LKL has been online for 10 years, and during that period I have been asked the same questions a number of times. Here are many of those questions, and the answers. Jeon Sung-min of the Euro Journal asked many of them back in 2008, and the answers haven’t changed much since then, but there are some new questions, including some asked by the JoongAng Ilbo in their recent interview.
How did you become interested in Korean culture?
I first became interested in Korean culture in around 2000. Before then, I’d had contacts with Korea through work. One of my favourite clients in the late 1980s was an investment manager specialising in Korean stocks. Through that client relationship I got to know some of the big company names – in the days when LG was still called Lucky Goldstar. Their fund was always expanding because the Korean market was booming, and whenever they issued new shares I had to review their share offering document which had loads of interesting information about this unfamiliar country.
Then in the 1990s one of my specialities at work was helping overseas banks establish their London operations. It was the second wave of the internationalising of the Korean banks, and I ended up working with banks such as Korea Housing Bank, Industrial Bank of Korea and Hanmi Bank. That was when I had my first poktanju.
So already I’d had a bit of exposure to Koreans, but then in the late 90s I became interested in Asian films, and at the time the most interesting movies were coming out of Korea. Finally, quite by chance I had a Korean hairdresser and we ended up swapping film and music recommendations. Through her I met an increasing number of Koreans in London, and started getting more interested in the culture and history.
What was the first Korean movie you saw?
To be honest I can’t remember. Among the first were Im Kwon-taek’s Chunhyang, Jang Sun-woo’s Lies, Hur Jin-ho’s Christmas in August, Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle and Bae Yong-kyun’s Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? A pretty random mix. The first two that really grabbed me were E J-yong’s An Affair and Bae Chang-ho’s Jeong. I saw both of those in 2001 at a Korean Film Festival in London.
What made you start the blog?
Once I had become interested in Korea, I pursued my interests through watching films and listening to music, and I read a lot of books: books about Korean history and society, and translated and diaspora fiction. I also discovered that there were lectures and academic conferences you could go to, organised by SOAS or the British Association of Korean Studies (BAKS), so I went along to those when I could. I joined BAKS and the Anglo-Korean Society (now British Korean Society) and went to as many events as I could.
After five years of this, there was a lot going around in my head and I needed to let some of it out. I wanted to be able to tell people: if you’re interested in Korean film, these are the ones you should watch. If you’re interested in other aspects, these are the books you should read. So I decided to put together a website that was really a brain-dump of my five years of reading, watching and listening, recommending some of the best books and movies. It also provided links (hence, in part, the website’s name, London Korean Links) to other sites such as Korean newspapers or places you could find information such as film reviews or where you could buy DVDs. It was intended as a sort of 101 for someone coming to Korean culture afresh who might want some advice on where to start.
I also hoped that the site might function as a way to bring together people interested in Korean culture (hence again the “Links” in the title). The idea came to me at the beginning of February 2006, and after a couple of weeks feverishly writing the content and researching how to set up a website, London Korean Links went online on 1 March 2006.
Did you expect the blog to keep going for 10 years?
Not at first. Initially the site was very static. But I soon found that I was updating the homepage regularly with new things – a review of a book that I’d just read, or an interesting bit of news. It started to become a diary of my ongoing encounter with things Korean. I was also updating it for details of Korea-related events in London: at the time Koreans weren’t very good at publicising their events on the web and they were therefore missing out on a potential audience. So my website soon became a central source of information about such events. And because I was updating it so often I had to move to a blogging platform: what I started with was basically Powerpoint uploaded as html, which was no good for an active website.
Over the years I realized that maybe the site could become like an archive, for example documenting the exhibitions of the various Korean artists working in London. I was finding that galleries would close and other websites would shut down, leaving no online record that an event or an exhibition had been held. That increased my determination that London Korean Links should keep going, and I also asked the British Library to archive the site’s pages.
Will you still be here in 10 years?
I’m not sure I can look that far ahead. Certainly when I started I had no particular thought for the future. But I can’t see myself running out of steam yet. Assuming the internet is not too different from what it is today, and assuming I can keep up with any changes, LKL will still be here. But I hope that by then there will be an obvious successor to take it over from me.
Have you ever thought of giving up?
I’ve never thought of giving up, though over time my interests have changed, and maybe I’ve got a little slower in my writing. Also, my objectives have had to change. Ten years ago there wasn’t that much going on, and it was realistic to hope to write about all the Korea-related events that happened in London. Now, with the growth in interest in Korean culture that has happened over the years, that would be impossible. I can’t keep track of all the events, let alone write about them. People occasionally contribute guest articles, and it would be nice to have more contributors. But many people who might contribute are probably running their own blogs already.
You must make loads of money through advertising?
Over the ten years, Google advertising revenues have covered under 20% of my webhosting costs. Similarly, YesAsia and Amazon affiliate revenues have contributed under 2% to my cost of buying contents such as books, DVDs and CDs. Then of course there are the other costs: hardware and software, tickets to events (only rarely are there press freebies available), travel in UK and Europe, and travel to Korea. It’s difficult to draw a line between costs that are directly related to the website and money that I spend just because I’m interested in Korea. But one thing’s for sure: this is not a money-making operation. I deliberately don’t put advertising front and centre as that would spoil the feel of the website. And I don’t have time to keep up with the world of celebrities, so I don’t get the traffic of a mainstream hallyu site.
How do you have the time to maintain the blog?
There’s never enough time. I could quite easily spend most of my waking hours on it – reading, writing, and keeping up to date with correspondence. But because I have a full-time day job I can only do it in the evenings and weekends. So I do as much as I can in the time available, and have a permanent and ever-growing backlog of things I want to write about. I just have to prioritise.
What is your favourite Korean cultural content?
Well, I’m not your typical hallyu fan because I don’t really follow K-pop and I don’t have time to watch TV dramas. Maybe once I stop work I’ll have time to catch up on some of the drama series that everyone has been talking about, such as Misaeng and My Love from the Star. Or reach for my boxed sets of Sandglass and Winter Sonata.
Probably as a consumer of Korean culture I spend most time reading translated fiction and trying to keep up with the visual arts scene. I don’t have much time to make inroads into my pile of unwatched movies, but I make sure to go to as many of the London Korean movie screenings as I can, especially if the director is present to answer questions.
Who is your favourite movie director and what is your favourite film?
I’ve loved most if not all of E J-yong’s films, but especially An Affair which I find overwhelmingly beautiful. Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder and Im Sang-soo’s A Good Lawyer’s Wife are also at the top of the list.
Do you have a Korean wife / girlfriend?
No. My wife is English. She loves Korean food and really enjoyed meeting garden designer Hwang Jihae and helping a little with her award winning garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. But other than that she is very tolerant of the way I spend my time because she does not follow Korean culture.
What have been the most interesting or memorable moments during your blogging journey?
The thing that means most to me is all the new friends that I have met: artists, performers, writers, academics, bloggers and more, Korean and non-Korean, in both Korea and elsewhere. That couldn’t have happened without the website.
In respect of content for the blog, the highlights have been meeting and interviewing so many people I admire so much, such as musicians Hwang Byung-ki, Won Il and Nah Youn-sun. I also look forward to the annual London Korean Film Festival which is organized by the Korean Cultural Centre UK as we always get to meet the directors and actors who visit. And we were particularly lucky in 2014 when Korea was the market focus at the London Book Fair. It was great to get to meet some of the country’s most celebrated authors and hear them talk about their work.
I was also lucky to have a trip to Korea in 2010 sponsored by the Ministry of Culture – we agreed the programme in advance they gave me an interpreter and a driver so that I could visit the places I wanted. The schedule included the Jongmyo rituals and I also went down south to Jirisan for the Sancheong Herbal Medicine Festival and the Hadong Green Tea Festival. The Ministry published my travel diaries as a book: Royal Ancestors and Ancient Remedies.
Most of all, I’m thankful that people seem to find the site useful. Through it, I’ve met so many fascinating and wonderful people – both Koreans and foreigners. And I’m thankful that my wife doesn’t seem to mind too much about my crazy Korean interests.
Will you be writing any more books?
I’ve written a companion piece for Royal Ancestors entitled Mountain Medicine Land and Grain. It’s already posted on LKL. It would be nice to get it printed, but that requires a budget.
What has been the most off-the-wall thing that has happened?
The contact form often brings some interesting requests for assistance. Probably the most unexpected was the query that arose in my first year, asking for Korean poems referencing Che Guevara. The obvious go-to person on this was Brother Anthony, who was good enough to translate two peoms by Min Yeong and Ko Un for inclusion in an anthology of Che in Verse, which was published some months later.
You’re goodwill ambassador for Sancheong County. How did that come about?
I think they liked what I wrote about them in my book! It has been such a great honour, and it’s nice to have a connection with such a beautiful part of the country. I try to go there every year and was present at the opening ceremony of the World Traditional Medicine Expo in 2013, and was lucky enough to cut the ribbon at the ceremonial first ringing of the temple bell at Beopgyesa on Jirisan in 2014 – I think it must be the highest temple bell on the peninsula.
How often do you try to go to Korea?
I try to go once a year for about ten days. I schedule my visit to coincide with a festival or an event I want to go to. In past years I’ve come for the Tongyeong International Music Festival, the Sajik Daeje and Gangneung Danoje. In between events I try to meet with friends or go to art museums and interesting places such as UNESCO heritage sites. I’m gradually working my way through the Joseon dynasty royal tombs. Ten days is never enough, but it means that at the end of my stay I always want to come back.
What aspects of Korea or Koreanness attracts you? How would you compare Koreanness with Britishness?
When I come to Korea I always try to experience some of the culture and heritage and improve my knowledge, but more important than that is spending time with Korean friends and meeting new people. I find Koreans incredibly warm-hearted and generous in sharing their time and experiences with me. I think that Koreans who come to London for a couple of years, such as students or company employees, must find it difficult making friends here because British people tend to be more private and reserved. One day I’ll get around to learning the language so that I don’t have the language barrier, but until then I’m grateful to all my Korean friends for tolerating this rather odd foreigner.
What are your aims for the next 10 years?
I’m pretty happy with the website as it is, but as Korea changes and the internet changes the website will have to have to change too. I just hope I’ll be able to keep up with it all.