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.