28 September 2008

Seoul: Universities

My tour of Seoul continues. People are noticing that I am maximizing my sightseeing time; I tell them that to me, it's a blasphemy to travel so far from home, and not do any sightseeing or engage in other activities I can't normally do at home.

Today's agenda: visit a college neighborhood. I picked the area just to the west of downtown, named Sinchon (新村, "new village"), where four universities - Sogang, Hongik, Yonsei, and Ewha Women's - congregate, and many businesses cater to the student population. Here in South Korea, undergraduate years are considered to be a time to unwind, after the cutthroat studies during the high school years which had been dedicated to preparing the college entrance examinations. A diploma is all that stands between a college student and his/her bright future at a major conglomerate.

Before I started out, I took this close-up shot of a nearby apartment building. Note the air conditioning compressors, satellite dishes, and the windows covering the balconies. None of these were part of the original building, which was built in the mid-1980s without air conditioning.

I've just learned that the law allows the resident-owners of each apartment complex to vote for/against re-developing their complexes, once the buildings are 20 years old. Re-development would mean demolition of the existing buildings, and construction of more modern replacement buildings that include central air conditioning, fiber-optic broadband Internet access, larger closets, and other modern features not found in older buildings. The new buildings also tend to be at least 25 stories tall (and often much taller), while pre-1988 apartment buildings were usually 12-15 stories tall, resulting in more units for a given amount of land. Residents of the old buildings are usually allowed to move into the new buildings for free; however, they are responsible for finding temporary shelters - and paying rent - on their own, while the buildings are demolished and rebuilt.

In a luxury apartment like this, most residents favor such redevelopment, the only opposition coming from the very elderly who believe that they will die before being able to move into the replacement building. It's a much tougher sell for middle- and working-class apartments, where residents often can't afford the rent during the demolition and reconstruction.

The current best-selling automobile in South Korea: the Hyundai Sonata, now in its fourth generation. The Sonata also owns the lion's share of the taxicab market. This example shows three parking sensors on the rear bumper, a very common option here, but unavailable on US-market Sonatas (many of which are assembled in Alabama with many US parts, as opposed to here).

One reason for the partial transfer of Sonata production to the US was because of the volatile labor situation at Hyundai's home assembly plants, where annual renewals of labor contract are causing massive headaches both for the management and for the labor union.

As they say in London... "MIND THE GAP." On this particular platform, the gap is 17 centimeters wide at this particular door, and as much as 21 centimeters at other doors. This is the worst platform I've seen so far in Seoul, as far as gaps are concerned.

This window decal, from Seoul Metro's labor union, tells its side of the story regarding the current labor dispute at city-owned Seoul Metro. It claims that Seoul Metro has used legal loopholes to create private contractor companies, run by retired bosses, that will causes sweetheart deals while replacing the company's workforce with low-wage temp workers. It also criticizes the current mayor of Seoul for his alleged negligence on the job, not only in regards to the privatization of Seoul Metro, but also in the lax safeguards protecting the city's cultural assets that resulted in the destruction of the city's historic south gate earlier in the year.

This is a Line 2 train heading toward Sinchon. Many visitors easily confuse Sinchon with Sincheon (新川, "new creek"), which is also on Line 2, but located on the other side of the circle line in Jamsil. Only the extra "e" distinguishes these two vastly different stations. Before 2000, when South Korea used the McCune-Reischauer system of romanized Korean, both stations were romanized as "Shinch'on," making it even more confusing.

I got off at Hongik University station. The area around Hongik is known as "Hongdae," which is simply short for Hongik University. I am walking one of the area's side alleys. Here's a posh Vietnamese rice noodle restaurant - again, a very exotic, trendy thing to eat here in Seoul.

Two great ways to unwind after cramming for exams: a PC room on top, and a karaoke bar on the bottom.

The karaoke bars started popping up in the early 1990s, and automatically score one's singing on a score of 0-100 based on how on-rhythm the singing is (tone-deaf is okay). There are multiple small rooms, each room intended for a small group of friends, equipped with sofas, a table, and karaoke equipment. Drink and snacks can be purchased. Songs range from the latest K-Pop to the oldies to the latest hits from the US and Europe. As I was alone today, I didn't bother with the karaoke bars.

The more recent PC rooms are a combination of Internet cafes with the ability to play online role-playing games. South Korea currently has some of the world's best online RPGs and players. Some PC rooms also offer console gaming, such as Nintendo Wii and Sony PlayStation 3.

Both places can be smoky at times, even in nonsmoking spaces.

One of the better streets of Hongdae, with a wide pedestrian sidewalk and some grass. Lots of couples out and about.

This graffiti says: "[President Lee] Myung-bak, Resign!"

Much like in the US, college campuses are normally the bastion of liberalism in South Korea. After all, the college students in the 1980s were disenchanted to find that the democratic ideals and institutions that they had learned in class were not being practiced by the then-military regime, and enraged that the Reagan Administration was giving the military regime tons of moral support. Violent anti-government and anti-American street demonstrations were common. The police cracked down harshly, torturing many college activists, but when one of the activists died during torture, things got so out of hand in 1987 that even the riot police joined the protests and demanded democracy. That's how the modern-day democracy came to South Korea - in a nutshell.

The W Administration's hardline tactics have not gone over well either.

On the flip side, the military is the bastion of conservatism, and here in South Korea, of McCarthyist paranoia as well.

There are conservative universities, of course, notably the Sungkyunkwan University, which carries the name of the royal Confucian academy, still teaches a Confucian curriculum (and opposes liberalization of social laws), and is owned by an affiliate of the Samsung neoliberal empire.

Something I love - Greek food. This Greek restaurant, the first one I ever encountered in South Korea, is named Iris. Things Greek have a tendency of reminding me of my favorite Greek Goddess - actress Jennifer Aniston.

Main entrance to Hongik University.

This boutique specializes in vintage clothing, and is located on a quiet residential alley near the university entrance.

A short walk away is another boutique. As seen in the window, I can pick up an Ally McLesbian miniskirt suit here.

Having never been to the South Pacific, I've never seen a Holden automobile - until now. This is the Holden Epica, designed and built locally by Daewoo. In the South Korean market, it is also sold as the Chevrolet Epica and the Daewoo Tosca. Most export models use the Chevrolet name. The Epica/Tosca replaced the Daewoo Magnus (Suzuki Verona in the US, and the previous-generation Chevrolet Epica in Canada), which had replaced the Daewoo Leganza (sold for 3 brief years in the US, before Daewoo went bankrupt and became part of GM).

I am not sure what this "men's rest area" is supposed to be, but my educated guess is that it's a quick-nap hotel catering to men only, similar to the Japanese capsule hotels. It is counterbalanced by something nearby...

... and it's Lesbos. This is South Korea's first lesbian bar, opening its doors in 1996. As I ran into this sign after wandering the neighborhood for a while, I really felt like I had found my element, something I couldn't say of the transgender nightclubs of Itaewon. Again, thank the collegiate liberalism for allowing lesbian bars to exist in this neighborhood, as opposed to elsewhere.

Back in the US, gay men's bars often frown on the presence of women, while most lesbian bars welcome men. Here in South Korea, the opposite seems to be the case; Lesbos does not admit men at all, while many men's bars in Itaewon admit women. I don't think I can get into Lesbos, as nobody in South Korea understands the concept of a trans lesbian, and I'd be dismissed as another boy-crazy ladyboy. Even with this, I found much more relief at the sight of this sign, than I ever did at the Itaewon transgender nightclubs.

A short walk away from Lesbos, I found this coffee shop, closed today. The door says it all: closed on "Lord's Day" (주일), the Korean Christian vocabulary for Sunday. That's a dead giveaway that the coffee shop is Christian-owned.

Painting a side wall, to erase some spray-painted graffiti. The Hongdae area has quite a bit of American/European-style spray-painted graffiti, which is almost unheard of in most parts of Seoul.

A wide side street, with its median normally used for parking, is hosting a book fair today instead. I decided to take a look. There were plenty of young parents with grade school children around, shopping for the right books for the kids.

A display at the book fair, showing two familiar American faces. The left is Korean-American comedienne Margaret Cho (though her bisexuality is usually a taboo subject here in South Korea). The right is illegitimate First Lady Laura Bush, who is described in the glowing terms a South Korean government bureaucrat is obliged to use for US Republicans, in a show of Confucian deference and respect.

An interesting restaurant sign. A Japanese eatery named Yellow Fukuoka is using Japanese, Korean, and Roman scripts to showcase its menu.

Lady First, another women-only bar. I wonder if this is a lesbian hangout too? I really feel like I am in my element here, even though I won't be able to get into any of these places.

There are a few more known lesbian hangouts in Hongdae, but I was looking in the wrong places and couldn't locate them. Supposedly, most cater to only locals, and English is not spoken well; English-speaking lesbians in Seoul tend to gather in a social group named Seoul Sisters, then visit these places as a group.

In any case, I could really feel the lesbian power flowing through Hongdae, and I feel all the better for it. Quite a few women holding hands too - though here, they are unlikely to be lesbian couples, and most likely to be BFFs (no, not of the Lindsay Lohan - Samantha Ronson variety either).

Another Lush store. I really loved the smell here.

It's a shame that (1) I don't have a bath at my place, and I can't use Lush products; and (2) I could play a fashionista today only with my eyes. This really needs to change.

Tunics on top. Various legwear displays in the middle, with actual for-sale products packaged below. Add proper accessories, make sure your knickers are covered, and voila! - you are a Seoul fashionista.

I am starting to head east, toward the main part of Sinchon, along a boulevard that runs to City Hall. Some high fashion in evidence here - both in the sleek French lines of the Peugeot 407, and in the boutique.

Nearing the Sinchon Intersection, where a left turn is not allowed. The solution: make what the South Koreans call a "P-Turn." Namely, overshoot the intersection, then make a series of right turns, until you are traveling in the right direction. The sign above illustrates a P-Turn.

I am making as many observations as I can regarding the traffic rules and regulations here (and the mentality of the drivers), to make the sense out of the apparent chaos, and be able to make my drive to Gyeongju later on. The verdict is split; some love the idea of me driving here, others think it's lunacy.

Nearby, a Seoul-style traffic stop. It looks like the black Kia Opirus (Kia Amanti in the US) committed a violation. A policeman just got out of his cruiser, a Kia Lotze (second-generation Kia Optima in the US, Kia Magentis in a few other countries), to talk to the driver and check his license. The Lotze is an unusual police car; the average Seoul police car is a smaller model, like the Renault-Samsung SM3, or the Daewoo Lacetti (Suzuki Forenza in the US).

At Sinchon Intersection, I visited a McDonald's for a Big Mac lunch, which set me back 4,800 won (USD $4.80) with fries and drink. It was interesting to note that the drink was served in a reusable plastic bottle, which had to be returned at the end of the meal. The South Koreans are far more environmentally conscious than the Americans caught up in Dominionist disregard for the Earth. McDonald's also serves various localized items, such as Shanghai Spicy Chicken Sandwich and Double Bulgogi Burger.

A walk north from Sinchon Intersection (and Sinchon subway station) brought me here. This is the entrance to Yonsei University, which is pretty much tied with its rival Korea University on the eastside, as the second most prestigious university in the nation; the most prestigious is Seoul National University, in the far south of the city. In the late 19th Century, American Christian missionaries set up two schools in this area to modernize the South Korean education system; one of them was Yonsei, for men, and the other was Ewha, its eastern neighbor, for women. Yonsei is co-ed today.

Yonsei runs an excellent Korean-language immersion program for foreign university students, and there are plenty of foreigners around here. In particular, its partnership with the University of California also means that the large Korean-American student body, spread over various UC campuses, often end up here, in hopes of learning their ancestral language.

A colorful building between Yonsei University and Sinchon Intersection, with a lot of services catering to the entertainment needs of the college students.

In addition to PC rooms and karaoke bars, other common sights around here include private DVD viewing rooms as well as billiard halls. To play American-style pool with 15 different-colored balls plus a cue ball, ask for "pocket ball" - so named because of the pockets the colored balls fall into.

Strangely enough, bookstores are in short supply, further proving the fact that the university undergraduate years are a time to unwind from the stresses of the college entrance exam process, rather than a time to study.

On the left: a taco stand, something that's still rare here in Seoul.

On the right: an accessories and lingerie shop, with some legwear display outside.

Sinchon is an unlikely place to come to for a listen of traditional Korean music. But there was some city-sponsored streetside competition between different groups, including this one.

The Seoul district of Bukchang-dong is well-known for "sundubu" - or soft tofu. In Los Angeles, it's proven popular, especially among Chinese-Americans. Here's a soft tofu restaurant, that's based in Los Angeles, and sent this branch location back to Seoul.

I continued to walk east, away from Yonsei, in the direction of Ewha Women's University. Here's another Sinchon Station, though this line serves the Gyeongui (Seoul-Sinuiju) rail line as opposed to the subway. Sinuiju is in the far northwest of North Korea, where the rails continue into China and lead to Beijing, connecting to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and the Trans-Siberian.

This station includes a sizable shopping center, attached to the left. Subway tickets are NOT valid on this line.

The original building of Sinchon Station, dating back to when this part of Seoul was a sleepy outskirts.

Timetable and fare chart. On this line, Commuter trains run in each direction 2-3 times per hour, and there is also a Saemaul ("New Village") express train once a day. They run from the main Seoul station northwest, all the way to Imjingak Pavilion. If I take the Saemaul express, after a 30-minute security check, it is possible to enter the restricted area, and travel one more stop to Dorasan Station, the final stop in South Korea and just outside the North Korean city of Kaesong. Fare is a flat 1,400 won (USD $1.40) for any point on the line, and 2,000 won (USD $2) if it's the Saemaul express train.

Unlike other rail lines which were cut, and remain cut, at the inter-Korean border after the war, this line was re-connected in 2004, and a South Korean passenger train made a historic test run to Kaesong in 2007. (Also, a minor North Korean line on the east coast dead-ends in South Korea, and a North Korean train made a test run there at the same time.) Today, one South Korean freight train per day visits Kaesong. No South Korean passenger trains run into North Korea today, and that will remain to be the case, as long as the governments of both Koreas put their ideologies and power first, and their people last. I look forward to the day when I can pick up a train on this line, and ride it to Kaesong, Pyongyang, or even Beijing - or keep on riding to Europe.

Continuing further east to Ewha. Here is a disco nightclub, named Pharaoh and apparently Egyptian-themed. The signs tell me that until 3 in the morning on weeknights, women can expect unlimited beer for a flat cover of 20,000 won (USD $20).

Another nice-looking Vietnamese rice noodle restaurant, complete with tropical plants.

"Listen to Your Heart" - it's the World Heart Day, or so the local health authorities remind the passersby. That cube on the left seems to be a display where I can learn more about the heart, but I didn't go in.

Cafe Eros. Nice name. And nice place for the Ewha students to bring their boyfriends to on a date. This is on a very narrow one-lane alley connecting Ewha Women's University to its subway station.

The main entry into Ewha Women's University campus is here, by crossing the railroad tracks and passing through the university's affiliate high and elementary schools. The building atop the hill on the left bears a cross, reminding the visitors that this is a Christian university founded by American missionaries, who are revered as visionaries and selfless teachers of modernity by South Korea's Christians, but in reality were a lying bunch of white supremacists trying to recruit nonwhite pawns to their cause. Ewha, as a result, is very conservative, so much so that being married was grounds for expulsion until very recently.

There is a belly dancing academy in this neighborhood. There are classes for housewives, for children, for working professionals, and for those interested in public performances. Again, I have no interest in belly dancing, but took this photo anyway as a call-out to my writing mentor Gayle Brandeis, herself a belly dancer.

A fairly upscale boutique, one of many around Ewha, selling the latest in women's fashion (and in the case of this store, some men's fashion too). This display emphasizes plaid.

Note the chess queen on the lower left - possibly the most prevalent transgender woman in Europe, just as Kwan Yin plays that role in East Asia. When chess was invented in India, the king had a male advisor, who had the same moves as the king. The male advisor stayed in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese versions of chess, but in Europe, the advisor turned himself into the queen, and dramatically increased its ability.

Time to wrap-up my Sinchon tour. I entered Ewha's subway station, still on Line 2. The boutiques continue into the subway station, though this is the more common discount variety that is more appropriate for a subway station. The mannequin on the right is dressed in a white belted tunic shirt and black leggings - not too different from what I like to wear back home.

Many subway stations have travel time charts like this. Average travel time between stations is about 2 minutes, and in the case of Line 2, the travel time to the opposite side of the circle line is 43 minutes, as shown here. That would make it an 86-minute journey to complete the 60 km circle line, the longest such line in the world.

Here are some travel time examples. The shortest travel time is found on Line 8, which takes only 30 minutes to cover its entire length; it is limited to the Jamsil area, as well as older parts of the neighboring city of Seongnam. By contrast, Line 5, which runs from the city's western extremities to the eastern extremities, takes 90 minutes to complete. Line 4, running northeast-southwest and into some suburbs further south and southwest, takes 120 minutes. Line 1 is so long that no train ever runs its entire length, but if one tried to travel the entire line from Soyosan (very far northeast, near the inter-Korean border) to Cheonan (60 miles south of Seoul), it would take at least 3 hours on a local train.

My original plan was also to explore Daehangno (University Road) to the northeast of downtown, centered around Marronnier Park at Line 4's Hyehwa Station, but I decided to turn in early instead. After massive walking yesterday, I am still a bit tired.