Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Author: Mark (page 1 of 87)

What country am I living in anyway?

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks at my local supermarket. Even though I live way at the edge of Seoul in a fairly desolate area, my GS Mart now has:

  • Shallots
  • IPA
  • Pale ale
  • Ricotta cheese
  • Kettle chips

It really reminds of just how much Korea has changed since I first arrived, back in the 1990s. Back then, foreign goods usually required a trip to a black market, in Namdaemun or Itaewon or Shinchon. Very few beers or non-Korean vegetables were around.

But now, even the most plain supermarkets offer brussel sprouts, a selection of cheeses and some decent beers, not to mention Vietnamese and Thai sauces. The options are really pretty wide-ranging.

Korean food has really improved, too. There are a whole bunch of good sauces and soup stocks that Korean companies offer.

But for the moment, I’m just really excited about pale ale and shallots.

Rob Ford and me

I can’t claim to have been friends with Rob Ford, the infamous former mayor of Toronto. But I did spend a little time with him back in the mid-1990s, while volunteering on a minor by-election in his family’s home turf of Etobicoke. He was always incredibly friendly and helpful and full of energy, always ready to go the extra mile to help.

For instance, a couple of times I worked late on the campaign and missed my ride, and Rob would drive me all the way to the Yorkdale bus station, cheerfully and without reservations. The drive would take a while, so we’d shoot the breeze: sometimes talking sports, sometimes family and life, sometimes politics. I remember once trying to make a conservative case for gay rights (it was the mid-1990s—pre-Friends—and such things were much less accepted then), and I said something like “Gay people don’t want ‘special rights.’ The biggest thing gay people want is not to be beaten up for being who they are.”

Rob’s response was emphatic: “I would never beat up a gay guy!”

Followed by: “You’d get blood all over your hands and get AIDS.”

So … yeah. Rob Ford. An incredibly giving, energetic guy. An incredible asshole.

Even back then he was already pretty much the same guy who became infamous as a politician. Minus the crack. His father was the patriarch, and his older brother Doug seemed to be the one heading for big-time politics. If you had told me back then that Doug would one day be mayor of Toronto, I would have believed it. If you said that Rob would one day be caught on video smoking crack, I probably would have believed that. But Rob as mayor? Not so much.

And now he has died. I won’t pretend he was anything that he wasn’t. I know he hurt a lot of people. But he was very nice to me and was fun when I spent time with him. And I suspect he may have been bipolar or had some other similar issues going on, given his substance abuse issues, wild energy swings and related problems. That doesn’t excuse the bad things he did, but I do think he deserved some understanding.

Music history keeps moving on

A couple of events recently have made me all too aware of how everything is constantly changing in Korea, including the music scene. The biggest news of late (imho) is that the best music store in Korea, Hyang Music, is finally shutting down, closing its doors on March 12.

The cosy interior of Hyang Music (this photo blatantly taken from the Time Out article... Happy to take it down if anyone is upset).

The cosy interior of Hyang Music (this photo blatantly taken from the Time Out article… Happy to take it down if anyone is upset).

Hyang opened in 1991 and was going strong when I first arrived in Seoul back in the late 1990s. Back then, Korea was full of music stores (around 5,000 is the most common number I’ve seen), with several huge Tower Records around Seoul, a huge Hot Trax at Kyobo Books, and countless small shops seemingly on every corner. But most of them died out when the music market collapsed in Korea more than a decade ago. Even Hongdae’s great Purple Records closed last year, and now Hyang has fallen, too.

Even in the heyday of the music industry, Hyang was still the shop to go to, especially for local indie music. Back then, it felt like you could keep up with most of the CDs being released by the local indie scene, and if I could find a release, I usually bought a copy. Hyang was a tiny store, but it was in such a convenient location for me, on the road connecting the Shinchon Subway Station and the Yonsei main gate (being around the corner from Voodoo Bar, my favorite hangout way back then, helped, too). I couldn’t begin to guess all the CDs I bought there.

Clubs, too, are always opening and closing in Korea. Ruail Rock recently shut its doors, for instance. One of the first clubs in Seoul that I used to go to was Master Plan, which was located in Nogosan-dong, about halfway between Shinchon and Donggyo-dong. I used to go for the indie rock music, but soon after it turned into a hiphop club, and for quite a while it was at the heart of the Korean indie hiphop scene.

Now the fine young music writer Emma Kalka has published a fine history of Master Plan in the latest Groove Magazine. It’s an excellent and informative read, totally worth your time.

I’m old and boring now, so don’t go out very music. But I don’t want to be one of those boring old fossils who complains about how much better things used to be. I’m sad to be losing Hyang Music, just as I’m sad to have lost the other music stores and clubs. But change isn’t all negative, and the music scene today is probably bigger and more interesting than it’s been since I’ve been in Korea. So cheers to Hyang and Master Plan and everyone else who has gone before. And I’m looking forward to hearing all the music that comes next.

(Cross-posted to the Korea Gig Guide).

Last snow of the winter?

It seems like most years in Korea, you get that one last big snowfall in late February or early March. And once again, the weather obliged.

Gangdong-late-snow3

Gangdong-late-snow

Gangdong-late-snow2

And an hour later:

Gangdong-snow4

 

Another new year is already underway (lunar edition)

We had a late Lunar New Year this year, coming the week before Valentine’s Day. So welcome to the year of the red monkey (丙申年). To celebrate, here’s a look at a pretty Seollal sunset through a dirty subway window.

seoul sunset

For reasons I do not quite understand, my old post about Hongdae coffee shops from 18 months ago appears to be getting more interest. But of course, being Korea, 18 months is a long time, and most of the post is now out of date. So if you’re looking for good coffee in Hongdae, check before going anywhere.

In particular, Coffee Me is gone, having shut down last summer. Cafe Belief still exists, but it has moved to the Hapjeong area, behind the Mecenatpolis

Anthracite has apparently had some issues with its workers, but they seem to have solved those problems are going strong still. Yri and Jebi are still good, too, if you’re in the Sangsu area. On the Donggyo side of Hongdae, Gabia is still your best bet (imho), and Cafe Libre in Yeonnam-dong.

Anyhow, happy lunar new year.

 

Another new year is already underway …

Hard to believe we’re nearly halfway through January already. I hope you’ve had a good 2016 so far. My year started out with a bit of madness as I attended CES, the big consumer electronics showcase in Las Vegas, for the first time. In fact, it was my first trip to Vegas. Not really my sort of town, and I was swamped with work, but overall it went okay.

Vegas - ces 2016

Perhaps I’m most happy about it all because I actually got some decent work done on the flights for once — 3,500 words written on my sequel to Young-Hee & the Pullocho during the two big flights. Being productive always puts me in a better mood.

At this point, I guess the sequel is about halfway done. So still a lot more to go. Plus I have another novel that I’m supposed to get done this year.

Never enough time to get everything done. But hopefully I’ll have more for people to read before too long.

CES2016-prep

CES2016

 

Christmas Pullochos

So I was checking out the Kyobo Gwanghwamun store today, and in addition to stationary, toys and presents, it actually sells a lot of books. Who knew?

What’s more, when I was walking around the foreign language section of the store, I came across an interesting fantasy book on display:

Pullocho - Kyobo
Yep, there had several copies of Young-Hee & the Pullocho. Nice to know the book is not only in stock, but actually visible. Yay.

Here’s another view:

Pullocho - Kyobo2

Maybe it’s a small thing, but it still picks up my spirits to see my books in a store. Especially such a big, flagship bookstore like that Kyobo.

Anyhow, 2015 is nearly over, so a big thanks to everyone who bought one of my books this year — whether it was Young-Hee & the Pullocho, K-Pop Now or Pop Goes Korea. And an extra-big thanks to everyone who took the time to rate or review them, too, whether on Amazon or Goodreads or anywhere else. It’s so nice to know that people are reading something I wrote and enjoying it.

K-Pop Now popping up the charts again

Is K-Pop Now some kind of stocking stuffer? Because in the last couple of weeks, its sales ranking has risen noticeably over on Amazon. And I know I haven’t been doing any marketing or publicity.

Weird, but most appreciated. Once again, K-Pop Now is the No. 1 book on Amazon for Popular Dance, and it’s up to No. 28 for Travel -> Japan. Why Japan Travel? I have no idea. Maybe that was the categories my publisher entered.

(Hey! Over of Amazon.ca, K-Pop Now is doing even better, and is the No. 7 book for Travel > Japan. Again, weird, but appreciated).

Anyhow, I think it’s wonderful anytime anyone buys one of my books. Thanks much, mysterious Internet people.

Oh, and if you are looking for more books as stocking stuffers, might I humbly suggest Young-Hee & the Pullocho

Trudeau and Korea, part deux

Given that Canada has just elected another Trudeau to be Prime Minister, I thought it would be fun to revisit this blog entry I wrote a couple of years ago on Chun Doo-hwan’s visit to Canada in 1982.

I re-watched the video a couple of times and, sadly, there’s no signs of a young Justin Trudeau. But I hope you might enjoy it nonetheless…

* * *
ORIGINAL FROM HERE:

I just came across this Daehan News feature about South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan visiting Canada in 1982 and thought some people might get a kick out of it.

Chun, of course, came to power in 1980 (officially), following the assassination of Park Chung Hee in 1979 and the short-lived presidency of Choi Kyu-ha. It was a pretty dicey time for North-South relations, so Chun probably needed all the legitimacy he could find.

There’s a short New York Times article on his visit here.

Just to give an overview of this video:
0:00 – Leaves African leg of his trip
0:05 – Ottawa and Parliament buildings (“Canada is a peaceful country,” says the narrator)
0:31 – Chun Doo-hwan and his wife Rhee Soon-ja disembark their plane. Greeted by Edward Shreyer
1:13 – Rideau Hall for official reception
1:31 – Prime Minister’s residence for some garden party
2:01 – Choppers to Montreal to meet with Korean War veterans
2:45 – Back to Ottawa for an awkward-looking meeting with Pierre Trudeau

Not mentioned in the video (unsurprisingly) is the assassination plot to kill Chun during his visit. Choi Jung-hwa, a son of the International Taekwondo Federation founder and North Korea-friendly Choi Hong-hi, had been living in Mississauga at the time. The younger Choi allegedly tried hiring a couple of people to kill Chun while the South Korean president was in Canada. But apparently that plot was broken up months before the visit — Choi went into hiding in Europe for years before returning to Canada and spending a year in jail.

There’s more about Choi and his return to Korea in the JoongAng Daily, including the great news that  North Korea disguised its agents as taekwondo masters working for ITF and dispatched them abroad. Given that I studied taekwondo at an ITF gym while in high school, it makes me wonder if I could be a sleeper agent.

Listen to me on Monocle Radio

I had a short segment on the very cool Monocle Radio a couple of weeks ago. You can listen to me talking about Young-Hee & the Pullocho, Korea, children’s stories and stuff like that.

Many thanks to Jason Strother for making the interview happen!

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