Sunday, April 26, 2009

Seoul loves cycling... even around Gwanghwamun !

A couple of weeks ago I received depressing news from the authority in charge of Seoul's Velib'* and bicycle lanes programs : no, no specific lanes had been planned around Sejongno.

As I feared, the city's most important touristic hub has simply been forgotten and two key touristic projects were not interfaced : the renovation of Gwanghwamun and the development of bicycle friendly Seoul. Anyway, I let them know it would make sense for both projects, as well as for the international image of the city.

I knew this situation couldn't last eternally and that something would be done eventually... but I didn't expect anything that early : yesterday, as he rode his bike along with thousands of Seoulites for the yearly downtown ride, Mayor OH Se-hoon (an occasional triathlete) announced that works would start next month. Gwanghwamun and the whole area around Gyeongbokgung will be ready for this June !

Just a few weeks to survive this dangerous crossroads on my (almost) daily ride...


* see "
Seoul Velib'" I can't help but calling it Seoulib'

---
addendum 20090515

More details about Seoul's macro plan (88 additional kilometers by 2014) in today's JoongAng Daily : "City to pave miles of new bike paths". I read elsewhere that cars would give up one whole lane on Sejongno for bicycles. The timing of those announcements couldn't be better : Seoul is hosting the 3rd C40, a conference on Climate featuring 40 major World cities.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Great Wall of China - Anschlussing Korea (continued)

As soon as I heard about a new Chinese study extending the Great Wall from 5,000 to 8,850km, I knew it would mean more trouble for neighboring Korea.

This report is logically stamped by the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, but make no mistake : here, "Cultural Heritage" points well beyond the Great Wall of China, towards the new territories claimed by Beijing and the chunks of history and culture that come with them.

As expected, the main news is not the length of the Wall but the "fact" that it goes much further into ancient Korea.

This "information" is not "collateral damage" but the very aim of the game.

The political agenda looks more obvious when you consider how the news are delivered :
=> "Diplomatically", the "new" section dating from the Ming Dynasty stops at today's borders with North Korea (around Hu mountains), and the lines circling around Pyongyang date from ancient times that are not too distant
=> The report announces further investigations over the next 18 months focusing on the Qin (221-206BC) and Han (206BC-9AD) Dynasties. In other words : at the root of Goguryeo civilisation, the actual target of this study for China.
=> Beijing is playing it "double stage". An "innocuous" first delivery to provide the "neutral and scientific" alibi (while testing the waters during a shaky period for NK), and a second serve to slam and literally drive home the key political message : in spite of all historic and scientific evidences, Goguryeo was not a Korean kingdom but a Chinese fiefdom, and we are not only rewriting founding moments of Korean History as parts of Chinese History, but also artificially relocating Goguryeo's political, cultural and geographic epicenter within China's (newly extended) ancient borders.


Goguryeo a Chinese phenomenon ?!? This outrageous claim has been at the core of Beijing's revisionist propaganda against Korean heritage for over thirty years, and particularily over the past few years* : modeled after the Southwest Project (for Tibet) and the Northwest Project (for the Uyghurs), the "Northeast Project of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences" was ignited in 2002 as the main vehicle of their pervasive strategy of sinicization of Korean civilisation.


Unlike Tibetan or Uyghur territories and population, Beijing doesn’t control Korea nowadays… except a portion of what used to be the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo. No problem when you excel at manipulating information and distorting history. Western countries realized only last year how far the regime could go in revisionism with the infamous "pedagogical" exhibition on Tibet (part of a series of unfortunate events covered with the fingerprints of the controversial State Administration of Cultural Heritage).


Traditionally, China considers Korea as some kind of familial spin-off. Now it wants Korea heritage to be fully recognized as Chinese. Because according to the script, beyond Goguryo, even gimchi becomes Chinese !
A cultural Anschluss or rather, pardon the sick pun, the ultimate "Hanschluss"...Why would Chinese leaders act so crazily ? As far as I know, China's Korean minority is not claiming independence, and its armies are not exactly occupying North Korea and South Korea... But the Central Government cannot accept the idea of part of its empire being, even potentially, under any kind of foreign influence. Especially from a neighboring country and that's one of the reasons why Beijing has always been doing its best to postpone the Reunification of the Peninsula : a stronger and united Korea would threaten the Middle Kingdom's sacred unity and furthermore, it's monopoly on unification. The Chinese regime simply cannot allow Korea to reunite outside of China.Their solution ? Turning Korea into a part of China, a Chinese province founded by China in ancient times on Chinese territory.

This imposture is not only a defensive move to put a lock on the Korean Chinese minorities : the North East project may also pave the way for a glorious and "legitimate reunification" of North Korea with its "motherland", should Pyongyang regime negociate, as a last resort, its survival against a passive and "friendly" Anschluss*.
This may sound extreme but as the Tibetan example shows, Chinese leaders are masters in underground asymmetric warfare over long periods of time. Think of it as a game of go where one player would place a hundred pieces at each round while the other would not be aware of the stakes... nor even of the existence of the game. And when someone refuses the diktat (ie the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso), he simply cannot outlive the system.Remember : China invented strategy, and in the country of Sun Tzu rulers think decades or centuries, where others think months and years. In the country of Bae Yong-joon ? The unit of measure seems to be converging towards a Twit (I'm not mentioning this pathetic Michael Jackson wannabe because the full content of his brain can be displayed within 140 characters, but because the Northeast Project may have been precipitated by the success of the Korean Wave across Asia and especially in China). So Seoul was caught off guard when Beijing released its massive campaign claiming the Goguryeo Heritage.Up to now I haven't seen any reaction from either the South or the North about the report on the Great Wall, so Beijing can candidly launch its second rocket and 18 months from now, one can expect a few bomb "revelations" (ie Goguryeo confirmed to be a Chinese fiefdom). There is already a Wikipedia stub about a certain "Great Wall of Goguryeo" related to the "History of China" !!! Why Goguryeo leaders would ever want to protect themselves from themselves is another question...Let's be clear : I love China as much as Korea, Korea and Korean culture owe a lot to China, and at certain points in history, parts of Korean land may have been claimed by China in the past as they were by Japan much later... but denying Korean culture its authenticity is not only bold revisionism but a first step towards cultural genocide.History belongs to those who write it, territory belongs to those who draw the map.But China doesn't own Korea.

Yet.

* see previous warnings : "China ready to bail out North Korea", "Korean hubs", "China's revisionism - No to the Chinese cultural Anschluss"

---
UPDATE

Extension confirmed across Korea and even Tibet (see "Still no apology from MBC, and more provocations on the Chinese front" 201206 and my interview by LA Times): the Even Greater Wall of China reaches 20,000 km, three times more than before this Spring 2009 version! At this pace, Dokdo and Hawaii come next...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

King Danjong and Korea's Curse

It's festival season again, and every year, the end of April - beginning of May period is getting more crowded. Beware : all events cannot be as exciting as advertised, and you must brace yourselves for a collection of kitsch decors, not so cute mascots, or noisy and colorful "eebents".

What to think of those corny lantern-sculptures on Cheonggyecheon, for instance ? The Danjong Culture Festival is making a big splash in Seoul for its 43th edition, inviting tourists to the real party : not here, but in front of Jangneung.

That's King Danjong's tomb in Yeongwol-gun, Gangwon-do.

Doesn't sound as "exciting" as the "Ddeokbokki Festival" or Incheon's "Jjajangmyeon Festival" ? Not an easy sales pitch, granted. But beyond the festival and the show, this King's story deserves to be narrated.

To tell you the truth, I didn't know the story until a few days ago. But it struck me as a turning point in Korea's history, the reason why Joseon Dynasty failed lamentably in spite of the glorious heritage of King Sejong. Instead of continuing its spectacular and positive mutation, the country stalled and shut itself down in front of any form of progress. For the benefit of its neighbors.

I guess Danjong, the king who never was, somehow symbolizes this country which didn't happen.

To be fair, Danjong once became a King, but he was stripped of his title soon afterwards, and recovered it only two and a half centuries later (in 1698, under King Sunjong). Proper funerals were eventually performed, along with a yearly day of mourning, which became much later the Danjong Culture Festival.

Danjong didn't die as a King but as a kid : crowned at 11, overruled at 13, wed and overthrowned at 14... and murdered at the tender age of 16 (1441–1457).

Sad ending for a beloved kid whose grandfather believed could eventually become his true successor. This granpa was none other than Sejong. And the great king worried a lot for Danjong because his own successor was too weak. So he built protective walls around his apt pupil : members of his own dream team (the Hall of Worthies), people of trust and sound judgement, who could help him rule the country as well as he did.

Poor Danjong never knew his mother, who died giving birth (he was raised by his grandmother, Sejong's wife), and as feared, he lost his father (Sejong's first son King Munjong), way too soon.

The bad guy in this sad familial saga is Sejong's second son, Prince Suyang (Suyang Daegun) : Danjong's evil uncle became King Sejo in 1455 after forcing his nefew into exile to Gangwon-do.

But don't picture Suyang as just an ambitious man fooling a kid with a one way ticket to a nice resort area : this criminal has a lot of blood on his hands.

In 1453, he destroyed Sejong's first protective shield, murdering the premier and vice-premier (Hwangbo In and General Kim Jongseo), who actually ruled the country. After that, the young king was directly under his spell. He simply kicked him out once he controlled everything.

But loyalists tempted a coup. The new king poisoned Sejong's brother, and in 1456, decapited at the same time 6 leaders and Korea's future. For good measure, he killed about 70 male members of their families, and even Kim Jil, the Judas who betrayed them. Their wives were forced into slavery and prostitution. One newborn was saved... but at a tragic price : traded with a servant's baby.

The 6 leaders were Sejong's second protective shield around his grandson, 6 prestigious ministers who actually carried out most of his outstanding reforms, starting with the creation of Hangeul. Ha Wi-ji, Pak Paeng-nyeon, Seong Sam-mun, Yi Gae, Yu Eung-bu, and Yu Seong-won are referred as the "Sayuksin" or the "six martyred ministers", or even "six bodies who became gods", according to a more lyrical yet unorthodox translation using similar Chinese characters. They were beheaded at "Saenamto", a place in Noryangjin where centuries later, Catholics martyrs would meet the same fate...

Danjong's murder was a little more subtle : because King Sejo wanted his death to look accidental or suicidal, he had him trapped home and pushed ondol heating to a quasi fire. The young heir died of suffocation... and the whole country fell into lethargy.
A noble man wrote a beautiful poem about his trip to Gangwon-do : he came to see the king, but met his ghost. No poem was ever written for the country that never was, and no one ever met its ghost. The closest thing we have could be the expression "The Hermit Kingdom".


* Danjong Culture Festival : April 24-26th (same dates as the 2009 Lotus Lantern Festival)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Gonghwachun (Incheon)

Jjajangmyeon a fusion Chinese dish, was invented in Incheon 104 years ago in this restaurant. Well not exactly "this restaurant" anymore, since Gonghwachun left a couple of years ago its original building for this poorly designed monstruosity. Well not exactly "left" : the monument has been shamefully abandoned, and each time I pass by its facade looks more derelict, its painted sign less legible, and the pigeons more at home (see picture).

Some day, Incheon city officials will realize that the original spot was much cuter and had a much higher potential for tourism than the artificial "Chinatown" they "re-created" at the beginning of the millenium... but I'm afraid the new and not improved Gonghwachun is here to stay with its large window panes that help you freeze in the winter and bake in the summer.

To add insult to the injury, they don't even propose the best jjajangmyeon in town. Most mom and pop eateries can compete with this factory.

Yes, I'm not happy. Incheon is losing its charm and its key architectural assets for short term profit. And I'm begging local authorities to stop the massacre and to prevent Seoul speculators from ruining Jemulpo's cultural heritage.

Gonghwachun / 공화춘 (Chinese restaurant)
5-6 Bukseong-dong-3-ga, Jung-gu, INCHEON, ROK
Tel +82.32.765.0571

Seoul Village 2009

Patisserie B

My "boulangerie du quartier" is safely guarded by the Seoul Metropolitan Police Headquarters from across the street, where Naeja-dong-gil and Jusigyeong-gil meet.

Pâtisserie B's owner and chef majored Ecole Lenôtre and it shows : if you want to browse mouthwatering books on "desserts" while enjoying a great "tartelette au citron" with tea or some "truffes au chocolat" with coffee, this is it.

You can also pick up / order a cake that will change you from the usual sponge / cream combo (they do commit some cream cakes though - business is business).



Pâtisserie B (bakery - cafe)
Gyeonghuigungoe Achim / King's Garden block #3, 1F
Naesu-dong 72 bonji, Jongno-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel : +82.2.739.5532

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sabal (Seoul)

The administrative area of Sajik-dong covers West of Sejongno all the way to the fortress (Gyonam-dong on the other side of the hill), and includes 12 smaller neighborhoods or "court dongs"*.

The two "majors" being culture and parks (Gyeonghuigung, Sajik Park, Seoul Museum of History, Sejong Art Center, art galeries, Inwangsan...), and administrations (central government, metropolitan police, offices and officetels...), there is a large offer of restaurants and cafes, all thriving on officeworkers but some batting steady over the average on weekends.

The Gyeonghuigungoe Achim complex stands where Naeja-dong-gil and Jusigyeong-gil meet, across the Seoul Metropolitan Police Headquarters. Its apartment / officetel mix is more residential than Byeoksan Gwanghwamun Sidae or Ssangyeong Platinium (to the East), but less than Space Bon (to the West), so not all its restaurants are deserted on weekends.

"Sabal" and "Market" share the same owners, and both propose an alternative and often innovative take at basics using fresh ingredients : rice for Market and noodles for Sabal.

I have a preference for the latter. Sabal proposes different styles of noodles (janchi guksu - veggies, seafood, gimchi...), with a great variety of tastes and dishes. By "dishes" I mean that not two bowls look the same, which echoes the name of the restaurant (사발 = "bowl").

Rice comes in big portions at Market, so if you want to try both, you'd better go for a massive lunch at Market, and enjoy more refined flavors and a cosier atmosphere for dinner at Sabal.

Sabal / 사발 (restaurant)
Gyeonghuigung Achim ("King's Garden") block #3, 1F (142),
72 beonji, Naesu-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel +82.2.720.4845

Market / 마켓 (restaurant)
same address
Tel +82.2.720.8211

Seoul Village 2008

* see Jongno-gu dongs

see also other restaurants in Seoul and Korea..

Friday, April 10, 2009

Between cronyism and cryonics : enter Jang Song-taek

KIM Jong-il's brother in law JANG Song-taek seems back into grace in the cryptic world of North Korean politics* as the only option for the ailing leader as a chaperon for his designated successor KIM Jong-un. While JANG secures his chances as the de facto ruler in case of vacancy, the dictator's son is to be toughened up at the National Defense Commission, where he shall gain a few medals to highlight a more than blank profile.

Anyway, the NK monolith appears to be more than fissured with only a minority longing for a progressive reconciliation towards reunification with the South (the aim of KIM Dae-jung's "Rainbow Policy" game, interrupted by LEE Myung-bak) :
- the diehard "Juche" faction sticks to the KIM Dynasty and independence, its only program being "no regime change"
- the diehard "resistance" seeks an immediate collapse of the regime, regardless of the social, economical, or political consequences
- and as usual, the "China collaborators" lobby keeps working on a progressive Hanschluss by the 'friendly' neighbor.

Seoul Village 2009

* ie "Steps Being Taken to Facilitate NK Power Shift" (dong-A Ilbo 20090408), North Korean leader Kim anoints new No. 2: analysts (Reuters 20090410)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Jongno Chapssal Sundae at Seosomun Apt

Welcome to one of my favorite buildings in Seoul.

Located in the Southeastern tip of the Chungjeongno-Uijuro-Seosomunno triangle,
Seosomun Apateu has long been snubbed by official city maps because no building is supposed to exist here. Tenants actually don't own any piece of land, as is usually the case in an appartment complex. Seosomun Apt does exist, and the police doesn't seem to mind: they're right next door.


This thin arch of concrete is even more surreal from the inside: every floor reminds me of the fabled 7 1/2th floor in 'Being John Malkovich". A bit over 5 feet 10, I'm not much of a giant but here, I bump everywhere.

The nearby level crossings add to the odd atmosphere, more welcoming now that the sidewalks have been colored in red. An ideal place to enjoy a snack. Why not at Jongno Chapssal Sundae? Here, in the middle of the curve, you can keep an eye on the whole neighborhood while enjoying a decent sundaeguk.

Jongno Chapssal Sundae (restaurant)
Seosomun Apt, Migeun-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel : +82.2.312.5608

Seoul Village

see other restaurants in Seoul and Korea.

----
201204 addendum: about the level crossings, check this recent video - the apt appears in the background ("Seosomun Level Crossing"

Korean Cuisine Aiming At World's Top Five. China is watching.

It's only a matter of time : Korean cuisine will be recognized as one of the World's favorite. Tasting is believing !

The question is : will this ineluctable success benefit Korea itself, or a rival ? It depends on how smartly and swiftly the Government acts.





1) At last, the Korean Government means business... but it's not the only one !

Yesterday, a "Korean Cuisine To The World 2009" meeting in Seoul set interesting guidelines :

  • ambitious targets : Korea aims at the Top 5 of World Cuisines, the number of Korean restaurants overseas must jump from 10,000 to 40,000 between 2007 and 2017, and food export must more than double within the next 3 years
  • significant means to reach the targets : a financial boost (KRW 50 bn by 2013 - that's around USD 38 M), a political boost (Food Service Industry Promotion Bill), international partnerships (ie with such international cuisine schools as Le Cordon Bleu)...
There was already some buzz about this project last year, but yesterday's event generated even more articles in the press. In Korea, but also in China, via the Xinhua News Agency*.

Just a reminder : Beijing monitors very closely the way Korean culture is spreading. Hardly a surprise when you consider the way the Middle Kingdom is claiming key Korean heritages (ie revisionism about Goguryeo). And this is potentially big business, so I wouldn't be surprised if the first global franchise of Korean restaurants came from China... filling the gap globally the way Japanese did locally in Paris (ie the Japanese family behind "Korean Barbecue" restaurants).

By the way : Japan is also very much aware of the competitive threat, since a person in charge of promoting Japanese food was invited yesterday.

I'm not sure the Korean Government is fully aware of all the consequences of this show:

  • there is no such thing as a top 5 - all cuisines are equally the best ones!
  • this doesn't have to be a war, and I hope Korea will not play the traditional, counterproductive, nationalistic, us-vs-them tune... but announcing a presence in the Top 5 can be perceived as a declaration of war : as a collateral damage, it means that another will have to step down
  • before Korean cuisine gets the attention it deserves, its promoters surely got the attention from their direct competitors
  • as a consequence, Korea cannot afford to waste time and must act swiftly... and responsibly. Typically, Korea cannot let direct competitors attend every strategic meeting.

2) If Korea can be confident in its strenghts, it must also get ready for serious competition !

I hate to mention marketing about food, but let's face it : a big effort has to be done at the conceptual level before going operational. Starting with positioning.

Surveys and benchmarks are probably being waged in major markets, but just in case, here's my pitch.

The World has already clear images of other major cuisines... or rather caricatures and clichés : spicy Thai for instance, or healthy and natural Japanese. Except maybe for the ultradiverse Chinese cuisine and the sometimes too cryptic French menus, most people generally have only a few dishes in mind : sometimes close to the original stuff (ie Tom Yum, sushi), sometimes distant parents (ie a tragedy for Italian cuisine - totally eclipsed by American caricatures of pizza and pastas !).

People with some knowledge of Korean food will probably mention gimchi, bulgogi, maybe bibimpap and doenjang jjigae. And that's a rather good start. There is overall a reputation of rather hot and spicy stuff, but not a clear and positive positioning shared by the masses.

If I were to select 3 words to qualify Korean cuisine's major assets, I'd pick taste, diversity, and intensity.

Korean cuisine is more diverse than what people think, but the same can be said about almost every cuisine across the world. Yet, every promotion campaign keeps hammering this evidence because it is a most vital message to get through : no one should feel excluded, think "this not for me".

You want to try Korean food with friends, and it could even become a sales pitch for young urban targets : unlike with most rivals, there's always a solution at hand for a meat lover, a vegetarian, a fine palate, or say a fire eater. If you don't know Korean food, no problem, most restaurants propose the 4-5 stars that will satisfy all types of gourmets. Just give it a try... and spread the word around !

To me, the stimulating taste / intensity combo is clearly distinctive of Korean cuisine. Eating is living, eating with friends is a lively experience, Korean food is alive, and can be very much kicking thank you.


There are some dull dishes like everywhere else but essentially, it's always been about making the most of scarce ressources, about mixing and giving ingredients a character. Not just selecting the best ingredients, but composing powerful and often rich notes. There are fantastic regional specialities in China, but in Korea, even star dishes keep their intensity, and they simply cannot go with a dilluting MSG sauce. Here, feeding someone is making a statement, and no Korean restaurant can survive over one month if it doesn't taste good.

This major constraint is a clear opportunity, particularily when you see bland pseudo-Japanese sushi bars popping out everywhere across the globe, paradoxically weakening the image of Japanese cuisine, almost commoditizing it.

Among the Top 5, I've already spotted Japan as the weak link in these pages (See
Seoul Village - The Gaon 2004) :

"The reputation of Korean cuisine should normally surpass that of Japanese cuisine within 15 to 20 years. Koreans clearly don't play in the same league and the Japanese know it (they adore Korean food). They can fool Westerners with their sense of presentation but as soon as the public tastes actual Korean cuisine, the game is over - for good.
Unfortunately, up to now no Korean restaurant could really visually match their
cuisine, but for some prestigious places embalmed in the cult of Tradition (...)"
(NB : then Gaon came and - gasp - passed away)

Don't get me wrong : I really enjoy Japanese cuisine. But good sushi and sashimi are rare and expensive, and very few restaurants overseas offer great Japanese food beyond the basic hits.

Note that with Korean basic hits, you can please a much wider and much more diverse audience. Bonus : for a very competitive ticket. My advice ? Never underestimate doenjang jjigae. Not the most glamorous dish, but a unique, fantastic and complex taste that surprises many westerners. The best pedagogy will come from those who are already in the know.

Korea is obviously benchmarking Thailand and Japan : both countries launched massive campaigns and multiplied restaurants overseas. OK for some pedagogy and standardization of names (at last!), but if the result is 40,000 places as terrible as the standard sushi joints created over the past few years, forget it : the main result was a worldwide eradication of sea fishes, and the long term annihilation of Japanese cuisine identity.

Consider Paris : "Japanese" restaurants (mostly held by Chinese citizens) have become a cheap commodity, but they all propose the same menu, the same decor, the same limited experience. This fad just can't last. Chinese take outs are legion, but they offer a much richer variety. On the other hand, Japan provides some precious support : food quality control, pedagogic leaflets, waiters with a clean shirt and a smile... That makes a difference at the customer level : you won't meet an outdated fish there, but you'll often bump into sour pork at a "traiteur Chinois".

Developping a labeling system for all kinds of Korean restaurants, pooling some resources in major cities, developping some local farming support, making sure all can provide fresh ketnip (wild sesame leaves)...

Promoting Korean cuisine shouldn't be about imposing a new ruler but about heralding diversity and the return of tasty food. Yes you will eat well and for a reasonable price, but you will keep coming back because you enjoy it.


3) But first of all, Korea must think and act as a member of the Top 5
If you read the press, Koreans lie at the feet of the Himalaya, aiming at a place among the top summits.

That's utterly wrong : Korea is already there. The thing is that people don't know it. And the main hurdle ? Even Koreans don't seem to realise it.

It's only a matter of time, remember ?

But as it decides to claim its own heritage, and the place it deserves, Korea cannot afford to fight against itself.

The Korean Government plans to focus on major international cities, and that makes perfect sense. But only Anglo-Saxon hubs are mentioned, and it seems to me that if you want to take over Japan, China, Italy or France, you must at least strengthen your positions there. Why nurture a complex when your food is so great ? If not greater : come on, I am a French citizen and I do love French food, but I must confess that the vast majority of supposedly very good French restaurants cannot compete with a good Korean restaurant ! Every week, I enjoy moving culinary experiences in the least probable places, which seldom happens to me in Paris. And I can tell it by visitors to my websites : people in France or Italy WANT more Korean restaurants.

Furthermore, and for the zillionth time, how can you promote Korean cuisine overseas when you don't even defend it enough at home ? It saddens me to see high end Korean restaurants that are far better and cheaper than their rivals close simply because Korean customers think it's natural to pay more for Western food (see "Annus Horribilis"). Every 5 star hotel owned by a Korean chaebol should keep a top Korean restaurant : that's a key element of the international image, and subsidies could even be part of the global budget.

Meanwhile, of course, Korea should keep going on its already strong points in marketing, such as information for foreigners (websites, brochures, information centers) : special mention to "Best Korean Restaurants in Seoul" (edited yearly by Seoul City) and its mouthwatering pictures, menu samples with prices, and comments in Korean, English, Chinese, as well as in Japanese (Incheon is doing the same, with all kinds of restaurants).

I read that CJ Foodville took part in yesterday's convention and that's good news. This great company is definitely the ideal champion to develop international franchises both for the masses and for thicker wallets : they have the money, the structure, and even a Hankook Academy to leverage on. Besides, Cafe Sobahn is a promising concept : sound food, revisiting a classic (bibimpap) with a touch of innovation, a modern and not too hype atmosphere.

But CJ will probably have to develop more brands to complete an international Korean cuisine platform. Unfortunately, even for such a big player, it's virtually impossible to build a truly generalist Korean chain in Korea, by essence the most competitive market : every concept sees three me-too products pop up the following week, and margins are so low that only "foreign" food franchises can sell at not too low a price. CJ impressive roster sums it all : VIPS (US style steak and salad family restaurant), Cold Stone (US style ice creams), The Place (American-Italian), Tous les Jours ("French" bakery), China Factory (!!!), and the excellent After The Rain (Thai restaurants in Jeongno-gu and Gangnam)... I guess Seafood Ocean is also a viable business model because of their purchasing power on premium food but there again, this is not "typical Korean".

Where to start, then ? To my great disapointment, a major opportunity was missed at Incheon International Airport, the ultimate entry point for foreigners, and the ideal platform to test a global concept. The result ? Welly's, a terrible brand and a non-concept if I ever saw one. It shouldn't be difficult to do better.

Do aim high but please, don't start too low !

Korea must succeed because Korean cuisine and the Korean people deserve it.


* for instance "
Localization key to globalizing Korean food" (The Korea Herald - 20090408), "Korean Cuisine Seeks To Globalize" (Joongang Daily - 20090408), "S Korean gov't to invest $38.1 mln in food industry" (ChinaView - 20090407)...



Sunday, April 5, 2009

Yeouido blooming and Danghyeoncheon's Philosopher's Walk

One day ahead of Yeouido's cherry blossom festival*, I strolled the central park to see how the island was changing. And to observe flocks of humans migrating towards the city's greener spots.
It's still a little bit too early for what I call the "cherry tunnel", when it's literally snowing flowers along Yeouiso-ro. And more than a little bit too early to enjoy the future Yeouido section of the "Hangang Renaissance" : if you can already make out a few features, riverbanks remain a gigantic construction site.

Still, both places were swarming with people.

And under this young April sun, Yeouido Park was blooming with them. I remember how depressing the area could be, when all you could see was a 23-hectare rectangle covered with concrete (Park Chung-hee's 5.16 Square had to be kept bare, as an emergency airport). Hard to believe, but only 10 years after its creation, Yeouido Park looks as if it's been here from the start. And it's much younger than say the Parc Andre Citroen in Paris.

Though not as overwhelmingly as in the 15 times bigger (and much more natural) Central Park in NYC, you're entertained by winding paths, gentle hills and pleasant ponds, and even a "mountain" streamlet. Not to mention thousands of human walking peacefully or picnicking on the grass.

Central to this central park, the "Cultural Plaza" seems the only concession reminiscent of the 5.16 Square. But yesterday, this large concrete space devoted to all kinds of sports evoqued a mix of Tiananmen Square and Jama' al Fna. A safe haven for bicycle riders, whose reserved lanes (over 2km) were colonized by ubiquitous passers-by. Most riders are kids here : for those who prefer riding for long stretches, there's always a direct connection to the Hangang Park and its endless bike lanes.

A popular success, Yeouido Park filled a green gap and claims 30,000 visitors on week days, twice as many on weekends. Yeouido itself is a rather expensive business hub** but on weekends, it belongs to the people of surrounding areas, particularily from the rest of Yeongdeungpo-gu and from Guro-gu. Young couples, elderlies, whole families, packs of friends... everybody’s joining with a big smile on his or her face.

And when I write "everybody", I mean it. Just sit and enjoy : ethnologically, you'll find a unique sample of Seoulites of all ages, shapes, sizes, nationalities, younameits... Dogwise, the fashion show happens to be much less diverse : overwhelmingly, miniature canine barbies and kens (blue costume for him, red dress for her)... and rarely, a beautiful big fella donning his natural wardrobe.

If you're into cherry trees, Yeouido remains a good spot, but Seoul is full of them. Sometimes in more remote places. I call Danghyeoncheon's Philosopher's Walk the short diagonal called Jangmi-gil connecting Dong-1-ro and Danghyeon-2-gil between the first and the second bridge over the small tributary of Jungangcheon. The path itself is more urban less charming than Kyoto's, but I like the perspective on the streamlet and the mountain, and to observe elderlies tending their small illegal gardens on the banks. Former farmers I guess : they grow veggies, even big patches of maize, pepper they will later dry up on the nearby streets... more my idea of Seoul Village. I haven't strolled by that Walk this year but I guess all the gardens have already been removed for the renovation. Now these poor people will be totally rootless.


Seoul Village 2009

* Yeouido Spring Flower Festival April 6-18, 2009 - for those who enjoy watching many people staring at a few trees surrounded by kitschissime floral decorations
** even if adjacent IFC construction site looks quiet : a pharaonic real estate project led by AIG doesn't sound as promising an idea as it did three years ago.

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