Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Streets of Seoul


The greatest cities in the world are either old ones that have managed to preserve or enhance their centuries-old architectural heritage, and meshed them with the new.  Think London, Kyoto, even Singapore.   And there are those that had to be rebuilt into ultra-modern cities, with a distinct character in mind.  Seoul, a wasteland after the war in the 50s, is a perfect example of the latter.

There’s a certain obviousness in the way the city is transforming.  It seems to be obsessive about having a global image that can rival Tokyo and Shanghai.  Everything is art-directed: outdoor signs, tall media poles, benches, pitstops, bins, footpaths, even hawker stalls.  

I think the most stunning results are in retail.  Sure, there are malls, but the artistic energy is coming free-standing stores like the ones in Myeongdong.

I especially like how roses are grown all over.  Nobody dares.

My favorite part of Seoul is Hongdae, the university district.  You climb its winding streets and are greeted by these.

I can imagine this beautiful city transforming into a flora spectacle in early spring when sakura trees are in full bloom.  If you must visit Seoul, time it with the sakura season.  It must be a shopping experience like no other.

After seeing all these, I weep for Manila.  Will we ever have a plan?

Seoul surprised me.

Bukchon Traditional Village

Once a year, I get to be a tourist.  I’m part of a big herd that’s brought from one place to the next by a flag-wielding tour guide.  I “sightsee” all the major sights.  I spend an average of 45 minutes per stop.  I don’t get to choose what to eat from breakfast till dinner.  I don’t actively seek adventure.  Everything is planned for me.  But I’m not complaining, because it’s all for free.  And I get to do all the corny stuff with the wildest people in the world – my co-workers at the ad agency.  If you must be a tourist, you must do it with agency folks.

Last week, we flew to Seoul for our incentive trip.  For most of us, it was our first time.    We weren’t as excited as the previous years.  We thought, would there be as much culture as Tokyo?  Would it be as adventurous as Sydney?  Would the dumplings be as good as Shanghai’s xiao long bao?

To our surprise, Seoul exceeded our expectations.  I loved it, and I would go back, minus the flag bearer, of course.

Here are my top reasons for wanting to go back:

  1. The food.  This may upset some Nipponphiles but I actually prefer Korean to Japanese.  It may not look as pretty and delicate, but it’s heartier and hardier.  If you’re on a diet, skip Seoul.  Nowhere else in the world would you eat more rice.  The best bowl of steamed rice is in Korea.  Every food served on the table revolved around rice as main dish.  One can’t just get enough of bibimbap, bulgogi, ginseng chicken, barbecue, boneless fried drumsticks, and the world’s best culinary invention – kimchi.  I can eat kimchi every time, but not sushi.Barbecue at HongdaeBibimbap at Gogung, MyeongdongBulgogi at Nami Island
  2. The entire country is wired.  Fastest internet, ever.  I even got free wi-fi in a lowly wet market in Busan.
  3. I couldn’t stop staring at Korean complexion.
  4. Retail.  I may not like the local fashion, but the shops themselves are worth wandering about.  The free standing stores are beautifully designed and merchandised.  The retail areas are a marvel in urban planning.
  5. Hongdae, the university district.  It’s loud, it’s crowded, it’s artsy, it’s Bohemia in North Asia.

If you must go to the sights, get Nami, DMZ, Bukchon, Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul Tower and the tacky Petite France out of the way.  Again, nothing is more important than their rice.

Petite FranceNamiView from Seoul TowerGyeongbokgung Palace's Changing of the Guard

Album Art Nostalgia

I’ve just discovered the wonders of music streaming through Spinnr, Spotify and Vintage 24-K Radio.  I love driving, and it’s made more pleasurable when careening through the streets of Manila comes with musical scoring.  All the new apps save me the hassle of downloading and creating playlists.

But I miss vinyl.  This is a cue to wax nostalgic again about the 70s and 80s.  Those who grew up in the Digital Age must be tired of hearing how life was simpler but more fun in the 70s and 80s.   How there weren’t much distractions.  How Baby Boomers and GenX’ers were more disciplined and more diligent to learn new things that weren’t  easily accessible.  How there was more time for real social interactions.  Blah blah blah.  Of course, there was also too much cultural homogeny.  We watched the same TV shows.  We listened to the same music.  There weren’t much alternatives.  Society was intolerant of behavior and choices outside the norm.  We lived through a dictatorship.  Blah blah blah.

I just miss vinyl.   That, the younger ones would never have.  The joys of going through scores of “long-playing” records at the music store.  The tactile, textural sensation of holding a large format fresh off the music press.  Reading liner notes and finding freebies inside the package.  Most of all, the art of album packaging.

Here are some of my favorites.

I bought this album in Unimart Greenhills in the 70s, not knowing what the genre was.  The design was intriguing.  It turned out to be a seminal work from one of the greatest bands from that era.  Their music hasn’t aged at all.  “Deacon Blues” is a sad and beautiful track.

I wasn’t a big a fan of the Beatles back then as I am now.  I preferred the Monkees as a kid (their music sounds silly now).  But I just had to buy this record for its artful abundance.

In 1985, Grace Jones came out with this album.  I loved her cover of “La Vie en Rose”.  I loved as much  design icon Jean Paul Goude’s art-direction.

Joe Jackson was one classy act during the New Wave years.  The album art had to be as sophisticated.

I bought this album because Jingle Chordbook Magazine said I ought to.  I think Madam Joni designed this herself.  One of the greatest covers, I must say.

I remember the year.  1977.  It still is one of the biggest selling albums of all time.  How could you go wrong with such drama?

The first album my father bought for us siblings.

The first album I saved up for.  I think it cost 12 pesos.  James Taylor’s JT.

And this is my fave of all time.  I never had the vinyl.  But I can keep staring at it when the pic comes out on Spotify.reader_albums_14a