Korean culture gets more mainstream (and what it means for LKL)

by Philip Gowman on 31 July, 2017

in About LKL, Opinion

A week or so ago Time Out, London’s leading event listings magazine, asked its readers to recommend their favourite Korean places in London and New Malden. I passed it on to the LKL Facebook Group without giving it much further thought, vaguely interested that the survey was in progress, interested also in the knowledgeable responses the post was generating, and also determined not to post my own favourite place (and source of as far as I know the only home-made makgeolli in London) for fear it would get even more popular.

A few days later, while in a reflexive moment, I wondered why I hadn’t reacted with more excitement. When this website started over 11 years ago it would have been seriously worthy of note that such a reader poll was being conducted. Korean food was a distinctly minority interest and certainly was not covered in the generalist press. Was it that I had become more blasé about such things, or is it rather that things Korean have, over the past decade or so, become less niche and more mainstream – and less in need of coverage by a specialist site such as LKL?

John Torode

John Torode’s Korean Food Tour on the Good Food Channel

My thought process broadened out. A decade ago, in a similar vein, it would have been startling news that some 12,000 people had registered to attend a Korean cultural event at a conference and exhibition centre in West London (the London Korean Festival). Or that a screening of a black and white Korean movie from the 1960s (Shin Sang-ok’s It’s not her sin) screened to a full house. Or that a western celebrity is presenting a 10-episode series on Korean cuisine on TV (John Torode’s Korean Food Tour).

That all these things happened in just one month – this month – now hardly registers. A month, by the way, in which a Korean author launched the English translation of her metafictional novel (Han Yujoo’s An Impossible Fairytale) at an event that was ticketed, not free; in which a Korean music festival was launched in the company of British jazz promoters and venue owners, world music journalists and London-based musicians planning to collaborate with visiting Koreans; in which a Mayfair gallery was very happy to host an exhibition of work by Korean ceramic artists (one of whom is on the gallery’s roster, and two of whom were in the U.K. on a residency programme). A month in which Selfridges has a range of Korean cosmetics in stock. A month in which a generalist magazine such as the Economist covered an exhibition of Korean veteran avant-garde artists from the 1960s and 1970s, two of whom were present at the opening. A month in which a group of strangers can get together have a heated discussion about a 100-year-old Korean novel (Yi Kwang-su’s The Heartless). A month in which we can look forward to a screening of a Korean summer blockbuster only a week after it is released in Seoul (Taxi Driver), and eagerly anticipate no fewer than twenty Korean performance troupes visiting to entertain us in Edinburgh.

Han Yujoo talking about An Impossible Fairytale

Han Yujoo talking about An Impossible Fairytale with Deborah Smith and Houman Barekat on 10 July (photo: Diya Mitra / diyaonkorea.com )

I could go on. But almost that’s the point. I could, but I haven’t – because I’ve published maybe a couple of reports on the above events, but nowhere near the volume I might have posted in the past. I have several half-written articles, but when or if they will see the light of day I’m not sure. And I’m not sure whether the reason why I haven’t posted yet is that I’m getting slower, or that I want to write in more depth than before and don’t have the time, or that a lot of it just isn’t new or surprising any more.

Also, I’m not sure when it stopped being astonishing that there was a serious market for K-pop in London. I was surprised back in 2012 when Big Bang sold out Wembley Arena two nights running, but it no longer surprises me when someone in the office tells me that his teenage daughter is a big fan of BTS. The gradual rise of Korean cuisine has been imperceptible, but now it’s almost a surprise if a street food market does NOT have a Ko-Mex fusion stall or a kimchi slider joint alongside the Peruvian or Keralan curry stalls.

Opening of BIGBANG Galaxy show

The Big Bang Galaxy tour comes to London in December 2012

How did this happen? Government money and the programmes organised by the Korean Cultural Centre is obviously part of the story. Government money can pay for bands to come over to the UK, but it can’t do much to build the audience – nor can it pay for people to learn by heart the lyrics of their idols’ songs. Government money can pay for novels to be translated into English, but it can’t make people read the things, or (one hopes) persuade juries to award an international literary prize. I have my own ideas as to how all this happened, which may in due course be the subject of a series of articles.

But for the moment, in my self-reflexive mood, I’m more interested in the impact it’s having on what I write about. When I started this site back in 2006 it was partly a personal diary of my encounter with Korean culture in London (and insofar as it is possible to experience it from London). As things Korean become more mainstream and less remarkable – at least to me – it is only to be expected that I am less interested in writing about them. That’s why my posts have become less frequent, whereas a few years ago I used to make sure there was at least one post per day. That’s why I occasionally put out a request for guest bloggers, for people who are at an earlier stage in their Korean encounters than I, to provide a fresh personal perspective – requests that usually elicit little response, maybe because, actually, Korean culture simply is now more mainstream and generally less remarkable.

London Korean Festival 2017

A boy band entertains the crowds at the London Korean Festival, 8 July 2017 (photo: KCCUK)

What does this mean for the future of LKL? For a start, I’ve no plans to close it any time soon. I’ve outlived several sites and I plan to outlive a few more before I hand over or shut down. More importantly, though, there’s still plenty to keep me interested. I might not want to report on everything I encounter, or even go to every event that is on offer (I skipped the big 2017 London Korean Festival, for example). But there are still remarkable books being translated, ground-breaking films being produced, and talented performers to enjoy, as well as a wealth of culture-related tourism to experience. LKL as a public diary of my encounter with Korean culture is still a valid proposition, and I’m quite happy to host other writers who might also want to share their own encounters too. Plus, it’s still the site of choice for those who want a listing of Korea-related events in London. I might be slowing down as I get older, but there’s life in me yet.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Han EJ Karmy July 31, 2017 at 9:12 am

Dear LKL,

“There’s life in me yet”! LKL is the site which Koreans and Koreanists need to dip in to get the context and history of London Korean culture. I toast for a 만세 (lit. ten thousands years of age) for LKL as LKL is the site I went for when I appease my homesick sentiments from the dark winters night from the suburbia existence.

If anyone stands where I am, one would be appalled and shell-shocked what the perception of Korea is to the ‘common’ suburbia as it often begins from non-existent and then jump to the N. Korea. Nothing in between! Hence I hope LKL continues as it gives light to many isolated Koreans and Koreanists. It is a history of London Korean culture! Thank you LKL. Han from Selsdon

Matthew Jackson July 31, 2017 at 8:13 pm

Philip. You’re not shutting down. Sorry – just, no. You are the London Sillok historian, a lifetime office that cannot be renounced. On pain of death. I made up the last part.

Philip Gowman July 31, 2017 at 11:10 pm

Not yet anyway!

Philip Gowman August 1, 2017 at 8:37 am

Thank you for your words of support EJ! No immediate plans to give up yet. But you might have noticed that the value-added / original content has been less frequently posted over the past year. I’ve probably arrived at a sustainable level for the moment.

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