A blog dedicated to art, entertainment, language, and culture.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Nintendon't in South Korea

Nintendo is the most famous name in gaming and one of the most famous companies world-wide, but here in Korea, even it finds it hard to break through to mass success.

This is probably because like all other console manufacturers, they just don't move a Korean audience.  Koreans are PC gamers.  PC Bongs (Rooms) dot every city and it costs barely anything for teenage boys to go to one and spend a couple hours between class, away from mom and dad's watchful eyes, playing League of Legends with their friends.  In this way, games in Korea are not only things to do, but places to go.  They aren't just a pass time, like television.  They are an event, like arcades and movie theaters.  Games are even broadcast on TV and professional gaming is a legitimate form of competition, especially when it comes to titles like League of Legions, Starcraft, and Sudden Attack.

There's not a lot of room for console developers to move in such a PC-centric environment.  But that doesn't seem to stop a company like Nintendo from trying.  On a recent trip to the COEX Mall in Seoul, I couldn't help but notice all the effort Nintendo had put into a 3DS campaign.  Big signs advertising the 3DS and Nintendogs lined the walls and a station was set up for people to watch and play 3DS games, just in time for Christmas.  And that marketing was trying to catch everyone, adults and children alike.

However, the 3DS is still a hard sell in a country that's not only dominated by PCs but smartphones.  Every kid is walking around with a portable game system that they can easily justify to their parents, and their favorite game at the moment is free physics platformer called Bounce Ball for the Android.  A couple days ago, I had a student walk into my class with both a 3DS and his phone and he spent his break playing Bounce Ball, entirely ignoring the handheld designed specifically to playing big, sweeping action games.

I find myself almost rooting for Nintendo.  "Yeah!" I think, "Introduce kids to the adventures of Mario and Link!  Show them what classically good games are!"  I think that forgetting I haven't bought a Nintendo console or game in years.  I think that forgetting how stagnant the Nintendo production cycle has become and how New Super Mario Bros. titles are becoming as annual as Call of Duty and Madden, and just as interesting.  I think that forgetting Nintendo is not an underdog.

Like Korea has been for a while, the United States is certainly moving away from the console and handheld gaming systems and farther into the realm of PCs, tablets, and smartphones.  Maybe the Koreans have it completely right when it comes to gaming.  Maybe consoles and handhelds are relics.  Most of those independent and experimental, artsy-fartsy games that I love are found on PC and smartphone.  So why should I be rooting for a giant cooperation to conquer yet another nation?  Perhaps I'd rather keep my local PC Bong in business.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Gramophone Museum

After spending a pathetically long time navigating bus schedules, I found myself marching through the parking lot of the Charmsori Gramophone and Edison Science Museums, two structures built in Gangneung to recognize the history of gramophones and one of the world's greatest inventors.  Outside, I was greeted by the jolly bounce of novelty Christmas music pouring from a loud speaker system, but as I crossed the threshold into the Charmsori Museum, I was met with an almost eerie silence.

The first hall of the building is covered wall to wall in gramophones, circus organs, and music boxes, yet the only sounds one could hear were the occasional pattering of feet and hushed conversations.  The place seemed to illicit a kind of reverence one might reserve for temples and memorials.  But what reverence was the gaudy circus organ with the creepy clown on top trying to beckon?

You might have an expectation when you walk inside a museum that in there you are supposed to be quiet, to observe the art with patience and respect.  That makes a lot of sense when you're standing in front of the Mona Lisa, but this was a gramophone museum.  These things weren't art (not conscious art at least)!  They were tools, instruments; notably, one's used to make noise.

From the first hall, one can easily move over to the Edison Museum, which is where I went next.  Now, I'm not a history buff and I don't know anything about Edison aside from the obvious.  He invented light.  Importantly, I probably wasn't going to learn anything academic during my tour.  This was a Korean museum and as such there was a lot of Hangul writing to explain everything, but English was usually limited to the subtitles for each piece.  A little plaque would say what something was in Hangul, then in English, and then discuss it in Hangul.  At one of those fancy Seoul museums they might write an explanation for foreigners, but it's pretty limited anywhere else.

The one advantage I had was that Edison himself was a native English speaker.  Amid the bottomless piles of fans, mimeographs, stock tickers, projectors, creepy talking dolls, and light bulbs were some books and documents stored in glass casing.  These I could read.  And you would think that if you have a book by an important inventor on display, you would open it up to an important page.  Let me read you a passage...
The secretary was instructed to insert in the minute book, for the purpose of reference, the following papers: 1. Copy of notice of the meeting and proof of service thereof.  2. Inspectors' Oath and Report.  There being no further business, the meeting adjourned.

That's right.  They have a copy of the minutes.  I imagine the page this book was open to was not really the most important thing.  The Korean audience would glance at the description of the books on a little plaque and potentially marvel at the exclusive documents.  The series of signatures at the bottom of the page were proof of existence, but it struck me as a bit silly.  I imagine these things happen often with old books in foreign or defunct languages, no matter what the country.

By far, the third floor of the Charmsori Museum was the most fascinating.  Covering every inch of wall space were rows of retro televisions and radios.  The room was unusually shaped and every window was stained glass.  Pipes were lining the the wall tops and ceilings, and the sound of creaking and waning could be heard through the metal ceiling and pipes as a cold winter's wind hit the building.  It was like standing in chapel and a submarine at the same time.  Unlike the first hall, this one was set up with a sound system that was playing a slow rendition of Joy to the World.

It was a bizarrely sacred environment, which is what I felt the entire museum was trying to accomplish.  Here you can visit the history of irrelevant communications media that is far from being in short supply of anything.  There are so many music boxes, televisions, and gramophones lying around that they all seem to blend together.  The sheer number keeps any individual piece from standing out, unless it is exceptionally strange.  It was the common mistake of quantity over quality.  And there was this question at the back of my mind... Do any of these things work?

I don't know.  I was supposed to look at them, observe them, but not actually experience them the way they were meant to be experienced.  Charmsori Museum was feeling like a shine to a long dead god.

Of course, I managed to miss the one area that would allow me to experience the music and life these instruments had possessed.  On the second floor sits the Music Hall, which looks fairly similar to a chapel in its own rights.  There, audiences can experience a hundred year audio history from the gramophone to the CD.  But I had opted to explore independently instead of following a Korean tour group and missed an opportunity to see the presentation.  I found myself at the doors, able to hear a medley of music, but unable to go in and find out what exactly it was.

While I certainly came away from the experience critical, anyone who finds themselves in Gangneung with a lot of free time could do worse than spend an hour wandering the tombs of ancient communications technology.  There is a lack of place for gramophones, old cameras, and televisions in the post-millennial world, and it is better to see them on display in a scared environment than occupying yet another landfill.  And one cannot help the feeling that all these things, once new, can stand as a reminder about our constantly evolving commercial world.

Perhaps, people will erect these kinds of shrines for iPod and Furbies when we are grey (they might already have).  Our proudest toys and electronics that we spent hundreds of dollars on would be better served wasting away on shelves than in garbage dumps, seemingly useless and irrelevant to younger generations.  They would be nothing more than retro and novel, campy and kitsch memories, but memories none-the-less.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

An Unacademic History of Hwaseong Fortress

If there's one, big iconic figure in Korean history, it's King Sejong, the architect of the Korean alphabet, which as legend goes, was designed to give all Koreans, not just educated or wealthy ones, the ability to read.  He has therefore become a beloved, fatherly character in the Korean imagination.  When teaching young, low-English students and asking them things like, "who is a famous Korean?", I've experienced a medley of responses, typically involving singers and boy groups, but with one universal consistent: Sejong.

But he's far from the only king Korea has ever known.  Another visionary ruler from the same dynasty was Jeongjo, who was the leader responsible for the construction of the Hwaseong Fortress that I seem to loath so much.  Though his popularity doesn't quite near the level received by Sejong, he is still an important, well-known, and (most notably) compelling Korean historical figure.

Like many rulers throughout history, from Solomon to Elizabeth I, Jeongjo was destined to live in the shadow of his father.  Unlike the two previous examples though, his father was not a particularly great or beloved leader.  In fact, Jeongjo's father was killed by his own father while he was still a prince.  It was a political assassination. Upon the king's death, Jeongjo was left the throne and instead of following his grandfather's footsteps, he was adamant in honoring his father.  Much of his legacy is about just that.

Hwaseong Fortress was constructed for two major reasons.  The first being the aforementioned honoring of Jeongjo's father.  The other reason was to create a new, secondary capital.  Suwon was a planned city, similar to Washington D.C.  Jeongjo would go to Suwon to visit the grave of his father, but in true royal fashion, bringing a vase with flowers was not enough ceremony to show respect.  The fortress was constructed over two years (1794-1796) and using a variety of techniques that made it an architectural marvel of the day.

Jeongjo used Suwon as a capital away from Seoul whenever he went to visit his father's grave and fully intended to make it a retirement home once he passed along the crown to his kids.  Then he died.  At the ripe, old age of forty-eight, Jeongjo died mysteriously.  This is one of the reasons he became such a compelling character.  His life and death have been explored in various Korean media from books to TV shows.

Afterwards, the back-up capital in Suwon was pretty much forgotten.  It wasn't used for anything of real importance.  No later kings would hold court there.  It just sort of sat.

During the Korean War, the fortress was devastated and some of it was left far beyond repair.  However, the detailed records of its construction were published in 1800 (same year as the king's death), which meant there was an excellent and easily accessible blueprint for restoration in the mid-1970s.

So after reading and paraphrasing all that information from Korean tourism sites, I think I can see what is interesting about Hwaseong Fortress.  Constructed as a memorial and capital, it was largely forgotten, only to appear again in Korean consciousness more than a hundred years later, functioning as a symbol for the restoration of Korea and its people from the low, low point it had fallen to in the aftermath of civil war.  Now the city of Suwon extends far beyond its fortress walls in all directions.

Every city in Korea seems to have a title to go with it, much like they do in the United States.  Cincinnati is the Queen City.  Dayton is the Gem City.  Gangneung is the Pine City.  And Suwon has the delightfully odd title of Human City.  Korea has a real need for roller derby teams.  However strange, maybe the name works well.  Fortress walls do not make a city interesting, but how people interact with them does.  Culture is the human interaction with the world around them.

We build walls with a purpose and then they become pointless relics.  Then one day we wake up and realize just how important they actually are.  We mend the cracked bricks and celebrate them for a new reason.  We celebrate their mending and our ability to mend.  The cycle of loss and restoration goes back to our oldest stories.  The Book of Job, the Exodus of the Hebrews, Homer's Odyssey, and Virgil's Aeneid all contain this simple premise.  It's our favorite human story and that of the Hwaseong Fortress.

I could not see this walking the walls and reading plaques about each outposts construction, but I can appreciate their existence a lot more in retrospect.  For me, that did not make the "walking tour" any more enjoyable.  It just makes the fortress a bit more interesting.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Hwaseong Fortress

As I rode the bus from near Haewoojae to Hwaseong Fortress, I was needlessly antsy about whether or not I would miss my stop or get off too early.  Then I saw Janganmun, a breathtakingly large gateway, part of the wall that had been built by King Jeongjo between 1794 and 1796.  It was one of those stunningly old world structures that make a person gawk at the incredible feats man is capable of, even with the limited technologies of the distant past.  It's no surprise then that the fortress was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The bus drove through this entrance and at the next stop I hopped off and wandered until I came to an easily accessible part of the wall.  This was Namsumun, which was a small watergate.  This section sits adjacent to the First Church of Suwon, a looming black cathedral and easy marker for anyone prone to getting lost in a city.

As I began to walk the wall, my first impressions were nostalgic memories of the North Irish city of Derry.  There, a wall divides the inner and outer city as well.  Historically, people on the inside of the wall were very protestant and the outside were largely catholic.  The wall now stands as a grand reminder of religious persecution and the wedge that had been driven through Ireland by external imperial forces.  From the top of those walls you could see huge murals condemning violence.  One particularly stirring mural was of a young girl who had been shot by a British soldier in 1971.  And that division is only one of the significant historical values to the walls of Derry.

The walls of Suwon certainly did separate two parts of the city, but I wasn't sure what two parts.  It didn't strike me that there was any deep rooted cultural divide between the innies and outies.  In fact, I wasn't sure if the wall meant anything at all.  Yes, it was old and very nice looking, but was it built for war or show and was it ever used?  If it was used, did it work or was it a complete failure?  I didn't really know and the information I received along the wall and in the couple pamphlets I had picked up didn't really answer my questions.

At this point, I should have turned towards a museum, but something funny in my brain was telling me that I should spend more than a half-hour on the wall.  I should really experience it and take in the magnificence.  I had also just gotten to Dongjangdae, the eastern command post, where a Korean woman had approached me and in a bouncy voice told me that I needed a 1000 won ticket for the walking tour.  This walking tour was me walking the wall by myself with a cute, little sticker on my coat, so people knew I was on the walking tour.  I wasn't going to buy the walking tour ticket and then not walk the wall and I wasn't going to not buy the ticket and seem like a cheap jerk for sneaking up there.

I noticed there were also a few attractions to visit on along the wall.  Earlier, I had noticed a crochet field being used by a group of ajussi.  At Dongjangdae, there was an archery range and one could buy tickets for a trolley tour that would take you quickly around the fortress walls.  This driver's cab was designed to be a gaudy imitation of an eastern dragon.  It was reminiscent of the spooky train ride my family would annually take during "Boo at the Zoo", only y'know, all you're doing is looking at a wall.

For all the potential "tourist trappism" held by Haewoojae, Mr. Toilet House, the fortress walls were starting to seem a lot more like one than the earnest celebration of "toilet culture" to be found at Mr. Toilet House.  Games and gimmicky park rides seemed beneath the grandeur of a culturally significant World Heritage Site.  It didn't help that every plaque I ran across, discussing each segment of the wall, was about the construction of the wall.  I was quickly becoming convinced that this place was built with a purpose...but never actually used.  It was a vacation destination for the architect, not the poet.  It was big and well crafted, but served no function.  It told no stories.

Eventually, something interesting happened.  I came across a gang of foreigners hiking the walls in animal costumes.  They were a rare splash of color against the grey bricks and winter brown, so I asked about their appearance.  There was an odd medley of replies from "Oh, no reason" to "It's Saturday" and "Well, it gives the ajumma something to talk about."  These all seemed like reasonable answers.  I had come to what I had realized was a pointless place and here were people having a pointless adventure on it.

Then I took a steep climb to SeoNodae, where I could see the entire city laid out before me in all directions. Almost directly beneath me was Hwaseong Palace, and I decided that my adventure with the wall was over. I would head down to check out what the decadence of Korean royalty was all about.  Apparently, it is a lot like that of non-Korean wealth, because I was turned away at the door.  It was four-thirty and the woman at the ticket counter refused to sell me one.  She kept saying something about 5 o'clock.  Initially, I thought this meant she would sell tickets again at 5 o'clock.  In reality, they closed the gates at 5 o'clock.

Dejected, I began a slow, sad walk away from the palace before noticing that place was oddly familiar.  I had been there before... it... it was the bus stop.  I had gotten off the bus right by the palace entrance, and at the time my only concern was finding a hot dog vendor.  I...I couldn't be blamed.  I hadn't eaten all day!  The palace might have been a missed opportunity, but I doubt it would have improved my initial opinions about the fortress as a whole.

Maybe in retrospect I can find some meaning to King Jeongjo's legacy.  Maybe a little research will enlighten me as to the importance of that fortress...

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mr. Toilet House

A friend contacted me a few weeks ago, bringing my attention to a toilet theme park that had recently appeared in South Korea.  Delighted by the mere existence of such a place, I began making travel plans immediately.  A couple weeks later, I was on a bus headed for Suwon with the goal of seeing this potentially magical landmark.

I can usually sniff out a tourist trap and wasn't completely sure if "Mr. Toilet House" would live up to my expectations.  But if that failed me, I would also be visiting Hwaseong Fortress, a huge wall built around a palace and internationally recognized as historically relevant architecture.  And there was the First Church of Suwon, a colossal, black building that, according to dubious sources, lit up with neon lights at night.  Sounded creepy.  If the toilet house wasn't enough, at least I'd have some other things to look forward to.

But I was prioritizing and the toilet house was first on my list.  So I leaped off the bus and into a taxi.  "Hae-woo-jae!" I practically shouted.
"Hyeo-woo-jae?" repeated the drivier and then in Korean "Where is that?"
I fumbled in my bag for my notepad.  Opening it, I read off the address, "Jangan-gu, Imok-dong 186-3".  It would have been wise to write out the address in Hangul, because I had to say the address three or four times as he scouted it out on his GPS.  I've been tossed out of taxis for saying the right name of a place over and over.  It helps to know a landmark.  It's better to have an address.  But just having something in Hangul will breach any problems that can arise from accent or misunderstanding.

As we approached my destination, I started to get some really good vibes about the toilet park from my driver.  He suddenly realized exactly where we were going.  "Oh, Hae-woo-jae," he snickered.  "I thought you said 'Hyeo'".  I wasn't sure how the slight mishearing changed anything, but he kept repeating the name and giggling.

I had to wonder what kind of nut he thought I was.  "Welcome to the Historic City of Suwon," they might say to me as I step off the bus.  "And where's the toilet?!" I answer.

Actually, that's exactly the question I had at the moment the cab pulled up to Hae-woo-jae.  I'd been doing a fair bit of travel without bothering to take a pit stop.  I was in need, and true to its name, this toilet park had a wonderful, public restroom just outside the main building.  How could it not?  The toilets were handicapable with an automatic flush, the paper was soft, children's seats were available, and the sink's tap provided hot water without wait (I can't get that at work!).  I was already impressed.

But the looming threat of a tourist trap still hung in the air.  The toilet park seemed very small and was not constructed in a particularly affluent part of town.  The homes surrounding it were ramshackle, low-income housing.  The kind that sit along the freeway and quickly become forgotten, until someone needs space to throw up another apartment complex.  Then they're inconvenient.

Interactive map of the best public restrooms in Suwon.  You could easily make an awesome tour out of this!
Juxtaposed against this low-income housing was the toilet house itself, which stood shaped like a giant, pristine toilet bowl.  I walked by a bronze statue of a boy taking a squat and through the main door of the building.  A man met me at the front desk and when I asked the price, he answered, "Anni-yo, free!" then handed me an English language brochure.  Clearly, this was not a tourist trap.  This was something else, but I still didn't know what.

As I followed the guiding arrows around the building, I encountered an interactive map of all the best public restrooms in Suwon.  There was even a wall dedicated to highlighting a few of them.  I noticed plaques mentioning something called the "Toilet Culture Movement" and even a timeline of its activities.  I assumed it was some sort of mistranslation.  There was no such thing as "toilet culture".  Then I saw a wall covered in public toilet markers from all over the world and squeed with joy.

Pictured: Mr. Toilet
The second floor was devoted to a man named Sim Jae-duck, who was also proudly known by the nickname "Mr. Toilet", and had dedicated his life to his local community and "toilet culture" (there was that phrase again).  Apparently, he was born in an outhouse, showing how toilets would be intertwined with his ultimate destiny.  He later became the mayor of Suwon and used this position to improve public restrooms across Korea and even establish an international organization called the World Toilet Association.

About the time I was standing in a room surrounded by pictures and videos of people and places from undeveloped countries where this group had constructed or rebuilt public toilets, I had a much greater understanding of "toilet culture".  Mr. Toilet grew up in an evolving Korea.  It went from one of the poorest to one of the richest countries in his life time.  Sanitation, like so much, is one of those things the developed world takes for granted.  Sim Jae-duck wanted to provide people everywhere with something that may seems like an obvious human right - sanitary and dignified bathrooms, a.k.a. clean places to poop - and he did just that.  He appears to be a great man, and if you ever visit this place, there's a donation box you can drop a few bills in to help.  Be a toilet angel.

Then I walked the grounds surrounding the toilet house, and saw the bizarre artwork that had initially attracted me to that place.  There were statues of people squatting, old and young (almost exclusively male.  I recall one female statue squatting, but the girl was sticking out from a reed outhouse's doorway, so you couldn't see her bum.  Maybe showing women pooping was inappropriate?).  The rest of the park seemed devoted to historical toilets or the diversity of toilets.  There was a giant bucket, a giant squatting toilet, and an outhouse above a model pig pen.

Hae-woo-jae wasn't a tourist trap.  It was an earnest celebration of a man's life mixed with a little bit of potty humor (sorry) to make it fun.  The only problem I had was finding a quick way back into town and to the Hwaseong Fortress, which would certainly be nothing like a tourist trap...

Oh, of course...