First impressions of Seoul, II

Next to Dongdaemun Culture and History Park, there’s a major fashion area, both retail and wholesale. The former consists of 4 malls in a row, including Hello APM, Migliore and Doota. These are not malls in the sense we might understand them – they’re towers:


On Thursday I had some time to kill, so I went back to the malls. Hello APM is 14 stories, with the first five filled with retail: small shops crowded with clothing, shoes and accessories, and well-dressed young men – mainly men – who invite you into their floorspace. All of them do; you have to start ignoring them because if you make eye contact, they’ll start conversing with you in quite good English. They’re even more aggressive if you’re Korean, grabbing your arm and dragging you in.

I wasn’t impressed with the merchandise. There were some cute, kitschy stores, including Peanuts-branded luggage – I don’t get that, actually. Peanuts is a comic strip about sad, desperate children. How is it cute? The luggage wasn’t even mid-period Peanuts when they were at their most profound; it was late-period, when Charles Schulz had run out of energy and Snoopy was reduced to playing golf and eating cookies all the time.

The men’s clothing on the fourth floor was stylish but cheap. I was initially excited by the “Prada”, “Boss” and “Gucci” signs, until I realized they were a) all typed in the same font and b) misspelled. These were stylishly-cut, but cardboard-looking suits from China. I tried on a blazer and the sleeve reached my forearms – and it was full-length, not one of the three-quarter length sleeve blazers that are popular here. The salesguy relented and said I needed to go to Itaewon, the foreigner neighbourhood, to get one made.

Finally, some Konglish I agree with. As a comment on white privilege, not the importance of dressing in nice clothes whenever possible, obviously:


I went to Migliore and discovered the exact same merchandise, in the exact same layout. On the fourth floor were men’s suits labelled the same, and the same Konglish t-shirts as in Hello APM. Only the shopkeepers had changed. I don’t understand Korean discount retail, because I’d have assumed they’d sell something different to mark themselves out. And they do, in Doota, the luxury mall, although in truth even that’s all seaside casual with khakis and prefaded sailor-stripe t-shirts. But the multi-storey malls were the same. Later I learned that, despite the store-clerks vastly outnumbering the shoppers, these are tremendously lucrative shops, earning up to a million dollars a year. The 5 x 10 meter floorspaces cost that amount to rent too. No wonder they were aggressive.

A nearby trashpile. The travel company had tired of Uzbekistan Airways and their smiling representatives:


Korean retail seems to cluster. I strolled down a nearby road with storefront after storefront of scooter shops, which transitioned abruptly to window after window of this:


I hope it was air-conditioned inside. Opposite this particular window, a greyhound was tied to a bus shelter. He was nosing in his empty water dish, skittering back and forth. It was a brutally humid day, and no one seemed to be paying him any mind, so I went over and began filling his dish from my water bottle. He leapt over and latched onto my trouser leg with his teeth. But he wasn’t try to tear it apart, nor was he biting my leg – he was just playing, grateful for the attention. Not knowing much about dogs, I told him “OK, that’s enough” and bent down to extract his jaws – he looked up expectantly, releasing his grip and allowing me to depart. I felt sorry for him; in a country known to eat dogs he’s probably faring pretty well, but he’s too big to fit in a purse and won’t become one of the stunted, coddled dogs behind the glass.

That evening, I met my friend An – whom I met in Vladivostok airport, more on that in a later (technically, earlier) post – who took me up Namsan mountain to see the North Seoul tower. En route he showed me the oldest Korean skyscraper built by Koreans:


It doesn’t look like much, but after the Japanese occupation it must have been a source of pride.

We hiked up through Dongguk University, a Buddhist university campus at the base of Namsan mountain (‘mountain’ in a qualified sense – it’s more of a hill.) Two monks with shaved heads and grey robes came down the beautifully landscaped steps onto the campus. An asked them for directions, and when they spoke I realized they were women. But not before that. I actually expected them to do some martial arts moves, but my host told me those are Chinese monks, and that the Koreans ones just get up really early every day and study.

The tower lookout has a lock-fence that puts Russian lock-fences to shame:


They even have lock trees:


I asked An how long it had taken to put all of them there, and he said “A long time, since 2004.” Fascinating that eight years is a long time here. For example, in Ilsan there’s a huge, swooping concrete building that looks like a stadium but is actually a terminal for a high-speed railway into downtown Seoul. It’ll take two years from start to finish to complete. How many years did it take to extend the subway 4 stops in Toronto? At least 20?

The tower:


The foggy view from the mountain:


The tower again:


At the base of the tower they play deafening pre-recorded music and project videos onto the curving walls – it’s now owned by Samsung, so presumably they’re ads. Encircling it, there’s a little mall of restaurants, a bar… and this:


I asked An, ‘Why is there a teddy bear museum at the North Seoul tower’?

‘That is because Koreans like teddy bears,’ he replied. I didn’t really know what to say to that.

After this he took me to Itaewon, the foreigner area. It’s next to the US military base, which still dominates the neighbourhood – it has a mainland US telephone exchange and post office and its own restaurants, but then, the main street in Itaewon has all western restaurants too. I was looking for soondubu and we had to duck down a steep flight of stairs to a side street to find any Korean food. Then we strolled through the back streets of Itaewon. I was expecting to see white Americans, but I saw almost none; instead there were sex workers, Africans, Pakistanis and Indians.


There were some beautiful Korean women strolling by just before I took this photo, and one fixed me with an inquisitive stare – so un-Korean that I think she may have just emerged from the club. A few doors down was a club whose logo was a row of penises in rainbow colours. After the homogeneity of Korean retail in Dongdaemun, it was refreshing – at least I thought so, but An, who’s Christian, got nervous and told me transgendered Koreans are men who can’t meet women.

30 seconds and a block later, we were in front of a Pakistani grocery store, with a guy in long robes chatting to another guy, and a little girl playing outside. “I feel frightened,” An told me. “Like I’m in East Harlem.”

Note what’s foreign – Halal and vegetarian:


A minute away from the Trans Cafe – the Seoul mosque:


It’s basically just that store:


I instantly felt comfortable there, moreso than anywhere I’ve been since I arrived. Not because of the white people – there weren’t any – and not because of the western restaurants, which I just found obnoxious. What I enjoyed, after the overwhelming homogeneity of Seoul, was the diversity. I don’t just mean in comparison to Ilsan, with its apartment-block monocrop (thanks to Chris for the apt image), but even the neighbourhood I’m staying in, Mapu-go, only has Korean restaurants and food for sale. I like Korean restaurants, I love the market, but Indian groceries are also good. It reminded me of London and how diverse that is, and how used to diversity I’ve gotten in Toronto.

Two things fascinated me. First was that all the diversity is crammed into one neighbourhood. So the Muslim cleric I saw walking down the street in a robe, pointing to heaven and lecturing in English to a friend, was around the corner from the Korean woman in a decidedly un-Seoul-like scoop-neck shirt. I guess when there aren’t a lot of minorities, our differences become less important. Second, a space that made me relaxed made my Korean friend anxious. And unlike a lot of Koreans, he’s travelled and lived in more countries than I have.

Friday I went back to Incheon to return my $200-a-month rented iphone. There’s a stage in the airport that today featured traditional musicians:


I can’t do justice to the airport with my little point-and-shoot, but here’s a snapshot of some of its roofs and a flight attendant:


A tributary of the Han River near where I’m staying. It’s a good use of the liminal space created by an overhead highway:



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