Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: December 2013

Label Market Is Open

Just a little reminder to anyone who cares about music that Sangsang Madang’s annual Label Market is now open. Running until Feb. 4, the Label Market is your best chance each year to discover and buy Korean indie music, with a slew of music-related concerts and events going on.


Sangsang Madang is the arts-related group sponsored by KT&G (huzzah for tobacco and ginseng), most famous for its big, Skeksis-looking building:

See what I mean? No? It’s just me? Fine, moving on then…

Anyhow, the gallery on the second floor is completely lined with CDs from all the major indie labels in Korea and it is open every day until 7pm. Plus there’s still a whole bunch of concerts coming, such as:

Jan. 5 at 6pm – Kim Mok-in, Kang A-sol, Big Pony, Big Baby Driver

Jan. 12 at 6pm – E-Visor, Isang-ui Nalgae (Wings of the Isang), Juck Juck Grunzie, Hwang Boryung=Smacksoft

Jan. 17 at 7:30pm – Grey, First Aid, Saram12Saram

Jan. 18 at 6pm – Ahn Hong-geun, Garlics, Kang Baek-su, Party Street, Hangukin

And there’s plenty more, going until the end of January.

Watch Out Now: Samsung Not-So-Smartwatch Ad

Wow, the mean responses to Samsung’s terrible ad for its Galaxy Gear smartwatch keep piling up (if you haven’t seen it and feel compelled to torture yourself, you can see it here, but I don’t want it polluting my website). Comments have been disabled on Samsung’s YouTube page, but they are going strong elsewhere: Reddit’s thread has 3575, Gizmodo has 144, Techcrunch 223.

Then again, considering all the attention Samsung’s last terrible ad received, you have to wonder if they were going for viral disaster marketing.

(HT: Matt at Popular Gusts).

On the other hand, Reddit did enable me to find a link to a shopping list written up by Michelangelo, so, all-in-all, a good day for the Internet.

Mark’s Adventures in Jeonja-land

Well, it looks like Yongsan’s electronics market, Jeonja Land, has seen better days. I took a walk there a couple of days ago, looking to pick up a couple of things, in what was probably my first trip there in five years. It wasn’t pretty. I guess the Internet age and online shopping has pretty much killed the need for a giant cluster of electronics (especially overpriced electronics sold by surly, dodgy shopkeepers).

On the other hand, there are more old vinyl shops on the second floor than ever. That’s pretty cool.

Yongsan’s old main building (where, if memory serves, I bought a 166 MHz computer for around $1,000 back in 1998) is all closed now. It is only open so you can access the walkway to Yongsan Station.

Here’s the biggest building in Korea.

Well, it would have been, if the development project hadn’t fallen through.

Even the new electronics market in the main Yongsan Station building is not in very good shape. The area set aside for electronics keeps getting smaller, while other types of shopping move in and take up the slack.

After shopping I did some walking around in the stretch from Yongsan to Seoul stations. Most of the old colonial buildings are gone now (not that they were in great shape before), but you can find a few here and there. I think what I like most about that neighborhood is the random things you run across. Like this Lotte E&C site, which apparently uses some old building.


It’s a neighborhood full of these sorts of little alleys, with a mix of old buildings and exposed wires.

And, as an added bonus, here’s a great door. Yes, up there on the third floor, with the little gate in front of it. I can only assume there used to be a fire escape there or another building or the like that was torn down.

 That’s all. Just a random walk and a bit of shopping in a cool part of town that has seen better days.


If you are into cigars…

Just a little note for anyone out there in Korea who is a fan of cigars — there’s a fairly new tobacco shop in Donggyo-dong that is quite impressive.

Called Pipe Story, it is mostly a pipe tobacco place (unsurprisingly), but they also have a walk-in humidor, and since opening in August, it has been getting a steadily better selection. In addition to some good, cheaper smokes from the Philippines and Brazil, it also has a huge selection of Oliva cigars (my favorite), and it just got a whole bunch of Arturo Fuertes.

Here’s a map of the store (only Korean, sorry). As you can see, it is about halfway between Hongik Subway Station and Shinchon Subway Station. (Another version is here).

JoongAng Sunday Redux

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote my first column for the JoongAng Sunday (a relative to the JoongAng Daily, where I work). It only ran in Korean, so, for those who might be interested, here it is in the original English:

Having recently returned to Korea after four years of living in Spain, I’ve been really enjoying being back. It’s like all the things I enjoy the most about Korea have gotten bigger and better, while the things I dislike have shrunk and grown less common.

When I first came to Korea in 1996, living in smaller cities outside of Seoul, Korea felt like a very different country. Back then, it was very hard to find variety and non-Korean things. Movie theaters were old and run-down, live music clubs were few, and not many supermarkets stocked imported goods. Day to day living was tough, but I really liked it.

Even then, there was definitely an energy to Korea that was very interesting, a sense that something special and powerful was brewing just underneath the surface. I can still remember the first time I saw Hwang Shin Hye Band live at a tiny club in Daejeon, I was so blow away. I can remember seeing movies like “The Gingko Bed” and “The Power of Kangwon Province” and being so impressed.

Once I moved to Seoul, especially in the Hongik University and Shinchon neighborhoods, things were even better, as I met all sorts of creative young people who were pushing so hard against the limits of the day, trying to make something new.

Over the years, Korea kept getting better, but, strangely, as it became easier for foreigners to live here, I could feel my attitude not always appreciating those changes. Sometimes I would fixate on the things I did not like — like pushy people on the subways or rude taxi drivers — and let petty problems annoy me.

Which is a big part of why I moved to Barcelona four years ago. I just needed a change of pace. Hong Kong or somewhere else in Asia would have been too similar. I needed something very different.

Indeed, living in the beautiful, historical Europe was a wonderful change. At first. But it wasn’t long before I began to notice all the ways Europe falls short, compared to what I liked about Korea. I quickly began to realize how many of my complaints about Korea were not about Korea at all. They were about life in general. Or about myself.

Over and over, Spain and Europe showed just how tired and boring they could be. Need a new pair of glasses? Come back in a week. Need your cable TV turned off? You need to submit a request in writing at least two weeks ahead of time. So many little things that Korea just does in minutes took days or weeks there.

It has now been more than five years since the Spanish economy crashed. I was living in Korea when the Asian economic crisis of 1997-8 hit, and the difference could not be bigger. In Korea, it was a terrible time, and the value of the won plummeted, companies went bankrupt and so many people lost their jobs. But Koreans rallied. They dug in, took action, and overcame the crisis in just a couple of years. Even though Korea can be a very divided place between left and right and other factions, in the face of a true crisis, the country rallied together and fixed the problem.

Spain, like all of Europe, however, continues to limp along, utterly without the political will to fix the problem (which is not a debt problem, but a fatally flawed currency that just does not work). Rather than address Spain’s real problems, the Catalans and other ethnic groups debate breaking away and forming new countries.

Korea, however, is faster than ever. There are at least three coffee shops within 100 meters of my apartment that are open all night, and that make excellent coffee and food. There is more variety with food, music, and all the cultural things that I so enjoy.

Of course, I’m not blind to Korea’s problems. The housing market is too expensive and full of inefficiencies. The endless left-right political squabbling helps no one. The lives of young people are packed with way too much school and not nearly enough education. And, dear god, it’s time to clean up the garbage on the streets.

But when it comes to day-to-day life, it’s amazing how Korea keeps getting better. I’m really excited to be back here, and I’m excited to see where Korea will go next.



Last night, while walking home at 11 pm in the -7 degree weather, I passed a 20-something guy sitting outside, in front of a convenience store, wearing an okay jacket, but no hat or gloves. He was eating instant ramyeon noodles, checking his cell phone and smoking, all at the same time — three activities, two hands. Freezing cold. It struck me as the most hardcore Korean thing I’ve seen in ages.

Sadly, I was too wimpy to take a photo. He deserved immortality.


Monday Morning Links

  • North Korean officials in China affiliated with recently-executed Jang Song-thaek are on the run, in hiding. (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • The distressing state of illegal dog-breeding in Korea — 95% of breeders unlicensed, and most of them are terrible. (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • Meet Latin America’s Teenage Korean Pop Fanatics. Fun to read about the trend from a non-Korean source. (NPR)
  • Ian Buruma restates his old (and good!) argument that the US presence in East Asia spurs nationalism and instability. But this time, he combines the argument with the dynastic element of East Asian politics, looking at the leaders of Korea, China, and Japan and noting how their policies have been influenced by their fathers (or, in Abe’s case, grandfather). (Project Syndicate)
  • Are “It” bags on the way out in Korea? An argument that fashion is maturing, shifting to classics and style instead of just brand-names and following. (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was easily No. 1 last weekend in Korea, but still fairly soft with just 6.6 billion won ($6.3 million) in box office. (KOBIS) In related news, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is terrible.
  • Oh, Jeon Do-yeon’s moronic new film (did you know it’s bad to be a drug mule) The Way Back Home was second, with 4.5 billion won.
  • With two weekends left in the year, the box office in Korea has already set an  attendance record (over 199 million tickets, and will top 200 million for the first time later today), nearly a revenue record (at 1.450 trillion won, it will beat last year’s record in a couple of days), a major record for Korean movies (118 million admissions), and is 4 million admissions shy of a foreign film record. It is also the second-strongest year for Korean movies ever by percentage, with 59.2% of the box office going to local movies (more KOBIS).

Back to Work

Sorry for the lack of posts over the past couple of weeks. I was traveling in Canada, doing an early-Christmas with the family. Good fun, but not exactly blog-rich material. But a very good trip:

  • I checked out the distillery district in downtown Toronto for the first time. Very pretty location, with all the old buildings. It’s a part of town that used to be all run-down when I was growing up (I remember using it for free parking, along with the Esplanade), but has gentrified nicely. Good food, and since it is pretty tourist-free this time of year, it was quite quiet.
  • Went to a Raptors game. Raptors lost badly, but this crazy season, losing is actually a positive. And during bad seasons, tickets are much more affordable. At least Rudy Gay is no longer with the team.
  • Met the amazing science-fiction author Peter Watts. His novel Blindsight is one of my favorite “hard sci-fi” books ever (you can download it for free at his website).  Fascinating and fun guy.
  • Met with several conservative politicians, including one who said that Rob Ford “is the best Toronto mayor in my lifetime.” Seriously. I thought his wife was going to slap him for that remark — but after a couple weeks or seeing Toronto politics first-hand, I kind of get where he was coming from (I’m not saying I agree … just that I understand).

The last day before we leave Canada, we suddenly get hit by a big cold snap — but upon arriving in Korea, it is also in the middle of an early freeze, so no one comes out ahead on that one.

It’s the end of year, which in Korea means plenty of concerts.  I should have a few chances to talk more about music in the coming weeks. I also have my first “speaking tour” (well, kind of), coming this spring, to announce. And hopefully some other fun stuff.

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