Thor's Korea Diary
Embassy Follies in Haeundae
@13 April 2001
It's not often that an invitation comes, one of those things on an expensive card with gold lettering. Well, OK, this was a Korean first for me, and it turned out not even to be rinky-dink Korean. In China the card was always blood red for good fortune. This one was a wimpish fawn, and came in an envelope from the Australian embassy in Seoul. I'd let them know I was hanging out in Pusan on the offchance of some regional madness. Then dauntless Australian public servants might mount a rescue bid when deep sea squids and nameless horrors from the night staged a lightning coup. Or at least write a memo explaining why not.. (Thirteen years ago I was a bit actor in just such a movie, in Fiji..). Anyway, The System had my imprint on its brain. A mailing list, useful for cocktail party numbers in lieu of revolutions.
The bait this time was a meeting of the Korea-Australia Cultural Exchange Association. You have never heard of it either? No worries. Neither, I imagine, have around forty-seven million South Koreans ever heard of it, nor for that matter, have nineteen million Australians. Wherever there are embassies there are bound to be such rollicking groups, cookie-cutter copies of the well-known Outer Zindonian - Upper Wintropian Cultural Exchange Association. How would diplomats get to talk to anyone, let alone write reports to the folks back home, without a flesh pressing front for their mailing lists? The only question was, who would make the glowing before-buffet speeches?
Six-thirty p.m. on a Friday night, Haeundae's Westin Chosun Beach Hotel. Hm, well, why not? Swanky locales are not my usual hunting ground, being a man of shallow pockets and cheap shirts. But one must stay on nodding terms with all the creatures in the jungle. I'd don the impenetrable disguise of a suit, and broach the ramparts, inspect the wildlife.... There is a large and growing tribe, direct descendants of powdered courtiers and suchlike parasites from imperial courts, who nowadays dwell in the atriums of palatial hotels, as to the manner born. Alas, elevated ambiance and pedigreed drink waiters have done nothing to improve the conversation of small minds, then or now, yet being small minds they will kill for a whiff of privilege. Once, to be favoured, the aristocracy had to trim their verbs for flattery and catch the eye of the king's favourite concubine. Nowadays they flash their parking violation tickets and Mastercard bills from a global network of five star stables. Maybe it's as well for the rest of us, earth-dwelling and condemned to commune with roadside hawkers, that the wannabes can be corralled in their star-struck atriums, inflicting gossip mostly on each other....
Ah, I was getting carried away again in the dim light of imagination's glory. Wake up time. The Korea-Australia Cultural Exchange Association had to be a low-end ring-in on hotel atrium culture. Unlike, say, an arms dealer, I did not have anything of tinsel value to flog to the natives, and like Groucho Marx, I'm chronically sceptical of any club that will accept me as a member.
Friday was a wonderful spring day, clear sky, a caress of warm spring air. I had not been thrilled to contribute any of it to a dental hospital on the other side of town (which, after fifteen visits and nearly a million won, has claimed a gold mining lease on one wretched tooth). Anyway, the gouging over, I dropped in to Pusan's central station for a commuter hop to Haeundae. This was a much nicer way to go than the pitch and shove of a local bus. It cost 1200 won, and a Kyongju train was leaving in ten minutes. The metro subway system is quite distinct from these long distance trains, and has not yet reached around the bay, although there are great holes in the road to say the burrowing is well under way. The regular train stations have a slightly nineteenth century feel about them and may be, I suspect, an unsung contribution from the period of Japanese colonization. Pusan Station itself is functional if unlovely, but the smaller stations like Tongnae and Haeundae, old single story buildings in painted brick with gable roofs, are surprisingly sympathetic amid modern Korea's macho world of concrete tower blocks. The friendliness is enhanced by flower gardens, another rarity in this canyoned city.
As I came down the steps of Pusan Station to board the Taegu train, a beaming square-jawed platform master, uniformed with flashes of gold on black like a captain of the fleet, saluted, bowed and waved me to my car. This seemed a little excessive even for Korea. The platform was low, on a level with the tracks, and tropically bright in the afternoon sun. To enter the carriages you had to haul yourself up a short steel ladder. I'd seen this style in American movies: good for atmosphere, but bad luck for little old ladies. Dropping into a vacant seat, I gazed out again onto the platform.
There was our captain, together with a television crew. Ah ha.. One lackey held a silvered umbrella at just the right angle against the sunlight to give the hero of the moment a fine, ruddy complexion. The other staggered under one of those monster TV cameras, with a black bandolier of backup batteries over the other shoulder. The captain of the platform straightened his epaulettes and looked bravely into the distance as he spoke his stirring lines. Well, they might have been stirring lines. Luckily I couldn't hear. But the sound grab over, the media lackeys switched off their infernal machine and trudged away without a flicker of gratitude. Then almost imperceptibly, the train began to move and gathered speed. What a change from those breakneck buses.
Viewing a city from train windows is quite distinctive. It is the backyard view, and often gives very a different feel from the strip development of shop fronts you get to see from cars and buses. In Jakarta, Indonesia, for example, the train-world city is shanty towns of salvaged packaging and plastic sheets, dirt laneways with puddles, but always a forest of TV aerials, and not infrequently, satellite dishes, plus the ubiquitous 100cc motor bikes. Sydney, my home town, is a vast farm of suburban backyards, clothes lines and children's plastic wader pools : a kind of endless corral for urbanized peasants.
Pusan from the train window seems almost benign after the bus view of chunky brick stumps of streetfront shop-houses rising straight from the bitumen (no front yard flower gardens here..), and gap-toothed columns of enormously tall, thin white apartment blocks; (one wonders how deeply their roots run into the ground, and what happens if an earthquake strikes). I had expected the trip to be also quite brief, and jumped up whenever the train slowed. In fact however, it took about thirty-eight minutes, with two or three stops along the way.
A gaggle of high school students were lounging around the entrance of Haeundae station as I emerged. Like teenagers the world over, they had applied genius to destroying the military tidiness of their blue-black uniforms and once-crisp white shirts and white socks. Two of the bravest were dragging on cigarettes, and looked me over as Exhibit A in the street circus.. The station roadside is a mess of steel decking and barrier rails, where a subway is promised sometime. After you scamper around this the roads threading through Haeundae are narrow strips of bitumen where pedestrians are forced to bluff it out with the traffic.As in Bansong-dong and many another Korean suburb, there are no sidewalks.
Half of my mind murmurs that this is quaint old Asian village style. The logical brain snorts that the whole shambles has grown like topsy since the Korean war, understandably makeshift at first, but later hostage to unplanned quick-profit development and corrupt local officials. With its bars and clubs and good-time girls, it is the sort of place that would be a natural home for the Korean version of organized crime, the Jopok, though I'm only guessing about this.
Most cities on the planet have working class suburbs, and suburbs for the rich. Locals tell me that Haeundae is THE place to live in Pusan, and in fact a good percentage of the Sungsim Korean professors commute daily to lowly Bansong Dong from their Haeundae pads. Yet looking around the place you have to wonder what they spend their money on. Oh, there are endless restaurants, exclusive and otherwise, and along the beachfront march a battalion of international style hotels. They claim the waterfront, and together with a brutal slash of busy highway, separate Haeundae forever from its main asset. Taken overall, Haeundae is a shoddy, down at heel resort town, badly in need of some inspired planning. That Koreans themselves rate it so highly speaks volumes about their restricted choices. Its tacky take-it-or-leave-it jumble of shops and market stalls is promoted as Pusan's main playground. In fact, it is an afterthought to the violent transition this population has made in a generation from a poor peasant economy to one of the world's major exporters of high technology.
Having defamed Haeundae so thoroughly, I must say that the Westin Chosun Beach Hotel has the finest location on that bit of the coast. The beach itself is a wide crescent of white sand, maybe a kilometer in length, and framed by a concrete promenade, which given the total lack of public facility or planning in the rest of the town. must have been a contribution from the cluster of international hotels on its margin. The Westin Chosin is not the newest of these hotels, or the largest, but it nestles in a commanding position at the western end of the beach. Beyond it is a steep, rocky shoreline, and the wooded knoll of Dongbaek Island (which nowadays at least is no longer an island).
There had been no way for me to properly estimate a journey time to my appointment, so it was no surprise to arrive with time to spare. With a pocket full of laundered cash and enough chutzpah, I could have settled into one of the Westin Chosun's swish bars to wait. As it happened though, the ambitiously named "Sungsim Marathon Club" had just formed, and was due to have it first run at this very spot on the following Sunday. It seemed like a good chance to check the scene out. In the fading light I began to walk around the road that circles Dongbaek Island. The road is generally closed to traffic, and apparently makes a favoured recreation circuit for more energetic locals. On this Friday evening only one or two lonely figures were to be seen, which was a blessing. Walking clockwise, the circuit did not take long.
Below to the left a dark ocean murmured against the rocks, while shadowy trees piled up to the skyline on my right. The path rose steadily, until at its apex I was looking out to sea, then circled back, the peninsular of the "island" forming a cove with the mainland. For anyone with a brain for shoreline development that cove was obviously priceless real estate, potentially a locale that could help to make Pusan a North Pacific playground, but for the moment at least it lay almost neglected, no longer natural, but a mostly deserted clutter of overgrown concrete beams, backdropped in the telephoto vision of evening shadows by towering apartment blocks. A bit further down the coast it was still possible to see the gaunt outlines of an unfinished shoreline motorway, and the half formed arches of a giant "golden gate bridge" which promised a future fast link between Haeundae and the downtown city.
Still with a bit of time up my sleeve, I began to climb a track to the crest of Dongbaek Island. The crown, a rocky old bald man's pate, nowadays served as an open recreation area, concreted, with an iron railing, and perhaps fifty meters in diameter. Around the perimeter were various chin-up bars, wooden stretchers for stomach presses, and sundry other instruments of exercise torture. In one corner stood a glassed-in pavilion of a couple of stories, more or less of traditional design. I had a feeling that this might have been the kind of area where old folk could come to do exercises at first light (that's what would happen in China anyway), but by this time in the day there were only a couple of survivors. A middle aged woman was doing waist twists on a kind of rotating stainless steel disk, and another shadow seemed to be having a contest with some fat exercise bars. Be-suited, it didn't seem quite proper to join them, so I began to follow second, wider path down to the hotel.
The hotel lobby was milling with suits, mostly of the Korean variety. The Korea-Australia Cultural Exchange Association was unlikely to be exciting all of these characters. An inquiry directed me upstairs, where in a smaller foyer some ladies behind a table were salvaging the invitation cards (for reuse?), and handing out lapel name holders. The idea was to slip your business card into one of these things -- English or Korean side up? -- but the deal was that you had to sling them a second business card for their hobby book. Maybe this was the embassy's way of claiming scalps.
Once vetted, one ventured into a reception hall, high ceilinged, paneled in wood, with a stage at one end, and entirely windowless. To give it the flavour of the hour, a few Australian Trade Department posters had been plastered on the walls. The center of this long, fairly narrow room was dominated by two buffet-banquet tables draped in white damask, with a large ice sculpture as the piece de resistance. No doubt the ice sculpture cost a suitably impressive amount of money and had some symbolic significance, but the meaning was in a code to which I wasn't privy. It may have been an eagle. Then again, it may have been a goose (a creature with rather different connotations in the two cultures..).
I settled for some orange juice, and studied the evening's cast. They clung in clusters around the borders of the room, Koreans with Koreans, westerners (presumably Australians) with their own kind. Strangely incongruous in long scarlet gowns, a posse of aging ladies wallflowered one distant sector of the room. A few other capable looking women hunted alone, but the bulk were suited men, huddling with their drinks and probably wondering what to do next.
I was vaguely puzzled by the atmosphere, sensing a kind of dislocation. A crowd of people driven by some common purpose, whether football players, or businessmen, or a concert audience, have a coherence which is hard to qualify but almost tangible. This was more like a hundred or so collected from the subway concourse. I tried to focus on the detail of individuals, even catch their eye, mostly without response. They were anonymous passengers from a crowded suburban train, not travelers in a cozy carriage of the Orient Express, telling one another their life stories.
The back shoulder of a rat-faced man almost spilled my drink. His hair was white, his features deeply lined, flushed with the complexion of a heavy drinker who is aging before his time. For a fleeting instant I was dismayed, as children often are, to find myself with such an unsympathetic adult, then recalled with a start that my bones were probably older than his, though hopefully more agile. I could tell from the nasal whine of conversation that he was also Australian, but defensively nattering with another suit, probably from the same office in the same Australian building on the other side of the world. He was not about to let any foreign experience intrude on his attitudes. To my right a heavy Korean man in a dark suit was locked into a similar scrum with a couple of obviously known buddies.
My mind fled back to a co-ed high school long ago, where a harassed PE teacher lumbered with teaching "social skills" to viciously cliquey kids, made us do sessions of progressive folk dances. "Now Thomas, swing your partner round about.. yes, yes, now CHANGE ... no no, not directions ... move on to the next girl ... no clockwise .. oh god.."
You know those opening scenes in films. The camera pans across a crowded street, taking in the sea of heads, then somehow fixes on one, subliminally if the director is clever. A tall, beef-fed young Australian man with cropped hair had that camera fixing ability. There was attitude written all over him, almost a sort of arrogance, that said "hey, I've got a secret commission from God. I'm a journalist/ the Prime Minister's bodyguard / the man from the Secret Service". I still don't know which one, but for some reason he said g'day to me first and fell to inquiring a bit about the local scene. His family had an early Korean domicile, it seemed, but that was an infant memory. Now he was on a "posting" somewhere else, but his brother, the trade attaché in Seoul was standing in for the Ambassador, and would give the keynote speech...
There were to be several speeches. The embassy's Pusan caravanserai, curiously, had the public purpose of celebrating the centenary (?) of some Australian missionaries who had made a name for themselves in the turn-of-the-19th century trading town called Pusan, when local Koreans lived in squalid villages and money business was in the hands of a neat little settlement of Japanese traders. A religious service was to be held on the morrow to pay proper respect. The speakers had only a vague grasp, to put it kindly, of the historic scenario. Their agenda was elsewhere, apparently, but to the end also remained something of a mystery.
The lead-in came from a senior Korean worthy, with a young lady interpreting. Only snatched phrases caught my ear, never enough to reconstruct a memory of what he said, and I doubt if anyone else in the room registered the anodyne murmurs either. Next came the trade attaché, a dapper young man of about his brother's age who had been born in the hospital founded by the missionaries. He told us this rather awkwardly. You could see that it had been the bureaucratic nicety which had landed him this trip to Pusan. But having genuflected in the direction of history, he got down to the solid business of quoting statistics about the Korean-Australian trading relationship. The audience, already restless, wilted.
His brother had produced a videocam, one of those things with a miniature screen on the back for a viewfinder, and was holding it above his head to capture footage for the family album. "Bring on the dancing girls," I whispered to the cameraman. "Do you think we could find a blowtorch and do something dramatic with that drippy ice-duck." He guffawed. "Even if he is my brother, you have a point," he conceded generously.
When the patter of applause had died, the old ladies in crimson filed up to the microphone. I had wondered what they had thought of having their missionary heroes hijacked by trade statistics on iron ore and memory chips, for they were clearly not stock traders in drag. However, their purpose was uncomplicated, and alone amongst that evening's cavalcade, they did it truly well. Forming into a choir, they sang beautifully, in perfect harmony.
For a few brief minutes, the suburban train passengers were surprised into becoming a part of something more generous. The ladies even did a tuneful turn with Waltzing Matilda. In a surge of bravery, a Korean man turned to me and asked "Australia song? Very good!" "Number one Australian song," I assured him. "It's about a poor man who stole a sheep". He looked desperately baffled and retreated. And then it was over. The buffet was laid out and the horde circled in. An obviously drunk Korean man grabbed the microphone and shouted some travesty of a speech, but with their snouts buried in chicken and cake, the blessed could mercifully ignore him.
Food must have been the signal for communion. The Korean gent who had liked Waltzing Matilda vigorously insisted that I precede him in the food queue and gave me his card. I figured out that he was a broadcast announcer of some kind, but our shared stock of words couldn't get much beyond occupation titles. Discouraged, he turned back to familiar Korean voices, and we picked our way around the aperitifs. Then somewhere about the north by northwest quadrant of the first white damask table cloth I came upon a lady of generous proportions scoffing cake. With a little concentrated staring she decoded the Korean on my lapel namecard, and introduced herself as the departmental manager of a Melbourne TAFE. Ah, now there is a species that I know too well.
We could have talked in the code of educational managerialism, but I am well past tiptoeing through minefields of political correctness. I was mildly curious about her own boss, a hatchet-woman who talked in tongues, ever ready with enlightened utterances, flavour of the month with every politician. In the off-camera cold light of Monday mornings, she could tolerate only a coven of sycophants, and killed the soul of every institution she touched. Not surprisingly, this witch of many colours took an instant and venomous dislike to my style .... but that is a saga from another world ..... Besides, my new acquaintance wasn't telling any tales.
Gradually along the nosh trail a trickle of other characters put a name between nibbles. There was an Australian engineering professor, head hunting for fee-paying students (no doubt like the TAFE lady). He was thrilled to be told that unemployment amongst Korean graduates is a devastating social problem, for surely a foreign degree would give them some extra cachet. Somehow he passed me on to a Korean professor of nonmetallic materials testing. I was perfectly happy to learn about nonmetallic materials testing. You never know when you will need to build a pink plastic skyscraper. But fellows like that in every culture have learned to be discouraged by flat-brainers who call themselves English teachers, and he fell back into the formulaic standbys. "Are you married?" It's always the first or second question. Past hope pal, too old and ugly. "Ho, ho; not too late; ho,ho; bye-bye".
The materials testing man had the rumpled and rolled up sleeves posture of a man who does practical things. Next off the rank was all suavity, blow-waved hair, cufflinks and a light grey suit. "I am Professor Kim M-L" he announced with intimidating self-confidence; then without drawing breath continued his resumé. "Chairman of the Faculty of International and Area Studies, from P. University." A pause. Was he waiting for the slight sucking in of breath that might signal respect?
"Now that's extremely interesting," I smiled, "you sound as if you are really tuned in to what is happening in Korea .... Perhaps you could do me a sort of favour sometime. In my ignorance, I'm writing some stuff on the net about life in Korea. It is bound to contain nonsense. If you are ever able to run a critical eye across some of it, I should be truly grateful.." Professor Kim's countenance froze, his face seemed to fade to a paler tint, then he turned on his heel and fled into the crowd... Hmm. Now how many discourse and cultural rules had I violated there? Heaps probably. But none so potent as the panic faced by a man who has recited his resumé in perfect text book fashion, and is hit by a bit of messy English dialogue whose meaning is utterly beyond his comprehension; (there, but for the flip of a phrase in Korean, go I ...).
When the food was done, folk began to drift off in ones and twos. So I went across to say good-bye to a young couple who had come to this masked ball with nothing on offer but their natural selves. We had talked earlier in the evening, like bemused strangers in a looking glass world who notice at once that they are different, merely human, and are not going to vanish down to a Cheshire cat grin.
He was a strapping young Korean, dressed in casual khaki, with an easy colloquial command of English. A student, he said. She was a thin, kindly looking girl, with the kind of white, freckled skin that might have been at home in Scotland a generation or so back. They had met in Australia. Just like me, she had registered a presence with the embassy, and been slightly puzzled to receive the card with gold lettering. We were equally dubious about what it was all supposed to achieve.
The bulk of the assembly, after all, seemed to be a bunch of Australian academic administrators trying to drum up business, and a smattering of Korean academics maybe hoping for some freebie exchange fellowships. A few downtown businessmen could have been in there somewhere, but if so they had communicated only via the secret signs of their caste. Then there were the accidental expatriates like me, who just might have had an insight or two to offer the course-salespeople. There was little indication though that the thought had crossed their minds. We may even have been seen as competition in a sense, by delivering skills in-country. Certainly, the Korean wannabe junketeers would not waste time on expatriate English teachers. The missionaries and their choir were clearly the patsies at this party, rather rudely used. The youthful trade attaché with his drone of trade statistics had not made effective contact with any of these human strands. And the ice sculpture, well that had melted...
Still, who was complaining? It had been a glorious day, and now the lights of Haeundae twinkled with their evening mischief. A sea breeze swept along the promenade, and at the sand's margin dark waves slapped and gurgled in a gentle, tireless rhythm. I had nodded to the creatures in the Westin Chosun's upmarket jungle. Now it was time to tangle with their less mannered cousins, and fight my way onto a municipal bus, back to the small domestic world of Bansong-dong.
* Note on personal names:
all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.