Sunday, December 18, 2011 0 comments

Book Review: Chain of Amber

Title: Chain of Amber
Author: Mary Linley Taylor
Softcover: 169 pages
Publisher: The Book Guild Ltd (1992)
ISBN-10: 0863326064
ISBN-13: 978-0863326066

Mary Linley Taylor was an amazing woman who lived an extraordinary life. This book is her post-humously published autobiography which primarily focuses on her life in Korea in the early 1900s with her husband, gold mining entrepreneur and foreign correspondent Albert Wilder "Bruce" Taylor.

Mary's journey starts with her privileged upbringing in England and moves to her involvement with an international acting company which brings her to India, Japan and eventually, "settles" in Korea. Her sunny disposition combined with a feisty rebellious streak provides the reader with plenty of witty observations and humorous anecdotes. Indeed, Mary had remarkable experiences all over the peninsula. Her interactions both with notable Koreans and distinguished foreigners are testament to her character. A fearless traveler, she traversed dangerous mountain trails, roughed it in gold mining camps, and even traveled to England via Siberia; clearly she was resilient for a lady of her social standing. Furthermore, she was compassionate to Koreans and held an atypical affinity for her adoptive home away from home.

Having been well educated, her writing is thoroughly readable and detailed for being collected from her personal diary. For example, a charming reoccurring theme surrounds her lifelong attraction to amber and is used throughout the book. Taylor was also an accomplished artist and her sampled work is impressive. Although sparse, the illustrations and photos included illuminate her narrative and give life beyond mere description to many of her friends and locations.

A criticism I should point out includes her frustratingly lack of dates in many of her entries. It's difficult to pinpoint when exactly certain events occurred. Otherwise, there's sufficient surrounding context. Another gripe is the book's limited British pressing; this isn't an easy book to find.

Chain of Amber has plenty excitement, romance and tragedy to go around. Mary was an integral member of the Seoul foreign community for years and this book is her lasting legacy. Her exciting life abroad can be optimistically summed up in her own words: "These are the experiences that lend a fairy-tale quality to life in the Orient. In some ways, one gets so much more than one expects and, in others, so much less than what one counts on, that life is filled with infinite variety". Perhaps more poignant of a close comes from her last chapter "...a longing came to me to share my life experiences with others...the thought crystallized into a need...'I'll write a book,' I said out loud, 'whether anyone reads it or not.'"

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I pulled another "If you give a mouse a cookie". After I finished Chain Of Amber, I noticed that Mrs. Taylor did not have a wikipedia entry, despite plenty of information available. So, I created a rough startup page that I hope grows into a proper reference over time.

I can't remember who or what encouraged me idea to pick up this book, but I was pleasantly surprised to finally get around to reading it. I worried that it would be full of hoity-toity judgments of barbaric Koreans but it couldn't be further from that. It's an amazing memoir. For one, Mrs. Taylor lived an adventurous life, wrote of her experiences with great emotion and left behind a wonderful testimony of her travels. Also, we share the same birthday.

I was amused at how many of her observations from almost a hundred years ago are still relevant today. Here is one especially funny observation about Engrish advertisements in Japan:
  • "The shop signs seemed funnier than ever to me that day: Tom Cock-Eye, the tailor, advertised in English, The Monkey Jacket Make for Japanese; a ladies' tailor sign read: Ladies have fits upstairs, there was also a photographer's sign which read: Photographer Executed Here, and a barbor shop announced that he was, A First Class Head Cutter." (p.34)
I was surprised to discover that their old house is still standing in Jong-no. Had I known that, I would have visited it when I lived in Seoul. Oh well, something to look forward to next time we visit.

There's also a short documentary floating around out there about the house called Mr. Taylor’s House by Mi-Jin Lee and Se Mee Kim of Bassim Media. I can't find it online yet, but it sounds fascinating by the description:
  • "There is an old fashioned, western type house in the center of Seoul, South Korea. We are going to meet people who once lived in this house and people who still live in the house. We will follow three of them: an American family, the Taylors who built the house in 1923 and the 92 years old son (Bruce Taylor) who spent his childhood in this house. We will also meet 82 years old inhabitant, Jeong, Wooyoung who has been living in the room, used to be a Taylor’s study for about 40 years and a 28 year-old young man, Choi, Sunghoon who recently moved into this house. Through these people’s personal stories with the house, we will get to know a fascinating aspect of Korea, its momentous history and its future."
Lastly, and most interestingly, while searching for references I was very pleasantly surprised to see that her son has written his own memoir. I surely am going to pick this one up, too.
Thursday, December 15, 2011 0 comments

Book Review: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Title: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Author: Barbara Demick
Softcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (December 29, 2009)
ISBN-10: 0385523904
ISBN-13: 978-0385523905

Award-winning journalist Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times' triumphantly successful Nothing to Envy uncovers a romantically human side of North Korea and her disenchanted citizens. Surrounding six multifarious North Koreans' dramatic, decades-long oral histories are brilliantly told starting from humble, loyal beginnings to eventual controversial defection. This memorable documentation of ordinary citizens and their amazing survival through unspeakable danger and life-altering trauma is requesting only a receptive audience.

The reader gains a truly well-rounded viewpoint of the times from six different perspectives. From the propped-up and powdered Pyongyang façade to the gritty and industrial Chongjin rail yards, this overarching story starts in the homes of many ordinary citizens who survived countless obstacles growing up in the notoriously restrictive The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). Some fortunate few were hand-picked to attend prestigious universities while others had practical duties to provide for their families any way possible. Others still, like homeless children infamously known as "kotjebi" (꽃제비), wondered the streets in packs and stole to survive.

Among the personal anecdotes include a dumbfounded medical physician's practical denial of Kim Il-sung's 1994 death. Also, seemingly regardless of social class and family backgrounds, all eventually felt the squeezing grip of famine sweeping across the country in the late 1990s known as the Arduous March. It was through this increasingly inescapable reality that survival became paramount included any and all options; no matter how illegal or dangerous. Each story's journey is more astonishing than the last. Most satisfying is when the reader finds out what they have been up to since the original manuscript was constructed.

Demick's writing style evokes a pleasantly familiar tone. While reading, I drew respectable comparisons to John Hersey's groundbreaking classic Hiroshima. Lo and behold, Demick was a student of Hersey's which makes Nothing to Envy a successful nod of appreciation to his tutelage. Like Hiroshima, you'll find a similar chronological pacing of alternating narrators as well as develop a personal attachment to the people who tell their remarkable journey in amazing lucidity.

I can recommend this book without reservation as it will obviously appeal to human rights minders, North Korean experts looking for oral history reports, and a handful of academics interested in totalitarian dictatorships, wide-spread economic systems failure, and human trafficking. I also want to earnestly suggest this book for the intimate character-driven narratives that appeal to any and all. You feel for this people. You realize that they are no different than any other ordinary people born into extraordinary circumstances. Some were disillusioned with their government from the get-go while others were staunch supporters of their ideology. For better or for worse, their sincere stories are unabashedly told here.

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For those that can stomach their sadness, you are rewarded with their joys. I was reminded of 2008's 크로싱 (Crossing). For those who have seen it, you have any idea of what to expect.

I applaud Ms. Demick for her well-deserving work.
Monday, December 12, 2011 0 comments

Book Review: Pioneer American Businessman in Korea

Title: Pioneer American Businessman in Korea: The Life and Times of Walter D. Townsend
Author: Harold F. Cook
Softcover: 104 pages
Publisher: Royal Asiatic Society Korean Branch (July 20, 1981)
ISBN-10: 8993699119
ISBN-13: 978-8993699111

Harold Cook's final publication reads more smoothly than his exhaustive exposé Korea's 1884 Incident: Its Background and Ok-kyun's Dream. As an adaptation from his doctoral thesis, suppose it should be massive. However, Pioneer American Businessman in Korea was published almost ten years later and is much more pragmatic without compromising Cook's trademark investigative writing style.

As the title suggests, this is a thorough biography of occidental businessman Walter Townsend (1856-1918). Like Dr. Cook, Townsend was a successful businessman in both Japan and Korea. Packed into this slim book is the definitive story of Townsend's successes and failures which are intermittently woven into pertinent members of the foreign community in Korea of the time. From his meager beginnings as a wristwatch salesman for an American trading company in Yokohama to setting up his own import and export business in Chemulpo (present day Incheon), Townsend's tale is truly remarkable. Cook pulls no punches as not only to dig into Townsend's documented past but goes further by including an appendix of the extended Townsend family heritage.

Among the author's admirable writing qualities is his frank honesty. When certain holes of data were regrettably not available or could not be clarified, Cook openly admits their absence and instead allows the reader to speculate. These courteous gestures appear often and are appreciated. Considering that Townsend left only two remaining pieces of personal correspondence, Cook likely had a difficult time telling his tale, however this comes off as of no consequence. The portrait Cook paints is remarkably extrapolated considering his limited resources of the time. Keep in mind that this book was conceived well before the convenience of having readily available research on the Internet. Ironically, this book, which claims to follow the life of a single overseas businessman, is more detailed and varied than Intrepid Americans, Bold Koreans, a book with a similar premise written decades later that claims to cover several early entrepreneurs.

Another intriguing writing quirk Cook employs is a frequent use of French and Latin phrases. Many of these sparingly sprinkled phrases are charming cognates such as "laissez-passer" and "chargé d'affaires" while others such as "sine prole" and "inter alia" are not sufficiently identifiable without proper context. A Latin ignoramus like myself was left begrudgingly scratching my head and mumbling mea culpa.

Sadly, this book is increasingly difficult to obtain outside of Korea. Reprints are fortunately available from the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch, with whom Cook was actively involved in during his time in Korea. Also, save for one slightly overexposed portrait of Townsend, this book contains no illustrations. This is a shame because seeing early Chemulpo would have been an appropriate visual treat.

Harold Cook surely felt an entrepreneurial instinct to pen a book about a captivating businessman who braved cultural misunderstandings and financial roadblocks only to emerge as a long-standing, successful foreign resident in Korea. Townsend was truly a pioneer and could not have asked for a better biographer.
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I seldom do this, but I contacted the author's family in hopes of understanding the brilliant man that Dr. Cook was. It seems that this obituary notice is the closest thing I can find online about his life. I hope that through correspondence, I can find more about the man who left such an indelible mark on Korea's history.
Sunday, December 11, 2011 0 comments

Book Review: Intrepid Americans: Bold Koreans

Title: Intrepid Americans: Bold Koreans--Early Korean Trade, Concessions, And Entrepreneurship
Author: Donald Southerton
Softcover: 169 pages
Publisher: iUniverse, Inc. (October 21, 2005)
ISBN-10: 0595370683
ISBN-13: 978-0595370689

International business consultant and author of A Yankee in the Land of the Morning Calm, Don Southerton aims to present a look into early examples of American entrepreneurship in Korea. However, the unique title's ambition might leave more questions than answers.

At only 169 pages in length, Intrepid Americans, Bold Koreans essentially revolves around the professional career of one such American businessman, Henry Collbran, as well as the ill-fated tale of American "pirate" ship, the General Sherman. Both are covered in moderate detail but venture little outside of their immediate impact on history.

Hollbran's story is fascinating and fortuitous. The road to the lucrative goldmining concessions that he obtained with his partner, Harry Bostwick, through the influence of diplomat Dr. Horace Allen were certainly worthy of note. His good fortune is carefully mapped out and delightful to follow. However, the narrative is short and doesn't delve into other businessmen of the time who certainly had remarkable stories to tell.

The infamous General Sherman narrative, while entertaining and well-constructed, includes debatable historical inaccuracies. Southerton claims that after the crew was killed in 1866, the ship was returned to America and eventually sunk outside Wilmington, North Carolina in 1874; unfortunately, this is not a widely accepted fate. The story of the ship's involvement in Korea is fascinating but its history is frustratingly convoluted. For one, the Sherman was once known as the USS Princess Royal. Another problem is that there were numerous ships with the same name built around the same time. For example, one was a mammoth 774 ton screw steamboat while the another was a 187 ton tinclad river gunboat.

Furthermore, the topic of early Korean businessmen is hardly covered at all. Despite being part of the book's title, Southerton barely mentions Korean businessmen; Yi Chae-yon (이채연) of Seoul Electric Company and Doosan Group founder Park Seung-jik (박승직) are only cursory mentioned. Unlike the Collbran and the General Sherman chapters, no such detail is found in the Korean chapter.

Thankfully, the included appendixes and endnotes are helpful, welcome resources for further research. Also, the numerous pictures and charts that Southerton include are appropriate and greatly enhance the narrative. However, some illustrations are clumsily laid out away from the surrounding text, forcing a lone photo to occupy an entire page. It's a small but obvious visual compliant.

The end result is merely a quick glance into the subject. I was disappointed in the book's short length, because what is there is mostly good stuff. Intriguing contents notwithstanding, what you get doesn't encompass the book's broad title. If you're interested in how Koreans interacted with early American entrepreneurs, this isn't what you're looking for. I had high hopes but was ultimately disappointed. The author has had a successful career in Korea and is capable of writing a much more thorough work than what has been published.

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Fortunately, there's lots of other examples of Southerton's work that can be found on his company's publication page including free ebooks such as this bilingual history of Chemulpo (Incheon). I wish Southerton would have put a more polished product out because I did like what he had to say, however brief it was. I'm still looking forward to checking out his historical fiction, though.