The Slippery “I”

The slippery “I”: Walter Benjamin has this to say about the way with which Proust and Kafka use “I” (tr. Esther Leslie) -

When Proust, in his Recherche du temps perdu, and Kafka, in his diaries, use I, for both of them it is equally transparent, glassy. Its chambers have no local coloring; every reader can occupy it today and move out tomorrow… In these authors the subject adopts the protective coloring of the planet, which will turn grey in the coming catastrophes.

Benjamin scribbled his thoughts above on the drug prescription pad discarded by his doctor friend, Fritz Fränkel. Wonderful, the lugubrious notion expressed in the final sentence of his thoughts. I’d also add the “I” in Cavafy’s 4th Century Alexandria poems to the company of Proust and Kafka’s, as well as Sebald’s “I,” within whom other storytelling voices are nested…

Let me tell you a story. When I was a little kid in Korea, I used to play with this girl, who essentially bossed me around to do everything she wanted me to do. We only played house, doctor, etc., or rather, she forced me to play them - role playing games. Even as a kid, I knew that she was very pretty and grasped that I’d better inhabit the roles she’d ordered me to play with gusto if I wanted to please her.

I mention this girl because I was talking to my mom last week, and she reminded me of one day in my childhood past, when I went missing. She panicked and enlisted all the neighbors to look for me, even got the police involved. When my mom found me, I was at the girl’s house. At the very moment of discovery, my mom saw that the girl was helping me go pee on a tree in the yard, pretending that she was my mother in the darkness of dusk.

My mom had the occasion to bring her up in conversation with me, because she had recently talked on the phone with an old friend in Korea, and the friend mentioned by way of casual update that my girl friend died at an early age due to cancer a few years back, leaving behind a husband and a toddler daughter.

Benjamin highlights the ludic qualities in the I’s of Proust and Kafka, that every reader can occupy their I’s on a whim and move out equally capriciously. Perhaps that’s what we are doing fundamentally when we slip into Proust or Kafka’s I’s (and by extension, Cavafy’s and Sebald’s, et cetera): not so much reading by or through them, but slipping in and out, playing.

When my mom found me at the yard of the girl’s house those many years ago, would we not likely have been cloaked in the protective coloring of the planet, learning to inhabit other I’s and experiences, just playing games, before we sadly and eventually came to mind any pending catastrophes of this world? And so I learned to read I’s with her, I’d like to believe. In another fragment retrieved from Adorno’s archive, Benjamin wrote the lines below in his tiny script as opening lines of a poem, and I’m going to pretend that these Ariadnic lines were meant for my old friend all along (which also means they’re likewise meant for me)  -

When I begin a song

It sticks

And if I become aware of you

It is an illusion

(First image - a snapshot of a page from a copy of Walter Benjamin’s Archive which I keep at my office next to the Volcker Rule reports; latter two images are from Qiu’s wonderful flickr)

9 May 2012 ·

Morning run. Poetry. Romanticism.

Pre-dawn morning runs in the Central Park, something about trotting to a run when it’s still cold and dark so I walk over a few blocks to the Jackie O Reservoir, which is about 1.5 miles in circumference, the lamps in neat intervals interspersed along its dark perimeter, a ring of halogen stones, each throwing an etiolated length of light on the water, the scalloped head of the Chrysler still lit in the distance. When the day breaks, I notice two ducks motionless (sleeping?) on the water, and at the moment, the sight is strange and perfect at the same time… which reminds me of another strange and perfect sight I saw during a recent walk near Union Square -

More than a bit cheesy if the person hung it as a bohemian “performance,” which is likely the case. Nevertheless, the sight did make me feel as though I were walking past a Puccini set. Lifted my spirits. So out of place, that it was perfect. A few months ago, I watched a film by Lee Chang-dong called Poetry -

There’s a scene in the film in which these amateur poets in some rural region of Korea gather together for dinner and drinks after their hobbyist poetry club meeting. And a middle-aged guy, looking not too many rungs more polished than a farmhand, offers to sing a song unbidden, buoyed by alcohol and good feeling. I frankly anticipated the guy to croak out some sappy Korean song from the 60s, but my expectations were totally subverted when he began singing, a capella, in a not-too-unpleasant baritone, “Der Lindenbaum” from Schubert’s Winterreise.

The unexpected Schubert shook me. When I was a kid in Korea, I used to visit my mother’s family in Jeonju. I grew up in Seoul but most of the relatives on my mother’s side were farmers or raised livestock in the country. One of my uncles - the husband of my mom’s older sister - was a farmer who moonlighted as a high school teacher (or vice versa, I don’t remember). According to my memory, he had a perpetually bronzed skin and only wore thin white cotton t-shirts, even during winter.

I must have been 6 or 7 years old, but I vividly remember looking through the books on the shelf. Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian was there. The shelf was stuffed with books by continental European writers and philosophers from the 19th century, mostly German. Goethe, of course. Novalis. Kant. von Kleist. E.T.A. Hoffmann. I flipped through the pages back then, but the words swam in front of my eyes, unmoored from meaning. His children, my older cousins, who were in junior high/high schools, read The Sorrows of Young Werther or memorized Schiller verses. These names seemed bigger than life to me back then, and worthy of devotion; I don’t think I’ve ever shaken off the kind of childhood romance I had about decoding the words in those books.

Romanticism. Schubert and Byron-worshipping rural folk in Poetry. My farmer/teacher uncle and his impassable love for the 19th-century German literature and thought. Perhaps this should not be so jarring for our sensibilities - that the keepers of Romanticism are those who remain outside of the mainstream academia or literary community. They are the common people, perhaps plowing through life in Korea or Sri Lanka or Ethiopia (or even, in an apartment next door) who read the Romantic masters not with irony or deflection, historicizing the texts ad nauseum… but with true belief and feeling.

A while back, I wrote about Andras Schiff’s recording of Bach’s Six Partitas, and compared his account of late Bach with late Brahms. While reading the New Yorker's profile of Helene Grimaud, I was so pleased with what she said about late Bach and Romanticism -

If you talk to me, you can call a lot of things Romantic. You can call Bach’s Sixth Partita as Romantic as any Wagner opera. Romanticism is, for me, much more than a period in culture.

No lovelier way to encapsulate what I mean to say. In a certain poem or a song sometimes, that lush view opening up during a silence following a plosive? Romanticism.

By the way, noticed during a late morning walk over to my office on Monday that the kids are skating on ice already -

(Images by Caspar David Friedrich and Walmor Corrêa are buried in here somewhere, among throwaway shots I took with my BlackBerry)

10 November 2011 ·

Azim. Lost Fathers. The Idea of Order.

Got in a cab yesterday to make a church service, half of which I’d already missed. I hopped into the passenger seat and said hello to the driver, whose ethnicity I couldn’t discern. Turns out that he is from Uzbekistan. He asked me if I was Korean, and when I said yes, he told me that he has Korean friends in Uzbekistan who speak Uzbek and Russian better than him. As he was laughing, I couldn’t believe how fluent his English was, in turn. I asked him a little bit about his background, and he told me that he has three children - an eight year-old, a three year-old and a twenty-some months old. I was in the process of saying how taxing that must be, when he told me that the children are still back in Uzbekistan with the mom. That he came to the States ahead of time, and the family will join him in the States in one year. He’d graduated from law school in Uzbekistan, and was now taking the TOEFL to take courses at the NYU. He had some of the most benevolent eyes I have seen on a person. Getting out of the cab, he asked me my name, and wrote his phone number on the back of the receipt. Said his name was Azim.

I’d experienced something similar when I was a child in Korea. My father had to virtually “disappear” overnight to the U.S., and my mother, my brother and I had to stay back in Korea for a year. My father was a pretty smart guy, a kind of a wiz with numbers. He grew up in a very dysfunctional home; my grandparents were overeducated dandies who squandered their inheritance, and my father and his brother had to support their sisters by working. My father went to a night school in lieu of a regular high school, then went to 성균관 law school. Instead of becoming a lawyer, he became a banker dealing in securities in the age when investment banking and the trading markets were just becoming established in Korea. He rose very quickly through the ranks. Too quickly for his own good.

By his early 30s, he was one of the star traders in the country, with politicians and chaebol clients. Then one day, a story broke in the papers about my dad’s company. I still don’t have a clear idea on exactly what happened - I should find out one day - but at least according to a very vague version of the story that my father once told me when I was a little older, a junior trader funneled one of the funds out of the company, and basically fled the country. I dunno. I don’t know how complicit my father was in the whole ordeal, but I remember it was a very big deal. His company went under, and made the headlines in the newspapers. 

Before the investigations by the federal prosecutors started, my father was provided with an exit route out of the country. Arranged ahead of time by his clients, so their deals and investments do not get exposed in the media. I still remember the investigators with leather gloves pulling my brother and I out of school, to ask us where my father was. Except that they didn’t ask. They just bought us candy and 떡볶이. I love due diligence.

When I saw my father again at the LA International Airport, one year later, he seemed like a different, smaller man than the person I had known, and I felt a small resistance building within me as he took me in an embrace. It took me many months to reacquaint myself with him again, and in some ways, especially during the times in my early twenties when we were quite hostile toward each other, I’d suspected that perhaps I never got to know my dad again. That I’d lost him back in the 80s. Strangely enough, this sense of alienation from my father drove me to books, to writing, to words. To poetry’s order of things. From the last stanza from “The Idea of Order from Key West” by Wallace Stevens, who was my solace in my first years in the U.S., as mentioned before in a previous post -

The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Obviously, I wish Azim and his children a much happier reunion. I told Azim I’d call him later this week, to meet for coffee or drinks. I wonder if I should even mention my experience of being apart from my father. Probably not.

(Images by Issei Suda and Anthony Goicolea, respectively)

6 June 2011 ·

On May 18. W.G. Sebald. Birthdays. Kwangju Massacre

W.G. Sebald’s birthday today, May 18th. He would have been 67. There’s a reason why I can’t forget his birthday even if I wanted to try - it is also my own date of birth. Not that I’m superstitious or have horological/mystical tendencies. But as you might have noticed, he is one writer that I keep returning to, almost habitually and as if under a spell… and if you read Sebald’s work, you would no doubt be aware that birthdays, signs of stars, crossing paths and coincidences seem to point toward a great, enigmatic meaning, of which internal logic seems to lie forever out of our grasp.

When Sebald happened to encounter his own birthday in another context, it seemed to have had a profound and uncanny effect on him. In The Emigrants, at the Jewish cemetery near Kissingen, he is startled by something while he is reading through a series of inscriptions on gravestones  -

A shock of recognition shot through me at the grave of Maier Stern, who died on the 18th of May, my own birthday. [Bold mine]

This is a döppelganger moment, a kind of a ghostly possession which usually impels Sebald’s narratives. As it often is with a Sebald passage, what merely seems like a quick, inconsequential moment is fraught with meaning. The fact that the grave belongs to a woman named Maier Stern, that she died on his birthday, is significant: Maier - for instance - is the birth name of Jean Améry: he was born Hans Maier. As you may have realized, “Améry" is just an anagram of Maier.

Jean Améry is a significant figure in Sebald’s work. The account of his captivity and the excruciating torture he endured at the hands of SS Nazi at the fortress of Breendonck in Austerlitz, along with Sebald’s empathetic analysis of his life and work in On the Natural History of Destruction, are indelible. Sebald’s identification with Améry throughout his work is strangely and ineffably personal. But there is still a certain kind of internal logic behind Sebald’s empathy for Améry, and it has to do with how Sebald began to write The Emigrants, his first creative long work. And at least to me, this internal logic is the very logic which is the governing force behind all of Sebald’s elliptical narratives. In his interview with Carole Angier, which ran in the Jewish Quarterly, Sebald comments on how he began writing The Emigrants -

The Emigrants started from a phone call I got from my mother, telling me that my schoolteacher in Sonthofen had committed suicide [note: this is Paul Bereyter, whose narrative is one of the four main narratives in The Emigrants]. This wasn’t very long after Jean Améry’s suicide, and I had been working on Améry. A sort of constellation emerged about this business of surviving and about the great time lag between the infliction of injustice and when it finally overwhelms you… And that triggered all the other memories I had. [Bold mine]

No doubt that Sebald, when he encountered Maier Stern’s tombstone, with his birthday recorded on it as her date of death, he was thinking about Améry, too. How inexplicable and yet strangely logical this would have seemed, this ghostly coincidence. In another interview, Eleanor Wachtell notes that one critic described Sebald as a “ghost hunter,” and asks Sebald if he sees himself that way. Sebald replies point blank -

Yes, I do. I think that’s pretty precise… when you get interested in someone, you invest a considerable amount of emotional energy and you begin to occupy this person’s territory, after a fashion. You establish a presence in another life through emotional identification.

Another person with whom Sebald feels this ghostly, döppelganger "emotional identification" is the poet and translator Michael Hamburger. And in describing Michael Hamburger’s seemingly irrational identification with Hölderlin through Hamburger’s voice, we see that the coincidence of birthdays again plays a role. Hamburger says, through Sebald’s periscopic narration in The Rings of Saturn -

Does one follow in Hölderlin’s footsteps, simply because one’s birthday happened to fall two days after his? … Is it possible that later one would settle in this house in Suffolk because a water pump in the garden bears the date 1770, the year of Hölderlin’s birth?… Across what distances in time do the elective affinities and correspondences connect? How is it that one perceives oneself in another human being, or, if not oneself, then one’s own precursor?

Hamburger’s questions mirror Sebald’s own, and ultimately compels Sebald to feel - as he views various miscellaneous objects littering Hamburger’s home in Suffolk - that he himself has lived in Hamburger’s house all these years, and can’t shake the feeling that Hamburger’s experiences are the exact experiences of his own. That their mirroring paths were ghostly predetermined, become layers interleaved on a haunting, time-lapsed palimpsest -

No matter how often I tell myself that chance happenings of this kind occur far more often than we suspect, since we all move, one after the other, along the same roads mapped out for us by our origins and our hopes, my rational mind is nonetheless unable to lay the ghosts of repetition that haunt me with ever greater frequency.

This is perhaps the reason why I can’t stop but think of May 18th - Sebald’s birthday that coincides with my own - as somehow meaningful. Hmm, who else, Tina Fey’s birthday is also May 18th. =) Mahler died on May 18th. Ian Curtis of Joy Division died by hanging himself in the kitchen of his house on May 18, 1980. 

Speaking of May 18, 1980: one event which I cannot ever disassociate from May 18 is the Kwangju Massacre in Korea. I wrote about it previously, but in sum, General Chun Doo Hwan, who eventually became president, seized control of the military, and effectively staged a coup, dismissing the National Assembly. And declared martial law throughout the country. Citizens and students demonstrated, especially in the city of Kwangju. Ironically, Chun’s military group was tacitly supported by the American government, as the American carrier USS Coral Sea was docked in the city of Busan to support Chun’s group as they launched a massive counterattack against the pro-democracy movement of the students and citizens, and begun their military usurpation of Kwangju.

On May 18, General Chun’s Airborne Brigades quarantined the city and after a particularly hostile confrontation with the crowd, the soldiers lost their objective discipline and started killing citizens indiscriminately, rioters or not. Chun’s forces stymied the press and media, but word spread quickly - even though the official casualty was listed at 192, the actual count, according to some accounts I’ve read, was closer to 2000 dead civilians. The military had swiftly burned some bodies, buried others, and dumped the rest into the sea.  

I was just a toddler, but I do remember certain things - the smell of tear gas in the streets. Signs of demonstrations, calls barked out through bullhorns by the riot police. Yet, although I didn’t directly experience the terrors myself, when I think of May 18th, about Kwangju, I am somehow mnemonically transported to my childhood. Sebald experiences something eerily similar in Austerlitz, as he describes the fortress of Breendonck where Améry was tortured by the gestapo -

As I stared at the smooth, gray floor of this pit… the grating over the drain in the middle of it and the metal pail standing beside the drain, a picture of our laundry room at home in W. rose from the abyss and with it, suggested perhaps by the iron hook hanging on a cord from the ceiling, the image of the butcher’s shop I always had to pass on my way to school…

Just as Sebald is reminded of Améry’s torture when he thinks about the town of his birth (Wertach) or when encountering the random inscription of his birthday on Maier Stern’s tombstone, I can’t escape thinking about what happened in Kwangju, and the accounts of cruel torture which took place following the Kwangju Massacre. Fact mixes freely with my imagination. For years, I imagine this scene and have even written about it: I see an interrogator enter a room, in which a single light bulb hangs from the ceiling, as well as an iron hook, just like the hook in Sebald’s Breendonck from which Améry was hung by his arms, until his shoulder joints cracked violently out of place.

In my head, this interrogator enters the room in the interrogation headquarters in Namyoung, unscrews the light bulb hanging from the ceiling. The bulb makes a loud, popping noise and electric sparks fly out from the socket. He doesn’t flinch but instead takes out a red bulb from his pocket and screws it in. The red light floods the room instantaneously, and everything in the room turns into its skeletal, negative image, like a surreal reversion of a photo image to its darkroom negative.

The subject of the interrogation is a girl, a student. The interrogator asks her to collaborate, collude, sign papers. When she refuses, he takes his Bic ballpoint pen, with which he was taking notes, and draws two tiny circles on each of her thighs. Before she realizes what he is doing, he stabs the pen into her thighs in quick, ruthless succession. The girl falls, enters into shock: watches her own body convulse involuntarily.

The only fact from the story above which can be corroborated as fact is that a certain interrogator had indeed jabbed his ballpoint pen into a subject’s thighs during the course of questioning. All the other parts in the story are replaceable figments of my imagination. But how would that change much of anything? The hundreds and thousands who had gone through actual interrogations that were much more irredeemable and atrocious?

(Photo of Sebald is by Jillian Edelstein; the photo of Michael Hamburger is by Tacita Dean)

18 May 2011 ·

Camerata Cafe in Heyri Art Valley, Korea

I’ve voiced my scorn for the mainstream pop culture in Korea before. But still, compared to the U.S., it seems that Korea and other Asian countries make more of a concerted effort for the arts, even if in the peripheries.

A case in point is the Heyri Art Valley in Korea, not too distant from Seoul. It was conceived in 1997 as a residential village and cultural space reserved for artists. Hundreds of writers, architects, visual artists, filmmakers and musicians live there, as well as display or perform in the museums, galleries, studios and performance spaces scattered throughout the village. 

Today, I want to focus on a place called Camerata Cafe in Heyri. Last weekend, I was walking around Lower East Side in NYC, and it occurred to me that even in this great metropolis, places where one could just walk in with minimum sense of responsibility and financial burden are limited. Very. Mind you, there were tons of places that I could walk in and pay 6 dollars for a mildly cold pint of PBR. But not many places where you could sit, and really wind down, listen to great music, converse, and not get gouged by the bill: actually, make that zero.

In the 70s and 80s in Japan and Korea, there were great smoke-filled jazz cafes and music cafes, where DJs spun Curtis Fuller or Coleman Hawkins through huge JBLs or Altec speakers. I do have a vague recollection of these, because one day, when I was a toddler in Seoul, my parents took me to one, and I can’t forget the music I heard, the sight of attractive older people enjoying their lives.

Nowadays, it seems that in Japan and Korea, there is a revival of such music cafes. It’s no secret that I am a big vinyl/analog guy. And it kills me that there is no such revival in the U.S. As mentioned in one of my earliest posts here, Sakuma-san plays divine jazz and classical music through a single, mono Altec speaker at his restaurant, The Concorde, via old idler wheel turntables and handmade tube amplifiers while his customers eat his hamburger steaks.

In Heyri Art Valley in Korea, there is a cafe called Camerata. The structure is constructed by the architect Byoung-soo Cho.


Camerata is a cafe run by a retired DJ named Inyong Hwang. It is designed as a cafe space in which people can listen to music, talk, read, etc. But when I say that there is music at this place, I don’t mean muzak or a Starbucks iTunes playlist.

What you see above may be ugly to you, but to any vintage music aficionados, they are THE holy grail: various Western Electric horns, the German Klangfilm horn, Altecs. I don’t even want to guess the street value of the equipment above. Mid to high six figures?

Camerata houses 15,000 records -

and these records are played via an EMT broadcast turntable, another rare item, and various Western Electric tube power amps -

Some pictures of the space, where live performances also take place -

And guess what, it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg -

It says you get in for 10,000 won, which is about 9 bucks and a quarter. Students get in for just under four bucks. And? The drinks are totally free - coffee, tea, etc.

It is either heaven in Heyri or hell everywhere else. Can you imagine reading Rilke or Cavafy there, while an old LP of Maria Yudina playing Bach swells out of the single Klangfilm speaker, into the space? 

People in Korea who do not want to travel outside of the megapolis that is Seoul can go to places like Taschen 1812 Classic Cafe -

This cafe is in the flagship store for Taschen Books; sure beats the Taschen store in SoHo! You can have wine, browse books, eat pretty-looking food… and although the audio equipment is not as esoteric as it is in Camerata, you are still listening to vinyl… and you get to see a fetching collection of phonographs and cylinders -

Kill me now.

4 May 2011 ·

Too good for me to not share with you. Last night, my buddy Marc wrote me about some obscure Korean psych rock band from the 60s and 70s. Mind you, Marc’s a tall white guy with zero knowledge of Korean, but one of the most incorrigible record-crate diggers I know. His knowledge of vintage-era rock and pop is nonpareil, and the guy’s a total, discriminating prick when it comes to music. A Nick Hornby character reincarnate, in other words.

So, last night, I was stuck in my office and we ended up chatting about weird psych rockers from Korea. I mean, the guy has no focking right talking about Shin Jung Hyun or San Ul Lim better than 95% of Koreans, but that is exactly what he does. Anyways, he told me about this funky track with killer fuzzy guitar licks he’d once heard in a record store in Fells Point, Baltimore that made him do a double-take. He’d asked the store clerk what the track was, but promptly forgot who it was.

So what happens when you put two record-collecting geeks together, late at night, with a music mystery unsolved? Why, yes, we play tag-team Sherlock over the internet, and geek out. On certain nights, the world seems a bit more just and right than on others, and last night, my homey and I found out who it was - this Korean group called He 6.

The track Marc had heard is actually not the embedded video above; but the song above - a cover of “Get Ready” by Rare Earth - is ten minutes of pure sickness (the whole song is actually 14 minutes long, the youtube captures only 10 mins of it). If some of you recognize it, that’s because DJ Shadow samples it in his tune, “Number Song.” Check out when the vocals kick in at 2:42 or so, with guitars distorting into bliss, and the crazy hip-hop drum break at 5:40-something mark. Apparently, they also do a killer cover of “In a Gadda Da Vida”… check out this link for some deets on He 6 and weird Korean psychedelic music from the 70s.

I might do an extended post some time on Virtual Shellfish about psych rock in Korea during the 70s and 80s… interesting to me that this music blossomed at the same time that Park Chung Hee and the militia government had its iron grip on the country… 

But for now, one more He 6 psychedelia below for your hellish soul; check out the Hammond in the background. That dirrty dirrty guitar. The go-go vibe… -

8 March 2011 ·

Korea, Madame Freedom & Doing the Running Man : Virtual Shellfish

A Korean boy-toy pop group called 2PM busts out the Running Man, and you can catch the video if you click on the title of this post. But more importantly, why do I have such a hatred for the hyper-westernized, hyper-commodified Korean pop culture? Perhaps it’s because that’s exactly the process by which Korea had once lost its nationhood - westernization and hyper-modernization. This and more, over at VSF, including my thoughts on a campy Korean film called Madame Freedom (1956) -

This is the backdrop against which we encounter Madame Freedom’s heroine, Sun-young, the university professor’s wife. As I noted before, her fall from grace through extra-marital affairs is formulaic and trite. Yet it is significant – and this is the source of the film’s historical resonance – that the moment in which Sun-young transforms into an eroticized sexual object is precisely the moment when she becomes a manager at the shop which sells western wear. When she trades in her traditional, Korean hanbok for western clothes, bags, and necklaces, she sheds her identity as mother/wife and becomes a “free” woman. Her sexual instinct is awakened by her consumerist desires.

If I get further bored in my office, I might bust out my rendition of the Running Man on top of my desk.

8 February 2011 ·

Kwangju Massacre - May 18, 1980

I spent my childhood in Korea. I immigrated to the US when I was 10 years old, and have not gone back to the country since. When I think of my childhood back in Korea, I can’t remember anything distinctly “Korean” about the experience, whatever that might mean. I lived in Seoul in a high-rise apartment facing the Han River, in Apgu district, which is now a trendy hub of city life there. The first film I had seen in a theater was Kramer vs. Kramer, to which I was dragged by my mom when I was a toddler, so she could watch the movie with her friend. All I remember from the movie is the experience of feeling revolted by how Americans ate their eggs. I listened to classical music with my father on his nice stereo; the apotheosis of classical music, for my father, had already occurred, not in the symphonies of Beethoven but in the overtures of von Suppé (in a telling and logical arc, he is now an avid listener of Celine Dion’s oevure.)

Before we actually moved to the States, my conception of the American life was formed by omnipresent billboards (everywhere in Seoul in the 80s!) of Brooke Shields in Jordache jeans. By the notion that all kids had nice bikes to race through the wide streets in suburbia, and perhaps fly, silhouetted against the moon (E.T.). And ultimately, for some reason, by the saxophone solo in Wham!’s “Careless Whispers,” a song which I heard in a department store many times. I could not understand English, but had somehow intuited that the song was about pining for somebody you aren’t supposed to crave, and that kind of desire had seemed very liberating, illicit, and American. Nevermind that I found out years later that George Michael and his sidekick were actually Brits. After that disillusionment, finding out that one illustrious member of Wham! had a penchant for having sex in public bathrooms in Beverly Hills did not come as a surprise or a disappointment.

Actually, I do remember something as distinctly “Korean” - the smell of tear gas wafting through the air. Broken soju bottles littering the streets (student protesters used these bottles to fashion makeshift molotov cocktails). The country was going through its growing pains as a democratic country. President Park Chung Hee was assassinated in 1979. There is no doubt that he led South Korea through an incredible economic resurgence out of the ruins of the Korean War, but essentially, he was a US-approved dictator. After his assassination, one of the ruthless, careerist generals named Chun Doo Hwan seized control of the military, and effectively staged a coup, dismissing the National Assembly. And declared martial law throughout the country. This was on May 17, 1980, the day before the Kwangju Massacre.

On the night of the May 16th, in the city of Kwangju, 30,000 students and thousands of citizens organized a torchlight demonstration for democracy, to protest General Chun’s dictatorial ambitions. Ironically, Chun’s military group was tacitly supported by the American government, as the American carrier USS Coral Sea was docked in the city of Busan to support Chun’s group as they launched a massive counterattack against the pro-democracy movement of the students and citizens, and begun their military usurpation of Kwangju.

On May 18, Chun’s Airborne Brigades quarantined the city and after a particularly hostile confrontation with the crowd, the soldiers lost their objective discipline and started killing citizens indiscriminately, rioters or not. Chun’s forces stymied the press and media, but word spread quickly - even though the official casualty was listed at 192, the actual count, according to some accounts I’ve read, was closer to 2000 dead civilians. The military had swiftly burned some bodies, buried others, and dumped the rest into the sea. General Chun became the President of Korea soon after.

Choe Yol-lak, a 37 year-old man, was killed near Kwangju prison, with gunshots in the front left chest and right hip; his body was dug up from the hills in front of Kwangju Prison. Kim Nae-yang, a 5-year old girl at the time, was shot by a member of the 3rd Brigade, leaving her lower body paralyzed. Yi Mae-sil, a 68 year old woman, was killed from multiple gunshots to the right of her head. Im Chong-sik, a 18 year-old high school student, was shot while giving aid to his uncle who was injured. Pang Kwang-bom, a 13 year-old boy, was shot to death by a paratrooper of the 11th Airborne Brigade while swimming with friends in the reservoir of Wonje Village. Pak Yon-ok, a 49 year-old woman who came out to look for her youngest son, was hiding in the sewer pipe near the entrance of Inseong High School as shootings began; the paratroopers found her and shot her to death.

And more. Too many more names of the innocents, that could have easily been lost and forgotten in history. According to my knowledge, perhaps the oddest testimony in existence is left by Kim Haeng-nam, a 47 year-old man who was raising about 200 domestic birds at the time. He survived with minor injuries, but all 200 of his birds were shot to death by the forces of General Chun’s martial law.

(The last three images are exhibited in the Kwangju Bienniale, so if you are in Korea, go catch the exhibits; the top two images are by Sanja Iveković and the last image is by Kwang Ho Choi)

26 October 2010 ·

About Me

books. baseball. LPs. 45s. 78s. City. alcohol. ghosts.