Return to Seoul

The final installments of LKL’s trip to Korea at the beginning of May

Saturday 8 May 2010. We are back in Seoul in good time. At the start of the week, I hadn’t known what my Sancheong schedule was going to look like: my friend Kyung-sook had managed to secure an extra day or so for me there, diverting me from a side-trip to Sunchong on the coast of Jeollanam-do, but what precisely I was going to be doing there was going to be left to the local guide. So I didn’t know whether it was sensible to arrange to meet up with anyone in Seoul on my last night in Korea.

Rakkoje
Rakkoje Hanok Hotel

It soon became clear that I was going to be back in the metropolis safely in time to meet someone for a beer or two, so I resolved to see if I could get in touch with any potential victims to foist myself on. Fortunately the lodge where we were staying on our last night in Sancheong County had wi-fi, and I started to write emails to see who might be at a loose end on a Saturday night in Seoul.

RakkojeBefore I could write my second email, I got a response to my first: Charles Montgomery, blogmeister of the Korean Literature in Translation blog. I had a date.

I arrive at my Seoul overnight stop at around 4:00pm: plenty of time to settle in, get round the Park Soo-keun exhibition at the nearby Hyundai Gallery, and then make my 6:00pm appointment with Charles.

The overnight stop is supremely peaceful: the boutique hanok hotel Rakkoje. It’s tucked away in a back alley in Bukchon, in between the Changdeok and Gyeongbok Palaces. Hidden behind some high gates, the hotel has small, intimate rooms set around a secluded courtyard. It’s hard to believe that you’re in the heart of Seoul. The only sounds you can hear are distant dogs barking and the usual sounds of humanity in the neighbourhood. No traffic is audible at all.

There’s a pleasant balcony outside my room, with a low table at which I sit with a cup of tea and take a rest before I set off for the evening. Rakkoje is certainly a beautiful place to stay, a place to leave the clutter of the modern world behind.

Rakkoje

The ajumma asks me if I want breakfast in the morning. I have a think, but in the end I decide I’ll just wander into the neighbourhood to get myself a coffee and bun at one of the many coffee shops in the arty area: come Sunday morning I’ll be wanting to ease my way back into a more Western lifestyle to smooth my transition back home.

The ever-popular Park Soo-keun

Arriving back in Seoul, there was just time to check out whether Hyundai Gallery’s marketing spend on their Park Soo-keun blockbuster show was justified. Park is a safe bet in the auction room, often selling for $400,000 in the US and occasionally breaking new highs – at one point Park held the record for a Korean painting at auction – around 4.5 billion Won. This exhibition marked the 45th anniversary of his death.

Park Soo-keun
Park Soo-keun, 우물가 (1953) 80.3 x 100cm

The images are domestic, nostalgic and of an immediately recognisable style which is all Park’s own – he was self taught and thus did not follow any particular school of painting. His work spans the 1950s and 1960s up to the time of his death in 1965. The images of women at a market place, or people simply sitting under a tree, hark back to an imagined time of innocence before the Korean War and the Japanese colonial period scarred Korea’s 20th century history. There is never much motion in Park’s paintings. Even the painting of four dancing nongak gong-players looks static, albeit with a certain jagged energy. Presented in profile, they recall the paintings on Egyptian tombs. The portrait of a woman pounding grain does not show the hard labour involved, but rather conjures up the woman’s long and patient life. In fact, in most of Park’s paintings there is a sense of waiting for something that may never happen.

The colours are muted, in simple rustic ochres and earthy tones, and the rough texture of the oil is reminiscent of Buncheon pottery. Most of the time the blurring of the image adds to the fond sense of nostalgia, but sometimes the obscuring of detail is self-defeating: the painting of girls playing with jackstones could easily be titled Women Sitting, as indeed are so many of his other paintings, because the stones cannot be picked out in the coarseness of the grain.

Possibly the most atmospheric paintings are those which suggest a journey is taking place – women walking along a road flanked with forlorn and bare winter trees. Park’s trees normally seem to be bare, but occasionally a happy exception is presented – for example a magnolia in full bloom was another favourite of mine.

Unlike the Kang Ik-joong exhibition which closed a week beforehand, Hyundai was charging admission for this show. Park Soo-keun is always popular with Koreans, though, and the 5,000 Won price tag was not deterring the visitors. And the limited edition prints at the front of the gallery priced at up to 300,000 Won seemed to be attracting the punters. It was worth a visit as an opportunity to see a generous collection of Parks in one place.

The Korean Literature Project

Charles Montgomery, who came to Seoul two and a half years ago and teaches in the English Interpretation and Translation programme at Dongguk University, started the Korean Literature in Translation blog earlier this year. The site has rapidly secured its place in the blogosphere as an interesting and focused source of information on Korean Literature.

In a recent poll of popular Korean blogs run by the website of an English-language Korean lifestyle magazine, Charles’s blog amazingly came second. Amazingly, because you don’t normally expect any site with a tinge of learning to come anywhere near the top of an online beauty parade.

I’ve arranged to meet Charles at Anguk Station, my favoured meeting place more often than not. Into the bargain, his wife Yvonne is there. We find a coffee shop, and as it’s hot I have an iced coffee. We talk about blogging, about the difficulties of making Korean literature accessible to foreign readers, about hagwons (a favourite topic among the Korean blogging community, many of whom teach English in these private crammers), and about Romanisation. The relative merits of the different systems for transliterating Hangeul can always be counted on for generating a lively discussion in academic circles, and is equally relevant when talking about national branding: how can you present a consistent message to foreigners when there is no one single accepted ideal transliteration system? Not for nothing was the spelling of “makgeolli” a subject of conversation over dinner on my first evening in Seoul.

We’ve left the evening’s arrangements open – after all we might not hit it off. But things seem to be going just fine, so we move on to the area behind the Sejong Arts Centre to find something to eat. Montgomery tells me about his new project: the Korean authors Wikipedia project. He has rightly identified a yawning gap on the web: while Japanese authors seem to be well-represented, there’s pretty much no online information about Korean authors available in English. So his project, with the assistance of some of his students, is to get some basic biographical information about some of Korea’s most important authors up there on the web. The project is due to be launched the week after my visit.

What better way to spend your last night in Seoul than sitting on the floor in a homely samgyeopsal joint, chatting with new friends and drinking the occasional beer and soju? The TV high up on the wall is playing the latest drama or quiz show, and the owner’s three-year-old daughter is wandering around the restaurant in her pretty pink dress and pigtails looking cute, a flower painted on each cheek. And yet again, I somehow fail to get anyone to accept any money for all the food I am eating. Thanks, Charles.

Chonggye Lights

The Return home

Sunday 9 May 2010. I am now perfectly used to sleeping on the floor, and I sleep really well. I put the well-designed and highly compact washing facilities to good use and start organising my bags. The boutique-sized rooms are not designed for the amount of clutter I have with me. And my suitcase is not designed to accommodate all the information brochures, exhibition catalogues and gifts I have gathered during the last seven days. Still less can it cope with all the cardboard in which Hadong’s finest tea is wrapped. There is soon a large pile of paper and packaging overflowing from my waste basket.

It’s a pleasant morning and, after squeezing everything I can into my suitcase, I head off into the spring air to find myself a coffee. That’s not hard in Bukchon – plenty of western-style coffee shops selling your favourite drink at eye-watering prices. I sit in the window with my cappuccino and muffin, and flip through the pages of the Korean edition of Vogue. Probably the most popular woman in Korea right now is Kim Yu-na, the rebranded Kim Yeon-ah, Olympic figure-skating champion. She has a multi-page spread modelling some classy outfits by fashion designer Lie Sang-bong, whose style is instantly recognisable because of the Hangeul calligraphy. It’s nice to have a last insight of the latest goings-on in the world of Korean celebs before I have to head off back to the hotel for my car to the airport.

As I approach the hotel I discover that the concept of a Considerate Contractor scheme, such as makes the constant road and office construction work less unbearable in London, has not arrived in Seoul yet. With a military precision which would have flushed the partisans out of Jirisan in a jiffy, a road repair team have simultaneously sealed off both ends of my alley with piles of tarmac, bulldozers and heavy rollers. The thought of working from one end of the alley to the other so that local residents can get access in or out did not seem to cross their minds. Down to earth with a bump. Yes, Korea has many attractions to offer, wonderful food, scenery and culture, but every now and then you get a rude awakening. Not enough to stop you wanting to come back though.

The drive to Incheon is uneventful apart from the tar sticking to my shoes. I’m sad to be leaving my new friends Morgan and Yoseph behind, and sad to be leaving Korea. As usual the passage through emigration is swift and I’m soon in the duty free area looking for last minute gifts for family and work colleagues. At the shops run by the Cultural Heritage Foundation they are doing a brisk trade, with travellers diligently making traditional Korean hair ornaments. The comments left in the guest books indicate that this little activity is very much appreciated by visitors as a last experience of Korean culture before getting on the aeroplane.

I buy a little pendant for my wife, and find some rice-cakes to take to the office, and soon it’s time to go to the gate where I bump into a couple of familiar faces from London.

I went to Korea with two main objectives: to see the Jongmyo rituals, and to see a part of Korea I’d never been to before. Meeting up with old friends and making new ones is always a natural adjunct of such a trip.

Having planned on experiencing, in Seoul, Korea’s first intangible heritage listing at UNESCO (the rituals themselves) I had not expected to come across, down in Sancheong, the most recent listing – the Donguibogam medical textbook. I had experienced Korea’s best kept secret (its green tea), met Korea’s most distinguished gayageum player, and stayed in one of its most special temples. I had got more insight into how Korea preserves and presents its traditional heritage and tries to keep it relevant for modern audiences. I had gone to areas seldom visited by westerners (the Sancheong Medicinal Herb Festival, and Sancheong Country generally, is not on the tourist trail) and also been to, and enjoyed, a couple of classic tourist attractions (the Yongin Folk Village and the fusion musical at the Chongdong Theatre). I had seen how Seoul is transforming itself through design, and seen how an ancient king eschewed design in his own lasting memorial. I had experienced some of Korea’s vibrant contemporary art scene, and down south I had experienced an infinitely slower place of life, where the land and the seasons are the most important things.

I’m always surprised when people don’t “get” what Korea has to offer as a holiday destination. Maybe it’s because it has almost too much to offer. I certainly never have enough time when I’m there to do everything I want to do. Which is good, because it means I have to come back again.

Park Soo-keun at Gallery Hyundai, 6-30 May 2010

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