Another shore, another story. This week I took my first proper steps into South Korea and mainland Asia (a brief stopover in Taiwan last year notwithstanding), and it’s been… a lot. I’m currently in the swankiest internet cafe I’ve set foot in, surrounded by gamers playing Portal, FIFA and World of Warcraft, and trying to make sense of what I’ve seen and felt so far. I make no apologies for the length of my article- I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.
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Fresh off the ferry, my very first thoughts on Busan were roughly- well, plus ca change. Nobody was eating on the subway or the city streets, and the subway was decorous and well-organised, if a bit old school. On the home commute, everyone was staring into their smartphones. There was even a 7-11.
Tell you what, though, I hadn’t noticed quite how comfortable I’d got in Japan till I came here. My Japanese is pretty artless and limited, but I get a lot done with it! It’s jarring to suddenly be back to square one, pointing and smiling and apologising for everything I don’t know. I’ve had couple of awkward moments, especially when I accidentally showed an elderly taxi driver an address in Japanese (spoiler alert: he did not like that).
I separated from the crowd at Dongbaek and walked down to the beach at Haeundae, the beloved tourist resort of Korea’s second city. The beach existed on a scale I’ve not personally seen before, a perfect hemicircle of a bay with metre after metre of golden sand and a hazy ocean lit by distant towers. I didn’t catch many Westerners, but clearly this place is popular with Asian tourists of all stripes- I met Koreans, Uzbeks and Indians on my short walk, and heard Japanese and Mandarin spoken too. I walked and talked with Ankit, an amiable startup employee from Goa who gave me his card. He didn’t really explain the nature of his consultancy, and I wonder about handing out business cards to randos on the beach as a startup strategy, but I liked his style. I walked along the strip, ate some rockfish soup- too many bones for my taste, but a good rice salad and a million little side dishes- and sipped my way through some Australian ‘beer’ (they insist on calling it this, despite the evidence). Then I slept, deeply.
Reckoning with Gamcheon
Where to start with Gamcheon? It’s officially a ‘culture village’ lit up with bright colours and emblazoned with artworks by local people. I will admit that the shock of bright colours was refreshing, almost Caribbean in the thirty-degree September sunshine. And I’m all in favour of street art- anything which takes art out of the galleries and gives it back to the people is okay in my book.
But something quickly struck me as… not quite right about Gamcheon, from the many yelping dogs to the obvious hostility of the uniformly elderly citizens. I had a look around the carefully presented museum, and reading into the subtext, things started to make sense. Ditching pleasantries, in the sixties this place used to be a slum- one of the poorest areas of a very poor city, inhabited by refugees from the Korean War. As the city grew in wealth, Gamcheon stayed stubbornly stuck, so the government sent in artists to transform the area, peaking around 2010 with a huge painting project. And now Gamcheon is… basically still a slum, but painted in bright colours. The many eightysomething residents were revealingly described as ‘wary’ of tourists on one website, but for my money, they weren’t wary, they were unhappy. I got the strong sense that this was a project done to, not by, Gamcheon’s residents, who almost certainly have no prospect of moving out.
By the way, I always knew South Korea was poor in the recent past, but I didn’t know quite how poor. After the Korean War, a third of the population were internally displaced, and the GDP per capita was $79- similar to a West African country, if not poorer. Looking at the pictures of old Gamcheon, I was reminded of another revealing statistic I once read. During the long period 1600- 1820, when India transformed from a Mughal Empire into a British colony, one economist calculated that the Indian economy didn’t grow. At all1. All the exhausting disingenuosities about the ‘white man’s burden’ and the ‘civilising mission’ didn’t add up to any material reward for India during the key phase of Britain’s industrial revolution. Well, as there, so here. If Japan gave Korea any economic benefit while extracting its resources, it would have been precious hard to see from 1959’s point of view.
I was still in this anti-colonialist mindset walking around Seomyeon, the heart of Busan full of cinemas, sportwear and too-cool-to-care young people. Suddenly, a stray signpost pointed me towards the Busan Coffee Museum. Now, Busan loves coffee. In fact, as per my first impressions Korea loves coffee far more than Japan does, and it shows in the variety of cafes and the quality of the drink. Even if some parlours make pretty strange drinks, like this ‘cobnut matcha latte’ monstrosity I tried, they’re still flavourful- except my hostel, which made me almost undrinkable coffee and a sad, collapsing panini.
The coffee museum itself was a neat little collection of coffee grinders, coffee pots and sets of porcelain. I particularly liked a pot that claimed to depict the ‘Battle of Culloden 1746’, but actually showed Robin Hood in Sherwood forest. Righto. The museum earnestly explained that the first Korean to drink coffee was King Gojong in 1896, who shared a brew with the wife of a Russian diplomat as he sheltered in the Russian legation. The educated Korean elite fell for the bitter elixir, calling it ‘herbs from the west’ and drinking it in coffee/tea shops called dabang while talking politics, activism or gossip.
The museum featured a bunch of Western coffee artefacts and some Korean and Japanese designs, but I felt a conspiracy of silence about where all that bittersweet beany goodness comes from- although one of the signs acknowledged that coffee beans were exported from Yemen by the Ottomans, and ‘maybe grew in Ethiopia’. Coffee might be the perfect example of how Korea’s economy has completely changed in the last fifty years. Once a luxury good for a small elite, it’s now served in expensive, ironically distressed faux-industrial boutiques for 6000 won a pop2, while the people selling the beans are quietly erased. I’m not blaming Koreans in any way for this- my own country does exactly the same. But it occurred to me that you could tell the story of modern economic and social history pretty well through coffee. The Mediterranean and Atlantic trade routes3,the bijou colonial wars, the dreamers sitting in fifties cafes plotting revolution. Milton Friedman’s brave new flatworld and the rise of the Asian Tigers. The chasm of inequality between rich and poor nations. Starbucks. I am aware I’m absolutely no fun on holiday.
Having firmly decided not to be fun, I got thinking about globalization and Korea. The thing is, virtually no country has changed as fast as this. An average eighty-year-old Korean has watched Korea go from being a Japanese colony, to a unified republic, which then split into two parts in an all-consuming war. They’ve seen Korea go from dictatorship to democracy and from absolute poverty to developed-world wealth in a shorter time than any other country. In many ways, Korea’s been one of the big winners of globalization, and in turn they’ve enthusastically thrown themselves into a chaotic, international future, as you can see from the Baskin-Robbinses and Starbucks’ scattered around the city or the young Korean students scattered around the world. Mind you, there are Kias and Samsung everywhere too, and people talk about ‘brand Korea’ a lot.
There are costs as well, of course. Korean city centers have even more generic concrete slabs than Japan’s do, and city planning seems functional but rarely beautiful. Korean kids apparently spend even more time at cram schools than Japanese students do, and Korean companies take even more of their employees’ hours in overtime. Awash with modernity, I wanted to see some of the old Korea, but it’s not so easy to find in the heart of Busan. So I headed to the museum.
I saw it all there- delicate flower-patterned vases, fragile half-sketched orchids, cylinders for holding scrolls, ancient Buddhist statues and stories of some of the governors and modernizers of Busan. And at the heart of it all was an exhibition that reminded me that Korea wasn’t just shaped by the globalization of trade- it played a part in it, long before Western empires were sniffing round its shores. The Shinan shipwreck happened around 1350, and buried a bunch of beautiful Korean and Chinese celadon bowls, jugs, inkstones and incense jars beneath the waves. They were sailing on a sea network which connected western Japan, coastal China, Korea, southeast Asia and India, long before Columbus.
After sleeping off a few beers, I woke up and went for a walk along the promenade by the beach, reaching a lighthouse where some old poet declared Haeundae’s undying beauty. I darted out to sea for a swim, but by now the promised typhoon was well on its way and the waves were rising. I reluctantly called it a day and slunk off to the station, where the bibimbap cafe played a slow R&B jam version of Radiohead’s Creep, and a version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer presumably sung by a drunk Dean Martin in an empty bar at closing time. Fucking weird.
And so on to Gyeongju, ‘Korea’s Kyoto’. Gyeongju was an old capital of the Kingdom of Silla, before Korea was unified, and was then the capital of the unified kingdom from 668 to 900. The city is full of spectacular temples and monuments, but my first introduction to it was through a series of eerie, perfectly smooth grassy domes, with the occasional misplaced tree jutting out. Hobbiton-on-Hyeongsan. These are the Daereungwon tumuli, the graves of old kings, and time and time again I was reminded not to climb them. Better not disturb the spirit of Queen Seondeok, I guess- she’d be so mad and the paperwork would be a hassle. I wonder how she’d feel about all the selfie sticks poking about her place of rest. At the tomb of King Michu, an annotation explains that the soldiers of Silla once won a battle by disguising themselves with bamboo branches- a story which you might recognise as being the same as a famous scene from Macbeth. ‘Til Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane, and all that.
Across the road from Daereungwon, I chatted with Michelle, a self-professed ‘dreamer’ who’s dabbled in different artforms and gave me a wire model to mark our meeting. He gave me a quick tour of Peobjangsa, a richly decorated Buddhist temple. He showed me the lanterns, totally different in style from Japanese lanterns, redolent of enormous hanging fruit. They’re hung in commemoration of the dead, or to mark Buddha’s birthday. He showed me the golden Buddha, which non-priests shouldn’t stand directly in front of, and the illuminated red crystal swastika which reminded me of the deep cultural differences which still shape how we see the world, despite all that globalisation.
After I’d seen Korea’s oldest observatory at Cheomsongdae and the spectacular Woljeong Bridge, I wandered south across the river and got myself lost in the countryside for a bit. The rice fields are still bright green right now, but you can feel the seasons turning on their axis, and already a few early falling leaves are crunching beneath my feet. I like this time of year.
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This has been a weighty, and above all a long read. I didn’t really make travelling buddies in Busan or Gyeongju, and so I guess I spent a serious couple of days, taking a crash course in Korean culture. But my current hostel residence in Gangneung is a whole different proposition, a DIY kinda place full of laid-back traveller types. Next time, I hope to be writing to you about the people I’ve met, and also about spicy food, k-pop and my forming future plans.
I’ll leave you with some pics of the wonderful UN Sculpture Park in Busan, which features artworks from countries across the world, brought together here. The world is in Busan. Long may it last.
1- admittedly, this statistic only covers the period before the railways stretched across the subcontinent.
2- about four pounds. Not all coffee is quite this pricey, but still.
3- coffee also played a role in the American Civil War- the Union strategically cut off access to coffee to Confederate territories, hoping to reduce morale amongst troops.