Home Improvements

Seoul, it has to be said, doesn’t enjoy the rosiest of reputations when it comes to architecture. In a now infamous Lonely Planet poll that placed Seoul as readers’ third-least favourite city in the world, one traveller railed: “It’s an appallingly repetitive sprawl of freeways and Soviet-style concrete apartment buildings, horribly polluted, with no heart or spirit to it. So oppressively bland that the populace is driven to alcoholism.” As with many rants, there are elements of truth to this. Seoul has way more than its fair share of dreary concrete blocks and mammoth, permanently clogged roads in the city centre. (There’s no shortage of pissheads, either, though the extent to which that can be blamed on the architecture is moot.)

However, according to Ken Nah, a design professor at Hongik University who I interviewed for a magazine story, Seoul’s shortcomings are actually a key reason why it was designated 2010’s World Design Capital. “The Design Capital designation,” he said, “is not based on what a city is today or what it has done so far. It is about cities that use design as a means to upgrade the city. In this regard, Seoul has enormous potential.”  The other thing, and this is something I only really noticed when I started looking, is that there are actually some fascinating things going on already in the city regarding its architecture. But because they are so swamped by grey monoliths and tatty shop-fronts, they can be easy to miss.

One place that’s not very well known, but would cut a radical figure in pretty much any city, is the Kring Building.

Located just down the road from exit 3 of Samseong Station, Kring is all the more eyecatching for the sheer drabness of the buildings surrounding it. I was lucky enough to interview one of the architects behind Kring, and he said that the building’s amazing facade — resembling spreading soundwaves — was inspired by the name of the development company: Woorim, meaning “echo.” When I asked him whether it was difficult getting approval for such an unusual structure, he said, tellingly, that as soon as they told the local council and the developer that the building would be a “landmark,” all initial misgivings disappeared.

Though not as impressive as the outside, the interior is an interesting mix of wide open exhibition spaces, gathering areas and a cafe. There’s also a nice little arthouse cinema that shows a range of highbrow fare from around the world. The architect said that making the building (which houses offices on its upper floors) genuinely accessible to the public was one of the central parts of the brief. And, at least ostensibly, this is the mantra underpinning much of the new development taking place in the city.

In the last few years, there have been some conspicuous government-led attempts to improve things in Seoul. Two of the best known are undoubtedly the Cheonggyecheon Stream reclamation and the spectacular fountain and light show on the side of Banpo Bridge. As city governments with dreams of grandeur are wont to do, however, the Seoul authorities are now looking to trump those with the Dongdaemun Design Park and Plaza (DDP), a lavishly conceived behemoth currently under construction on the site of what was a colonial-era baseball stadium, and right next to Seoul’s famous all-night shopping centres.

DDP as was, a few weeks ago...
... and as will be, when complete.

The above picture shows what the titanium-clad, US$1.2 billion beast will look like when it’s finished sometime in 2012. I took a look around the site as it is, along with its nicely appointed visitors’ centre, and though it was all very impressive, I felt a nagging uncertainty of who it’s all for (the government insists that the DDP’s main purpose is to help educate Seoulites on the importance of design and to demonstrate how it can improve their lives). Still, there can be little doubt of the scale of Seoul’s ambition with the project. Having brought one of the world’s best-known architects on board to design it, the city authorities apparently foresee this bulging construction — which will host parks, exhibition halls, libraries and assorted other facilities — as the spearhead of Seoul’s drive into the major leagues of urban design. Whatever one thinks of the DDP, and whatever people’s misgivings about its cost, there is always something strangely cheering about Koreans’ breathless zeal to succeed at whatever wildly ambitious project they put their minds to.


May is usually my favourite month in Korea. Clear skied and sunny, it is mostly spared the yellow dust of early spring while exuding a cheerful warmth that sees the return of t-shirts, al fresco beers and early evening barbecues. This year, sadly, it’s been a bit of a washout. This past Sunday continued in this unseasonal vain, and though it didn’t actually rain too much, clouds hung heavy all day. What better time, then, to head to a small, heavily concealed gallery near the Blue House and check out an exhibition of an English designer whose artwork became synonymous with some of the most overblown albums of the 1970s?

Anyone who, as I did, used to love rummaging through second-hand record shops will have come across the work of Roger Dean. Though his designs adorn the album covers of such hard and soft rock titans as Uriah Heep, Budgie and Asia, it is undoubtedly his work with Yes that remains his best known. With Yes being one of the willfully difficult bands I liked in my mid-teens, it was with bemused pleasure that I found this retrospective of his work — complete with impeccably proggy title “Dragon’s Dream” — taking place at the Daelim Contemporary Art Museum, a pleasant little gallery tucked into the back of a small lane in Hyoja-dong.

Dean’s work, as should be pretty clear from the above pics, was always of a fantastical, new-agey bent, with lots of floating islands, rustic backdrops and a dragon or two. And if you noticed more than a slight resemblance between Dean’s paintings and the scenery in turgid 3D megahit Avatar, you’re not alone. When quizzed about whether planet Pandora might have been inspired by a Yes album cover, Cameron himself apparently said: “It might have been, back in my pot-smoking days.”

To all but a very small number of the very few people reading this, Yes will be an unknown quantity. Part of the strangely British phenomenon of progressive rock — which enjoyed several years of huge success in the ’70s before being utterly demolished by punk — Yes were (at least in their “classic” early 1970s line-up) middle-class, classically trained musicians who employed finicky time signatures and hokey, pseudo-spiritual lyrics on songs that often lasted at least one side of an album. In their brand of serious, vaguely optimistic but ultimately message-free rock, they were, I think, the ideal match for Dean’s artwork.

Anyways, with that done, we took a bit of a look around Hyoja-dong, an area I’d never been to before.

Apropos of apparently nothing, just down the leafy street there was a small courtyard with what looked like a giant yellow pumpkin with black polka dots. The artsy theme continued with a couple more galleries, before we found a charming, apparently nameless, little coffee shop of the type that Seoul seems to do so well these days.

I had never even heard of Hyoja-dong before coming here, and it’s not, due to its small size, a place that would bear frequent visiting. But being able to find an entirely new area with cosy coffee shops and restaurants, second-hand stores apparently named after Russian cosmonauts (below), and, of course, retrospectives of Roger Dean is definitely one of the ongoing pleasures of living in Seoul.

The Return of the Mak(geolli)

As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, I recently visited a funky little makgeolli bar called Moon Jar that sits just round the corner from Dosan Park in Apgujeong. With us finally being blessed with spring weather worthy of the name, I headed out there again this weekend hoping to enjoy some of this Korean tipple on the bar’s terrace.

Unfortunately, with this being an early Saturday evening, the place was far busier and all the outdoor seats were taken by young, beautiful and, in at least one case, famous patrons (that’s him on the right with the white t-shirt). The upstairs was completely full too, so one of the svelte, check-shirted waiting staff ushered my girlfriend and I to a table on the ground floor. After mulling over the menu, we plumped for something called baedarissal makggeoli, one of the “President Makgeollis,” and mugeunjidon jeon, a spicy version of pajeon. Usually referred to as Korean pancakes, pajeon are made mainly of eggs, flour, green onions and, in this case, some pork and a healthy dollop of chilli peppers (called gochu in Korea).

Unlike several other types of traditional Korean grog, makgeolli has never appealed to me much. It’s not so much its milky texture that put me off (though that certainly didn’t help) as its taste: slightly sweet, zingy, but with a strangely antiseptic finish. I know that coming from an avowed soju fan, these criticisms of taste may ring a bit hollow; but as a part of the ritual scoffing of BBQ pork or beef ribs (still my favourite Korean meal), soju has always occupied a place in my affections that makgeolli never did. That, and makgeolli’s meagre 5 to 6 percent strength (as opposed to soju’s mighty 20%+) has left me with several “mornings after” without much of a “night before.”

This baedarissal stuff, however, was a very different proposition. Smooth, sweet (but not too sweet) and completely zing free, I can honestly say it was the best makgeolli I’ve ever had. In this, according to the menu, I was in very distinguished company: Strongman Park Chung-hee apparently drank baedarissal makgeolli throughout his 14-year tenure in the Blue House, while famed bon vivant Kim Jong-il so wanted to try it, he specifically asked Kim Dae-jung to prepare some for him.

The pajeon was a good accompaniment too: Perhaps not quite as crunchy as I like it, but with a nice, gochu-driven kick. After polishing off the first kettle, we moved onto some lotus makgeolli. Though apparently Moon Jar’s premium brew (still only costing 15,000 won for a 375ml bottle), it tasted much more like regular makgeolli to me, with both a tang and a hint of a fizz that had me wincing slightly with the first few sips.

As for the place itself, it’s very hip in a stripped-back, Parisian art-studio kind of way. As such, it’s symbolic of the recent image overhaul makgeolli has enjoyed, which has seen it transformed from fusty old farmers’ drink to chicly authentic Korean tipple with purported health benefits to boot. While I don’t think I’ll ever be a big fan of makgeolli, places like Moon Jar are great — so pleasant, in fact, you can genuinely forget that you are drinking that stuff still sold in vast, cheap flagons at convenience stores, and imagine yourself drinking Korea’s answer to fine wine. Now, when for the rehabilitation of soju?

How to Get There: If you’re facing Dosan Park, turn right and carry on walking to the end of the park. Turn left, go straight to the end of the park, cross the road, keep walking and Moon Jar is on your left.

Trip to Taiwan

After endless prevaricating, numerous work issues, a booked then aborted trip to Thailand, extensive research, countless e-mails to hotels and infuriating late-night tussles with Chinese websites, my girlfriend and I finally made it to Taiwan last week. It was my second and her first visit to this much ignored corner of “Greater China,” and despite dodgy weather, we both had a great time.

As a long-time resident of Korea, and a sometime student of East Asia, I’m always struck by the parallels between Taiwan and South Korea:

  • They’re both former colonies of Japan.
  • They were two of the four “Asian Tigers” that went from grinding poverty to affluent, high-tech economies in a little over 30 years.
  • They’re both thriving democracies in a region with very few.
  • They both live in the shadow of sometimes menacing neighbours.
  • Despite their success, they’re both still largely unknown in much of the West (or at least, in much of Europe), and, perhaps not unrelatedly…
  • In a KTO survey a couple of years back, Taiwan and Korea were respectively ranked the least attractive and second least attractive tourist destinations in Asia.

The second last point comes with some caveats: Korea is certainly getting better known, and it’s had a fair bit of coverage recently because of its stirring recovery from the world’s recent economic woes. But still, not too many people back home, I suspect, could tell you the name of a Korean city besides Seoul, nor what the country is best known for (apart from perhaps Samsung), nor even who the protagonists were in the Korean War. As for Taiwan, without even the big brand power of the LGs and Hyundais, it is known, if at all, as that place (a country? A city? Part of China/Japan?) that makes electronics stuff and occasionally has spats with China.

Another similarity is in Taipei and Seoul themselves. As their economies soared, both were obviously built at a blistering pace, but without too much regard for the people actually living there. As a result they are both huge, bustling places, but without the obvious charms and world-famous landmarks of a London, Beijing or Sydney (Taipei 101, above left, notwithstanding). But both are improving and, at least for me, the fact you have to search out the little nuggets in each city is a big part of what makes them both so interesting.

Though it’d be a bit of a stretch to describe many of the places we visited in Taipei as “hidden gems,” by mere dint of their being in Taiwan, they aren’t so well known among non-Taiwanese. Some of the highlights were Spot (above left), an arthouse cinema set in a beautiful former residence of the US ambassador, the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall (above middle), and Villa 32, one of Taiwan’s many hot spring resorts, which are a partial legacy of Japanese colonial rule. Though I’d been there on my last visit to Taiwan, I definitely wanted to see the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall again. With its staggering scale, historical amnesia, and fawning exhibits of Chiang cosying up either with his family or world statesmen, it is a surreally detached portrait of an often brutal, always corrupt military dictator. But in yet another parallel with Korea (in this case, with the far less violent and corrupt Park Chung-hee), there is still sufficient affection for this “bulwark against communism” that attempts to remove his enormous statue or tone down the hagiography have, as yet, come to nothing.

In a completely different vein, I also wanted to make sure I paid another visit to Taroko Gorge, a magnificent canyon on Taiwan’s east coast. Before going there during my first visit to Taiwan, I’d heard it referred to as “the Grand Canyon of Asia,” but assumed that to be the kind of hyperbole often applied by overzealous tourist authorities to regions of Korea (the Santorini of Busan, anyone?). In this case, however — and while I’ve never been to the real Grand Canyon — the hype is largely justified. Comprising vast, sheer marble cliffs, much of which are covered in lush forest, Taroko Gorge is a spectacular sight. As the road to the top covers a distance of 19km, most visitors take either bus or taxi tours, which stop off at famous spots along the way, including the Eternal Springs Shrine (above middle). You can also, as we did, stay at the lovely, aborigine-run Leader hotel (above left) around halfway up the gorge.

Finally, a quick word about the food. Though Taiwan is famed for having excellent, diverse cuisine, I have to say I’ve grown progressively less fond of Chinese food since the glory days of lemon chicken and pork chow mein served up in foil containers back home. My main quibbles — the peculiar seasoning and pools of fat — were certainly in evidence in Taiwan, and nowhere more so than at a fry-up vendor at the Shilin Night Market, where the flavours of our beef, cabbage and egg roll were all drowned out by melted butter. We did have some fabulous food as well, though, including the aboriginal fare at the Leader hotel (below middle) and a bona-fide Swedish meal at a cosy little restaurant on my birthday (below left).

Bar Stories

Over the last week or so, I’ve had the considerable pleasure of checking out some of Seoul’s quirkier bars for a story I’m writing. As usual when I actually go to the trouble of searching for new (at least for me) places, I reached the following conclusions:

1) Seoul is immeasurably more diverse than it used to be, but…

2) Have some places like this always been around, but I’ve just been too stuck in my Itaewon/Samcheong-dong rut to notice? And…

3) Why are places like this not better known among expat types?

The last point, I confess, is based only on my occasional readings of English-language papers and expat-targeted events mags, so I could be way off base. (Also, blogs like SeoulGrid are making enthusiastic efforts to address this.) But some of the places I went to didn’t have a single hit on Google in English, and weren’t known to any of my foreign friends that I asked.

Unsurprisingly, Hongdae had the best known of the more off-beat bars we were after. Nabi (left) has been around for five years and is still the laid-back, faux-Indian place I recall. Oi, which had been recommended to me by a couple of friends, was OK and certainly fit the quirky bill, but was extremely loud (even very early in the evening when I was one of the few people there) and its cave-like, self-consciously zany interior didn’t really do it for me. Vinyl, too, was pretty cool, and in going there, I found myself in the presence of greatness: The owner claims to be the first person in Korea to sell cocktails in plastic ziplock bags. In later hawking them at Pentaport and other Korean rock fests, a trend that soon caught on, this fine woman was indirectly responsible for some of my sloppiest but most joyous moments over the last five years. 

Undoubtedly the best Hongdae place I popped into, however, was Gopchang Jeongol (right), a fantastic retro-styled bar at the top of a street toward the Sinchon side of the area. If you’ve spent any time at all watching Korean MTV, MNet or any of the other music channels here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Korean pop culture is a depressingly airbrushed place, occupied solely by a cast of plastic, waif-like girls and pouting, puppy-eyed guys who make British boy bands look positively nails by comparison. However, there is a heritage of more interesting stuff here and Gopchang Jeongol (the name refers to a down-home-type Korean dish that translates as the distinctly unappetising “cattle intestine stew”) plays it constantly. Encompassing Korean 60s-style psychedelia, jaunty guitar pop and heartfelt folksy ballads, the playlist here is yet another reminder that Korea has its share of cool stuff, but it just  takes a bit of determination to find it sometimes.

Of the assorted other places I went to, the best were Moon Jar in Apgujeong, a makgeolli bar with an interior resembling that of a French cottage, Au Gout des Autres, a wine bar set in a very rare, Japanese-style 1950s house near Gwanghwamun, and La Cle, a welcoming little jazz bar in Samcheong-dong with the feel of an old ship’s cabin. The one I most enjoyed, though, was Rainbow. A subterranean hookah bar that requires patrons to remove their shoes and sit on the floor, Rainbow was perhaps the most pleasant surprise because it is  located in the backstreets near Gangnam Station, an area I have always found peculiarly insipid and soulless. Rainbow, though, is great fun. With cushions and wine-crate tables on the floor, assorted Thai crafts and Bob Marley flags on the walls, and a fug of hookah smoke hovering just above everyone’s heads, Rainbow is a welcome dose of student commune-chic in the midst of one of Seoul’s brasher areas. The music’s charmingly odd, too: On the night of my visit, the playlist included Bob Marley, the Beach Boys and — yes! — Engelbert Humperdinck.

Dongdaemun by Night

No matter how long I stay in Seoul, there are still some places here that boggle me with their energy and emphatically reinforce those creaky old “dynamic Korea” stereotypes. Dongdaemun is definitely one of those places.

Though much is said about Dongdaemun in tourist bumph — the market that never sleeps, world famous fashion hub, etc — it’s difficult to appreciate the distinctly Korean brand of vigour this place exudes until you’ve actually been there. The malls at Dongdaemun are open for most of the day but get even busier by night, when they get a stream of wholesale business right up until 5 in the morning.

There are three main sections to Dongdaemun Fashion Town, as the shops are collectively known. For most tourists or casual shoppers, the first port of call is the string of huge, cut-price malls on your left as you come out of exit 14 of Dongdaemun History & Culture Park Station. Springing up from the mid-’90s onwards, these retail behemoths (including Migliore, right) comprise upwards of 10 floors and sell everything from jewellery and shoes to teapots and imported sweets. There are even some manicurists and hairdressers still cutting or snipping at 4am.

The shops themselves are generally pretty humdrum, with an endless supply of skimpy, extravagantly logoed t-shirts and trousers that would be much too figure-hugging for me even if they weren’t too short in the arm or leg. Having gone a bit more upmarket, Doota now stocks some pretty swanky gear — including, on my last visit, Tissot watches — as well as some more interesting stuff from young local designers. For me, the clothes are a bit teeny-bopper, and the experience of hanging out in this late-night retail lair considerably outweighs the allure of actually buying anything. And though a couple of the vendors there told me of late-night visits by groups of bar girls or transgenders, the more striking thing for me was just how regular everyone seemed — a far cry from the kind of characters that might populate a place like that back home at 3 in the morning.

Just next door is the place that started it all: Pyounghwa Market. Founded by merchants displaced by the Korean War (Pyounghwa means “peace”), the market is now almost 50 years old and most definitely looks its age. Absent the chrome trim and dazzling lights of the neighbouring mega-malls, Pyounghwa comprises row after endless row of mostly small stalls with decidedly more dowdy offerings. Just as the decor appears not to have changed here in 30 years, much of the stock would have been equally (or more) at home in the 1970s or ’80s: piles of straw hats, thick, gold-buttoned nylon blousons, gaudy golf shirts, shiny suits and mountains of belts, scarves, cheap accessories and long johns.

There is, I suppose, an air of “authenticity” here — some stalls sell traditional Korean hanbok outfits,  bubble-permed ajumma (middle-aged women) sit cross-legged noisily swapping war stories and the smell of dried octopus and kimchi hang heavy in the air. But at least on the two times I’ve visited, there was an unmistakable sense of decline, too. While the malls right next door still hummed with custom well past midnight, Pyounghwa was largely deserted, with some stallholders (albeit on a Sunday, apparently the quietest day of the week) under blankets and fast asleep. It gave off, I’m sad to say, the kind of dreary pallor you find in small-town shops and bus stations throughout Korea, places the country’s glittering success and development simply passed by.

But if you wanted an example of where Korea’s brash, restless brand of modernity did arrive, you need look no further than the wholesale malls just across the road. Anchored by a busy four-way junction, the towering blocks here — Designer Club, U:Us, Nuzzon and others — don’t really get going until 10 or 11 at night, when swarms of wholesalers and shop owners from around the country descend to snap up bag-fulls of clothes, shoes, jewellery, underwear and much else. At around 2am, when I arrived, the lights were almost blinding, techno music boomed from vast wall-side speakers, and piles of garment-filled laundry bags cluttered the pavement, piled next to signposts marking their ultimate destination — Busan, Daegu, Jeonju, Jeju. It was less like entering a shopping plaza, and more like stumbling into a late-night rave when disconcertingly sober, with everyone “larging” it apart from you.

The scenes were no less dizzying inside. In U:Us, late-night merchants scurried around, pen and notebook at the ready, stopping at one stall to strike a deal, and then just as quickly upping sticks to try their luck elsewhere. It was far busier than anything else I’d seen that night, with more bustle and fizz than most shopping malls could muster by day. Though I wasn’t moved to buy anything here either, the clothes seemed a good bit nicer, with a dose of more restrained stuff that I could envisage myself wearing — as well as piles of skinny-fit shirts and jeans, studiously retro dresses, Olive Oyl t-shirts and plate-like shades. But, as I suspect it was for many of the wide-eyed browsers here, the stuff being sold took a distant second billing to the people, the noise and the exhilarating, piledriving energy. As exaggerated and hackneyed as the “dynamic Korea” line can be, Dongdaemun definitely lives up to it.