I’m afraid posting will continue to be light here for the foreseeable future due to workload. It’s a shame since there are lots of interesting things that I would like to be writing about here if I had the time and I feel somewhat bad that I’ve managed to ignore pretty much all news coming out of Korea for the last few weeks (the protests at P’yŏngt’aek, the expulsion of activist students from Kodae, the Tokto situation and the local elections). But that’s life. I might squeeze out one post this week, but no promises…
May 23, 2006
May 18, 2006
It would be difficult to find a better way to mark the anniversary of the beginning of the Kwangju uprising than reading Matt’s post over at Gusts of Popular Feeling.
May 16, 2006
I’m slightly bemused to discover that someone in Britain has started a blog dedicated entirely to getting the BBC to show the hit Korean historical drama (사극), Taejanggŭm (大長今). I’m really not sure how likely this is considering the considerable barriers to comprehension for a British audience, even with well-translated subtitles. But I suppose it has been a huge hit in many parts of Asia (the Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan etc etc) and I can just about imagine this sort of TV series being shown on the BBC’s high-brow, low audience channel, BBC4. Which incidentally is where they have shown the epic, arty German mega-series Heimat which a commenter on the blog compares with Taejanggŭm.
Actually I must admit that I haven’t seen much of this drama. It was the big hit last time I was in Korea more than two years ago but I only saw a little bit of it, most of which seemed to involve food (no doubt part of its appeal in Korea!). I certainly wouldn’t object to seeing it on the BBC (however unlikely that may be) so I did my bit and signed the petition.
Anyway, to prove the point about the widespread popularity of this series, here’s a picture I posted back last year of the window of a Chinese shop in Seattle with no less than 3 posters advertising Taejanggŭm:
Just discovered that there’s a fairly comprehensive Wikipedia entry.
May 11, 2006
May 10, 2006
Crossposted from Frog in a Well:
I’ve been dipping into an excellent book on the history of Korean popular music now and then (이혜숙 & 손우석 - 한국대중음악사) and came across a fascinating passage on Park Chung-hee’s use of drugs scares to suppress the emerging youth culture that he found threatening. Here’s an excerpt (my rough translation):
After the defeat in Vietnam Park Chung-hee set about strengthening his dictatorship by stressing an external policy of self-reliant defence and an internal policy of ‘defending the system’. To that end, the possession of nuclear weapons, national harmony and traditional culture were all emphasised. However, the imitation of the Western youth culture of jeans, long hair, [folk] guitar and pop songs was widespread. At a time when it was necessary to defend the system and achieve national unity and a self-reliant defence it was impossible to remain indifferent to this degenerate Western youth culture. It was necessary to tighten social discipline. In the view of Park Chung-hee the base and degenerate culture of the West appeared in two forms: one was the folk guitar singers and the other was the entertainers who had originated in the [clubs frequented by] US Eighth Army soldiers. A crackdown on these people was urgent. He began by banninglarge numbers of pop songs and kayo and then moved on to a crackdown on marijuana. On December 2nd, 1975 a huge number of entertainers were banned completely from working in the so-called ‘marijuana crisis’ (대마초 파동). [한국대중음악사, p86]
The book goes on to quote Park Chung-hee himself on the marijuana problem:
“At this grave juncture that will settle the matter of life and death in our one-on-one [struggle] with the Communist Party, the smoking of marijuana by the youth is something that will bring ruin to our country… You must pull up by the roots the problem of marijuana smoking and similar activities by applying the maximum penalties currently available under the law.” [Chosun Ilbo, 3 February 1976, quoted in above book, p88]
There was a little bit more to this story, because the president’s own son, Park Ji-man, had smoked marijuana and been influenced by hippy culture. As the authors of the book point out, this was possibly further motivation for Park’s crackdown.
Of course there exist semi-conspiracy theories as to why marijuana is prohibited throughout the world and how it came to be prohibited in the first place. We can also ask the broader questions about why states would want to outlaw commodities for which there is a clear market and which could be so lucrative to both capitalist entrepreneurs and government tax revenues (David Harvey has some good passages on the limits of commoditisation in his recent book on neoliberalism).
This is probably not the place to get into all the historical reasons why this particular commodity happens to be prohibited. But the history of controlled drugs all over the world shows that social control is often one aspect in the calculations of governments enforcing prohibition laws. Korea was and continues to be a good example of this. The fact that illegal drug use is very low in Korea by world standards did not and does not stop the authorities from stamping down on the merest hint of usage, particularly when it comes to people in the public eye. As I’ve mentioned in a post before at my blog, there continue to be periodic scandals with prominent Korean entertainers being busted and sometimes having their careers ruined. And this is not confined to the world of pop singers or TV hosts – one of Korea’s most talented traditional musicians, percussionist and dancer Yi Kwangsu, has been in and out of jail a number of times as a result of his fondness for the odd reefer.
Of course, as a fibre crop hemp was crucial to the economies of both Korea and Japan for hundreds of years. But that’s another story…
May 8, 2006
There are now a couple of very worthwhile reviews out of the book ‘Reinterpreting Korea’s Liberation History’ (해방전후사의 재인식) which I have discussed here and at Frog in a Well already (parts one and two). Both are by historians on the left whom I admire - unfortunately both are in Korean and are likely to remain that way until I have some time to translate one or both of them (I will get around to it at some point). Anyway, for any readers of Korean who are interested here they are:
I think on reflection that I’ll avoid forking out the required 60,000 won for the two volumes and wait until it arrives at SOAS library before having a browse through the actual book.
May 2, 2006
I’ve been meaning for a while to mention the BBC’s recent coverage of the second anniversary of the tragedy in which 23 Chinese migrant workers died in the sands of Morecombe bay in northwest England. The BBC actually provided some excellent coverage of this story, which coincided with the culmination of a criminal case against one of the ‘gangmasters’ involved in hiring the workers. There was even a programme on BBC 1 which provided dramatised reenactment of the terrible day when the cockle pickers died in the fast-rising tide.
I found Rupert Wingfield-Hayes’ interview with the wife of one of the dead men particularly interesting. Her husband, like almost all of the victims, was from Fujian Province and the article brings home both the real human tragedy of the story but also the bigger picture - the economic and social impact on an area like Fujian that seems to be a sort of incubator for migrant workers:
Despite such stories, and the tragedy of the Morecambe Bay drownings, the flood of young migrants leaving this part of south-east China continues unabated.
In a nearby house, Mrs Li takes me to see her husband’s uncle. Unlike Mrs Li, Lin Yiming lives in a spacious three-storey house.
On the sofa his wife is cradling a tiny baby, only five months old. “This is my grandson,” Mr Lin tells me with pride.
“He was born in Japan but last week my daughter-in-law brought him back to stay with us.”
It turns out Mr Lin’s son and daughter-in-law are both living in Japan illegally.
“They work very hard,” he said. “My son often works two shifts in the factory, the day and the night. That way he can make more money.”
Mr Lin himself spent 10 years in Japan working in factories and restaurants.
“That’s how it works round here,” he said. “Young people go out for 10 to 15 years and save enough money to come home and build a house like this one.”
The evidence is all around the village. Mr Lin’s house is modest compared to some.
There was also recently an excellent comment piece in the Guardian. The author, Hsiao-Hung Pai points out that there is little to stop such a tragedy happening again and lays the blame squarely at the door of New Labour’s asylum and immigration policies:
With asylum rights curtailed and manual-labour migration discouraged, the workers resorted to cockling. In some cases they were looking for better-paid jobs to send money home; some moved from job to job because of the casual, seasonal nature of work demanded by multinational retailers; others were driven out of urban centres into higher-risk occupations by fear of police raids as a result of their vulnerable immigration status.
Lin Liangren blames “bad luck” for the Morecambe Bay tragedy. But Li Jinyun, the widow of one of the victims, believes otherwise: “It’s the working conditions in Britain that killed our loved ones.” Yang Shangjin - a Morecambe Bay cockler who had earlier worked on construction sites in Shanghai - told me he blamed the brutality of capitalism for the tragedy.
Incidentally, I noticed that the author Hsiao-Hung Pai will be standing as a Respect candidate in Newham, East London in this Thursday’s local elections. I hope she’s one of those elected to represent the very diverse community of the area, including of course, its historic Chinese community.