Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Five festive weeks

May is festival month in South Korea. Even the smallest towns seem to have some kind of obscure celebration, from butterfly expos, ceramics fairs, firefly fiestas, and shindigs for local delicacies, flowers and myths. After somehow missing the thrills of the Changwon Watermelon Festival, I vowed to get to as many more as I could, and thankfully, three long weekends in five weeks made my quest a very pleasant one.

First up was the Lotus Lantern Festival in Seoul, to commemorate Children's Day, and act as a warm-up for Buddha's Birthday the following weekend. The city was beautifully decorated, with paper lanterns strung from every possible surface. Particularly impressive were the illuminated lanterns and sculptures along Cheonggyecheon, including a beautiful array of creatures, ancient warriors and other Buddhist symbols.

The central lantern parade was seemingly endless, beginning on Saturday in Insadong (a very busy but not unattractive tourist shopping area), then winding around the streets of central Seoul late into Sunday night. Sunday's parade was preceded by a separate parade to celebrate the city's diversity, featuring military bands, 50s rock 'n' rollers, African drummers and belly dancers, who seemed to far outnumber any other group. The lantern parade itself started in quite a low key fashion (apart from the breathless greetings by the excitable announcers), with groups of lantern-wielding marchers from what seemed like every temple in the country. Just as parade-fatigue began to set in, and the smell of bondaegee (boiled silkworm larvae served by street vendors) began to overwhelm all other senses, a series of huge, twinkling floats appeared to finish the procession in a dazzling fashion.

The weekend also afforded plenty of opportunity for sightseeing away from the festivities. A tour of Changdeokgung - a huge palace with a violent history and a peaceful 'secret garden' - was exhausting in the afternoon heat, but enjoyable nonetheless. Taking the cable car up to the top of Seoul's Namsan (South mountain) for a nighttime view of the city, and visiting the excellent Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul Grand Park were two other very satisfying highlights.

For someone who appreciates the necessity of tea in everyday life, the Hadong Wild Tea Cultural Festival was another must on my festival itinerary. Based around the Green Tea Cultural Centre in a lush valley in Hadong province, the annual festival promotes the many fine qualities of Korean green tea, and gives visitors the chance to do almost every conceivable activity with its leaves.

On offer throughout the day were green tea-based food, cocktails, sweets and accessories; a range of craft activities, including green tea soap and candle making; green tea foot spas; a bizarre treasure hunt through a tea field; a tea ceremony competition and the chance to learn how to prepare tea leaves for drinking. The latter activity was particularly engaging, although hard work, as rolling tea leaves for the optimum consistency requires a lot of effort and concentration.

The festival had a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere, and special mention must go to Isobel, a volunteer from Seoul who provided English interpretation. Due to the rather grey weather, the festival wasn't particularly busy, so Isobel worked for most of the day as our group's exclusive guide and translator, which greatly enhanced the experience.

After stopping off at Ssanggaesa, a beautiful, secluded temple near the festival site, we headed back to Changwon, slowly coming down from our green tea highs, and laden down with the results of the various workshops. The next day was supposed to be a relaxing respite from the festivities, but I craved more, so took a short bus ride to the nearby city of Jinju for the weekend-long Nongae Festival.

Nongae was a Kisaeng (an entertainer, hostess and sometimes concubine), who became the hero of the Korean resistance during the Japanese occupation in the late 16th century. After the second siege of Jinju, the triumphant Japanese army celebrated at the castle on the Nam river. Nongae seduced a particularly prominent samurai leader called Keyamura Rokusuke, and took him for a moonlit stroll along the castle's walls. Reaching a balcony overlooking the river, Nongae embraced Rokusuke, and tumbled backwards, pulling both of them to their deaths in the water below.

In the past, the Nongae festival featured a recreation of the story which involved chickens being hurled into the river, but this year was blessed with a full-scale dramatic production on the bank beneath the castle. I managed to miss this spectacle while sipping green tea in Hadong, but thankfully my fellow festival fan (and Jinju resident) Carlien took some great photos of the performance, which can be seen on her blog.

Sunday's attractions were a little less spectacular, but were a good excuse to wander the grounds of the castle, and experience some traditional Korean humour in a performance by a spirited troupe of travelling players. Other attractions included some gravity-defying acrobatics, impressive hat juggling, and the chance to experience traditional forms of military punishment (photo on request).

An unexpected festive treat for the long weekend in early June was the Haeundae Sand Festival. With the tag line 'See Sand, Feel Sand, Enjoy Sand', this was a must for beach bums, and featured incredibly detailed sand sculptures, and a variety of music and dance on Busan's most popular beach.

The pinnacle of the entertainment was a performance Drumcat, an incredible, all-female group of drummers, who seem to focus on updating traditional Korean forms for modern audiences. The show moved beyond novelty, due to the skill of the performers, and the sheer physical attack of the music. And the costumes, of course.

Along the length of the beach were the results of the amateur sand sculpture competition, which included kids' favourites such as Doraemon, Pororo and Spongebob Squarepants, as well as more abstract creations and a comment on the current 'crazy cow' crisis*.

Again, there was a lovely, friendly atmosphere at the festival, and though the speeches by prominent Busan dignitaries dragged on a little, it was a great celebration one of Busan's best features.

The spring festival season is coming to a close now, as the intense heat and heavy rains of summer make outdoor activities a little impractical. Thankfully, there are plenty of tempting events lined up for the autumn - including a mask dance festival which is supposed to be the highlight of the year - so my festival cravings shouldn't be denied for too long.

Lotus Lantern Festival website
Hadong Wild Tea Cultural Festival website
Jinju Nongae Festival - Carlien de Bruyn's blog
Haeundae Sand Festival website
YouTube video of Drumcat in action
Asia Times Article on the crazy cow crisis

Photo Galleries:
Children's Day Weekend in Seoul, Days one and two
Hadong Tea Festival
Jinju Nongae Festival
Haeundae Sand Festival

*Crazy cow has been the most prominent issue in the Korean media for many weeks now, and has proved to be a emotive catalyst for mass anti-government demonstrations all over the country. The problems started when president Lee Myung-bak (known on protest banners as 2MB, as Lee is actually pronounced 'ee', which is one of the Korean words for 2) signed a new trade agreement with the USA.

Since a minor US outbreak of BSE (mad cow disease, or 'crazy cow', as it's known by Korean students) in 2003, with reported cases, American beef imports have been restricted in Korea. Some nearby countries, such as Japan, still don't allow the import of US beef from cows slaughtered at 30 months or older, as these animals are believed (though the evidence is sketchy) to be more at risk from BSE. The new agreement allows all US beef, regardless of age to enter Korea, and this has sparked a huge public outcry, with many people believing that the president is purposely putting Korean lives in danger in order to improve relations with the US.

Stoked by inflammatory reports on the national KBS TV station, and the apparent influence of opposing parties, anti-government and anti-US groups, a series of candlelit vigils have been held in Seoul and other cities, including Changwon.

These have steadily grown in size, and have in a few cases resulted in a violent, heavy-handed response from the military police. Various compromises have been offered by the government, but the outrage continues to grow, with even the offer by Lee's entire cabinet to resign doing little to diffuse the public anger. Suffice it to say, Lee's popularity, after only a few months in office, has plummeted, with the latest polls showing a 20% approval rating.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

An island idyll part two - four days of ups and downs

Jeju is home to a huge array of intriguing attractions, and it was a tricky task to try to narrow down a selection for my four day visit. The places I didn't manage to see, for reasons of time and location, sound just as appealing as the ones I did. Who could resist Jeju Mini-mini Land, museums dedicated to stone tortoises and teddy bears, a Goblin Park and the only chocolate museum in Asia? Well, sacrifices have to be made on every trip, and all these fell by the wayside. At least there will be plenty to see if I ever return to the island.

My first full day was spent in and around Jeju-si, the relatively sprawling capital of the island. After finding enlightenment in Loveland, I decided to start my day at Tamna Mokseokwon, another sculpture park, a short bus ride out of town. Though it doesn't quite have the same impact as Loveland, this park is just as much a labour of love, even obsession, with hundreds of lumpy, strangely peaceful stone statues, and a selection of sculptures made from twisted roots, buried for centuries in Jeju's volcanic soil. The park also features a haunting display of traditional Jeju burial statues - pairs of angular figures, some with malevolent grins, some with expressions of deep concern, charged with the task of watching over the island's dead.

After a little wandering around Jeju-si itself, and taking a moment to pause at the tranquil Samseonghyeol shrine, I headed east towards one of the natural wonders of the island, Manjanggul Cave. Apparently the world's longest lava tube, Manjanggul is a eerie tunnel of lava-hewn striations, jagged rock formations, stalactites and stone pillars. The cave is a stark and impressive look at the volcanic forces that shaped the island, although I was a little disappointed not to catch a glimpse of the infamous Jeju Cave Spider.

That evening I took the 'limousine' bus service from Jeju airport, through the glittering resort town of Jungmun, to the Southern city of Seogwipo. From here, a twisty taxi ride the next morning took me and my intrepid companion to the slopes of Hallasan, the central peak of Jeju, and at around 2,000 metres, the highest mountain in Korea. From the bottom of the Eurimok trail, it's only a 700 metre ascent to the top (although not to the actual peak), although still a relatively challenging hike, when buffeted by strong winds and surrounded by noisy parties of school children.

The rest area at the top of the trail was over-crowded with even more kids and a battalion of soldiers, enjoying their ramen noodle and kimbap (rice roll) lunches, so we pushed on, taking an alternative route down. The descent was much more pleasurable, with some spectacular views across the island and areas of stark beauty, but the hike felt more like something we were pleased to have endured than a great experience in its own right.

I spent the afternoon relaxing in Jungmun, strolling among waterfalls, over canyon bridges, and through a brilliantly designed botanical gardens, before getting on another bus headed east. My destination this time was the small, slightly shabby town that has grown up around Seongsan Ilchubong, or Sunrise Peak.

Seongsan is a small, cratered mountain on the eastern tip of Jeju, famous, as its name suggests, as the best place to see (and make a wish on) the sunrise. I stayed in a Minbak (a 'homestay', or small, family run hotel), which sits at the base of the mountain, so there was no excuse not to get up before dawn and make the short, steep climb to the peak. At the top, I joined an expectant group of early risers as the sun struggled through the heavy clouds and softly illuminated the crater.

A leisurely walk down Seongsan was followed by a little obligatory souvenir shopping at the base of the mountain, a boat ride to the nearby Udo Island and slightly underwhelming submarine trip. I then set out in search of the Jeju Haenyeo Museum, which had been recommended to me as possibly the best museum in Korea.

As with most island cultures, the people of jeju were traditionally very reliant on the sea, with diving for shellfish, seaweed and other delicacies playing a particularly important role. Haenyeo are women, who since the 19th century have carried out the majority of this diving, becoming the main breadwinners in many families, and heading up a matriarchal society at odds with the mainland's Confucian values. Though the culture is now dying out (with only around 6,000 women divers today, compared to over 30,000 in 1950), it is still very resonant, symbolising the island's independent spirit.

The museum is housed in an airy, modern building near a beach still used as a departure point for present day Haenyeo. It simply but very effectively tells the divers' story, with evocative displays and an array of artifacts, from the arsenal of tools used to spear sea creatures to traditional cotton diving suits. Haenyeo still work without oxygen tanks, and follow a punishing schedule, diving all day for nine-day stretches (depending on the tides), with only a buoy as a lifeline. The museum does an excellent job of explaining both the hardships and rewards of the Haenyeo lifestyle, and their reasons for pursuing it.

The impression given is of unstoppable, almost supernaturally resilient, people, battling the elements to support their families and their country (Haenyeo are also famous for their role in the resistance during the Korean War). Looking out at the choppy sea and treacherous rocks from the museum's viewing gallery, this doesn't seem like an exaggeration. Though I didn't get to see the Haenyeo in action, the museum, with its deft mixture of information and storytelling (such as how Haenyeo fought with the resistance in the Korean War), helped to build an inspiring picture of the culture.

On the way back to Seogwipo, I spent an enjoyable cinematic hour at the Jeju Shinyoung Cinema Museum. This is another well-presented (though slightly run-down) museum, which seems to feature many intriguing insights into the history of Korean film, although very little is in English. There is some translated interpretation, but only for the more generic aspects of the development of 'world' cinema, which seems a shame, especially as the South Korean film industry has become internationally prominent in recent years. A display of original film posters made up for the lack of information, though, as did the museum's picturesque grounds.

My final day on the island was enlivened by a few hours spent spectating at the Jeju International Ultimate Frisbee Tournament, after which I again took the limousine bus back to Jeju-si, and enjoyed another curry at the Bagdad Cafe. An early flight the next day brought me back to the mainland, and in a few hours I was back in the classroom, daydreaming of an island of palm trees, off-beat museums and daring divers.

A short history of Korea film from Koreanfilm.org
More about Haenyeo from the Korea Sparkling website
New Korean Cinema at Google Books
Jeju Life article on the Bagdad Cafe

Photo galleries:
Jeju day three
Jeju day three
Jeju day four
Jeju day five

Sunday, May 18, 2008

An island idyll part one - looking for Loveland

Unlike many Hagwon teachers, I'm lucky (and/or persistent) enough to get three weeks of independent holiday time this year. I decided to spend my first week on Jeju-do, a large volcanic island off the South coast of Korea, which is often compared to Hawaii, for its climate, palm trees, and relaxed atmosphere. It is also famous for its oranges, spring water, and strangely phallic , traditional statues called Dolharubangs, which have become the most famous symbol of the island.

Jeju has long been a popular destination for Korean tourists, especially honeymooners, and features a number of classy resorts, a variety of natural beauty spots, and an overwhelming array of man-made attractions, mostly with a distinctly skewed sensibility.

After arriving in Jeju-si, the island's largest city, and sampling some curry at the very welcoming Baghdad Cafe, I headed to Jeju Loveland, one of the must-see attractions on the island, and the only one open until midnight.

Like almost everything in South Korea, from takeaways to government buildings and entire cities, Loveland features its own unique cartoon mascots. Like most mascots, they're whimsical and friendly, although in this case they're cheeky animals, robots or aliens, but a penis with arms and a red nose, and a vagina wearing a fetching pink bonnet.

Along with these cheerful characters, Loveland's website features a description of the as the only a 'sexual theme park' in Korea. While this may conjure images of rollercoasters and teacup rides with an erotic twist, Loveland could more prosaically be described as a sculpture park, with a focus on celebrating the joys of sex in a selection* of its many forms. It was created by Seoul-based arts graduates, with the intention of 'instigating your sexual imagination', and has quickly become a fixture on any Jeju trip itinerary.

The park is situated on an otherwise deserted stretch of country road, just outside Jeju-si. At night, the park is strangely beautiful, with bright white sculptures, dotted in pools of warm light around winding paths and suggestively shaped pools, with even more suggestive fountains. The artworks are playful and inventive, often in a cartoonish, though detailed style, with explicit, sometimes outlandish couplings interspersed with more abstract interpretations of the theme. There is also a space for temporary exhibits, a shop showcasing the work of local (and generally phallocentic, of course) artists, a slightly cursory display of sex toys, and, thoughtfully, a crèche area.

There's nothing shabby or smirking about Loveland - everything is upfront, and none of the artworks seem designed to cause offence, but rather to remind visitors that sex should be fun and creative, and to poke fun at the excesses of human desire. Visitors can survey the exhibits while standing on the tip of the 'most big penis', and take in a vista that includes sections focusing on sex around the world, encounters between masked carnival revellers, and a power struggle within a 'typical' Korean marriage.

Though there were only a few brave souls perusing its delights on the blustery April night that I visited, Loveland appears to be thriving, with well-maintained grounds, and a general air of professionalism. With its quirky approach, together with the obvious care and attention lavished on its creation, it seems to encapsulate a lot of the appeal of Jeju as a tourist destination. What could easily have been tacky and exploitative is instead wry, inclusive, and genuinely celebratory, with plenty to make visitors smile, and hopefully even to open a few minds.

*The artworks in Loveland are entirely based around heterosexual sex, which is a little disappointing, although understandable in a country where homosexuality is often described as 'not illegal, but not legal'. There has been a slow shift towards increased openness and acceptance in Korean society in the last decade, so hopefully this could be reflected with future additions to the park.


Jeju Loveland website
Gay South Korea: A Paradigm is Shifting, from GlobalGayz.com

Photo Galley:
Jeju Loveland

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A frisbee flop

One of my main motivations for coming to Korea was to try new things - I imagined these would include visiting splendid temples, trying strange cabbagey foods and singing in small rooms (all of which I have ticked off my imaginary Korean to-do list). One thing I didn't anticipate was taking part in an Ultimate Frisbee tournament, but I'd heard such positive things about the sport, it seemed something I shouldn't miss out on.

For those not in the know (which included me up until a few weeks ago), Ultimate Frisbee (also simply known as Ultimate) is a non-contact, team-based sport, which began life on US campus in the sixties. Apparently Joel Silver had a role in creating the rules, and setting up the tenets of the sport, which include a strong emphasis on sportsmanship and mutual respect. A game plays out as something like a cross between American football and netball, with two teams trying to pass the disc to their opponents' end-zone.

Despite the relative simplicity of the rules, as a almost complete newcomer to Ultimate, I was all at sea when it came to playing the actual games. My pathetic level of fitness didn't help matters either, as there is a ridiculous amount of running involved in a game. On sand. Quite frankly, I was appalling, and although I was starting to get a bit of a feel for the game by the end of the first day, by that point I was too exhausted to care very much.

Thankfully, this was a 'hat tournament', with a mix of beginners and more experienced players assigned to teams, not randomly as the name would suggest, but to create a balance of skill levels. Alongside a few Korean participants, most of the players were an interesting mix of foreigners, who had travelled from all over Korea to play on Haeundae, Busan's most popular beach. The beach gets horribly crowded in the summer months, but on this weekend in early April, it was relatively quiet, even though the weather was beautiful.

My team were knocked out early on day two, so I could spend most Sunday resting my aching limbs, enjoying the sun and watching the other games. A good game of Ultimate can be very impressive to watch, with a mixture of fluid teamwork, lightning fast changes of pace, and more than a little good, old fashioned showing off. I'm very much looking forward to seeing more of the same at the International Ultimate Frisbee Tournament on Jeju Island this week, but won't be competing again until I've had a complete body transplant, at the very least.

Photo album:
Ultimate Frisbee tournament in Busan

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Since we last spoke

Since my last posting, one or two things have happened in South Korea.

Last week saw the National Assembly election, which resulted in a large majority for president Lee Myoung-bak's Grand National Party. In the weeks leading up to the election, the streets of Changwon (and presumably the whole country), were invaded by vans blaring out the various candidates' slogans and theme tunes. The candidates were all numbered for easy recognition, and the vans were usually accompanied by a throng of young women in brightly coloured t-shirts, either dancing in unison, tirelessly chanting or making enthusiastic gestures. There didn't seem to be much in the way of political debate going on, which could explain why the election resulted in a voter turnout of only 46%, the lowest in Korean history.

Capturing the public's imagination a little more effectively was the story of Yi So-yeon, Korea's first astronaut, who blasted off from Kazakhstan and arrived at the International Space Station last week. Yi is supposedly leading the way for a rigorous programme of Korean space research, but for now her achievement has a mainly symbolic value. As a young (29 year old) female scientist, it is hoped that Yi will become an inspiring figure to the nations' youth, and her cheerful humility sets her in good stead for this role. She's certainly made an impression on some of the earnest teenage girls in Anmin, and more importantly, has succeeded in transporting specially modified versions of Korean national foods into space. The presence of ramen noodles, and kimchi in the space station has been seen as in some ways more significant than the fact that Korea has become the 37th nation to send a person into space.

The past few weeks have also seen the coming and going of cherry blossom, magnolia flowers and other beautiful blooms. This explosion of life is a real source of national pride, especially in the South of the country, with many annual festivals dedicated to celebrating the emergence of spring. The biggest of these is the Gunhang Festival, held in Jinhae, one of Changwon's neighbouring cities, which regularly attracts over a million visitors over a ten-day period. I somehow managed to completely miss the festival, but seeing Changwon's streets swathed in white, pink and purple flowers more than made up for it. The blossom really did bring a sense of hope and rebirth to the city, and transformed even the dreariest industrial street into a festive, romantic avenue. The infinite shades of green that are now emerging - along city streets and on mountain slopes - are going a long way to filling the gap left by the absence of daffodils and bluebells.

I've also managed to partake in a couple of activities synonymous with life in modern Korean cities. First up was a visit to a naoraebang (signing room), for a night of cosy karaoke with a group of fellow English teachers. Almost every building in central Changwon has at least one noraebang, and it's easy to see their ongoing appeal, as the small, private rooms make the sport of murdering classic tracks (including, in my case Don't Stop Me Now and Hotel California) much more appealing than when it involves standing on a stage in front of a bunch of heckling businessmen.

Another ubiquitous fixture of city life are DVD bangs, which are also based around the idea of hiring out private rooms, in this case for watching films. I was intially quite dubious about these establishments, mainly due to the obvious sleaze factor (and some of them are clearly quite shady), but happening upon a high quality establishment near Yongji Lake has turned me into a real fan. Hiring out a room with a few friends is cheaper than a cinema visit and more comfortable, with a huge padded couch (okay, it's probably closer to a bed) to lounge across, complete with pillows and blankets. With a decent selection of new and classic flicks, a good DVD bang is the perfect venue for a the ultimate slumber party (or more intimate activities, obviously). Though the rooms can't compete with the experience of seeing a film on a cinema screen, the projection and sound systems are surprisingly good, and with the advent of Blu-ray and other HD formats, the picture quality should soon rival the multiplex experience.

I've been keen to see as much live performance as possible since coming to Changwon, especially Korean originals, but have been thwarted a little by my hagwon's working hours (usually 13.30 - 21:00, which is quite common). Thankfully, one of the most hotly-anticipated shows to hit the city this year,
The Ballerina Who loved The B-boy, happened to arrive on a weekend.

The show is entirely dance-based, with no dialogue, the thinnest of storylines (uptight ballerina falls for a downtown street dancer and eventually rejects ballet for a life of urban posturing and baggy trousers) and a slightly slapdash, though committed and energetic approach. Apart from a few rather lackluster ballet scenes and the odd dream sequence, the majority of the action takes place in 'B-boy Square', with various flavours of breakdancers hanging out and keeping themselves entertained through the love of flashy dance moves.

The dancing was always hugely energetic, and seriously impressive in places, and with a number of different styles on show, never overstayed its welcome. The music was a sprightly mix of 80s hip hop classics and 90s big beat anthems, which suited the (purposefully) cheesy nature of the storyline, sets and costumes. There was a genuine feeling of celebration to the show, and the audience gave the young cast an ecstatic response. I could have done with a little more conflict (the one fight scene, which could have potentially used the pent up aggression of the dancing to good effect, fizzled out disappointingly), varied pacing and distinctive characterisation, but the show was very entertaining nonetheless.

Perhaps most significantly (for me, anyway) I've started a proper course of Korean language lessons, which partly explains my lack of blogging activity. The course takes place at the beautifully landscaped Changwon College, and has so far been an enjoyable, challenging introduction to some of the trickier parts of Korean (e.g. reading the alphabet, conjugating verbs etc.). My progress has been quite slow (due to general laziness as much as anything), but it feels very rewarding to be properly focusing on learning the language, at least twice a week. It's easy enough to get by with only a few basic words and phrases in Changwon, but having an extra level of recognition makes a big difference. The course has also helped me better understand the problems my pupils have with English, and has introduced me to a lovely, varied bunch of weigooks (foreigners), at similar stages along the Korean journey to me.


Surviving South Korea 101

Another perspective on the life of a hagwon teacher in Changwon.

Kickin' it in Geumchon
A concise, and quite brilliant introduction to key aspects of Korean city living, and the weigook experience.

Photo album:
April in Changwon

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Seoul music part two

Two other highlights of the Chongdong theatre show were showcases of the Pansori and Ogomu styles, both scaled-down, but hugely effective versions of quintessential Korean folk performances.

Pansori, described as 'the world's most beautiful monodrama', consists of mythical stories spoken and sung by a 'soriggon' performer, accompanied by a 'gosu' drummer. Beginning as an oral folk tradition in the 17th century, Pansori is a stylised, ritualistic theatrical form, which became popular in the late 19th century, but had almost disappeared by the 1960s, when it was rescued from obscurity by being designated as a 'National Intangible Cultural Property'.

Traditional Pansori performances could last for up to five hours, with the exact shape of the stories governed by the individual performer's improvised whims. A rasping voice was preferred, so a typical sorriggon training regime involved walking to a remote spot and shouting into the mountains. Unsurprisingly, this was a largely male pastime, but the Chongdong's female soriggon did a superb job of suggesting the richness and variety of the form, while also seeming to put her own mischievous stamp on it.

From and original cycle of 12 stories, only five survive today, and we were presented with snippets from four of these, in an intense 15 minute display of vocal dexterity and emotional range. With simple, expressive gestures, a paper fan and an incredible variety of rhythms and timbres, the performer delivered the monologues in a passionate, direct way, which allowed their essence to jump over the language barrier. The stories, of tragic love, greedy wives and deceptive animals, also have plenty of scope for strong characterisation, and the soriggon switched between protagonists with a light, assured touch.

An extra level of intimacy was provided by the gosu, who added sparse rhythms and acted as a kind of non-linguistic chorus, nodding in agreement and making sympathetic noises at particularly dramatic or humorous moments. The drummers' slightly stoned, wide-eyed appearance along with the inventive flow of the language, gave the lighter moments of the performance the feeling of a Daisy Age hip hop show. The overall effect was hugely engaging and a little dreamlike, with simple ingredients coming together to create something timeless and celebratory.

Often used as an emblem of Korean culture, Ogomu is an energetic mix of music and dance, performed by a line of drummers, beating out ever-changing rhythms on drums strung from wooden frames. With swirling arms, beaming faces and brilliant blue outfits, the performers move in perfect unison at dizzying speeds, creating a blur of precise but joyful movement, accompanied by infectious, clattering drum patterns.

The rhythms are rooted in Buddhist rituals, with different time signatures and drum noises carrying individual meanings in flow of the ceremony. Though ogomu has none of the space for improvisation of the other forms -the drummers/dancers are always completely synchronised - this section still felt fresh and vital. As with the rest of the programme, this vitality was partly down to the restless, inventive nature of the music, and partly the obvious enjoyment of the participants.

After the show, the performers lead a brief dance in the theatre's courtyard, and posed patiently for photos with the audience. The atmosphere here, as throughout the show, was accessible and inclusive, and the school kids in the audience seemed as enthused by the preceding spectacle as I was. Hopefully I'll be able to see plenty more traditional performance this year, but the Chongdong theatre provided a wonderful introduction, and a very entertaining experience in its own right.

Photo album:

Monday, March 3, 2008

Seoul music part one

After seeing the thrilling performance of the touring Dulsori group in London last summer, I've been itching to find some performances of traditional Korean since arriving in Changwon. Apart from big touring names, the programme at the city's main arts venue mainly focuses on family shows and western classical music. While piano recitals and flute ensemble concerts are all well and good - especially when they're free - they aren't exactly what I was hoping to find in Korea, and a trip to Seoul offered a good opportunity to broaden my cultural horizons.

On this visit, I didn't quite have time to visit the National Centre for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, which houses a museum of old-school instruments, puts on a variety of shows and even runs courses in the different musical styles (only open to foreigners, for some reason, which seems a real shame). I decided instead to see a show at the Chongdong Theatre, a small basement space under a peaceful courtyard in a secluded pedestrian area in central Seoul.

I was expecting something possibly a little cheesy, or a little reverent and staid, but a show that would hopefully prove a good starting point for further exploration. Sitting in the tastefully designed auditorium, packed with parties of school children and Japanese tourists, I was intrigued, but completely unprepared for the vibrant, playful and powerful performance that followed. Offering snippets of styles from the broad history of Korean music, dance and spoken word performance, the show may well have had a touristy sheen, but for someone with almost no knowledge of these traditions, it was an inspiring, ear and eye-opening 90 minutes.

The first section of the show focused around a number of instrumental pieces in the Shinawi style, which is based on the idea of flowing water and performed on a variety of stringed and wind instruments, with sparse percussive accompaniment. The young musicians, all seated in sparkling, flowing robes, at first gave off an air of studious calm, but soon seemed to get lost in the ebb and flow of the music.

Taking centre stage were the players of three related instruments, each with strings stretched over a concave wooden base, but in different configurations and played in contrasting styles. The six-stringed Geomungo is plucked with a small wooden baton/plectrum, which is also used to beat against the base; the Ajeang is a seven-stringed bowed instrument with a lower tone; and the Gayaguem, with 12 strings, is plucked by hand, usually carrying the weight of the melody.

These instruments create a lovely, layered riverbed of sound, and with an emphasis on string bends and dexterous flourishes, a loose, improvisational feel. Along with the subtle cross rhythms supplied by the Jangu (double headed drum) player and the harsher, occasionally dissonant sounds from the Haeguem (a two-stringed fiddle) and the flutes (Piri and Daegeum), the overall effect is dense, but with a lightness and real sense of momentum.

In classic jazz style, each player took a solo, which helped give the performance the feeling of an intimate jam-session between very accomplished people reacting naturally to each other and clearly enjoying making music. The music was accompanied by a version of the shamanic Salpuri dance (the Dance of Life), reflecting Shinawi's original role as the centrepiece of village rituals and celebrations. In this form, the music would continue for hours, with the players I suppose entering something approaching a transcendental state. Though the Chongdong version lasted for barely 15 minutes, it was certainly hypnotic and very alive, giving a hint at the music' trance-like qualities.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Marching upstream

According to his inaugural speech, South Korea's new President Lee Myung-bak, is intending to move the country into an 'age of pragmatism'. However, Lee has come under fire for several high-profile schemes which seem anything but pragmatic, and could be described as either bold and visionary or attention-grabbing and over ambitious. One of the most controversial of these plans is the intended construction of a Grand Korean Waterway, a large canal running the length of the peninsula.

Lee Myung-bak was the CEO of Hyundai Construction, and oversaw the huge growth of the company as Korea lurched into industrialisation and prosperity in the 70s and 80s. He was known as 'The Bulldozer', embodying the spirit that prioritised speedy industrial development over all other concerns, especially environmental ones.

After leaving Hyundai for a political career, Lee appeared to have left behind this single-minded focus on industrial growth. In 2002, he ran for mayor of Seoul on a largely environmental ticket, pledging to clean up the notoriously polluted city. During Lee's 3 year tenure, the Green Seoul Project was launched, which succeeded in removing a notorious raised highway, overhauling the city's public transport network, and regenerating public spaces throughout the city.

One of Lee's most celebrated achievements in Seoul was the transformation of a pollution-clogged watercourse into the sparkling Cheonggyecheon Plaza, a narrow but attractive concourse just off Sejongno, one of central Seoul's main, multi-lane drags. The centrepiece of the plaza is the now clean and sinuously sculpted Cheonggye Stream, flanked by split-level walkways, crossed by traditionally-styled bridges and surrounded by colourful sculptures.

Cheonggyecheon Plaza was the oddly fitting starting point for a demonstration against the Grand Korean Waterway plans. Environmental groups have been concerned about the scheme since it was announced as one of Lee's Grand National Party election pledges. The main thrust of their opposition is that the construction of the canal will cause major environmental upheaval in sensitive areas for very little economical benefit. In addition, there is a worry that the project could threaten drinking water supplies, which are already scarce, and increase the risk of flooding during the summer monsoon season.

The canal, with a planned route from Seoul to Busan in the South East, and a secondary link to Mokpo in the South West, is primarily intended for the
freight usage. According to the government, the waterway will decrease transport costs, reduce the burden on overcrowded roads and cut down emissions. Countering these claims, the opposition alleges that the canal will only really benefit the construction companies, and insist that there is little justification for building a large-scale canal in small country surrounded by sea.

With Lee
Lee Myung Bak links to the construction industry, it is not hard to suspect a hint of Halliburton-style conspiracy in the scheme, although the president claims that no public money will be used in the canal's construction. Instead, the costs will be offset by exporting the raw materials displaced by the excavation process, and the increased tourism that the waterway could result in.

Whatever the truth of any of these claims, the Grand Waterway plan has certainly sparked a fair amount of impassioned debate, and I was intrigued to see how the march would reflect this. I'm pleased to say that the event was a peaceful, positive affair, with an inclusive atmosphere created by colourful costumes and the presence of young families alongside beret-sporting students, Buddhist monks and serious green campaigners.

A small group of seemingly quite militant anti-Lee Myung Bak protesters in black trench coats threatened to hijack the march for their own ends, but merely ended up looking dour and irrelevant next to kids in pink fish heads and men in bear suits. Not that there weren't serious points being made (thankfully I got an occasional translation of the main speeches), but the overriding sense of fun and celebration seemed fitting, especially in the brilliant winter sun.

Though the turnout was not particularly impressive (around 200 people at my rough estimate), the warm reception received by the impassioned speakers and the diverse crowd made the demonstration feel like a hopeful rallying cry. I'll certainly be following the progress of the waterway scheme (with some dread, but trying to stay open-minded) and will hopefully be able to take part in further green gatherings.

South Korea is in no way unique in seeing environmental concerns shunted aside in the name of progress, but the country does seem to have several potential advantages in reaching some kind of compromise. For one thing, it is very hard to get away from the presence of the landscape, even in the middle of busy cities, thanks to the ubiquitous mountain backdrop. The idea of man being somehow separate from nature has never seemed so arbitrary to me as in central Seoul, looking past gleaming glass buildings to the craggy peaks just beyond the city.

This interconnectedness, which I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling, should be a very good starting point for environmental innovation, and the development of a shared sense of responsibility for the country and wider world. As I've mentioned before, one of the founding principals of Changwon is to balance nature and technological progress, which does seem to have been at least partially achieved. Whether this ambition has much currency throughout South Korea, or with its new leaders, is another matter, of course.

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