Book review: J Scott Burgeson — Korea Bug

by Philip Gowman on 11 August, 2007

in Book Reviews, Books on traditional culture, Choi Jeong-hwa (최정화), Lee Bul

Korea Bug coverJ Scott Burgeson: Korea Bug
Eunhaeng Namu, Seoul, 2005
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A recent article in the JoongAng daily about a foreigner in Seoul who hasn’t made himself popular with hypersensitive and volatile Korean netizens introduced me to a gem. Burgeson, a foreigner who has been in Seoul since 1996 is one of the more unusual expats out there in that he takes an interest in the local culture, to the extent of having set up his own ‘zine — a home-produced, street-vended amateur magazine covering, well, just about anything the author feels like. It’s a sort of heavyweight, hard-copy blog. And in Burgeson’s case it made a point of trying to engage with and explore Korean culture, particularly those elements which seem unusual to a foreigner.

The zine was called Bug, and the current book is a personal selection of some of his meatier articles.

It’s the sort of stuff you can’t find in some of the more serious cultural books out there. You’ve heard of that famous tailor in Itaewon — U.S. Kim, the one who’s made suits for President Reagan? The Bug interviewed him before he retired, and a fascinating story he has. Ever been interested in what a shaman does? The Bug has interviewed one, and we get the low-down of the bitchiness in top shamanistic circles. A kisaeng? A fortune-teller? Been there, done that.

Read this collection, and you’ll find yourself becoming interested in things you never knew existed. How about Yi Paksa, King of Disco Ppongtchak? After reading the Bug’s interview, I’ve just got to track down the classic album Shinparam Yi Paksa! (신바람 이박사!), which sold between 1 and 10 million copies, depending on who you believe.

Some of the time, Burgeson’s enthusiasm gets the better of him. A fifty-page introduction on the history of expat zining in its various manifestations could easily have been half the length. And in the concluding chapter, an internet email discussion between current and former expats about the existential imperative of transcultural engagement, some of the participants are so far up their own fundaments that they sound as if they are auditioning for the part of that hippy dude in Northern Exposure who talks rather too much on the local radio station. But overall there’s a huge amount to enjoy. There’s an interview with Hong Sang Soo before he became famous, plus (female) directors Im Soon-rye (임순례 – Three Friends) and Byun Young-joo (변영주 – The Murmuring, Ardor). An interview with artist Choi Jeong-hwa when he was young and cool, and taekkyeon master Lee Yong-bok, who comes clean about the fact that taekwondo is really just a recent derivative of karate1.

Each chapter has a rambling introduction, never less than readable and sometimes with some fascinating snippets. Like how he would have liked to have re-published his interview with artist Lee Bul — but she and her legal advisers are now far too important to have anything to do with a lowly zinester. This little story is totally believable given her unwillingness to co-operate with the recent BAKS article on contemporary Korean artists.

Jesus is baptised by Jeon the Baptist, watched by the local yangban

Other gems? A feature on the collection of paintings unearthed in North Korea depicting Jesus performing miracles in Chosun dysnasty Korea; and a chapter on totally weird books written by foreigners about Korea — such as the one claiming that Koreans are really a lost tribe of Israel. Or that Koreans are in fact descendents of colonists from ancient Greece.

While there are a few dull moments, the best bits are so good that this book deserves a straight five stars. It’s a collection which is well worth searching out, for those interested in the zany, the bizarre, the Korean.

Links:

Scott Burgeson - by Jeong Chi-ho in the JoongAng Daily


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  1. Or is it just that he has to say such things as master of a more ancient art? I await the hate mail from TKD fans. But before you hit “send” check out this article in the Chosun Ilbo.
    Taekwondo or Karate? []

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