Thursday, February 21, 2008


Today is '정월대보름' (Jeongwol Daeboreum) - the 15th day after the Lunar New Year (which for various reasons turned into a non-event for us this year, but saw us at temples and fortune tellers last time). It's significant because it's the day of the first full moon after the start of the year, and in Korea this means praying to it once night falls, in much the same way as on Chuseok (추석), or Thanksgiving.

In the words of

"On the day when the first full moon appears, Koreans wish for good luck and health throughout the year by taking part in folk games and customs, based on an old belief that the light of the full moon of the year signifies affluence and good luck."

It also requires eating special food for breakfast, as well as nuts to ensure healthy teeth through the year (now they tell me), or possibly it's meant to be healthy skin. The food is meant to protect the body against the hot summer, but since my wife figures that she won't be here to have to endure it, her eating of the food was decidedly half-hearted.

Despite the huge number of large windows in our apartment designed to give the occupants that Big Brother contestant feeling, it transpired that we couldn't see the moon in the evening from it, and since we'd no desire to see if the roof was accessible, we gave it a miss. So if we have an unlucky year, we only have ourselves to blame...

Ferris Bueller's Day Off

I've previously encountered the Korean t-shirt which read "'In your carears you will meet many peeple. All are signilleant. They deserve you allantion.'", and thought it an odd if isolated example of Konglish gone mad. But yesterday I happened to be in Migliore (pronounced without sounding the 'g' I'm told), where possibly a hundred or more small clothing stores are all crammed together in one building, and discovered more, except the wording is slightly different:

"in your carears you will meat many people. All are signillcant They deseave you allantion"

So 'meet' is now 'meat', 'people' is correct, and 'signilleant' has become 'signillcant' and 'derserve' is 'deseave'. Is one a bad copy of the other, and which was the original? Or is there, somewhere out there, an English language t-shirt that has a slogan that actually makes sense? Whatever the underlying truth, the sinister Hello!! Mouse Club seems to be behind this plot to see people (or peeple) everywhere 'allanted'.

If allanting people isn't your thing perhaps something more passive and spiritual is of more appeal:

Free your mind
Life Live Fever
Stand With
Friends Outstretched
To Heaven
Head Wet.

Although I think the apparent need to do this with your head wet (and presumably those of your outstretched friends) could be a deal breaker. Next, from mice to apes, and while I think I understand the sentiment behind the sinister Hello!!Mouse message, this one is a genuine mystery:

Baby Milo

More of what young Korean women will be wearing this season - from dogs to daddy to Ferris Bueller's Day Off (of course).

"Bueller...? Bueller...?"

Monday, February 18, 2008


Sometimes when you're trading the stock market you find yourself on the opposite side of a trade to a hedge fund, which is either intent on conducting a corporate mugging, or alternatively driving up a company's share price relentlessly on the back of some rumour which they probably started in the first place. In winter, the London stock market closes at 1.30am Korean time, but after doing my end of day accounts and staring with variable degrees of unease at my risk management spreadsheet for a while it's usually 2am before I go to bed. On the days I decide to fight hedge funds, I usually end up watching TV for a little while to decompress. Suffice to say, I keep odd hours in Korea.

I have moved around a mile from my old apartment, but I'm in a different district and unexpectedly, the basic cable TV channels are subtly different, because we have a different local provider. This is quite different from the UK, where we started off with individual city-wide cable franchises twenty years ago which, despite - or because of - a series of corporate incompetences of staggering proportions, have become one amalgamated uber-disaster known as Virgin Media. But consolidation doesn't seem to have happened in Korea, where there isn't even a standard cable television package within Busan, let alone the country.

So I've unexpectedly lost Science TV, which I was obviously addicted to, and which admittedly probably had too much English-language programming for my own good, and even the Ministry of Truth's channel Arirang (which according to the right-wing newspaper Joong-Ang Daily, is a pro-Government propaganda mouthpiece aspiring to North Korean levels of censorship... although they said that when there was a left-wing government) has disappeared. On the bad days this has left me randomly surfing channels in the small hours desperate to take my mind off things and prevent me from dreaming dreams of flashing numbers.

Well, it turns out there's an awful lot of porn on Korean TV late at night. Or perhaps we can call it sex because - as far as I can tell - it does appear to occur within the context of movies with plots. A significant minority are Japanese, which I suppose figures, but I'm a little more surprised at the Korean porn given the occasionally high levels of puritanism or prudishness I encounter in society here - publicly at least (privately you can't help wondering whether the vaguely sado-masochistic theme running through society here extends into the bedroom).

It is a pity that while I can gain something from watching the Korean TV news channels or programmes which feature a lot of Hangul subtitling or word-play, movies are impossible to understand. Before I came to this country, the kind of Korean movies that got promoted in the UK seemed to predominantly concerned with extreme violence, but it's since transpired that there may be a lot of interesting and intelligent films to get my teeth into. Unfortunately, the few Korean films I've seen with English subtitling had generally very poor translation which did nothing to reveal the subtleties of the situation or the culture. I guess foreigners have a tendency to find good and bad in any alien society they find themselves in, but while I can certainly do both, I'm hoping that when my language skills are up to it, Korean movies will be on the positive list. Perhaps there was really something to the Korean Wave after all, beyond Arirang's near-orgasmic conclusion to one Korean Wave documentary "Hangul is sweeping the world!" (yes, they really said that).

So I'm watching a lot of episodes of Monk at the moment in the small hours to work off my sense of frustration and isolation. And apparently directly above my bedroom I have a budding Thelonious Monk of sorts, except their jazz instrument of choice is a saxophone rather than a piano. At 8am in the morning, which used to be an hour before I would wake up, but is now the time I jerk back to consciousness as our octavely-challenged neighbour triggers flashbacks of my time in an orchestra, and any mistake that would trigger my conductor to turn his head Exorcist-style to stare at me while his baton maintained its perfect and independent orbit. Even now, I still cringe when I hear so much as a flat-note because I expect to be screamed at afterwards, proving that my time in the music cult may be over but the psychological trauma lasts a lifetime. It also seems that when not hosting acid-jazz improv, the rooms above are utilised for urban Taekwondo practice or possibly staging re-enactments of the Korean War.

I'd like to think that even if I keep odd hours, I do it subtly and am not banging around at three in the morning, unlike the neighbour in my previous apartment who usually announced her arrival at 3am with manic laughter and uneven footsteps staggering down the corridor, culminating in the loud crash of her door. All this, about an hour after the person somewhere above us would finish vacuuming their apartment. Surely only serial killers needed to hoover at 2am?

So my wife wants to go talk to the budding Charlie Parker upstairs, but is practising the sax at 8am unreasonable? Maybe the battle against my Government has taken all the fight out of me, but I figure my hours are my problem. Of course, 8am sax on a Saturday morning would probably eventually get you murdered in my country (although even then, I don't think it would lead to a 2am hoovering session), but in a land where people are trying to sell salt by loudspeaker three hours earlier, 8am's practically the middle of the day here. Korea never sleeps - perhaps because it can't.

Monday, February 11, 2008

National Treasure

When I was in Seoul last July we stayed near the famous 'South Gate' Sungnyemun (otherwise known as Namdaemun), which happens to be close to the equally infamous British Embassy. But when we visited the gate we were somewhat distracted by an increasingly urgent inability to find anywhere to eat, and then immediately afterwards by the discovery of so many homeless people setting up their cardboard beds in a nearby subway station.

What we didn't realise at the time is that in 2004 the Seoul Mayor, Lee Myung-bak, relaxed visitor rules, allowing people direct access to the Gate. Previously, there was no such access and its position in the middle of a busy intersection - effectively serving as a traffic island - ensured its isolation. Now that we've won our legal battle against my Government, we should be travelling to Seoul again in the near future, and I'd hoped to visit the Gate again; as designated 'National Treasure Number 1' I don't feel I really did it justice last time.

It was after midnight when flicking through the television channels that it became apparent that it was burning down (photos). By this time, a minor fire which had begun over three hours earlier had been believed to have been brought under control on one occasion, and local news reports had already printed their stories concerning what smoke damage had occurred.

One conclusion I've drawn from my time in Korea is that the authorities in this country have a rather laissez-faire approach to safety, a subject which conversely is constantly obsessed about in most Western countries. Whether this environment contributed to the near destruction of the Gate is an open question, but Yonhap's contention that the wooden structure had only eight fire extinguishers does not seem entirely surprising. The news reports also suggested a reluctance to tackle the smouldering fire in the initial hours for fear of causing damage to the building, although fire-fighters have also said that water-proofing of the wood hampered their efforts. Still, one of the first things which struck me from the TV pictures was how half-hearted the efforts seemed, with the fire being tackled from a handful of pumps on the ground which clearly didn't encompass the Gate. A little later it looked like someone decided on a change of strategy, and fire-fighters went up on ladders as a deluge of water was directed on the structure from all possible angles. I guess they're going to be studying this one in fire-fighting school for a long time to come.

My initial horror at watching the destruction of Sungnyemun unfold on live TV was somewhat tempered by the revelation that while it's often passed-off as Seoul's oldest wooden structure dating back to 1395, it was all-but destroyed in the Korean War and rebuilt in 1962, so its heritage is perhaps more open to question than the tourist brochures would have us believe.

Another surprise was the nature of the television coverage, which seemed rather subdued. Had such an event unfolded back home Sky News would have been covering it from as many of the nearby buildings and streets as possible, while circling nearby with cameras in helicopters, but here the news channels we have access to seemed to content themselves with fixed singular positions covering the flames. It's especially curious given that Yonhap Television News (aka YTN) have a building right behind the gate, which you can see in the photo above, although by this morning it seems they'd finally thought to take some pictures from it.

The fact that there are some suspicions that the fire was started deliberately raised the all-too-familiar mantra of please don't let it be a foreigner in our household, but fortunately it seems that the suspect is Korean, if indeed it doesn't transpire to be an electrical fault. It also comes as something of a revelation to think that National Treasure Number 1 wasn't protected by even one guard, so it will be interesting to see if there are any repercussions for the former Seoul Mayor who decided to open it up to public access; he's now the President-elect.

Phoenix Rising

On Thursday 19th July 2007 my wife received a letter that was to have a profound impact on our lives. Her application for a spousal visa from the British Embassy in Seoul was refused, and during the following six months of fighting back against my Government while my father's health gradually failed, we expended considerable quantities of time and energy, and underwent a great deal of stress, to fight for a right which I had previously assumed was mine to begin with as a British citizen - namely, to live with my wife in my country.

Our battle culminated in a Hearing at the end of January, and we have now received the result. The judge ruled that the Embassy's decision was 'contrary to law' so we've won... for now. The Government have two weeks to lodge an appeal, but the thinking is from the judge's determination that they won't have any grounds to do so.

I would not describe it as a victory, because legal battles are like wars - the only way to really win is not to start them in the first place. It's cost us a lot, financially and in time we didn't have, and it's left me completely alienated from my Government and possibly the country it represents. Having your own Government fight to keep you out of your own country can have that kind of effect I suppose.

So, it looks like I might finally be heading home, but we're not breaking out the metaphorical champagne until my wife has that visa in her hands...

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Comes the Inquisitor

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise... surprise and fear... fear and surprise... Our two weapons are fear and surprise... and ruthless efficiency..." - Monty Python

A constant feature of our old apartment was a steady stream of allegedly spiritually-minded people turning up at the door and ringing our bell, demanding to enter our apartment to speak to us for the the sake of our well-being. I should add, that I use the word 'bell' here in the broadest definition of the word, because it made no mere ringing noise when pressed, but instead would launch into an extended tune reminiscent of the kind of alarm which featured heavily in 1980s digital watches - except very, very loudly. Quite why anyone thought such a bell should be a standard feature on the one-room apartments in our block is a mystery, when you would be lucky to get any further than a few feet away from the door. I will, therefore, henceforth refer to it as a siren.

I came to Korea in October 2006, but my sense of cynicism caught a later flight. Back in the days before it arrived, when I used to open the door to anyone who rang the siren, I think I once talked to one of the inquisitors about Spain or spoons, but they didn't try to attend to my spiritual well-being, possibly because of the rumour that foreigners don't have souls.

Now, on the principle that anyone going door-to-door demanding to be let in shouldn't for that very reason, and that furthermore, such behaviour isn't exactly an advert for social harmony or mental stability, my wife would play along and tell them - through the door - that we didn't need our fortunes read or need to know what vital revelation about our lives they specifically had while meditating at a nearby temple. In any case, I've seen that movie and the punchline is that you're going to be visited by a homicidal maniac and on no account should you let them enter your apartment...

In fact, it's hard to imagine just who exactly does open the door to these people. But, I think we once heard them working their way down our corridor, and a door actually did open and there was a long silence before the button on the next apartment's siren was pressed.

But one of the other residents had clearly had enough, and was perfectly prepared to provoke the wrath of the zealots. Essentially translated, the sign reads:

People from small 'teaching' groups [anything ending in '도'], churches and temples,
Stay away - don't bother us.
Do not ring the bell [siren].
- The Owner

The seriousness of the message and the red highlights though is slightly offset by the subsequent picture of Johnny Depp from The Pirates of the Caribbean, or perhaps it's meant to be Jesus? Anyway, my impression was that most of our callers weren't actually Christians but an eclectic mix of other things. Quite why our apartment should apparently be situated in the middle of spook central will perhaps remain one of life's mysteries. Since we've moved, nobody has come to visit, and it seems there are no more important messages to impart to us from whatever deities these people were communing with. We also don't get our door plastered with fast-food adverts every day either - unfortunately - sadly confirming that the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.

Monday, February 04, 2008

When Eight Bells Toll

Being stock market traders, it's quite important that my wife and I have two Internet connections, so there's a backup in case of a problem with the first. In our old apartment, we'd started out with a 10 megabit cable connection from LG Powercom, but persistent problems had led to us installing 8 megabit KT MegaPass via ADSL. Later, KT offered us a great deal on their Video-on-Demand (VoD) Mega TV service, so we may have only had a one-room apartment, but in technology terms, we were living in some luxury.

There was a problem though. The ADSL modem started dropping connections regularly after Mega TV was installed. It seems the set-top box didn't have its own modem, so the wire had to be routed to it via the modem sitting on top of my computer. I don't know whether 'noise' from the VoD traffic was interfering with traffic heading for the computer, but either way, it resulted in my losing streaming connections, and while one of my trading platforms simply waited for data to resume, another, which you can tell from the interface design was probably written by a bunch stoned university drop-outs who'd never placed a trade in their life, tended to log out or crash horribly. We talked to KT and their engineers did admit they'd had other Mega TV customers with drop-out problems - but none as much as us. Then again, probably none of them are running streaming services ten hours a day to notice, although I suspect you'd soon see the problems if you were playing Kartrider. Anyway, the upshot of all this is we are a bit dubious about Mega TV now.

Because the new apartment was only built four or five years ago, LG told us we were able to upgrade to a 100 megabit connection, and in a twist of Korean Consumer Economics which would probably strike any foreigner as bizarre but now no longer quite surprises me, it would be cheaper than our 10 megabit connection. In fact, we couldn't have 10. It was 100, or nothing. KT told us the same thing, and it was cheaper with them too, so the upshot of this was by the end of the day we expected to be sitting on two 100 megabit connections. There may be things about Korea I don't like, but any country that can give me 200 megabits worth of Internet capacity for around £30 ($55/60,000 won) a month can be forgiven for so many other things.

To give a perspective on speed, a 10 megabit connection allows you to download a 5Mb (megabyte) music file such as an MP3 in about four seconds. A 100 megabit connection means the same file in 0.4 seconds with a theoretical maximum speed of 12.5Mb per second.

That said, we have a Linksys WRT54GC router, and our LG engineer told us it only seemed to be able to handle speeds up to 30 megabits. As far as I knew, it was rated up to 100 megabits, but I guess that's something to look into and figure out later. It's a shame to lose 70 megabits of capability just because of that.

And we discovered another problem. The LG Engineer told us our apartment has '8 lines' coming into it, and the 100 megabit connection uses up four of these 'lines'. But, the same would be true of KT, so while two 100 megabit connections would give us more bandwidth in our home than some small British data centres run their businesses with, we wouldn't be able to connect up a phone. So the LG engineer went ahead with his installation, and when the KT engineer turned up, she had to be told just to connect up our KT phone - we'd have to work out what to do about their Internet service, and Mega TV which relies on it, later.

But with some further investigation it transpired that we could have an Internet phone, which to all intents and purposes is like a normal phone, though it requires a special handset which presumably can talk to the network using Internet communication protocols. Initially we were told that we'd have to have a special number, but then that we could bring our old number with us after all. So, it seems our problems are solved. The Internet phone handset is going to cost us about £48, but cancelling MegaPass and Mega TV is going to cost £72 because we can't fully cancel the contract early. When we originally agreed to the two year contract - part of the Mega TV launch deal - we didn't know whether we'd be staying in Korea or not, but if we were allowed to return to the UK, we'd planned to move the service to Korean Mother's apartment. Now she's moved in with us, that cunning plan has come somewhat unstuck.

Hopefully, we'll sort out our problems with KT, get Mega TV installed again, and have a backup Internet connection for our work once more. And, as my old cable company back in the UK impresses people with its plans to upgrade its top service from 20 megabits to 50, I can return home and tell of far away lands where 100 megabit connections are... ubiquitous.

Friday, February 01, 2008


"I know this country. He'll probably turn up in a fecking Bongo."

Korean Mother had consulted a fortune teller to find out what the best date and time for our apartment moves to begin. The answer was the 31st January, at 8am. In my opinion, being told you have to start moving at such an hour merely confirms the importance of seeking a second opinion. Or a third, fourth, fifth and sixth until you find a mystic who's able to give you the answer you want to hear. After all, it's not as though they usually agree with each other. But no, she went with the first answer she got, which meant a very early start.

The fortune teller also specified which two items had to be moved into the new apartment first, and at what time. In our case they were a rice cooker and a... portable toilet, which has been handed down from generation to generation in the family. Really.

I'd hoped to be able to finish my work as soon as possible on Wednesday; but when you're trading the stock market you can't always extricate yourself from it, and so I didn't finish until 1.30am, after which I was up for another hour disassembling computer equipment and packing it away. Four hours later, we were awake again preparing for the arrival of the removal men. We didn't have a lot of possessions, but even so, I had concerns about what size truck would arrive. My wife told me not to worry, but I told her that I've been in this country long enough to assume they'd turn up with a Bongo.

Fortunately, everything we own did fit on the back of the Bongo, even if the solitary guy driving it was less than pleased when he first saw everything in our apartment. Apparently, we'd told him there was a bed, a couple of chairs, and not much else, but this seemed to create the impression that we wouldn't own anything else, such as clothes. And from the look of shock on his face and the loud exclamation of "Oh!" when he walked through the door, we should probably have warned him about the foreigner as well. Still, the driver and I became fast friends when he discovered he could communicate with me in Korean at some basic level, as we carried items together down to his small truck. Ah yes, clearly this is something I wasn't warned about - I'd assumed that employing removal men meant they would move everything, not require help with the heavy lifting. Now it was my turn to exclaim "Oh!" loudly, and occasionally 'Ouch!' along with some more colourful language. It was somewhere amongst this my thumb started bleeding and as it refused to really stop this became a bit of an ongoing theme for the rest of the day.

It had been quite important that we make the move in one journey, which is why we'd rather hoped something larger than a Bongo would come. I don't know whether there are reputable removal companies in Korea but everyone seems to operate on the assumption that, given half a chance, things will 'disappear' on route if they are not watched at all times. A friend of ours tells the tale of how some rather nice wine didn't make it to the destination when she moved, but after vehement denials from the removal men the bottles were magically 'found' when she offered to give them some money to buy soju. Korean mother still maintains that a large chair was stolen on a previous move, although she can't prove the removal men took it.

So, armed with more than my usual level of paranoia, I'd taken the hard disk out of my computer, and put it in a bag of items which would stay with me at all times. I could afford to lose the computer, but the prospect of setting up Windows and Ubuntu all over again was too much to face. However, our plan relied on one trip since we had people to watch the truck at one end and the other but not en-route if any of us had to stay behind guarding possessions in the street.

With everything emptied, we waved goodbye to the one-room apartment directly above a mini-mart which had been our home for the past fifteen months, and moved on to the joys of unpacking at the other end.

Moving out was relatively smooth compared to the chaos which ensued moving in. Finding myself alone with the removal man in the new apartment, I had to try and explain where things he was carrying were meant to be moved to, while trying to figure it out myself. Meanwhile a workman with a drill was running around fixing things which had been pulled apart by the previous occupants. It wasn't any better though when the removal man went back down to his Bongo and autonomously started sending things up in the elevator. I happened to be carrying a large door out of the apartment when a loud ping announced its arrival and revealed what looked suspiciously like our television sat alone on the floor. So I discovered that five seconds is barely enough time to put down a heavy object and lunge through rapidly closing doors in time to stop possessions disappearing, possibly forever.

After some initial problems with the Internet connection installation, I got our desks set up and the computers working, before heading off to help Korean Mother move from her apartment. But Korean Father had returned from Namhae and she had six Bongo's to help, one of which seemed to be involved in a low-budget Korean remake of the sci-fi classic, Silent Running. Korean Mother has a lot of plants.

So we returned to the new apartment where it was desperately cold, the hot water wasn't working and the bathroom door handle was broken and wouldn't lock, in time to start work at 4pm Korean time. Our office door was shut and over the next nine hours the banging, drilling and occasional cries gradually subsided and I made enough money to pay our rent for several months. Given that I wouldn't have been trading if we hadn't started the move so early, it seems as though that fortune teller made a good decision for us after all. Spooky.