On an overcast February afternoon in 1991 my Korean Airlines flight landed at the dreary Gimpo Airport, and I first set foot in Seoul. The rice and vegetables in a bowl that was accompanied with a toothpaste tube full of red-hot paste had simply been mysterious.
The Koreans’ clothing looked quaintly like something out the early 1970s. The ties looked garish and the collars were enormous. The women had spread on thick mascara and wore dresses in bright solid colors that jumped out at me. The Seoul landscape I saw from the air was dominated by flat concrete surfaces punctuated by rapidly erected five-story buildings.
I had been living in Tokyo as a graduate student for four years, enjoying that pulsating metropolis at the height of the Japanese bubble. I saw smartly dressed Japanese gathering late at night in the posh restaurants that lined Aoyama Boulevard, speaking in excited tones about their new global dominance.
Tokyo seemed more visually adventurous to me than even American cities. The coffee was tastier, the conversation more animated. By contrast, Seoul was not even on the map for me. From all that I had heard, I imagined Seoul to be a more primitive dark twin of Tokyo, a place where students in red bandanas fought with police in the streets and where politicians fought with each other in the National Assembly. Korea as a whole was mentioned only occasionally as a footnote in contemporary international politics.
And the Korea I knew from textbooks of East Asian studies like “East Asia: Tradition and Transformation” (edited by the deans of Asian studies at Harvard Edwin Reischauer, Albert Craig and John Fairbank) was presented as little more than a slight variation on Chinese cultural themes.
To be honest, I would never have climbed aboard that plane bound for Seoul if I had not been invited by my Yale classmate Woo Chan Lee to attend his wedding in Seoul. Woo, an ambitious Korean American who had a remarkable ability to entertain and engage anyone and everyone and had studied Japanese as an undergraduate, was both a close friend and a rival back then in our salad days.
He had even bigger plans for his future than I did for myself. We had studied Japanese together in Japan after graduation, spending many nights out drinking after those long hours practicing language drills. Woo had gone on to study Korean language at Yonsei University in Seoul recently, where he had met a thoughtful young Korean woman and fallen in love.
The Gimpo Airport that welcomed me to Seoul was the epitome of Asian functionalism with a twist of modernity. Like other such facilities thrown up in the rapidly built metropolises of Asia, such as Taipei, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, its hurriedly designed terminals suggested a desperate rush to leave behind an agricultural past and embrace an industrial future based on images of “advanced nations” like the United States seen in glossy magazines.
But when I boarded a shuttle bus and headed into Seoul by the highway, we passed massive piles of untreated garbage populated by flocks of seagulls. Although such dumps no doubt existed in Tokyo or New York as well, normally they are placed carefully out of sight of motorists.
I was taken aback, and a little bit intrigued by the brash and unvarnished zeitgeist that reached out and grabbed me in this percolating city.
Seoul kept me on my toes. I found myself clutching the seat in front of me as the taxi
wove recklessly between overloaded trucks on the boulevards of downtown Seoul. This city was rougher, grittier, and simply ruder than Tokyo where I had lived for four years.
Tokyo had a certain understated elegance and a rigorous demand for quality that had impressed me. I noticed places where the concrete was not poured carefully in the corners of the stairs in Seoul, something that I had never seen anywhere in the rather obsessively engineered environment of Tokyo.
Over the course of the three days I spent in Seoul, however, I noticed hints of another city that lurked just beneath the surface, a city with a certain understated majesty.
The wedding party stayed at the Westin Chosun Hotel near city hall. This modern hotel stands on the site of its previous incarnation, a massive Romanesque building from the colonial period with a soaring porte cochere facing the street. But there was nothing left of that past to be detected in the carefully appointed interior.
Fortunately, I had the time to stroll outside by myself for a few hours and explore the streets in the bitter cold. I walked past the open-air carts surrounded with low metal stools where Seoul residents gathered to feast on stuffed intestines, flour dumplings floating in red seas of hot-pepper broth, flat bread with a core of burnt sugar, and that unique dish consisting of ham and vegetables rolled in rice and held in-place by a skin of pressed kelp known as “kimpap.”
I came to appreciate a different, but equally compelling aesthetic behind the boxy lettering employed in signage in the city, and in the garish solid reds and oranges found in the advertisements on the sides of buses There was a certain buzz in Seoul, a certain uninhibited vitality I detected in the open markets where older women haggled over blouses and socks, that drew me further into it.
Although the main north-south boulevard, Sejong-ro, was flanked by bland concrete structures, of which the United States Embassy was perhaps the ugliest, I wandered off into the back streets behind the Western facades and discovered the “golmok,” or alleys, where an occasional “hanok” traditional house with its elegant walls of white plaster sliced into rectangles by aged wood boards. These houses have a simple elegance, displaying a refined sense of asymmetry and balance that draws the viewer in.
Through the cracks in the impressive wooded gates of some of these older houses I glimpsed hidden gardens with a natural balance of human structures and the natural environment that reminded me of the best of Song Dynasty architecture _ and suggested a different Asian lineage than the precious Japanese gardens and meticulous bonsais of Tokyo. The lack of care for these mansions did not diminish their beauty.
After a few hours of wandering through the city, I started to feel hungry. I knew that there were restaurants and grocery stores to be found in the basements of Tokyo’s big department stores like Mitsukoshi and Isetan, places where you could spend several hundred dollars on a perfectly grown melon to give to your boss as a new year’s gift.
And I found a close equivalent in the basement of the expansive Lotte Department Store. But when I sat down at one of the restaurants selling a variety of dumplings and tempura-style fried meats and vegetables, I discovered something quite unexpected. The middle-aged women wearing carefully pressed grey dresses with their hair up in perfectly round buns beneath neat white caps, served up the food and engaged me in a conversation such as I had never had in Tokyo.
Of course I could only speak a few words of Korean at the time, and was busy thumbing through my hangeul script explanations. But the three middle-aged women, known as “ajumma,” took a great interest in me and my studies.
I was accustomed to Japanese women in stores speaking to me in tremendously polite tones. But this exchange was different. They used the whole gambit of English, Korean and Japanese words, plus facial expressions and written words to express a true interest in what I was doing and why I was there. They were interested in me, not in what they thought I represented.
I had discovered a humanistic warmth, a personal concern for others that one associates with villages and small communities lurking there in the middle of an enormous city. Appearances in the Lotte Hotel were not as perfectly polished as in Tokyo, but there was an honest affection in the voices of those women as they patiently explained the dishes to me.
Korea had been subject to the Sae Ma-eul (New Village) movement of the 1970s that had wiped out much of traditional village life. But somehow you simply cannot take the village out of Seoul.
Seoul was transformed into a sprawling concrete metropolis during the 1970s and 1980s by policies dictated from above by a veritable “construction industrial complex.” But although Seoul does not have the immediate aesthetic appeal of Paris or Vienna, there is an intimate chain of villages, woman making kimchi in enormous vats laid out in the courtyard, or gossiping about weddings and high school exams while setting out persimmons to dry on strings hung from the roof.
I could sense from the kind words of the women serving in the restaurant, from the consideration shown by the taxi drivers, and from the sympathetic engagement I had with the busboy at the hotel about the content of the headlines, that something powerful was lingering beneath the surface of this city.
And then I stumbled on the Wongu-dan Altar, a compact octagonal pavilion with three layers of tilting eaves that stands with a certain understated dignity in the small courtyard of the Chosun Hotel. The style was reminiscent of late Imperial Chinese court architecture, but is less ostentatious, more self-sufficient meditative in its character.
This altar to heaven clearly was not simply a pale copy of something in the Forbidden City, but rather a clue concerning another subtle tradition that had been largely buried in the rapid rush to modernize Seoul.
My antiquarian proclivities were stirred up by this relic and I was soon engrossed in the laconic English explanations presented on a bronze plaque set up to the side of this obscure pavilion. I learned that the Wongu-dan Altar (Celestial Mound Altar) was built by King Gojong in 1897 as a space wherein the “emperor” of Korea (as he had upgraded his status from “king” in a desperate to preserve Korea’s cultural and geopolitical status in an age of ruthless colonial expansionism) could commune directly with heaven without paying any tribute to the political big brother China.
Emperor Gojong meant to re-establish the rite of heaven, once practiced by kings of the Goryeo dynasty, and bring back a new cultural confidence to Seoul. After all, the ceremony had been briefly re-established, from 1454 to 1464, by King Sejo of the Joseon Dynasty. But thereafter the Joseon Dynasty had broadly accepted the cultural authority of the Chinese Ming Dynasty, which had been established just 24 years before, and accepted a tributary status.
Who was this “Emperor” Gojong, and why did he try to transform Korea from a kingdom into an empire through the construction of this altar? Why did his father reconstruct the Gyeongbok Palace, which had been in ruins on the north side of Seoul since the Japanese invading forces torched it in 1592, in the late nineteenth century?
I had driven past these palaces at the start of my visit, but only at that moment did I start to understand that Seoul was not solely a product of the rapid development of the 1970s and 1980s (in the sense that Taipei or Manila were), but rather is an imbricated masterpiece first designed in the 1390s, long before Edo (the modern Tokyo) was ever planned. That deep structure of Seoul remains vital to the present.
The main boulevard that runs north-south from the Gwanghwa-mun Gate in front of Gyongbok Palace was laid out in the late 14th century, and served to carry down the flow of “qi” from the Bugak-san (“North Peak Mountain”) that rises up behind the palace, and the mighty Samgak-san (“Three Horns Mountain”) behind it, down through the city proper.
When I gazed on this boulevard now, the Jong-no, after that encounter with the Wongu-dan altar, I could sense the historical contours that lay beneath the city surface. Although the Japanese had razed the Gwanghwa-mun Gate and built in its place the austere and self-important colonial governor’s offices as a way of breaking off that flow of “qi” and disrupting the Pungsu (Feng-shui) circulation, the spirit of the ancient city was still palpable.
I could sense the vitality of the ancient capital seeping up through the asphalt, concrete steel and glass as a walked along. I would learn later that some streets in Seoul date back to the 10th century, a fact about which modern Seoul residents are blithely unaware.
And then I found myself back in Seoul in 2011, 20 years later, not as a tourist, but as a resident with my children attending a Korean school, and experiencing all the hassles and challenges of working until late at night with the ajeossi (middle-aged men) and commuting on packed subway trains in the morning.
I witnessed a Seoul, once a minor city in the world, rapidly evolving into a cultural, educational, financial and political capital at a rate so fast that my peers in the U.S., and even Koreans themselves, cannot keep up.
The Seoul that once offered only instant coffee mixed large doses of sugar at its coffee shops (dabang) now is covered with cafes, some of which offer the best coffee to be found on this side of the planet. Art galleries are popping up like mushrooms across the city, often in rather ho-hum neighborhoods that do not appear at first glance like they could support such ventures. I am constantly surprised to find galleries featuring subtly ironic artworks flanked by the quotidian dry cleaners and grocery stores. I have never seen a city quite like that.
For that matter, one finds world-class graffiti in some places around Seoul, and odd tiny posters (2×2 centimeters) with cryptic glyphs and images showing up here and there suggesting a vibrant creative underground just beneath the surface of the highly conformist culture of similarly dressed businessmen and housewives living in virtually identical 20-story apartment buildings.
This goes in spite of what is said about Seoul’s mind-numbing education system that produces unimaginative workers and the world’s third-highest suicide rate. But at the same time Seoul is home to some of the most creative rappers, energetic dancers and innovative classical musicians to be found anywhere.
There is something so mysterious about the Seoul phenomenon, about how a dynamic form of cultural production springs out of this landscape of bland brick villas and skyscrapers designed with about as much concern for aesthetics as the semiconductors for which Korea is famous. Even as Seoul rises in its global prominence, most Koreans themselves, let alone foreigners, are simply unaware of how much cultural vitality Seoul displays.
And in recent years, Seoul’s cultural development has gone into overdrive. If I had said that Seoul was on its way to being the world’s cultural capital 10 years ago, I would have been silenced by laughter. Today, although such a remark remains a bit premature, the rate of change is astonishing.
For example, whereas Korea was overrun with Japanese “manga” comics 20 years ago and the government felt compelled to limit their import, over the last five years Seoul has emerged as a Mecca for the burgeoning webtoon (internet comics) industry that has rolled back that tide in Asia, and is making inroads around the world. This development came when comics in Korea were thought to have been completely marginalized.
In just the last five years Korea has emerged as a major player. For example, the media giant Daum launched the webtoon Misaeng, which describes the claustrophobic interpersonal relations within Korean corporations, focusing on the banality of everyday life and the struggles for survival in a corporate culture.
The story concerns a young master of baduk (or “go” as it is known in Japanese) and has become immensely popular. The author Yoon has created a thriving webtoon hub in Seoul. When I featured Misaeng on my blog “Circles and Squares,” I received the most hits in the five years that I have run it.
For that matter, the kind of expatriates who show up in Seoul has changed dramatically over the last four years.
Whereas 20 years ago the typical foreigner was a G.I., a missionary or an English teacher, and they wandered around only in Itaewon near the U.S. military base, Seoul today is home to writers, artists, entrepreneurs and scientists from around the world who have come in search of the opportunities this city offers. Many testify to the vitality and the flexibility of Seoul’s culture and the potential to be found in the city just beneath the surface.
The Haebang Chon (Liberation Village) neighborhood not far from the U.S. military base has had its share of expats over the last 40 years. But the base itself is moving down to Pyongtaek City (an hour south of Seoul) and the new artistic cafes and stores popping up there, including a makkolli (traditional rice wine) bar with dozens of organic vintages to sample, are now populated by an expat community more akin to Haight-Ashbury in 1980.
My fellow expats constantly complain to me about the narrow-mindedness of Seoul’s residents, expressing frustration about being constantly asked if they like kimchi, or when they will go back to their own country. But as frustrating as the insularity of some Koreans may be, most foreigners here are trying to figure out a way to stay long-time.
Seoul even offers some hidden jewels. For example, the Korean Kent International School is not an imitation of an American school set up for those visiting Korea, but rather a remarkably innovative school that has combined learning and social awareness as part of a broader program for increasing the meaningfulness of education. Kent International is much more original and vital than its peers in the U.S., and suggests a more complex cultural evolution here.
There is a certain buzz in the culture of Seoul. I had a friend from New Zealand who lived here many years, but had to return home for family reasons. He complained constantly about life in Seoul and the insularity of Koreans, but continued to email for years afterwards asking if there might be some way he could get back.
The excellent metropolitan subway trains are filled with young girls wearing intriguing outfits from punk to glam that they have clearly spent hours perfecting. The limbic pop songs of Psy and Girls Generation, and the young people who dance in perfect synchronization with them, draw you in whether you want to or not.
The small stands selling homemade clothes designed by high-school students around Hongdae (the area around Hongik University) suggest a vitality in the popular culture that is simply bubbling over.
Yet the draw of Seoul goes much further than the food and the fashion. Seoul has reached a critical mass in an intellectual and institutional sense as well. In my own field of Asian Studies, I cannot think of a city anywhere else where you can find so many experts in Chinese, Japanese and Korean studies in such close proximity.
And the body of expertise in chemistry, engineering and the biosciences is also at least on a par with any other major city. If Seoul does not have as many Nobel Prize winners as New York or London, it has large population of highly qualified experts in everything from wafer fabrication to cancer treatments and supercomputing, often working for less than their peers in other big capitals, despite having unmatched skill-sets.
That know-how is matched by the remarkable high level of education and dedication to be found among the civil servants in Seoul’s city government and the broad range of NGOs running welfare, education and cultural programs. This goldmine of expertise in Seoul has had much to do with its sudden upsurge in reputation.
My college classmates know Korea primarily from the television series “M*A*S*H*” (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) that we watched as children. That ’70s sitcom related the exploits of rowdy medics serving at a US military hospital in rural Korea; Uijeongbu (slightly North of Seoul, to be precise).
The series was immensely popular with Americans back then and raised awareness of Asia overall. The Koreans who appear in “M*A*S*H*” however, are almost without exception illiterate peasants who seek out the paternal attention of the American doctors. Odd as it may sound, many Americans still have this picture of Korea frozen in their minds.
It is true that Americans have trouble understanding just how complex and sophisticated a city Seoul has become because of the paternalistic framework in which we understand America’s relationship to Korea.
At the same time, Koreans have trouble telling an accurate story. The typical narrative given to visitors is that of the “Miracle on the Han River.” This fantastic tale relates how, although Korea’s per capita income in the early 1960s was below that of Haiti, Ethiopia, and Yemen, thanks to a remarkable work ethic, a commitment to education and rapid industrialization the region along the Han River, which divides Seoul between North (Gangbuk) and South (Gangnam) took off in a dizzy path of rapid growth, leading to the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and Korea’s current status as a manufacturing powerhouse.
But such a narrative, although fantastic, purposely underplays the sophistication of Seoul as an intellectual and political capital since the 14th century, and Korean exports of then-advanced technology since the eighth century. It also ignores the Korean traditional values of governance and education, and the other distinctly Korean cultural elements that underlie such success.
Oddly, the best of Seoul is often invisible to visitors; we are directed rather to the glitzy department stores of Myeong-dong and Apgujeong. I suspect that Seoulites simply want to show us how modern Seoul is, with its ubiquitous wifi and expansive broadband, modern skyscrapers and lightning-quick KTX trains.
But in the blurred scenes of an advanced and convenient Seoul, the best back-streets, galleries and other alternative spaces are hidden away. Many visitors come away with the impression that Seoul is a big modern city not unlike Bangkok, Osaka or Shanghai.
But after living in Seoul for four years I can testify that Seoul has something to it that you will not find in any of those big cities. The city features a critical mass of novelists, poets, painters, sculptures, movie directors, professors of literature and philosophy, graffiti artists, rap dancers, punk bands, calligraphers and geneticists that you will not find in Singapore or Taipei, Hong Kong or Bangkok.
Moreover, whereas trends in fashion, cosmetics, music and dance started in Tokyo and then radiated through Asia, these days Seoul has become ground-zero for the concentric cultural disruptions that push culture forward throughout Asia. Koreans not too long ago mimicked Hollywood and Tokyo films, but today it is rather Park Chan-wook ‘s 2003 classic Old Boy that was reworked by Spike Lee in 2013 in an American context. Similarly Kwak Jae-yong’s My Sassy Girl (2001) was remade by Yann Samuel in 2008.
But what exactly is the power that drives Seoul’s cultural dynamism? The architecture seems bland compared with most great cultural capitals, and even compared with Shanghai and Beijing. Average Koreans are remarkably uncreative in their clothing, and their cuisine, although delicious, is rather narrow in range. But the quality of industrial design at Samsung just keeps getting better, as do the paintings in Gangnam’s galleries.
Seoul’s cultural vitality is often explained in terms of Korea’s rapid economic growth and its strong emphasis on education. The first supposedly provides the wealth and the infrastructure required for its burgeoning; the latter is presented as the foundation for the city’s intellectual and cultural sophistication.
Although this explanation is not wrong, it does not explain Seoul’s vitality and unpredictability. Perhaps it is rather the contradictions and tensions within Seoul itself, the frictions between two different conceptions of community, economy and society that animate this distinctive cultural ecosystem.
The results are often startling. When one walks through one of Seoul’s older neighborhoods lined with dingy brick three-story buildings and peppered with uniform grocery stores and dry cleaners and an occasional karaoke bar or noodle restaurant, suddenly one stumbles on an avant-garde gallery, or a fruit stand with strikingly expressive hand-painted shelves that delight the eyes.
In the simplest sense, the culture of Seoul can be divided into two competing traditions that alternatively oppose each other and play off of each other, thereby producing hybrid cultural spaces across the city.
On the north side is the “Gangbuk Style” of old Seoul, the family-run markets and neighborhoods huddled around narrow alleys that retain some aspects of the old city. But Gangbuk means more than simply ‘old Seoul.’ It also is a term that covers innovative efforts to create alternative schools, social enterprises, collaboration between working people, artists and writers, and a broad range of independent art and music production.
Gangbuk literally means “north (buk) of the Han Rivers (gang), the great body of water that effectively divides the city into two distinct regions. Gangbuk refers to what was the entirety of Seoul before the rice fields and orchards to the south of the Han River were developed in the 1970s as part of a major push to make Seoul a modern city.
The “old city” districts are, of course, not all that old. The downtown area may be old, but many of the buildings, including one palace, were burned during the 1592-98 Japanese invasion, known as the Imjin War. What was built thereafter was largely replaced during the Japanese Colonial redevelopment of the city during the 1920s and 1930s. And then the 1950-53 Korean War destroyed most of the city as it switched hands four times during its first year.
However, it was perhaps the redevelopment projects of the 1970s and 1980s that have done the most to transform the city completely. Oddly, the old city that attracts artists and poets is made of the old stock of housing from the 1960s and 1970s. Seoul is an old city, but the surface is remarkably new.
Gangnam refers to the half of the city south of the Han River. This brash upstart swath of districts was built up from nothing in the 1980s and 1990s, an enormous real estate development that brought an American consumer world of highways, apartment complexes and fast food stores to a Korea striving for concrete manifestations of its newfound economic prosperity.
The “Gangnam style” made famous by the singer Psy in his eponymous hit song can be found in the expensive imported automobile showrooms, pricy restaurants and coffee-cafes, and exclusive clothing and shoe stores that line the magnificent Rodeo Street.
The Gangnam style of Seoul is driven by a ruthless consumption and pursuit of dreams; it is a place where money can be converted into status within the rarified space of the Hyundai Department Store.
Gangnam style has a tremendous lure even for those who frown on it from their modest shops in Gangbuk. It was, after all, a consumer rebellion against the focus on self-sacrifice and diligence that had so dominated Korea in the period of rapid development from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Gangnam’s upstart culture bloomed on the southern banks of the Han River in the 1980s and 1990s, offering the promise of an escape from the claustrophobic culture of traditional Korea, a space where those with money can pursue their vision of the American dream, customized to the needs of a new elite that shuttle back and forth between the bulgogi barbeque restaurant, the hakwon (Korean-style cram-school) and various cafes in luxurious cars.
Gangnam shares certain characteristics with Dubai, or with Los Angeles County (an area much admired by many of the developers behind Gangnam).
Gangnam is the land of the possible, of the success of excess. The irrepressible vitality that oozes up from the concrete and out of the air conditioners creates a palpable buzz. But it is an urban space that has no history, where elaborate restaurants and cafes decorated with exotic plants and marble fixtures are constantly opened and closed in response to shifting tastes.
The uninhibited and spontaneous approach to life that Psy details is seductive, but is inseparable from the plastic surgery clinics that cover Gangnam, especially the Apgujeong neighborhood where an enormous number of women (and increasingly men) try to create new faces and bodies to meet the harsh gazes of their fellow citizens. Gangnam is above all an empire of surfaces and appearances.
If you want to understand the ferocious education competition that dominates the lives of Korean youth, Gangnam is ground zero. The children who spend most of their days studying at the hakwon (cram schools) of the legendary Daechi-dong district of Gangman grow up virtually alone because of the constant demand to study and the competitive culture of their schools that makes friendship with other students near-impossible.
The bridges over the Han River are known for their high rate of suicidal jumpers, and more than a few despairing children throw themselves from their apartment towers. Seoul has one of the world’s highest youth suicide rates. Gangnam is perhaps more fascinating for those tourists who wander through it than it is for those who are actually caught up in it.
But Gangbuk Style and Gangnam Style no longer refer simply to geographical locations. The massive apartment complexes laid out like circuits on a motherboard are springing up in Gangbuk as well, as are the chain cafes and expensive boutiques. Similarly, there are corners of Gangnam where small groups try to create alternative spaces, their own Gangbuk in the heart of ‘enemy territory.’
The deep code of Seoul
Almost 11 million citizens live in a sprawling concrete settlement within the outer belt Highway 100, services with the best IT infrastructure available and serviced with outstanding delivery services for soups and box lunches. But Seoul is much more than what is visible on the street.
Seoul may have been the capital of Korea since the end of the 14th century, but it has emerged as a hub for trade, finance, technology and manufacturing on a massive scale only in the last 10 years.
China’s rise as a primary player in the global economy, coupled with the economic and cultural shift to the East, have swept Seoul up to the peak of a wave. Seoul’s streets are now packed with wealthy Chinese tourists, and businessmen from across South Asia and central Asia, who seek out in it a new vision as to what the modern could be.
Seoul is headquarters to massive global players like Samsung, LG, Hyundai and POSCO, diversified corporate networks that reach into the farthest regions and deepest recesses of the global economy.
Although there may be some in Berlin or Paris who do not know whether Samsung is a Korean or Chinese company, in Asia, there is no doubt as to the global reach of Korea’s corporations. For many in this region, Seoul is now more significant in business and finance than London, New York or Tokyo.
Seoul floats on top of a global trade system that generates immense wealth through the products of its factories around the world, the logistic networks and construction projects around the world.
Just as Norway maintains such luxurious shops even in small towns because the oil from the North Sea assures a constant flow of cash, so also Seoul is powered by deep pockets of a globalized Korean economy. No other country has put so much effort into pursuing free-trade agreements and expanding its trade volume over the last 10 years. Korea’s major free-trade agreements with India, Europe, the U.S. and China have transformed Seoul into a center for trade, finance and business meetings.
Seoul’s culture has multiple contradictory level. For example, although the city is well known for its citizen demonstrations against government and corporate excesses, it also has a deeply conservative military-style cultural current flowing beneath the surface.
The administration of the city, and even of NGO groups that protest on social issues, reveals a military culture in terms of organizational structure and discipline. A rigid sense of hierarchy and seniority is to be found everywhere in Seoul’s culture.
Perhaps part of this culture can be attributed to the fact that all men serve in the military for two years and follow the strict imperative of following orders as part of their habits. Just go to the post office to see how a group of highly efficient employees (often women) handle everything while a senior administrator sits in his chair in the back idly checking his messages.
As Seoul’s citizens hustle to solve problems in a creative and pragmatic manner, they often seem to be following the military dictum they learned during their service to “just make it work.” Even in city hall, a military-style discipline can be sensed beneath the surface.
Although the subway system is run with the rigor of the Korean military tradition, Seoul has its share of disorder, unpredictability and spontaneity.
The impressive discipline one sees in service at restaurants, in the women who clean the office buildings and subway stations with a distinctive passion is just one side of Korean culture.
Seoul residents enjoy a bit of disorder, a certain chaos, in their routine that permits for spontaneous developments and unexpected turns. The city’s streets are planned with an unrelenting order that is reminiscent of the military culture, but the city also is rife with oddly designed streets, or the poorly spaced windows or tiles on walls, that suggest a fluidity in the city that runs in opposition to the rigorous command-based administrative system.
The recent cracked walls and sinkholes that have sprung-up surrounding the massive Lotte World Mall in Jamsil hint at problems in construction in Seoul born of a relentless drive for profits and thoughtless consumption.
All this is coming out just as I wanted to tell my friends how well-run Seoul is! Perhaps it might be better to suggest that Seoul is a combination of multiple cities, multiple communities, that go far beyond the Gangnam and Gangbuk division.
Part of Seoul is run following the very highest standards; yet other parts, within the same organizations, suffer from the worst forms of cronyism and sloppiness.
Therein lays the mystery of Seoul: it is an odd mixture of the flexibility and spontaneity associated with developing nations with institutional sophistication ― in the sense of following carefully formulated plans and abiding by laws and regulations ― of a developed nation.
Wandering around Seoul, it often seems as if you can catch a glimpse of Shenzhen and Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur and Munich all in the same block. The street venders who serve up rice paste in kimchi sauce, the poor who collect objects from the trash for recycling, and the small factories lining the back streets where women bow over machines to sew uniforms for nurses, have much in common with Hanoi or Manila.
But the department stores and corporate headquarters that feature gadgets and conveniences not to be found anywhere else in the world suggest that Seoul has not only caught up with the West, it has surpassed it on multiple fronts.
I have witnessed many odd meetings in Seoul wherein fossilized expats complain vehemently about how poorly Korean companies are run, lamenting the lack of professionalism in organizations while at the same time they enjoy some of the best infrastructure and services in Seoul to be found anywhere.
Seoul’s emergence as a world capital has been in some respects covert, never quite attracting the same attention as Singapore or Dubai.
At the same time, it would be foolish to dismiss such criticism. Seoul is after all a tale of two cities, and it has been plagued by serious problems in construction. The most noted disaster was the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store in 1995, a residential apartment that had been haphazardly remodeled as a department store.
When the structure went down, after its owners had fled in the last few hours after seeing cracks in the wall, more than 500 people were killed. Many Seoul people recalled that tragedy when they saw recent reports about deaths of three workers during construction of the Lotte World Mall and the appearance of cracks in the walls in parts of the department store and aquarium that have been opened to the public.
It is the weird mixture of efficiency and inefficiency, sophistication and naivete that makes Seoul so compelling. The metro train system is world class, and most of the construction is too, but many details are overlooked in Seoul’s forward plunge into an imagined modernity.
Seoul is the product of the super-impression of different cultural traditions on top of each other in a short time, making both the habits of its citizens and the layout of its streets and alleys multifaceted and puzzling.
At the start of the 20th century the city was more like a series of villages, often with direct ties, through the transport of produce and family relations to the rural communities outside of the defensive walls. Unlike Paris or London, Seoul had literally no buildings more than one story high except for the royal palaces.
Rather, urban life in Seoul mirrored perfectly the communal activities and ritual gatherings of the countryside, forming a rhythm in the daily life of cooking, cleaning, washing clothes in the streams that crisscross the city and fabricating dry goods. Most homes were wooden with thatched roofs, although the homes of the yangban gentry and royalty had heavy tile roofs supported by a massive central beam made from a single tree-trunk.
For that matter, the palaces themselves were quite human in scale, quite in contrast to the Chinese imperial structures they were modeled upon. Seoul before the 20th century embodied the Confucian virtues of restraint and modesty to a far greater degree than Beijing or Tokyo. Moreover, the Neo-Confucian philosophy of the Joseon Kingdom put an absolute value on concepts and principles, suggesting that material possessions were not significant.
Many Confucian scholars, even at the height of their political power, saw it as a great virtue to live an outwardly simple life, pursuing abstract concepts of virtue and loyalty in their writings about the “four books and five classics” while seated in their small scholar-dens surrounded by ancient scriptures and poetry, with a lovely view out the window.
This faith in the metaphysical remains a critical part of Korea. Perhaps Koreans’ ability to imagine themselves as a shipbuilders or car manufacturers even when they had almost nothing to live on was essential to their economic development. Koreans can be convinced of the value of a goal entirely on the basis of abstractions.
The next stage in Korea’s development was the Japanese Colonial period, 1905-1945, an age of forced marches to rapid development, and the wholesale importation of Japanese habits and institutions that threatened to obliterate Korea’s traditional culture, or at the least reduce it to a quaint bit of old lore appropriate for a museum exhibit.
The Changgyeong Palace, for example was transformed into a botanical garden and zoo by the Japanese. The 1929 Korean Exposition (Chosen Hakurankai) turned the entire city into a park, a delightful place for Japanese tourists to lose themselves. The Sa and Jik Altars to the west of Gyeongbok Palace, that had served as the location for all important rituals associated with Korean governance, were transformed into Sajik Park, a nice place to walk your dog. Only in 2015 were the word “park” finally replaced with “altar.”
Although buildings from the 19th century require a bit of hunting to find, colonial period houses and storefronts are common, especially in the back alleys of Gangbuk. Some of the more attractive older buildings (for Westerners) are the neo-Victorian villas built by Japanese during the colonial period.
After 70 years, the city’s layout still owes much to the Japanese colonial project; the administrative habits of elementary schools, local governments and post offices retain the imprint of the colonial project.
And then there are the poorly constructed concrete apartment buildings and shops built between 1952 and 1975 that are most often in a sad state of disrepair, memorials to the painful process by which the city was rebuilt after the Korean War. Few of these often flimsy buildings have much architectural distinction. They were the site for small markets and crowded apartments that sprang up in profusion after the Korean War.
here are examples like the Boan Hotel (Boan Ryeogwan) in which such buildings have been lovingly transformed into attractive spaces, but in most cases they are in disrepair. Koreans tend not to put much effort into maintaining older buildings, preferring simply to tear them down.
Seoul underwent a massive rebuilding in the 1970s when the American dream of a modern city of high-rise buildings connected by highways held sway. The mayor of that time, Kim Hyun-ok, known semi-affectionately as “the bulldozer,” set out to tear down Seoul’s old neighborhoods and replace them with massive modern buildings. Overpasses were constructed over rivers and the trees that lined Seoul’s boulevards were sacrificed so that a few more lanes could be added.
This approach to the city was a product of the overwhelming influence that the U.S. had on Korea at the time. The automobile, which had been designated as the important export product to drive the Korean economy, placed tremendous pressures on Seoul that completely reconfigured it. Koreans, in contrast to Japanese, often insist on driving large cars that do not fit into the alleys of old Seoul.
Seoul of the 18th century had several broad avenues arranged at right angles that dominated the landscape, but the back streets were a maze of twisting alleys. Mayor Kim, however, aimed to eliminate all previous housing completely and replace it with large complexes of eight to 10 stories.
Whereas Seoul citizens had lived along the alleys of the old city and knew each other intimately for generations, a new city emerged in which people knew almost nothing about their neighbors. Apartments were sold to families by construction firms as the buildings were being built, and many Seoul people came to think about the home in the same terms they thought about an automobile: a standardized and predictable product sold as a complete unit by a large corporation.
Seoul retains manufacturing to a remarkable degree, especially in the North (Gangbuk). The alleys behind the large boulevards are lined with small factories that produce garments, bags, furniture, sportswear and electronics. The small restaurants between these factories are filled at lunchtime with workers who file out of large rooms that are filled with sewing machines or other machinery in the back streets.
Part of Seoul’s culture can be traced back to the remaining vitality of actual manufacturing in the city. This very local economy forms a counterweight to the overall Seoul economy based on global trade, assuring a degree of cultural diversity. The city government has promoted local manufacturing through its policies and highlighted the manufacture of shoes and clothes within the city. Such manufacturing is struggling, however, due to an aging population and completion from extremely cheap imports from China.
Seoul is both an agglomeration of many little villages, real and imagined. At the same time, it is a cold and unforgiving metropolis.
On the one hand Seoul has more green space than most any major city with its numerous mountains covered in trees and the wide fields on either side of the Han River. On the other hand, the streets of most of the city are crowded with buildings and have few potted plants, let alone trees, to be found anywhere.
Seoul is a densely packed urban forest of concrete, glass and steel that can be deeply alienating, and has resulted in one of the world’s highest suicide rates.
But at the same time, Seoul people have a close sense of camaraderie and they put enormous effort into building and maintaining close relations with those they work with, or those to whom they are tied through family or school relations.
You cannot do much of anything in Seoul without working with other people. You must get 10 bosses and associates to sign off on paperwork for even small projects at work. You are compelled to meet constantly with classmates from high school, parents of your children’s friends, buddies from military service or those who passed the civil service exams at the same time that you did.
It is a critical virtue to maintain ties through actual meetings. Although the need to actually meet in person consumes an enormous amount of time, it also contributes to the human aspect of Seoul. People in this metropolis are talking constantly to people, forming little virtual villages within a landscape that is quite distant from any village.
Perhaps Korea’s rapid urbanization has led to this sense of village; after all, farm life is not that far in the past.