I've never been much of a fan of "Seoul" magazine, mainly because it's mostly image and surface and hardly any, well, soul.
Indeed, despite being edited and published in funky, old-school Kangbuk (Northern Seoul), one might say that its coverage of
Korean culture and history is rather more stereotypically like Kangnam (South Seoul) in spirit and approach: If the social body
of Seoul is a living organism, the publisher of "Seoul" magazine seems determined to surgically alter or remove any unpleasant
"imperfections" from its pages, and dress it up in fancy designer clothes. What "Seoul" presents is not Seoul as it is, but as it
wants it to be -- a kind of shiny, bourgeois fantasy designed for the consumption of cashed-up expats who find themselves in
the capital of what local officials call, endearingly, the "Soul of Asia."
Of course, "Seoul" is partly funded by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, so I do not begrudge its backers the right to expect
sleek propaganda in exchange for the allocation of coveted financial resources; what I don't understand, however, is why they
think local expats should have to pay the W3,000 cover price for the privilege of being indoctrinated into their simulated version
of "reality." To be sure, the North Koreans are famously adept at the fine art of coaxing Western tourists to cough up cash for
their own baroque, bizarre tributes to the Drear Leader and his feverish hallucinations, but at least DPRK propaganda has rare
kitsch value and actually makes you laugh at the sheer over-the-topness of it all. I can't say I've ever had a good chuckle while
perusing the pages of "Seoul," although some of its more egregious instances of "advertorial content" have, on occasion, made
me smirk and shake my head in mild bemusement.
In any case, "Seoul" does sometimes have nice photographs, and I used to pick it up semi-regularly whenever I was able to snag
a free copy in my 'hood. The main Tourist Information Center on Insadong St. sometimes has extra copies to give away, but they
often keep them hidden behind the counter and you have to know to ask for it; I also used to grab a free copy every now and then
at the high-end German restaurant "Baerlin" in the Somerset Palace building behind Chogye Temple (since they often advertise
in "Seoul," they presumably get a monthly ration of free copies), but after a while the owners started giving me the stink-eye
whenever I just ducked in, and finally told me I'd have to plop down three Yi Hwangs if I wished to continue my regime of
ethnocultural indoctrination. I think the last hard-copy I have is the February 2009 issue, which among other things had a
five-page spread on the northern city of Dongduch'on that managed to edit away entirely any mention of the massive U.S.
Army presence in and around the city, including the 3,500-acre Camp Casey that's just a short stroll from Central Dongduch'on
Station, and has one of the largest "villes" or "entertainment areas" for American service members on the Peninsula. Certainly
Dongduch'on would not be half the city it is today without the rivers of dollars that the Yanks have been pumping into the local
economy for the past six decades or so, and I personally think the ville across the main gate from Camp Casey offers excellent
opportunities for those with a taste for "dark tourism." I also think the thousands of U.S. soldiers who belong to the 2nd Infantry
Division at least deserve props for putting themselves directly in the line of fire of the million or so North Korean soldiers just
across the DMZ, so that the writers and editors of "Seoul" can sleep soundly at night back down here in the Big Kimchi; by the
time I was done with the article, I half expected to turn the page and read of how the South Koreans had singlehandedly repelled
the Norks at the Battle of Inch'on.
After that, I could hardly be bothered to drop by the Insadong Tourist Information Center for the latest issue of "Seoul," even
though I live literally two minutes from there and pass by it every day. So it was only until yesterday that I heard that the August
2009 issue had really topped itself as a purveyor of historical revisionism and sanitized, nationalist propaganda. At first blush,
Beckhee Cho's two-page profile of Macondo, the famed salsa club near Hongik University in Western Seoul ("Underground
Salsa: Discover a Hotbed of Caribbean Dance at Hongdae's Macondo," pp 80-81), does not seem overtly nationalistic in approach
or content, given its celebration of a decidedly non-Korean music and dance form, and even rhapsodizing near the end, "On the
weekends, it is the picture of cultural diversity, with English speakers, Spanish speakers and Korean speakers crowded together
in a small hall enjoying the passionate atmosphere that only Latin dance can bring." The only problem is that the article fails to
mention how Macondo actually came into being in the first place, preferring instead to write vaguely at the start, "Macondo's
current owner, a petite and dark woman who really looks more Cuban or Puerto Rican than Korean, took over the place in
2000." In fact, Macondo was founded on 31 December 1996 by a pioneering American expatriate and good friend of mine
named Kelly McCluskey, who certainly deserves a featured spotlight in local nightlife history as the man who opened the first-
ever salsa club on the Korean Peninsula. This is hardly top-secret information to any seasoned expat here in Seoul, and it
shouldn't be to the folks at "Seoul" magazine, either, considering that Kelly has himself written for the publication in the past
(a feature on the Museum of Latin American Culture in Koyang City, Kyonggi Province, to be precise); for this reason, I can
only conclude that the editors at "Seoul" magazine either had a suspiciously convenient "memory lapse" (a generous reading,
given that the article itself knowingly notes that Macondo "already boasts 12 years of history as an authentic salsa bar"), or
decided to intentionally airbrush away the crucial contributions of one prominent non-Korean scenemaker -- to say nothing
of the stable of expat DJs and dance instructors he nurtured and supported along the way -- from this particular "feel-good"
story. These days we often hear about the South Korean government's embrace of "multiculturalism" in the 21st century, but
of course this is often just poppycock: In general, official Korea only endorses "top-down multiculturalism" in the manner of
chaebol-style management and control, rather than genuinely respecting the autonomy of "bottom-up multiculturalism" that
springs from the grass roots. In other words, so-called multiculturalism in Korea is all fine and dandy as long as it's Koreans
who are in charge and calling all the shots; and if it's sometimes necessary to "tweak" the historical record in support of this
ideological agenda, or even "disappear" those with the wrong passport or blood type, well then so be it. Hey, at least the
present owner of Macondo kind of "looks" foreign, right? That's progress! Now let's party!
The story of Macondo's founding and first success as an expat-run "Hongdae hot spot" -- as well as how Kelly ultimately
wound up losing it -- is actually a pretty good one, and if your Korean is up to snuff you can read all about it in my new book
"더 발칙한 한국학" (after several delays, my publisher, Eunhaeng Namu, has finalized a mid-September release). In fact, I
first asked Kelly to contribute an essay about Macondo to "더 발칙한 한국학" after reading yet another feature on Hongdae
in the local press that completely ignores the important role that expats have played in helping establish what is, after all, Seoul's
most famous Western-style club district. (Of course, it's much easier to demonize expats as an "unsavory" and "corrupting"
presence in Hongdae, a persistent theme in the Korean media for the past several years, once they've been excised from the
official narrative of its early development as an alternative nightlife enclave.) I know for a fact that Kelly bears no ill will
towards Macondo's present proprietress, and is mostly just proud that his "baby" is still alive and going strong after all these
years -- and is now one of Hongdae's longest-surviving clubs. I just think he'd feel much better if he got a bit more credit and
respect as the founder of a beloved Hongdae landmark.
Well, hopefully Kelly's essay in "더 발칙한 한국학" will go some ways towards "revising the revisionists," especially in the
Korean-language universe where it matters most; at some point we'll see about publishing the full English-language version as
well, which is over 10,000 words long and as a consequence hardly suitable for pleasurable online reading. For now, here's a
"teaser" that I hope will inspire at least a few readers to pick up "더 발칙한 한국학" once it's finally out:
"100 Days of Solitude"
Macondo and the Early Salsa Movement in Korea
by Kelly McCluskey
Seoul, summer 1995. It was another ho-hum foreigners' party on a Saturday night at the Eastgate House on Yonsei University
campus. The premium location for expat shindigs in the nineties, the Eastgate House was a "proper" mansion formerly owned
and occupied by the well-known Underwood family, an ivy-covered single-story stone structure surrounded by grass and trees --
the kind of place you might imagine a Yeats or even an Oscar Wilde writing away in a corner. This lovely building had been
carved up into 8 or 9 rooms to house the English teachers from Yonsei FLI. The Yonsei Foreign Language Institute, also a
venerable institution in its day, was in fact the single best place to learn and teach English in the 1990s.
I say it was a ho-hum party because, despite there being a lot of great food, oodles of wine and cocktails and beer, the music
playing on the house stereo was Michael Jackson (late, not early), Bee Gees and generally just the kind of schlock that commuters
listen to on their way to work because they haven't anything better to do, or because they really aren't paying attention to the
radio. Honestly, as hip as all these fancy-pancy Yonsei ESL teachers seemed, I couldn't believe how lame their taste in music
As I looked around, I realized that this was a mostly "WASP" (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) crowd -- the same kind of boring,
white-bread suburbanites that I had grown up around in my small rural town in Oregon, or even in my college days at the
University of Chicago, so I couldn't blame them that they hadn't been lucky enough to escape it as I had.
WASP culture is all about the "Protestant work ethic," also known jokingly as the "Protestant guilt complex," but WASP culture
is unusually poor in modern music -- Mozart was a WASP, of course, and so were Bach and Beethoven, but would modern white
rock even exist without black music? Perhaps you've already heard the English expression "white guys can't dance"?
By contrast, Latin-American culture (which commonly includes all of the countries south of Mexico, including Brazil and the
English-speaking Carribean island nations) is all about music and dancing and enjoying life to the fullest, whether it be through
parties or dancing or just appreciating the beauty of a full moon with a poetic glass of wine. These people know how to have fun;
they spend their life studying the "art of living"!
I myself had "run away" from "white America" in 1987 and embarked on a five-year odyssey of Latin America, heading south
into Mexico and not stopping my southward sojourn "until I saw penguins." It wasn't until after two years of aimless rambling
among jungle-encrusted lost Mayan cities, open-air markets bursting with costumes and the pageantry of indigenous life,
overcrowded buses with soldiers, waking up to see tanks encircling the presidential palace in a failed coup-de-etat and other
escapades that, still wandering in 1989, I discovered the salsa madness of Cali, Colombia.
Cali, a town of three million, all but shuts down for a month in sultry December to let the partying salsa-heads invade the streets
and turn the city into one of the world's largest street parties -- one that I cannot easily forget. The festival took place on a large
avenue, four lanes wide, cordoned off for about twenty blocks (3 or 4km), with live salsa bands every few blocks, and packed
with people dancing, hooting and hollering. Every ten feet I got offered a swig of aguardiente (literally, "firewater"), a local
drink with an anise flavor and a kick that made your knees wobbly -- all the better to loosen you up for more salsa!
The street was packed like Seoul's No. 1 Subway Line at rush hour, and in order to listen to a different band, you had to swim
your way through dancers and aguardiente swiggers to the next block, where the music was different, but the people all having
just as much fun. With all these people having so much fun, and wanting to share that fun with a stranger, I suddenly felt like
I'd found my heaven and a new religion to go along with it.
I really didn't find a similar place in my travels until I came to Korea in 1993, where indeed there were lots of people wanting
to share their joy and firewater -- actually soju and aguardiente are quite similar -- the main difference, however, being in the
music and dance, and the fact that when I refused a drink in Colombia, no offense was taken; Colombians seemed more sensitive
to people not wanting to get totally wasted.
In any case, all of this was now behind me, and after a few more years of wandering I had ended up here in Korea, accepting the
soju when it was offered me in karaoke rooms (which was often, of course). Now, here in this island of Western culture at the
Yonsei party, this sense of Latin joie de vivre seemed even more distant – neither was I being offered firewater every ten seconds,
nor were people apparently enjoying themselves to the full through song and dance.
No, I couldn't blame my fellow WASP partygoers for not having known that music could be life, religion and the pursuit of
bliss -- after all, I had stumbled into Cali a month before the festival without much of a clue myself; like most "honkies," at the
time I couldn't tell a merengue from a cha-cha from a bolero -- even though I spoke Spanish nearly fluently by then, it is not
the same as speaking musical languages -- musicians will understand what I mean by this.
Such thoughts danced somewhere in the back of my head as I sipped a glass of cheap box wine at that pivotal WASP Yonsei
party. My only hope of salvation at the hopelessly white party that night was a bearded, bespectacled fellow named John Grimmet.
Hailing from Atlanta, he had developed a taste for rhythm and music early on, and had discovered salsa and Latin beats just by
connecting the musical dots that always seem to lead there from the jazz and world beats vortex. More astonishingly, John was
nearly fluent in Spanish, just from having listened to so much Latin music -- he had never even set foot in a Spanish-speaking
John, like me, was a typical-looking white guy of the WASP variety. He was in his early thirties and had worked at Yonsei FLI
for a few years, had a Filipina fiance and, something people usually remember quite well about him, peppery red hair and an
elvish "leprechaun" look about him -- very friendly from the first time you met him. I only later realized how shy and unassuming
John really was, but it was John who was to later become the pivotal DJ of the salsa movement of Korea. About a year later,
Latin-American musicians and salsa dancers would comment to me about John's broad knowledge of salsa and feeling for "real
salsa" music -- meaning the roots and classics as opposed to the fashion of the moment.
John and I complained about the music wasteland of the party, seemingly to no one but each other. People were smoking, drinking,
blabbing to each other over the music, blah blah blah -- it seemed to both of us that no one was actually listening to the music --
so we sneaked over to the stereo to put on Oscar D'Leon's classic album "Oro Salsero" ("Salsa Gold," 1994). After slipping in the
tape, we retreated to the safety of a corner behind the party food table, helping ourselves some "sae'uggang" chips. "You do realize,"
I said, "that we have just lobbed the musical equivalent of a grenade, don't you?"
John and I listened to the salsa song, "Me Voy Pa' Cali" ("I'm Headed to the Cali Festival"), full of "Angel trumpets and Devil
trombones," to borrow a phrase from "A Clockwork Orange." We waited for someone to notice the distinctive syncopated rhythm,
the cowbell "clonk" on the off-note that gives salsa its peppery beat, or even to notice the fact that the lyrics were no longer being
sung in English.
We listened to the whole song in perfect rapture, even imagining that the party had been transformed into a South American party
by some sort of "Jumanji" magic spell. But then in the middle of the second song, a thirtyish, scruffy-looking foreign teacher came
along, looking irritable, took off the salsa and replaced it yet more "white" music. I can't remember the song, that's how bland it
was -- it might have been something as innocuous as Billy Joel or John Denver -- but even if it had been, say, Deep Purple, the
contrast between "white" and "Latin" music was so stark because we couldn't help noticing that the difference to us was basically
"undanceable" white music versus "danceable" Latin music.
The party went on as before, with no one noticing the small battle of taste that had just taken place. John and I traded conspirators'
looks; we had definitely lost the battle, but something had been born of that moment that made us determined to win the war.
For your listening and viewing pleasure.