The Shape of the City


There is a shape to every city. Sometimes it’s not visible automatically and it takes time for you to realise it. You can look from above, with a map for example, or you can walk the streets and see for yourself. In Suwon, where I live, the shape is a similar one throughout all the cities of Korea, and that is straight lines and sharp angles. If you wanted you could call it boxy. In Chiang Mai where I am now it is not, it is a bit more of every kind of shape.

From above, taking the map view, if you look at Chiang Mai you could argue that it is not Suwon or Korea which is boxy but Chiang Mai. This is a safe argument. Any map of this city will show the central old part of the city surrounded by its moat and the one way streets which operate as a kind of city blood circulation system.

A look at a city such as Suwon where I’ve lived for the past few years shows a more naturally shaped city, not one dictated by the direction of a wall, despite the fact that there is in fact a very complete city wall in the very centre of it.

On street level thought things are remarkably different.

In Korea I have grown accustomed to the square shape of everything, not necessarily from the streets, but definitely from the buildings which line them. There’s no doubting the density of Korea’s population, and with that density comes a serious demand to use space intensively. Of course if you visit any city you will find that the shape of choice is the cuboid, but in Korea I think that this shape persists throughout the country.

Aesthetics aside, it’s a functional arrangement which seems to suit the inhabitants. Aesthetics considered, it allows for a unique view of the world which revolves around straight lines and right angles, with the occasional curve or triangle thrown into the mix to make things interesting. The city that I live in, Suwon, is certainly a place that this argument rings through. You could say that it is ugly, because it is certainly not what is conventionally termed as pretty, but it is something worth looking at.

Time and people wear away the walls of what was once beautiful the most, and to see an old city still busy with the buildings it was built with is a different kind of aesthetic which is more popular. These parts of the city usually come with their own smells, sounds, and annoyances, but they are as much a part of the visual experience. That you have to take them in while you look or see attaches it to your memory in a different way.

Korea’s cities and towns have a raw and obnoxious feel to them. There is always noise, from engines, shops, shouting, and any number of other sources, and the smells fluctuate with the seasons. Don’t imagine I’m talking about the smell of the food cooking, I’m a bit more inclined to recall the smells of the exhausts and drains which linger differently depending on the weather and temperature outside.

The shapes I spoke about, and which I kind of obsess over, are my own idea of order inside the mess of the big city. These straight incorruptible lines and angles are the only barriers which keep everything within its bounds. In Korea, more than any other country or city I’ve been in, these lines and angles are so pronounced that they invade almost every image you can take from that country.

Chiang Mai is different, and I dare to say the rest of Thailand is different. The uniformity exists on the face of things, such as main streets, shopping malls, and the many condominiums, but here it stops. Behind the main streets, alleys and laneways streak off, and from here I believe it is anyone’s guess what shape will be taken.

The city is not as dense, and is certainly spread out more. This allows for the joys of gardens, and random empty space with no other function but to wait to be filled – if that ever will happen.

The availability of space allows for a different experience, and sees the city form as something less reliant of space permitting more freedom to experiment with form. This is mixed into what is basically a poorer city provides a blend between the robust and rigid shapes of Suwon, and a more laisez faire way of shaping the city.

Time effects every street, and the old seems to be replaced as quickly as anywhere, dust being the most obvious evidence of change. To any observer Chiang Mai is turning into a more cuboid city. Condominiums, although not tightly packed together, and businesses close to the town cramp the arteries in the best way they know, square next to square.

Still, not all the city is immersed in this rigidity, and it is a city worth wandering to see the mix between the old rustic disorganisation and the new cubed order.

 

These photographs were taken in Chiang Mai University’s Art Museum, an example of how to find the cubed rigidity and of modern architecture in Chiang Mai and the beauty which can emerge from it. To view these photographs and more please visit my set on flickr. 

 

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Opening Day


For the past month or there abouts we’ve been fondly eyeing the monstrosity that is MAYA on the corner. MAYA, to those unfamiliar, is a(nother) shopping mall/centre that has just been built in Chiang Mai, this on the corner of Nimmanhaemin and the Super Highway.  It’s a large cuboid buiding with a funky honeycomb-like wavy pattern snaking around its exterior, with a screen blasting colourful and flashing advertisements into the Chiang Mai sunlight. It certainly stands out from the competition, which is mostly two or three storey buidlings, and the odd tall apartment or hotel not far away.

The opening day, January 23rd had long been announced, and from speaking with the other long term residents in the condo complex we’re staying I got the impression that most people were looking forward to it. It’s a bit of black hole in terms of proximity to everything, the nearest real amenity is a 7-Eleven and street of funky little shops with over priced restaurants around the corner. I suppose most people though were looking forward to the Starbucks and the supermarket, because the one a five minute drive away was just too far.

Also in relation to the opening day, we pretty much saw little to no activity around what looked to be a shell of a building for days, until the week before it was due to open. All day and late into the night trucks and pickups were pulling in weighed down with all kinds of boxes, sacks, and shop fittings, desperately trying to get set up for the deadline. I was convinced it wasn’t going to happen and enjoyed explaining these doubts to Herself, but yesterday there was complete chaos on the corner where MAYA is situated, and I suppose they got their stuff done.

This morning we headed down to see what all the fuss was about. Opening was set for 11AM but we were there before 10, and fortunately it was going to be a long drawn out opening. Anyone familiar with Thailand will know that it’s a fairly religious country when it comes to it’s Buddhist faith. In fact it seems like for even the opening of a packet of crisps they need to bring a monk or two around to give it the go ahead and wishg it good luck, because it’s all about luck, as opposed to medieval practices like marketing and business strategy. Even as you walk down the streets you can see little shrines offering snacks and drinks to the spirits in the hope that it will bring them favour. Of course a certain amount of this probably has to do with keeping up appearances, but it’s still a fascinating display as many of the shrines are colourful and well serviced.

I liken much of this to Ireland’s necessity for bringing a priest around to bless whatever it is that’s opening. While not as common a sight these days (I think/hope/wonder), getting the Church’s seal of approval was an important part of any opening ceremony. Whether there were crucifixes or portraits of the Virgin Mary lying around afterwards depended on the proprietor of course.

Thailand though seems to do it with much more vigour. There were prayers by a gentleman dressed from head to toe in white, who then proceeded to toss colourful flower petals over people’s heads, and then there was a line of monks who sat covered from the sun in a white tent who chanted away for a short while. We, to be honest, were far from enamoured by this performance, so we went looking for breakfast.

By the time we came back we were just in time to catch the opening of the doors. We piled in with everyone else full of oohs an aaahs, looking up at the large skylight full of dancing silver balloons dangling from some invisible tread. Everything was nice and shiny, with the exception of the odd tile or two which had not received the appropriate amount of grout, as Herself discovered when she kicked a piece ten yards down a half empty make-up aisle.

To our disappointment the supermarket wasn’t open, so we went to check out the food options. While there is always an excellent variety here in Thailand, we have become increasingly concerned with the lack of high-chairs for +1. At this stage she is 100% wriggle and run, and anything we can do to save our arms and allow us to enjoy some aspects of our meal takes precedence. We have discovered however that Thailand, to it’s detriment, is not a baby chair place. Maybe they just don’t take their kids out or something…

Anyway.

It’s a fine place this MAYA. We only hung around a short while just to get a feel for it, but we’ll be back I suppose, many times I imagine. Having something like this so close to where you live always makes you feel like you’re living a better life. Still as I walk through there even just window shopping all I can hear is my wallet contorting in agony as I pass buy another thing I think would look great in my possession, or stomach.

For more photographs from the opening of MAYA please follow this link to my Flickr page

All writing and photographs © Conor O’Reilly January 2014

In Defence of Stamps


Sometimes it’s the little things in life that make the difference. There was a time when I would check the post every morning in the hope that there would abe a letter for me. I would ask my mother why was there never anything for me, and wistfully she would respond “well if you sent a letter to someone then maybe you would get something in return”. My obvious response was to drop my shoulders and curl my nose and skulk off muttering about some injustice or something.

I didn’t realise it until probably now that my mother’s response was probably something similar to what I know now. Personal letters or emails are wonderful, but they rarely come, or at least their infrequency is dwarfed by the sheer quantity of spam and bills. And even if I jump to the twenty-first century and talk about emails it doesn’t get much better, in fact it worsens.

Throw into your inbox all your newsletters, online transactions, receipts, work related mail, social network updates and notifications, and whatever else streams in between nine and six daily, and probably continues throughout the night if you recieve mail from across the timezones, email loses all the charm it had, if it ever actually had any in the first place.

I’ve come across a few articles recently where someone disconnected from their email for a year and found out how wonderful the world is, or something to that effect. There are also countless amounts of surveys or reports proclaiming the effects and costs laid on the corporate world from people checking and responding to overburdened email accounts.

I should also elaborate on the state of my email inbox at the moment, with over 3,600 unread emails and counting, many of which will not change or improve my life if they ever are opened. This amount started to grow from about six months ago when I suppose I just got tired of deleting them. There may be some important mail in there I should have read, but if it was really important they would have emailed back, right?

Sure enough you could argue that social networking has removed our need to email so frequently, and of course email has removed the necessity of writing letters, just regulary mail services removed whatever messenger network was there before. Perhaps there is someone out there busily considering the medium to overtake social networking, and good luck to them.

For all our complaints about social networking though it won’t go away, and neither will email, and incidentally neither will regular mail. We will see how and why we use these forms of communication change though, and some day we will be as nostalgic for old-fashioned tweeting or email writing as we are now for a hand written letter.

Modernity and modernising has always been about making it easier and more efficient to do things. To compliment everything modern there is always the old way, deemed in some respects old fashioned and antiquated as equally as it is is considered traditional or vintage. Speed and efficiency is undoubtedly the defining and divisive factor in establishing the difference.

Who is to say that there is actually anything wrong with, for example hand writing a letter, walking down to the post office, queuing up to buy a stamp, and then popping it in the post box, and heading off to finish the rest of your business? Compare this to standing on a bus grasping a railing one hand as it trundles through town, whilst tapping uncomfortably the tiny letters on the screen of a smartphone, including the backspace repeatedly, and clicking send, whereupon your email is sent directly to its recipient who is likely to be experiencing something similar in another part of the planet. Either that or it will be waiting for them when they wake up in the morning.

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Speed is everything. Even more important than money, seemingly, because somehow the idea that time equals money has proliferated and began obliterating everything that once stood for something, and by something I mean a person’s job and livelihood. Nostalgia is making mighty waves promoting the way things were and how the world was better before we had a full communication suite trapped inside a small black device which fits into our pocket. Conveniently, there’s a fair amount of nostalgia available online, or at least you can book it or order it online. How fortunate are we?

There is a tremendous amount of modern speed which does seem unnecessary. In Korea, I feel like every building over three floors must have a lift, buses bull through red lights, there is ultra fast internet for all users, deliveries are made at low cost and arrive the next day, and there is one of the fastest high speed rail systems in the world in a country where it only takes five hours to drive from one corner to its furthest extremity on the opposite side of the peninsula. Yes, I know that the clogged expressways undoubtedly encouraged this development, but they’re not always clogged. Speed equals progress, development, and of course convenience. This is good and the goal we should be setting for all of ourselves.

Don’t think that I’m critical of Korea here, a similar list could be drawn up about any country. In Korea and especially Seoul it seems that everyone and everything has to be where they should be now, and not tomorrow, and certainly not soon or over the next few days. Seoul is the only major city I’ve lived in so I can’t reasonably compare it fairly, but I’ve heard enough comparisons with such poster cities as London and New York to recognise the same obsessions with this instant. For all I may feign complaint over, the convenience of Korea is by far its most redeeming factors after living here for over eight years.

But let me ask you would you go back to slower and less convenient times? I wouldn’t. It’s not solely because I have a recognisable addiction to things been done instantly, or because of the convenience, or the cheaper cost, it’s because it’s better. Whether we are better people is an unnecessary observation, as again nostalgia feeds on these grievances. For all that I or others may raise about a modern obsession with speed, I don’t see myself slowing down, let alone stopping.

What I would do though is ask myself or others to think a little about what is really necessary? For starters, much of the devotion to doing things quick stems from the time is money notion I mentioned earlier. To do things quicker and more efficiently will save us more money in the long run, right? Well in many respects yes, but at the same time this is not always the case.

Take stamps for example. Mail or post is in its own right a fairly new phenomenon, and while the effort of writing a letter and posting may be considerably less efficient and signicantly more time consuming, it already seems to be becoming a redundant service that is poorly equipped to compete with the efficiency of email and multi-facetted social networks. Barcodes instead of stamps do little to help this cause.

If you want to post something you need a stamp. This something could indeed be a letter, but it is more likely to be some kind of a form, application, or parcel, but still you need to pay for it and since the Penny Black the preferred way has been to use a stamp, although of late some innovative soul discovered that barcodes are much more effective.

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I’m sure there is some reason for utilising barcodes as a means of determining the price of postage, and I suppose it’s probably a smart reason, right? I think though that maybe the world would feel a little less like a factory floor if we had less barcodes and numbers defining so much of our lives. Mail is such a small thing that perhaps we could be left enjoyed one of its redeeming traits, the small intricately painted and uniquely designed stamp.

At all corners there are numbers and codes pigeon-holing us. The favoured tool of streamlining our bureaucracy, giving a number not only makes us easily findable amongst the rest of the rabble, it removes the face of its owner, leaving if we’re lucky a male or female looking silhouette behind the digits.

Now comparing the barcode for a stamp with an national ID number is a bit severe I admit it, but I hasten to add that I don’t see any problem with regular old stamps. There was something to them which if anything make our connection with mail or post a little more tenable. They had a connection with not only the sender, but also the receiver.

There is a little more than nostalgia attached to this notion that stamps have a bit more attachment to people than barcodes. There is a novelty to them, and not just from the perspective of a stamp collector, from the point of view that we can try to make out the details, however intricate, of a stamp. We can see a little something that is special to another country. We can read the script and possibly have an idea what the currency is, and of course there is the feeling that it was not applied by a machine in a dark basement. Let’s be honest, when it comes to stamps there’s always that human element we can all recall, the taste of the glue on our tongues from licking the back.

The stamp has more personality in its own personalised way. In Ireland stamps come across as a celebration of the nation, which is odd for a country which doesn’t flaunt its patriotism as much as you may imagine, with pictures of flowers, birds, animals, historical figures, architecture, and indeed special events and occasions such as the Special Olympics, and fortunately never (or perhaps rarely) living politicians.

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It’s unfortunate that in Korea I haven’t seen a stamp since I was here in my first year in 2005 when I tried to send some postcards home. The stamps were small Rose of Sharon, the national flower of Korea, bright in their purpleness and backed by green leaves, and as typical a stamp as you could get. Some years later I went to send Christmas cards home, and each individual envelope was popped up on the scales, and a barcode sticker with its varieties of code was printed out and stuck on the top corner.

Much of this only sank home recently when I received and sent plenty of letters and parcels. I felt that, here was a little way of sharing the rest of the world. But at the same time it was a way of keeping a small industry and interest in the world alive, where we would be encouraged to look at the finer details of the wrapping of the objects which arrive in our letterboxes.

There is little argument against it, other than speed, perhaps. Yet, if you want to take it from the perspective of the consumer or the sender, you can be sure that when they go to the post office they still must queue up, and they still must put their letter on a scales, and the person will probably still tap a few things on a computer, if anything just to get a receipt.

Stamps are little things, but when we add up all the small things we find we have something greater. Efficiency will not make the world a better place, and in changing through development we often forget to stop and look at what it is we are changing. Stamps are small and insignificant but like most of the things which change without us knowing it will be long after they are gone that we notice we can’t tell one barcode apart from the next one.

Get Ready, Get Set…Chuseok


by Ben Haynes

What a wonderful time of year we’ve happened upon! The harvest season, celebrated in as many ways as there are people and religions on this blessed planet. Yes, it’s all about getting together and enjoying the company of family and and gorging on the fruits of a well worked field or cubicle. Maybe packing on a few kilos for the winter months for good measure.

To observe this time of bounty, Americans roast up the largest, antibiotic-filled, corn fed turkey we can find at the grocery and then stuff it with some….. stuffing.

Apples for Chuseok

Apples for Chuseok

Israelis celebrate Sukkot, the feast of the Tabernacles, bringing together neighbors. All are welcome! Other than those blocked off by a huge cement wall, of course. Gnoshing on the harvested grains in a most biblical fashion and observing the quintessential element associated with all Jewish holidays- “remembering” wandering through the desert. Symbolized by modern Jews by being lost in the car on a hot summer’s day.

Indonesians celebrate the rice harvest. Offerings are made to Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice in Bali. Mushroom shakes are offered to tourists. Lammas, historically celebrated by early Britons baking the first harvest’s grain into a bread offering is now keenly observed by the oh-so-unique hipster Pagan or Wiccan in a most dogmatic fashion.

Koreans have Chuseok, where sungpyeon, a sweet-tasting rice cake, is made and enjoyed by all. Families gather around, making ceremonial table settings to remember loved ones passed.

As well, they buy gift packs of 10 apples for 100$ or 5 fish for 400$, or maybe a packet of peanuts for some exorbitant price.

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Yeah that is 200,000 Won for a watermelon.

Oh yes. Let the bells of capitalism ring throughout, and watch, as local department stores dress up their employees in hanbok to sell fruits, mushrooms, nuts, and Spam. Priced as though these items are rare, illegal, magical or forbidden,or all of the above. A pumpkin being sold for 200$. But this was no ordinary pumpkin, sillly. It had a bow on it!

As a foreigner in this “land of morning calm,” we get enjoy our autumnal shopping trips to Lotte or E-mart with an additional spike of bustling insanity. No child is safe unless riding in a shopping cart. Even then, they are subject to the possibility of a 4-5 cart pile up. It’s best to leave the small ones at home with grandma during the weeks prior to this nationally beloved holiday.

This post is guest post. For more on guest posts and how to submit please follow this link

BenHaynes

Ben Haynes has resided in Seoul with his wife, Ren, since 2011, where he is regarded as a local hero. He has the foresight of a community channel televangelist. He leads with the fortitude of Aurelius. His sweat is sweet as freshly squeezed juice. Villagers whisper giddily when he walks by. He enjoys a good book and cold glass of beer.

Recognising Value in Korea


There’s a lot to be said for value. Much of what we value, or how we place value on something, depends on our recognition of the use and importance of the particular subject in question. Like a four day work week, which may have more value to a person who regularly works a five or six day week than to a person who only works three days a week. It’s all about how much worth we put in particular things.

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