Tuesday 4 May 2010. Although I’m very proud of the organisation I work for – a multinational company with a long heritage – I try to keep my Korean hobby and my day job separate. But I thought that as I was in Seoul I ought to pay a visit to some of my local colleagues: one day I might need their help. So I arranged to have lunch with the local head of communications, Ms Kim (not her real name). She’s someone with a truly international outlook, having worked overseas for a European industrial company for many years. She’s now got the job of managing media relations, internal communications and corporate social responsibility for the Korean operations of the organisation I work for.
We have the normal get-to-know you conversation, and chat about the challenges and rewards of doing business in Korea. But it’s the third part of her job remit which interests me most: for corporate social responsibility includes things like art sponsorship.
One of the pleasures of running my website is the occasional off-the-wall question I get asked by visitors. When I first logged in to my email account on arriving in Seoul a few days previously I received the following random query:
“I am trying my hand at making Korean fighting kites. A friend is visiting Seoul on business in a week’s time and has kindly said he will try and get me the real thing. Do you know of the address of any shops or kite makers in Seoul where he could buy a traditional bamboo and paper Korean fighting kite, and especially, if any would speak English.”
That’s a bit of a specialist question, but while ago in London the Korean Cultural Centre had an exhibition by some of Seoul’s finest craftsmen and women – holders of the city’s intangible cultural properties. I recalled that one of the exhibits was a traditional Korean kite.
And now Ms Kim was telling me that as part of her remit she tries to support some of Seoul’s intangible cultural property holders.
Before I know it, I have the name and phone number of the holder of Seoul’s intangible cultural property number 4 (traditional kite making) together with details of an Insadong store which sells his kites, which I immediately send to my interested reader.
Job done. And I had a very nice lunch into the bargain. Thank you, Ms Kim.
We have half an hour to kill before setting off for our next appointment and so head off to the Seoul Museum of History in the Seodaemun area. It’s getting warm and muggy, and schoolboys are playing in the fountains outside the museum entrance.
Inside, there’s no time to see the permanent displays. Instead, there’s a retrospective of Kim Ki-chan’s atmospheric photographs of 1970s Seoul: the narrow alleys between the precariously built small houses which formed much of the housing stock before being cleared away to make room for the new apartment blocks which are now a familiar part of Seoul’s landscape. It’s this very area of Jungnimdong in Jung-gu, central Seoul, which is the setting of Cho Se-hui’s A Dwarf Launches a Ball, which tells the story of the lives of the ordinary people who live in these shanty areas. Kim Ki-chan’s images eloquently bring them to life: car-free alleys where children can safely play and mothers can sit with their neighbours and toddlers: a communal life which is perhaps less possible in the tower blocks which replaced them. Seoul seems to be full of felicitous coincidences: it just so happens that I’m reading Cho Se-hui’s Dwarf at the moment. And it’s good to see that in Seoul’s rapidly developing history these phases are chronicled, enshrined and remembered.