Archive for April, 2011|Monthly archive page

Hits From Someone Else’s Bong

In Entertain Me on April 26, 2011 at 12:13 am

It just goes to show that sometimes research can only go so far, but conversation sometimes yields the most interesting facts of all.  As a quick follow up to my recent post about the Seo Taeji and E Jiah scandal, I was recently educated on the musical accomplishments of Taeji and the Boys.  Turns out, as acclaimed as they may be, they were also accused of stealing.  Not unusual in the Korean music industry, as a number of artists have been drawn up on charges of pinching true musicians’ talent.  Sometimes it’s a stretch and sometimes it’s blatantly obvious.

Whilst not all of Taeji and the Boys’ stylings are from other sources, this song simply cannot be reasoned away.  During the fabulous 90’s with Hammer Pants and Kriss Kross making us Jump, Jump, Seo Taeji was clearly listening to far too much Cypress Hill.  Maybe he thought nobody would notice, but quite honestly I’m not sure how.  Of all the artists to copy, Cypress Hill is hardly the inconspicuous choice.  Yet it’s still refreshing to see that 90’s hip hop was thriving across all cultures, even if it were somewhat replicated.  To know that people of my generation from Korea are also familiar with similarly embarrassing 90’s hip hop dance moves, actually makes me feel closer.  They might not be exactly the same as Vanilla Ice or Marky Mark…..but they’re awfully close.   I’ll let you be the judge on the Cypress Hill connection.


Married for 14 Years and Nobody Knew

In Entertain Me, In The News on April 23, 2011 at 3:28 pm

If there’s one absolute about Korean society, it’s that news scandals about Korean celebrities travel at warp speed.  Usually they consist of plastic surgery suspicions, forged university qualifications, and of course the sordid world of who’s dating who.  This week, however, the celebrity scandal equivalent of an atomic bomb dropped on the news and social networking communities.  One of Korea’s most famous musicians, 39 year old Seo Tae Ji managed to conceal a marriage of 14 years and subsequent divorce 5 years since to actress E Ji-Ah.   And we’re only just now finding out about it.  Hats off to them for perhaps the longest running well kept secret in celebrity history.

So, when? How? Why? And for people like me who are not quite up to date on my Korean celebrities….Who??  For the purposes of a good story, let me fill you in on the background by starting with the Who.

Who is Seo Taeji?  Actually the more I read about him, the more I am intrigued.  During the 90’s Seo was the front man of a rock/metal/alternative music group known as “Seo Taeji and Boys”.  A high-school dropout who believed school was a system that did nothing but corrupt the minds of youth, his music was anti-establishment and provoked rebellion in a culture with few such peers.  The band’s songs ranged from unification, anti-cramming, gangs and runaways, and in 1994 their third album was accused of having backwards satanic messages.  Controversial, certainly, but Seo and the Boys had a massive following.  Despite attempts in 1995 to have their 4th album censored, support for the band led to the system of pre-censorship being abolished.  The group emotionally retired in 1996 at the height of their success to which Seo reasoned his drive for perfection as a fatal flaw, much to the devastation of Korean fans.

But still, who is Seo Taeji the man?  He comes off as mysterious and secretive, not surprising given the recent revelations.  His bio reads with a stutter, as there are frequent periods of absence where he simply disappears for years at a time.  He is intensely personal and few people seem to know anything about his private life.  Regarding his marriage and divorce, not his company nor his closest friends had a clue, stating he would often just leave to different countries and so nobody knew anything about him.  Others say he created his mysterious persona to sell records, as his solo career recently included a “Mystery Project” with singles thus title themed such as “Bermuda Triangle” and “Wormhole”.   While E Jiah’s camp has issued a formal statement about recent events, still nobody even knows where Seo Taeji is, and his silence only fuels the curiosity.

And E Jiah?  Who is she?  She is a similarly curious creature who is no stranger to mystery.  She has even been called an “Alien” in the media and there has often been rumors as to her private life.  I guess now we know why.  Born in South Korea, she moved to the US in elementary school to study, where she first met Seo Taeji at a concert at age 15.   As Seo returned to Korea, the pair began their mysterious long distance relationship, and married 4 years later when E was 20.  No doubt Seo Taeji’s music commitments, and from what we can conclude his fickle lifestyle, the relationship ended in 2006.   E debuted into the drama scene in 2007 in a drama called “Legend” and has been in a number of successful dramas such as “Beethoven Virus” and “Athena: Goddess of War”.

And here’s where the dirty laundry comes out.  E Jiah is currently dating another Korean celebrity, 37 year old actor Jung Woo-Sung, who like every other person surrounding the lives of E and Seo, knew nothing of the decade and a half marriage.  How did it finally come out?  Money. E Jiah has officially filed for a divorce settlement of 5.5 billion won (roughly $5.4 million) as the pair could not come to an agreement privately.  All of Korea is abuzz with the details of this story, including sensationalist rumors that they actually have two kids together.    Korea’s once “President of Culture”, a successful new actress and a long standing heart throb.  How could nobody have known?

Good Beer…Wherefore Art Thou?

In The Social Fabric on April 10, 2011 at 11:25 pm

With the warmer weather approaching, agonizingly slowly though it may be doing so, I find myself more in the mood for an afternoon beer.   Blue skies and warming sun are best accompanied by an outdoor bench and a cold draft brew.  Unfortunately, Korean beer is not a well championed achievement.  If you’re expecting to be overwhelmed by choice and range of domestic brews when frequenting the local Seoul barkeep, disappointment surely awaits.  Not to put too harsh a point on it, but each of the leading brands have their own unbecoming nickname to reflect their reputation.

Hite = Shite, Cass = Ass, and OB = BO.

After my recent sojourn in Australia, I was confronted with a mind-spinning array of range and choice in every kind of beer imaginable, a lot of them being domestically produced.   Australia of course has been a long time conn0isseur of all things beer and wine, and demand most definitely keeps supply in the green.  However, the capacity for Korean society to drink beer would give us Aussies a fair run.   Beer in Korea is currently a 3.5 trillion won industry ($3.1 billion US) with much of that revenue spent on more quality imports.  Koreans have an increasingly sophisticated palate, and their standards for good taste can be hard to satisfy.  So why do we put up with this flat, weak excuse for a beer as the domestic industry standard?

Essentially, the market is a duopoly.  The two breweries are Hite, and OB (Oriental Breweries), which bought out the flailing Cass Brewery in 1999.  Since then, these two giants have been supplying the nation more or less 50/50.  Whilst there are some microbreweries battling it out and forging the way, government regulation stands firmly in the way.  As of December 2010, the Ministry of Finance overseeing the liquor tax law lowered the manufacturing license from 1,850 kiloliters to 100 kiloliters.  Whilst this is a step forward, there’s still one massive obstacle for small beer crafters.   They can’t sell outside their own stores, and mostly only have a 25 kiloliter capacity anyway.  This means they still can’t expand.  And that means we’re still stuck with Shite, Ass and BO.

A peek at the North’s beer industry was far more interesting than the bipartisan beer government of the South.  In 2002, Kim Jong Il decided he wanted a brewery.  Well known for his curiosity for scientific achievements and his desire to replicate them, he did one better.  Instead of building his own brewery, he went out and bought one.  Ushers of Trowbridge, Wiltshire England to be exact.  For a price of 1.5 million pounds, Kim Jong Il had the whole brewery dismantled and reassembled in North Korea, complete with German brewing technology.

The brewery produces a beer named Taedonggang, named after the river running through Pyongyang.  Taedonggang beer could be bought in Gangnam since 2005, but due to an unexpected 70% price increase in 2007, supplies are now scarce.  The North captured headlines in 2009 when for the first time, a commercial for the beer was aired on North Korean TV.  Such capitalist trends set tongues wagging, though it surely couldn’t have been from it’s production style.  Certainly not ready for the Superbowl.

Seaweed Saves

In In The News on April 6, 2011 at 8:49 pm

It’s April.  The first of the early cherry blossoms are opening.  Spring is in the air.  And so is radiation.

The fallout of Japan’s nuclear reactor crisis has crept into Korean airspace, with confirmed reports of airborne radioactive material found in the atmosphere.  Of course, as soon as this information reaches the ears of the average citizen, no more details are required.  Panic ensues.   The fact that this material is yet too microscopic to pose any health risk at all is entirely irrelevant.  Air equals poison.

Whilst this new revelation has not outwardly appeared to disrupt the day to day Korean grind, there are subtle signs of the inner conscience of the collective.  When it comes to toxins, diseases, and their relationship to food, Koreans are downright savvy.  If you are in country and have tried to buy a bottle of  “Sam Da Soo” water lately, you may notice it is plum sold out.  This water is from the springs of Jeju Island, and as such is considered to be the purest in water form.  In the wake of this latest nuclear scare, all other waters are now thought to be inferior and untrustworthy.

The Korea Herald also reported that the recent radiation fears have boosted seaweed and dried kelp sales, as it said to protect against the poison.  I’m of two minds as to how this information spread.  Either the knowledge that seaweed protects against radiation poisoning is as common as kimchi, or it was reported on the news.  The concept that the news may be wrong or untrustworthy has not exactly caught on here, and whatever airs on that little box at 7pm is out of the mouths of the highest power.  Just mention the words “fan death” (the belief that if you sleep in a room with a fan on, windows and door closed, you will die) and you will see the power the newsmedia has on public knowledge.  Such a conversation is a frustrating argument in its futility.

Health concerns are among the highest on the Korean agenda.  Medical tests are required for just about everything, from jobs to marriage.  Public school teachers are required to submit a medical check every 3 months, and E2 visas still require a controversial battery of tests.  Food contamination warnings are often issued in the summertime, stating food must not be left out for too long on hot days.   Not to mention the fact that everything you eat has some kind of targeted health benefit, whether it be for a man’s stamina or a woman’s skin.

When it comes to a international health crisis, concern usually hits fever pitch (pardon the pun).  During the H1N1 pandemic, schools were closed, international visitors were quarantined, and foreigners arriving on Korean soil around that time were treated with suspicion, with or without presentation of symptoms.  An American friend at the time was told by a middle aged Korean woman that foreigners were more likely to contract the virus, as they do not eat kimchi daily, and are as a result susceptible.  I recall my own first introduction to kimchi as being prefaced as ”A cure for SARS’.  This kind of unscientific and unfounded claim is by no means held by all Koreans, especially not the younger generation, but it still exists.

Japan plans to release nuclear waste into the sea, which has sparked further apprehensions from the peninsula that it may reach Korean territory.  Radiation poisoning may not be a cause for total panic yet, but if you’re after some dried seaweed or Jeju spring water these days, you may have a fight on your hands.




“Even She Has a Fault….Her Healthy Looking Legs!”

In Entertain Me, In The News, The Social Fabric on April 1, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Those of us who have lived in western countries, especially during those crucial formative teenage years, have of course been well versed in the evils of media manipulation and its negative impact on self image.  To us it’s old hat.  Radicals on both sides of the body image fence wage war, while the moderates claim one way and act another.  I too am no saint; whilst telling one friend they should not be so silly as to punish themselves with a senseless diet, I might in the same day skip lunch. The point being, that body image and how one deals with it is nobody’s crisis but their own, and it’s a battle won by the individual.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be aware of what’s going on out there.  Today I came across a video clip posted by Arirang, Korea’s English news media and entertainment network.  Their company statement is “Korea for the world, the world for Korea.”  As a rule I don’t get upset or outraged by many things, and I can usually see both sides of an argument no matter how polarized they may be.  But this one had me flummoxed.  The clip may be viewed here. Those that are easily offended are cautioned. 

For those who’d prefer not to be unnecessarily fumed, I’ll mention a few choice quotes.  The segment critically evaluates the lower bodies of famous, and by all accounts attractive, Korean stars.  It uses the word “healthy” as some kind of code word for “fat and undesirable”, and suggests in no uncertain terms for such ‘afflicted’ stars to do something about it.  One such disturbing caption described the actress’s legs as “Her fatal fault!  Her thick ankles and calf muscles.” Until now I have never heard the sentence “….even she has a fault….her healthy looking legs.” Nevermind the fact that I literally cannot discern how such a conclusion can be drawn.  The standard is so unrealistically set, that I for one cannot quite get my mind to imagine what it must be.  The images that are being described as ‘sturdy’ and ‘well developed’, are slim and shapely.

It is a concern that the face of Korea’s international media is reporting in such  a socially irresponsible manner.  Korea’s social image is not what it was 30, 20 or even 10 years ago.  The new generation is forging a new identity, post democratization and mid globalization.  Until the 1970’s, full figured women were considered sexually desirable, exhibiting that they were more likely to produce healthy sons.  This was a notion held by western societies almost a century ago, and has since been well and truly discarded.  In Korea’s accelerated social development, Koreans now face these  same dilemmas but in a culturally conflicted context. The media, as has been well documented, plays a key role in shaping society’s image of itself, and as such should be carefully monitored.  Arirang’s reporting was careless, and not to mention insulting to the women it profiled.

Unfortunately, the consequence of unrealistic media body image portrayal is the effect on the average citizen.  Dr. Kim Joon Ki traveled to Japan in 1991 to study eating disorders, where today anorexia afflicts 1 in every 100 young Japanese women, a figure comparable to the US.  Before she went to Japan, Dr. Kim had encountered only 1 anorexia patient in Korea.  Within 2 years of opening her own private eating disorder clinic, she saw over 200 patients, half of which presented with bulemia.  Korea’s national obsession over image and attractiveness is overt and unabashed, and this may be why Arirang reporters may get away with such shameful behaviour.  Because it’s what men and women are actually thinking.

In 1996, a survey of 469 college women revealed some frightening statistics.  of all the women, 55.9% were underweight, and of these women, 74% felt like they needed to lose wight in order to look attractive.  57.6% engaged in excessive dieting.  Whilst the survey scope was not extensive, it still speaks volumes.

Despite the rise in cases of eating disorders in recent years, Dr. Kim says they are still relatively rare.  Korea still has not reached the crisis point witnessed in Japan or the US, but that does not give cause for complacency.  Media outlets which are permitted to run their agendas unchecked and unchallenged will send those numbers soaring.  Korea should expect more from its agencies and use its pop culture supremacy to lead by example.  One thing I respect most about Korea is its ability to change. Here’s hoping that in this regard it changes for the better.