23 September 2008

Seoul: Bank of Korea Edition

I spent this afternoon visiting downtown again, centering my activities around the Bank of Korea and its Currency Museum (museum.bok.or.kr). Bank of Korea is South Korea's central bank, much like Nippon Ginko in Japan and Bank of England in the UK (and to a lesser extent, the US Federal Reserves), and the only institution authorized to issue the national currency. It deals with commercial banks, but never directly with customers.

As I waited for my subway train, I saw this public announcement, courtesy of Ministry of Gender Equality. It reads: "All sex trafficking, including those happening overseas, will be prosecuted." The Korean men really need to take these warnings seriously.

A few minutes later, the same display showed a different message. This one reads: "Let's live healthy lives by respecting the sanctity of life." To the American eye, this looks like an anti-abortion message, but in the Korean context, it is a suicide prevention message; suicide is the leading killer of South Koreans in their 20s and 30s.

A yellow safety line runs along the platform, and door positions are marked in pink as shown here. The number 6-2 means that the second door of the sixth car will stop at this location. All subway cars in Seoul have four doors on each side; trains themselves have 8 or 10 cars each, depending on the line (6 cars on Line 8). The arrows indicate that passengers exit the train through the middle of each doorway, and board through either side.

A public announcement poster on the train. It reads: "Remove the key, this becomes your piggy bank." In other words, save your money by parking your car. Given that South Korea must import all its petroleum, conservation is important. Nevertheless, the rich doesn't care - and buy the biggest obscene automobiles possible, such as the Hyundai Grandeur or the Mercedes S-class.

An ad on another subway train, from the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family. It reminds citizens to call its hotline, 129 (no prefix or area code needed), for a variety of services, from applying for welfare payments to suicide prevention counseling.

That's the Bank of Korea's main building and museum. It was built in 1907 with Japanese funds.

In front are Seoul's buses in all their four colors. The yellow ones make local loops around a neighborhood, and cost the least. The green ones are the next up, connecting subway stations to nearby points of interest, and cost a little more. The blue ones are the trunk lines making long distance runs across the city's arterial streets, and cost the same as the green ones (and the subway). The red ones, with guaranteed seating, run to the suburbs, and cost a lot more than all others.

This streetside vendor sells seals (stamps), which can be used on South Korean legal documents in lieu of a signature. The banner above says that computer-designed seals can be made on the spot for 2,000 won or 200 Japanese yen (either way, USD $2). The seals can even contain Chinese characters, Japanese kana, or English.

Seoul was quickly rebuilt with a hodge-podge of nondescript buildings in the aftermath of the war, with little regard for aesthetics or architecture. But now that South Korea is affluent, and the people demand more style, the newer buildings (from about 1990 on) are starting to boast some great architecture, as seen in this example in front of the Bank of Korea. Only the longtime height restrictions, from the South Korean and US military forces, have prevented the kinds of exotic skyscrapers commonly seen in other leading Asian cities from being built, but those have been repealed too, so Seoul will only get better architecturally.

Across from Bank of Korea: Shinsegae Department Store, Seoul's first department store, dating back to the 1930s. In Japanese Keijo, this was the place for the rich and famous to shop at.

Also note the N-Seoul Tower standing to the left.

The Bank of Korea was running a special exhibition on the world's various banknotes honoring women of all stripes. The most prominent were the British banknotes with Queen Elizabeth II, though other personalities, such as Clara Schumann of Germany, were also featured. South Korea's lone banknote entry was the 100-hwan note of 1962, with a mother and child, which lasted only 24 days before a currency reform; however, three South Korean commemorative coins have also featured women. My favorite item among the exhibits, however, will have to be the North Korean 1-won banknote of 1992, which featured a girl selling flowers; she was part of a family in Japanese-ruled Korea who was forced into hard indentured labor and other indignities for failure to pay back a small debt on time, and her story is ripe, well-known material for North Korean nationalistic propaganda theater. A close second was the Chinese 2-jiao showing two ethnic minority girls, one of them Korean.

Speaking of North Korean won, it seems to have gone through severe inflation. It used to be fixed at 2.16 won to USD $1, to mark Kim Jong-il's birthday (February 16), but now is believed to be worth even less than South Korean won, which currently stands at 1,100 won to USD $1. The museum had a current 5,000-won banknote featuring Kim Il-sung.

No photos, however, as they were not allowed. The exhibits included all sorts of Korean currency, from Ancient Joseon through the various kingdoms to Japanese occupation to the modern-day two Koreas; key historical currencies of neighboring Asian nations; commemorative coins and banknotes from around the world; and samples of current and recent currencies from almost all nations of the world. Also present were thematic displays, including various denomination schemes (1, 5, 10, 50, etc. for South Korea, 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, etc. for the US, and so on), sizes of different denominations of banknotes (ranging from all identical, as in the US dollar, to different lengths, as in the Euro), people and other motifs displayed (Islamic nations tend to put buildings on their currencies due to the prohibition on idolatry), and more. Other exhibits showcased the design, production, lifecycle, and disposal of banknotes (including a floor tile made with 4,300 shredded 10,000-won notes); counterfeit detection; and the importance of sound fiscal policy, showing the hyperinflation of post-World War I Germany as an example to not follow. One special hall had donated currency, including a complete 50-state quarter set from the US and obsolete Soviet Union rubles.

After finishing the museum - though walking away without a coin set, because it was sold out - I proceeded to Dongmyo, a shrine dedicated to Chinese general Guan Yu. I previously discussed Dongmyo and its significance over at Christy's Art Blog.

This subway station sign makes clear that the usage of Chinese characters on Seoul subway signs (see the lower right corner in this example) is done more for the convenience of elderly Koreans than for visitors from neighboring Asian countries. The Korean name of the station is "Dongmyo-ap" (In Front of Dongmyo), and while Dongmyo is written in Chinese characters (東廟), "ap," a purely Korean word, is written in Korean (앞) and therefore unintelligible to someone from China or Japan. Perhaps it would've made more sense to write it as 東廟前 if the true intention was to help Chinese and Japanese visitors.

This street, running next to Dongmyo, is a busy streetside market, and very chaotic. Karaoke machines are blaring out loud "trot" music (Korean pop music, popular in 1960s and 1970s, based on Japanese styles of that era). Many of the vendors were wearing protest vests, to show their displeasure at the ward government starting construction on this street soon - and taking away their livelihood for the duration.

A sign at Dongmyo explaining its significance. It's designated as Treasure (less significant than National Treasure, but still important) No. 142. Because Guan Yu worship never had a tradition in Korea (this place was built with Chinese funds at the request of the Chinese emperor, after a Chinese-Korean alliance drove the Japanese invaders out in the 1590s), Dongmyo was neglected by the Koreans - until the 1990s, when the Chinese started coming here. Centuries of neglect has taken its toll, and currently this place is being renovated, to be reopened in late October. I'll have to come back then - if I haven't returned to the US by then.

Note the simplified Chinese writing, spelling Seoul out as "Shou Er" as preferred by the Koreans, instead of Hancheng as long used by the Chinese. The characters 東廟 are grossly simplified as well.

A miniature Korean bell and two horseback figurines for sale, at the street market next to Dongmyo.

That construction site in the distance is what remains of Seoul's former primary athletics facility, Dongdaemun (East Gate) Stadium. It consisted of a soccer field seating 30,000, and a baseball field. Dating back to the 1920s, this place hosted many competitions, including the regular soccer matches between Seoul and Pyongyang in the 1930s, as well as the high school baseball championships, South Korea's premier baseball event until the introduction of professional baseball in 1982. It's sad to see it gone; larger, newer stadia built for the 1988 Olympics and the 2002 FIFA World Cup have taken over its functions. A park is being built in its place.

Heunginjimun, better known as Dongdaemun, the east gate of downtown Seoul. This is Treasure No. 1. With Sungryemun (south gate) destroyed (though it will be restored over the next three years), this is one of the last city gates standing. It could definitely use some scrubbing though; all the pollution has dulled the paint and the bricks.

The church spires to the left definitely show what Seoul is like today.

Back on the subway train, returning to my apartment. Most trains have these overhead signs showing the name of the next station, as well as which side of the train to get off on. Audible announcements, in Korean and in English, repeat the information, just to be sure, repeating the station's name twice each time. The audible announcements also include transfer information, as well as any wide gaps between the train and the platform.

The light blue stripes identify this train as belonging to Line 4 (Blue Line to the foreigners). Don't confuse it with the dark blue of Line 1.

This poster announces Seoul's Job Fair for the Disabled, to be held in a week. The disabled face rampant job discrimination in South Korea, so opportunities like this help out immensely.

I went out again for dinner, to join a relative who had returned from the US to become a professor at a local Buddhist university. Our taxi ride together revealed some ugly truths about the Korean society, courtesy of the taxi driver (i.e. the laws being there to protect the powerful, as opposed to the masses); I am reminded that I will have to rent the most obscenely expensive and oversized car possible for my trip to Gyeongju, if I want any semblance of respect. My relative also had lots of interesting things to say about the Korean society, after over a decade in the US academia, including his children's adjustment to the South Korean school system as well as President Lee Myung-bak's oppression of Buddhists (he's a Christian, by the way, and does say that the Buddhists at the school coerce him a bit, but also adds that the Christian universities, like Yonsei and Ewha Women's, coerce their Buddhists even more).

And speaking of cars, I have some more photos of those obscenely expensive luxury cars that populate the streets of Seoul.

A current model BMW 320i. While the 3-series is BMW's best selling model in most markets (including the US), it's outnumbered by the 5-series here in Seoul.

Between 1962 and 1987, South Korea banned foreign-built vehicles, to encourage domestic automakers. (Japanese vehicles remained banned until 1998.) While Lexus and Honda are the best-sellers today, BMW takes the crown for the highest number of cumulative South Korean sales since 1987.

Here's a domestic model: Ssangyong Chairman. Ssangyong is a smaller manufacturer, formerly owned by Daewoo, currently owned by Shanghai Automotive. The Chairman looks a lot like a Mercedes, to cater to the South Korean elite's penchant for Mercedes vehicles. Actually, the semblance is more than skin deep; most components are also supplied by Mercedes.

The Chairman is one of the models assembled by North Korea's Pyeonghwa Motors, a joint venture of the Unification Church and the North Korean government, in Nampo, to be supplied to the North Korean Communist Party elite, who love Mercedes-Benz as much as the South Korean elite. Nampo-built Chairmans are strictly for North Korean use, however, and don't get imported back to South Korea.

Here is the much-talked about rear-wheel-drive sports sedan from Hyundai, the Genesis. South Korean domestic models don't even have a Hyundai fascia on it. A variety of V6 engines power South Korean models, while the US models use a 3.8L V6 and a 4.6L V8.

Here's Kia's new luxury SUV, the Mohave. Like other luxury domestics, this one uses a unique Mohave badge instead of the standard Kia emblem. The Mohave is also sold in the US, where it is known as the Borrego (and carries standard Kia emblem), and boasts V8 power.

If the Hyundai Genesis copies the BMW formula, its stablemate, the front-wheel-drive Equus, is more like a Cadillac Sedan De Ville. Like the Genesis, the Equus lacks Hyundai badging, and uses its own badging. The Equus is available with a variety of V6 and V8 engines in two wheelbases; this is the long version. It is not available in the US.

The Equus played a prominent role in last year's inter-Korean summit, when dozens of them, carrying South Korean government ministers and officials, crossed the DMZ and headed for Pyongyang, to accompany President Roh Moo-hyun and his Mercedes.

This is it for today!