Samstag, 2. Juli 2011

The Travelogue, Part XXV - Korea: A Future in Glass and Neon

What Paris is for France, Seoul is for Korea. It's the country's public face, its economic, cultural and artistic hub, a giant 25 million moloch that dominates the whole penisula. Almost all elements of Korean culture can be found in its 600 year old capital, and many foreigners make it their only Korean stop when they travel Asia. It is here where you can best see how Korea perceives itself, where it came from and where it wants to go. It has helped me understand the fervid nationalism and the crazy pressure to outperform that shape this country. Students of Korean history might correct me, but these are my conclusions from my visit to Korea's urban heart.

This company's motto could well be that of South Korea

Seoul has great goals. It aims to be one of the top 10 world cities within the next decade, on par with cities such as New York, London or Paris. Everywhere you go, its achievements and ambitions will be heralded to you in big letters. Visiting its many museums and future projects has made me realize the troubles Korean identity has been through, and why they are so proud of their achievements. I hope that this (very) brief outline of its history of foreign dominance will do the same for you.

Korea as a Client Kingdom

Although officially independent, Korea was in its various forms mostly dependent on the benevolence of its giant neighbour. Ever since the Joseon monarchs adopted Neo-Confucianism and with it a plethora of Chinese court culture, Korea has gradually lost its grip on its own cultural heritage. Even today, anything relating to history and tradition will use Chinese characters, even if there are Hangul next to them. Same for architecture, music and medicine. Genuinly Korean culture seems to only have existed among as folk culture, and most things that struck me as uniquely Korean where displayed in the various folk museums around the peninsula.

Chinese influence is obvious in court buildings

The Japanese and Manchu Invasions

Joseon warrior, the uniform is clearly Manchu-style

Further adding to the Korean national identity crisis, the Koreans where first invaded by the Japanese during the 1500, then by the Machu in the 1600, each time taking massive losses, when all they wanted was to be left alone. Then the Qing (Chinese) empire came to make sure that Korea would keep that tribute coming and accept cultural hegemony.

Imperial Hegemony

In 1880 the Koreans were forced by the Americans to end their isolationism. They never came to enjoy it, however, as first the Russians and then the Japanese deemed them a perfect colonial state and subsequently invaded. Japan formally annexed Korea in 1905 and set on a quest to eradicate every single bit of Korean culture with typically Japanese brutality. Millions of Koreans where forced to adopt Japanese customs and language or died in prisons and torture camps. During World War II Korea was used a giant assembly line for the Japanese war effort, which included abducting thousands of young women as field prostitutes for Japanese soldiers (so called "comfort women").

Seodaemun Prison served as a torture site for the Japanese Empire
Today, it is a museum and symbol of national resistance and identity

Thousands of Korean partriots lost their lives behind its walls

Yu Gwan Sun, a famous female independence martyr

Cold War Split

After this ordeal was over, the Korean War and the subsequent split of the nation into effectively two seperate cultural zones with more than a modicum of indoctrination on both sides of the frontier, Koreans did what it had done for centuries before: get their heads down and make it through somehow. Rightfully they see themselves as very resilient, strong-willed people who will not despair in the face of adversity. Foreign cultural force was strong though, and a love for baseball and American accents are not the only persistent Western influence in Korean society.

The Tiger State

The Haechi, a ancient guardian figure, is the official symbol of Seoul.

Unchecked capitalism, inhumane work attitudes and unquestioning assimilation has catapulted South Korea into modernity to become one of the most vibrant economies on Earth. Companies like LG, Samsung or Hyundai can be frequently found across the globe, all due to the Korean's relentless desire to defend their place in the world. So it's unsurprising that many Koreans I meet seem to draw their national pride mainly from (technological) products their country exports. Export numbers seem to be directly related to the nation's advancement, and being on the forefront of technology is so important it will be frequently claimed on dubious grounds. So big is the obsession with being "the future" that it took foreigners to actually preserve traditional Korean buildings and save them from the ever-hungry bulldozers of modernity.

The success of the "hallyu", the Korean Wave, seems to have assured Koreans in their idea that they have to overtake everyone, so they can finally create history, and shape an uniquely Korean identity independent from everyone else's cultural influence. And that is merely beginning. Everywhere you care to venture in Seoul, whether it's trendy Hongdae or busy Gangnam, you will see a cyberpunky version of things to come that even puts Tokyo to shame. Seoul was the design capital of 2010, and it could well be for the decade to come. Teeming with ambitious architecture and indendent design stores, it's the place where a large part of Asia's young generation, from Thailand to Japan, looks to for inspiration and style.

Cool kids in Hongdae

Independent design stores can be found all over Seoul

The city's administration has also called for a veritable crusade against its urban concrete sprawl, and vast funds are made available to revamp large parts of the city, including the majority of the Han river shoreline. The projects are as ambitious as they are elegant, but I have no doubt that Korean steadfastness and limitless ambitions will see them all through.

Incheon Tower

Dongdaemon Design Plaza Mockup...

...and its real (unfinished) version.

Visitor console in Dongdaemon Design Plaza
Seoul at night

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