March 9th, 2014 § § permalink
The Korean (of Ask a Korean fame) has just posted a nice little review of K-POP NOW over on his book review blog. Aside from a couple of quibbles — and a very legitimate complaint about the lack of Lee Hyo-ri on the book — he was mostly quite complimentary.
For a taste of what he has to say:
K-Pop Now is not a treatise of everything there is to know about Korean pop music. Like the stars it covers, the book is glossy, thin and image-heavy. Russell’s insight is more readily available in the introductory passages, as the later parts of the book are not much more than a series of quick presentations about K-pop artists. None of this is meant as a criticism. The book is properly understood as a breezy introduction to a slice of Korean pop music scene, which is hardly a reason to complain: everyone needs an introduction to a given topic before they explore further.
Not a bad summary at all, imho.
If you want to pre-order K-POP NOW, you can do so on Amazon.com, Indigo, and of course at Tuttle Books. In most of the world, it should be getting released in April, so if you pre-order, you won’t have long to wait.
March 9th, 2014 § § permalink
It’s been a really nice weekend here in Korea — sunny, if a bit cool and windy. But it was nice enough I though I would do some walking this weekend.
Saturday, I just went exploring randomly in the area between Hongik University and Sangsu Station and Hapjeong Station. I knew it had built up, but I’m always surprised at just how built up it is. After a disappointing Thai lunch a place that will remain anonymous (I think it is the Hongdae spinoff of a famous Gyeongnidan restaurant), we just went walking at random.
I mean, I can remember when all these roads were basically residential. And now they are endless cafes, restaurants, and shops.
Ironically, one of the dorkiest parts in the area used to be the coolest:
This spot, which has long been a terrible-looking noraebang, used to be home to Sangsudo, the first “real” techno club in Seoul. Or the nastiest one. Or something like that. Anyhow, it used to get hopping around 3 or 4am and go until sun-up. Until the police decided it was a den of iniquity and drugs, and started raiding it all the time. Soon it closed and was turned into a noraebang.
Back when Sangsudo was at its peak, this area was nearly all residential and there was nothing else around at all. So I find it pretty funny to see how built up that area is now, with shops everywhere. But this is one of the few buildings that is still not gentrified.
This building has seen better days:
Then I found this:
Yay, Record Forum is still around. It used to be located in the middle of Hongdae, beside what is now Monster Pizza and the Eat Your Kimchi Studios. But its tiny location was torn down and replaced with a garish monstrosity that now houses a Bennigans. I was worried it was lost, but apparently it just move down the street, closer to Hapjeong.
It felt like every time I tried out a new street, there was something interesting to discover — a jerk chicken reggae place, a Portuguese restaurant, a funky little clothing shop (I actually stumbled across a shop run by the girlfriend of a friend of mine, totally by accident).
These days, a lot of people are worried that the gentrification of Hongdae will bring in a lot of chain clothing stores, restaurants and other mainstream franchises. But I think that’s just not really a problem for Hongdae — because Hongdae is just too big for the franchises to take over. Whenever they come to one part of Hongdae, jacking up rents, the cool people that make Hongdae interesting just move somewhere else — Donggyo-dong, Yeonnam-dong, or south of Sangsu Station.
Speaking of Yeonnam-dong, after a disappointing Thai restaurant experience yesterday, today my wife and I returned to Tuk Tuk Noodles, probably the best Thai place in town. And once again, we were very happy with our lunch. I screwed up the reservation, so we had to wait an hour, but it was worth it.
Happiness is a yellow curry full of giant prawns.
Here’s a pic of the restaurant’s entrance (stolen from here):
So, that was my little weekend exploring Hongdae. Nothing revelatory, but I do find it amazing how this part of town just keeps growing and changing. It really is one of my favorite places.
March 8th, 2014 § § permalink
Some early reviews are coming in for K-POP NOW. Very exciting.
Just a few minutes ago, The Korean (of Ask a Korean fame) posted a review over on his book blog Reading Korea. And he was nice enough to say a lot of nice things about it. For example:
Keen-eyed and resourceful, Russell has regularly provided valuable insight into today’s Korean pop music that is both historical and comparative. Russell’s celebration of K-pop is jubilant but sober.
Another review I found was from a more obscure site, this blog that reviews young adult books for libraries. But it was also very positive.
Russell has put together a fantastic volume of information regarding the K-Pop history and industry. This is relevant to the current K-Pop craze phenomena and interest to those who are reading it for the first time or have a deep concern about their favorite groups. It will also make a great complementary addition to any classroom curriculum on the topic of Korean Culture.
It is so nice when the first reviews for a new book come back positive. I’m sure there’s a bashing coming before too long, but I really appreciate these positive and interesting early reviews.
March 5th, 2014 § § permalink
Apparently there’s an online controversy-du-jour going on in the expat community in Korea about the evolving restaurant scene in greater Itaewon. The source of the fretting came from this amusing cartoon by Chris Kwon Lewis. Some people thought it a good takedown of gentrification and hipsters in Korea. Others called it racist. In general, it looks like a pretty insufferable debate.
For a smarter take on the issue, check out these wise words that were recently written by Joe McPherson, of Zen Kimchi fame.
The way I see it, this is basically a fight between rival hipsters. Expat hipsters versus Korean hipsters. And, let’s face it, that is a fight that nobody wins. (Although, as this is Korea, if I had to pick a side, it would be with the Koreans. I don’t see the expat scene in Korea get upset when they ruin a perfectly nice local hangout, which has happened more than once).
Personally, I like that there is more Korean-foreigner interaction going on these days. And gentrification is a problem that is as old as capitalism, so it does not really annoy me. I’ve seen my favorite shops move around multiple times over the years in Korea. What’s one more time?
I think it is also worth pointing out that the cartoon can totally apply to a purely Korean context, too. Korean restaurant opens, does well with good prices, gets picks up by bloggers, becomes popular, prices goes up, quality goes down, rinse repeat. You might want to add a step about how the original owners sell the restaurant for a lot, too. It happens to Korean restaurants, it happens to foreign restaurants.
All I know is, when I look around Korea, I see a lot more diversity and cool stuff going on than ever. Music, food, art, life is all really interesting here, and for each negative change, there must be a dozen positive changes. I’ll take that over some sclerotic alternative any day.
March 2nd, 2014 § § permalink
It’s been a nice stretch for music in Hongdae lately — or at least for my kind of music. So I thought I might mention a few groups I’ve seen and venues I’ve been to.
Back on Feb. 22, I caught Hwang Bo-ryung=Smacksoft and Vigulgi Ooyoo playing at Strange Fruit, accompanied by bellydancers Eshe and her troupe. While I find Smacksoft a bit uneven, when their songs are good, they are very, very good. And this particular show was a good one — capped off with a great performance of their song “Horizon.”
No pics of Vidulgi Ooyoo, sadly, but it is always good catching their post-rock music.
On Feb. 23, Mudaeruk had a really interesting show — classical music, featuring a string nonet and a few horns.
It was a pretty accessible show, featuring Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for String Orchestra, some Elgar, and Ennio Morricone. But it was well done, and the acoustics of Mudaeruk were surprisingly good for chamber music.
They also had Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Concerto transcribed for viola, which has long been a favorite piece of mine, although something you don’t get to hear very often, so that made me quite happy.
That’s Kim Won-tae playing, by the way.
Mudaeruk says it plans on making classical Sunday showcases a regular thing beginning in March, so if that sort of music is your thing, I recommend checking it out. Personally, I’m really happy to have more variety in Hongdae, and classical is especially welcomed (as Korea’s major classical venues are just too inconvenient for where I live and my work schedule).
Then last night, I was back to Strange Fruit, this time for some soul and funk. The night started with Soul Train, a group that’s been around a few years, but I had never checked out before. Dumb me. They were quite good, doing a mix of American soul classics and their own compositions. Very groovy.
And after that, Gopchang Jeongol played, the ’70s-style band fronted by the crazy-cool Sato Yukie. I can’t believe I’ve been watching Sato Yukie play live for a decade now. But he’s still plenty of fun.
Sorry for the terrible photos. But I hope they give you a sense of what the shows were like.
More music tonight, as both Club Ta and Soundholic are hosting shows for bands heading to SXSW next week…
February 27th, 2014 § § permalink
I’ve long joked that the only force stronger than “adult entertainment” in Korea is coffee. Many people over the years have tried and failed to institute moral campaigns against red-light districts, massage parlors, room salons and other vices in Korea. But once the nice, modern coffee shops move into a neighborhood, they push out all those bad things.
Turns out that it’s not just a joke. The Korean JoongAng Daily has a story today about how the number of coffee shops in Seoul have been increasing by 16.7% a year since 2008, but bars have declined by 1% and adult-entertainment facilities have dropped 2.4%.
My one quibble with the article is the continued myth that Koreans used to be shocked by the price of a Starbucks coffee. Coffee shops in Korea, even pre-Starbucks, were surprisingly expensive — and back then, most offered just instant coffee. Just because offices and universities had 100 won coffee machines doesn’t mean that coffee shops were cheap.
February 20th, 2014 § § permalink
What’s going on with all the smutty English in K-pop these days? First we had Rain’s comeback, where he sang “30 Sexy.” But, really, it sounded much more like “dirty sexy.”
Then Ga-in had her excellent new single “F*** You”. Great song, fascinating video … but still it is strange to be in a convenience store and hear this lovely voice telling me to fuck off.
And now Park Ji-yoon is back at her disco-y best (and, let’s face it, disco Park is an amazing look) with the “Soul Train”-fused video for “Beep.” It’s a fun song and Park looks amazing in it. HOWEVER, in the middle of the song, she suddenly sings “What what what what” about 50 times in quick succession, and with each iteration, the “T” increasing elides with the next words and starts to sound like “twat”. I swear, I’m not just being a perve.
The “what” part kicks in at the 1:40 mark. Anyhow, it’s an amazing video and good song, so you should check it out. You won’t be disappointed.
Since I’m mentioning music, you should also listen to the totally-not-dirty song “Paint It Gold” by Glen Check. It is just a fun, amazing tune … with a bit of MGMT, some Two Door Cinema Club, maybe some OK Go and some Daft Punk. Whatever its provence, it’s one of their best.
February 20th, 2014 § § permalink
While there is a lot to like about Korea, its economy, people, etc., there are two major issues that totally stymie it: education and real estate. They are the two biggest contributors to inequality in Korea. And they are the two areas that are completely wrapped up in their own mutually exclusive paradoxes, basically because everyone is so busy arguing over how to treat the symptoms that they do not understand the disease.
Today, real estate is back in the spotlight, as the government wants to relax anti-speculation regulations in order to jumpstart the real estate market. Good luck with that.
All this talk of Korean real estate being “hot” or “in a slump” completely misses the point because the housing market here is besieged by two contradictory needs:
- To lower prices, so apartments are more affordable.
- To keep prices rising, so the real estate market stays active.
Making matters worse, Koreans overwhelmingly use their apartment as their primary investment/savings tool, much moreso than in most countries (74% in Korea versus 42% in Canada or 25% in the United States). So to burst the bubble would ruin a lot of people.
But apartments in Korea are so expensive — the average home price is 7.7 times the average income (versus 3.5 in the United States), and that’s just nationwide, in Seoul that ratio is much worse — that rising prices would ruin a lot of other people.
Clearly, the country needs to deleverage household debt, but everyone cannot deleverage at once without causing a recession. So what is the solution? I’m no economist, but the only thing I can see would be letting inflation rise. Like in many countries these days, Korea’s inflation is persistently running below expectations, a sure sign that demand is slack. But if the country were able to get inflation up to, say 4%, then over a few years, that home price-to-income ratio could come down without reducing household spending.
Or maybe there are other solutions. But clearly, continually yo-yoing between pushing up the real estate market and then clamping down on it is a strategy doomed to fail.
February 17th, 2014 § § permalink
Ahn Chul-soo has announced the name of his new political party, “새정치연합” — or, if you don’t know hangul, “Sae Jeongchi Yeonhap.” Literally, that’s “New Political Coalition.”
But for some reason, he has decided to call his party the “New Political Vision Party” in English. Why? Was something wrong with “Coalition”? Why have “vision” only in English?
Maybe it does not matter, but after years of “Ministry of Knowledge Economy” and “Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning” (not to mention “creative economy”), I live in fear of what future administrations will bring to their ministry and policy names.
February 16th, 2014 § § permalink
I was poking around some old files the other day, when I came across an article I wrote for Billboard nearly a decade ago about MP3 players in Korea. The magazine ended up merging it with a similar story by Steve McClure about the Japanese MP3 player market, but most of my stuff made it into the published version.
Given the huge success of Samsung smartphones and other Korean devices around the world, not to mention the rise of Apple products in Korea, I thought people might be amused to read it:
The picture shows a model taking a bite out of an apple. It is part of an advertising campaign to promote the latest iriver-brand digital music player, the H10, by South Korean audio company ReignCom. The tag line is “Sweeter one.”
This ad illustrates the tough fight Apple Computer faces in Southeast Asia’s digital portable audio market.
Japanese and South Korean electronics companies are meeting the challenge posed by the extraordinary popularity of Apple’s iPod–in their home markets and elsewhere–with a new generation of portable players.
In South Korea, the primacy of flash-memory digital music players made it one of the few territories in the world where the iPod did not dominate, until this year. At its peak, in 2003, ReignCom claimed to have more than 50% of the South Korean portable-music-player market.
But like other South Korean electronics firms, ReignCom saw its market share slide when the low-priced iPod shuffle arrived.
Now these firms are slashing prices and adding features to their portable players to win back consumers.
ReignCom went so far as to run high-profile ads in local newspapers March 1–Korean Independence Day–calling for a “patriotic war” against the iPod.
“Our overall branding strategy is based on product innovation,” iriver director of brand marketing Hanna Young says. The H10 is still about $30 more expensive than the iPod mini, but it has a built-in FM tuner, color screen, voice recorder and digital-photo slide-show capability.
Joining the fray is South Korean heavyweight Samsung Electronics, which has declared its ambition to be the world’s top seller of portable music players by 2007. Samsung sold 1.7 million MP3 players worldwide in 2004 and is aiming for 5 million this year.
The whole story is here.
Strangely, though, Billboard took out my original lede, which mentioned Reigncom’s ad campaign that used porn actress Jenna Jameson. Maybe they were shy?
Anyhow, walking around Seoul these days, you can’t help but notice all the music stores. However, unlike in the 1990s, when they all sold, you know, music, now music stores mostly sell headphones and DJ equipment. So I guess young people are still spending as much as ever on the music they love, but they’re just spending it in totally different areas — in the tech instead of the content.