Against the Disneyfication of Korea

#HappySeoul is the tag for a cover of Pharrell William’s Happy. In the video, expats and locals dance through a sun-kissed, verdant Seoul. Watch it because everyone in it is happy:

Thematically, shots of happy kids follow on from writhing girls in short-shorts. In the last shot, what appears to be a pregnant woman gets Happy Seoul written across her belly. Even her fetus will be happy. Seoul is hot… it’s cute… it’s heart-warming and family-oriented. Through jarring juxtaposition, #HappySeoul is all things to all people. What’s wrong with this picture?

1: this is not Seoul.

The video lacks smokers around every corner, people spitting on the sidewalk, and constant traffic, as Korea’s full-sized sedans perform their own dance of the machines along tiny sidestreets. Seoul is not this quiet and does not have this much public space: the city has 8% green space, the lowest of any big city in the developed world. Seoul is mainly huge roads and blocks of indistinguishable apartments that go on for miles.

Dance in this traffic – the street next to #HappySeoul’s BMX riders.

Dance in this smog – the spring dust storms from China combine with Seoul’s choking fumes to block visibility.

Dance in these crowds – Friday night in Hongdae.

The video’s lithe, expat dancers unintentionally reflect the pressures of the western labour markets: many ESL teachers have a fine arts background and can’t find work in their own countries. But if you come to Seoul, you will not find midriff-baring subway dancers or bikini-clad young women hanging out in the reclaimed river. Korea is conservative. There are many beautiful and sexy people in Seoul, but as I’ve pointed out, this is largely due to the brutal, unrelenting quest for status. The dancers posing in front of the Han, or in the Haebangchon underpass, could only strike those poses due to years of hard work and practice. Their apparent leisure is a product of Korea’s punishing work ethic.

In short, Korean society is not happy. There are many good social indicators of this fact. In the OECD, Korea has:

– the highest suicide rate
– the highest elderly poverty rate (and, relatedly, suicide rate among the elderly)
– the second-longest working hours and the lowest productivity
– the highest per capita rate of plastic surgery in Asia


If you visit the neighbourhoods featured in the video (I live in one of them), you will see happy people. But you’ll also see evidence of the above statistics. So what is this video actually saying?

2. Just because you say something doesn’t make it so

The response by the filmmakers and commentators to these points has been instructive. For example:

-Wow! You witnessed all that beauty and “Happy” and THAT is what you come up with??? That actually says more about YOU than the Korean people… Just watch the video again & have a “Happy” day.

-whatever the reason is, they made this video to share happiness, so don’t fight over records and such, be happy for whatever there is to be happy about right now.

-Actually this is seoul to the fullest. A few of my friends were in this video (worked on it too) and it was all done on a volunteer basis. Peopled turned up and just danced around on camera for free. Unless you were there during the shooting of this project please have several seats because you know nothing about Seoul.

Han on display – art in Hongdae

Pointing out #HappySeoul’s inaccuracy means succumbing to pessimism, projecting your own jaundiced perspective on the dancing masses. And even if there are some statistics suggesting otherwise, why point it out and make it worse? Be part of the solution rather than the problem.

But this isn’t the correct way to pose the question. It’s not about how optimistic or pessimistic you are, it’s whether the image you create has any relationship to reality. And if the city in #HappySeoul has a tenuous link to the real Seoul, what purpose does making a video like this serve?

The video captures one truth: Korean people are friendly and gregarious. You can’t sit in a cafe without at least one group of young women nearby, clapping and laughing. It’s common for Korean women to playfully slap their boyfriends. Korean social norms are expressive. But this video is all jeong and no han; as I argued in my last post, Korean society is equal parts solidarity and sorrow. This is not just an abstract statement: it’s constantly on display in the shouting, shoving and arguments that are part of pedestrian traffic here. The middle-aged men spewing complex colour palettes on the sidewalk after a night of company-enforced drinking are neither happy nor dancing.

There are bikini-clad women in Seoul, inexplicably advertising drumming lessons.

At best, a video full of happy people in an unhappy city is an attempt at reframing. There’s some truth to the cognitive therapy adage that if you find positive aspects of a bad situation, you can feel more hopeful and gain the strength to change it. But that only works if your circumstances are amenable to changing. The fatal flaw of cognitive therapy is that for those people in circumstances or structures well beyond your control, the reframing collapses in on itself and becomes a new way of self-blame. And that’s the conclusion commentators have drawn: if you can watch this video and not be happy, there must be something wrong with you. Which is a message that fits very well with neoliberal ideology: bootstrap yourself into a career, security and happiness. If you can’t do it, try harder. Those who have ‘made it’ have no responsibility to explain their rose-tintedness. They are free to blame the losers – and because there are winners, there must be losers.

At worst, this video is an active, if unwitting, obfuscation of social reality. What is a denial of very real social problems, from state repression to inequality, but a kind of sociopathy, an unwillingness to see the suffering on display on the streets of Seoul? It becomes propaganda, disturbing because of its very banality. The everyday of Seoul is dancing and smiling, it says. Come spend your money to experience it. Those who don’t fit don’t exist. They are the cracks in the pavement that our happy dancing will stomp on.

Yeonnam-dong’s own grumpy cat – if you’re pure-bred, you’re valuable enough to be kept on a leash.

Suffering is not motivational. Ripping the veil from people’s eyes doesn’t make them want to change it. This video resonates because it fills a need: people want to be happy, and to imagine a place where happy exists. This is fine in a Disney film, or in one of the giant theme parks that are so popular here. There’s no illusion about the escapism on offer in a theme park. But I think extending that narrative to an entire city is a form of violence. It denies the complex reality of 24 million people struggling to sell themselves in order to survive. #HappySeoul is not a story of redemption, of people facing challenges and learning to overcome them, or – god forbid – failing and learning about themselves. It’s an erasure of those struggles, an aestheticization of politics, like Benjamin warned us about. Given that it was made largely by foreigners, for foreign consumption, it even flirts with orientalist notions of happy Koreans, echoing similar images produced under Japanese occupation.

Not the Paris Commune – the ‘commune of radicals’ stripped of meaning and used to sell designer clothing.

For that reason, #HappySeoul accomplishes what it sets out to do: display a metropolis of smiling, carefree extroverts. And it accomplishes a darker purpose its makers may be unaware of: it disappears the conflicts and pain that make Seoul a real, vibrant, difficult place to live. #HappySeoul is propaganda that Koreans themselves have disavowed. Even mayor Park Won-soon doesn’t want Seoul portrayed this way: as he explained upon commissioning the video Bitter Sweet Seoul,

“Seoul has a sad history. If we try to project only the good side, it’s not the real thing,” Mr. Park said.

“Seoul is not a place in monotone; It has so many different colors… Having it depicted through this film will ultimately help attract more tourists,” the mayor said.

What does depicting Seoul with only one colour accomplish?


A tour of Yeonnam-dong in Seoul

I’ve recently moved to a new neighbourhood in central Seoul. Yeonnam-dong (연남동) is a small corner of the city made of twisty streets, walled by 4 storey buildings. Traditionally a Chinese-Korean area, it was segregated in the 1970s by the Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, who distrusted migrants and decreed that they couldn’t own property, isolating Chinese-Koreans there instead. Today it’s beginning to gentrify. It’s on the border of uber-popular Hongdae and Sinchon, both student-heavy neighbourhoods, and it’s near an exit of the airport railroad, making it popular with tourists and hipsters.

Yeonnam Mafia, a beer and fries place, an increasing popular trend in SEoul.

I moved to Yeonnam-dong because I got an instant good feeling from wandering the alleys. Unlike much of Seoul, it hasn’t been invaded by giant thoroughfares or malls and its old, low-level houses are being replaced with other houses rather than the ubiquitous 20 storey blocks that sprout most places. I have no doubt that older residents are being displaced by the new development. But Hongdae is now such a retail centre that landlords are kicking out residential tenants to build shops. In Yeonnam-dong, they’re building guest houses and small apartments instead.

Tearing down…

And building up.

And sometimes, rather than tearing down the old houses, they’re renovated instead.

The best feature of this neighbourhood isn’t even built yet. Yeonnam-dong abuts the old Gyeongui railway between Seoul and Pyongyang, which is being turned into a 10 km park. If you look on google street view, you’ll see it’s been a wasteground lined with grey metal panels for at least 4 years. However, the first section should be finished by the end of the year. This may not seem significant if you live in a city with public spaces, but most of Seoul is concreted over, and good luck finding a place to sit down. So a park, even an over-designed one, is a rare amenity.


This also means that the businesses nearby, currently tiny restaurants and bars, will soon have a pleasant green view instead of grey hoarding. Assuming on-street parking is banned, no sure thing in such a car-friendly city.

Restaurants facing the soon-to-be-park.

But that’s another great thing about Yeonnam-dong. Its streets are too narrow to accommodate many cars. Giant cars = status here, but Yeonnam-dong was designed prior to that, which means that the SUVs and full-sized sedans can only move one at a time through my neighbourhood. I rarely step aside to let them pass.

Good luck finding a passing lane.

There’s only one small road that sees constant traffic, partly because it’s wide enough to pass parked cars:

But mainly because it opens up to an intersection heading east, which is inaccessible from the west otherwise:

Sending a constant flow of cars down a tiny residential street because they can’t get to the thoroughfare otherwise is terrible traffic planning. But this kind of unpleasantness doesn’t extend very far into Yeonnam-dong. The streets get narrower and narrower:

Until my street, which is blocked by a well-placed telephone pole:

Result: my neighbourhood is quiet at night.

Which makes it great for cafes. These are mainly lined along the main streets but are beginning to creep in.
A vintage cafe. That 1980s-era pencil sharpener is yours for $120.

Deep inside Yeonnam-dong, a model-making workshop for all your Gundam needs.

Cafe Fishcamp and some local strays.
I don’t think that cat needs a leash, but it doesn’t appear to be bothered.

A little further afield

Yeonnam-dong is surrounded by many equally small – though not as pleasingly serpentine – neighbourhoods. However, it wouldn’t be Seoul without some enterprising developer lining the old railway bed with towers:

I like towers, but Seoul’s lack the audacity of Hong Kong’s – supertall and close together – or the uniqueness of New York. They’re tall enough to block the sun, short enough to be nondescript, and designed like the gridlocked metropolis I subjected my Sims to in Sim City 4. There are reasons they look this way, which are too complex for a short paragraph. However, thankfully this row is on the opposite side of the park.

A spooky abandoned restaurant. If you look closely someone’s scrawled “Fuck You” in big black letters on the glass.


Some graffiti on the park hoardings by exit 6 & 7 of Hongik station, across the road:


Happy Thanksgiving

Chuseouk, the harvest festival, has emptied Seoul of half its inhabitants and made the city (relatively) quiet. Tired of choosing between tinned meat and shampoo as a chuseok gift? Now you don’t have to:


The markets are full of rice pastries, but I don’t like the chuseok ones: they’re small, hard and slimy, with dry peanut paste in the middle. I prefer the soft red bean ones. That said, they’re quite popular at this time of year, and apparently improve considerably with steaming:

Finally, 4 is unlucky, 13 is not:

The sounds of summer 2014

Greetings. I thought that quitting my job would open up a vista of opportunities for blogging. And I’ve started a few entries, but the enormity of the subject matter – unemployment, Korean social problems, the Israeli assault on Gaza – has proved overwhelming. So instead, here are some photos of my summer in Korea.

Goraebul Beach

We visited this east coast resort town a week before tourist season, which meant the 8 km long beach and hotel was largely deserted, save for clam pickers. The water was alternately delightfully warm and, on the last day, cramp-inducingly cold. The town itself was being renovated, with a great cycle path and pedestrianized area, but its amenities were restricted to a 7-11 and a few fish restaurants. There wasn’t even a coffee shop, which is strange for Korea.

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The beauty of the beachside location was only marred by the hotel owner’s predilection for 1970s soft rock. I’ve never heard so much Foreigner, Journey and Abba in my life. To make sure we enjoyed it, the owner had installed outdoor speakers by the pool and entrance, and the music was on from 10am-10pm. (I thought it might be a mistake – a mistuned internet radio station – but he had a soft rock hits CD in his minivan too.) Wanting to wake up to waves instead of Carole King, I asked if the outdoor speakers could be turned down, to which the owner’s wife told me – quite apologetically – that it was impossible, and added that only one other person in 8 years had mentioned the music. Koreans tune that sort of thing out. I tried to do the same, particularly when the new age saxophone Christmas hits came on.

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The gorgeous beach. Soft, hot sand, and it really was this empty… except for a military base smack in the middle. We hiked past some desultory barbed wire strung halfway down to the water and noticed there were far fewer footprints. Two soldiers in a guard tower about 100 meters away scoped us with binoculars and then one, on a megaphone, told us this was a restricted area and to get out. We started back the way we came, and his comrade waved at us to keep going, which was friendly enough. Given North Korean submarines have attempted mini-invasions on the east coast before, I see why there are military bases here, but having them in the middle of a civilian beach makes no sense to me. The chances of the North Koreans choosing that exact spot to invade seems remote. The well-built cyclepath goes by the other side of the base, and one evening cycling back I heard the soldiers singing noraebang (karaoke). I can think of worse ways to spend one’s draft time than singing and telling tourists to move along.

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Our hotel cat. The owner said he had fleas and had to stay outside. Once he realized we were friendly he spent a lot of time trying to get into our room. He was old and stiff, with the exception of when he decided he didn’t want my attention and left some marks on my arm.

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The owner setting up our poolside barbeque. My girlfriend explained that barbequing is a woman’s responsibility in Korea – which I found a little surprising, given it’s a rite of manhood in the west. So by providing this service, which included hot coals and chopped meat, he was giving overworked mothers a break, although of course they’d still have to do the roasting themselves.

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This was up at the local government office. As I write, the decomposing body of the Sewol ferry owner/religious cult leader has been found a couple of days ago in a plum field. But he was missing for months, and some aspiring police artist thought this might be helpful.


The home of Samsung, Suwon is also a smallish (over a million) historical centre. I’ve mentioned before on this blog that historical monuments leave me cold – I don’t feel any emotional connection to piles of rock made hundreds of years ago by one ruling group or another. And I’m not a big fan of Korean traditional architecture.

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However, this gate was impressive… if you could get to it. Which, unless you had a car, you couldn’t, as some urban planner had built a ring road around it. Koreans are proud of their heritage – understandably, since the Japanese occupation force spent decades trying to wipe it out – but modernity = cars, which rule the streets here. So I admired the gate from a distance, because it was impossible to walk to it.

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I love the willingness to violate copyright here. If it’s at all marketable, someone will copy it.

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The fact that they have to put up this sign speaks volumes.

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Three of my favourite things.

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Seoul streets


From wikipedia: “Under the influence of Hongik University (Hongdae) which is well known for its prestigious art college, the neighborhood was built on a foundation of artistic souls since the 1990s.”

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Beside Cacaoboom, the premium chocolate shop

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Inside Cacaoboom. It tasted as good as it looks.

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Cafe Object

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The uber-rich come to Hongdae. I drove one of these in Need for Speed, but mine wasn’t metallic blue.

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On the wall of one of the recently-ubiquitous french fry and beer cafes. I’m so happy that particular trend has come to Korea, as I’ve really missed good fries. This restaurant has KakaoTalk animals – for those outside Korea, KakaoTalk is a universally-used messaging app that features chubby dog, cat and – well, I’m not sure what the last one is – mascots.

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And others. This is my favourite. It’s the equivalent to Homer’s “you can stay but I’m leaving.”

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A private school at the Hongdae Homeplus supermarket. He looks as happy as I would be at that age doing complex equations.

Other parts of Seoul

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Near Sookmyung Women’s University. She will never, ever drop the mic.

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A street west of Gwanghwamun palace in central Seoul.

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Near Isu station.

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Bastard wind.

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Shops selling yappy purse dogs are everywhere.

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I’d prefer this as a pet. No idea what it is, but it’s more than an inch long and crawled over my bag.

Words, words, words

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Be original and go local 2018. Something I’m coming to terms with in Korea is the flexibility of meaning. Go local has a tenuous-enough meaning already, but how can an Italian restaurant in Seoul be anything but global/foreign? Or is that somehow going to change in 2018?

For my whole life, I’ve grappled with how to express ideas as precisely as possible, and disputed what I consider to be the wrong meaning of words. But what about words that have no meaning at all? This isn’t babytalk or random machine gibberish: meaningful English phrases appear all over Korea, often as slogans. But they’re divorced from their context and stripped of their significance. English, for non-native speakers, can be decoration.

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Here’s a more sinister example, also from Hongdae. The designer knows what fruit is, but misses the context and hence destroys the song he/she loves. Or more likely, they don’t love it, the words just suggested an image. Spoiler: it’s not about fruit.

For contrast:
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In trust we trust. That only makes sense because it’s a riff on a famous slogan. But of course, it makes no sense at all. I thought it might be a critique of consumerism, showing how circular the worship of money is. But considering that’s one of the most expensive clothing stores in Hanganjin, an already-expensive neighbourhood, I doubt it.

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Here’s some meaning I’m more comfortable with, at Soongsil University.


My neighbourhood has transformed dramatically in the two years I’ve been living there. There was one craft brewery last year; now I count 7. New restaurants and bars keep popping up; I counted 5 under construction within a 5 minute walk of my house. And while the main street used to be filled with flip-flopped foreigners holding red cups and shouting ‘Wooo!’ on weekends, now there’s a steady stream of well-dressed young Korean couples.

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This is entirely unremarkable; a former curry house being gutted and transformed into a gelateria in a matter of weeks.

My girlfriend says Koreans are bored, and coming to the foreigner neighbourhood is cheaper than travelling abroad. And while travelling, Koreans like to eat; in addition to the soon-to-arrive gelateria, there’s…

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… a creperie (the first I’ve seen in Korea). I ordered a nutella crepe and they gave me free blueberries and bananas. In Korea it’s called ‘service’: a freebie designed to attract customers.

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…And a soft ice cream parlour whose offerings include ‘whisky flavour’ (tastes like the real thing) and occasionally emits dry ice.

These are all steps from each other. The neighbourhood is old and crowded, so retail clusters along a few designated strips. But the real estate, hardware and vegetable shops are being replaced with cafes and bars. I can’t say I’m unhappy about that. Itaewon (the neighbourhood right next door) has a bad reputation based on years of drunken US soldiers from the nearby base (literally across the street from the ice cream), but that’s largely ended and it’s become a go-to destination: Saturday night feels like an unending party with beautiful Koreans dressed in impossibly expensive clothing. There will be negative side-effects of course: undoubtedly the demographic of the neighbourhood will shift as older people sell up and younger people move in. But right now rents are still cheaper in HBC/Kyungnidan than the rest of Seoul, and living there means I’m steps away from ice cream and craft beer. I welcome a more exciting class of petty bourgeois.


A flash mob in Hyehwa singing We Go Together from Grease.

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To end on a political note, one of the weekly rallies near City Hall for an independent public inquiry into the Sewol ferry disaster. Months later and thousands of young and old are still attending.

Why do older Korean women bump into me?

Koreans are incredibly polite and generous. I am constantly smiled at, greeted in English, and apologized to if people don’t speak English. For example, I lost my passport in a park. By the time I realized this, night had fallen and the park had closed. Yet the security guard loaned me his flashlight, and my girlfriend and I scoured the park. Another security guard saw the beam of light, and shone his light in my face. Then he was very helpful and promised to tell the park cleaners to look for my passport. My girlfriend told me that he was very upset until he saw I was a foreigner. White/foreign privilege in action – if I was brown I wouldn’t get this kind of respect. I can’t say I’m not grateful.
Today’s cafe / designer remade clothes shop.

Yet one of the hardest things to get used to in South Korea is the lack of personal space. It’s a regular occurrence to be bumped into, sometimes hard enough to hurt, on the sidewalk or in the subway. The perpetrator is usually, but not always, older and female. Soon after my arrival in South Korea, I was told this was just something Koreans do, and not to take it personally. Which is good advice, because it happens to everyone. I met a traveller who stayed in Korea one week. He was waiting to get off the subway. The doors opened, and an 아주마 – ajumma, Korean woman over 50 – was waiting on the other side. Subway etiquette – and posters and videos on every train – dictates that she move, but she didn’t. Instead she barrelled into him, smacking him on the chest. Last week I was standing on the subway and someone left a seat directly in front of me. I was in the process of swivelling to sit down when, out of nowhere, a tiny ajumma darted in front of me, pushing me out of the way and sitting down. I gave her the best British glare I could but she simply avoided eye contact.

I’ve done pretty well in not taking the daily pushes and shoves personally, and I’ve since discovered that I’m not alone in confronting this. A quick google search reveals comments from a traveller, an ESL teacher and even the scion of the Underwood family. That is, Koreans tend to cut off other drivers, run down pedestrians by riding motorcycles on the sidewalk, and act antisocially. Commentators put this down to a kin-culture: Koreans are polite to people in their immediate family, school and work-cultures, but there are simply too many people, in too small a space, to be polite to all and sundry. Social graces might have worked in a village, but not the megalopolis of Seoul.

I find this explanation unsatisfying. There are plenty of other large cities where this doesn’t happen; moreover, Korea is a friendly, sociable place where group solidarity is a spoken rule: 형 – hyeong, if I’m not misspelling it, means social affection, a kindness that you automatically extend to strangers. Since foreigners find that ajumma don’t extend it to them, they leap to some Orientalist conclusions about Asians, the upshot being that older women are selfish or irrational.

Like so many racist and sexist ideas, this derives from the viewer seeing confusing behaviour, finding it impossible to explain it, and therefore assuming the behaviour is irrational and rooted in some equally unchanging, inexplicable feature of human society like culture, skin colour or gender (‘They’re all like that.’) This is a way to create ideology: attach false explanations to real phenomena. Sometimes leftists respond by denying the behaviour exists. This is understandable but, in the case of the ajumma, wrong: every Korean I’ve spoken to accepts pushy ajummas as a part of life. I think there’s a better response, which is to provide a materialist explanation for social phenomena, one that roots apparently crazy or rude behaviour in capitalist history.

I am a SWM (straight white male), and I’ve read that we shouldn’t even comment on Korean social behaviour, because we don’t know what we’re observing. This is often true. But what follows is not my story, but that of a Korean friend, who happens to be a journalist, activist and intellectual and who freely admits this is just his theory. Plus I’ve run it by my girlfriend, who thinks it’s a good explanation. That counts as research in my books.
The entrance to a poor Korean market in my neighbourhood, for reasons that will become clear.

Korean capitalism is usually thought of as corporate. After the Korean War ceasefire in 1953, giant corporations, created by ex-collaborators with the Japanese occupation forces, built huge factories with the assistance of a right-wing dictatorship. Capitalism was carefully regulated and nurtured along classic developmentalist lines.

As some have pointed out, this model isn’t really a model, as there’s no such thing as developmentalism, only contingent alliances between the US military and local ruling classes benefiting from the latter’s largesse. But regardless of where the money came from and why, the impact on the ground isn’t in dispute: rapid industrialisation created an army of wage workers and salarymen who sacrificed their lives to the factories.
Down the stairs, turn right

So far, so exploitative; but what were the women doing? Korea was rebuilding its industrial capacity: it had no money for niceties like blocks of flats, supermarkets, or urban planning. Workers lived in giant slums around the factories, and vast unregulated markets sprung up in their alleys and courtyards. While the men worked in factories, the women worked to get the day’s rations at the market.

But capitalism abhors a vacuum: these petty bourgeois local markets weren’t paradises. Local mafia sprung up to vie for lucrative protection income from the merchants. Violence was a daily occurrence, as gangsters and their allies fought for influence. Like all good small business people, the merchants passed the costs along to the consumers. The women became adept at sniffing out a bargain and grabbing it before their neighbours could. They also knew when they were being cheated. Irrational and emotional? On the contrary: they were exhibiting market-rational behaviour of the first order. This was how they survived.
The vista that presents itself inside the tiny market. Note the leaking roof. This used to be very common in Seoul.

That system endured for decades. It would be the height of naïveté to think that people trained to fight for a living would stop once they got flats, cars and public transit. What this suggests is that there are two kinds of Korean capitalism: The first is the highly regulated, heavily capitalized version so feted by political economy textbooks. The second is the informal petty bourgeois cutthroat version that sprang up in the chaos after the ceasefire. One is productive, the other, reproductive. One relies on male workers; the other relies on female workers. Both depended upon each other. And their unwilling subjects form the backbone of today’s government in Korea.

There’s been much talk of the nostalgia for the go-go 1970s that led to Park Geun Hye being elected last year, largely by older voters. Although these voters are conservative, they are not uniform. Older Korean men often have ‘the blood of the nation’ running through their veins. They are proud of their sacrifice for Korea, and are willing to talk in glowing terms about the collective effort that built the nation. However, some older Korean women think their husbands are hopelessly naive. For their formative years, life was a dog-eat-dog competitive struggle. Their conservatism rest on deeply personal trauma from having to survive by fighting the merchants, the gangsters and each other.

So: two kinds of capitalism, corporate and gangster. Two kinds of labour, productive and reproductive. And two kinds of gendered effects of that capitalism, creating different psychologies. That Korean social solidarity survives at all under the onslaught of the Japanese occupation, the war, the American occupation, and the dictatorship is remarkable. That there is a gendered aspect to Korean capitalism that’s left out of the textbooks is perhaps not so surprising. So, the next time an older woman barrels into you in the subway, or appears out of nowhere to take your seat, spare a thought for the hardships that shaped that behaviour. Her rationality points to the hidden history of post-war Korea.

London in Seoul

Union jacks and royal crests are in every clothing shop in Korea. At first I thought this was appreciation for a good design that happens to share colours with Korea’s own flag – itself a rather busy creation. The union jack is brilliantly put together: 3 crosses melded together in fetching red white and blue. It’s more sophisticated than the stars and stripes’ awkward symbolism, which has elements layered in an appropriately direct utilitarianism. And it works much better than The Netherlands, France and all those other stripey nations.

SKOR0001 NETH0001 FRAN0001 UNST0001 UNKG0001
From a design perspective, the winner is clear. Only from a design perspective – I remain an anti-nationalist.

However, I’ve since discovered that Koreans’ fascination with England is more than aesthetic. London itself has been successfully marketed as cool. I saw British pastiche across Russia, but that was Camden Market tat mashed together in restaurants. Koreans have done their research and found London neighbourhoods to emulate. Here’s Brick Lane, a lovely two-storey bar with Smithwicks on tap, only marred by smokers and roar of Seoul’s ubiquitous traffic.


Two Notting Hills:
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Neal’s Yard in Itaewon, which doesn’t have quaint vegetarian restaurants like the original but serves a good fruit-waffle:


I used to live north of Dalston! This one is considerably less gritty:IMG_2575

A British institution:

I still have yet to hang out here, but I’m glad it exists:IMG_1576

And finally, if you’ve run out of neighbourhoods to cite, you can always reference the city:IMG_2088

There’s a Hackney coffee bar near my house, and no doubt dozens of others spread across this vast metropolis. It makes me happy to come across little reminders of the city I love so much.

Food, art and fashion of Seoul

What it says on the tin.


At one of the many, many open-plan cafes in Hongdae. This is a choco-tini and pecan pie.


This is a latte martini at Coffeelec, a boutique coffee shop with an award-winning and handsome barista. Here he’s mixed creme, vodka, espresso and chocolate. These probably give the impression my tastes are childish/decadent. I enjoy plain espresso, but on weekends I need to feel I’m living large.



This is aA Design Museum in Hongdae, the Soho of Seoul. The owner collects 1960s decor and arranges it in a giant concrete space. You can sit on curvy, wooden things and order cake.


The basement is equally large but under renovation; last I looked, the bar had lights and there was a giant paper mache shark being affixed to the ceiling. In the stairwell, a lego-octopus chandelier:


A little room with no apparent purpose in the stairwell between floors:


Salaryman goat in Hongdae:


And his uncouth American cousin inside the store:


I haven’t been into Cafe Brick yet, but its vintage Vespa and sidecar are glorious:



Fuck yeah. I never thought I’d see this in Korea – it’s the kind of thing everybody thinks and no one says, at least openly.

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Don’t know what this jewelry store was going for, but it succeeds as creepy. Why is she naked, why is she stuck on by her face?

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Swastikas are a common sight here, since they’re Buddhist icons. But for a thematically-pleasing misinterpretation, I like the communist-fascist-pacifist spread here:



English clothing

To be precise, English messages on clothing.


“Water levels are rising because Jesus is crying.”


Occasionally I spot designers who genuinely have a message. This is a nice summary of the temporary nature of capitalism:


If only:


Actually ‘working class hero’, but I prefer this:



“All women shall be happy only for the fact that they are woman.” That’s as feminist as you’re likely to get in Apgujeong, the equally-upscale fashion district next to Gangnam.


A boutique in Doota, one of the megamalls in Dongdaemun, downtown Seoul. It seemed fitting after my last post.


“I’m so intelligent.”

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I spotted this guy on the subway. The superhuge glasses look good on Koreans and ridiculous on everyone else. I don’t know why. Also check out the studs on his Converse.


Finally, as a reward for making it this far, one of the most fashionable women in Seoul. My girlfriend had actually spotted her a few months earlier, which isn’t easy in a city of 10 million, but she obviously stands out. I wouldn’t have had the courage to approach her on my own, but my girlfriend was with me and agreed I needed this photo for my blog. So I caught up to her outside the subway gate in Gangnam, explained I kept a blog and asked if I could take her photo. She graciously assented. Note not just the giant spectacles but the winged sandals, black leather accessories and translucent sleeves. And as a composition, I really like this photo: the colours work, and the moving, glancing passersby contrast well with the still model. Yes, this woman is uncommon; no, she’s not the only one pursuing a ‘post-goth out for a summer stroll’ look and pulling it off. People have criticized Korean fashion for being endless variations on the same theme, but there are people taking a standard repertoire and doing some amazing things with it.


May Day in Seoul, 2013

I’m used to May Day being a tame affair, a few hundred scruffy anarchists and socialists marching along the sidewalk (because no one gives a permit for May Day, and the more direct-action minded don’t want the cops to know the route anyway). Someone steps into the street, gets tackled by the cops, a small crowd gathers shouting “Let him [usually him] go!”, someone else gets arrested, and the crowd scatters, satisfied that the workers’ cause has been commemorated for another year. I usually end up buying groceries afterwards, which, in recent years, has meant I’ve skipped the ceremonial stroll altogether and gone straight to the store. But not in Seoul: the international workers’ holiday means something here.

When I stepped off the bus near City Hall, the police had cleared out huge swathes of central streets and were whistling frantically at approaching drivers. I could hear martial music and deep bass in the distance, which I first thought was the workers on the march, and then discovered was a Christian truck parked nearby with a loudspeaker. I walked a little further and found Seoul Plaza:


This is the public sector union part of the rally. I found the Palestine solidarity table and bought a lovely lime-green Solidarity t-shirt, then I tried to make my way to the march. But I was quickly stopped by the police – they weren’t holding me back deliberately, there were just so many cops that street traffic slowed to a halt:


At first I thought these were the normal draftee teenagers given body armour and yellow reflective jackets and sent to corral demonstrations, but on closer inspection they looked older and harder, possibly because fewer of them wore glasses:


This rather poorly-taken panorama shot demonstrates the numbers of police, if not the details:


Here’s why I didn’t go too far. These are disabled worker activists being hemmed in by crowds, which are being hemmed in by police. Later the cops appeared to try to arrest one older man trying to cross the street – they clustered around him, surrounded in turn by activists and tv cameras. But it ended peacefully. Below, the couple dressed in red are information cowboys who loiter helpfully in major tourist areas:


Back across at the plaza, I toured the many tables and found the Korean outpost of Lutte Ouvriere (Workers’ Struggle, the huge orthodox Trotskyist French party), selling James P. Cannon’s The History of American Trotskyism.


Koreans have a flair for the dramatic, and demonstrations are no different. I encourage you to click through and view this picture close-up, to see the determined looks on their faces: IMG_4508

That’s because they’re singing this rousing number. I moved to the front to get the footage, and midway through I scan the crowd to give a sense of the numbers:

Later the rally culminated in the rock-musical version of The Internationale. The video is three minutes long; if you don’t have time to listen to the workers’ anthem right now, or you’d prefer to avoid the grainy-cam effects, skip ahead to the last minute, when a procession of workers holding different union flags makes its way to the front. It was genuinely stirring:

The crowd thought it was stirring too: 5000 people, pumping their fists in the air to the music. I haven’t seen such revolutionary fervour since Rage Against The Machine at Rock The Bells in 2007 – and there, Zach de la Rocha had to tell people to “put your fist up!” The Korean workers needed no such prompting.


Finally, one could argue about the exclusionary effect of alcohol at a workers’ rally, given the impact that alcohol has on destroying workers’ lives. But as the cause of, and solution to all life’s problems, I was pretty happy to see it on sale, even if it’s horrible, sub-Coors Light-quality Cass.