‘Seoulism’ Lures Foreigners Seeking New Challenges

“The number of foreign tourists in Korea has really grown.  Even rents have gone up.  I may have to move to another area,” laughed Canadian artist Paul Kajander, 34, as he looked out the window of his third-floor apartment in Seoul’s traditional neighborhood of Bukchon (Northern Village). Since coming to Korea three years ago, Kajander has been creating video installations. The Canadian settled in Seoul after several friends participating in the “Media City” exhibition at the Seoul Museum of Art in 2010 excitedly told him that Seoul was brimming with energy and cutting-edge art was being created. 

Yong Sin, a 29-year-old dancer from Malaysia who has spent the last six years in Seoul, echoed Kajander’s words, “In the dance world, both my Asian and European friends told me, ‘Go to Seoul now!  Seoul is the hottest and trendiest city in the art world.’”  

Seoul’s sudden status as a cultural hub for artists from around the world has generated a different inflow of foreigners. Unlike overseas fans of K-pop and Korean dramas who make short visits to Korea, the foreign artists are here to stay. According to the Korea Immigration Service at the Ministry of Justice, the number of foreign residents with cultural and performance arts visas was 5,987 as of August 2014, an increase of more than 1,000 since 2010.  They are mostly in their 20s, 30s and 40s and from culturally advanced countries. Americans and Europeans are the majority of them. 

These young artists cover a wide range of fields, including painting, design, architecture, photography and dance. They are the real reason for the rise of Seoul as an arts hub. They are helping to internationalize the arts scene here, thereby helping Korea’s entry into the global arts discussion and staging events that meet international standards.  

If we view the initial influx in the early 1990s from Southeast Asia as industrial trainees and ethnic Koreans from China as “economic migrants” here to earn money, then the recent arrivals can be seen as “cultural migrants.” Seoul’s dynamic culture has led to the rise of the term “Seoulism,” meaning the unique characteristics of Seoul as seen by foreigners. Seoulism also is the name of a webzine. Produced by international students, its content is written in Korean to give foreign perspectives to Koreans. 

◊ ‘Cultural Migrations’ to the ‘Land of Opportunity’
Foreign artists are of one voice in saying that Seoul is the “land of opportunity.” Fabio Peccarini, a 33-year-old photographer who spent eight years in London before coming to Seoul in April, insists, “Seoul is the right place for me as an artist.” While his wife being Korean was a factor, Peccarini says the real reason he came to Korea is that there are so many opportunities. “Global cultural centers like New York, London and Paris are so well developed that there is not enough room for unknown young artists to make a name for themselves,” he explained. 

Now that Seoul (and Korea) is in a cultural transition period of moving from the outer fringes of the art world to the center, the city is like a sponge soaking up the arts of the world. 

Malaysian dancer Yong Sin explained, “In other countries, there are only one or two dance-focused international festivals each year, but in Korea there are four or five. There are even lots of global auditions. You can see global dance trends in Korea and at the same time use Korea as a springboard for developing an international reputation.”    

Goethe Institut Seoul staff member Alexandra Lottje, 33, is experiencing firsthand Korea’s dramatic shift from a culturally barren place. She lived in Korea because of her father’s work from 1984-87 and then returned as an exchange student in 2002-03. She has been living in Korea since returning here in 2007 to undertake her graduate studies. “In the past, there were few foreigners who came to Korea of their own volition without having any personal or professional connections here.  But recently, the attractiveness of Korea’s dynamic culture has led several German architects and filmmakers to move here,” Lottje said.

◊ ‘Unfamiliar Seoul’ as Asia’s New Cultural Hideout
 Another point that foreign artists living here say they find attractive is that Seoul is unfamiliar. Karen MK, 44, an American novelist who has lived in Seoul for six years, said, “Western interest in East Asian culture has shifted from Japan to Korea. Tokyo is so familiar that it has become passe, while Beijing and Shanghai are considered dangerous places to live. Seoul is up to international standards as a place to live while at the same time having an exotic Asian culture. The number of artists here is increasing because they don’t have to worry about their safety, while their curiosity to try something different can be satisfied.”

German painter Ingo Baumgarten, a Hongik University Painting Department faculty member, has lived the past six years in Korea and spent the late 1990s in Japan. He observed, “In the 1980s and 1990s there was a positive spirit in Japan, but now Japan seems to have lost its dynamism. That cultural dynamism has shifted from Japan to Korea. Seoul is so dynamic that everything changes so quickly and this can be a problem.” He continued, “Many of my students start off being interested in the Korean Wave (hallyu) and Korean popular culture. This leads to them becoming fascinated by Korean design and architecture and the decision to try and enter those fields.”  

Seoul has also become a proving ground for some foreigners to take aim at Korea’s “cultural success.” Thai businessman Ammarit Aikwanich, 36, moved to Bangbae-dong’s Seorae Village to open the Thai restaurant “The Andaman.” Aikwanich’s father owns “Thainaan,” one of the biggest restaurants in Thailand. He declared, “If I can be successful in Seoul, the most culturally trendy city in Asia, that would be recognized on the global stage.”   

◊ Those Making Seoul a Global Cultural Hotspot
“When I first set foot in this country to visit a friend about 10 years ago, I was really shocked, but it was a good shock. Korea was suddenly at the top of the list of countries I wanted to work in.” These were the reflections of Open Books publishing company’s foreign literature team leader Gregory Limpens. For Limpens, 38, who is fluent in Korean, his first image of Korea was “the land of orphans.” That is because his nephew was adopted from Korea.  

Until Limpens had a Korean friend during his exchange student days in Germany in 1998, his information about and interest in Korea was essentially a blank piece of paper. Limpens recalled, “My Korean friend, British friend and I were like the `Three Musketeers.’ Ultimately, in order to reunite with my Korean friend, I made a 10-day trip to Korea in 2003. My goodness! I completely fell in love with the country!”  

With an interest in literature and copyrights, Limpens joined the law firm Kim & Chang in 2005 to work on copyright law cases. In 2008 he entered Open Books. With the command of six languages, Limpens has prepared 161 books for publication and published 105 of them so far. 

The impact of personal networks like Limpens’ cannot be excluded as an important factor beckoning foreigners engaged in culture and the arts to come to Korea. Millions of Koreans living all around the world have been at the heart of helping Korea become a cultural powerhouse on the world stage. In particular, unlike in the past, Koreans studying abroad today have more free time and overseas Koreans have entered mainstream society in their adopted countries. This is causing the image of Korea abroad to change.

Thai restaurant entrepreneur Aikwanich had an experience similar to Limpens’. While studying at a Swiss hotel school more than 10 years ago, he noticed his Korean classmates’ high level of competitiveness. One of the students he met at that time, Cha Seong-je, has become his business partner and they established the SR Company.  

Malaysian dancer Yong Sin said, “Back in 2005, I became fascinated with Koreans when I saw Professors Jeon Mi-suk and Yu Mi-na dance at an international dance festival in Malaysia. After three years of hard work, I was able to receive a government scholarship to study in Korea.”

In America’s fashion centers like New York and Hollywood, a succession of successful Koreans and Korean-Americans have been serving as a kind of bridge to the rest of the world. A representative example of this is Korean-American designer Carol Lim, who took the lead in creating the Opening Ceremony line of clothing for the Kenzo fashion house. She is constantly conducting exchanges with Cheil Industries and setting up pop-up stores in Korea and the United States to introduce new designers.

The power of Korean wives is also being put to work. Michelin starred restaurant chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten hosted the food documentary “Kimchi Chronicles” with the help of his Korean-born wife. Korean-American author Helie Lee got her top Hollywood producer husband to film episodes of “America’s Next Top Model” in Korea. Canadian artist Paul Kajander adds, “After my own network led me to come to Korea three years ago, I feel like I am playing the role of a cultural ambassador by bringing together Korea and foreign artists. We are helping to build new networks between Korea and the rest of the world.”

◊ Foreigner-Run Webzines: “I can inform people directly about my Seoul”
Finally, we cannot leave out the importance of webzines like Seoulism and the efforts being made by blog and web page creators to more broadly inform the world about Korea. Two examples are British blogger Philip Gowman’s London Korean Links on Korean cultural and arts events and Swedish blogger Anna Lindgren’s Indieful ROK blog on the indie rock scene in Korea. 

Gowman, an Oxford University graduate working in the global finance sector for HSBC, said in a phone interview, “I became enamored with Korea in the 1990s when one of my clients introduced me to Korea’s drinking culture, especially boilermakers (poktanju). After several trips to Korea, I came to realize that Korean culture and arts were really outstanding. I often receive letters from British artists telling me that my website inspired them to be interested in Korea and to want to work in Korea. There are a lot of useful Korea-focused websites, like Dongguk University Professor Charles Montgomery’s Korean Literature in Translation.”  

The international student webzine “Seoulism” discusses in fluent Korean a Seoul that is little known to Korea. Russian writer Eva Kononova, 26, explains, “We want to let Koreans know about Seoul by bringing together the insights of foreign students living in Korea. Rather than a ‘League of Their Own’ type of isolation, we want to become foreigners who accept the attractiveness of Seoul even more than Koreans.”   
[September 2014]

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