13 October 2008

Seoul: Myeong-dong and Insadong

I didn't spend too much time out and about today, compared to recent days. I decided to limit myself initially to the fashionable shopping district of Myeong-dong, which has been outdone by the Rodeo Drive on the south bank of the Han River in recent years, but nevertheless is a heaven for fashionistas.

Myeong-dong, thanks to the longtime presence of the nation's premier Catholic cathedral (and its longtime involvement in South Korean liberal politics), has a very political and religious feel, and I will start with that. The democratization of 1987 has given South Koreans freedom of assembly and expression, so protests are much more legit and stronger than before.

I am entering the main alley, where I am seeing a left-wing demonstration. These gentlemen are accusing the current conservative Lee Myung-bak government of pushing economic policies that benefit the corporations and the multinationals at the expense of the working and the middle classes. The tyranny of credit card companies and other lenders here has many parallels to the situation in the US this decade. Things are getting so difficult for the average citizens, according to the posters here, that it's feeling like 10 years ago, when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had to bail South Korea out from bankruptcy. In casual Korean conversation, "IMF" doesn't refer to the IMF itself, but rather, the bailout.

They are asking the passers-by to sign a petition calling for Lee's impeachment, with the goal of 10 million signatures. (There are 47 million people in South Korea, with about 30 million of them eligible to vote.)

There are lots of extra posters at the same left-wing demonstration, and I took a few minutes to read them.

The upper row deals with the New Right Foundation, which the demonstrators describe as "neither leftist nor rightist, but a Japanese collaborator group pretending to be rightists." The New Right's revisionist history teaches that left-leaning Korean independence activists, such as Kim Ku, were vicious terrorists on par with Osama bin Laden, that the pro-democracy protests of 1960 and 1980 (where many were killed by the government) were the works of Communists taking orders from North Korea, and that Japan deserves the thanks of the Korean people for teaching them the ways of the modern world. The New Right, as I previously mentioned, enjoys the strong support of conservative political parties (including the ruling majority Grand Nationals), the Christians, and the Korean-Americans, but is strongly despised by the average South Koreans. Key card-carrying members of New Right, as listed here, include President Lee Myung-bak and prominent right-wing female politician Park Geun-hye (whose real claim to fame is as the daughter of former Unitary Executive, the late Park Chung-hee). It is believed that the New Right's next big project is to ensure that Park, who makes Lee look like a bleeding-heart liberal, will succeed Lee in 2013, as South Korean Presidents cannot be re-elected.

Despite the New Right's proven pro-Japanese streak, I doubt that they are truly pro-Japanese, as I know that they are more interested in sucking up to the US Republicans. But then, given the strong ties between the Republicans, the right-wing Liberal Democrats in Japan, and the Grand Nationals here, it could all make sense.

The bottom row deals with the Chosun Ilbo, the nation's most prominent newspaper (and a right-wing mouthpiece). Exhibits included a New Year's Day editorial from 1937 asking the Koreans to be loyal subjects of the Japanese emperor; a 1980 editorial praising the human qualities of General Chun Doo-hwan, who had just seized power through a bloody military coup; repeated late 1997 reports that the South Korean economy was in good shape (the IMF had to bail it out a few days later); and 2004 editorials strongly supporting the politically motivated impeachment of then-President, leftist Roh Moo-hyun. I opposed the 2004 impeachment, not because I had any love for Roh, but only because I believed, and still believe, that the Grand Nationals were trying to impeach him under orders from W and the US CIA; impeaching the President of South Korea is a domestic matter, and the US needs to stay out of it.

I don't believe 100% of what these things to say, but I do believe a large majority of it, and strongly believe that the right-wingers are going to destroy South Korea, like their Republican buddies have done the same to the US over the past three decades.

The Falun Gong have been demonstrating in this area for several years. Here, posters in Chinese and Korean try to inform the passers-by about the evils of the Chinese Communist government. They even use the word 中共 ("Communist China"), a term commonly used here during the Cold War, but pretty much forgotten since South Korea recognized the Beijing government in 1992. Some specifics include tortures and executions of Falun Gong practitioners, which are said to be motivated by the Communist Party's weakening grip on power (supported by statistics showing the number of people leaving the Party, in tens of millions). Often, body organs are harvested from the executed, and sold to foreigners seeking organ transplants; there is even a price chart for various organs that South Koreans commonly receive in China.

Next to Falun Gong, but working separately, this missionary is desperately trying to convert people to Christianity - Protestantism, I think. The message is simple enough: "Jesus = Heaven, No Belief = Hell." She was singing hymns nonstop.

There are several other missionaries, doing the exactly same things, at other corners throughout Myeong-dong. There is even a truck with loudspeakers blaring out doomsday scenarios. These missionaries also occupy other public areas, including train station plazas and even palaces, and have been emboldened by the pro-Christian bias of the Lee Myung-bak government. Another reason why he must be stopped.

Even though the building is scaffolded, a Jesus statue does mark this building as the Myeong-dong Cathedral, the most important Catholic place of worship in all of South Korea. Banners above welcome prospective new converts.

Nearby were banners announcing seminars on the sanctity of life, dealing with such hot current topics as suicides, abortions, contraceptives, and in-vitro fertilizations.

I was reminded by a nearby news screen (not run by the cathedral) that among South Korean women who have had pregnancies, one out of three had an artificial abortion at some point. Between soaring costs of raising a child, the society's hesitation when it comes to sexual education and issues, and the prevailing disrespect for human life in all forms cultivated by both the government and the culture, abortion is looking very attractive. It used to be that abortion was permissible only for female fetuses, in the interest of having a son for continuing the family line; but now, male fetuses don't seem all that safe either.

Back in the US, I am strongly pro-choice, and make that known in my own political activities. But here, the situation is much different. Women here don't get abortions in order to have more control over their own destinies; they get abortions to perpetuate the male patriarchy, to yield to social pressures, and because they didn't get proper sexual education beforehand. It's sad to know that all the young fashionistas around me are still far from full equality.

Back in the 1980s, this was my mother's favorite bakery. Three years ago, this was a Baskin Robbins ice cream store. Today, it's a Body Shop; Baskin Robbins moved around the corner.

I took a break, and had a bowl of "California-style" Vietnamese rice noodle (pho) for lunch. At 9,000 won (USD $9), it was quite expensive, but the upscale ambience made up for it. Normally, I avoid pho back home in California, due to the reactionary McCarthyist politics of the Vietnamese-Americans and the unsanitary conditions of some of the restaurants, but after almost a month here in Seoul (already!), I developed a craving for pho, and had to give in today.

Back out on the street. Here are Ralph Lauren and Pizza Hut. I remembered that in Friends, Jennifer Aniston's character (and my namesake) Rachel Green worked for Ralph Lauren.

Lots of fashionistas out and about today - including foreign ones. I repeatedly thought of another of my favorite actresses, Calista Flockhart (the original Ally McLesbian), as I walked around here; she would feel right at home here, strolling around in her trademark miniskirt suit.

Forever 21 has a store here.

Forever 21 was founded by a Korean-American in the garment district of Los Angeles, and is notorious for exploiting its workers with lots of labor code violations. The founder, meanwhile, spends lots of his money and time on fundamentalist Christian missionary work. He embodies everything I hate about the Korean-American community, as well as its beneficiaries: the Republicans in the US, and the Grand Nationals and the New Right here.

If I were to buy from a Korean-American, I would rather head for an American Apparel store any day. American Apparel is best known for its eccentric (and, according to some, perverted) founder Dov Charney, though he works with a Korean-American partner.

Few South Koreans speak Spanish, but Spanish is seeping in slowly into Seoul, brought in by ethnic Koreans based in Brazil and some US cities. Love the name of this store here - Ocho. I can buy hosiery and shoes here.

Throughout my tour of Myeong-dong, I kept wishing that I could have brought my Ally McLesbian miniskirt suits, and/or my tunic shirts and sweaters, to Seoul, so that I could add appropriate hosiery here and blend into the crowd of fashionistas.

One of the grittier alleys of Myeong-dong is the closest thing that comes to Chinatown in Seoul. Seoul has never had a real Chinatown; the only South Korean city that ever had a Chinatown was the port of Incheon to the west, due to its proximity to the Shandong Peninsula. It evaporated in the 1960s, as the anti-Chinese policies of the Park Chung-hee dictatorship drove the Chinese to leave for Taiwan or North America. Even today, with hundreds of thousands of mainland Chinese again living in South Korea, there are no real Chinatowns.

This is the Seoul Chinese Elementary School. Note the use of the word 華僑 ("hwagyo" in Korean), meaning "overseas Chinese" in general, though in Korean language, it usually refers to ethnic Chinese from Korea. Also note the continued use of 漢城 ("Hancheng"), the old royal-era name for Seoul that Chinese speakers continued to use until 2005.

This school offers Mandarin Chinese lessons for the public, with sessions starting monthly. Mandarin Chinese has now become a national obsession in South Korea, second only to English.

I couldn't tell what purpose this building serves, but the signs and the Nationalist Chinese sun on top clearly indicate that this is a Chinese building.

Behind me is the longtime site of the Chinese embassy, dating back to the 1880s, when the Manchu Dynasty first built an embassy there. The Nationalists took it over in 1912, and when diplomatic recognition shifted to Beijing in 1992, the Communists took it over. It's currently being rebuilt, however, and the Chinese embassy now uses a temporary building near the Blue House to the northwest.

Towering over the Chinatown area is the headquarters of Hanjin, one of the mega-corporations of South Korea. As the right logo indicates, Hanjin has owned Korean Air since 1969. Hanjin also operates shipping lines, delivery services, and bus lines, plus a few non-transportation businesses as well. Hanjin has traditionally emphasized efficiency and speed over safety, and that has resulted in Korean Air's atrocious safety record; that, plus the general crumminess of most of its SkyTeam partners, has kept me away from Korean Air. Improvement seems to be coming, however; Korean Air hasn't crashed since its last crash (a freighter in London) on Christmas 1999, and its current fleet appears to be better than Asiana's.

Sighted in Chinatown: a familiar name with a strange face. This is the export version of the late 1990s Ford Taurus, with a nose that more closely resembles the Mercury Sable, to comply with European and Japanese regulations. Specifically, the turn signal is below the headlight, instead of inside.

Here in South Korea, this Taurus replaced the original Mercury Sable, which was first imported by Kia in 1990, and was the best-selling import during its production run. After the 2000 facelift, this Taurus went on to serve in the South Korean highway patrol.

Back to the boutiques and the fashionistas. Here's a Gap location, though it's not all that big.

This boutique, named Ssa Visage, has hippie-inspired outfits for sale. Not my style, but looks good nevertheless.

Another boutique, named First Avenue on Myeong-dong, has a number of lightweight, slightly sheer floral minidresses, like the one on the right (paired up with a cardigan). They work very well - as dresses AND as tops. This is something that I would like to be seen in.

Nine West on ground floor. Easy Spirit upstairs, and an outlet further up. This is my stuff.

Third floor: I can get a Tarot card reading, something that's become very popular recently.

First floor: I can exchange foreign currency. US dollars, Japanese yen, Chinese yuan, and Euro are especially welcome, but I am sure I can buy/sell lots of other currencies. Speaking of exchange rates, it costs 1,270 won to buy a US dollar as of today; the spike to 1,400 won was a short-lived panic.

I am entering the subway station at Myeong-dong, trying to decide where else to go. This ad at the entrance says that using Nintendo DS, I can cook a nice Korean meal with voice directions; the program will be out in a few days.

Water from North Korea's Diamond Mountains? Apparently, I can still drink it, even though the rising tensions between Kim Jong-il the megalomaniac and Lee Myung-bak the W puppet mean that I can no longer visit the Diamond Mountains in person. Which is a shame, because the area is considered the most scenic in all of Korea.

I decided to head over to Insadong Antiques District, a popular area with foreigners due to its preponderance of traditional Korean art and souvenirs.

Though the main drag is indeed mostly traditional, there also are modern art galleries along it. One of them is teasing me to join an exhibition, featuring wire sculptures like this silver nude woman.

Here's something more traditional: Korean dresses. The left one is a modernized version. Traditional women's dress has a ridiculously short blouse that doesn't even come down to the breast level. Breasts are to be tucked into the very high-waisted skirt, though a nursing mother may untuck (therefore expose) her breasts. (This never happens today.)

The right one, of course, is a men's outfit. Men's traditional outfits are considered much less attractive than their female counterparts, and even on holidays, few men wear them.

A bunch of statues for sale, mostly Chinese (though the wooden mask in the back is Korean). I can find General Guan Yu, a number of Sakyamuni Buddhas, some Happy Buddhas, and a few Kwan Yins.

Here's another object that could qualify as an "antique," depending on who you ask. This is the original Hyundai Grandeur, produced from 1986 to 1991, and replacing the Hyundai-built European Ford Granada, was the first Hyundai-branded luxury car. The Grandeur was little more than a Mitsubishi Debonair with Hyundai badging, but it did well; even now, a number of them are still on the road, though they are becoming rarer.

A number of miniature Korean masks are for sale here. I was reminded of playing The Sims 2, where I can buy a Korean mask as a decorative object for my home. When I play that game, I share my home with my wife, while my novel character Sarah also lives in a separate room in the house. Speaking of the novel, Insadong will be featured as a setting.

It's possible to get one's portrait drawn here. Some examples entice would-be customers. They feature Bae Yong-joon, the star of Moonlight Sonata, a Korean drama that proved extremely popular in Japan (leading many Japanese women to worship Bae as "Yon-sama"); President Thomas Jefferson; President George Washington; Pope John Paul II; President Park Chung-hee (there were several examples of him, in fact!); Marilyn Monroe; President Bill Clinton; and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Time to head back. I spotted this public announcement as I started leaving Insadong. It asks the city residents to voluntarily register their cars to take one weekday off; they will be given an electronic tag, which they will install on the windshield. Again, registration is voluntary, but non-registered cars will not be able to utilize any public parking facilities. This is a nice program to cut down on Seoul's notorious traffic, and hopefully encourage residents to use public transport and cut down on energy use as well. It also has helped out with the noticeably cleaner air here in Seoul, in conjunction with natural gas powered buses (in fact, I don't see city buses running on diesel anymore!).