Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Autumn in Central Park
Bundang, South Korea, November 2008
Autumn in Korea is cold, but colorful. Best enjoyed with long walks in the park or numerous hiking trails in the mountains surrounding Seoul.
These photos were taken in my town, 15km south of Seoul.







Saturday, November 08, 2008

Zero defect

There is one place in the world where the decades old quest for zero defect (thanks Panasonic) will bare fruit. This place is Asia’s growling, but sometimes tame, Tiger – South Korea. And it will bare a lot of fruit – square tomatoes and apples the size of Zumas head (post-trial) for the most part. At least it’s food for thought.

Korea is perfect in many ways. Innovative public transport – who needs a car? Fastest internet in the world and definitely one of the highest populations with a university degree.

But perfection comes with a heavy price – to name one: boredom. Just ask the Swiss.

See the perfect apartment buildings: space-saving-high-rise apartment buildings that conform to one simple building plan – no need wasting time on creativity or catering to the individual’s needs.

Beautiful popstars, tv stars, movie stars who’s faces and bodies are sculptured to conform to the much wanted European body shape.

The perfect S-curve (the line formed by ample booty and booby). Eyelids, perky nose and wavy hair. Plastic surgeons make money here. And if you can’t afford a plastic surgeon you can pop into your local 7/11 and by eyelid-stickers. Stick it on and voila – instant eyelids for a pretty night on the town. Padding for your booty and bra are also available.

So, what gives Korea character? Because they do have character – a character that sets them apart from the West. A character that makes me want to be Korean.

They enjoy the little things. Here, being cute, is a good thing. Girls are cute. Guys are cute.
Okay, don’t mis-judge this cute-fad and go buy yourself a Hello Kitty purse or Doreamon socks. Those are for the kids.


Koreans are cute because they can laugh at themselves – loudly. They are fun people – they kid around like they’re everyoung teenagers.

Watch an MC Mong or Wondergirls music video and look closely at their popstar dance moves. Go to any club tonight and as soon as one of those songs start playing at least 18 Korean guys and girls will pull-out all the stops and mimic those moves perfectly. Bless them.

Public shows of affection might still be scarce – heaven forbid you should kiss your girlfriend in public. But Korean men and women pull-out all the stops to show their affection in other ways – gifts, corny cards...

I met one guy who phones his girl before she goes to bed, so he can sing her to sleep.


Watch a Korean game show – they do foolish things, like trying to out-run a row of plastic pillars that are quickly falling on each other, domino-style. He didn’t make it and ended up being crushed (lightly) by three pillars that came down on his head. Good fun.


And men slapping each other on the butt, holding hands in public? Totally normal and a sign of good friendship.

Say what you will of the communist-style apartment buildings, the strange fashion, the obsession with plastic surgery.

Koreans are unique in a way we might never be. And you should love them a little more for it.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Seodaemun Prison

Inside the History Hall of (what is left of) Seodaemun Prison
The prison was designed according to a Japanese prison design style. For maximum control over the prison, three cell blocks (or rectangles) flare out from a single central control point.


Prison life

In northern Seoul, a tall red brick watchtower rises above an urban area of modern businesses, homes and a subway stop.
Seodaemun prison, a century-old relic of the Japan colonization and terrorization of Korea, uncomfortably tries to blend in with the sprawling city that surrounds it.
It is here where, a hundred years ago, the Japanese imprisoned, tortured and executed Koreans.

In the early 1900's members of the Korean Independence Movement were working hard to gain Korea's independence. The Japan colonists didn't agree with this rebelliousness. They built dozens of prisons throughout the Korean peninsula - remember, this was before Korea was split in two.

Seodaemun Prison, in northeast Seoul, housed some 40 000 Koreans who were part of the Korean Independence Movement. As the prisons filled up, prisoners were crammed into tiny rooms. Sometimes 7-8 prisoners shared one cell. The cells had one small window, no toilet.

About 400 of these prisoners didn't survive their time in captivity - most starved to death. Thousands others survived, but with permanent damage to their health.



From schoolgirl to heroin
An orphaned 20-year old Korean girl became one of the most famous former-inmates of Seodaemun prison. Ryu, Gwan-sun's parents were killed by the Japanese. In 1919 she was arrested for protesting with the Korean Independence Movement at Aunae Marketplace. She was first imprisoned in Gonju Prison before being moved to Seodaemun. Shortly after being imprisoned Gwan-sun rallied fellow prisoners into a full-scale prison demonstration against the Japanese. Gwan-sun was moved to solitary confinement in an underground cell, where she was tortured and starved.

You'd think a girl who, at a young age as this could already inspire people to follow her and rise up against their suppressors, would have a bright future ahead of her once Korea gained independence. Unfortunately, the Japanese tortured Ryu, Gwan-sun to death in 1920.




With a rich, heroic history such as this, Seodaemun could offer an emotional visit to tourists and Koreans, alike. But the prison has lost much of it's sense of realism and has gained a sense of absurdism and the macabre.

While the red brick buildings still look much as they would've looked 90 years ago, this is only on the outside. And althought the wailing tree outside the execution building tells you more of the suffering of Koreans than any re-enacted video could ever do, this is not enough to save the experience from being over-the-top.

Lifesize puppets resembling inmates have arms and heads that move with robotic grace. Tape recorded screams sound from speakers as you walk past these puppets who are in the act of being tortured by a Japanese puppet. Pink blood is splattered over the cell wall, the puppet's hair is out of place and patchy and their faces are frozen in expressions of agonizing pain.

The video hall shows a re-enactment of how the Japanese tortured Korean inmates. The Japanese guy screams and cracks his whip (so to speak) a lot, and gives an evil cackle as he flips the switch to electrocute the Korean who's already bleeding from his nose and ears.

There's also a room where you can experience "torture". In a dark the room you sit on a small wooden chair, stare into a small hole that looks into a dimly lit room where a woman (puppet) is bent over double in pain. Blood stains on her clothes. And then the tape recorded screaming starts. A few seconds later the lights go on, the screaming stops and you feel a little queasy and well, tortured. But not for the right reasons.

The museum is well worth a visit, if you can look past the fairground attractions and rather focus on the historic aspect. It is also cheap, getting you a full pass for $1,50. See the bottom of this article for more visitor information.

The watchtower and red brick wall of the prison enclosure.

The female inmates were imprisoned in these underground solitary cells. Inmates were interrogated and tortured here - these cells were named Ryu Gwan-sun cells after the independence movement's heroin.

The wailing tree outside the execution house. On the way to their death, prisoners would hold on to this tree crying, before being dragged off to the house where they were hanged. A hidden tunnel behind the house was used to secretly dispose of the bodies.

VISITORS

Opening hours: Mar - Oct, 09:30 - 18:00
Nov - Feb, 09:30 - 17:00
Closed on New Year's Day, Full-moon festival, and every Monday (if the Monday is a public holiday, then the museum is closed the following day).

Get there: Take line 3 (Orange line) to Dongnimmun station, exit 5. Walk straight for two minutes. The prison and Independence park is on your left.

http://www.sscmc.or.kr/

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Africans un-unite!


Afro-pessimissm (n.) - 1. the perception of sub-Saharan Africa as a region too riddled with problems for good governance and economic development.


"Is this what I'm feeling," my friend asks from Cape Town. She's worried. This feeling does not sit well with a native of Africa.

Afro pessimism. That's what we're feeling. And dammit, it's not like you want to!

And to be in a different country, safe and far away from all the doubt and speculation in SA, you feel a little like a pansy. Like you've become one of those people who left SA because they're running from a horrible place with no future.
And I don't believe that.

But here I am. In Korea. With a perfect transportation system. With a capital city that is the safest in the world. I've seen one homeless person - and he looked reasonably happy, eating a can of tuna with pretty chopstix on his warm blanket in the subway.

I want to go back home eventually, but now I'm a little scared to do that. I'm scared to send money home before I've seen the outcome of the next presidential election (what will it do to the exchange rate?).

And I partly blame the media - the only time news from SA is important enough to air, it is bad news. So, that's all I hear.
Partly I blame afro-pessimism. If you believe something bad is going to happen, it probably will - eventually. And you did nothing to prevent it.
But mostly I blame bad government. But this could be a good thing, because governments are changeable and fix-able.

So, speak up, change, keep the most beautiful country beautiful and don't lose hope. But most of all don't be a pansy.
(* Afro-pessimism's definition was found here: http://science.jrank.org/pages/7475/Afropessimism.html)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

How do you spot a South African in Seoul?

Well, he’ll be wearing a green apron with a Springbok proudly emblazoned on the chest.
As you near him the smell of boerewors braaiing on an open fire will get stronger and the sound of boeremusiek will envelop you.
And, of course, you’ll recognise him by the humungus South African flag hanging from a lamppost behind his braai area.

This is a true story.

This is how I spotted my first South African in South Korea. There were three of them and they were braaiing in a backstreet of Itaewon.

Boereworsroll, 'seblief?
My Korean friend was showing me the pubs and clubs in Itaewon, the foreigner part in Seoul, when my nose picked up the familar scent of a Sunday braai.

When I saw the braaiers in the distance, my first instinct was to walk up to them and say ‘Howzit, kan ‘n man ‘n boereworsroll kry, asseblief?”.

But then I realised, us being near an American military base in a part of town that is a sattelite city of America, they would probably be practicing the North American art of BBQ’ing.

I walked around them to avoid hearing the BBQ-men’s thick North American accent which would invade my pleasant daydream of a Sunday braai with the family in the Strand.

But then the music got to me. I stopped walking, took two steps back, listenend closely...yes, surely....yes, he did, he absolutely did!

The guy on the CD sang “meisie, meisie”! And I knew – these ‘okes were homegrown.

And so was their boerewors, by the way.


Mom's recipe goes far
Made according to an age-old recipe passed down by Moederlief to one of the braaiers.

In their home in Seoul they also make biltong and droewors to order by homesick expats or foreigners who came to love the dry, salty meat snack.

Unfortunately the next time you’ll be able to walk into the Seventh Heaven that is their boereworsstall, is after the rainy season.

They don’t do this every weekend. It was part of the international food festival held in Itaewon that weekend. The next one will be in August. Keep your eyes on the Hi Seoul website for more information.

Now, let me turn off this computer and get a piece of locally produced biltong from the fridge...