All Posts byMitchell Blatt

About the Author

Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist based in China. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, The Hill.com, City Weekend, and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.

Oct 06

Silkworm pupae, urine fish, and farmer’s wine: A meal to remember in Korea’s culinary capital

By Mitchell Blatt | Drinking , Food and Leisure , Korea , Local Politics

Koreans have a saying, “Eat once in Jeonju, and you’ll be spoiled for life.” The city of 600,000, which is the capital of North Jeolla province, is a UNESCO Creative City for its gastronomical heritage.

On a visit this past July, I was excited to taste Jeonju’s legendary fare. So why, when I went with two Koreans to a famous dining district, was I staring down at a plates full of silkworm pupae, jelly made of smashed acorns, and a fish that has been fermented in its own urine?

We were at the Jeonmun Makgeolli Town, one of seven makgeolli towns prominently featured on tourism maps. Makgeolli is a Korean “farmer’s wine” made from rice and traditionally served in bowls. It has a reputation as being an honest, working man’s drink. It’s a drink that old men drink straight from the plastic bottle outside convenience stores at 3 in the afternoon. In fact, the national security law during the period of military rule was jokingly called the “Makgeolli Security Law” because so many people were arrested for things they said in casual conversation.

Magkeolli bottles photographed by Jeon Han of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service.

Magkeolli bottles photographed by Jeon Han of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service.

In short, makgeolli seemed to me to be a representative drink for the progressive stronghold of Jeolla, which was the site of both the 1894 Donghak Peasant Rebellion in Jeonju and the 1980 Gwangju Uprising to the south.

The restaurant we chose, Yeongjinjib Makgeolli, was loud like the Jeonju people, and the walls were covered in Korean graffiti. For about 6,000 won (US$5.30) each guest, a table gets six dishes per person of food and a brass kettle of the milky yellow liquor—a good deal, considering the more extravagant hanjeonsik royal feast can set you back 90,000 won.

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After a waitress covered our table with plates, my Korean friends encouraged me to take a bite of a sickly tan gelatin-like substance. It jiggled and limply fell apart in chopsticks. The taste wasn’t good either, but I washed it down quickly with a gulp of sweet makgeolli. Later they told me it was dotori-muk (acorn jelly), which is what you get when you mash the innards of acorns into powder and then boil it into unappetizing squares.

Next on the menu was beondegi (silkworm pupae). The round fat insects had bodies the brownish color of nature, with eight clearly segmented outer body sections. A dirty brown liquid covered the bottom of the plate and glistened off the pupae’s bodies. They looked like bugs from a Hayao Miyazaki film.

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While relatively flavorless, the texture of beondegi is another story. My teeth came down and there was no crunch but rather a gooey, chewy sensation that almost had me retching. One pupae was enough, and then a long sip of heavenly makgeolli.

Finally I saved the smelliest for last. The fish, hongeo (skate), excretes urine through its skin. For some reason, it is considered a delicacy especially in the southern part of Korea. Even drenched in hot sauce, a bite of hongeo still smelled like an outhouse as I brought it to my mouth. Of the three, hongeo had the best texture but the worst taste. I gagged it down and emptied my bowl of makgeolli.

Despite such extreme foods, I was starting to feel good vibes. Although makgeolli is just between 5 and 10 percent alcohol, it is carbonated, and it gets to you quick. I could kind of understand why urine-flavored fish is considered a perfect compliment to makgeolli; it makes you want to drink!

The rest of the foods I honestly enjoyed, but they all had one thing in common: heavy flavors. Whether it was sweet pumpkin, smoky mackerel, or seafood in spicy dipping sauces, each bite called for a drink to clear the palate.

Eating once in Jeonju is something I’ll remember for life.

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Sep 30

Is bike sharing trashing the streets?

By Mitchell Blatt | China

Bike sharing is fueling an entreprenuerial explosion in China, and Chinese consumers love riding short distances without having to buy their own bikes. Big companies like Mobike and ofo have already gone global, expanding into Britain and the United States respectively and other countries.

But walking down the street last week, a friend put a different perspective on it. She said it’s kind of like trash on the street.

Once hearing that description, I started noticing bikes everywhere I walked. Already the streets of China are pretty cluttered with privately-owned motorcycles and bikes parked alongside street vendor’s carts. Now rental bikes, which can be dropped off anywhere, add another element.

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Whole sidewalks are blocked.

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The city of Shanghai is thinking about introducing “e-parking lots” to control where bikes can be parked. Earlier this year, Shanghai confiscated thousands of bikes.

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Sep 12

The subways smell like waffles — 6 unique (but small) things about Korea

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Korea

Living in a foreign country for months, you notice a lot of differences from your home country big and small. At first, the smallest things are exciting and worthy of comment. (I even wrote an article Korean convenience stores!) Just walking down the street or going to a market is an adventure. Later, you become accustomed, and it takes a lot more to interest you.

In Korea, there are the obvious cultural differences: taking shoes off inside, suana (jjimjirbang) culture, Kpop, weird karaoke videos, and college drinking parties

There are also so many small things I had been wanting to write about, but which couldn’t fill a whole article, so I will combine some:

Christmas Decorations Up Year-Round at Restaurants

Walk down the street in a leisure district anytime of year and pay attention to the windows of bars, arcades, and other joyous places, and you will find snowflake decals, jingle bells, Christmas trees, and maybe even an image of Santa or two. Korean businesses love Christmas imagery, even though a minority of Koreans are Christian.

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This decorative style isn’t limited to Korea, however. Christmas decorations are also prevalent in China, a country whose government is antagonistic towards religion. Playing pool one evening in August in the southernmost resort town of Sanya, I asked my Chinese compatriot, “Why is Santa on the wall?” She said it was probably because the big, jolly, smiling man gave customers a happy feeling.

Apartment Blocks All Look the Same and are Branded

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Photo from Wikipedia, by user Thomiccor. CC 3.0.

Photo from Wikipedia, by user Thomiccor. CC 3.0.

Photo by Samuel Orchard. Via Wikipedia and Flickr. CC 2.0.

Photo by Samuel Orchard. Via Wikipedia and Flickr. CC 2.0.

Photo from Wikipedia, user ahflahxh. CC 2.0.

Photo from Wikipedia, user ahflahxh. CC 2.0.

Food Waste Separated from Trash

My first morning after eating breakfast in a guesthouse, I was taken aback by all the labeled trash bags and the process by which we were supposed to separate food. You can’t (or, rather, aren’t supposed to) throw food waste away in the ordinary trash in Korea. Instead, people should put food in special bags they have to pay for, and food waste is used for composting and biomass.

Many Koreans and residents of Korea find this annoying. A measure of the dissatisfaction is the piles of trash bags and boxes on street corners. Lots of people drop their trash off and then pile trash upon trash. The Korea Times also points to a lack of trash cans as a reason for waste on the street.

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Smell of Waffles in Subway Station

Walking down the halls of a subway station to make a transfer, a sweet smell wafts in the air. Waffles. Waffles and coffee are often sold together in in Korea, and waffle-coffee shops are frequently located within subway stations.

Batting Machines in Every Consumer Leisure Area

A common image at night is seeing drunk Korean men circled around a punching machine comparing the power of their fists. These games have a bag attached to a lever to be punched, or a soccer ball to be kicked, and they’re often located outside of arcades or batting cages.

Punching Machine

Speaking of batting cages, mini-bating cage games are also easy to find. Called “home run rooms” in Korea (홈런방), the machine shoots 10-15 pitches from 20 or so meters out for 2000 won (US$1.80) or so, and a sensor measures how hard the batter hit it and gives points for “singles”, “doubles”, “triples”, and “home runs.”

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When you sing karaoke, you are being watched

One night I sang karaoke with a Korean guy, and we snuck a bottle of soju into the room, which we were periodically drinking from the bottle. About halfway into our hour-long KTV session, the door opened, and a hand came in and swiped our soju before we knew what was happening. The hand of a karaoke hall “waitress.” Did they have a camera in the room filming us drinking? Why did it take them so long to catch us? They didn’t demand we buy anything or pay a fee. Of course karaoke halls want to keep outside drinks out, but that’s the first time anywhere I had been caught drinking after I successfully smuggled drink in.

Medical and Legal Elitism

There are three elite universities in Korea, and if a doctor or lawyer graduated from one, they really want you to know it. Professionals place the emblem of their prestigious alma matters on their windows and doors with pride in order to attract business. The logos that a traveler to Seoul will notice most often are those of Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. Together the top three universities are referred to as SKY.

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Americans might call it “elitist,” but just like the Korean Constitutional Court, the U.S. Supreme Court is made up almost entirely of law graduates from its elite universities—the Ivy League. Americans just don’t wear their school logos on their chest. “Ivy Leaguer” is used as a term of derision in political discourse. Considering the state of American politics, the attacks on successful people and the crisis of anti-intellectualism and “alternative facts,” maybe there is something to be said for the Korean way.


Bonus: Korean celebrity fan ads

Enter any subway station, and you will notice young Korean heartthrobs plastered on the wall ads. Often the ads wish a happy birthday or congratulations. Kstars are so loved by their Korean and foreign fans that they will actually pool money together to buy ads. At the bottom of an ad, sometimes you can see the names of Chinese fan clubs who paid for it.

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One Chinese fan even paid close to $10,000 to place an ad in the Choson Ilbo congratulating a member of a group on winning an award. Fan groups say they like putting ads on the subways in high-traffic, high end stations like Gangnam, because they think their idols might actually see them there.

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After the ads go up, often fans will place handwritten notes.

Fan Notes

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Jun 30

Staid tourism promotionals leave out the vibrant culture

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Local Politics

I edited and wrote promotional information about the Blue House countless times before I went. Korea’s home and office of the president–its White House–it was listed on almost all of the tours offered by travel agency clients of one of my past jobs. So I already wasn’t expecting much before I went, knowing how these group tours with travel agencies oversell everything. I left even more disappointed with the advertised product than I had expected but happily pleased with what wasn’t advertised.

Blue tiles in front of a beautiful mountain… Garden path… Outside, a museum about the rich history of Korean presidents…

The Blue House is not far from where I’m living–just 10 subway stops, including one transfer–so I decided I might as well see one of the most famous political sites in the country. I hoped I could at least see the famous blue tiles. But it was not to be.

Not quite the famous view.

Not quite the famous view.

The emblematic house is hidden behind a dull grey complex of stone blocks and columns. The main building of the Reception Center isn’t ugly, but it’s not something worth expending much effort to see. Where is the Blue House, I thought? Only from the second floor of the museum can visitors see the part of the roof edging out behind the triangular roof of the front building.

The museum itself could hardly be called a presidential museum. On the first floor, there was a display of 100 of the Korean Tourism Agency’s most favored tourist sites in the country organized by region and mapped. Useful for long-term travelers looking for inspiration, but not very information about the office of the presidency.

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The top floor had a replica presidential desk for photo-ops and a virtual reality game where visitors could pretend to be secret service agents protecting the president. A camera tracked the movements of participants who had to hit threats like drones and grenades with their hands. The sign said, “Photo Zone of Presidential Security Service.”

Xi Jinping's message in the Blue House guestbook.

Xi Jinping’s message in the Blue House guestbook.

The section containing pages from the Blue House guestbook signed by foreign political and business leaders was interesting. There I learned Barack Obama has good handwriting and is more verbose than most foreign leaders; Larry Page has terrible handwriting; and Xi Jinping supports gender equality: he had his wife Peng Liyuan sign as well.

Larry Page's handwriting

Larry Page’s handwriting

What did capture my interest was the scene outside: Along the road from Gwanghwamun Square to the Blue House, Korean men stood with large signs with fiery slogans. Many of them wore hats, sunglasses, arm sheaves, and workmanlike clothes. They looked blue collar.

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Indeed, most of the protesters had grievances with corporations and sprawling family-owned mega-conglomerates with interests in multiple industries, known in Korean as chaebols. Hyundai and Hankook Tires were under attack on separate signs for closing bases of operations. A few blocks away from the central square, a paper mache model of Hyundai Chairman Chung Mong-koo sat next to photos of a Kia worker who had made complaints about working conditions before committing suicide.

The expansive nature of chaebols means they are often under fire for multiple scandals at the same time. No company exemplifies scandal better than Samsung: It’s president, Lee Jae-yong, is in jail, awaiting trial, for alleged involvement in the bribery scandal that brought down South Korea’s last president, Park Geun-hye. Other protesters raised the years-long scandal over Samsung’s treatment of more than 200 workers who contracted leukaemia, lupus, and other diseases while working in a chip factory that exposed them to dangerous chemicals. While Samsung had agreed to pay out 100 billion won (US$85.8 million in 2015), the group Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry accuses the company of denying information about working conditions to this day.

(Chaebols often being family affairs, “Jay Lee” was in a way following in the footsteps of his father Lee Kun-hee, who was convicted on charges of tax evasion in 2009.)

protesters in front of fountain

I talked with one protester who was holding the anti-Hyundai sign. I could tell he probably spoke English because he was young and was wearing an Arizona University hat. He did. He said he was protesting the planned closing of a Hyundai Heavy Industries plant in his hometown, Gunsan, North Jeolla province. Hyundai Heavy Industries is facing pressure from a slump in the global shipbuilding market, but local politicians and labor activists want the government to intervene, offering subsidies or other incentives. President Moon has met with the governor ahead of the planned June 1 closing.

“Jeolla people like to protest,” I said as a complement. He nodded.

South Jeolla province was the birthplace and constituency of democracy activist Kim Dae-jung, whose imprisonment in 1980 inspired the residents of Gwangju to take over the city and form militias, before being suppressed by the military, an event that influenced Korea’s path to democracy. Kim would become Korea’s third-democratically elected president in 1998 and make strides towards national reconciliation.

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After a few minutes he had to go. Down the street, a group of labor activists slept behind a police line and a banner that called for the repeal of “evil laws.” A kilometer or so down the road, union members marched down one lane of the street and bowed to the pavement in unison every few meters.

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The impression I came away with from my visit to the Blue House wasn’t that which the guidebooks impress on readers. It was far from what the tourism promoters want you to read. No, it was better than expected. I came away with the impression of a Korea vibrant and free.

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May 16

How Korean students party at “one-day pubs” (일일호프)

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Drinking , Korea

May is the month of college parties in Seoul.

At 5 pm on a Friday night, May 12, students dressed in Hogwarts School of Wizardry cloaks were taping ribbons onto the street in Sinchon district, along with signs and arrows. Others dressed as characters from Hiyao Miyazaki films held signs advertising “one day pub” parties. Some intersections had six different ribbons crisscrossing leading to six different parties.

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May is the month of college parties, and Sinchon is the college party district.

On the northeast of the ring subway line around Seoul, Sinchon is located at the nexus of Yonsei University, Ewha Womens’ University, Seogang University, and Hongin University. Along these narrow streets, where neon lights adorn three-story shophouses, masses of young men and women walk to and from bars, karaokes, barbecue restaurants, burger shacks, Japanese izakayas, arcades, and cheap student guestrooms. Groups gather outside convenience stores drinking beer on the street or challenging each other to see how hard they can hit the Dragon Punch power game.

On any given weekend in the spring, there are always a lot of ribbons on the street. It’s perennially marked with green tape stuck to the pavement. But the parties really get going in May.

“Ewha Nursing,” a sign says. “Performance at 8:30.” One group has a raffle game on cardboard. I pick a post-it note and win a free order of chips with purchase of a drink if I attend their party.

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I don’t end up attending their party. Instead I and Pato Rincon, my classmate from Indiana University who is also in Seoul and is just getting started as a writer (read his debut piece for Bombs + Dollars), go to the event at Barfly held by Ewha University’s foreign studies students featuring their dance team. The pretty girl standing outside in baggy hip hop apparel wearing a bandana couldn’t have influenced my decision.

Inside, after paying a ₩5,000 (US$4.47) cover each, we bought beers for ₩4,000 each. The underground bar was dark with colored lights, red and green streaming lights, and bright Finlandia adverts. Most of the tables were reserved for Ewha students. Pato and I took a seat at the bar. Behind the counter, a bartender was pouring Barton vodka (on whose bottle the word “vodka” is written in larger letters than the brand name) through a funnel into empty Finlandia bottles and adding juice.

“This isn’t what I imagined when you said we were going to a college party,” Pato said.

After all, we had had the experience of drinking together at house parties in Bloomington. Not so in Seoul, where the population is dense and houses are smaller. Instead, students and other groups rent out pubs (known as “hof” (호프)) and have the place to themselves for a day or night. The practice is called “ir ir ho-pe” (일일호프), which means “one-day hof.”

Typically it is the freshmen or underclassmen (underclasswomen, more often, it seems) who host parties to connect with each other, earn money, or meet upperclass friends. The large number of parties hosted by women in Sinchon could be explained partially by the fact that Sinchon is so close to a few women’s universities, and the fact that female students are not surprisingly used to promote mixed parties. One person suggested it was a good way for Ehwa students to meet boys at other universities, such as Yonsei. But Yonsei students have hosted their own parties for particular groups, too, including the Yonsei hockey team.

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Students began lining up in front of a marked dance floor. Anticipating an event, we took places along the edge. Before long, Kpop began playing, and girls in hats and jackets, including the girl who was promoting at the door, came out to dance. Showing their power and precise dance moves, they earned big applause. They took off their jackets and top layers and confidently put their bodies on display for the next song.

With so many one-day hof parties going on at the same time, Pato and I didn’t stay too long. After a few separate dance teams, the dance performance was finished, and we went out for some pajeon and eventually to another student party. The next one was in another underground pub, with no cover, but rather a menu with various Korean comfort foods. We ordered spicy rice cakes.

When we were heading back home just after midnight, the same students who had put down ribbons a few hours before were tearing them off the road and rolling them up. Groups of people were milling around outside 7-11 and GS25, and guys were punching arcade games. Another week, and it will be all the same.

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May 11

The end of the last matriarchal tribe?

By Mitchell Blatt | Book Reviews , China , Culture , Literature

Singaporean debut author chronicles the Mosuo of Lugu Lake as they face modernity–and possible extinction

The Kingdom of Women by Choo Waihong, I.B. Tauris

Throughout western China, minority ethnic groups are throwing off their traditional clothing, trading horses for automobiles, and choosing to sing Mandopop songs in karaoke rooms instead of traditional ethnic songs. When economic modernization demands different skill sets from the people and commercialization breeds different desires, traditional culture goes by the wayside.

I saw that first hand in the Bai Autonomous Prefecture of Dali (Yunnan), the Shui Autonomous County of Sandu (Guizhou), and the Qiandongnan area of Southeastern Guizhou. These villagers have access to new and beneficial luxuries. They can find higher paying jobs at home, in neighboring cities, or in factories in Guangzhou. Still, they try to hang onto traditional culture for tourism as well as cultural reasons.

Choo Waihong saw this situation playing out among the Mosuo people in the Lugu Lake area. Choo lived there for six years, adopted Mosuo culture, and became a figure in the Mosuo community. She wrote about it in her book The Kingdom of Women, published this year by IB Tauris.

The book begins with scenes of breathtaking vistas along mountain roads until Choo arrives in the land of the Mosuo and looks upon the Gemu Mountain Goddess, a female mountain deity who is worshipped by locals. The next day after she arrives is Zhuanshanjie (转山节), or Gemu Mountain Goddess Festival. Choo describes a splendid, large scale event with locals dressed to the hilt in colorful, elaborately embroidered, traditional ethnic dress; dancing, eating, prayer with incense, flute music, and Tibetan llamas all situated around a tent village. It was this passionate atmosphere in this beautiful environment that enticed Choo and convinced her to have a home built there.

Once there, she felt at ease amongst a society where women’s status was respected—even venerated. The Mosuo people are a matrilineal society—sometimes referred to as matriarchal, although whether they really are is contested. The Mosuo people are often said to practice “walking marriages,” where a man can walk up to a woman’s room and be invited in and kicked out at her pleasure. I heard that phrase a lot when I lived and traveled in Yunnan, particularly in relation to tourism promotion there.

But in fact, as Choo explains, the practice isn’t really a marriage at all. Women choose axias, long-term relationship partners, who come over at night but live at their mother’s house most of the day. They have a limited, but not nonexistent, relationship with any children they father. A couple may stay together for a long time, maybe even a lifetime, but in most cases they eventually move on and the woman takes another axia, often giving birth to children from multiple axias. Children are raised mostly by the mother, grandmother, and others in the family. The men of the family do the manual labor and the killing of animals for their family (that of their mother and sisters and their sisters’ children), and the grandmother of the household is the ultimate arbiter of major decisions.

Choo says this system results in women having a higher status, more autonomy, and freedom from some of the patriarchal strictures that are particularly evident in rural China. Women are free from social stigma attached to sexuality. Every woman is essentially a single mother (with a family to help raise and provide for their children). Women are not reliant on men for room or resources. Also, Choo says, women’s voices and opinions are respected amongst the Mosuo in a way they weren’t at the high-power corporate law firm where she used to work.

There is no Western concept, no traditional Chinese concept, no English word for the relationships in Mosuo society. “Walking marriage” is adopted partially to describe to an uninitiated audience, but also for tourism purposes. Ethnic tourism has been a growing industry in western China, particularly as train lines get extended and dirt roads turn into two-lane highways. Locals open restaurants and inns. The residents, who otherwise have started to leave their traditional attire in the closet, take it out and wear it to dance in front of tourists. Boys drop out of high school in order to pursue a career as a waiter.

Over the years she lived there, Choo says, she saw the scope and enthusiasm participants brought to the Gemu Mountain Goddess Festival wane. She became so disappointed that one year she decided to fund it herself. With her 5,000 RMB (US$725) donation and the help of a hardworking Mosuo man, they put on a great festival. But how long can it last?

“In the blink of an eye, in the six years I have lived among this community, I have borne witness at first hand to how quickly they have moved from their subsistence-farming way of life to plug right into the new world as cogs in the burgeoning tourism industry of China,” Choo writes.

See also: Ethnic Culture Struggles to Survive in Guangxi, China

In the end she says many locals are forgetting their traditional culture and adopting perspectives of the nationally dominant Han culture. One of her goddaughters married a Han man and started a nuclear family. Some of the young, would-be liberated women now want to protect their “purity” for a marriage.

Economic growth has brought indoor-plumbing, hot showers, and washing machines to homes, but it has also caused status-seeking. Besides food, drink, and smokes, some young men have began indulging in hard drugs like opium and heroin, Choo writes in the final chapter.

I know well how entrancing the scenery of Yunnan can be and the culture of the local ethnic groups. While I spent a much shorter time—just three months—living and working in Dali, I often return in my mind to those stone streets and the special festivals I witnessed. The white-walled homes painted with black ink (a Bai style) are beautiful, but not the fact that students have to come from over 100 kilometers away to attend a decent school. Ultimately a life of backbreaking farm labor is not desirable. It’s not the romantic image portrayed in cultural shows and tourism brochures. But economic growth coming from outside too quickly can have destabilizing effects.

See also: Dali vs. Lijiang: The Paradox of Successful Ethnic Tourism Marketing

Choo ends on an optimistic note. Some traditions may break down, “But I do take comfort from the reflection that the last thing that will survive will be their core belief in the matrilineal principle,” she writes. How the Mosuo cope with modernity is a question that will play out, and similar questions will play out in ethnic enclaves and villages throughout China.

The Kingdom of Women is an entertaining contribution to literature on the topic, a look at far-flung culture and a beautiful land. It can be purchased in hardcover at Amazon for $16.51, as of this writing.

May 06

Why drunk Korean businessmen don’t make it to the sauna until 3 am

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Korea

It was Cinco de Mayo, and I and my university classmate who is now in Korea were on our ways home after having shots of tequila a few places in Seoul. Before I could transfer subway lines to complete my journey, the subway lines closed. In America, there would be one option: taxi/Uber. In Korea, you go to the jjimjilbang.

Jjimjilbangs are Korean suanas with hot tubs heated between 33 and 43 degrees Celsius (91-108 F), cold pools, and hot saunas and cold rooms where one can spend the night for 7,000 or 8,000 won (US$6-7). Customers take off their shoes and strip naked and go into sex-segregated bathrooms where they shower then relax in the pools. They are given pajamas to wear when sleeping on the floor.

Like us, there are many businessmen who stay out late drinking and don’t feel like going home. Drinking with bosses after work is a strong custom—and they keep the drinks flowing much later. When we arrived at the jjimjilbang in Mapo, we were the only ones there. The locker room was completely empty but for the manager. We had the hot pools all to ourselves. Two Koreans came in a little bit later. Still, by the time we went to bed a little after 1 pm, there were only two or three other people laying on mats, resting their heads on the hard square things that function as pillows, in the room up the stairs.

Waking up in and out a few times in the night, I noticed the room was completely full. Someone who was sleeping on a mat right up next to me rolled up against me. How did the place become so packed at 2 or 3 am? By the next morning, the locker room was bustling, and the pools were full of people.

There are two main clienteles for jjimjilbangs: Families and friends going for leisure, and people who stay out late. Three if you include the sub-category of people who get so drunk they can’t find their way to the sleeping quarters—let alone their own home—and then pass out on the floor of the locker room.

The clientele at this particular jjimjilbang appeared to be almost entirely people out drinking late. It wasn’t like the other jjimjilbang we had been that had fathers and sons in the pools at 8 pm. On the other hand, there was also no one passed out on the floor at 8 am. It must have attracted the successful businessmen who can hold their drinks.

The author in the cold room.

The author in the cold room.

May 02

Fyre Festival plagiarized Iranian-American astronaut Anousheh Ansari and had a man read her quote

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture

“The actual experience exceeds all expectations and is something that’s hard to put to words … It sort of reduces things to a size that you think everything is manageable … All these things that may seem big and impossible … We can do this. It gives people that type of power.”

Those are the words of Anousheh Ansari*, engineer, telecom executive, and the first self-funded female space traveler (and fourth overall).

Those are also the words that begin the Fyre Festival’s promotional video, as they are read in by a male voice out of a 1950’s radio broadcast.

The promotional video was not the only place Fyre used Ansari’s quote unsourced. Fyre also modified the quote for use in its hilarious slide presentation:

“The actual experience exceeds all expectations and is something that’s hard to put to words. It will IGNITE that type of ENERGY, that type of POWER in our guests.”

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Ansari herself has expressed her own empathy for people stuck at airport in February of this year at the Oscars. Standing in for Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who won his second Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for The Salesman, she read his statement. In part:

I’m sorry I’m not with you tonight. My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations whom have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the US.

*There is an article from 2007 by Space.com columnist Leonard David, which quotes Ansari, and the part about it being “something that’s hard to put into words” may be a paraphrase by David:

The actual experience “exceeds all expectations” and is something that’s hard to put to words, Ansari advised. “A lot of people say that diving is the closest thing to being weightless. It comes close, but still, it’s not the same.”

Ansari made her trip into space in September 2006.

May 02

The weird and wonderful American karaoke videos of South Korea

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Korea , Music

Go to the basement of a commercial building in Seoul, down the stairwell with a row of about a dozen signs with images of slender women, microphones, and hearts, and you will find yourself in a world of karaoke establishments. Inside a room with peeling rose-printed wallpaper, sit on the couch and order some old favorites after figuring out how to work the remote control selector. “Sweet Home Alabama” comes on, and a video of a snake charmer displays on the TV set.

“Sweet Home Alabama” in India. “Smoke on the Water” in China. “Empire State of Mind” at a rural train station in Korea. The videos that go with foreign songs in Korean karaokes can be strange.

Korean songs usually well-produced music videos made specially for the song, as do Chinese songs. But for American songs, the videos are just stock footage. As Kristin Hunt lays out in a history of karaoke videos, the American industry cut budgets and stopped producing original KTV videos in the ’90’s. Instead they have random scenes of beaches, underwater life, city life, nature, and many, many places around the world.

For songs about very specific locations or topics, the contrast between the lyrics and imagery can be funny.

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Smells Like Teen Spirit: There’s nothing you associate more with teenage angst and violence than a hot air balloon show.

One difference I can recall with karaoke in China is that most of the songs had real videos. The video for “Empire State of Mind” in China actually used video from the song being performed in concert.

Empire State of Mind: One difference I can recall with karaoke in China is that most of the songs had real videos. The video for “Empire State of Mind” in China actually used video from the song being performed in concert.

The Moon Represents My Heart: “The Moon Represents My Heart,” a Chinese love song that has been one of the most popular since the 1970’s, began with an Indian wedding, which seemed relevant enough.

The Moon Represents My Heart: “The Moon Represents My Heart,” a Chinese love song that has been one of the most popular since the 1970’s, began with an Indian wedding, which seemed relevant enough.

But then it quickly shifted to the Statue of Liberty and New York City.

But then it quickly shifted to the Statue of Liberty and New York City.

Is the stock footage selected at random? Or is there some kind of useless algorithm parsing the lyrics and connecting “Alabama” and homesickness to India?

It’s likely just a strange coincidence, but at two separate karaokes, they showed two separate videos for “Sweet Home Alabama,” both of which began with footage from India.

sweet home alabama
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Later the first video transitioned to the scene of a tropical beach resort.

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Although branded separately, the basement karaokes at this place appeared to be owned by the same people. Customers went to a different karaoke hall to pay. Each karaoke hall had about 3-5 rooms.  By contrast, in popular youth nightlife districts like Hongdae and Itaewon, there are a lot of flashy karaoke halls with many rooms, including rooms with large windows facing the main streets.

Although branded separately, the basement karaokes at this place appeared to be owned by the same people. Customers went to a different karaoke hall to pay. Each karaoke hall had about 3-5 rooms.



By contrast, in popular youth nightlife districts like Hongdae and Itaewon, there are a lot of flashy karaoke halls with many rooms, including rooms with large windows facing the main streets.

Apr 09

In 1967, China was “distasteful–though intriguing” and off limits to American tourists

By Mitchell Blatt | China , History , Travel

Used book stores are treasure troves of interesting books full of insights into the past. When I see a bunch of magazines, books, and dusty records piled up outside a cluttered secondhand book store, I can never help myself to look.
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So on Saturday, I discovered a 50 year old guidebook that claimed to tell about the whole world: the Encyclopedia of World Travel: Volume 2, published by Doubleday in 1967. (Volume 2 covers Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific. Volume 1 covers the Americas.)

1967 was one year after Mao Zedong began the violent class struggle that was the “Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution” and 18 years after the Communists had founded the People’s Republic of China. As you might imagine, there wasn’t much foreign travel to China. In fact, most citizens of the United States and many other countries were generally not allowed to enter China until China was opened in the 1970’s.

So the description of China begins by stating, “Travel is discouraged in the Communist People’s Republic of China…

In fact, many of the adventurous who have tried to enter China in recent years have been jailed. Some Westerners who had lived in the country for decades before the Communists seized control are still in prison, including doctors, businessmen, and even missionary priests and nuns. The former Government, an arch foe of the Communists, retains its hold on nearby Formosa [Taiwan, in modern reference] and other offshore islands.

Though travel in China is impossible for the present, it is interesting to know in broad outline the high points of the travels of others who journeyed across this vast land not too many years ago.

travel discouraged

What were those high points of travel? The book gives a general outline of the well-known facts about China’s geography and ancient history that you will find in other guidebooks. Society developed along the Yellow River and the Yangtze. East and South China are the main population centers. The populations even then were large by American standards of 2017:

The population of Shanghai is over ten million. Peking has well over six million.

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Now Shanghai’s population is over 20 million–24.1 million, according to China’s measure–and Beijing is 21 million. At the time, China’s population was majority rural. In 2012, China became majority urban.

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hanghai was described as a place of “squalor” and distastefulness.

Only in old Shanghai, which is walled no longer, did travelers see a Chinese city as it was centuries ago. Much of it was and is distasteful–though intriguing–to all but the sophisticated traveler who has long since learned Chinese cities are not what motion pictures would have you believe. In China’s cities, squalor is common, poverty almost a way of life.

China was a poor country back then–with a GDP per capita of US$95–and some of the scenes in the street still today unnerve recently arrived tourists. But the description carries with it a whiff of the old Yellow Peril imagery of Chinese as dirty hordes indulging in opium and depravity.

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n the realm of traditional culture, the book asserts that mainland China under the Maoist Communists had lost its traditions. If you want to see holidays like Spring Festival (New Year) and Dragon Boat Festival celebrated in “the grand old style,” you should visit Hong Kong and Formosa, “who carry on the traditions of their forefathers.”

chinese festivals not celebrated here

Indeed, the Communists attacked traditions during Mao’s rule. During the Cultural Revolution, “Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas” were labeled and denounced as the “Four Olds.” Besides restricting the celebration of traditional festivals, under the Maoist leadership and incitement, the Red Guards stormed libraries, burned books and artwork, and smashed temples.

Since tourism has returned and brought with it a bounty, the Chinese government, however, has emphasized its ancient sites and culture, rebuilding ancient sites, some that had been lost for hundreds of years, and putting government money behind elaborate cultural events. In 2008, China added Dragon Boat Festival, Qingming Festival (Tomb-sweeping Festival), and Mid-Autumn Festival to its official schedule of national public holidays.

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Mitchell Blatt is an intrepid travel writer, and an author of two top China guidebooks, who brings his readers deep into the cultures of the places he explores. Subscribe now to get real stories of real people in real places around the world delivered right to your inbox.