decades, volumes on Scotland, Hawaii, Australia, the Rocky Mountains, Japan, the Middle East, and Tibet followed, and in 1898, in her late sixties and a few years widowed, she would publish Korea and Her Neighbors, a thorough examination of a then-barely known land.

“Over three years, she made several visits,” said VanVolkenburg. “At first she didn’t really like it, but then on a return visit, she noted that Seoul had cleaned up quite a bit. She got to meet quite a few Korean people, and it definitely grew on her.” She made those visits between 1894 and 1897, “a very small window of time” during which Korea, having recently submitted to Japanese colonial rule, went through a big transformation. By 1904, the year of Bishop’s death, the capital “had streetcars, limited electricity, telephone, telegraph, waterworks were being installed — there were changes like that happening reasonably quickly.”

But the Korea on which she first set foot, a country more than half a century away from division into North and South and only just emerging from a long period in China’s shadow (which left Korea “but a feeble reflection of her powerful neighbor”), didn’t start from a high developmental baseline. “I thought it the foulest city on earth till I saw Peking,” she writes of her first impression of Seoul, “and its smells the most odious, till I encountered those of Shao-shing.” She considers its “palaces and its slums, its unspeakable meanness and faded splendors, its purposeless crowds, its mediaeval processions, which for barbaric splendor cannot be matched on earth, the filth of its crowded alleys, and its pitiful attempt to retain its manners, customs, and identity as the capital of an ancient monarchy in face of the host of disintegrating influences.”

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Though she brands the city as “the Korean Mecca,” she remarks that “the monotony of Seoul is something remarkable. Brown mountains ‘picked out’ in black, brown mud walls, brown roofs, brown roadways, whether mud or dust, while humanity is in black and white.” And though “to the Korean it is the place in which alone life is worth living” — a view quite possibly as widely held now as then — most any part of it bears a dispiritingly close resemblance to any other settlement in the country: “Take a mean alley in it with its mud-walled hovels, deep-eaved brown roofs, and malodorous ditches with their foulness and green slime, and it may serve as an example of the street of every village and provincial town.”

Yet she reserves even more revolting descriptions for the conditions in those villages and provincial towns where her treks around Korea require her to spend days, even weeks, staying in and traveling between by land and water. Of lodgings she finds in one such place north of Seoul, she writes that “the family room which I occupied, only 8 feet 6 inches by 6 feet, was heated up to 85 degrees, was poisoned with the smell of cakes of rotting beans, and was so alive with vermin of every description that I was obliged to suspend a curtain over my bed to prevent them from falling upon it.” She finds better classes of quarters elsewhere, but even they “would not at home be considered fit for the housing of a better-class cow.”

“As I sat amidst the dirt, squalor, rubbish, and odd and end-ism of the inn yard,” she writes, recalling a low moment, “surrounded by an apathetic, dirty, vacant-looking, open-mouthed crowd steeped in poverty, I felt Korea to be hopeless, helpless, pitiable, piteous, a mere shuttlecock of certain great powers, and that there is no hope for her population of twelve or fourteen millions, unless it is taken in hand by Russia, under whose rule, giving security for the gains of industry as well as light taxation, I had seen Koreans in hundreds transformed into energetic, thriving, peasant farmers in Eastern Siberia,” a time which, along with a stretch in Manchuria, makes up one of this long book’s interludes among the “neighbors.”

On her third visit to Korea, in 1897, Bishop finds much of Seoul, “literally not recognizable. Streets, with a minimum width of 55 feet, with deep stone-lined channels on both sides, bridged by stone slabs, had replaced the foul alleys, which were breeding-grounds of cholera. Narrow lanes had been widened, slimy runlets had been paved, roadways were no longer ‘free coups’ for refuse, bicyclists ‘scorched’ along broad, level streets, ‘express wagons’ were looming in the near future, preparations were being made for the building of a French hotel in a fine situation, shops with glass fronts had been erected in numbers, an order forbidding the throwing of refuse into the streets was enforced.” Seoul, she marveled, “from having been the foulest is now on its way to being the cleanest city of the Far East!”

Even then, Bishop describes a Korea in most ways not recognizable to the Westerners who arrive in Seoul today, marveling as they do at its outwardly greater development than that of the countries they came from. (They tend especially to like downtown’s restored Cheonggyecheon Stream, which Bishop describes, in its un-restored condition, as “a wide, walled, open conduit, along which a dark-colored festering stream slowly drags its malodorous length, among manure and refuse heaps which cover up most of what was once its shingly bed.”) But the ones who stick around tone down their marveling sooner or later, and the complaints they start to make have a way of echoing Bishop’s first displeased reactions to what had struck her as “the most uninteresting country I ever traveled in.”

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But Bishop, far from being a mere complainer — or in the parlance of her homeland, always more nuanced on the subject of negativity, a moaner — lived as one of the most accomplished members of one of the most accomplished generations of English travel writers, who remain, in the words of Christopher Tayler reviewing Colin Thubron’s last book, “one of the last types of writer on earth with a license to trade openly in the strange and beautiful.” At 459 pages plus index, appendices, and photographs (Bishop went nowhere in Korea without camera and tripod), Korea and Her Neighbors contains plenty of the strange and beautiful. It also spares few details of any other kind, assured that even the most adventurous of its 19th-century readership (who nevertheless require no further description of kimchi than as “an elaborate sort of  ‘sour kraut’”) needed all the help they could to imagine this remote country, would likely never see another image of it, and almost certainly wouldn’t even consider taking the trouble to go there themselves.

If the heyday of English travel writing mandated the duty of describing places vividly through a sheer volume of information, it also mandated the duty of evaluating them, of making as fair as possible an assessment as a representative of the world’s most proudly “civilized” nation. Bishop’s frankness in this undertaking, and indeed the perspective from which she performs it, render a book like this terribly unfashionable today: she writes up front of her “plan of study of the leading characteristics of the Mongolian races,” later of “the Oriental vices of suspicion, cunning, and untruthfulness,” and later still of the superstition that “holds the uneducated masses and the women of all classes in complete bondage.”

Yet having invested an amount of time, effort, and endurance in Korea that any modern travel writer would consider well beyond their job description (let alone their pay scale), Bishop also places herself well to see the good in the country. Her position as a path-breaking female traveler, and one not only in a land with few foreigners but that did its utmost to keep even its own women behind closed doors, let her perceive clearly the relative safety that remains a real point of appeal today: “It says something for the security of Korea that a foreign lady could safely live in a dwelling up a lonely alley in the heart of a big city, with no attendant but a Korean soldier knowing not a word of English, who, had he been so minded, might have cut my throat and decamped with my money, of which he knew the whereabouts, neither my door nor the compound having any fastening!”

She also grasps Korea’s potential at a time when few others did. “With a splendid climate, an abundant, but not superabundant, rainfall, a fertile soil, a measure of freedom from civil war and robber bands,” she figures, “the Koreans ought to be a happy and fairly prosperous people.” She puts their deficiency of happiness and prosperity down to capricious law enforcement and taxation, as well as the economic “squeezing” of nearly the entire population by the country’s powerful classes of corrupt officials and ostensible scholar-aristocrats. She anticipates a time when, “with improved roads, railroads, and enlightenment, together with security for the earnings of labor from official and patrician exactions, the Korean will have no further occasion for protecting himself by an appearance of squalid poverty, and when he will become on a largely increased scale a consumer as well as a producer, and will surround himself with comforts and luxuries of foreign manufacture,” essentially the situation of the Korean middle class Korean today.

Alas, the heyday of English travel writing came during the longer heyday of British imperialism, and Bishop’s sympathies with that project — though in many ways a woman ahead of her time, she was unavoidably of her time in others — will bother more than a few 21st-century readers. She credits what improvements she saw Korea make to Japan, an imperial power with resemblances to Britain: “The Japanese claimed that their purpose was to reform the administration of Korea as we had done that of Egypt,” she writes, “and I believe they would have done it had they been allowed a free hand.” But they did not, and she ultimately finds that Japan “was too inexperienced in the role which she undertook (and I believe honestly) to play, to produce a harmonious working scheme of reform.”

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“Failure in tact was,” as she sees it, “was one great fault of the Japanese.” In Korea, Japan “irritated the people by meddlesomeness in small matters and suggested interferences with national habits, giving the impression, which I found prevailing everywhere, that her object is to denationalize the Koreans for purposes of her own.” That, more or less, has become the official view in South Korea today, though it ascribes much graver faults to the Japanese than those of tact. Bishop’s lack of direct condemnation for the occupation itself puts her on the wrong side of the history books here, as does her revelation of the squalor and misery of the chaotic final days of an era much romanticized by historical films and television dramas.

She does convey the senselessness and brutality of the murder by Japanese agents of Empress Myeongseong, whom she knew personally (if not quite liked) as Queen Min, which occurred one night between her stays in Korea. I happened to read the chapter of Korea and Her Neighbors covering that grisly event in the cafeteria of the IKEA opened in a couple years ago just outside Seoul, perhaps the most incongruously modern and peaceful setting imaginable, one in which you can’t help but reflect on how much the country had changed. It made me wonder what Bishop, who didn’t live to see the Great War, let alone the Korean one, and who in a moment of optimism guessed that the whole peninsula “could support double its present population,” would think of the almost unfathomable developmental progress of the land she referred to as “southern Korea,” its population alone exceeding 50 million, has made over the past 120 years.

There are now plenty of newspapers, and though those gusts of popular feeling have gained force mainly on the internet, they still do blow through Seoul. While Bishop would recognize almost nothing about the city itself — its historic buildings tend to be 20th- or even 21st-century recreations — she would certainly recognize the attitudes of Westerners here. Korea and Her Neighbors documents how, as gradually as it may have done so, the country finally captured her imagination. Though many new arrivals these days go through a pre-complaint period of blind rapture over the amenities, the nightlife, and the the pop culture (none of which, apart from the ubiquitous underfloor heating, existed in the 1890s), it still holds true that “Korea takes a similarly strong grip on all who reside in it sufficiently long to overcome the feeling of distaste which at first it undoubtedly inspires.”

In this sense, even more so than the American astronomer Percival Lowell, whose own book-length travelogue Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm came out in 1885, Isabella Bird Bishop stands as the prototypical long-term Westerner in Korea, for whom antipathy turns to fascination, and fascination turns to attachment, and attachment renders bittersweet the seemingly inevitable departure. “The distaste I felt for the country at first passed into an interest which is almost affection,” she writes near the book’s end, “and on no previous journey have I made dearer and kinder friends, or those from whom I parted more regretfully.” And somehow, at least to this long-term Westerner in Korea, its potential feels at once more fully realized and more untapped than ever.

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

By Qiu Xiaolong

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

— Jeff Wasserstrom

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Introduction to Poems of Inspector Chen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Bright Lies, Big City: Korean Authors and Seoul

By Charles Montgomery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Outliving Dad

By Eric Lax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(exterior image source: G.G. Focus)

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

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

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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