Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Korean-Italian Hanok

Cramped and a bit garish but still interesting: renovated hanok featured in today's New York Times.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

RTLS: Hanok

The term hanok (한옥) refers to Korean traditional houses. Characteristics of hanok include wide front porches, private inner courtyards, dark tiled roofs, hanji windows and an underfloor heating system known as ondol. Beyond these common features, there is significant regional variation. Hanok in the mountainous northern region have generally been constructed in the shape of the Korean letter "ㅁ" to retain heat during frigid winters; hanok in the South have been constructed in a straight line, in the shape of "l" (or the Korean letter "ㅣ"), with large windows and an open, wooden-floored area for maximum air circulation during hot summers; and in the central regions, traditional homes take the form of the Korean letter "ㄱ". There has always been additional architectural variation based on class and social status.

Although many of these traditional houses have been razed to make room for apartment buildings and office towers, there are still large pockets of well-preserved hanok, even in Seoul. In addition, thanks to a recent rise in both public interest and government support, many hanok are being preserved or converted into cafes and art galleries, and entire new villages of hanok are being constructed throughout the country.

I'll try to find some time soon to explore some of these traditional neighborhoods. (I'm not sure, actually, if calling them "traditional" is entirely accurate, since some of these renovated hanok are now among the most coveted homes in Seoul.)

Until I take my own pictures (which won't be this good anyway):

"We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us."
- Sir Winston Churchill

Monday, June 28, 2010

RTLS: Public Art

Reason #5 To Love Seoul:

Jonathan Borofsky's Hammering Man

A fellow American, perhaps?

Seoul is a city full of art: sculptures, paintings, calligraphy, gardens, fountains and other installations grace the streets of the metropolis, particularly inside or around large office buildings. Jonathan Borofsky's Hammering Man is a particularly well-loved example. Located in front of the Heungkuk Life Insurance tower, the 50-ton, 22-meter-tall kinetic sculpture has become an important city landmark. Seoul's Hammering Man, which is the largest of a series of Hammering Man sculptures in cities around the world, strikes his hammer every minute and 17 seconds.

Much of this wave of urban beautification has occurred during the past decade: in 1995, the Korean government passed a law requiring that at least 1 percent of construction costs be dedicated to public art for all buildings with more than 10,000 square meters of floor space. The happy result is a wealth of intriguing art installations throughout the city, including sculptures such as Borofsky's Hammering Man.

Artist's statement:
"The Hammering Man celebrates the worker. He or she is the village craftsman, the coal miner, the computer operator, the farmer or the aerospace worker—the people who produce the commodities on which we depend...At its heart, society revers the worker. The Hammering Man is the worker in all of us."
- Jonathan Borofsky

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Perry in Seoul

Governor Perry is in Korea this week with a delegation from Texas. I hope that tax policies aren't contagious.

(But, on the other hand, thank goodness that there still exist governments in our world that know what a budget is.)

In other news from the motherland:

Carnival Magic coming to Galveston - Houston Business Journal

« Carnival Cruise Lines has confirmed that the newest and biggest ship in its fleet will sail out of Galveston beginning November 2011. The Carnival Magic will operate seven-day Caribbean cruises.

In addition, the 2,758-passenger Carnival Triumph will move to Galveston from New Orleans to operate year-round four- and five-day Caribbean cruises beginning October 2011.

With these deployments, Carnival expects to carry more than 450,000 guests annually from Galveston—a 28 percent increase over the current year. »


RTLS: World Cup Fever

One more time...대~한민국!

Korea takes sports very seriously: whether it's figure skating or baseball or taekwondo, fans are both extremely passionate and well-organized. This is, after all, the country that invented thundersticks. Even "imported" sports have been adapted to reflect Korean tastes and cultural norms. Baseball games here, for example, involve cheerleaders and intense audience participation coordinated by team cheer "conductors". And applause for home runs, even if scored by the other team. All accompanied, of course, by rice cakes and domestic brewskis and the occasional gold medal.

Soccer fans are even more devoted—an estimated 430,000 Koreans participated in outdoor cheering rallies for last night/this morning's 3:00 am World Cup match against Nigeria, including more than 60,000 at Seoul Plaza, and nearly 2 million fans were cheering outside during Thursday's game against Argentina. The city's streets rang throughout the night with cries of "Daehanminguk" and "Pilseung Korea." In addition to the flood of red shirts at City Hall, COEX, riverside parks, and along the sidewalks of Seoul, there were also supporters packed into 3-D movie theaters, restaurants, hotels, clubs and bars. Subway and bus lines ran on a special 24-hour schedule to accommodate the large crowds. Even the president was in on the action—Cheong Wa Dae (the official residence of the president) announced via Twitter that it would be serving free makgeolli to fans at Seoul Plaza.

I asked my boss today why Koreans are so passionate about the World Cup, in her opinion. She replied with two points, both of which seem quite accurate. First, the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup elevated the local soccer craze and street cheering culture to a whole new level—enormous taegukgis, fireworks, street rallies, coordinated car horn honking, national fight songs, the whole shebang. Second, the history of the Korean national soccer team is definitely an underdog story—despite an impressive fourth-place finish in 2002, most South Korean fans are not expecting anyone to bring home the FIFA trophy (though I might be attacked for saying that). It's not that there aren't any great players—Park Ji-sung of Manchester United and Cha Du-ri of SC Freiburg immediately come to mind—but there's no doubt that the South Korean soccer story is still about a struggle against the odds. And so when fans here cheer for the Taeguk Warriors, they're cheering with a sense of admiration, amazement, delirious happiness and fierce pride.

And who can blame them for wanting to make this party last?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sajik Park

Adjacent to Maedong Elementary School lies Sajik Park (사직공원), which encompasses the grounds of Sajikdan. From the plaque at the entrance to the park:

« Sajikdan, which was was erected in 1395 (4th year of King Taejo’s reign), was where sacrifices were made during the Joseon Dynasty.

The front gate of Sajikdan is representative of pyeongsammun construction, with three doors in a row. The roof is a matbae, as it appears to be covered by a book. The detailed forms of the structures used to prop up the roof on the pillars deviate from mo
re traditional shapes, and thus they illustrate the changes undergone by Korea’s architectural styles. »

Today, the park grounds also contain the Jongno Library, a children's library, badminton courts and an archery range.


Mother called this morning to ask where I'm living this summer. When I replied that I'm a bit west of Gwanghwamun, in Naeja-dong, she replied, "That's near where I grew up! That's where I attended elementary school—Maedong Elementary School (매동초등학교)." A quick Google Maps search revealed that the school was, indeed, just two blocks away from my apartment. This afternoon, armed with my digital camera, I headed directly to Maedong Elementary School after work.

This impromptu excursion was particularly interesting for me, in part because I know so little about my mother's childhood. It's not that she's secretive about it—ask me about her competitive patbingsu-eating days—but, as I was growing up, it was difficult to picture her and her friends exploring neighborhoods whose names I found foreign and difficult to pronounce. Being born to immigrant parents also means that I've grown up with a different set of cultural values, making it more difficult, perhaps, to relate to my parents' childhoods.

Visiting my mother's elementary school was, thus, an opportunity to glimpse a small but meaningful slice of her past. I tried to imagine her walking across the schoolyard in her navy blue uniform—immaculately ironed, no doubt—or staring out the fourth-story windows during English (her least favorite class).

Before I spout any more sentimental nonsense, here are some pictures:

A boy was playing baseball with his father in the yard.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Yuppies and "Houstonites"

Houston comes in at first place in Forbes' latest ranking, "America's Best Cities for Young Professionals." It lists the "best cities for young professionals—places where ambitious college grads can get a strong start on a high-powered career."

"These metros boast affordability, good job prospects and larger-than-average incomes. And they're already home to some of the country's biggest companies and alumni from the prestigious schools—a recipe that offers well-educated graduates a best shot at upward mobility."

CultureMap notes:
« Forbes believes Houston "shines" thanks to high average incomes and grads from elite colleges—not just from local Rice University, but from across the country. (The study takes into consideration how many Rice, Duke, Harvard, Northwestern, Princeton and Stanford university graduates are located in a city, arguing that their presence points to both a concentration of talent and a strong network of career-minded young people.)

Fellow Lone Star State cities, Dallas and Austin, also snag a spot on the Top 10. Forbes recognizes Houston for having a "business-friendly environment and abundance of oil money," as it is home to 14 of the country's largest companies. Only New York City has more big employers.

Thanks for the upward-mobility recognition, Forbes. We'll let the term "Houstonites" slide. »

Seoul Museum of History

I paid a visit to the Seoul Museum of History (서울역사박물관), which covers the 2,000-year-old history of Seoul, which was founded in 18 BC by Baekje, the kingdom that ruled the western Korean peninsula from 18 BC until its defeat to the Silla Kingdom in 660 AD. Seoul has been the capital of Korea since 1394, two years after Joseon was founded.

Map of ancient Seoul cum water fountain

National Code of Joseon

Genealogy of the Joseon Dynasty royal family

Royal seal

Painting of the celebration of King Sunjo's 40th birthday

Royal land deeds

Astrological chart

New definition of "model family"

Cultural resource research center

On the second floor, there is a very large room with a glass floor, below which lies a beautiful scale model of the entire city. The model also shows a number of projects currently under construction, such as Daniel Libeskind's Yongsan Dreamhub development (below right) and a number of riverfront improvement projects.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Hooray for globalization(?)/urbanization/Seoul café culture*/caffeine

Myeongdong has become the latest battleground for both domestic and international coffee franchises. This neighborhood also boasted, until recently, the largest coffee shop in Asia, a five-story Starbucks that offered lattes with tea and rice cakes. It departed a few years ago due to the steep rents in the world's ninth most expensive commercial district. (The building is now home to popular Italian brand Caffe Pascucci, while Starbucks has opened at least five** franchises, by my count, within a stone's throw from the original location.)

*Related post soon to come.

**During a recent night out, a (fellow foreigner) friend called to ask for directions, and I went outside to try to find him. When I asked him where he was, he said, "Baskin Robbins." I replied, "Wait, I'm outside a Baskin Robbins, too," but he was nowhere in sight. We eventually found each other by relying on cardinal directions rather than international brand names.

I think that, as Americans/other Westerners, it's quite natural to assume that a gleaming Starbucks or Krispy Kreme sign might be a neighborhood landmark (and a welcome dose of English amid the neon sea of hangeul!), but the globalization of Korea combined with the incredible population density of Seoul (six times denser than New York City) means that trying to navigate this city based on popular chains is akin to searching for a Mr. Kim in a Hongdae club.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Hood

Looking north


Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency Headquarters across the street
(I'm sure we'll be very, very safe.)

Jongno Library

This plaque on our block reads: Internal Necessities Department Site
"This was the site of the government office that managed the royal household's finances during the Joseon Dynasty. The department was responsible for the royal court's transactions until it was abolished in 1907."

Thursday, June 17, 2010


Today was my first day of work at Transparency International, a Berlin-headquartered anti-corruption NGO. For the rest of this month and also in August, I am interning here in Jongno—just down the street from Gyeonghuigung Palace—from 10 AM to 5 PM. Over the next few days, I'll be studying the Corruption Perceptions Index and the development of National Integrity Systems.

Incidentally, I'm also becoming painfully aware of the limitations of my professional/work-related Korean language skills: how should I translate "high-risk low-return endeavor" or "protection of whistleblowers from intangible retaliation"? Google Translate, here I come. (Does anyone have good English-Korean dictionary/translator recommendations?)

RTLS: Public Restrooms

I'm sure many of you understand the perils and horrors of public restrooms: whether in New York or Beijing, finding a reasonably sanitary, let alone pleasant location to relieve oneself can seem next to impossible.

Thus, I present to you Reason #2 To Love Seoul:

Public restroom (hwajangsil), labeled clearly in Korean, English, and Chinese

A typical Seoul subway station restroom:
clean and well-lit, with self-flushing toilets and urinals, a baby changing station,
and security buttons for those requiring assistance, cf. New York City

(I would take more pictures of public restrooms in Korea,
but I got enough strange looks taking this one.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Gyeonghuigung Palace

Despite the number of times I've visited Korea, I had never visited any of the royal palaces before today. During the next few weeks, I hope to explore each of them, as well as other important historical sites. This morning, I spent some time at Gyeonghuigung (경희궁), also known as Gyeonghui Palace (gung means "palace" in Korean).

Gyeonghui Palace was a detached royal villa, constructed as one of the "Five Grand Palaces" of the Joseon Dynasty. Construction began in 1617 and was completed in 1623. Gyeonghuigung originally comprised 100 structures in addition to Sungjeongjeon, the main hall. Gyeongjong (the 20th king of Joseon), Jeongjo (22nd king), and Heonjong (24th king) held their coronation ceremonies here.

In 1910, during the Japanese invasion, Gyeonghui Palace was razed by the Japanese in order to build a middle school on the palace site for expatriate Japanese citizens. Over the past few decades, the main buildings have been rebuilt in their original form through meticulous reconstruction efforts.

Gyeonghuigung translates to "Palace of Serene Harmony".

The center gates and path were reserved for the king.

Sungjeongjeon, the main hall

The stone tablets marked the position of top government officials
who stood next to them, by rank, during royal processions.

Interior of Sungjeongjeon

Dancheong (traditional Korean decorative building paint)

Jajeongjeon, used as a meeting hall for public officials
(and as a memorial shrine during the late Joseon period)

Giwa (roof tilework)

Mythical stone figures placed on the roof to ward off evil spirits
(kind of like Korean gargoyles)

The surrounding landscape doesn't seem to have changed much.

Summer Quarters

I'm living in a studio apartment with James and Dong-won this summer in Gwanghwamun, a centrally located area named for the largest gate of Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty. In addition to Gyeongbokgung, our apartment is within walking distance of Gwanghwamun Plaza, the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, Cheonggyecheon, the U.S. Embassy, the Central Government Complex, Gyeonghuigung, and the Blue House (official residence of the President of South Korea).

The apartment building:

RTLS: Internet

Reason #1 to love Seoul:

Available networks in the area

From Wikipedia:
« South Korea's broadband network is the fastest and, according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the most developed in the world. Particularly Seoul, the nation's capital, has been called "the bandwidth capital of the world." In January 2006, it became the first country to achieve over 50% broadband penetration per capita. By 2005, it was the first country to complete the conversion from dial-up to broadband. It also has the cheapest, fastest broadband on the planet. Now there are experiments with speeds of 1 gigabit per second. Additionally, in 2005 96.8% of South Korean mobile phones had internet access. »

A recent CNN article "Why Internet connections are fastest in South Korea" provided some interesting explanations:
« Broadband Internet speeds in the United States are only about one-fourth as fast as those in South Korea, the world leader, according to the Internet monitoring firm Akamai.

And, as if to add insult to injury, U.S. Internet connections are more expensive than those in South Korea, too. The slower connection here in the U.S. costs about $45.50 per month on average, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In South Korea, the much-faster hookup costs $17 per month less. An average broadband bill there runs about $28.50.

So why is U.S. Internet so much slower and pricier than broadband connections in South Korea? The question is timely, as the U.S. government pushes forward with a "broadband plan" that aims to speed up connections, reduce costs and increase access to the Internet.
  1. Greater competition in the market*
  2. Political culture
  3. Open vs. closed networks
  4. Population density
  5. "Korea had a plan...a decade ago." »
The happy consequence of this decade-old plan, at the moment, is that I'm enjoying free wireless Internet in front of Tours Les Jours—this Korean bakery was a godsend in Beijing last summer, and it's also where I buy most of my cakes in Houston—while drinking a refreshing strawberry smoothie.

*God save capitalism.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Wandering Cowboy in Seoul

Two episodes of Dexter, three episodes of Modern Family, two movies—The Maid (La nana) was even better than I had expected!—a few catnaps and some pages of Hemingway later, I arrived safely at Incheon International Airport, where I was greeted by Grandmother for a dinner/피부과 date.

I'm about to pass out from exhaustion, but first, here's a slightly amusing and insulting bit of Hemingway from The Sun Also Rises:

"She grinned and I saw why she made a point of not laughing."

Monday, June 14, 2010

Soccer Nerds

I'm currently sitting in Vancouver International Airport, enjoying the free Wi-Fi and a delicious breakfast of Canadian bacon, home fries, cantaloupe and thick wheat toast slathered with strawberry jam.

An interesting (and perhaps surprising) column in this weekend’s FT:

The Growing Tribe of Soccer Nerds Following America
(Simon Kuper)
« You don’t see many foreign fans here in Johannesburg, but the largest single group of them are Americans. People in the US bought more tickets for this World Cup than any other visiting country. “In the public sale, it’s more than the next two countries combined,” notes a proud Sunil Gulati, president of the US Soccer Federation.

Contrary to foreign belief, the US is now a proper soccer nation. When their team takes on England in Rustenburg today, millions of Americans will be watching, even if they won’t all be supporting the US. Since about 2005, globalisation has spread the game through this country like never before.

Significantly, it’s the two most globalised groups of Americans who follow soccer most keenly. The first group consists of immigrants: about 45m Hispanics now live in the US, mostly from soccer-mad Mexico. The second group is the educated elite.

There’s a growing American tribe of “soccer nerds”, who insist on calling the game “football” and can knock you out with long analyses of Manchester City’s defensive issues.

All these folks will be watching the World Cup. American TV companies shelled out $425m for the rights to the 2010 and 2014 tournaments, then the biggest such deal done in any country. The US was only the 13th biggest TV market for the tournament in 2002, in absolute numbers of viewers. By 2006, it had jumped to eighth. This year the US should rank higher still. »

Lebanese in Brooklyn Heights with Jen and Hees



Followed by homemade yogurt cake with honey...
(delicious and quite easy; here's the recipe.)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

ΠΑ Weekend

Westport/Herr Beck/Lloyd Harbor/Crustaceans Gone Wild/John Walter Weyland, Jr./a lucky fish/Coast Guard

  • "I feel like...with a whale."
  • If there's anything I learned from Citibank, it's how to leverage shit.
  • What's life come to when you can't antagonize municipal employees?
  • IBG YBG.
  • Coast Guard: Holy crap dude, that's not a mayday.
  • MVP - John Walter Wayland, Jr.
  • Catholics are going to heaven the same way they came to America.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Until My 21st

What a whirlwind of a last couple days at home!
  • My first time cooking rice (i.e. washing and pushing the correct buttons on our cheery-voiced pressure cooker)
  • Packing
  • Seeing Max and Josh and Aunt Judy
  • Lots of tteok
  • Cuddling with Niki (sad I’ll be missing her first birthday in two weeks!)
  • Ghiradelli
  • Goode Co. Barbecue
  • Return of Mother from Seoul yesterday
  • Goodbye to Michael until Thanksgiving (begins basic training next week)

I’m currently sitting at the airport, trying to block out the drone of CNN foretelling imminent world doom and my new Gate 30 neighbor discussing her entire life story over the phone.

CT/Long Island for the weekend; Seoul on Monday!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Igor 의 訪問

I awoke this morning to the sound of Niki barking furiously near the pear tree in our backyard (she’s normally extremely quiet, even for a whippet

Guess what I found when I went outside?

(and a very perplexed Niki)

His Majesty was in town for only a few days on his way to a samba master class in Brazil. He spent the past week sailing across the Atlantic, through the Gulf of Mexico, into the Bay of Galveston and the Houston Ship Channel, and up Buffalo Bayou through downtown and into my backyard. His delegation was delayed a bit on account of the recent rains but arrived without any serious mishap.

What a handsome fellow.

We immediately retreated indoors, of course, for tea.

After our chat, I unceremoniously picked up Igor, walked through the yard, and rolled him down the hill back into the bayou called a limousine to take His Majesty to IAH in time for his flight to Rio.