Friday, January 29, 2010 0 comments

Book Review: Times Past in Korea

Title: Times Past in Korea
Author: Martin Uden 
Paperback: 371 pages
Publisher: Routledge (2009)
ISBN-13: 9780415548809

This collection of old clippings, articles, travel journals, personal correspondence and the like compose the rather thick 371 page book Times Past in Korea. What should make anyone pick up this book compiled by the British Ambassador to Korea is largely up to the reader and his or her goal. If it is one's goal to get a frank look into what foreigners were commenting on over a hundred years ago then this book is most certainly for you.

The collection is laid out like an old travelogue. Although the source materials are taken from the 1600s to almost the 1920s, the book is organized by day and month, not by year. For example, the book starts in January 1895 and then jumps to 1904, 1884, 1930 and so on. While the author explains that it is understandably impossible to lay out a perfectly balanced "one entry per day of the day" format, this does become a bit confusing as one paragraph mentions the Japanese colonial minister visiting and the next paragraph is describing a bunch of Dutchmen stranded in the Hermit Kingdom without a regard to any colonial power whatsoever. If you are familiar with your Korean history and are able to mentally switch between periods, it's not a problem. However, for the uninitiated, it's likely enough to drive you crazy.

As clearly stated, the book is not an interpretative study by any means. It's simply a collection of hard-to-find mentions of Korea from the author's extensive personal collection. Knowing this ahead of time, I was pleasantly surprised to find foreigners being just as idiotic a hundred years ago as some are today. To their credit and to balance out some of the more crude statements of ethnic superiority, there are a surprisingly large amount of modern parallels still valid today. It's almost shocking to find so many things have not changed, at least on the surface.

All in all, this book is a great addition to any Korean history book collection, if that's what you're doing - collecting. It's a bit pricey and even harder to find outside of Korea. The original publishing date is back in 2003 which might account for how hard it is to find, but even when found, roughly fifty American dollars is a lot to throw down for a glorified snapshot largely devoid of photographs and character. However, I must be honest and say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading what missionaries, diplomats, adventurous vacationers and other passerbys had to say about Korea a hundred years.

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This month, I had the privilege to attend an open lecture hosted by the Royal Asiatic Society and led by Martin Uden about his book. The ambassador was gracious enough to entertain a few questions including mine about the curious layout of the book. He talked a bit about the book and showed some of the more interesting and photographically appealing excerpts. A stand up guy all around.
Thursday, January 28, 2010 0 comments

Book Review: Korea through Western Eyes

Title: Korea through Western Eyes
Author: Robert D. Neff, Sunghwa Cheong 
Paperback: 434 pages
Publisher: Seoul National University Press (2009)
ISBN-13: 9788952110039

This polished collection of over thirty short stories about Korea around the late 1800s and early 1900s is a treasure. In a field where academics rule and accessibility is limited to skewed ancient historical journals, Korean War veteran memoirs and horror stories from North Korea, this book is a much needed breath of fresh air about foreigners in Korea.

Neff takes a very honest approach to his book. His research skills are quite evident as he cites scores of newspaper articles, personal correspondence and travel journals. When he makes a claim, it's backed up and sometimes even runs counter to what has been previously published. Although I'm sure the author is not actively looking to debunk popular myths, the book does come off as brutally honest though decidedly neutral in terms of historical interpretation. Inadvertently, some myths get debunked in the process.

If you are looking for some juicy history that has nothing to do with Korea's distinct four seasons, kimchi or dokdo than you've found your book. It's filled with many firsts introduced to Korea such as electricity, streetcars, foreign-owned gold mines and western military advisors; not to mention some of the most scandalous foreigners Korea has ever seen. Historians and casual readers alike will appreciate the readability of this one-of-a-kind text.

As I try to be critical of all books by presenting both positive and negative points, I must say that the only thing I would have preferred is more Korean language when mentioned in the script. As an avid discriminator to English romanization, I would have preferred if romanized words are used that the corresponding Korean words in parenthesis would also be used. As this doesn't come up often, it's not a huge gripe and small potatoes considering that it is the only complaint I have. Furthermore, it's quite a personal one that may not be shared by all.

Finally, I must also note that the photos included are quite impressive and very relevant to stories told. The overall design of the book is practically flawless. It's just an overall impressive presentation full of humor, sadness, debauchery and curiously relevant parallels to modern times. Don't let this one pass you by.

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Full disclosure: I'm a huge fan of Robert Neff and his works. I eat up his writings wherever they may be published. I think he is one of the most talented researchers out there and although he writes for such a niche market, one would be hard-pressed to rival his works.

Anyways, this was a book that I was anxiously awaiting and it did not disappoint. I burned through it within a week and look forward to his next efforts. I'm a Neffie.

Also, here's a short review from the Korea Times although I'm not sure that she actually read it. Does anyone else get that feeling from her writeup?

NOTE: This book finally laid to rest my morbid curiosity of George Lake; a poor excuse of a human being that Neff first wrote about back in 2008. His story is enough to buy the book.
Monday, January 4, 2010 0 comments

Book Review: Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea, 1910-1945

Title: Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea, 1910-1945
Author: Hildi Kang
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Cornell University Press (October 20, 2005)
ISBN-10: 0801472709
ISBN-13: 978-0801472701

This is exactly what you want this type of book to be. Surprising, eye-opening, reliable, well-edited and jaw-dropping. If you are the least bit curious as to why your Korean grandmother hates all things Japanese, pick this book up. If you are in the pursuit of scholarly research and you need some oral history recollections, these are gold. The author has done extremely well in translating, arranging, presenting and setting historical context for each chapter.

Some stories are just a paragraph long while others go one for pages. Despite the sample being taken from elderly Koreans living in the American west coast, the people interviewed are amazing diverse and well-represented. The stories are captivating, earnest and beautifully told. I can't imagine how the stories must have sounded in the original language because the English translation is simply breathtaking.

The reader may find it unusual to hear that many Koreans became civilized or even friends with Japanese living in their towns during this period. The honesty of the interviewees runs counter to the widespread belief that all Japanese were zealous conquerors bent on world domination. Don't misunderstand, some of the stories indeed paint a terrible picture in terms of cultural repression, but as mentioned before, the book is well-balanced.

My only disappointment was the short length of the book. That's it. It's readable by anyone with a passing interest in Japanese colonial history. It's what you want - a collection of stories that completes any academic background you might have read.

Simply a gem.

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This is one of those books that makes you pat yourself on the back for buying. The preface bares the books possible shortcomings and prepares the reader for a honest look at some of the most difficult times experienced by Koreans in modern times.

Another reviewer might give you a better idea of what to expect.