Everything Belongs To Us- book review

I like to read novels set in Asian countries, such as India, China, Myanmar, and even Malaysia. Now I can add South Korea to that list after having read Everything Belongs to Us, a coming-of-age novel about three young Korean university students in Seoul living under military dictatorship in the late 70s back when the country was still poor. I reviewed it for the Asian Review of Books, which forms most of my post below, with a few slight changes.

South Korea was not always a prosperous, democratic and cutting-edge country. In the seventies, it was poor and ruled by a harsh authoritarian regime desperate to catch up with the West while cracking down on any form of public dissent. 

Namin, Jisun and Sunam are students at Seoul National University, the best school in the nation. Graduation means an almost guaranteed life of lucrative employment, connections and advancement. For Jisun, the daughter of one of the country’s richest tycoons, this life of privilege is exactly what she hates. But for her friend Namin, the daughter of street-food vendors, it is everything, though not for purely materialistic reasons. In between is Sunam, who desperately wants to climb the school’s social ladder by becoming a member of the Circle, a campus secret society. He soon falls for Namin and starts dating her. But their relationship becomes complicated as their contrasting backgrounds and ambitions clash.

The students’ personal struggles take place amid stark societal problems such as violent factory worker protests, a clandestine Christian activist network trying to agitate for workers, and the sad fate of Namin’s bitter older sister who leaves her factory job to work in a red light district and gets pregnant by an American GI who later leaves her. The latter brings the starkness of poverty to the fore, especially when she then leaves her baby with Namin’s sister. These disparate elements are not explored very deeply but mesh together to form a subdued background. Sometimes, it seems as if too much is going on and some plot elements such as the Circle are introduced then discarded; the narrative might have benefited from a tighter focus on the more central elements.

The settings vary from Namin’s working-class sparse home to Jisun’s ultra-wealthy household, but they are still subject to the same forces that dominate society. Under President Park Chung-hee—the father of the recent female president who was just impeached—South Korea is a rigid, conservative nation that has forsaken personal liberties for economic growth and prohibited dissent. While Namin is constrained by these stifling norms, Jisun actively pushes against them. All this works to create an intriguing story, especially as it is never apparent whether Namin or Jisun will prevail in their respective challenges.

The historical context is notable, not just because it is a particularly precarious time during the country’s economic development, but also because there are very few English-language novels set in South Korea and not about the Korean War. As such, the novel provides a welcome glimpse into a country that is still not that well-known or portrayed in the West except for its electronics brands.

Wuertz’s female protagonists are strong and driven; but the male characters, however, are flimsy and superficial. Sunam has little going for him, other than being a good player of baduk, also known as go. It is unclear why both main female characters are drawn intently to him and at times, this mars the storyline. Other male characters, such as Juno, Sunam’s supposed mentor, and the American missionary, Peter, play a very minor role or act mostly as a foil for Jisun. In fact the latter starts off as a love interest for Jisun, but by the end is reduced to begging her for money for a legal case.

The more memorable male characters are minor ones such as Namin’s brother whose cerebral palsy caused him to be sent to be raised by their grandparents in the countryside, and Sunam’s controlling, tycoon father. The former is a major reason for Namin’s incredible drive for trying to advance herself at school as she has a dream of getting rich and buying a large house that she and her brother can live in.

Nevertheless, Namin and Jisun are compelling characters that deservedly soak up most of the attention. Together, they drive a worthy literary debut in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

South Korea travel · Travel

Seoul’s impressive museums photo roundup

Here’s a photo roundup from Seoul’s great museums – the National Museum of Korea, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Arts and War Memorial (military museum). This is the last of my Seoul travel posts so that’s it for South Korea for now.

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There was a display of military uniforms and equipment for the 16 nations who contributed troops to help South Korea.
An opera tenor sings for one person, in this case the child on the seat, while other people watch

South Korea travel · Travel

Seoul travel- city sights

Crossing the street from Gyeonbokgung palace takes you to Sejongno (also known as Sejong-ro) boulevard, along which stand statues of King Sejong the Great and Admiral Yi Sun-sin, a 16th century naval admiral who is probably South Korea’s most admired war hero for defeating the Japanese. King Sejong the Great, as you can tell from his full title, wasn’t too bad either – he apparently invented the Korean Hangul alphabet and encouraged scientific reform and innovations. When I passed by his statue, a bunch of Chinese tourists were paying their respects.

Going down further on Sejongno took me to the Cheonggyecheon stream, Seoul’s famous urban canal. Stretching 10.9km. Cheonggyecheon stream is famous because it is the reincarnation of a stream that had been paved over to create a motorway, which was then removed (an impressive decision given how much priority cars often get over the environment), making it a long continuous pedestrian zone along which works of art and exhibitions are held. It wasn’t cheap, costing over US$200 million, but it sure seemed to be worth it.

Seoul has a really interesting city hall that is a large, modern glass building superimposed onto an older concrete building. This older building was the city hall and was converted into the Seoul Metropolitan Library after the new building was constructed. When I passed by there, a skating rink was set up in front of this combined building with dozens of young Koreans skating to their heart’s delight.
Seoul City Hall (green glass building), Metropolitan Library and skating rink

The great king himself with a bunch of adoring Chinese tourists. The round astronomy object in front is supposedly one of the inventions he helped develop (through his support for scientists)
Korea’s mighty Admiral Yi Sun-shin
This weird colorful cone marks the beginning of the stream
Seoul City Hall
Deoksugung Palace gate, one of Seoul’s five palaces

Bonus pic if you made it all the way down here – Seoul’s Namdaemun (great south city gate), also known as Sungnyemun. It’s one of the city’s main landmarks but was heavily damaged by arson in 2008. Restoration was completed in 2013 which is why it looks so new.

South Korea travel · Travel

Seoul travel- its impressive major museums

Seoul is one of the best cities I’ve visited, right up there with the likes of Shanghai, Osaka, Hanoi and London. One of the reasons is that it has the most impressive military museum I’ve ever visited, with basically an entire mini army and air force to the side, while its national history museum and contemporary arts museum are also quite good.

The military museum or War Memorial of Korea is a huge, formidable gray building (it used to be the country’s military headquarters).  In front are a few large sculptures commemorating the Korean War and to the side are a fantastic collection of dozens of old warplanes, helicopters, tanks and even a full-scale replica of a navy frigate. These could be an entire attraction itself, never mind going into the museum (but of course, you should).
The museum proper features historic weaponry, a full-scale replica of a 16th-century turtle ship used to destroy invading Japanese navies, and a full section devoted to the Korean War, featuring a memorial to fallen UN soldiers and the flags, military memorabilia and info of each nation that sent troops to help South Korea fight off North Korea and China.
War museum

The National Museum of Korea history museum is also in a large, gray, imposing building (maybe there’s a trend here) with a nice artificial lake in front. Like the British Museum in London and China’s national history museum in Beijing, this museum is completely free. The building’s entrance is a huge, conical glass section that leads directly to the exhibits which are on several floors surrounding open space in the middle. There were loads of Korean artifacts, paintings, and an Asian collection including Chinese, Japanese and South Asian items. Frankly, the ancient Korean artifacts didn’t impress me too much but what interested me more was Korean history. I learnt from the info on display that until the 7th century AD, there were three Korean kingdoms ( Goguryeo, Baekje, Silla,) that eventually became a unified entity after Silla, allied with China’s ruling Tang dynasty, conquered the other two kingdoms.
History museum

The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) was new, having just opened in January 2014, and was built at a cost of US$230 million. Normally contemporary art is not my thing and I wouldn’t go out specifically to view it, but I made an exception in this case due to all the articles I’d seen about this museum.
The MMCA (Seoul branch, there are other branches elsewhere in the nation) turned out to be worth it. The feature attraction was a giant transparent, hollow house made out of mesh cloth containing a smaller Korean house, a hanok, inside and was called “Home Within Home Within Home Within Home Within Home.” (really). There was also performance art with a soprano singing to a child, who was a visitor, sitting across from him, visual art and regular weird paintings that look like somebody took paint and threw it onto the canvass. I even saw a short film in the downstairs cinema which was big enough for a few hundred people about a Korean woman trying to remember a weird incident in the past involving answering a casting call of some sort.
The main attraction at the MMCA when I was there

History museum exhibits below
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War memorial/military museum photos below

MMCA photos below

South Korea travel · Travel

Seoul travel- Gyeonbokgung Palace

As the longtime capital of Korea, Seoul is home to five “Grand Palaces” that were built during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). The biggest palace Gyeongbokgung was the home of kings and housed the main government offices. Gyeongbokgung is surrounded by massive stone walls guarded by entrance towers and once you pass the entrance tower, there is a large, open assembly ground which leads into the palace compound proper. When I went there, I was fortunate to catch an elaborate change-of-guard ceremony on the assembly ground involving dozens of traditional costumed “guards” and “officers” marching to the sound of booming drums and instruments played by similarly costumed musicians, making it feel as if we were back in the Joseon Dynasty.


The compound is vast and features a lot of buildings including the main hall, various quarters, and shrines. The most attractive building was the Gyeonghoeru banquet hall which was built atop dozens of stone pillars and stands next to a large pond. Now, it’s as impressive as the Forbidden Palace in Beijing, but there is a lot of open space with clumps of trees here and there, and mountains like Bukhansan looming in the background. Apart from the main hall and Gyeonghoeru, the other buildings weren’t so spectacular but the entire palace compound as a whole was rather attractive. However, almost all these buildings are restorations or rebuilt, since the original palace buildings were destroyed or damaged during the Japanese occupation in the early 20th century.

In the northeast corner is the National Folk museum, which exhibits folk costumes, instruments and other things used by Koreans in the past. At the side stands an interesting replica of an old-time Korean neighborhood complete with an antique tram. There’s also the National Palace Museum, which I didn’t visit, on the grounds.

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Gyeonghoeru banquet hall
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South Korea travel · Travel

South Korea travel- the DMZ (demilitarized zone)

One of the most striking aspects about South Korea is that it is still technically in a state of war.
Its adversary is its neighbor North Korea, which speaks the same language and has almost the same culture but is ruled by one of the world’s most despotic and repressive regimes. The two sides were divided after World War II and fought a devastating war in the 1950s, the Korean War, which saw the US and the UN intervene on the South’s side while China took part to help the North. It’s a sad development that has become part of normal life for the South so that for instance, military service is compulsory for all male citizens and subway stations have bomb raid instructions.

The most obvious indicator of this unresolved state of war is the 250-km border between the two Koreas, which is heavily guarded by both nations’ military forces, with a no man’s land buffer zone between them, the demilitarized zone (DMZ).  The name is ironic because the immediate boundaries on both sides are heavily militarized. It is possible to visit the DMZ or the border (or both) from Seoul on guided tours that you can easily book while there, as I did. Actually you can only visit the DMZ while on a guided tour. It’s probably the only military zone open to tourists.

I chose a tour that went to the S. Korean border of the DMZ and the stops included a tunnel which North Korea dug in the 1970s in order to invade the South, the South’s northermost train station, and an observation post that overlooks the actual DMZ and from which you can see into North Korea on a clear day.  Other tours actually go into the DMZ to Camp Bonifas, a US-S. Korean base, and the Joint Security Area (Panmumjeom), a place in the center of the DMZ where both sides meet and sign agreements, and which features an actual exit point to North Korea, though of course nobody can go through it. I would definitely like to visit Panmumjeom if I return to Seoul.

As you leave Seoul to go north along the Han river, you’ll notice barbed wire fences along the side of the river and the area increasingly resembles a military zone.

The first place the tour took us was Imjingak, a park built for Koreans who were unable to return to their homes because of the division and which is now a major tourist destination. It features statues, a pool, a chain-link fence covered with ribbons and flags, the rusty remains of a train locomotive that had been destroyed during the Korean War, and the Bridge of Freedom, a small wooden walkway that spans a stream.  Confusingly, there is a rail bridge that spans the nearby Imjin river that is also known as the freedom bridge because thousands of freed Korean POWs used it after returning from the North during the Korean War.
Before we headed further towards the DMZ on our bus, Korean soldiers came on board to check our passports, which are necessary to pass beyond.

Then we went to the Third Tunnel, one of four tunnels North Korea dug to attempt an invasion of South Korea in the 1970s. This tunnel was 1,635m in length and was intended to go to Seoul but fortunately was detected after a defector from the North told the South Korean military. The South Korean army then dug into this tunnel and the other ones, and blocked them with concrete. The impish North Koreans claimed that these tunnels were for digging coal and they painted the tunnels black to give off the appearance that coal was dug. Visitors enter the tunnel down a long, gently descending ramp wearing hard hats (a must!) and walk along the tunnel, with some parts painted black by those dastardly North Koreans, until you reach a spot that is blocked off. Photos are not allowed.

The main site is an observation post on a hill (Dora mountain) that allows people to look down into the buffer zone and to North Korea. Unfortunately the weather was rather hazy so I didn’t get a good view. You can take pictures of the entire post and from the back of the observation deck but photos are not allowed right at the lookout point, our guide, a short vivacious Korean called Dora said, because any reflection caused by cameras might be seen by North Korean soldiers and induce them to open fire. Scary stuff. Further along the sides of the observation post, there were South Korean gun posts dug into the hill with soldiers manning machine guns.

The last site we saw was a brand-new and hardly used train station, Dorasan, that was meant to service a North-South train line which does not exist yet and is basically is just a dream for now. It is the closest train station to North Korea and trains actually run to here, as of 2014, but not any further.
Imjingak, with the rail bridge to the North in the distance
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Continue reading “South Korea travel- the DMZ (demilitarized zone)”

South Korea travel · Travel

South Korea travel – Seoul intro


Last year in February, I finally went on a trip to South Korea. As a modest-sized nation between two larger powers (China and Japan) but punching way above its weight economically, technologically and culturally, South Korea deserves a lot of admiration. I only visited Seoul for a few days which I squeezed out of a week off going back to Taiwan from Beijing. It was short but enough to appreciate how modern and attractive the city was.

I visited the history and military museums, the DMZ (the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea), Gyeonbokgung palace, the contemporary art museum, and Myeong-dong, the well-known shopping area. The city had a good mix of ultra-modern sights and historic buildings like the royal palaces, but the main indicator of how nice a city is its regular buildings, and I found Seoul’s to be rather attractive, especially compared to Taipei.

To be honest, I found Seoul to be more modern than I’d expected and almost as interesting as Tokyo. Many Taiwanese consider South Korea to be a rival in economic and sporting terms (while South Korea considers Japan its rival), but looking at Seoul, I think Taiwan is in danger of falling so far behind that there is no competition.
The only drawback to Seoul was that the air was hazy while I was there, very likely courtesy of China. I also wrote about Seoul for the Chinese paper I worked for in this travel feature story.

I stayed in Dongdaemun, a well-known shopping and fashion district filled with department stores. It also has the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a $451-million-marvel designed by Zaha Hadid that looks like a giant grey spaceship. I can’t say I think any one building is worth that much money to build, but it was definitely a very unique building. It wasn’t open yet when I was there – it opened one month later in March.

Dongdaemun means “Great East Gate,” because it features one of the two remaining gates of the old city walls that encircled the capital in the past. The more famous Namdaemun (Great South Gate) was severely damaged by fire in 2008 but restored by 2013.
Not yet ready for the public
The actual “Dongdaemun”
Church in Dongdaemun that looks like a giant clump of clay 
Myeong-dong, a shopping mecca, especially for Chinese tourists.
Myeong-dong does have non-shopping attractions like this Catholic cathedral, built in 1898. The country is heavily Christian, unique for Asia.

Books · Taiwan

The Birth of Korea Cool – book review

Taiwan may consider South Korea to be its main direct rival in economic, cultural and tech fields, but after reading The Birth of Korean Cool – how one nation is conquering the world through pop culture, there is no competition.
That’s because South Korea is on a whole different level when it comes to developing its cultural and tech industries and promoting them worldwide, so much so that even Japan, which South Korea considers its hated historic rival, has been surpassed. The book’s subtitle explains what the book is about – how a small country can punch far beyond its weight in the world through its pop culture. The author Euny Hong is an American-born Korean writer whose family moved back when she was 12 and she lived there until she went back to the US for university.

The book actually doesn’t touch on Taiwan much, except a brief mention here or there such as that Korean shows were so popular the Taiwan authorities requested a local TV network to reduce the number of primetime showings of Korean shows.
What the book explains is how from poverty and backwardness up to the 1980s, the nation first climbed up economically, and then culturally. so much so that it has a widespread reputation for coolness and its TV shows, music, and movies are popular all over Asia and parts of Latin America, Europe and North America. Some people might think of earlier phases when Hong Kong and Japanese pop music and movies were popular across Asia in the 80s and 90s, much of their popularity was restricted to mainly East Asian nations and large Chinese populations in nations like Singapore, Malaysia and Canada. Not saying that all fans of HK or Japanese pop culture are Asians, of course, but those never went beyond minor cult status among non-Asians.

As what is known as Hallyu or Korean wave, Korean singer Psy and his mega-popular Gangnam Style became famous worldwide and attracted over 2 billion Youtube views while Korean girl groups and boy bands have massive followings in SE and East Asia. Korean TV shows have become widely watched across Asia and even Latin America. It is more impressive when one considers that all these songs and TV shows are in Korean. South Korea’s success is an ideal example of the significant of “soft power,” which incidentally is what next-door giant China seriously lacks.

Yet there is a very deliberate, planned and prepackaged mindset behind these cultural successes, starting from government planning and cooperation between the authorities and companies. As Hong puts it, this stems from a belief that “what’s good for the nation is good for business, and what’s good for business is good for the individual.”

There is an extremely determined single-mindedness towards pushing Korea out into the world, in terms of technology exports and pop culture. There is the somewhat admirable, somewhat scary zealous patriotism. And also something called “han,” a sort of eternal anger towards the universe due to all the suffering and unfairness that has happened to Korea in the past (it has been invaded 400 times, according to Hong. Even up to the mid-20th century when it split into two and then experienced a massive war). The target of their “han” has been Japan, who colonized Korea brutally in the early 20th century, both as an industrial rival to be surpassed and a market to be conquered. In this, South Korea has been successful, with Samsung overtaking Sony by 2002 and Korean musicians dominating Japanese music charts and awards shows. China is also another nearby country that has been smitten by Korean pop and TV shows and even cosmetics.

There are quite a few amusing episodes, especially when Hong recollects the Korea of her childhood. When her class went for vaccinations before the school term, the nurse used one needle to inject all the students, passing the needle over a candle flame after each injection before reusing it again. Such frugality might seem unimaginable in today’s South Korea, and is certainly wince-inducing by modern hygienic standards, but it illustrates how poor the country was in the 80s.
At times, Hong writes with a bit of vindictedness, a hint of unpleasant childhood moments growing up. In this, there was a lot, to the extent she only did one year in public school before transferring to an international school.

Not everything is great about the nation. Teachers could be brutal (though not as much anymore due to a ban on corporal punishment, according to a Korean colleague), work culture is dominated by hierarchy and overwork and society has often very conservative and rigid, resulting in the developed world’s highest suicide rate.

Besides technology and pop culture, there are chapters on plastic surgery, video games (itself another component of Korea’s potent cultural export arsenal), school thrashings (much more severe than mere spanking) and kimchi.

This is a nation that is confident about itself, as opposed to Taiwan, wants to spread its brand throughout the world, and is willing to put in significant effort, money and innovation to do so.  Through doing so, it has succeeded, but is still pushing on (a recent government ministry was actually named the Ministry of Future Creation and Science).
The book is a good, substantial read that is both fun and informative. Anybody curious about South Korea, its pop culture or how a developing country rose to become wealthy must read this.

China · Taiwan

Wealthy Asians

I’ve been a little busy recently so this is just a brief post with some interesting links.

How has Samsung become such a huge force that it’s even possible it might surpass almighty Apple? Businessweek has a feature on the Korean giant and its low-profile chairman.

Here’s another article about an Asian corporate giant, Malaysian-Chinese billionaire Robert Kuok, the founder of the Shangri-La hotel chain and owner of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.

In keeping with the wealthy Asian theme, check out an article about a Taiwan snack and media magnate on this new journalism site. This guy’s gotten a lot of flak for supporting mainland China and eventual unification, and his foiled purchase of Next Media has been controversial, but at least he’s not a hypocrite in his China views.


Links- Taiwan’s South Korean insecurity and the region’s China insecurity

Earlier this week, a South Korean student studying in Taiwan wrote about the “dark” aspects of his country, triggering some discussion in Taiwan. Taiwan seems to have 2 enemies- one is the big giant across the straits, and the other is South Korea. They are rivals in economics, sports, and even historical heritage, due to Taiwan’s Chinese-based culture. Yet it also brings up Taiwan’s insecurities, in always comparing themselves to S. Korea and seemingly looking up at them, which on the flip side also results in a lot of surprising resentment and even hatred towards South Korea (I’ve literally heard several Taiwanese friends casually say they don’t like or hate Korea). I do wonder whether South Korea even regards Taiwan as a rival, given that in many areas, such as with baseball or with Samsung and smartphones, it has surpassed Taiwan. The student tried to describe how much damage that Korea’s success has caused, in terms of social pressures and extreme nationalism. I do think that Koreans are probably more passionate, loud, and nationalistic than Taiwanese, or Chinese too; but I don’t think it’s as dire as the student claims. Not because I know about Korea, I’ve never been there, but because several of the problems he discusses are prevalent in Taiwan too, just not as severe.

Meanwhile this Asia Times piece does a good job in describing why the furor is unfounded over China’s recent move regarding giving its coast guard in Hainan province the right to board and seize ships in its waters. Firstly, because other nations like Japan and the Philippines also enacted such measures before, and secondly, because this right to arrest is only for the marine area around Hainan and China’s coasts, not the hotly contested South China sea. Several supposedly respectable and reliable outlets reported wrongly that China was giving its coast guard the right to board and search vessels in the contested South China, causing alarm and confusion.