NEW - download 'Seoul VillageS (서울 마을들)', my collection of 12 short fictions! Get your free copy of the ebook (4 editions: English, French, Korean, Bilingual English-Korean)!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Earnit Kingdom: Loan Sharks Feeding Frenzy

On most Korean cable TV channels, a 90 mn movie generally stretches to over 200 mn because of ads, including a 30 mn advertising tunnel at half time. And if it's an action movie - and 99.9% of cable movies are action movies, with a 50% 'chance' of featuring Steven Seagal - every other spot goes to loan companies.

In France, where regulations try to protect consumers, the message is always cautious, never pushing. Here, it's a permanent Rio Carnival with wads of cash springing from everywhere and a recurrent message: for easy, instant money, call now and think later. No wonder household debt keeps mounting at an alarming pace. But authorities don't seem to worry about a phenomenon mirroring the 1998-2003 period, which ended with a severe credit card crisis.

A couple of months ago, I received about a hundred phone calls every day from dozens of different financial institutions: a certain Mr KIM 00 had subscribed to series of loans, leaving behind the same phony number... which happened to be mine. And "phony", in frigging deed.

For weeks I answered the best I could in my crooked Korean and English, telling them I had nothing to do with this KIM gogaeknim, storing each new number into my own spam list, and managing to stop the calls only after threatening to call the police if the harrassment continued. The volume trickled town to 10 calls a day and then one or two, then zero.

So now, I only receive the 'regular' spam calls. And because I'm on anti-spam lists, we're talking just two-four calls + four-six SMS, every day except on Sundays. All for loans. My spam list keeps growing, and companies changing their phone numbers. The mother of all spammers? Hi Capital: they play a taped message with a female voice and a music that may sound pleasant the first time, but triggers murderous pulsions around the 257th time you hear it. Now I recognize it from the first note, so I can instantly hang up.

But most of the time, there's a human being on the other end of the phone. Working in a call center is a very tough job and I don't want to be rude, but for everybody's well being and productivity, it's better to make things clear as soon as possible. So if I don't recognize the number I only answer in English.

I worked my 'hello?' to a long and melodious 'I'm a Foreigner' statement, and it works: most of the time, the caller hangs up without a word. And when there's one word, it's 95% of the time a curse, and 5% a kind 'sorry' in perfect English. Others burst into laughter. Yet others keep following the script and reading the sales pitch until I thank them for never calling again.

What a tragedy.

I'm not complaining about myself. Just witnessing a doomed collision course.

When the only way of earning money is to fool over the phone poor people into getting poorer, you know something is rotten in The Earnit Kingdom.

Seoul Village 2011
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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Get the Dasan 120 mobile app!

If you don't know Dasan Call Center yet you really miss something: you just have to dial 120 (then 9 for English - also available in Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Mongolian) to enjoy all the free hotlines managed under the Seoul Global Center umbrella. A question about tourism, visa, immigration, drivers license, tax...? A complaint or a suggestion? Need a translator for your taxi? That's the place.

Reminder: SGC also operates 7 Seoul Global Village Centers to serve foreign communities at the local level, and provides free services to Foreign entrepreneurs (see "Invest in Seoul - Seoul is already investing in you!"). And it's opening a second business support center after the COEX SGBSC, in Yeouido this time.

Now the service is available on the go: Dasan 120 developped a smartphone application for Android Market and Apple App Store. To download it, look for Dasan Call or 다산콜 or 120다산콜센터.

The app may not be perfect (a few glitches need to be fixed), but it just started a few days ago. Only a hundred people have downloaded it, and SGC has an history of highly efficient collaborative dynamics. I'm pretty sure I will use it massively because it covers everything you need on a daily basis with a dong level of precision. And don't forget the other official apps, such as iTourSeoul ( or VisitKorea (KNTO).

Dasan 120:
Seoul Global Center :

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

"Out of Place" - 2012 Anthology - Seoul Writers Workshop

Mobs of wordsmiths gathered over the week-end for a literary triple play at The Orange Tree and Berlin Cafe & Lounge: Lyrically Minded + 'Out of Place' sneak peak (Saturday in Haebangchon),'Out of Place' launch party + AXIS (Sunday in Itaewon).

=> for the 3rd installment of Lyrically Minded, the mike never stopped flying from hand to hand, releasing words in all spoken forms from poetry to rap slam to storytelling to songs.

=> AXIS focuses on true stories told live without notes, and this second edition provided really great ones... featuring more than a few spectacular punchlines.

=> "Out of Place" is the title and theme of Seoul Writers Workshop's 4th annual anthology of original fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction*. Yesterday, in tune with this writing-as-a-performing-art week-end, a few contributors read their piece to a large audience, and I'm afraid I barely managed to mumble mine under a light as dim as my voice (that's okay: as always I've got the excuse of being French). But you want to buy this book to make other voices, voices that really deserve attention and care, heard : this year, proceeds from the sales go to
The House of Sharing, the charity that supports the cause of comfort women, the victims of sex slavery during Japanese occupation. Contributed to this year's anthology edited by Christopher R. F. Sanders with Kathryn Whitney, Jorge Miramontes Sandoval, Ang McLaughlin, and Becky Bosshart:
- Death Metal: A Revenge Story (Sean Bienert)
- Je t’attends (Brooke Carlson)
- A Hamster Wheel (Kelly Carroll)
- Catching Butterflies (Alex Clermont)
- The Marble and I (Parag Dandgey)
- Stretch (Hamish Dee)
- Astigmatism (Dianne Despi)
- You Can Always Come Home (Ben Dowling)
- short convo (Jürgen Dünhofen)
- For Daniel Who Is 4 (Vanessa Falco)
- Speakeasy (Meriwether Falk)
- Cheap Thrills – What Price? (Pamila J. Florea)
- Dust to Dust (Grace Gallagher)
- Kodachrome (Jeff Glenn)
- I Drank from Your Hair (John Grimmett)
- Yonsei Lake (Gwee Li Sui)
- The Thirteenth Student (Aireanne Hjelle)
- Turkeys Can’t Fly (Matthew David Jenkins)
- The First Wind of the Death (Joel Killin)
- Silk on Belly (Bruce Kim)
- Cracks (Eric Lynn)
- The Beautiful People (J.C. Maxwell)
- Dawn / Daughter / Stars (Craig McGeady)
- Evening Clouds (Shaun Morris)
- Black Snow (Stephane Mot)
- The Road to Sanbuk (Valerie A. Nelson)
- Out of Place (M. Lee Nielsen)
- Date Night (Karin Roest)
- The Halmoni (Michael Solis)
- Hiking on the East Coast in October (Emily Sorrells)
- color / cockpit / the taxi driver (Ayshia Stephenson)
- Bed Solo (Jennifer Waescher)

Join Seoul Writers Workshop on
Facebook, wordpress and ning.
Join AXIS on
Join Lyrically Minded via the
event page on Facebook (Lyrically Minded doesn't seem to be Webally Linked otherwise).
The House of Sharing and visit their museum:

Seoul Village 2011
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* Check for distribution updates on SWW websites (ISBN 978-1-105-16072-1). For the 3rd edition, see "
Every Second Sunday").

Friday, November 18, 2011

Yeongcheon Market saved, Tongin Market already bukchonized

Shall I start with the so-so good news or the not so good news (the good news being that there's no really bad news out there)?

The so-so good one? So be it: Yeongcheong Market has been officially recognized as a market by Seoul Metropolitan Government.

Spoiler: the other piece of news has something to do with another traditional market, Tongin Market.

I know, I know, most of you don't give a fart in a high wind and I fully understand that. But to me it's important, and If you're familiar with this excuse for a blog, you already know that I have a crush for Seoul's markets. Recently, I even mentioned these two in the same (gimbap-ddeokbokki) breath*.

So. What does the Yeongcheon Market recognition mean? This covered street is now a legal entity municipal authorities can deal with, and a priori that's good news: each member becomes stronger and forces can be pooled more easily, so this lively spot might resist more efficiently against potential redevelopments that could mean the end for one of the last remaining 'villages' in the area.

Note that the towers already planned at the Northern entrance (see "Wonjo Ddeokbokki - a.k.a. "Ddeoknimmun"") will be developped as scheduled, but the main entrance should be safe and that's essential for the future : Donuimun New Town will be erected on the other side of Euijuro**, and too many cute places will disappear in the process around Gyonam-dong.

Well. Yeongcheon Market is not exactly "cute". And even after recent improvements it's still a bit dirty. But it does have a soul. And the reason why I'm just so-so pleased by the news is that Yeongcheon Market might be too much 'sanitized' or 'gentrified' for my taste.

Of course local authorities have in mind the preservation of this small animated landmark, but they should be careful not to let it become a tourist trap.

Mind you: Tongin Market is not a tourist trap. But as I feared would happen*, its atmosphere is changing at an alarming pace. On the bright side, the place is cleaner, fresher, better lit with a high ceiling that lets daylight in, and there's much more joy and - yes - fun than ever before. Art students decorated each booth and regularly organize exhibitions (the other day about two sisters who own a shop there). Now there's even a market newspaper... Everybody is smiling, and you can still enjoy the great Hyoja Gimbap*** for only KRW 2,000 a roll (big, tasty bites with a 4 to 1 filling / rice ratio).


If most members stayed, newcomers are not exactly in the same vein. They're good and nice people, and their food does look and smell great, but it's often more the kind of neat shops or eateries you'd find on a busy street. Tongin market is by no means turning into a mall of course, but it's becoming more a gallery than a market, or maybe more the Covent Garden kind of market. I don't see the old generations of merchants resist the sirens of a fat profit: more will sell as the area welcomes more tourists.

Hanoks are being restored around Tongin Market, and the first one that benefited from the renovation program sponsored by local authorities (following the protection of Seochon hanoks) lies precisely in the small vertical alley that joins Tongilsijang-gil in its middle. The feat is well advertised on the door, and the artisan from nearby Nuha-dong even made a wooden box to hold a pack of his business cards. In this alley, a few signs announce trades from another era ("ice" sold here, clothes fixed there...). I bet it won't be long until hanok stay guest houses take over.

I have a word for this : bukchonization.

Seoul Village 2011
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* see "Tongin market opens up to art : adaptation or yet another symptom of Seochon's "Bukchonization" ?"
** dang, I'm still not used to call this street "Tongil-ro". Tongil-ro used to start only from Eunpyeong-gu (the former frontier of Seoul city), and now it goes all the way to Seoul Station (see footnotes of "Culture Station Seoul 284").
*** Hyoja Gimbap (gimbap), Tongin Market, Tongin-dong, Jongno-gu. Tel +82.2.730.73.69

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ginza Bairin (Seoul)

The best tonkatsu in town ? Probably Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin, the pork cutlet master, just a short walk from Gyeongbokgung: this Ginza institution developped an incredible sense of perfection for such a common dish.

Their Katsudon is more than alright and not too salty, but don't leave this place without trying the regular tonkatsu. You decide the level of tenderness of your meat (medium or roskatsu is really ok), and enjoy a flawless texture and color, a perfect cooking and tempuration. The tonkatsu sauce is more Japanese/vinegar than Korean/sweet, but you've got to try it as it is and with just a bit of freshly squeezed lemon.

You also have to try their 'katsusand' version. 'Sand', that's short for 'sandwich', and the helluvan experience. On the menu it looks quite simple : four tonkatsu cuts wrapped in white bread. But the texture when you cut a bite with your incisives, and then when you liberate the hot and cold mix with your molars, discovering the mustardish sauce in between... wow.

The place itself, in a recent building behind Kumho gallery and the Polish embassy, was meant to be an art gallery (the small streets behind Samcheongdong-gil changed dramatically with their new galleries and shops). The atmosphere may look cold with those tall white walls and tall black furniture, but the food and the quiet music compensate largely.

Ginza Bairin
93 Sagan-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, ROK 110-190
Tel +82.2.734.9765
(for the original in Tokyo: 7-8-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, Tel 03.3571.0350)

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Friday, November 11, 2011

Park Won-soon's wishes for Seoul... Village

I expected Seoul's new mayor to deliver some vision for the city*, here's Park Won-soon's first shot:

Seoul + Village + happiness, I can't disagree with this program !

Well... I doubt Park can reach his 'balanced budget' pledge if he maintains the same pace as his first week (free school lunches, 2,500 contractees hired as permanent civil servants...), but at least this man shall fight for the weakest Seoulites when they most need help. And at long last, women's rights become a top issue.

Now time to deliver the goods. And not just goodies.

Seoul Village 2011
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* see "A new mayor for Seoul, a new landscape for 2012"

Thursday, November 10, 2011

tech+ 2011 - "Technology@me"

If I had received one Korean won each time the name of Steve Jobs was pronounced yesterday at the 2011 tech+ forum, I'd probably be a few million bucks richer today.

The thing is, the late Apple founder used to herald the convergence of humanities and technology, and that's precisely what this forum is all about : tech+ stands for technology, economy, culture, and human, wrapped up in / multiplied n-fold by resolute optimism (the final +).

While I'm at acronyms : the event was organized by the Korea Institute for Advancement of Technology (KIAT), and the Ministry of Knowledge Economy (MKE). Overall, 7,000 people showed up at Kyung Hee University's Grand Peace Palace, an impressive cathedral overlooking the splendid campus at its autumnal best.

Day 2 featured no less than 9 keynote speakers and a final wrap-up speech, but time flew seamlessly thanks to perfectly rhythmed transitions. A refreshing change from the usual verbose introductions : dynamic animations on a giant screen launching each speaker like a rock star.

Actually, the most convincing orator happened to be an expert in music : Stanford University's Ge Wang rocked the audience with his musical demos, winning more than a few hearts with his 'Ocarina' version of Arirang. The young Chinese professor delivered the ultimate stevejobsian show : same black top, same beard stubble, same voice pitch, and same gadgets (iPhone, iPad, imCool). Even his Center for Computer Research in Music and Accoustic (Stanford's CCRMA) echoes Steve's sense of Karma. But Ge Wang is a truly original and passionate individual, with an universe of his own (inhabited by such Zorgians as Smule, ChucK, MoPho, or SLOrk*). Bonus: unlike "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named", absolutely not arrogance whatsoever ! Bonus redux: an almost Mozartian touch (short high pitched laughters very reminiscent of Milos Forman's Amadeus). In a nutshell : the inspirational leader every innovating team loves to follow.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Hyundai Motors R&D VP's presentation was almost bad PR for the company. Since I've got the charisma of an anvil on stage, I can't blame him for not being as fun as Ge, but innovation is certainly not about repeating 'convergence' like a mantra without obviously understanding the word, and stamping it on every page of the company's catalog (I'm pretty sure these guys recycle always the same slides with a different keyword depending on the flavor of the month : 'well being', 'ubiquitous', 'premium'...?). Likewise, SK Planet's presentation reminded me of countless shows I attended fifteen years ago, introducing the next deja vu netco with a complete line-up of me-too applications (this time: Sundew, musicBunk, StyleTag, DishPal, Facecard, StarCall).

OK. I'm a more than demanding audience as far as innovation is concerned, but the least you expect is people really enjoying and believing in what they do. So everybody welcomed Yon Namgoong, another man of music and member of the Stevejobsian Adventist Church, and a true model for Korean students who massively attended the event: yes, you can succeed and have an impact, even if you didn't go all the way to the university. Yes, Korea needs to make more room for creative people with diverse backgrounds and a contagious eagerness to share. Yon was clearly more relevant when he developed interesting concepts bridging music with technology than when he interpreted corporate strategies, but did he have fun playing drum on stage !

Significantly, Ge and Yon delivered the same key messages through similar quotes about the evolution of technology : Ben Shneiderman for the hairy Chinese (old computing is about what computers can do / new computing is about what people can do), and the power shift for the bald Korean (power used to come from owning the tool, now it's about how you use it). Both pitches were clearly in the strike zone for the forum's "Technology@me" agenda.

Jay Elliot's job was basically to make sure we didn't forget to mention the late Jobs, and his qualities as a true leader in innovation. From a man who worked closely with him and other giants at IBM or Intel, a rather pleasant chat by the fireplace (i.e. Ge Wang's virtual lighter app for iPhone).

Neither Richard Florida nor Zhong Qui Wang brought disruptive insights either, but it's always useful to remind Korean corporations that stress can be counterproductive, and that staff shouldn't be considered as mere cost centers (and not only in R&D units). I guess Zhong must have an even tougher time trying to convince 'nouveau riche' Chinese entrepreneurs of the virtues of frugality and other Lao Tseuities...

What else ? I wish the 'creative space' presentations had reached deeper because there's so much to say about urbanism and architecture in a 'tech+' perspective for this country, but that leaves more threads to pull for future editions.

I don't know about Steve's second coming, but I'll be back.

Seoul Village 2011
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* respectively the company for which he serves as CTO, a sound programming language, the Stanford Laptop Orchestra, the Mobile Phone Orchestra.

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