Showing posts with label seoul. Show all posts
Showing posts with label seoul. Show all posts

December 02, 2013

The Bridge of Life

On the surface, Seoul is the most perfect place I have lived in. The benefits of living in the Korean megapolis are aplenty:
  • All manner of commercial establishments stay open day and night
  • An extensive public transit system augmented with moderately priced cabs 
  • Safe and clean environs with an honest and hygienic populace
  • High speed trains and express buses which allow me to easily explore the rest of the country on weekends
  • Blazing fast broadband and wireless internet speeds 
  • Main courses at restaurants that come with a healthy assortment of side dishes, which are refilled for free
  • Public restrooms are easily available so I do not have to improvise during emergencies
  • New shipments of K-girls roll out of the beauty factories of Sinsa and Apgujeong at regularly scheduled intervals
  • Heated floors
  • Toilets can wash and dry nether regions at the push of a button (if pressed in the correct order)

Once you peel away the layers of benefits afforded by the 24/7 conveniences of Korean life, the rotten core is revealed. A society catapulted from subsistence to modernity in a handful of decades always leaves some behind. Alcoholism, prostitution, domestic abuse, plastic surgery, video game addiction, chronic mistreatment of international heartthrobs, and long hours at the office are commonplace.

Most struggle day to day to keep up appearances and conform to societal norms, to show their friends and neighbours that they are just as successful as them (or slightly more so), and to push themselves and their offspring into continuing the loop of never-ending education and work required to accumulate additional wealth and status.

It comes as no surprise that South Korea is annually number one in the world suicide rankings. Samsung tried to convert the suicide hotspot of Mapo Bridge into a place where such deadly actions could be averted. Portions of the railings on the interactive Bridge of Life light up with message beacons as one walks by. 

A string of hopeful phrases written in Korean bring about anticipation of a better future or elicit recollections of happy times - “A loved one waiting for you at home.”, “The best is yet to come.”, and so on. Unfortunately suicides actually went up after the conversion of the bridge, as the publicity it created drew more members of society to its edge. 


"We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

July 22, 2013

Arnab and the Plastic Factory: BK Plastic Surgery Museum

The subway station in Seoul's Sinsa neighbourhood is a sight to behold, emblazoned with advertisements of plastic surgery clinics and procedures from one end to the other. Almost every location marked on the neighbourhood maps placed near the exits is a cosmetic surgery clinic. The so-called 'Beauty Belt' plays a significant role in churning out the figurines that strut the streets of Seoul with coffee, gigantic phone, and designer purse in hand and high heels on foot. Korean men also go in for cosmetic surgery, but there are some battles that cannot be won.

The Beauty Korea (BK) Hospital occupies a complete sixteen story tower near Sinsa station, with one floor operating as both a consultation centre and museum. Before going in for a consultation, prospective surgery recipients can browse various forms of body modification and learn a little about the options available to them in their unending quest to appear attractive and desirable.

I explained to the lifelike mannequin standing at the entrance that I wanted to visit the plastic surgery museum. She called someone who knew English and handed me the phone. "Do you want a consultation or just to visit the museum?" she inquired coolly. I did not take offence. She was on the phone and thus could not see that I had already won the genetic lottery. I gave my answer and was told to take the escalator up to museum.

At the reception area a mother and daughter pair were solemnly awaiting their consultation. One of the three identical receptionists pointed out the museum entrance to me. It was quite small but informative, as eyes, nose, hair, face, breasts, hips, and bottoms were all covered. There were diagrams, tools of the trade, documentary videos, and even a few hands on exhibits demonstrating how certain body parts could be augmented.

A glass box where patients drop pieces of their shaved off jawlines eerily quoted a Korean proverb about tigers shedding their skin as they enter the afterlife. The descriptions about each form of surgery frequently mentioned how Western (eg white) standards of beauty appealed to the many Koreans who are intoxicated with improving their appearance to gain a competitive edge over others. However with a few more visits to BK Hospital and its ilk the others may end up looking just like them, nullifying their advantage.


"Oh sexy eyes, sexy nose, sexy mouth, don't you know" ~ lyrics from K-pop girl group T-ara's song 'Sexy Love'

July 20, 2013

National Treasure #1

With public drunkenness rivalling baseball and video gaming in popularity as South Korea's national sport, it comes as no small surprise that the occasional mishap takes place. Five years ago in Seoul, one drunkard wobbled through the streets of the capital city on unsteady legs until he arrived at Sungnyemun. Located near the bustling markets of Namdaemun, Sungnyemun was one of the gates of the fortress walls that encircled Seoul in the past.

Having imbibed an inappropriately large quantity of alcohol, the boozer set fire to South Korea's officially designated National Treasure #1. Despite the best efforts of valiant firefighters, the six hundred year complex was badly damaged by the flames after quietly witnessing several Korean dynasties, Japanese occupation, dictatorship, and democracy.

Although not totally destroyed, Sungnyemun would require even more reconstruction work than the average K-girl. A five year, 22 million US dollar rebuild took place and the reconstructed gate was unveiled to the public in May 2013. The restoration team was composed of the finest artisans and historians in the nation. They used traditional techniques and materials wherever possible but also added extra fireproofing to the stone and wood structure.

The current prime minister and former dictator's daughter, Park Geun-hye, was on hand during the opening ceremony. The crowd was composed of many oldsters, who let out a loud roar of approval upon her arrival. Her father was the man they hold responsible for transforming South Korea into an economic powerhouse, and some of that goodwill has trickled down to the lady president decades later. She looked in the direction of International Treasure #1 and gave me a quick wave, before beginning a speech to commemorate the special occasion.


"The rebirth of Sungnyemun means more than just the restoration of a cultural asset. It heightens the pride of the Korean people once again and will serve as a gate to a new era of hope." ~ President Park Geun-hye

May 25, 2013

Escape from Trash Mountain - Nanjido

Take a low lying island located on a river in Seoul, add two decades worth of garbage generated during a period of rapid modernization never before seen in human history, and what are you left with? A 100 meter high mountain of trash, reeking so badly that people could smell it from the other side of the Han River. The dump site of Nanjido grew to cover an area of almost 3 million square meters, dwarfing the pyramids of Giza in scale.

Nanjido became a dangerous eyesore that oozed methane which frequently ignited, causing 1300 fires over the life span of the landfill. Millions of tons of industrial and household waste had piled up like the credit card debt of a Korean beauty's boyfriend. After one big blaze in 1984, the last of the inhabitants of the isle were relocated.

Seoul was selected as a host of the 2002 World Cup. The city's soccer stadium was located a corner kick away from this festering heap of rubbish, so the government decided to do something about the situation. They transformed the dump into a large green space, replete with parks, sculptures, trails, golf courses, and dazzling views of Seoul.

Ironically, there are barely any garbage cans on a mountain that once served as the city's wastebasket. Every time I came up on what looked to be a garbage can, it turned out to be a container for fire extinguishers. The extinguishers are a nice safety precaution, but perhaps a bit underpowered to put out a fire on a blazing mountain of methane. Smoking is prohibited on top of the park for this reason, as it could lead to spontaneous combustion. Despite the potential safety hazards, a visit to 'Trash Mountain' is certainly not a waste of time.


People say I'm extravagant because I want to be surrounded by beauty. But tell me, who wants to be surrounded by garbage? ~ Imelda Marcos 

May 22, 2013

Celebrating Buddha's Birthday

Buddhism is the leading belief system in South Korea (if you consider Protestantism and Catholicism as distinct religions), so the birth of Buddha is celebrated with great pomp and pageantry every year. A Chinese friend of mine was in Seoul for a business trip, and he joined me for the day as we participated in the festive activities on offer throughout the city.

Our first stop was the Jogyesa Temple, a large complex located in the heart of old Seoul. The principal temple of the Jogye Order and the centre of Zen Buddhism in Korea, its roots can be traced back over five hundred years. A colourful hive of activity, Jogyesa is not the kind of place to visit for a serene meditative experience. However, it does provide a good introduction into the world of Korean Buddhism.

When we first entered the complex, we were ushered into a movie theatre. A highly entertaining documentary was shown explaining how Korea was the greatest nation on Earth. One infographic compared the total number of inventions made in Korea with the sum total of every invention made by all other countries in the world in a year. It was a tight race, but Korea came out on top. It also highlighted the fact that Korea has the best alphabet system ever concocted. Hanguel is a highly elegant system that replaced the traditional Chinese characters that were previously used by Koreans.

After the film concluded it was time for us to make some traditional paper lanterns. Volunteers guided us as we crafted a masterpiece out of coloured paper and adhesive. We explored the temple grounds for a while and ate a vegetarian meal, consisting predominantly of sticky rice.

We were given instructions to go to Tapgol Park as some VIP seating was reserved for foreigners. We had front row seats to view the Lotus Lantern Festival Parade being held to commemorate Buddha's birthday. As the parade neared its conclusion, we were pulled in to the procession to add a multicultural flavour to the festivities. We held our handcrafted lotus lanterns high and waved to the adoring crowds as we passed by.

April 30, 2013

Seoul Motor Show 2013

In China, the auto show rotates between Shanghai and Beijing every other year. The biennial policy is also in place in South Korea, where the motor show oscillates between Seoul and Busan. Last year I dropped by Busan for the showcase event, but this year I did not have to venture as far. The Seoul version of the event is held in the neighbouring city of Ilsan, in the same convention grounds that the Sensation concert took place in.

Once I entered the hall and looked around, I was at a loss for words. As tradition dictates, I dropped by the BMW booth and relaxed for a while. Being an admirer of beauty in all its forms, I could not help but recollect one of my favourite poems composed by William Wordsworth as I lounged in the VIP area - The Daffodils:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils. 

February 27, 2013

Seoul's Symphony of Fire

Each year, the city of Seoul hosts an international fireworks competition on the banks of the Han River. Similar to Vancouver's Celebration of Light, massive crowds gather to see several countries present pyrotechnics demonstrations choreographed to a musical score. A winner is announced at the end, but by then most of the crowd has dispersed and begun making their way to the nearest subway station.

With hundreds of thousands in attendance, it is a nice chance to see a cross section of the entire society in one place. Families and oldsters arrive hours in advance, setting up their picnic mats and relaxing by the river all day. There is barely any room to manoeuvre, as the whole river bank is covered by tarps, people, and bottles of soju.

As night approaches, couples and groups arrive and stand in front of the picnic crowd so that they can enjoy unrestricted views of the fireworks bonanza. The sitters loudly complain about the standees who have arrived after them and are now blocking their much anticipated view. By and large, their gripes are ignored even after they start chanting "Sit down! Sit down!" or the Korean equivalent.

The journey to get to Yeouido, the island in the middle of the city from where the fireworks can best be viewed, is a spectacle that parallels the actual fireworks extravaganza in entertainment value.  The subway is packed tighter than a Korean male into his skinny jeans. I had to transfer from one subway line to another to get to Yeoudio, but even the transfer station was extremely congested.

I circumvented the lineup by going one extra station in the opposing direction, and then crossing back onto a train heading in the correct direction there. At the destination station, bodies poured out of the subway and slowly bubbled to the surface from its subterranean depths. Wave after wave of black haired heads poured out the exits of the station, greeted by their first fireworks of the night.


Boom, boom, boom
Even brighter than the moon, moon, moon
- "Firework" by Katy Perry

November 07, 2012

The Creators Project

The Creators Project is an interactive new media festival sponsored by Intel, which makes stops in a few of the world's signature cities such as New York, Paris, and Beijing. For the Seoul edition of the Creators Project there were art exhibits created using the latest technologies from around the world as well as live music performances by Korean artists. 

The event took place at the Dongdaemun Design Park and Plaza, an architectural oddity constructed on the former site of a baseball stadium built by the Japanese. While construction was underway, some ancient ruins were uncovered and the plaza design was rejigged to incorporate these historical artifacts.

I checked out the exhibits in between music performances. At the Treachery of Sanctuary installation my angelic wings, undetectable to the naked eye, were reflected on the screen as I gracefully waved my arms. As I moved my arms faster and faster, the sound of the wings flapping rose to a dramatic crescendo. Another exhibit used an iPad tablet to detect the movement of people standing in front, and reacted accordingly.  

My favourite piece of digital art was titled The Day of Perpetual Night. Chinese artist Yang Yong Liang masterfully stitched together the natural scenery often depicted in traditional landscape paintings with the cityscape of a modern day supercity such as Shanghai. Waterfalls were flowing and pedestrians were walking around on screen in seamless harmony in the digital collage.

The roster of musicians was well known in Korea, but I had only heard of the girl group 2NE1. Their performance had the most energy and personality that I have seen of any K-pop group. A hip hop artist known as Tiger JK tried to stir up controversy by cursing at the white audience members who kept asking him to dance like the Gangnam phenom Psy. In a profanity laced tirade, Tiger JK exclaimed that he is not some performing monkey for white boys to laugh at.


"Fu** all yall who think Asians are here to make you laugh" - Tiger JK

October 29, 2012

Show Run

During the run up to the Formula One Korean Grand Prix, Red Bull presented a show run in Seoul for all those disinclined to make the trek down to Yeongam. I had seen the Red Bull Racing team capture their first chequered flag in Shanghai and then passed by their serene mountain headquarters nestled in the Swiss Alps. Now I would watch the Red Bull race car complete a couple of lightning fast laps of Banpo Bridge, the same location where the spectacular rainbow fountain show is held every night. 

As the holder of both the driver's and constructor's championship titles two years running, the Austrian team has been the dominant force on the Formula One circuit in recent times. Red Bull does not have the storied history or loyal fan base of a team like Ferrari, but the success on the track combined with their marketing savvy off of it has given them solid name recognition. A lot of youth disinterested in the sport but interested in appearing cool were present at the show run. 

Apart from the Red Bull cars and girls, there were a few oddities to attract attention (and I am not referring to myself). On a platform beside the bridge were a large group of taekwondo students filming their own version of the viral hit Gangnam Style. On the other side, a remote controlled flying robot was circling overhead taking video footage of the crowd. It was my first time to see an unmanned aerial vehicle in such close proximity.


"If you’re in control, you’re not going fast enough." – Parnelli Jones

October 06, 2012

World of Starcraft

From the string of cookie cutter beauties churned out by the nation's finest surgeons to the bottomless bowls of kimchi provided as side dishes at Korean restaurants, many of the stereotypes about South Korea have been spot on. The gaming culture is no exception, as I would witness firsthand at a television studio in Mokdong during a live broadcast of a Starcraft tournament. As the most technologically savvy and socially awkward group in the world, young Koreans are almost always attached to their electronic devices while awake.

The Korean equivalent of Internet cafes, PC bangs, are usually open 24 hours a day. They can be found around the country, filled with avid gamers around the clock. Gaming addiction is an issue, with the government even attempting to put limits on the number of hours a person can play within a given time frame. There are cases of gamers passing away after marathon sessions at the computer. The victims are not limited to the players themselves. A baby died of malnutrition as her parents were so immersed in the digital world they neglected to feed her.

Starcraft is one of the video games that is wildly popular in South Korea. That is why there are television channels dedicated to broadcasting tournaments where top gamers battle it out in front of live studio audiences. The gamers sit in enclosed booths facing each other, free from the distractions of the outside world. Their antics are displayed on several large screens for the audience to witness. The crowd is evenly divided between foreign and local nerds. There is one girl in attendance, and one more who I am unsure about.

The spectators are offered free pizza during a break, which they gobble up in no time. To the left of the audience are English speaking commentators, and to the right are some extremely lively Korean commentators. They describe each attack and counterstrike between the battling gamers with an intensity that does not match my excitement level, but adds greatly to the atmosphere. Since most gamers rarely see the light of day, a visit to the studio provides an unique glimpse into an usually invisible aspect of modern day life in South Korea.


"Champions rarely talk. They just perform and the world around them talks." - Unknown