Japan from the inside out

Hi there, Seoul!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 1, 2007

EVERYONE ENJOYS a good time, but sometimes too much of a good time can be too much of a good thing, and nothing kills fun like contriving it. And just because you throw in the kitchen sink doesn’t mean a kitchen sink is needed or necessary.

By contriving to throw in the kitchen sink, the Seoul municipal government might have killed any chance of spontaneous fun during their showcase event this week. At least that’s the impression I got from this article in the Dong-A Ilbo about the Hi Seoul Festival, which started Friday in South Korea’s capital and will continue for 10 days of merriment and walking on water until next Sunday, May 6.

Here’s what the Dong-A had to say:

In celebrating the 5th anniversary of the “Hi Seoul Festival,” the biggest challenge facing Seoul city government is how to transform the event into a world-class festival. “Hi Seoul” is the representative festival of Seoul but has been considered to be a mediocre event which fails to attract much attention from Seoul citizens as well as foreign tourists.

People sometimes make the mistake of assuming that when things don’t go the way they want, they have to do the same thing–only more of it, or more intensely. The Seoul government might have made that same mistake. The number of people attending last year’s festival was sharply down from 2005 totals, with neither Koreans nor foreigners finding much to interest them. So the city fathers got the idea to expand the festival from four days to its current 10 and to step up overseas promotion. (They’ve timed the festival to coincide with Japan’s Golden Week holidays and China’s May Day.)

Their idea is to create a municipal event resembling Munich’s Oktoberfest, Rio’s Carnival, or Edinburgh’s (Scotland) International Festival to generate publicity and lots of tourism revenue. But that only highlights their contrivance. Both the Oktoberfest and the Carnival grew organically out of other events to become what they are today. Oktoberfest started in 1810 to celebrate the marriage of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig to the Saxon-Hildburghausen Princess Therese. Munich’s citizens were invited to join in the five-day festivities, which at that time were centered on a horse race. The beer blast didn’t come until later.

The Carnival in Rio de Janeiro has undergone even more evolution. In 1723, immigrants from the Portuguese islands of Açores, Madeira, and Cabo Verde imported an older festival called the Entrudo, which involved masked people flinging flour, water, and mud at each other on the streets—including the local royalty. (This sounds a lot like something the Japanese would do.) Occasionally, riots would break out. But the Entrudo in Brazil eventually evolved into the samba dance fest and party that we know so well.

While the Edinburgh Festival was a created event, it was organized on the initiative of a private citizen, not local government, and it is now one of the world’s biggest arts festivals. In contrast, the organizers of the Hi Seoul Festival would have us believe that walking on the Hangang River will be the thrill of a lifetime. (I told you they were going to walk on water.)

As the website for the event states:

The ‘Walking on the Hangang’ experience will allow participants to walk barefoot on a 300-meter long bridge, submerged at a 30 cm depth. It is set to become a large-scale experience event, expected to attract around 150 thousand visitors, all of whom will come with a great desire to experience up close the Miracle of the Hangang, the natural miracle that produced the economic miracle of the 20th century, hoping to raise yet another miracle… that of Culture in the 21st century.

Does the city government really think that enticing foreigners (not to mention Koreans) into sloshing through a polluted river in one of the world’s most densely populated cities will “raise a cultural miracle” in the 21st century? There’s about as much chance of that as there is of the local Catholics turning the river water into soju.

To be fair, the festival will feature some events that might really be fun, though I don’t know who would make a special trip to Seoul to see them. There’ll be something called the Folk Games of the Eight Provinces, which I’d bet resemble the traditional local festivals of Japan. The website doesn’t provide many details, but they do have the potential for fun. They’ll also be offering local foods for sale at the same time, and you can count me in on that. Everything I’ve eaten at Korean food stalls has been good enough to send me back for seconds.

Other events during the week will be concerts of traditional Korean music, reenactments of scenes from daily life in the old imperial court, including “the morning inquiry, the tea cult, royal meals, and a doctor’s examination of royal pulses”. I hereby volunteer to examine the princess’s pulse, if she doesn’t mind an accelerated pulse rate. If that job’s taken, I can always inquire into tea cult arcana.

Another attraction is “an exhibit of the food culture of the Great Woman Doctor, Jangeum”, who was so wonderful she rates several capital letters. Her life was the basis for the television show Daejangeum, which also was broadcast under the English title, “Jewel in the Palace”. It was quite popular in Japan, and, dubbed into Mandarin, in San Francisco and Los Angeles. And the fun will continue with music, art exhibits, hot-air balloon rides, and fireworks.

It gets a little more dicey, however, with the Three-Day Cultural Indulgencey (sic), featuring something called B-Boy Meets Traditional Korean Music. Arranged meetings are all well and good, but they’re no guarantee of compatibility.

After that, it’s straight downhill. They’ll be staging a musical called “Run Run Hany”, which would probably cause me to Run Run in the other direction. And for the YouTube generation, they’re going to offer the You-Topia:

…a representative program of the Hi Seoul Festival 2007, and one that has been prepared so as to provide opportunities for residents to freely participate without any restriction on patterns or genres…there are no artistic limitations placed on anyone who wants to enter, and many people find this kind of freedom of expression exhilarating.

Then again, many people find this kind of fixation on the untalented exasperating and do everything they can to avoid it. Why does the Seoul city government think that giving an open mike to those who shove their way to the front of the line will “raise a cultural miracle in the 21st century”? Unless their primary objective is to raise the visitor totals at the festival without regard for the content they’ll present.

The term You-Topia sounded like an imaginative coinage until I read the full text and discovered there are also local events called MusicTopia, DanceTopia, and PerformanceTopia. Japan went through a similar phase of terminal cleverness about 15 or 20 years ago of attaching “-topia” or “-pia” as a suffix to events or facilities. It would seem that contemporary Korean popular culture owes more to Japanese popular culture of a generation ago than some Koreans might care to admit. Now all they have to do is find something worth copying.

Speaking of copying the Japanese, for those whose taste in music runs to plastic chewing gum, they’ve gone to the trouble of writing a festival theme song with English lyrics, performed by BoA, the “idol star in Asia”. You can find the link here, but fortunately, it’s not working at present. We can only hope that somebody constricted the singer.

If I were in the neighborhood, I’m sure I’d enjoy some of these events, but as a small l libertarian, I wonder why Seoulites aren’t objecting to their government squandering the money they pay in taxes in an ill-advised attempt to publicize the city. The event is unlikely to recoup the expenditures. Surely the municipal government could find more practical ways to invest its funds (assuming the funds even need to be spent) that would make the city more appealing and livable—thus attracting greater numbers of foreign tourists in the long run. Walking across the Hangang is probably not one of them.

To be sure, this malady seems to be endemic with governments everywhere. In Japan, however, popular opposition is beginning to form against political chest-puffing enterprises of this sort. Osaka’s bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics foundered when IOC private polls discovered the local citizenry was a lot less enthusiastic about the Games than the local politicians. The late Yukio Aoshima was elected governor of Tokyo by promising to cancel the World City Expo, and he kept his campaign promise. Alas, Tokyo politicians learned nothing from that experience; current Governor Shintaro Ishihara is behind the city’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics. Tokyo-ites seem not to have learned anything either—they just reelected him.

If the folks in Seoul really want to put their city on the map, they might take a tip from the history of Munich and Rio. Sometimes it’s better just to let things happen than to make things happen. The results are unforeseeable; they started throwing mud in Rio and wound up dancing the samba, after all. But both of those would be a lot more real fun than anything that’s going to happen on the You-Topia stage during the next 10 days.

One final note: Reading the Hi Seoul website and the Dong-A article makes it clear that the translation industry in South Korea is still not up to the minimum standards of professionalism. Yes, comparisons are odious, but the Japanese began to figure out a couple of decades ago that they’re better off hiring native speakers to do the translations. Text littered with linguistic banana peels is unlikely to send foreigners scurrying to the phone to make plane reservations. The language used in English-language websites for Japanese events of this scale, not to mention the English-language newspapers, is now put together by native speakers.

Seoul spent a substantial sum of money for this event, and it’s a shame they didn’t realize that hiring a translator to put that website into clean English would be relatively inexpensive and cost efficient, and pay off by generating greater foreigner interest in the long run. Come on guys, no one in the English-speaking world says “local self-governing bodies”. They’re “local governments”. And no one would call it a “representative festival”. It would be “the biggest” or “the most important” festival. Their money would have been better spent on professional translators than on paying songwriters and BoA for a theme song that no one’s going to take seriously–and it would cost a heck of a lot less.

Here’s what no one will say out loud, but everyone reading it will think: If they can’t take the trouble to put together a professional website, they probably haven’t taken the trouble to organize the event in a professional manner.

And, having made that judgment—unfair or not—they likely won’t take the trouble to come.

7 Responses to “Hi there, Seoul!”

  1. Harlem said

    Brilliant. This will earn you the slow burning hatred of Marmot, but do keep it up.

  2. James A said

    Great article Ampontan. It’s nice to see I’m not the only one worried about Gov. Ishi’s mis-adventures in bringing the Olympics back to Tokyo. Look at the bill the London Olympics project is already running.

    As for this Seoul festival, I have one question: WHERE’S BEE MAN? Seriously, they could have him take requests by jumping on the flag of your choice. I’d definately make a trip to Seoul just to see him swan-dive into a giant flag of San Marino.

    Disclaimer: I have nothing against San Marino and its people. Their microstate honestly looks like a nice place to visit for a day-trip for some wine and cheese in the countryside while in Italy. I just wanna’ see Bee Man do what he does best.

  3. Durf said

    . . . local Catholics turning the river water into soju

    All right, now I am officially interested in this event. Wait, you say that part isn’t happening? Damn.

  4. Whitey said

    “It is set to become a large-scale experience event, expected to attract around 150 thousand visitors, all of whom will come with a great desire to experience up close the Miracle of the Hangang, the natural miracle that produced the economic miracle of the 20th century, hoping to raise yet another miracle… that of Culture in the 21st century.”

    I work at a national government office here in Korea. My duties include proofreading. As such, I spend a bit of time most every day trying to keep down sentences such as the one above. It’s a never-ending struggle. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose — the battle goes on.

    We use the term “oba” here, so I use that word sometimes when I’m trying to convince others to leave out words like “renowned” and “world-class”, which I dealt with today, by the way.

    Your comments re: organized vs. contrived events are right on the mark as applied to Korea.

  5. ampontan said

    Whitey: Thanks for your note. The same battle you’re fighting now was being fought in Japan more than 20 years ago, though the tipping point seemed to come in the early 90s. Now it’s just rearguard action!

    I thought it was interesting that terms such as “self-governing bodies” and “representative” (used in that sense) are used exactly the same way in Japanese. (They’re probably the same underlying kanji or hanja, but I couldn’t find them quickly in my Korean dictionaries.)

    The Japanese like to use the word 画期的 (kakkiteki), which the dictionary says is “epochal”, but gets applied to things like a new kind of ice cube tray. I was at a translator’s conference in 1991, and one speaker’s reference to this term caused a roomful of translators to chuckle. “Innovative” usually satisfies everyone, depending on the context.

    Koreans do seem to be more assertive in some situations than the Japanese. I wonder if that will make your task harder over the long haul…

  6. James A said

    I still sort of double-take when someone offers me a ‘confectionary’. This one lady used to refer to those cookies by that name all the time at the school I used to worked at. I would have corrected her, but I didn’t want to come across as rude.

  7. […] of a signed agreement with the international community. – Anyone has any plans to attend the Hi Seoul Festival?- I agree, Kim Pyong-il sure does look like his dad and probably is the reason why he is in […]

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