Supermarkets -v- the People?


It has been bothering me since about the time it has been instigated. It’s a simple thing that shouldn’t really get me agitated as it has very little effect on me, and in many respects it is a good principal to take. It’s just that I think it’s the wrong step and I don’t think it really solves any problems, only encourages more populist resolutions to complicated social and economic problems.

What am talking about? Sunday closing for the so-called discount stores in Korea.

Now lets establish some terminology first.

“Discount stores” are what major supermarket chains are called in Korea. These include E-Mart (part of Shinsaegae international), Homeplus (owned by Tesco, the second largest supermarket company in the world), and Lotte Mart, which are the biggest ones.

“Sunday closing” is a government regulation which has called for all “discount stores” to close on two Sundays a month, or in some cases two Wednesdays a month. The reason for this is because they were blamed by smaller businesses for taking away too much business from smaller shops and businesses which were nearby.

Now that we understand this, allow me to explain why I find this to be bothersome.

To begin with there’s the obvious inconvenience of wanting to buy something that the major supermarkets stock. I personally haven’t been overly bothered by this on many occasions, and I’ll admit that the one time it really did get to me, and is probably where the idea for this blog post came from, was on a nice Sunday afternoon when I decided to stop by Yeongtong Homeplus and pick up some tasty foreign beer.

I fancied a few warm cans of something elaborate and I was looking forward to the painstaking decision I would have to make in the aisles. When I came to the front of the supermarket the shutter was pulled down and there was a big yellow banner acorss it explaining, I imagine, that it wasn’t their fault I couldn’t buy my beer, blame the government.

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I don’t doubt that at this moment you’re thinking I’m some crazed anti-government vigilante who feels the world is against him, but this is not the case. I am not going to go into why I didn’t want Korean beer either, but if you’ve been in Korea long enough, you’ll understand. The way I see it is that as a consumer we’re being forced to buy things we don’t want to buy when there are better alternatives available.

I’m all for buying from the little guy, believe me, and I would happily choose the alternative over a major mulitnational blood sucking vampire such as Tesco any day of the week. But I’m also a consumer who has grown accustomed to buying food and products that meet a certain standard, and there’s also the added bonus of liking a bit of variety in my life also.

But there’s a little more to it than that.

One of the arugments put forward for Sunday closing was that the prices of the major supermarkets were suffocating the smaller businesses. But if you’ve spent any amount of time in the supermarkets, you can’t really argue successfully that they are in fact ‘discounted’ prices. Yes there are some discounted goods, but really can you say they are slicing a hole in the belly of the competition and watching them bleed dry on the streets? No. Maybe a pinprick would be a more apt comparison.

There is more to this picture than just prices, its the very nature of competition and the lack of innovation in the realm of small businesses. Take smaller supermarkets for example. What do they sell that would make you want to choose them over the major supermarkets? Nothing. In fact that lack of variety and bog standard middle-to-bottom of the line brands in stock are in my opinion a turn off, especially to young and middle sized families, the kind of people who go into a supermarket and drop 200,000 won in a weekly shop. Other than being a place where you can pick up something urgently in case you run out, I struggle to see what other function they can serve. Of course across the world these smaller shops suffer from the same plight, so it’s not only a Korean problem.

Before this situation with supermarkets came to light, it was another issue raised by smaller restaurants who again complained that the supermarkets where threatening their business. Around 2010 or 2011 Lotte Market announced they were selling fried chicked for around 5,000 won per portion. Compare this with the standard delivered variety costing over 10,000. You can imagine why the fried chicken restaurants went up in arms over this. Not long after this E mart copied them by selling jumbo pizzas at cut prices, and again the pizza shop fraternity went baloobas. In the end the government jumped in and put a stop to this opportunism by the considerably wealthier and resourceful supermarkets by putting a cap on the number they could sell every day.

If we take a look at the pizza and fried chicken places around Korea you can see the problems already, as there are already too many. To the average armchair enthusiast they seem to be a get rich quick scheme which doesn’t seem to be such a hot ticket any more. Pizza places seemed to be the next to follow, and recently I’ve noticed a surge in tteokboki restaurants – I suppose it depends on what’s being promoted the most at whatever franchise fair people end up going to with a sack of inheritance.

*This video will give you an idea of the problems with the fried chicken business in Korea

The propenderence of fried chicken and pizza franchises, to name a few, is a key ingredient in understanding where I’m coming from. I see that these clearly point to a lack of much needed innovation in the small business sector.

For example, if you have all your little supermarkets which are competing against E Mart and Tesco change their stock to sell organic or direct from farm fruit and veg, or high end products, or homemade/locally produced condiments (you know the kind of stuff I’m talking about) you’ll not only encourage people to shop there you encourage the wider national agricultural economy to prosper. This is just an example. Easier said than done I know.

Another avenue is to really go out of your way to provide excellent service. Take camera shops for example. If you go into a camera shop, the guy selling you the stuff is a photographer, and knows all about what you are looking at. Invariably they throw in all sorts of others freebies like bags, memory cards, and other things. Of course the supermarkets aren’t the threat to these people’s livelihood. Their situation is even more serious because they have to compete against the internet.

For the most part a lot of the people who own these places are older, don’t have a lot of money, and really lack the inclination to innovate. Perhaps though they could lease out their premisis to someone with the inclination to innovate. Retail rents are extraordinary at the best of times, but if they could do a deal where the older owner keeps his deposit down as kind of insurance while the younger person pays the rent and some, or something to that effect.

I’ve heard before that a lot of these places are only kept open by some older people because they don’t really have anything else to do, so you know, they keep plugging along. This is mere speculation of course as there are undoubtedly other social issues which may be at play which I’m unaware of.

Regardless, the main thing is that the business is busy and the people involved are all making money. I know that this will not be something that will not happen overnight, and I know that in many circumstances it will not happen at all.

Populism and complaint to the nanny state will continue on as before. If a little innovation were to come it needs to be encouraged by those in a position to do so. There’s no reason why people who are already burdeoned with inexplicably high rents need to suffer because no one wants to buy what they are trying to sell. But at the same time, if no one really wants to buy it perhaps its worth considering what it is for sale.

There is so much room for growth in Korea, despite what people might think, but it is on a micro scale. Large scale development has polarised the economy and increasingly society. If a little vision were employed perhaps we could find ourselves living in new neighbourhoods which were welcoming to all our tastes.

Essay on Korea’s National Image – “What is Modern Korea?”


In October I entered an essay competition organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Korea. The competition sought to find out what foreigners thought was Korea’s national image. I entered, you’ll be happy to hear, but not because of some overwhelming desire to share my thoughts on what made Korea Korea, more because top prize was a new computer, and I fancied my chances.

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So I dutifully brainstormed a notion and worked away on the essay, then forgot about it, then remembered about it, and of course I waited until the last minute to submit it.

Now, it has to be said that I do have issues with this kind of competition (and with everything else of course), because the way I see it is they’re really just kind of clueless about what they think people think about Korea, and for all the polls they make at Incheon Airport they can never get a satisfactory answer. So they tried this essay competition. I never saw the winner announced or published, but I do know of one person who at least won a prize, which was a slight relief. I would like to have read the winning essay, if only to fuel (or extinguish, let’s be fairish) my cynical belief that they were looking for a specific answer, which would have doomed me from the beginning.

*Update* Follow this link to find a press release from MOFAT about the competition and winners

Here it is in its untarnished form (by that I mean I’m copying it straight from the file I sent to them without reading over it and finding a thousand typos and spelling and grammar mistakes, among other faults). Enjoy. Ish.

What is Modern Korea? by Conor O’Reilly
October, 2013

A common decoration in all royal palaces in Korea is a screen which sits behind the king’s throne. While brightly painted, it is a relatively inconspicuous and simple painting that is not too elaborate considering the weight of its position, providing relief to the most important seat in the land, the throne of the King.

The painting on the screen in question includes an orange sun and a white moon, and five mountain peaks that rise and fall sharply and steeply. From these mountains flow waterfalls, and in the foreground tall trees all but complete the scene. There is one final element which is not actually part of the painting but which is still an essential component to the image; the throne and the king who sits in it.

This throne and the king were situated in the centre and symbolised the harmony of the universe and also the crucial fact that the king was the central pivot of this image. Without the king situated in his throne completing the scene with the mountains and the sky, the painting showed a mere landscape, and modern Korea is very much the same as this.

It has to be taken into account that during Chosun Dynasty Korea knowledge of the world beyond its borders would have been extremely limited, and it would not be unreasonable to suggest that for the vast majority of the people living then, Korea was their universe, and the King as their ruler was their representative and the symbol of their own very existence. In this respect the King not only represented the universe, but also the people, and this is of greatest consequence.

Without the people who have made Korea into the country it is today, Korea would also be a landscape deprived of those who have persevered to create their own vibrant and adaptive universe that still relies on traditional relationships, not only among actual family but which even extends to strangers in the street.

And for me it was these very people who appeared to be everywhere I looked the first time my airport bus drove steadily into the centre of Seoul. At first these people were only recognisable through the shape of the many tall apartment buildings which seemingly sprouted up along the banks of the Han River, like copses of trees on the verge of a larger forest.

The bus’s journey deeper into that great big constant bustle of a city transformed my wide perspective to one which seemed to zoom in closer on the finer details of Seoul with every few hundred metres the bus passed. From driving through Yeouido beneath the 63 Building, crossing the Han and seeing rows and rows of more and more of the city, and as the bus looped around it somehow found its way to Jongno-ro, where I was amazed further.

I still marvel at the centre of Seoul today despite living in Korea for several years. I come from a small town in Ireland of around eight thousand people where the tallest building is a church steeple. To come to Seoul and witness a building I always admired for its height dwarfed by all but the smallest of buildings, I was knew I was facing more than just engineering prowess. To achieve such a feat as modern Seoul, a society must have more than just money. It needs pride, determination, and a universal sense of community and understanding to drive them forward.

What really struck me more than anything as I drove through the city on an airport bus for the first time was that I wanted to know who built everything and how could I not know about the city in front of me before? How could this human achievement be missed, and what would it take for such a spectacle of the ability of human beings ability to shine independently? I was younger back then and would soon know that I was arriving late to the story that of the Korean people and this is a story which continues today.

If there is a twenty-first century comparison for all that encapsulates Korea it is Jongno-ro. From Gwangwhamun the street passes east as a busy shopping with nightlife close to Jonggak Station, and then by Insadong presenting a different more subdued style of Seoul. Both of these throb with life under the shadows of the high-rise homes of Korea’s corporate powerhouses, such as Hanwha, SK, and Samsung.

This street that stretches from Gwangwhamun Plaza, watched over by the erstwhile Admiral Yi Sun Shin, to Dongdaemun Gate is only a few kilometres long, but along it you can experience more of Korea than you could in famous locations, such as Psy’s virally renowned Gangnam. There is much history on Jongno-ro, such as Tapgol Park, Korea’s first city park, and of course the internationally recognised Jongmyo Shrine. There is the lively neon lit nightlife side streets which almost every visitor to the capital aspires to photograph.

Jongno-ro runs parallel to Cheongyecheon stream, another honest symbol of a new and modern Korea, yet as it moves east the buildings lose much of their glamour and wealth. Here a different Korea can be seen, an older Korea, one with roots in community. It is one which still retracts to the older ways that life was lived, seen in the crowds ever busy around places like Gwangjang Market, which in itself is a reflection of hundreds more urban markets across the country, where small businesses work together in their own street-side version of a modern day department store. This is as much a part of modern Korea as high-rise glass buildings and multi-national corporations that reside nearby.

As you move down the street the city transforms in all but a few hundred metres of walking. You pass by stores selling everything from cosmetics, traditional clothes, to home lighting, hardware, picture frames, and butchers. Nor can you ignore the ubiquitous gold and jewellery shops which always heave with anxious customers considering varieties of fluorescent dazzled necklaces and rings. There is less glitz, but this is still very much Korea.

Here, the tall exuberant buildings of Gwangwhamun and the teeming and vibrant streets around Jonggak Station are forgotten as you meet an older city, where people have the jackets closed tightly against their chest. Here they walk with less leisure in a bustle to get somewhere to do something. This end of the street as it comes closer and closer to Dongdaemun is a wiser and more cautious part of the city, a part of the city that has seen more of troubled past and lived through these lessons. This part of the city knows that time has passed but it continues to accept change, while still holding on tightly to the ways which established its current situation.

This is not an area which is reluctant to change, it is a place where change will only come when those who populate it no longer need their past, a past suffered by so many through occupation, war, and dictatorship. To see these people is to know Korea and to understand why the Korean people, with their undying spirit of national community, have built one of the strongest and wealthiest economies from the scraps of destitution and bloodshed.

But to suggest that the Korean people are the most unique aspect of the country is pretty much a given. Is it worth reducing to second place all the other magical and unique characteristics that make up Korea? There is the food (which I love), the music – from K Pop to pansori, and all the culture and traditions which families and individuals have built their lives around, but all that I try to compare with the hope of recognising something more noteworthy or more exceptional, it always comes back to the people who developed these cultural and national attributes over the years.

You could also argue that the people are crafted by the landscape and environments they live in, and that these would supersede the importance the people creating their own unique identity. Although this is a reasonable assertion, when you look at the history of Korea the only geographical feature which truly influenced Korea was its position as a peninsula protruding into the sea between China and Japan, a fate which was instrumental in the establishment in Korean’s resilience and modern determination to excel above its self perceived lot. There is no doubt that Korea’s geographical position has both threatened and benefitted its existence over the years. However, as the foreign influence was so slight up until the twentieth century, I contend that it is the doggedness of the people which elevated Korea to its current status and earned the respect across the world in every conceivable area of thought and action.

The determination and resilience of the people is continuously apparent as Korea’s name appears on lists with the worlds finest. In the recent Olympics in London, Korea was placed fifth in the medal rankings ahead of countries such as Germany, France, Australia, and Japan. The Olympic Soccer team recaptured the spirit of the World Cup in 2002 with an epic adventure into the semi-finals of the competition, followed by a clash with old rivals Japan. While on the subject of sport, let’s not forget the fine individual efforts of Kim Yu Na at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and the exciting prospect of Korea hosting this event in 2018.

Korean’s success has extended beyond sports, from politics to business to technology, Korea’s influence has spread across the world, and always guided at the helm by people who recognise the national thirst for excellence reaches beyond the borders of the country. For all that is celebrated about Korea; none would exist without the will of the people, because it is the people who we remember more than anything when we leave Korea.

Both the new Korea, one which is modern and wired with Smartphone’s and the latest Italian fashions, and the old, one where old traditions based around ancestors and lunar patterns still resonate strongly, coexist together. You can see it when you step off the bus in any part of a city or country town, and you can see it when people meet and greet each other in different situations, be it with family, friends, or co-workers. Korea’s people are always aware that it is they who determine their nation’s status, and it is they who determine their future. They know that they have been born on this planet to live together in harmony for the continued prosperity, and they fight tenaciously to do this.

Through my years living and working in Korea, it is this determination and sense of purpose which I have witnessed to be what Korea really stands for; these are what make Korea the land of the Koreans. It is here where you can witness so many characteristics which when they are combined together can only be truly described as Korean.

You see the magnificence of aged palaces, the glitz and wealth of the many cities, the countryside tended to diligently year after year, and success after success on the international stage. These standards are so common that you cannot miss them. They are the traits of a nation, and it is a nation which is proud to blatantly display and espouse its characteristics like a trophy.

The Internet: How Much Time is Too Much Time?


This is kind of an old argument…

If someone told you that you spend too much time on the internet, how would you respond?

Maybe I would say that don’t spend that much time on the actual internet, but I do spend a lot of time using various social network services or websites. I think I wouldn’t say I spend too much time, but I would admit that I am an avid addict of the world of knowing someone else’s business whilst trying to make my own business look, well, fascinating.

Let’s take a little look at where I am:

– Blog (you’re reading it)
Tumblr – reading and posting instagram photographs.
Twitter – reading and sharing, as well as commenting on, well, everything…
Flickr – photographs!
– Instagram – more photographs
Youtube – for videos and slideshows I make…
Linkedin – networking…for work…and looking important…
– Facebook – believe it or not, mostly just for keeping in touch with friends and family – after the big ordeal of getting off Facebook a few years ago, I just said ‘fuck it’ and signed back on. +1 kind of influenced this, but also the fact that I missed what little communication I had with many people I knew. Sad, I know.
– Meetup – Mostly for IAK stuff but can be useful for other events.
– Pinterest – yeah, apparently it’s a bit girly and I’m not sure why I joined it, but we’ll see what happens.

There might be one or two that I’m forgetting (I deleted bebo and haven’t looked at Myspace for at least a year, but if it gets you wet you can read some really old blog posts of mine there)

And I’ve profiles on a whole host of other websites which I comment on or receive daily or weekly updates on in my email, and I read these emails most of the time (I don’t necessarily always click the links).

So I make myself busy on the internet.

I thought that I’d ask this question after a comment from my old man on my last post, ‘Letter From Korea, August 2012’, telling me that if I turned off some of my internet distractions I’d probably get more work done. He’s probably right, but then again he’s probably wrong. You see despite the fact that I have a lot of activity on the internet, it’s worth asking how much of a distraction it really is, because I honestly think that I would be distracted even if I was chained up in a fucking desert.

Despite this notion, there’s been a fair amount of discussion on the viability and destructive nature that social media has on traditional media and the way we find information. I would be of the opinion that if you’re going to sit back and complain about something it will have overtaken you by the time you think you have people listening to you – and perhaps this is how I feel about Facebook. Perhaps.

How much time does it take to read a facebook status update? Or a tweet? And how long does it take to write one? While that’s a short amount of time, if it’s a link to a news or blog post (depending on the site) that is where the benefit comes from. It’s about content. That’s what keeps pulling me back to the internet. You see, when I started using twitter it was, I think, to get a regular feed of different links from whoever was tweeting them out. I’ve never been that interested in reading the links of individual people and their mannerisms (there are exceptions of course). I like to think now that I know more about stuff I never knew before. Things like this make finding this information out a lot easier, and they benefit the suppliers too because it’s easier to be found.

There are more questions that I should ask. I hope that I can answer them. Here I go.

Is it worthwhile being on a social network? Well, yes and no. It all depends on what you’re trying to do and what you’re looking to achieve from it. A lot of people initially start out using these because everyone else is there, and this is especially the case with facebook. Other people start out using them because they are looking to use some of the services for publicity or sharing, such as photographs on flickr. Twitter was destined to be a constant stream of neurotic teenagers tweeting in text language until journalists and the media got onto it, making it more valuable. A bit like much in life, it all boils down to finding out what’s the point of using these things? Knowing your, options, alternatives, and goals can probably help you to know this answer easily. There are many of us who don’t actually need to use social networks or the media.

I’ll give you an example of what social networks can do for someone who is living and working in a place like Korea. They definitely operate as a network where you can connect and hear about events, new restaurants, and news (I suppose), where before you would have had to visit different websites individually, now you can source all your information on one. In Korea, Facebook is definitely the most useful website to use as practically any event that takes place is publicised through facebook, at least in the foreign community here. When I initially deleted my facebook account I found that I had automatically lost my source for event postings and get-togethers (and also it has to be said, a pile of useless and irrelevant stuff). Could I have survived without much of it? Yes. Did I? Yes. Will I continue you to? Surely.

But still I am here and there (and some would say everywhere) online. I have to say that I enjoy it. I do spend quite a lot of time online, perhaps an hour or two every day, but to be honest I know when I spend too much time on social networks – it actually feels like it has been too much time. Sometimes I get a headache, but usually I know when I’ve had enough. I could blame it for distracting me from getting work done, but as I read from an interview from Margaret Atwood recently, essentially it doesn’t matter who are and what you do, you will find distractions when work has to be done and you don’t have a boss beating down on you.

Of course there has been an increase in arguments about why the internet is tearing apart social structures and prescribed practices (esepecially the traditional media), but at the end of the day the internet and all its follicles are here to stay. There are obvious conflicts with common sense, especially when you see how much money is spent on developing internet products and websites. I reckon people who complain about that kind of stuff are just jealous they couldn’t have thought of something as simple.

The amount of benefits can struggle to counter the obvious ridiculous and negative aspects. But like any game it all depends how you play it. I’d like to think that I can utilise it and not turn it into an enemy, and that I can learn to use it to my own benefit – whatever that may be.

So in answer to my initial question, do I spend too much time on the internet. Yes I do. What can you do?

 

After posting this I found this article in my #twitter stream. Very worthwhile read and one the more balanced and well supported arguments. As I said though, what can you do?

Is Seoul a Good City for an Expat to Live?


On the television this morning was a programme about the top ten cities in Asia for expats to live in. It wasn’t a particularly well made programme and I got the impression that it was segments from a collection of programmes pulled together under the rather weak connection that they dealt with  expats in  other Asian cities. Of course, there’s plenty of problems with this kind of competition, namely that the majority of those described as expats were Caucasian and in well paid positions, and in several cases the people were merely English teachers.

Anyway, the hit list goes like this:

  1. Georgetown, Malaysia*
  2. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
  3. Bangkok, Thailand*
  4. Taipei, Taiwan
  5. Macau, China
  6. Hong Kong, China*
  7. Osaka, Japan*
  8. Tokyo, Japan
  9. Kobe, Japan
  10. Singapore, Republic of Singapore

(*Just a little side note to point out that I’ve visited these cities)

It being a Korean programme I was assuming that sooner or later Seoul or Songdo would end up. Now, I’ve never lived in Taiwan but seeing as Bangkok and Taipei were so high up the list, which I don’t really know much about, but I’m pretty sure Seoul is way better (of course this is editorial bias). My doubts on the quality of the list really started to rise when Hong Kong was in fifth place, and then there were two Japanese cities, Tokyo and Osaka, in third and fourth. Of course there could only be one winner but seeing Kobe in second was a shock, not to the point of anger or anything, just an ‘oh’ kind of shock.

The programme gave plenty of reasons for Seoul to be included – many of the cities in the top ten did things such as welcoming foreigners, teaching them to speak the language, cultural lessons, great public transport, all of which Seoul does. And, you should really take into consideration that the programme didn’t really offer a rubric for rating these cities

Watching this raised the question, is Seoul a good place for expats to live?

Well, it depends on which way you look at it. Allow me to give you both sides of the argument based on my own experience.

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The Institution of Bap


Food in Korea is a national obsession. I used to think when I first came to Korea that all people talked about was money, until I learned some of the language that is. Then I realised that a lot of the time when people were talking about money they were discssing how much a particular dish or food cost. Food and eating has even gone to the point where ‘did you have lunch?’ is a greeting. Korea is one of the few places in the world where there will be a television in the restaurant where there will be a television programme on about food from a different restaurant.

Last year I sat in a restaurant in Gangeung with Herself’s family. I was sitting across from my mother-in-law and Herself’s aunt, and throughout the meal both women went through the menu on the wall discussing how each ingredient in each dish could be made to taste more delicious and how you could prepare it to taste better.

Last January when I was here one of the biggest concerns before we left for our isolated location in the mountains was what would be done about food, with not an eyelid batted with the mention that we would have no communication with the outside world for seven days.

It is an obsession here. Be that a good or bad thing.

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