Though you could certainly be forgiven for being unaware of it, Seoul (as I’ve mentioned elsewhere) has been the official World Design Capital (WDC) for 2010. In what has been a pretty scanty itinerary of events, the highlight of the design year, the Seoul Design Fair, is on until October 7th in Jamsil Sports Complex. With my visiting parents as curious as I was to see where modern Korean design is at, the three of us went for a look-see on Sunday morning.
An oft-repeatedmantra about Koreans is that, due to certain cultural factors, they lack creativity. Korean schools, it is said, stifle critical and creative thinking by emphasising rote learning above all else, while the rigid hierarchy in business and academia discourages initiative. To some extent, this remains true. Despite having some of the biggest car and electronics companies in the world, no Korean company has ever produced an iPod, a 5 Series or even a Walkman.
As usual with such generalisations, though, it’s exaggerated and often plain untrue. Having worked with several creative companies in Korea, I’ve seen how cultural mores can impede the flow of ideas – with, for instance, underlings (myself often included) afraid to pipe up in front of the boss. But I’ve just as often been taken aback by the inspired notions I’ve heard from Korean editors, writers and designers.
In addition, having acknowledged the importance of design, Koreans have now taken to it with characteristic zeal. Seoul alone now has in the region of 11,000 design students, and the most interesting stuff on display at the Seoul Design Fair was the fruit of student design projects. Ranging from advertising and architecture to clothes and consumer knick-knacks, the pieces in the university exhibits made a mockery of the notion that Koreans aren’t creative.
Besides a few displays in Jamsil’s main pitch area and a sizeable “Designer’s Market” of quirky clothes, accessories and gadgets, much of the rest of the fair was taken up with furniture and interior displays from Japan, Germany, Spain and elsewhere. Nice as some if it was, the selections were often uninspired and seemed rather pedestrian in comparison with the more adventurous stuff the Korean students had come out with. While no-one is claiming that Korean design is yet on a par with that of design titans like Sweden and Italy – and though a good chunk of Korea’s top designers still feel the need to study abroad to gain the necessary expertise – Korea has both a long history and an exciting present in design. The problem, as it often is here, is a failure to get that message across overseas and sometimes even to Koreans themselves. And sad as it is to say, Korea’s potentially fascinating but largely unknown World Design Capital status is symptomatic of how this continues to be so.
Eleven years (give or take) since I first came to live in East Asia, I finally made it to Malaysia last week. Though I’ve been to many other places in East and Southeast Asia, Malaysia, for some reason, was never a big priority for me. Despite that, I’d always found its lively mix of ethnicities, cultures, and secular and (occasionally) more fundamentalist proclivities a fascinating story from afar.
For numerous reasons – many related to the colonial tenure of the British – Malaysia is a truly multicultural place. About half its people are of Malay stock, a quarter Chinese, 10 percent indigenous, 7 percent Indian and the rest of various backgrounds. As a result, you’ll see as many hip young Chinese or Malays as burqa-clad Muslim women, and restaurants that have everything from halal to BBQ pork to – yes! – chicken and mushroom pies.
After just a single day in Kuala Lumpur (a situation forced on us by a 13-hour delay to our flight from Seoul) we headed to our main destination: Penang. I’d come across Penang for the first time when I was at Morning Calm, when one of our regular contributors had turned in a piece about George Town (the capital of Penang State) and its supposed status as one of the most haunted spots in Malaysia. As was always the way at MC, the photos had made George Town look stunningly beautiful, an alluring mix of ethnic trappings and glamorously faded colonial architecture. Though that certainly wasn’t the whole story — large parts of George Town are run-down and/or built over — there is a remarkable amount of buildings dating back 100 years ago or more and some gorgeous natural scenery too.
We had the pleasure of staying in two beautifully restored hotel buildings, one of which, the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, is a centrepiece of George Town’s recent designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The other, the recently opened Clove Hall, was actually the more comfortable of the two, coming as it did with a pool, wooden (rather than stone) floors, a balcony and a flat-screen TV. Falling asleep in a four-poster bed draped with mosquito nets or having a leisurely breakfast out in the garden, complete with English crockery, wicker seats and a ceramic patio, was like being parachuted into a Somerset Maugham novel.
The owner of Clove Hall was a very affable and interesting fellow called Christopher Ong. A Penang native, Ong had left the country in the late ’70s, started a career as an investment banker, and then retired in the early 2000’s to become a hotelier. After achieving considerable success with Sri Lanka’s Galle Fort Hotel, Ong decided to return home and get involved with efforts to preserve Penang’s old architecture, which he did by restoring the then dilapidated Clove Hall (a former drinking and gambling club for British colonials, Ong said) to its current Anglo-Indian beauty.
Ong said that for several reasons — antiquated property laws, neglect from the stridently pro-Malay central government (Penang has a very large Chinese population), general economic decline — Penang had preserved a great deal of its architecture dating from the 19th century and before. Although much had fallen into disrepair, the town was now taking the task of preserving itself much more seriously, especially since the historical centre of George Town had gained its World Heritage status in 2008.
Though there were beautiful buildings throughout the parts of Penang we went to, some of the highlights were Suffolk House, once the home of Francis Light, the British “discoverer” of Penang, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, the rather garish former abode of nouveau riche Chinese traders, and the Penang State Museum, which did a great job of detailing Penang’s singular history.
As for Penang’s other big attraction, food, we managed to get a fair bit of that in, too. Among many other things, Penang is famous for something called Nyonya cuisine, which derives from the days when the earliest Chinese settlers arrived and intermarried with local Malay women (nyo means woman in Chinese [and Korean]). Though using primarily Chinese ingredients, Nyonya adds Southeast Asian spices such as turmeric, lemongrass and coconut leaves. We had an excellent feed of Nyonya both in KL and in Hot Wok in George Town.
In George Town’s wonderfully colourful and boisterous Little India, we tried some of the excellent local samosas and syrupy iced tea from Penang’s famed food stalls. In the resort town of Batu Ferringhi, we pushed the boat out and had a fabulous Chinese meal at the Shangri-la. And in true multicultural spirit, we even shared chicken sausage, pommes frites and a tuna pita-bread wrap at a place called Edelweiss, a beautifully restored 19th century structure now owned by a Swiss expat.
Finding myself nearby Yongsan CGV on Sunday, I decided to make a virtue of being alone and catch one of the current slew of action/horror films that my girlfriend wouldn’t dream of watching. As it happened, my timing was spot on for my least-favoured option, Piranha 3D, a film that, though clearly trashy, had managed to garner a 74 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
One of the main attractions of this film, of course, was that it was screening in 3D. However, this was not the lush 3D of Avatar, but the lesser 3D of Alice in Wonderland, which was converted from 2D in post-production. Whatever one thinks of the story in Avatar – and I thought it was pretty bad – surely few people would deny being dazzled when they first saw it.
To hear Piranha director Alexandre Aja tell it, the decision to switch to converted 3D was forced on them by having to film much of the action underwater. Conveniently, this cut-price aesthetic also jibed with his intention of making a schlocky B-movie homage, in which 80,000 gallons of fake blood were reportedly used, and one of the big draws was the prospect of seeing a scantily (or non-) clad Kelly Brook in 3D.
Now, before I talk more about the 3D, a quick word about Piranha 3D itself. I’m well aware that a film about carnivorous piranhas is going to involve people getting savaged by fish. I’m also sure that there are few pleasant ways to be eaten alive, and it’s not this film’s job to pull punches anyway. That said, the violence in Piranha 3D is absolutely grotesque. Torsos are sliced in two, scalps are ripped from their heads by motorboat propellers, and male members are devoured, and then burped up again, by razor-toothed fish. I’m not sure if it’s a sign I’m growing old and reactionary, or if this film would have prompted the same reaction in me 20 years ago, but – and despite the best efforts of a genuinely solid cast – I found Piranha 3D largely unwatchable.
As for the 3D, though it did add a certain cheesy eeriness to the underwater scenes, it was patently inferior to the effects seen in Avatar. The big cliché when describing 3D content is that the x or y really seems to be leaping out of the screen toward you. For me, Avatar actually delivered this sensation on many occasions, but Piranha 3D – despite enchanting shots of the heroine being sick toward the camera, or some “jocks” throwing a drink at the onlooking main character – definitely didn’t. It was often more reminiscent of earlier attempts at 3D – such as Jaws 3D or Friday the 13th Part III – when the effect was less three dimensional and more multi-layered, like a spacious theatre stage populated by cardboard cutouts.
FLAT OR FABULOUS
I’ve now seen four 3D films in total: Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, Toy Story 3 and Piranha 3D. Of those, just one stood up as an excellent film in its own right – the funny and poignant Toy Story 3 – while Avatar was the only one, at least for me, where the 3D effects were genuinely stunning (but in the absence of a decent story, even they got a bit tired after a while). Though better than in Piranha 3D, the effects in Alice in Wonderland were rarely riveting, and the film itself was the kind of predictable hokum that Tim Burton seems to specialise in these days. And even though Toy Story 3, as an animated film, was able to make use of the best 3D technology, I would argue that the 3D effects really didn’t add a whole lot to it.
So, is 3D a waste of time? Actually, I really don’t think so. Through my work (which involves doing PR for LG Electronics), I also got the chance to see some of the new 3D TVs in action at a tradeshow in Seoul a couple of months back. In the middle of an exhibition hall at COEX, LG and Samsung had two massive, flashy booths lined up right next to each other, and the highlight in each was unquestionably their 3D line-ups. Here, as much as anywhere outside the opening hour and a half of Avatar, I got a taste of what 3D effects can really do.
Though not everything on display looked flawless, the larger sized screens, when showing content actually filmed in 3D, were very impressive. A trailer for the teen dance movie Step-up 3D finished with a dancer flinging his hat toward the screen, which genuinely made me flinch. Best of all, however, were the computer games and the football, two forms of content for which 3D seems tailor made. To trot out some more clichés, the computer game, itself based on Avatar, really did draw me into the action. Irrespective of the so-so gameplay, the graphics and Na’vi character were so convincing I could almost feel the onscreen undergrowth brushing against my legs. The football was every bit as engrossing. Showing a montage of clips from Chelsea games, the 3D effect really gave the impression I was watching a field of oompa-loompa footballers playing the game right in front of me.
Which brings us back to Piranha 3D. When asked his opinion of the new film (whose original version, incidentally, had a sequel directed by Cameron himself), James Cameron said: “I tend almost never to throw other films under the bus, but that is exactly an example of what we should not be doing in 3-D. Because it just cheapens the medium and reminds you of the bad 3-D horror films from the 70s and 80s, like Friday the 13th 3-D.” This drew a sharp response from some commenters. But after seeing a fair bit of 3D stuff myself since the release of Avatar, I’m increasingly inclined to agree with him.
Especially since the release of the much-derided Clash of the Titans remake, 3D has been facing a growing backlash, with many dismissing it as no more than a gimmick. Having seen the best and the lesser sides of it, I think 3D is definitely not going away. But I can see a few things happening:
1) After the forthcoming flurry of 3D films, the novelty will wear off, and filmmakers and viewers will settle on certain genres of films for which 3D is especially well suited; ie, action, sci-fi, animation and perhaps some horror. The only elements of 3D I think will prove to be a “gimmick” are the lower-quality effects used on the likes of Piranha 3D and Clash of the Titans.
2) 3D will become a standard feature on TVs, especially once a good amount of 3D Blu-ray content hits the market.
3) But even when glasses-free models come out, 3D content will still only have appeal in certain genres. However, on top of the kind of movies that will attract 3D fans to cinemas, 3D TV will also become popular for all kinds of sports, computer games and perhaps wildlife shows and the like.
So there’s my tuppence worth. And for what it’s worth, I reckon that the forthcoming Tron: Legacy film – which I’m REALLY looking forward to – could be the one that takes 3D properly into the mainstream.
Here’s a piece I wrote for CNNGo.com about Seoul’s “quirkiest” bars. It actually took a hell of a lot of legwork, so it’s nice to see it getting some appreciation on the CNNGo.com site (thanks if you recommended it!).
Highlights of my time in Korea have often had a touch of the bizarre about them. Being part of an impromptu, 10,000-strong street party that stopped the traffic on Gangnam-gu, right after Ahn Jung-hwan had scored the goal that sank Italy in the 2002 World Cup, was chaotic but disarmingly friendly. Standing atop the snow-covered peaks of Mount Hallasan on Jeju Island in March while the rest of “Korea’s Hawaii” was dry and bathed in sun was fantastic, yet somewhat disconcerting. Likewise, going to Jisan Valley Rock Festival and seeing Korean fans in tears to the Pet Shop Boys and Belle and Sebastian was tremendous, but not the kind of response I’d ever have imagined Koreans lavishing on middle-aged British pop stars.
Unlike last year when we went to Jisan for the Saturday and Sunday, this year, with what was – along with Pentaport in 2006 – the strongest overall lineup yet at a Korean rock festival, I took the Friday off work and headed down there for the whole three-day shebang.
DAY 1: After a protracted journey, involving two subways and a local bus, I finally got to Jisan at around 4.30, just in time to see Martina Topley-Bird. Though I’d never heard anything she’d done apart from her work on Maxinquaye, Tricky’s album from 1995, I was quite taken with her oddball charm, and she soon had the smallish crowd dancing along as best they could to her stripped-back, trip-hoppish tunes.
As her set drew to a close, we joined one of the mass between-band exoduses that was to mark the whole weekend and headed over to the main stage for the surprise hit of the festival. From the time they started in the mid-90s I’ve always been vaguely aware of Belle and Sebastian, but I invariably found their music to be mannered and forgettable. And so it sounded as I turned the corner to see them there on the main stage, plucking their guitars and cellos and shuffling gently as Stuart Murdoch crooned into his mic.
But then, over the course of the next hour or so, the strangest thing happened.
I’d heard that Belle and Sebastian enjoy a cultish following in Korea – indeed, the girl sat next to me on the bus said she was only going to Jisan, her first ever festival, to see them. But before long, it became patently clear just how deep this affection runs. To tunes that only struck a distant chord with me, hordes of Korean indie kids danced euphorically, singing along to every single, presumably poorly understood, word. Stuart Murdoch reciprocated with sentences of endearingly poor Korean and an invitation for a bunch of fans to come up on stage and dance, which they did with goofy abandon. On two or three occasions, the side-stage screens showed close-ups of a young girl in the front row, who was so overcome with emotion, her attempts to dance and sing were constantly interrupted with floods of tears. Cheesy as it sounds, seeing 20-something Koreans so affected by introspective indie pop from a bunch of 40-something Glaswegians almost had me welling up, too.
After that rousing performance, Diane Birch, unsurprisingly, seemed kind of dull (thought it’s pretty hard for female singer songwriters to stand out from their throngs of peers these days). Next up, Vampire Weekend gave a strong, highly charged performance that had the crowd pogoing along. It was great to hear the standards from the first album – Oxford Comma, I Stand Corrected and Walcott all sounded superb live – but despite their energy and excitable chat, it still seemed a bit of an anticlimax compared to the big love-in of the Belle and Sebastian show.
Much was expected of headliners Massive Attack, but despite an inventive and sometimes exhilarating light show, they fell surprisingly flat. Call me an old grouch, but if you’re sitting on one of the best back catalogues of the ’90s and you’re doing your first ever show in a new country, you HAVE to play the classics. Granted, I’m not too familiar with their more recent stuff (ie, anything after Mezzanine), but no Unfinished Sympathy, Protection or Karmacoma and only a tinkly remix of Teardrops?? For shame.
DAY 2: The day began in unspectacular fashion with Mate (poor), Vanilla Unity (noisy) and Matzka (meh) before finally picking up with the superb Kingston Rudieska, a Korean ska band. Exceptional musicians led by a hyperactive frontman with a nice line in patois, Kingston Rudieska were truly infectious, stoking an enthusiastic response despite the searing afternoon temperatures.
The day continued to tick along until festival favourites Jang Kiha and the Faces took to the stage a little before 6. Though their music can be a bit arch for some tastes, their enormously charismatic frontman, Jang Kiha, struck the best rapport with the crowd of any band over the weekend. His dry, between-song schtick drew big laughs from much of the crowd, and he gleefully exploited his big, festival-friendly choruses to get everyone singing along and throwing their hands around.
Rounding off the night were the Pet Shop Boys, who I’d expected to be perhaps the highlight of the weekend. And unlike Massive Attack, they delivered in spectacular fashion. To a stage decorated with two vast, draft-board light decorations, they marched out to an already frenzied crowd and began with a rousing rendition of Heart, a song I’d never really rated before but which is now, after that performance, one of my favourites. From then on, it was a procession of greatest hits – It’s a Sin, Suburbia, West End Girls, Go West, Love Etc, What Have I Done To Deserve This? – all against the backdrop of balletic dance shows and Pink Floyd-esque wall blocks that were variously built up, thrown around and sent crashing to the stage. And when they played Being Boring and Jealousy in their encore, they apparently, according to one of my friends, had a couple of grown Korean guys reduced to tears. Absolutely blinding.
DAY 3: On what was probably the weakest overall of the three days, a bunch of Korean bands came and went – Galaxy Express (OK), Schizo (fast and loud), Im Joo-yeon (totally anonymous) – before things picked up a bit with Japanese rockers The Hiatus. With one of the most powerful openings of the weekend, the lead singer tore through a track called The Ivy, demonstrating both a fearsome set of pipes and a serious admiration for that night’s headliners, Muse. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to maintain that pace, and the set declined into energetic, but largely forgettable power rock.
Also suffering from “unmatched opening syndrome” was Toe, who began with a blistering acoustic track before giving up on vocals and going all jazz odyssey. Third Eye Blind were predictably bland, and had embarrassingly bad chat to boot (“We were told that [where are we today?] Korea had the best crowds in the world, and it’s TRUE! You guys ROCK!”). Corinne Bailey Rae was very pleasant, and seemed like a lovely woman too. And Kula Shaker, who I’ve now seen twice in Korea, gave a decent enough reprise of their Britpop glory days.
I was a bit exhausted by the time Muse came on, and this is now the third time I’ve seen them, but they are an undeniably powerful act live. Uprising – a stomping, paranoid call to arms – was a great choice for the opening song, and Matt Bellamy’s guitar playing was as virtuosic as ever. I’m still a big fan of Muse, if not quite as much as after Black Holes and Revelations, but I think I’d have got more out of their show if they’d been headlining on Friday.
THE GOOD: Overall, this was an excellent event: great line-up of major bands, fantastic location in a mountainous, wooded valley, well organized with plentiful and reasonably priced food and drink. The addition of a massive pool, especially given the brutal heat of Saturday and Sunday, was inspired, and the atmosphere was dependably excellent.
THE BAD: Extending the size of the site, thereby stretching the walk between the two main stages, really didn’t work. If, as seems to be the case, the purpose was to provide room for the dance area to run all day, it was a mistake, as that area remained deserted throughout the three daytimes. Technical hitches blighted a few shows (though they did shorten the set by Mate, so it wasn’t all bad news). And the Korean bands were a little flat this year, though there were several I didn’t see who I heard put on a good show (The Koxx, 3rd Line Butterfly).
Korea’s increasingly crowded festival season kicked off this weekend with the granddaddy of them all, Pentaport.
With Jisan taking place next week — and with the prospect of two festivals in two consecutive weekends not as appealing as it would have been a few years ago — I hadn’t originally planned on going to Pentaport this year. But when I found out that LCD Soundsystem were on the bill on Saturday, my resolve gradually weakened until all it took was a gentle prod from a friend to convince me to go. In the end, a nebulous group of between three and six of us were there, with a bunch of other people I knew in attendance as well.
This was the fourth Pentaport I’ve been to, and the first since the rift between the event’s former joint promoters. As music fans here will probably know, Yellow9 split off from Yescom last year and promptly scheduled a new event, the Jisan Valley Rock Festival, for the same weekend as Pentaport. Because Yellow9 seemingly enjoy closer connections with Fuji Rock — the Japanese festival that runs on the same weekend and that Pentaport used to share bands and singers with — they were able to lure the more famous acts to Jisan last year, leaving Pentaport with a weaker lineup. With Jisan again occupying the Fuji weekend, Pentaport this year decided to run on the weekend before and in a new venue, a big field in Incheon called Dreampark.
Though I had some fantastic (if rather hazy) memories of the old Pentaport site in Songdo, I have to say the new place is an improvement. Open, grassy and reasonably scenic, it is definitely more pleasant overall and hadn’t, despite heavy rainfall on the Friday morning, been churned up into a mud bath. The forecast thunderstorms failed to materialise too, and we were blessed with marvellous sunny weather.
On the downside, not having access to Fuji’s roster of artists is clearly hurting Pentaport. Though LCD Soundsystem are one of my favourite bands and currently at the top of their game, there were no acts strong enough to compel me to visit on the Friday or Sunday. Ian Brown, who was headlining on Sunday, would have had a certain nostalgia value, but I’d be hard pushed to think of two less inspiring bands than Friday and Saturday’s big names, Stereophonics and Hoobastank. Sadly, this was also reflected in crowds that were a good bit smaller than in Pentaport’s glory days a few years ago.
As always happens at rock festivals here, though, we did also come across one or two great Korean bands we’d never heard of. Of those, the unfortunately named The Koxx (above) – think a Korean version of Franz Ferdinand with added synths – were the best. Then, of course, there was LCD Soundsystem.
Though not to everyone’s taste — one of my friends found them a little disappointing — I thought they were fantastic live. Better still, they ticked pretty much every box for my favourite tracks: All My Friends, Losing My Edge, Tribulations and the uproarious Yeah. Fuelled by beer, tequila and Jager Bombs (bleurch), we let rip with plenty of whooping and preposterous dance moves, as did the amassed crowds, which swelled noticeably when LCD Soundsystem came on. As is invariably the case at big gigs here, the atmosphere was tremendous and extremely good natured. One of my friends, himself of Korean descent, said he’d had no idea that Korean music fans could tear it up like that, nor that such a fan base even existed for this kind of music. With TV here saturated with squeaky, ditzy, cosmetically altered K-pop stars, it’s easy to think that concerts in Korea are the sole preserve of excitable teens chanting their idols’ names and waving oversized blue light sticks (see here for the full horror). But as with much else here, the good stuff really does exist if you’re prepared to search it out.
As for Pentaport itself, though it’s been a little sad to see its difficulties, I think the decoupling from Yellow9 might not eventually be as disastrous as it would have been even a few years ago. Though it used to be big news even when the likes of Toto came to town, the live music scene in Korea has improved so much in the past few years that it’s now possible to run a whole series of festivals with some genuinely big names. Korea, it seems, is becoming more of a stop-off in its own right and not just an afterthought for performers going to Japan, which is obviously good news for Pentaport and others. For the time being, however, Jisan is undoubtedly the king of a fast-growing heap. And more on that when I eventually recover from the three days I’m spending there next weekend…
UPDATE: Well that’ll teach me to try and guess crowd numbers. According to online sources, 50,000 people showed up over the weekend with 27,000 on Saturday alone. The reason it looked quieter, apparently, is that the site is so much bigger than the old place. I’m delighted to hear it, but I wouldn’t have guessed anywhere near that number…
Whether a sign of age-induced mellowing or of resignation that England will always be toss at major tournaments, I resolved this weekend — not six days after seeing Low’s team lay waste to England’s World Cup hopes — to support Germany against Argentina. Though I am half-German myself, I’ve always had a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the national football team, not least because of their tendency to beat England (the country of my birth) whenever it really mattered.
Along with a few friends, I went to see the game at a place called Kunsthalle, which, as the name screams, has German roots of its own.
As clear a sign as any of how much more interesting Seoul has become in recent years, Kunsthalle is a branch of a “subcultural collective” that started in Berlin in 2000. Made up of a series of shipping containers, it has a warehouse-like interior with a bar, restaurant and a series of exhibition spaces. When we arrived on Saturday at about 9pm, what we saw was not a bunch of weissbier-swilling fussball fans, but one of the centre’s regular flea markets, in which small teams of Korean and foreign hipsters offered retro clothes, T-shirts, face-painting and the like, against a backdrop of very loud dance music.
By 10.30 or so, though, the beatnik Koreans were being increasingly displaced by a very diverse bunch of Germans, ranging from young student types to middle-aged professionals and even, it seemed, a few German gyopos.
Predictably enough with German fans, there was a lively but convivial atmosphere, with chants focused on backing their own team rather than insulting the opposition. And by scoring so early, the German team certainly did their bit in prompting a real carnival atmosphere in Kunsthalle. Even by my own standards, my photographs for this didn’t come out well, but for a taste of the post-goal mayhem:
My mate who was there said that it was the best post-match party he’d seen at this World Cup, and I have to say I’m inclined to agree. Though it couldn’t, of course, compete in scale with the absolute insanity during the 2002 World Cup here in Korea, I think there were certain echoes with those halcyon days. Whereas this year, with what was widely reckoned to be their most talented squad ever, Team Korea had acquired a bit of the “Korea Expects” type mentality that so afflicts England, among many others, the Germans arrived in South Africa with an unfancied team, blissfully unburdened (by their lofty standards) with expectations of winning the World Cup.
Of course, Korea were building from a much lower base in 2002, but there is something in the spirit, speed and togetherness of this German team that brings to mind Team Korea back then. And that, I think, is part of what made watching this German team, and cheering along with the German fans, such a pleasure.
I called three of the four quarter finals correctly (excepting Uruguay) and I actually have a feeling that Germany’s glorious run will grind to a halt in the semis — provided, of course, that Spain turns it up a notch. But, more than any time since the 1990 World Cup final — when Germany came heart-wrenchingly close to overturning a two-goal deficit against a Maradona-led Argentina — I’d be happy to be proved wrong.
Of the many challenges that present themselves to the furrner working in a big Korean company, one of the most confounding is surely the system of titles. From the very lowest (usually 사원, or sawon, which translates as “employee”) up through 팀장 (timjang or “team leader”) and ascending to the giddy heights of 회장 (hoejang, “president” or “chairman”), the Korean employee is defined by his or her title. In many workplaces, staff senior to you no longer have a name, they have only a rank — in three years working together at the inflight magazine, I never once addressed our editor-in-chief even by his family name. He was, simply, Mr Editor-in-Chief (편집장님, pyeonjibjangnim), and no amount of informal chats, bawdy jokes or late-night drinking sessions could alter that hierarchical bond. (An embarrassing upshot of this was that with many senior staff, I was as ignorant of their real names three years into our working relationship as I was on the day we met.)
Of course, Korea is, as we outsiders are always quick to point out, a very hierarchical place. Because verb usage, titles and even words change depending on who you are talking to (on their birthdays, older people or higher ups are wished a happy 생신 [saengsin], while everyone else merely has a happy 생일 [saengil]), titles really matter. As with many other things, I’d often assumed the preoccupation with rank to be a quaintly Korean trait, and something that had fallen by the wayside in the ever-more informal, ever-more egalitarian UK (and the West more generally). But with my job change at the beginning of this year, I was reminded that the fixation with titles — albeit in very different cultural and linguistic contexts — extends across the corporate world and is actually on the increase. This phenomenon, as I learned in an amusing Economist piece last week, is called “title inflation”:
When it comes to job titles, we live in an age of rampant inflation. Everybody you come across seems to be a chief or president of some variety. Title inflation is producing its own vocabulary: “uptitling” and “title-fluffing”. It is also producing technological aids. One website provides a simple formula: just take your job title, mix in a few grand words, such as “global”, “interface” and “customer”, and hey presto.
I was (and am) no big fan of the rigid hierarchies and stratified language of the Korean office. But it sometimes seems to me that, especially at the workplace, a relationship built on a pecking order is more natural and comforting than we ostensibly egalitarian Westerners would like to admit. The usual tendency is to characterise Korea’s hierarchical set-ups as inherently exploitative; but that, from my almost six-year perspective of working in Korean offices, seems way too simplistic. Though much has changed in Korea itself, I think there is something innately reassuring about knowing that in the years to come, you will be afforded a degree of respect by dint of your length of service and (however mildly) increased rank. Perhaps, with this “title inflation,” Westerners are trying to recapture that sense of self-worth that “horizontal” workplaces have done so much to erode.