Gloves and paperclips

“Ontario. I was born in Ontario.” Neil Young is telling me this as I sip hand-drip Indonesian coffee in a cafe with wooden chairs and tables, hardwood floors and full-length windows saturated with the autumn sun. Not something I expected to hear in Korea; in fact, I’d say this place defies expectations, if that wasn’t such a vague, meaningless statement. I expected a clash between hyper-modernity and tradition. Korea is certainly that, but I didn’t anticipate how that clash can create such unique forms. I’d begin my lecture on neoliberal hybridity right now, but it might turn off the casual reader. Instead, here are some stories and photos.

First, I was asked to post more photos from the workers’ rights demo:

I love the cloud, sun and red socialist flags in this one.


A crowd of public-sector unionists stretching off into the distance. And how often do you get to write that?

And, for good measure, the rally in support of Gaza against the murderous Israeli bombardment:

We got about five meters before a row of female police officers stopped us. I learned there was an incident a few years ago where male cops beat up female protesters, so now female cops are used to police demos. I wonder if they’re any nicer.

To get back to the post’s title, gloves and paperclips are two of the things that are hard to come by in Seoul. Korea has a winter, and given the popularity of mountain hiking, outdoor equipment shops are everywhere. In fact, there are numerous street vendors selling scarves and hats… But no gloves. If you look hard in the international chain stores like Zara or Columbia, there are a few pairs stashes at the back, but for $50 a pair. Tesco’s (Home Plus, but it’s really a Tesco’s) has some fashion-quality gloves for $15, but nothing that’d keep you warm. A motorcycle-accessory shop near my office has some leather ones for $77 a pair. I had to get mine at a military surplus store, where they were still pricey but at least had my size. My only explanation is the ubiquity of smartphones; you can’t wear gloves and text very well, so Koreans sacrifice the former. As for paperclips, there are plenty of staplers, binder clips and glue, and lots of paper, but no clips. I have no explanation.

Here’s a display for The Red Face, my favourite brand of outdoor gear, due to its partial appropriation of The North Face.

Androids shilling for a cosmetics store in Myeongdong, one of the international shopping areas. Shops like these sell dozens of different creams but no deodorant. In the entire city, I’ve found one kind of roll-on from Nivea

For months I thought the subway escalators were wishing me a safe ride, like the friendly doors on the Heart Of Gold. It turns out they were telling me to slow down. It’s not ‘stand right, walk left’; you’re not supposed to walk on the escalators at all.

Possibly one of the most disturbing images I’ve seen here. It got me to stop and look at the clothes, so I guess it worked.

A little more innocuous, on a notebook at Daiso:
As lifestyle changed and the economy grew, people began to think of ways to enjoy all the culture, and festivals became one of the favourites. freedom

Remember in the summer I posted about visiting a doll cafe? Turns out it’s a recognised Japanese subculture of ball-jointed dolls. From the wiki:

Modern Asian BJDs are intended for adult collectors and customizers and range in price from US$100 to over US$1000… BJDs tend to follow a distinctly Asian view in their aesthetics, but the designs are diverse and range from highly anime-inspired to hyper-realistic. Most are anatomically correct

My fascination with Seoul subway etiquette continues. Cars not only broadcast videos that tell children to keep quiet and stop running; they also don’t want people to make out in subways. Here are two furries getting it on, and being hit on the head with a mallet by disapproving other furries:

Lost in the supermarket

Continuing my tour of Seoul’s never-ending retailers, a quick stroll south of Seoul Station revealed the city’s artificial limb district: four stores in a row, all selling the same thing.
But who needs an artificial spine?

There’s nothing wrong with having these shops near the main train station, I just find it a strange thing to cluster. It’s even more specific than Ethnictown. As I understand it, the petty bourgeois occupy a unique place in Korea’s political economy: the chaebols, or giant family-run corporations like Hyundai and Samsung, are dominant in terms of size but don’t employ a lot of people. The remaining niche is retail, so many Koreans – who have very low pensions and private healthcare – open their own shops.


This is in Haebangchon. There’s also a Brick Lane Spitalfields a few blocks away. It’s nice to see the London neighbourhoods I love migrating here.

Home of amazing cakes and a giant, Vespa-like espresso machine

The menu from Cafe Drawing, a breathtakingly gorgeous dessert cafe done up in weathered concrete and iron. But you can sense the desperation of the petty bourgeois in the transcendental experience the fancy prose promises to deliver (plus $10 for a glass of cider isn’t cheap anywhere.)

It’s not just the new petty bourgeois who struggle to be heard; the old-style ones are still around. These trucks drive through every neighbourhood, hawking their wares over loudspeakers:

Small businesses must compete with chainstores, who are just as creative in their marketing:


Look how much she loves that 7

A photo-booth. There’s something strange about her eyes, they’re too big. And why the old camera?

Sometimes big and small business can co-exist

This marketing extends to where people live. Here’s some prosperity theology engraved on an Itaewon apartment block:

That’s the thing about Seoul: it embodies combined and uneven development better than any other place I’ve seen. The new is constantly being constructed – if a block of flats is ‘old’ here, it was built in the 1980s. Pockets of postwar houses remain:

And, if you look closely, you can see rumblings of discontent with capital’s constant reinvention:

But capital is clearly winning the battle for built space:

Dongmyo Market, home of new and used industrial equipment, for now

The micro

Enough big trend-spotting. Here are some less-significant moments from my travels.

I’m sorry this is out of focus, but I took it quickly. In Myeongdong, people dress up as cartoon animals to advertise shops. And, being Korean, they like to check their smartphones for messages. Sometimes they do both at the same time:

Gangnam (pronounced KAHNG-nahm) Style is everywhere

No idea what this is. DORT didn’t make my juice taste any better.

If only my shoes did as much as these

What’s wrong with this picture?

Garak Market, where they sell fish and vegetables:



Finally, a scooter I’m obsessed with:

I don’t know who made it. It looks a few decades old. I’ve only seen three examples in the city; this one is parked near where I surf the internet.


I like how it’s big and low-ride enough to be a touring motorcycle, but it’s still a scooter. It’s pretending to be something it’s not and succeeding at it. Given my current state of looking for work, I feel this scooter is on my side.


2 thoughts on “Gloves and paperclips

  1. Since I wrote this post, I’ve found paperclips in Daiso, the international dollar+ store. It may have something to do with how retail clusters here: stores sell one kind of thing only, there’s no Wal-Mart or Winners, and even the 7-11s only sell food. So I’d need a dedicated stationary store, and even those have more elegant binder clips than paperclips.

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