Korean pop music before "K-pop": three six-hour mixes of 70s and 80s hits

Let me tell you about my favorite spot in all Korea. I won't name it, since I don't want to take the blame when, for other reasons, it inevitably gets too popular.

But I will say that you'll find it near a major Seoul art school. You have to go down some stairs to get to it, but once you enter, you'll find that you've gone not just underground, but back in time. There you can eat a mean plate of tofu kimchi, drink a stiff Long Beach iced tea, and spend the evening listening to the DJ of the night's selections from their wall of Korean vinyl records from the 60s, 70s, and 80s — and only those.


This might sound unremarkable if you engage in the West's, or even Japan's, thriving retro culture, but this place's singular focus on the music of thirty, forty, fifty years ago — and on the domestic music of thirty, forty, fifty years ago at that — makes it a true oddity in Korea. The Korean historical consciousness has long fascinated me: they'll tell you all sorts of stories from way back in the country's "5,000 years of unbroken history," but if you mention a ten-year-old song, they'll wonder what could ever interest you about such an irrelevant artifact.

I've heard of this conflict, or at least misunderstanding, erupting with some frequency and in various domains between Koreans and Korea-resident foreigners, especially Westerners, from music to style to architecture: many of the latter came to enjoy the very same elements of the culture many of the former would prefer to leave behind. Read the rest

Japanese programmer-philosopher makes digital Mondrians — in 1964

We've already seen, in the pages of Boing Boing, several unions of technology and the aesthetics of Dutch neoplasticist painter Piet Mondrian. We've seen a Mondrian PC, a kinda-sorta Mondrian Creative Zen MP3 player (remember those?), and a Mondrian cake. (I don't know about you, but I consider cakes one of the noblest forms of technology.)

But now we've got the lowdown on perhaps the earliest Mondrian-tech collaboration: Japanese philosopher-programmer Hiroshi Kawano's 1964 algorithmic Mondrians. Overhead Compartment's Claudio Rivera has the story:

Why an artificial Mondrian? Perhaps there’s an obvious and immediate affinity between his iconic compositions and such computer-generated figures as those that appeared in Japan’s IBM Review in 1964. But Hiroshi Kawano did not simply digitize Piet Mondrian; it could be stated inversely that he was among the first to Mondrianize digital art. The visualization of color and form for Kawano follows from an apparently vital aesthetic process in which analysis bears the same “artificial” relation to programming as reduction might bear to painting. One is inclined to ask — What other kind of Mondrian could there possibly be?

Kawama spoke of his work in precise and programmatic terms, seemingly adopting a physics of predictive lab experimentation at the exclusion of messy empirical studies undertaken en plein air. The syntax and logical operators of the OKI symbolic input programming language, which served as his medium, constitute an experimental “style” in the artisanal, perhaps even botanical sense—a meaning retained in the Dutch “De Stijl”—and thereby invoke a rodlike connection, jamb, joint, or post.

Read the rest

"Megacities" documentaries explore the inner workings of New York, Hong Kong and London

These programs examine the elements on the strength of which these megacities first became and continue to thrive as megacities.

The "Classic Loveline" podcast brings back the radio show that taught us sex and drugs

Has anything interesting appeared on commercial radio since Loveline?

Alain de Botton explains how to build a beautiful city

In his book The Architecture of Happiness, de Botton asks why we fetishize old buildings rather than building new ones even better suited to our age.

"Starbucks Versus the Traveler": a photo-audio essay on the ubiquity of the green mermaid

Whenever I travel to a new city, I immediately get to work on a mental map of its coffee shops. I do this in part because they provide the points of a basic geographical framework, in part because they offer a window onto the life of their neighborhoods, in part because I can get work done in them (in my line, you don't really take vacations; you just set up laptop camp in other cafés), and in part because I wither away if I don't get a cappuccino on the daily. I usually plot out a mixture of a few independents, a lot of local chains — and, often, an enormous number of Starbucks locations.

It would take a hardcore Starbucks-hater to avoid them while traveling, and it seems their sheer ubiquity has made a hardcore Starbucks-hater out of more than a few travelers. This phenomenon inspired Jim Benning, travel writer and co-founder of the estimable World Hum, to create the short photo-audio essay called "Starbucks Versus the Traveler."

"Does the world's Starbucks cup runneth over?" asks Benning, pondering the rate of new outlets opening worldwide. "More to the point, for people who love travel and love our differences, what does this mean? Will Starbucks and other global businesses eventually stamp out local culture, as some fear?" He addresses the question with sounds and images collected during the many Starbucks experiences he and others have had while traveling in cities from Tijuana to Tokyo.

I once interviewed Benning on my podcast, Notebook on Cities and Culture. Read the rest

The City in Cinema videos reveal the Los Angeles futures of "Blade Runner," "Strange Days," "Southland Tales," and more

Even before I moved to Los Angeles, I set about finding ways to understand it. I knew the city wouldn't make it easy for me, but at least I had plenty of representations of it on film to learn from — the very movies, in fact, which had stoked my interest in Los Angeles in the first place. Who wouldn't find themselves drawn in by, to name one notable example, the Los Angeles of 2019 as envisioned by Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, which presents a dense, Japanified megalopolis sent back to the third-world industrial stages it never went through in the first place?

Blade Runner stands as the definitive 1980s vision of the Los Angeles as the future, and perhaps as the definitive work of cyberpunk cinema as well. But in the mid-1990s, Kathryn Bigelow (now best known for films like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, and then best known for, oh, probably Point Break) brought the tradition of high tech and low life back to Los Angeles with Strange Days, which introduces the technology of human thought storage and direct playback — a kind of combined illegal technology, illegal viewing material, and illegal stimulant — into a post-riots city characterized by violence and insecurity.

In the 21st century, Spike Jonze's Her used movie magic to create an altogether kinder, gentler future Los Angeles. It still has advanced and even troubling technology in the form of sentient operating systems, but hey, it also has — at long last! Read the rest

Read chapter one of "Funereal", an upcoming novel of suicide, plastic surgery, and extreme therapy in Korea

If you have any interest at all in writing produced by the cultural exchange — or culture clash, if you prefer — between the West and Asia, you might consider keeping up with Signal 8 Press. Though a relatively new operation, they've already put out quite a few intriguing books, ranging formally from novels to travel memoirs to short story collections to college guides and geographically from China to Hong Kong to Laos to the Philippines to Korea.

Having read my own writing on Korea for The Guardian, Signal 8 author Giacomo Lee (@elegiacomo) reached out and offered me a chance to read his upcoming novel Funereal, a dark and sometimes surreal exploration of the country's drive for perfection, its unceasing competitiveness, and its conformist beauty culture — especially as they all exist, in lethally concentrated form, in the enormous, shapeshifting capital of Seoul.

Lee, a British former resident of Korea, accomplishes a literary act of which I know no precedent: convincingly rendering Korean characters through Western eyes. His countryman David Mitchell essayed a dystopian Korea in one layer of Cloud Atlas, but he set it in the unrecognizably distant future. Lee writes of the dystopian Korea of today, one that, in his conception, has driven itself nearly to the asylum with its own increasingly impossible standards and hopelessly unrealistic expectations.

Funereal's protagonist, a young lady in her late twenties named Soobin Shin, finds herself plucked from her dead-end donut-shop job by a regular customer, an entrepreneur who has come up with the potential next big thing in a culture perpetually on the lookout for next big things: OneLife, a service that puts on fake funerals for Koreans overwhelmed by their very existences, unwilling to go on, and need of the moment of reflection that only bursting alive out of a coffin in front of one's gathered black-clad friends and family can provide. Read the rest

"Let's Learn Japanese": the 1984 language-teaching video series still holds up

Foreign residents of Tokyo: have you ever run into Yan-san? If so, did you buy him a drink? I've heard that described as standard practice for anyone who began their lifelong Japanese language-learning odyssey with Let's Learn Japanese, a 1984 production of The Japan Foundation.

Like every other such educational video series I've seen, Let's Learn Japanese teaches its language through a series of skits. But the "skits" in this series raised the game considerably with production values comparable to one of the better television dramas of the day. Their protagonist, the nationally and ethnically ambiguous Yan (played by Nick Muhrin, the reportedly still Japan-based musician all those former students are buying drinks), arrives in Tokyo to work at an architecture firm and tries his best to integrate with Japanese life.

I've blown through quite a few language-learning materials in my time, and only Let's Learn Japanese has compelled me to return again and again, not necessarily for review of the material — you can get it all down the first time through — for the sheer entertainment of revisiting not just Yan but sensei Mary Althaus, who explains the linguistic concepts at work, and especially the always-cheerful troupe of Mine, Sugihara, and Kaihō, who act out each one in context.

As a bit of promotion for the Japan Foundation, too, this series definitely worked on me. I volunteer at my local branch, the Japan Foundation Los Angeles, to this day, and even take language classes there. And they didn't stop with these videos; when you get done with this season, you can also watch the next, produced a decade later, which follows Yan's further adventures as a graduate student and puts in the teacher's seat a lady named Tae Umino. Read the rest

"Bitter, Sweet, Seoul": a crowdsourced film that reveals life in the Korean megalopolis

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Radio Shack's happier days, when it sold $2495 cellphones

I suppose one shouldn't make light of the dying, but Radio Shack, as moribund a nationwide retailer as they come, pretty much asks for it. Their intended aping of Apple stores a few years back seems not to have panned out, and articles like "A eulogy for RadioShack, the panicked and half-dead retail empire" by SB Nation's Jon Bois started ringing the death knells a while ago.

While Bois, a former Radio Shack employee, does seize the opportunity dance on the company's future gravesite, he also provides a thoughtfully damning analysis of its countless missteps:

As this company has spent the last decade-plus trying to save itself, the happiness of the employees has always been the first to go overboard. Its store managers are worked so hard that they become unhappy, half-awake shadows of themselves. Labor laws have been brazenly ignored. Untold hours of labor haven't been paid for (when I quit, on good terms and with two weeks' notice, they withheld my final paychecks for months and wouldn't tell me why). Lawyers have been sent to shut down websites that have bad things to say about RadioShack. Employees who make a few dimes over minimum wage are pressured, shamed, and yelled at as though they're brokering million-dollar deals.

RadioShack is a rotten place to work, generally not a very good place to shop, and an untenable business to run. Everyone involved loses.

Amid all this, we might cast our minds back to happier days at the 'Shack, maybe by browsing the Radio Shack Catalog Archive, or by watching their old commercials like the one above. Read the rest

"God Hates Japan": the Douglas Coupland novel that may never appear in English

Though I appreciate a well-made physical book, I don't collect the things aggressively as some do. Yet I can't suppress my desire to possess certain, highly specific volumes. At the top of that stack of literary desiderata stands this one by Generation X, Microserfs, and jPod author Douglas Coupland (star of Close Personal Friend, featured here last week).

"In 2000, Mike Howatson, a gifted Vancouver animator, and I produced an illustrated novel called God Hates Japan,” writes Coupland on a blog he briefly kept at the New York Times. "It was published only in Japanese — beautifully and elegantly, I might add — by Kadokawa Shoten in 2001. It’s the story of characters lost in a malaise that swept Japanese culture after the burst of the bubble economy in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. It also depicted the way some of these characters lived in the shadow of a death cult’s 1995 sarin-gas assault on Tokyo’s subway system."

Though he seldom deals directly with Japanese themes in his work, Coupland has a history with the country. He first went there in 1983, as an exchange student at the Hokkaido College of Art and Design in Sapporo. Later, he would return for a degree in Japanese Business Science from the Japan-America Institute of Management Science ("I know, it’s as random as it sounds").

A connection made there put God Hates Japan on the cutting edge of digital publishing. One of Coupland's classmates "owned a mobile phone advertising company in Tokyo, so we simultaneously published the book in a digital form that could be read via cell phone. Read the rest

Photographer Noé Montes shoots Los Angeles like you've never seen it

Los Angeles is beautiful — there, I've stirred up a controversy already. But photographer Noé Montes has already out done me by making that claim not just in words but in images, and a series of striking ones, no less, with that very title.

Much of the shooting for it, Montes did through the window of an LAPD helicopter. As he told me in an interview on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture, he found out soon after takeoff that the pilot didn't have any particular flight plan. Instead — as in the dreams of everyone fascinated with Los Angeles — he simple asked, "So, where to?"

You may remember Montes' name from when Xeni posted his Occupy Los Angeles portraits back in the Occupy heyday. His photographic output has only increased in variety and impressiveness in the years since; have a scroll through his portfolio to see the people, places, and things he's captured more recently in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Los Angeles may not conform to many traditional ideas of urban aesthetics, but as Montes' view of it proves, none can deny its intense visual interest. So why, I asked him straight-up in our interview, do so many people think of it as ugly?

"Well," he replied, "because it's kind of ugly!" And so I quote the sage words of graphic designer Tibor Kalman: "I have nothing against beauty, but it isn't very interesting." Unless, of course, it's beauty Los Angeles-style. Read the rest

Seattle's possibly-haunted "Mystery Coke Machine"

I've lamented the pathetic state of American vending machine culture versus the advanced state of Japan's, but as with anything else in this giant and often complacent country, you've got to look at the trees, not the forest.

Specifically, you've got to look at Seattle, a city not just plenty of trees but a fair few interesting vending machines.

You may remember the new Seattle marijuana vending machine recently posted here at Boing Boing, but the Emerald City boasts at least one older and even more compelling example: a haunted one.

You'll find Seattle's "haunted vending machine" in Capitol Hill, not necessarily the first neighborhood in the city that comes to mind when you think of surviving repositories of weirdness, but there it stands nevertheless. I myself encountered this intriguingly freestanding, antiquated, and nearly illegible specimen accidentally, on a search for an Ethiopian restaurant. My subsequent research turned up an article wherein Vice's Hilary Pollack investigates.

"With its sun-bleached buttons and charmingly antiquated Mountain Dew logo, the Mystery Coke Machine has been spitting out sodas on the corner of John and Broadway for upwards of 15 years," Pollack writes, "but no one seems to know exactly for how long—or who re-stocks, maintains, or collects money from the thing. It’s as though it fell out of a wormhole and landed free-standing onto this lonely corner."

Insert your 75 cents — a price only recently upped from 55 cents — and you get "beverages so random that you couldn’t even think of them if you were playing Scattegories. Read the rest

How Chad Kirton went from a kid in Saskatchewan to a rapper in Korea

Recording my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture's Korea Tour last summer, I had some of the most fun hanging out with Chad Kirton, also known as DJ Chad, also known — when in the hip-hop game — as Fusion. Originally from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Chad has lived in Korea for more than a decade now, most of that time in Busan, Korea's second-largest city down on its southeastern coast. He originally came to pay off his student loans by earning money teaching English, as many Westerners do, but somewhere along the way he became a bona fide Busan celebrity.

You can learn more about how this kid from Canada became a bilingual broadcaster, rapper (yes, he can freestyle in Korean), and television star from the podcast interview I recorded with him, or from the short documentary at the top produced by the people at Korean pop-culture fan site Hallyuback. As if those duties didn't give him enough to fill his 16-hour workday (a sure sign of his Koreanization), he still teaches English at a local university, too.

I do wonder what his students must think of having one of the city's famous faces for an English teacher. Some surely know him from the television program 통통통 ("Tong Tong Tong"), on the second half of whose episodes he takes on a mission in some part of Busan (often to seek out free food). In the shows below, Chad's segments begin at 13:25 and 13:56:

And when they needed to market a new laptop, no less a respected and feared Korean conglomerate than Samsung selected Chad as the official rapper to represent it:

Pretty good for a guy whose hometown, back when he was growing up, lacked so much as a Korean restaurant. Read the rest

Kowloon Walled City was the densest—and most interesting?—place on Earth

I have only two major urban regrets: that I'll never get to see Portsmouth's Tricorn Centre, and that I'll never get to see Hong Kong's Kowloon Walled City. These structures, in most ways exact opposites, share only the qualities of having been demolished, and of once having contained a surprising range of activity.

The Tricorn Centre, designed by Rodney Gordon and built in 1966, stood in its gray concrete glory as perhaps England's most striking work of Brutalist architecture. Kowloon Walled City, designed by nobody in particular and built bit by improvised bit since the mid-1940s, stood as the densest place on Earth, with 3,250,000 inhabitants per square mile. (Manhattan, for reference, has under 67,000 per square mile.)

Essentially an informal settlement effectively controlled by neither Britain nor China, Kowloon Walled City took the shape of 300 both unregulated and irregular tower blocks mashed up into a kind of single unit, chockablock with residences, shops, opium dens, unlicensed dentists, and the stuff of 30,000 to 50,000 more or less normal lives, each one added to the accretion wherever it could fit. It fell to the wrecking ball in the early 1990s, but many memories of the lives lived within remain. City of Imagination, the short Wall Street Journal documentary at the top, draws upon them to reflect on the reality of this unprecedented and irreproducible urban environment.

Just as Kowloon Walled City went down, Ian Lambot and Greg Girard published City of Darkness, an extensive photographic and textual examination of the place in its final years. Read the rest

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles save Los Angeles rail transit in "Operation Blue Line" (1990)

As a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle enthusiast in childhood and a Los Angeles rapid transit enthusiast in adulthood, I should, by all rights, love Operation Blue Line, a ten-minute 1990 promotional video wherein the usually New York-based Heroes on a Half Shell defeat Gridlock, a villain bent on "suppressing all public information" about the Blue Line, the first branch of the city's modern rail system. It does, however, have a certain strike against it: its terribleness.

But then, Los Angeles transit riders have always had to put up with a lot. Between 1961 and 1990, this supposed "urban megalopolis" (in the words of Operation Blue Line's narrator) didn't have any rail lines at all, and even in 2015 we deal with a rapid transit system still incomplete but nevertheless promoted with a brazenness bordering on fraudulence: some posters boast of 80 train stations in a city that needs 800; others ask "What's not to love?" about a "rapid" bus line lacking almost every acknowledged element of bus rapid transit.

So in that sense, Operation Blue Line counts pretty much as business as usual for the promotional wing of the body then known as (and often called with irony) the Los Angeles Rapid Transit District. But at the end of the day, these guys in Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michaelangelo suits with surprisingly few points of articulation do at least vanquish Gridlock, leaving Angelenos relatively save to ride between downtown, Watts, Compton, Long Beach, and a great many disused-looking factories. Read the rest

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