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All Nippon Airways' Wingspan Magazine

Life in South Korea

Story & Photographs by Peter S. Crosby

June, 1993

Seoul, South Korea.
Neon-red splashes the puddled pavement as rain slaps my tattered umbrella. My map of Seoul is in shreds. I dart beneath a canopy brimming with steam from a tray of squid logs simmering in chili sauce. No thanks, I wave. Three polyestered salarymen, humming loud and bedecked with newspaper hats, march by. Following their parade down an alleyway that becomes a cranny that ends at a nook, a frosted sliding glass door hangs open as they cram in an eatery perhaps. It slams shut.

Smoke-filled laughter billows by when I open the door. Six rosy faces sit on two sides of a hooded table - a street vendor's cart, realty - parked in a brick and plywood garage. A kitchen fan, some light bulbs and voila: the Wagon Restaurant. Upward mobility at work and play.

"Rain is good for drinking," declares a round-faced man dripping next to me on a bench padded with silvery duct insulation. He belts down a shot of sojo, firewater distilled from potatoes then slides his glass my way. "You drink from my cup," he urges. "It's Korean custom," he adds filling the shot, "a sign of trust."

After a few infusions of this faith, a blackened mackerel or two, and pickled~ veggies to boot, my new corporate comrades tell me about what matters most: their lives after work - how they relax with their families, their hobbies, and dreams. They, like more and more Korean urbanites of the blossoming middle class here, are learning how to play. And this, say my co-"wagoneers," is the new heart of Seoul. And of Korea.

A decade ago in the Republic of South Korea, leisure time was rare, and leisure activities were rarer. The country was too busy becoming an economic tiger to squander resources on recreation. In fact, when the XXIV Olympic Games were staged in Seoul during the summer of 1988, many Koreans felt it symbolized the country's coming of age as an industrial power more than a celebration of its sports or its spirit of play.

But the Games opened Korea's eyes to lifestyles of the rich and international. And now, it's rubbing off. "The government spent so much on the Olympics to show the world its good Korean life," says Jong-Hoon Kang, a 32-year old commercial marketing manager with one of Korea's largest manufacturers, and one of the wagoneers. "Finally, people don't have to worry about the basics," Kang says, lighting an imported cigarette, exhaling slowly, 'We are enjoying a culture of leisure."

Thanks to collective bargaining by labor unions begun in the late 1980s, salaries, vacations, even the number of national holidays are on the rise. And many of the country's 50-some million people are taking advantage of it -- frantically.

Baseball is booming, windsurfing's hot, photography is in fashion. Consumerism is in, big time. So are family and friends.

Yet the hoards who just want to have fun are pushing the recreational limits of their small rocky peninsula to the max.

The Tough Go Shopping
"Shopping together is recreation," says Kang, slipping a Boz Skaggs CD into his portable player. He, his fashion-designer wife and their baby girl have just moved into their first apartment, south of the Han River that bisects Seoul. It's near Apujongdong, a trendy shopping area renowned for up-scale department stores, pricey boutiques and coffee houses by the likes of Godiva, the chocolatier. Cruising the posh main drag in Kang's sporty black car, traffic halts when the grand opening of a designer-jeans store springs to life. Svelte models flaunting pouty attitudes dance through a crowd drawn by stage lights, pounding rock and champagne. "We have never seen shows like this on our streets," says Kang, craning his neck to park. "My wife will love this."

The streets are blocked off to cars altogether in Myangdong, a boisterous shopping district in downtown Seoul. Heaps of hats, bundles of blouses, and shoes by the truckload are piled on fold-up tables along the narrow street -- not all of it legal. People just squeeze by. Yet the scene reflects a ragged cosmopolitanism that is Seoul. Mini-skirted students eating cones of imported ice cream ogle at window-bound Parisian pumps. A leather-faced man dressed in a traditional silk vest squats nearby, selling rice-paste sweets from a box. An inter-racial couple, wearing matching windbreakers of mauve brushed-silk, push a baby stroller full of shopping bags -- no toddler in sight.

Shopping for amusement isn't only a Korean pastime, of course, but in Seoul it's taken to the ultimate -- amusement shopping -- a sort of theme park in the mall. At one mega-retailer we're talking roller coasters, a balloon ride 100 meters in the air and a gargantuan merry-go-round. A band marches through on the hour. The stage shows are non-stop. This, on top of five floors of shops, an atrium ice rink and all the junk food you can scarf. Young families flock here by the thousands, mostly with the parents in tow. Kids perch on daddys' shoulders while moms stand in line. Efficient entertainment though this may be, the tab can add up fast. As one beleaguered parent put it: "We spend all our holidays here." Literally. Amusement parks -- the good old outside kind -- are also popular family fun, and they dot the Seoul region -- if you can get to them.

Squeeze Play
Half of the capital's 10 million residents now own cars, and they are desperate to drive them somewhere, anywhere... especially on Sundays. Traffic jams snake back for miles, and are so predictable, that waves of strolling vendors hawk dried squid, rice cakes and ice cream to the stranded. See, almost all offices still work half a day on Saturday, so too many, Sunday is the weekend.

City parks illustrate the crunch. Especially the parks that still allow picnics, Korean style. Again, they're to the Nth degree: propane barbecue stoves, clay pots of stew, and kimchi from the pickle-matics - all spread on a shimmering mylar blanket. Kites dive into the wall-to-wall picnic patch while mothers teach daughters to play catch. Over the din of the cooking, the chasing and the picture taking, shouts of gambling erupt. Go & Stop, Korea's favorite card game, is a slap-em'-down-winner-take-all betting bee that even a government prohibition hasn't stopped. Not much music though: boom boxes, too, are banned.

"Don't, don't, don't... it's the Korean way," says a pretty young entrepreneur. She is helping her friend run his souvenir stand this Sunday. "But now," she pirouettes in her Spandex tights, "People want to do."

Another legacy of the Olympics -- excellent public transit, stadiums and parks -- are serving Koreans well in this regard. They allow average folks to get of out the house affordably, and have spawned interest -- no, passion -- in several leisure time activities.

Bases Loaded Korean pro baseball, for instance, started at Seoul's Olympic Baseball Stadium. Now it's the biggest spectator sport in the land, and is still growing - at ten percent a year. Two of the eight major-league teams play there -- the Bears and the Twins. They alternate "home" team status, rights to fly pennants, even sides of the stadium. Only their zany fans remain the same. And, although the teams are sponsored by modern-day multinational consumer-product conglomerates, the intra-city rivalry feels ions old.

Rowdy male cheerleaders - bedecked in silk pantsuits, no less - romp about on platforms set in the crowd. Drums pound and whistles shriek as the latter-day Liberaces whip up the masses. Here, "the wave" circulates both ways (at once!), lighters flicker in hopes of a rally and paper airplanes glide about the luminescent air. Food does too. One old codger, a Mr., Magoo in shades, clambers onto the stage and hoots his whistle, as if it will blow a runner in from the loaded bases.

"What could be better?" gushes a well-dressed fan in his forties, his umbrella up, and his spirits high: "A game after work with my pretty wife and son." His 2-year old is not enthused, however, when his parents join the sweeping cheer. He tries to hide his face in the collar of his coat. But Dad - the "Natural" - tucks his suit pants into his white socks and rises for the pitch. "Strike three?" he screams throwing up his hands and crumpling into his seat. The boy, pulling his jacket silently over his head, retreats 'till Dad's enthusiasm blows over.

Beyond the baseball bleachers, four other stadium ring Seoul's Sports Complex. Down the road, five more adorn Olympic Park: boondoggles for fencing, weigh lifting and gymnastics; tax tabernacles now used for public sweat. Middle-aged moms bob about in 50-meter swimming pools, while taut teenagers trounce diving boards to the sky. Amateur cyclists circle the velodrome whizzing high and outside on banked turns, slip-stream-smooth, zipping low to pass in a flash. Housewives stretch their lycra in one gym, wearing fluorescent headbands and sneakers that match; competing in Korea's aerobics championship, slimming their hiplines through dance. Olympic Park offers all this amidst a grand setting of lakes and hills and plazas and 200 sculptures of art. No picnics allowed though. Only popcorn and corn dogs to go.

SIDEBAR: Work Hand, Enjoy Hard
Riverside Park - or I should say Parks - accommodate mobs of marathon maniacs watching the Olympians run along the broad banks of the River Han. Today, these parks are a picnic palladium - for the multitudes -- and the home to floating restaurants, river cruises and speedboat rides. They're also the breeding ground for a bird sanctuary, as well as a burgeoning flock of windsurfers.

Racks of fiberglass sail-boards stacked like bottles of fine wine stand before bungalows -- prefab trailers, actually -- littered with decrepit sofas, beer lockers; sort of a neo-fraternity decor. Day-glo neoprene wetsuits sway in the wind like Japanese carp flags.

Some 40 windsurfing clubs - with names like Zooty, Typhoon and Ace - line the river's northern beam, opposite the main stadium complex. Along with a hundred more clubs around Korea, they cater mostly to men in their 30s and 40s because they have the time and money to play.

"The afternoon wind is good here," says Seok Ki Park, an investment counselor with an overseas bank, "From the west, not too gusty." His wetsuit is peeled off his chest, his prime-of-life muscle mass now closer to his waist. Park has been windsurfing at this specially designated section of the river for five years, from April to October. He says he got into it for his health, but he stays with it for his spirit. "We are learning this way of thinking from America and Japan," says Park, smearing a trickle of blood running between his wet toes. "Work hard. Enjoy hard."

"Recently, people prefer to participate in sports rather than watch," says Jin Young Kim, an editor at Citylife, Seoul's lifestyle magazine. Started just three years ago, the weekly lists events in sports, music, theatre and film together with articles about restaurants, travel spots and personalities. They also sponsor events like the 2nd Annual Korean Aerobics Championship. She believes Citylife's circulation growth of ten percent a year, even during an economic slowdown, reflects people's desire recreate more than ever. ## END SIDEBAR ##

A Leisure Statement
"People want an escape," says Seoung Hwan Oh a mid-thirties International sales rep for Korea's largest electronics firm, and a high-school clan of "wagoneer" Kang. He travels throughout Ask for business, carries a portable phone and smoke two packs of "88's" a day. He'll start his own company this autumn, but says he wants more time to recreate. "The pollution, the noise and so much working becomes heavy," says Oh, "Not enough life." On weekends, Oh goes on photo safaris in the countryside, hunting for aesthetics. Sometimes he goes with his wife and baby, more often not. A dozen times a year he goes with his corporation's photo club. Heavily subsidized junkets to nature spots, free film and a glossy yearbook of members' shots are supplied to "encourage employees." Oh is the club's founder and president. Twenty people and a desire is all he says it takes to set up a company club; those for bowling, tennis and skiing are flourishing. Photography has many advantages, according to Oh; it's prestigious, for one, even fashionable: camera bags (sans all that burdensome equipment) are also carried as purses by many young women in Seoul. So when Oh picks me up in his well-worn mini-car, his camera bag -- containing the best of the Japanese camera systems, and a German one -- makes a leisure statement as well. But he says the fellowship of the club trips is more satisfying than the bag, the equipment -- or the photos. "The journey with friends, being in the mountains is the reward," says Oh. Yet his hunt for beauty is real: "In Korea, it is not easy to find pretty tourist photos," he laments.

Still, many of his countrymen are taking to the hills. Well, mountains, okay; but the highest one is only 2,000 meters. The peninsula is more like a rubble-field of gray igneous rock jutting out from the Manchurian Plain into the Sea of Japan. But it's perfect for hikers, skiers and climbers. And, even though South Korea is about two-thirds the size of Florida, it has almost two dozen national parks.

Rock Jocks
One of the parked peaks, Pukansan, nuzzles right up to Seoul itself. Its multi-pronged pitons are surrounded by several lodges, scores of temples and hundreds of trails that graduate from paved walks to rugged rock climbs. Busloads of people, many in hiking boots and knickers, trudge through an astounding array of blossoming violets, gurgling waterfalls and manzanita-like scrub. Many more plunk themselves beneath the cherry blossoms, in the midst of a stream or on some precipice to read, draw or eat.

I truck up the slope, my cameras swinging to and fro, until I'm hunched over like grandma. Further on, cables slung from iron rods driven into the granite, lend a helping hand, and lead to the summit. Not much chance of missing it, though; queues are waiting to pull themselves up the steel lines worn smooth by fear. As I yank myself clumsily up a windy face, my zoom lens jutting into the next guy's nose, a burly rock-jock scampers up beside us like a monkey in a tree.

Where one crag meets another, a bronzed woman in purple polypropylene, serves shikhe, a watery, sweet-rice gruel, from a 5O-liter thermos. I slurp down a bowl, pay her a few Won, then wonder how more than a hundred pounds of food gets transported here, 800 meters above Seoul. She and her husband carry the refreshments up the mountain every weekend, she says, to earn money: "We want to buy scuba diving gear."

On top, a red-faced man in his late twenties is chugging water after his two-hour funning ascent. He's preparing to descend, he pants-re-tying his waffled shoes for a fourth time that day. For most mere mortals, however, photo-mania takes over, Oh yes, and yelling salutations to the gods - the real ones - repeatedly. And, what else? Picnics. Spread out under gnarled pines along a pinnacle ridge, three separate parties of a dozen or more are toasting the afternoon away. One group is made up of distributors of the world's most ubiquitous cigarette "Why do you come all the way up here to party?" I ask a red-faced reveler. "For our health," he says, the irony still gliding on the thermal gusts.

See Korea... Or Else
Sorak-san, however, is the highest mountain in northern South Korea, about a four-hour drive from Seoul Blessed with Korea's first sunlight, its spires are legendary, its waterfalls huge. Sorak-san is also a holiday pilgrimage of sorts. On a three- day weekend you can expect a reported 1.2 million people in an area less than half the size of Mt. Fuji's National Park. Imagine the picnics.

It's no wonder then that Korea has been developing resort areas like crazy. Ski resorts, hot spring resorts, golf... you name it. But nature's resources are limited, and preconceptions prevail: skiing is "too expensive," hot spring spas are "only for old people." To top it off, the Republic's new President, Kim Young Sam, recently put an anti-corruption jinx on golf; he won't play for the next five years, neither should you.

So Koreans have been fleeing the coup - overseas - in unprecedented numbers, Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand were the most popular. Australia was not far behind. Saipan was the new honeymoon capital, winning the title from Korea's southern-most island, Cheju. See, up until a decade ago, travel outside Korea was restricted to business trips only. Today, tour companies dot downtown Seoul, their postered exotica beckoning.

But the deluge of Korean money splashing abroad caused big ripples at home. The government has again restricted the flow; getting a visa for overseas sightseeing is difficult (impossible for lowly bureaucrats), access to foreign currency is limited, and passports are unavailable for youths until they complete military service. Newspapers, calling the campaign "patriotic," also pound home the message: Travel Korea... Or Else.

Down on the Farm
Still, interest in foreign culture is at an all-time high, say many Koreans. Too high say others. Americana is rife, naturally, because of two generations of military cooperation. American English is currently taught in public schools from the fourth grade on. Yet now, French films, Italian opera, and British theatre are all the rage. Lines begin at 9:00 on Sunday mornings at some theaters.

"French films are more sophisticated than Hollywood movies," opines a hand-in-hand couple on line to see Indochina, the Academy-Award winning film about francophone Vietnam. Yet only since 1989 has an international film distributor been permitted to bring in foreign films directly, sidestepping Korea's elaborate censorship formalities. The first American film shown this way: "Fatal Attraction." A racy debut, but it's gone downhill from there. "European films are more popular these days because they're more like Korean movies," continues the man of the movie going couple, donning his shades. "The focus is on relationships, love," says his slim date, squeezing her man's arm tight.

Italian arias by Spanish tenor Jose Carreras brought down the house when lie played Seoul this year, as have similar concerts by Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavoratti in the last couple of years. Tickets were impossible to get, even at international prices. Otherwise, concerts by the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra -- playing western classical music in its post-modern concert hall - are only moderately attended, mostly by students. Les Miserables, the West-End musical, is in town at a shopping mall and sold out. Populist theaters near university-dense Hyehwa Station are staging translations of foreign plays such as George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man and Arthur Miller's Death of A Salesman.

But nothing seems so international -- yet keeps 'em down on the farm as Asia's new satellite service: Star TV.

At Home in the New Age
"Fashion File is my future," says He jeong Lee, the stylish wife of "wagoneer' Kang. The CN'N program struts amazon models down a Parisian runway and into their 32Anch color TV. She is taping a library of fashion videos off the satellite network to aid her in designing clothes. But since the service is less than two years old, and broadcast only in English and Chinese, the Kangs are the first ones on their block with a satellite dish and tuner. He reasons: "We get a high return for our leisure dollar."

On Saturday night, this attractive couple invites in friends to enjoy the entertainment technology, their newly-decorated living room, and Lee's "Kor-Merican" cooking. Not lust any friends either. These are Kang's high school and college buddies, who plan to stay in touch. They formed a club pact is more like it - to meet monthly for the rest of their days, to share their ups and downs and especially the woe. They'll pay into a kitty to insure each other against accidents, disease and catastrophe. Tonight, they're discussing some by-laws. But mostly they talk about dreams.

"We still plan to buy a house..." says Kang, filling my sojo cup, but not teasing me to drink, "not like so many young Japanese."

His hope, belied by his faded t-shirt, is bolstered by the school plaque from his MBA program on the wall above. Kang's toddling daughter is dancing to herself as melodious Enya music wafts through the air. His wife is showing how she made her sleek red dress for her own designer label - Red Door and swiftly gives it a twirl.

"We are kind of New Age Koreans," says Kang with a twinge of a smile. "We can enjoy our life."

Peter S. Crosby is a Tokyo-based photojournalist who covers Asia.