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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Gwanghwamun Square - Preview

Gwanghwamun Square is preparing for its inauguration on Saturday (August 1st, 2009) : most fences have been removed around the site, and a giant stage with big screens installed where The King, the way only major stars do, shall take a seat long after the party is over.

Sorry for disappointing Elvis fans : that King probably won't come. This is Sejongno, and as we saw earlier (see last year's "
Gwanghwamun Square" focus on Seoul Village), King Sejong will at last be granted a statue on the avenue named after him. Different projects have been exhibited in front of Sejong Cultural Center a few months ago, but the winner is going to wait until long after the Plaza inauguration : in this (literally) double stage launch, we'll celebrate separately the opening of a new public space and the return of the King.

King Sejong's statue will be officially uncovered on October 9th, 2009... in other words : Hangeul Day (한글날). A perfect tribute to the Great Man's most beautiful gift to his country : the Korean alphabet.

I can't wait until Saturday to see Gwanghwamun Plaza without its last protecting fences. Since I leave one block away, I've been checking the working site almost every day from every angle - from the pavement, from up the staircase of the Cultural Center, from my bike... By the way : bike lanes are ready (see "
Seoul loves cycling... even around Gwanghwamun !"), but only around Gyeongbokgung. One-way, painted red, and symbolically protected from car traffic by two rows of stone pavements, they have not been opened to the public ahead of the Plaza's inauguration.

The new traffic lights, joining
as expected both sides of Sejongno to the Plaza's midsection, are also ready but not operational yet.

I must confess I did cross by foot today nonetheless, while the traffic was clogged at the main crossing (the only one up to now, in front of the Kyobo Building). The beautiful perspective with Gwanghwamun itself - the gate - and Bukhansan in the background was spoiled by the podium in the foreground, but the screen started flashing the new blue Gwanghwamun Square logo, so you could compare the real thing with its symbol. The logo represents the same perspective with the very same angle, but of course with the original and graceful gate, and not the colorful mock-up hiding it since the restoration of that other landmark started (I wonder how the gate - which has yet to rise from an uncompleted wall - can be ready for the King's party - but then again, I still wondered two weeks ago how the Square could be completed before August 1st).

On the square, the images representing Seoul's history were yet to be washed up from their dust, but the gentle slope leading to the underground gallery (called "Haechi Madan") and Gwanghwamun Subway was opened and fully lit, including the video screens on its sides. The slope looks much larger and nicer than on the master plan drawings. As it offers Haechi a new lair, Seoul pays another tribute to its "new" mascot, a longtime Gwanghwamun resident if I ever saw one (see "
Goodbye HiSeoul, hello Haechi").

On Saturday, there shall be crowds and music, geiser fountain shows, wows and aahs. Some may complain about the lack of shade and trees, but at the end of the day, all Seoul citizens will claim the place as theirs, rediscover their history, see the heart of their city from its best angle, wonder at the incredible panorama (I don't know of many capital cities boasting such a beautiful and pristine mountain at its very center). As German-born LEE Charm (Bernard Quandt, the newly appointed head of KNTO) noticed, too many Koreans are not aware of the formidable assets of their country as a tourist destination.

At very last, Sejongno Highway, which cut in two Hanyang's historical center, is gone. Pedestrians, tourists, and Seoul lovers will quickly embrace this most vital articulation, Seoul's original and true center.


ADDENDUM 20080731

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh ! An utterly kitsch multicolored carpet of flowers has been laid all over the square overnight. The nightmarishly kaleidoscopic disneylandesque patterns, probably a tribute to some supposedly French Garden in Michael Jackson's Neverland, reminds me of that extravagant Dutch trap for tulip tourists where I'd been unwillingly dragged back in the 90s.

Now I can't wait to see if this monstruosity will survive Saturday inauguration.

Say it ain't so, OH, please, say it ain't so.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Jongno-gu boars love goguma

On a piece of land she owns at the feet of Bukhansan, this old lady grows veggies for her personal use, for friends, and sometimes for unwelcomed visitors.

Her eggplants taste much better than the purple output of your usual greenhouse (or "vinyl house" as they are called here). And her zucchini leaves make a perfect wrap around the right rice and fine doenjang.

Some of her neighbors often cause trouble : whole families of wild boars come every now and then, picking up - more or less gracefully - a chunk of her productions.

One day she harvested sweet potatoes (goguma), she left a few rotten ones on the ground. The next day, she found the whole surface perfectly plowed : the boars came, tasted, enjoyed what they ate, and seeked for more. To no avail.

But for the first time, they somehow paid for the service.


other Seochon marvels


The Chosun Ilbo and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism 2009 Asian Students and Young Artists Art Festival at the old Defense Security Command building on Samcheong-dong-gil, in front of the Gyeongbokgung's Folk Village.

The building itself is plays a major part in the success of the operation : tiny bare rooms, dark corridors, post-apocalyptic staircases... you feel like you're going from one vault to another, trapped in some kind of a prison where contemporary art ghosts walks free. Along with an army of friendly and helpful green humanoids called SAM (Student Art Managers).

The 2008 edition at Seoul Station was titled "When we first met" and these days, "We Meet The Future". In very deed, you will meet with 777 young talents from Korea, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan. Of course, many works still look amateurish... but this definitely beats most galleries from the neighborhood, and more than a few would fare pretty well at the KIAF (coming up this september at the COEX).

I won't tell names of artists I liked because - full disclosure here - I laid a few red dots during my visit. Works are for sale, and at a reasonable price. So you can support young artists not only by admiring their productions in this unique context.

ASYAAF 20092009.07.29 - 08.23
Defense Security Command, Old Building
165 Sogyeok-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel: +82.2.724.5337


ADDENDUM 20090812

I just came back from the exhibition. I didn't want to miss the second installation : a second set of Korean artists (and some foreigners) is exposed, and it was worth the visit (more emotions... and more red dots - I'm looking forward to meeting with the creators).

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Sandwich

The Space Bon terrace, where Naejadong-gil meets Sajikno, is getting more crowded.

Starbucks Cafe, the small convenience store, and nearby Cafe Mori have been recently joined by new cafes, snacks and restaurants : seafood (Gorebul), Japanese (Koen), tea (Puer)... and my new "cantine" when I need a tasty burger.

"The Sandwich" prepares burgers, salads, soups and (of course) sandwiches with good ingredients, terrific bread, and original sauces. You'll find East Coast classics (BLT, Philly, submarine, French fries, breakfast...), experience some innovations (ie interesting sauce with salmon sandwich), and even eat healthy and tasty veggies... though I must confess I have a weakness for their chilly burger (to die for).

It's a small place with a small kitchen, and they're often full for lunch. Those in a hurry may prefer to avoid rush hours (12 to 1).

If you manage to get a seat on the terrace (each restaurant seems to be allowed only two outdoor tables), it can be an interesting spot for the summer. The block protects you from the sun for lunch, and a small garden provides some fresh air... with the contribution of the mountain : the view on Inwangsan comes as a bonus, with Sajik Park and Hongsalmun at its feet*, and often spectacular summer skies for sunset.

The Sandwich (restaurant)
Gwanghwamun Space Bon 201-107 B
9 Sajik-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, ROK 110-054
Tel: +82.2.720.9396

Seoul Village 2009

* see "
Inwangsan's Great Wall". Note that Sajik-dan will be protected by a new traditional wall - old rites are being performed regularly and I suspect authorities to push for a UNESCO heritage listing.

Korean Food Under Attack

The Korea Food Research Institute (KFRI - just launched "Korea Traditional Food Portal" (, an online database aimed at keeping track of the country's culinar tradition and know-how*.

Partners include the KISTI (Korea Institute of Science and Technology Information), the MKE (Ministry of Knowledge Economy), and the MOPAS (Ministry of Public Administration and Security)... So maybe it's not just about food.

Actually, this is a matter of national security : Korea is under attack.

As Korean food grows popular internationaly, the Government fears some culinar traditions may be "stolen" via the systematisation of patents on key ingredients or processes. Major food processing companies joined the party because attacks often come from foreign rivals : multinationals claiming patents on everything they can.

In the past, Japan was rumored to have tried to claim "Kimuchi" as its own invention. Yesterday, officials mentioned the case of Nestle who, back in 1983, patented a fermentation process very similar to gimchi across 14 countries. Korea was not ready and could only prevent a similar fate to strike home.

This trend is not new, but it's accelerating. Pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies roam remote areas of Africa or the Amazon trying to put a lock on traditional remedies, others want to patent DNA sequences... we're talking big bucks and grand larceny, but we're first of all talking food, everyday life, culture.

The best way to stop this is to expose reality as it is : fantastic diversity, rich tastes and flavors, ancient traditions, permanent innovations,
one of the World's top cuisine... and sooner or later, the thieves will get caught in the spotlight.

You can contribute to the effort if you want. And beyond the defensive move, is an excellent initiative for all Korean food lovers : another stimulating, mouthwatering source of information.

Korea feasting !

* "
S. Korea defends intellectual property rights of its food" (Yonhap)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Seoul Subway Line 9

The long expected Seoul Subway Line 9 (Gimpo Airport - Bangi-dong) has eventually been inaugurated on July the 24th, 2009.

Basically, the new line draws a perfect big smile under the pure Offenbach moustache of the Hangang :
- the fist section inaugurated Friday (25 stations out of 37) stretches from Gaehwa Station (Gimpo Car Depot in Gaehwa-dong) to ShinNonhyeon Station (on Bongeunsa-ro, near the Ritz Carlton Hotel), connects with all North / South lines, focuses on major business hubs (Gimpo Airport, Yeouido, Express Bus Terminal, Gangnam-gu), and of course improves public transportation coverage, most noticeably in Gangseo-gu.
- a second effort will connect line 9 with line 2 at the Jamsil Sports Complex (5 more stations), and
- a final (?) tail shall reach the frontier with Hanam city (not before 2015)

Line 9 starts in Ganseo-gu by completing a loop around Gimpo Airport with Line 5 : both lines connect at Gimpo Airport Station itself (where they meet the A'REX train, which leads to Incheon Airport) and backstage, there is a direct link between Banghwa car depot and Gimpo Car Depot. Line 9 creates two stations West and East of Gimpo Airport Station : respectively Gaehwa Station and Airport Market Station.

After that, the new line darts towards its next hub, Yeouido, mainly along Yangcheon-gil, a big street parallel to the river. Filling the big gap North of Line 5, it drops a lot of new stations on the way : Sinbanghwa, Magongnaru (to be connected to AREX), Yangcheon Hyanggyo, Gayang, Jeungmi, Deungchon, Yeomchang, Sinmokdong, and Seonyudo.

At Dangsan Station, Line 9 starts connecting with all the lines linking Gangbuk and Gangnam (both sides of the river) :
- Line 2 at Dangsan Station
(1 new station between Dangsan and Yeouido : National Assembly)
- Line 5 at Yeouido Station
(1 new station between Yeouido and Noryangjin : Saetgang Station - the island is now fully covered with 4 stations forming a cross between lines 5 and 9)
- Line 1 at Noryangjin Station
(2 new stations between Noryangjin and Dongjak : Nodeul and Heukseok / Chung-Ang University - NB: Noryangjin area is under renovation well beyond the market with a major newtown)
- Line 4 at Dongjak Station
(2 new stations between Dongjak and Express Bus Terminal : Gubanpo and Sinbanpo)
- Line 3 and Line 7 at Express Bus Terminal Station (more than ever a key hub)
(2 new stations after EBT: Sapyeong and Sinnonhyeon)

In its further developments, Line 9 will keep following Bongeunsa-ro between the parallel lines 2 and 7, until it connects with the former at Sports Complex Station. That's an area dense with hotels which for sure will benefit from a direct connection to Seoul airports. The four new stations between Sinnonhyeon and Sports Complex will be Samjeong, Samneung, Bongeunsa, and COEX.

Note that Samneung Station will also belong to the Bundang Line, another strategic North / South axis between Wangshimni and Suwon. The bulk of that line is already operational, between nearby Seollung Station and far away Bojeong Station (in Yongin city). The Wangshimni-Seollung section seems to be proceeding well, visibly with the help of many Cambodian workers : I noticed bilingual Korean-Cambodian signs on the construction sites at Seongsu / Seoul Forest. By the way : Wangshimni, surrounded with its new towns, will become a major transportation hub, with new connections to Seoul Station and future Gyeonggi-do express train systems.

But let's move back to our Line 9. After Jamsil Sports Complex, it should snake its way NorthEastwards, in the direction of Hanam city, filling some gaps in Songpa-gu subway network and establishing new connections. The last 7 stations shall be : Jamsil, Samjeon, Seokchon (connection with Line 8), Songpa (not far from Mongchontoseong Station - Line 8), Bangi, Olympic Park (connection with Line 5), and Oryun.

Overall, Seoul's extended metropolitan network keeps growing new tentacles at a very interesting pace. I was used to a Seoul with 4 subway lines plus the old Korail network, and after a spectacular boom during the 90s, densification seems now well advanced. Other cities grow new lines, connect to each other. Songdo stations just opened on time for the Incheon Festival.

Many areas remain poorly served, but light trains are also multiplying. Sometimes at a price : this week-end, five people were killed in Uijeongbu as a steel frame collapse during the construction of a light train bridge. Line 9 remains underground except for its first station.

NB: Line 9 is neither operated by Seoul Metropolitan Subway Co nor by Seoul Metropolitan Rail Transit Co, nor by Korail, but by a new and dedicated structure operated by Veolia Transport (website not in English version yet).

Friday, July 24, 2009

Seoul Village Movies

Let's start with my favorite trio. Three brilliantly directed masterpieces with a dose of dark humor and great acting performances :

- "The President's Last Bang" (그때 그사람들 - 2005 - directed by IM Sang-soo). A non-politically correct tour de force, featuring an amazing Baek Yoon-sik as KCIA Director Kim Jae-kyu.

- Memories of murder" (살인의 추억 - 2003 - directed by BONG Joon-ho). Se7en meet Dumb and Dumber. You've got to love the Song Kang-ho / Kim Roe-ha duet... and respect Bong for this incredible jewel.

- "Old Boy" (올드보이 - 2003 - directed by PARK Chang-wook).
A great director in total control + a great actor (Choi Min-sik) in full swing = the climax in Park Chang-wook vengance trilogy (after the excellent "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" of 2002, and before the much duller "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" of 2005).

BONG Joon-ho's 'Gisaengchung'.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Myeongdong Gyoja (Seoul)

If you're into Slow Food, this one is not for you. If you like fast food, you may need some training to catch up.

50 people queueing in the ground floor line, plus 60 in the first floor line ? No problemo : they say it's going to take 7 minutes, and 4 minutes later I'm seated. 10 more minutes and I'm out, filled up with meat dumplings and kalguksu (KRW 7,000 each).

Nothing exceptional about the food : a Chinese touch for the 8 dumplings, some pork and 4 mulmandu for the noodles...

Myeongdong Gyoja has been around for over 40 years and it's the closest thing to a factory I've ever seen here : pervasive advertising for tourists, an ISO9002 smile on every face, a team devoted to optimizing FIFO logistics, no time wasted... but no tension either - customers have to be compensated for the line, and the noise.

Some may add "and the food" because for this price tag you can probably find better elsewhere, but come on. This is not a rip-off.

SM 2009

Myeongdong Gyoja / 명동 교자 (Restaurant)
33-4 Myeongdong 2-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel : +82.2.776.5348

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Incredible Shrinking Korea

The National Statistics Office (NSO) released its previsions for world population in 2050 : 9.15 billion inhabitants, compared to 6.829 on July 1st, 2009. That's a 13.4% increase.

Over the same period, South Korea will decrease by 13.1% from 49 to 42 millions, and dive from the 26th to the 46th rank in terms of population.

Older, more mixed, Koreans may also have a little bit more room to breathe. Nowadays the World's third most densily populated country, Korea is not that far from leader Bangladesh (490 inh. per sqkm vs 1,142) if you take into account the mountains covering over two thirds of the territory.

You can't beat demographics, and the national birth rate has been a tragedy for years. But many things can happen by 2050. I'm not sure North Korean regime will still be alive and kicking for the Korean War centennial celebrations. And this will have a major impact for population migrations within the Peninsula and beyond. You can be sure infrastructures will follow (ie railway race between China and Russia).

Likewise, China will have a major impact on the region. Taiwan has already been de facto reclaimed, and different scenarios can be made depending on how democracy or tensions rise in the Middle Kingdom.

Finally, climate change will play its role. Forty years may not seem much, but people will necessarily feel the difference at the key latitude where harbors freeze during winters.

One thing is sure : forty years is an eternity for real estate speculators, who keep fueling an insane bubble. Koreans are used to replacing "old" buildings every 20 to 30 years, but they don't seem to realise that their business model is simply not sustainable anymore. What is being built now will be around much longer than expected, not necessarily fitting the needs of a not so far future.

Seoul Village 2009

ADDENDUM 20100202

Sign of the times : to revive agriculture in Korea, the government will train one third of foreign-born women living in farming communities ("S. Korea to train foreign-born women in farming" - Yonhap News 20100202). You would think investing in education and Korean language were more a priority but no. (Re)productivity first.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Burning money in Korea

I learned something today : when you find a lucky penny in Korea, superstition wants you to purchase matches with it for good luck. Money is supposed to fire up afterwards.

In English, to burn what you earn is to use your money, not necessarily in a positive way.

In French, a "flambeur" (literally: who sets on fire) is a plunger, a gambler, someone throwing money out windows or buying useless luxury stuff... not very positive either.

Yet, this "arsonists get all the money" piece of advice makes perfect sense in Korea.

Here, if a stock appears in red, it means that it's hot and going up. Blue means cold and going down.

Here, eating ultra hot and spicy food, or sweating in a near-death jjimjilbang experience is considered "cool" (시원하다 - shiwon hada).

Here, you don't want to stay away from something hot, you want to seize it. Even if it's a bubble. You want to be in the red, or even, when the national soccer team is playing, "be the Reds".

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Botero v. Renoir

A smart way of beating summer heat is to tour Seoul museums, and a charming way to do so is to double it with a walk in Deoksu palace area.

These days, you're likely to come across a lot of colors and plump bodies : the MOCA Annex at Deoksugung features Fernando Botero, and the SeMA Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

There is definitely a pattern for both museums, with a Latino flavor for the former (see last year's "Masters of Latin American Art of the 20th Century"), and an impressionist (yet blockbuster) touch for the latter (Monet, van Gogh... even if the latter reaches beyond impressionism and even expressionism).

If you feel in a darker mood, you can also check that other SeMA exhibition, "Monster era - Dissonant Visions". Warning : unlike the recent neo-pop "Art in Bloom 2009" show, this one could be disturbing for young kids.

Renoir - "Promise of Happiness"
Seoul Museum of Art
30, Misulgwan-gil, Seosomun-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, ROK 100-813
Tel +82.2.724.2900

Fernando Botero
The Annex of the National Museum of Contemporary Art at Deoksugung
Deoksugung, 5-1 Jeong-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel +82.2.368.1414

"Monster era - Dissonant Visions"
Seoul Museum of Art
Apocalypse of Dystopia : Ahn Chang-hong, Ji Yong-ho (Jaguars), Kim Haesook (Metamorphosis), Lee Han-soo, Park Bul-ddong (3 collage effects including a startling portrait), Shin Hak-cheol, Song Myeong-jin
Forbidden Land : Debbie Han, Han Hyo-seok (portraits and installation recently exposed at Gallery Artside - Zeitgeist exhibition), Jang Ji-ha, Jeon Min-soo, Kim Joon, Kim Nam-pyo, Lee Wan.
Inner Monster : Lee Jae-heon (obviously a Bacon wannabe), Lee Seung-ae, Lim Yeong-jeon, Oh Chi-gyoon, Ryu Seung-hwan, Shim Seung-ook.

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