Friday, July 18, 2003

J.C. PENNEY, EAT YOUR HEART OUT. The Illustrated Catalog of ACME Products is on line.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE: Endless hours of browsing entertainment awaits at the Periodic Table of Comic Books

Poor Rubidium!

Monday, July 14, 2003

THIS MAY BE THE BEST NEWS I'VE HEARD ALL WEEK. Good riddance! If you have any doubt why I think this way, clink on the link that shows the logo.

CHINATOWN: After hiking, I took an all-too-long bus ride to Inch’ôn where I planned to visit Chinatown. In the past, I found the area to be an ill-defined jumble of streets with dilapidated dwellings and shops and a couple of listless restaurants. No clear memory of past glories.

How things change. Today’s Chinatown is a vibrant tourist attraction, complete with big traditional gates, dozens of restaurants and shops, faux traditional lanterns and lampposts and on and on. Part of a conscious state-led effort to revitalize the region, Chinatown has enjoyed an incredible makeover. While Korean efforts (in preparation for the expected influx of World Cup 2002 visitors) were key, also present was a strong mainland Chinese presence with commemorative plaques and statues giving credit to this group from Tianjin and that organization from Qingdao.

One incredible part of the program was the reconstruction of a set of stairs that used to divide the Chinese and Japanese concessions in old Inch’ôn. In this day and age when the American extraterritorial presence (and SOFA) are decried, here is the celebration of the same thing a century ago. Atop the stairs is a spanking new statue of Confucius. A sign of Korea’s turn back to China? Why not?

Sunday, July 13, 2003

MOUNTAINS, TAN’GUN AND KOREAN CIVIL SOCIETY. One of the reasons I went back to Kanghwa Island was to hike Mani-san (a.k.a Marisan, or Mt. Mani/Mari). I wanted to hike it because it sounded like a good day hike and because of its reputed connections with Tan’gun, the mythical father/founder of Korea. While waiting for the bus that would take me to the base of the mountain, I encountered one Kang San-hae (not his real name but he chose it as a nickname (means River-Mountain-Sea) to express his favorite hobbies). Mr. Kang has traveled much of the world in search of mountains to climb and things to see: everything from the Grand Canyon to Kilimanjaro. Another thing he likes to do is visit restaurants in Korea and post menus and other pertinent information on his webpage (for an example, see here). I probably read too much into encounters like this, but I couldn’t help but think that this is an example of civil society in action. Here is a guy who spends time and money doing what he loves, connecting with other like-minded folks. No government told him to do it; as far as I can tell, no government is involved. Could Mr. Kang’s hiking-loving counterpart in North Korea do the same thing? Probably not.

Being the typically generous Korean he was, Mr. Kang took it upon himself to be my guide for the hike. He paid the admission fee, bought me a can of Aloe tea (weird tasting stuff) at the summit, directed me where to take pictures, and bought me lunch before we parted ways. My increasingly aggressive attempts to pay at least my own way if not for both of us were thwarted in typical Korean fashion—he literally pushed me out of the way at the cash register at the restaurant.

As we started from the bus stop towards the mountain, a young couple seemed to know where they were going, so we followed them. The male proceeded to give a running commentary of the hike and answer my questions about the mountain, Tan’gun etc. He noted that there was a little-known colony of Tan’gun worshippers just off of the beaten path and offered to take us there. It turns out he knew so much about the colony, Tan’gun, the mountain etc. because he was a strong believer in the divinity of Tan’gun, his father (Ch’i-u) and his father (Hwan-in). He introduced us to some of the folks who lived on the mountain in a small collection of houses surrounded by gardens. They shared fruit—grapes, apples, ch’amoe (a yellowish-white nearly tasteless mellon—and showed me the works of their founder. They even allowed me to visit their shrine on the mountain: a small hall with the images of the three deities (Tan’gun, his father and grandfather) flanked by 21 other figures of national importance, everyone from the Koguryô general Ûlchimundok to the 20th century historian Shin Ch’ae-ho (with the group’s founder respectfully off in the corner). Here was the fusion of religion and nationalism. The earnest young man who led us here proceeded to say a very nice prayer for us and we were on our way.

Some of the descriptions of the trail up Manisan make it sound as if it is an easy hike. It isn’t terribly long but it is quite steep. One trail has steps but they are far taller than the average stairs and are, therefore, quite a strain to go up. Fortunately we were warned and took an alternate route (and took the stairs down). The hiking outfits I remember from years back: heavy boots, snowflake-emblazoned socks, vests, ice-picks etc. seem to have given way to sleek black outfits. Of course, many simply hiked in whatever they happened to walk out of the house wearing. Whatever the case, most of the Korean hikers seemed to be laboring (and sweating) far less than this large Western barbarian was.

At the top was a stone altar of sorts reputed to have been used/constructed by Tan’gun himself. An enterprising old couple had carried up bags of cans of tea and other drinks on their backs and were selling them to the thirsty crowd (the source of my Aloe tea). The view over the surrounding islands, off into the Yellow Sea and North to the forbidden DPRK was nice if rather hazy. One thing I noticed on this entire Kanghwa trip was the almost complete absence of wildlife. Saw a couple of cranes in rice fields but other than that, almost nothing in the way of birds, squirrels etc. Not sure what this means.

MUSEUMS AND HISTORY: Also visited the Kanghwa Historical Museum. Some interesting things I observed include:
--the umproblematic inclusion of Tan’gun as an actual historical figure. He is simply listed after the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods as follows: “Gochoseon Dynasty: Dangun constructed the Chamseongdan for sacrificing to heaven.” Many Koreans regard Tan’gun as a national myth but apparently museums don’t always follow this line (more on Tan’gun later).
--the depictions of the heroic Korean resistance to French and American incursions (more here) in 1866 and 1871 respectively. A stark reminder of how history is viewed differently by different peoples. Most Americans (and I suspect most French) don’t even know about these events, don’t know that Korean artifacts seized in the conflicts are still kept by the French and American governments/militaries. But Koreans who attend this museum will be reminded of the foreign perfidy, down to the number of books seized by the French. Also noted that the conflicts are depicted as Korean victories: the Grand Prince Taewôn’gun would be proud. The nearly life-size dioramas depicting Korean soldiers killing and being killed by invaders brings home the conflicting messages of Korean victim hood and Korean heroism.
--overlooking the ramparts of what appears to be a re-created fortress of the type that fired upon French, American, and Japanese invaders alike, one can see endless miles of razor-wire-topped fence: a reminder that many in the ROK still fear invasion, from North Korea this time.

DOLMEN AND KOREA: Spent some time on Kanghwa Island, a place that is entwined with a great deal of Korean history. Visited one of the most famous dolmen on the island. Was informed that Korea is known as “the land of dolmen” and read the claim that Korea is home to something like half of all the dolmen in the world. The large stone structure was located in a small park in the middle of nowhere on the island. Nearby were recreations of a Neolithic house, two dolmen found elsewhere in Korea, a Stonehenge megalith, and an Easter Island statue. Clearly an attempt to situate Korea within a wider stone age context. What I find interesting is that there appears to no effort to demonstrate a connection between the dolmen builders and the Koreans of today. The connection is assumed but how are we to know that the ancestors of the Koreans didn’t come into the peninsula and annihilate, overwhelm, or completely absorb the dolmen builders? The point is, I think, that Korea had a Neolithic (and Paleolithic) people, something Japanese-era archaeologists and historians sought to deny.

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