So fascinating, indeed, that for me it’s a struggle to resist the urge to find a way to make my own narrative stretch over a couple of decades or more, just so I can work in all the neat details, an urge I’ve managed to resist so far but only barely.
Gin Lane & Soju-Ro
The original posts I wrote while looking into the Gin Craze. I didn’t know then that I would be writing a novel set in the time period… at the time, I was just interested in how Korea seemed to have a relationship with its own horrible-tasting, industrial-strength hard-liquor, soju, as the Londoners of the Early Georgian era did with gin. From such humble beginnings… well, you know.
Basically, the ad suggests that all human social interactions that aren’t lubricated by alcohol suck.
Alcohol is, of course, what prevents dates from being boring and timid:
… and we all know office work is a true drudgery…
… though with one’s little invisible ethanolic friends to entertain one…
… it’s not so bad after all:
(Is this an argument for drinking on the job? Likely not, but I think it is an insinuation of the fact that soju has long been the drink of choice for the essentially mandatory workmate outings that are part of office workers’ lives here… outings which are supposedly believe to improve team spirit and smooth over office tensions and so on. More on that below.)
The advertisement also makes a couple of other insinuations which are particularly interesting: not only are dates and work hellishly unimaginable without the levity and mood that intoxication offer, but indeed, even family is hell:
… especially bringing one’s Mr. Boyfriend home to meet Mr. Dad. And especially if Mr. Dad is drinking green tea. It doesn’t matter how much Mr. Boyfriend stoops and supplicates, Dad isn’t going to relax, and neither is anyone else. But there is one substance with which Dad can let down his patriarchal judgmental uptightness, and that is… soju!
Thank goodness for hard liquor, or family interactions — supposedly the most natural in the world, in a society that prides itself on putting family ahead of everything else — would be hell!
And then there is friendship, the freest and easiest, and the least difficult and demanding, of relationships of all those depicted in this advertisement. But you know, being out with friends sucks. Nothing to talk about, nothing to smile about. You find yourself yawning openly, or avoiding friends’ gaze. Too much soberness makes friendship hell…
… but there is, of course, a solution.
What’s interesting about this moment is a couple of things. Besides the fact that it puts me in mind of what I’ve heard time and time again from students — especially female students, and especially those who’ve been abroad — the reason people go out drinking in mixed groups like this is because, well, what else are they going to do?
It’s hard to find an activity that everyone is going to enjoy, because circles of friends tend not to crop up around common interests (like, say, love of a certain genre of music or literature, or some sport), and because people tend to be less open to trying “new” forms of entertainment until they are already trendy. (Board games were not popular until board game cafes became trendy, a number of years ago.) Not everyone will want to see the same film, and guys tend to be less interested in going to cafes and talking about stuff generally — and my more thoughtful Korean friends say that most young men and women alike tend towards shutting down serious conversations for being, well, “too serious.”
Which brings me to the second point: Miss Jiwaku was talking recently about what happens when she tries to point out why her point of view is different from, say, one that a slightly older Korean guy might present as “the mainstream opinion.” She’ll bring up her disagreement, and explain why just a tiny bit, and then people — even peers — will say, “What? You’re so serious!” or “Oh, let’s not talk seriously! Cheers!” and then it’s time for everyone to down their glasses. It’s a point of frustration for her, having had good conversations with people from all over the world, that it’s so hard to start them up so many of her own countrymen and countrywomen.
So I’d advance in fact the last image above dramatizes a fantasy, which is that drinking actually makes people relax and enjoy their time together. In fact, it seems rather to be a rather convenient braking tool for preventing social gatherings from becoming too, well, meaningful, to be blunt. Because, after all, meaningful relationships cause people to challenge one anothers’ thinking and behavior, and once they’re doing that, they start thinking about the world around them in the same way, and we all know what that leads to.
And indeed, in the same light, we can read the images above this way, too: if soju is what makes Koreans tolerate having the longest working hours in the developed world, serious imbalance between work and family time, and high rates of job dissatisfaction — as well as widening pay disparities that disfavor women (mentioned here, amid tidbits of “good news” — 8.1 million people have full time jobs, yay! — that only serve to highlight how bad the situation is for most workers in Korea… the pay disparity is, I repeat, now continuing to widen), and all kinds of other workplace sexism — then isn’t it really the bulwark that keeps people from demanding better work situations, an enabler of misery?
Parents who cannot relax and interact with the potential (or actual) spouse of their children — or their own children — have a problem. I don’t care how normative it is. I’m sorry, I’m not willing to accept it’s a cultural difference. We have bad in-law relationships in the West, we have protective fathers in the West, we have all that. But while it can be nice to sit down and have a beer or a glass of whiskey with your girlfriend’s dad, any man who cannot behave like a normal human being while meeting his daughter’s boyfriend — a guy she’s probably been dating for some time, since such introductions seem, for many, to portend some intention of marriage — has something seriously wrong with him.
And as for the implications this advertisement makes in terms of love, romance, and romantic relationships, well… I leave that as an exercise to the reader.
But what’s important to remember is: we needn’t take all those claims at face value. Now, I’m not saying they’re all completely false: a number of times I’ve observed that alcohol — particularly soju — has acted as a social lubricant for groups of people who gather but have nothing in particular in common, and no informal reason to socialize. (This is true in the West, too, of other alcohols, but I think it’s also less common in the West for groups of “friends” to form, consisting of people who have nothing in common and nothing to talk about.) The father of my former girlfriend was relaxed enough to hug me when we first met, but that doesn’t mean that potential (and actual) in-law relationships aren’t, for many people, plagued by awkwardness and discomfort. The way dating works in Korea — especially the blind date scene — makes for a very awkward kind of interaction, and work often is painful and dreary.
But the advertisement isn’t just noting those situations: it’s naturalizing them. That is to say, the advertisement is arguing that this is simply the way it is, the way it has been, the way it indeed will be. And as such, it articulates the purpose of soju, which is to alleviate the awkwardness and pain of social life as nothing else can do.
The implicit logic is that these things cannot be eased in other ways. Fathers cannot, say, work on their attitude and manage their anxiety about meeting their daughters’ boyfriends. Workplaces cannot and and should not be forced — by the demands of their workers, by legislative reforms, by simple common sense — to improve the conditions of their employees’ lives. People should not take their chips off the table from friendships that don’t fulfill them and seek out people with common interests, aspirations, and passions.
This may sound idealistic. I can see, before my eyes, the face of the current (reelected) mayor of Seoul, as he commented on the educational reforms proposed by
This brings to mind the comments I wrote on a feedback paper for an outstanding student, who wrote for my Pop Culture course a paper discussing the Silent Generation, the youth of America who were born from about 1925 till the end of World War II, and who were described this way in Time Magazine (in November 1951, as cited over at the good ol’ Wikipedia):
Youth today is waiting for the hand of fate to fall on its shoulders, meanwhile working fairly hard and saying almost nothing. The most startling fact about the younger generation is its silence. With some rare exceptions, youth is nowhere near the rostrum. By comparison with the Flaming Youth of their fathers & mothers, today’s younger generation is a still, small flame. It does not issue manifestoes, make speeches or carry posters. It has been called the “Silent Generation.”
She discussed the rise of the gangster film in terms of its function or purpose as a pressure-release valve for the Silent Generation, a way of vicariously experiencing rebellion while conforming in real life. She went so far as to parallel her own generation in Korea with that American generation, and in a way it makes sense: they were born too late to be part of the socioeconomic struggle to modernize Korea — and too early to really enjoy the fruits of its attendant cultural modernization in their youth. They are pressured to work hard, but the criteria for success seem to be detached from real fulfillment for many of them.
It’s a characterization that is not new to me, though I’ve never heard anyone parallel it with the Silent Generation — a group I’d not really even heard about until this student’s essay. But the sentiment is familiar: Miss Jiwaku herself thinks it’s a symptom of the whole living-in-the-shadow-of-success thing, where the older generation — the parents of people just entering the job market in this decade — simultaneously both credit themselves for the economic Miracle on the Han (consciously or unconsciously), and (also to varying degrees of self-awareness) look down on their kids who have never had to experience the kinds of privations they did… hence, the tendency of all too many parents to micromanage their kids’ educational, career, romantic, and other choices.
This brings me to something I want to discuss more when I review Joshua Zeitz’s book Flapper, but… I’ll just sort of spill the beans and say that I think most Westerners who compare Korea to America in the 1950s make several category errors. (Cultural difference, and all of that.) But I think there are certain processes in modernization that may replicate themselves, and Korea, far from lagging behind, may still be well ahead of schedule. The problem is, Westerners have very little sense of the time-scales involved in the modernization of Western culture… and they have very poor cultural and historical memory, else they would (and I would, much sooner) be readily aware of parallels in modernization between Korea today… and America in the decades following World War I.
I’d say that it’s no mistake that utopian entertainment — superhero comics, and American pulp science fiction — also exploded onto the popular cultural scene in America in precisely that time: a little utopian inspiration was just what the doctor ordered, I’d say, and that’s why I wrote this little personal note at the end of my response to her essay:
…. I want to comment on your final line in your essay: when you describe “unrealistic” dreams held by young Korean people [and your hope that they keep them alive]: I feel I must point out that the world you live in — the Internet, the cellular phones, the long life expectancy, the huge numbers of people living in cities, the TVs and the advertising, the advances of women’s rights (frustratingly slow as they are even now) all were “unrealistic” in the world where my and your grandparents — and depending on their age, maybe even your parents, as mine — grew up. My point is that what we imagine as realistic is very sadly limited, but the problem for the Silent Generation — in America in the 30s, but even more frighteningly for young Koreans today — is that this limited imagination gets worse the older people get — because they are trapped in the way they learned to think about the world when they were young — while changes in society, culture, and technology continue to accelerate.
My point being that the changes from 1930 to 1950 or 1960 were sufficient that very smart, good-sounding plans designed for life in the 1930s were a recipe for disaster by 1960 — and the people who had planned their lives that way were very confused, frustrated, and often poor in the 1960s. But the rate of change for Korea today is even faster, so people of your parents’ generation are even less likely to have a good idea about where the future is headed than you do… because so much has changed that they are even likelier not to really understand how things like careers and business work in the present day.
The point is that the most unrealistic idea of all is the idea that the world of tomorrow — meaning, of 5 or 10 or 20 years from now — will be anything like the world of today. The most realistic idea if that the future will be, largely, quite unrecognizable and quite confusing to most people over a certain age. So while the Silent Generation lived in frustration (and then were sent to die on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific in World War II), the similar young Koreans your describe face a looming disaster of following their parents’ “advice” or “expectations” and paying in the long run for planning a life based on an obsolete model of how to survive in a society.
Hmm. There’s probably a self-help book in there, somewhere, if you feel like writing one someday (and making huge piles of money, ha!). Or, at least, there’s some reason to pause and consider carefully: all the people who are making billions of won selling, designing, and programming games today in Korea would, if they’d asked their parents in the 1980s whether they should study computers and games, would have been told it was unrealistic to think someone could make a living making computer games. Yet there they are, making billions of won in a new industry that is also an important one in Korea!
Okay, well, enough of utopianism. I’m not quite finished with that ad, which I think is interesting for two other points as well, however. The first one is this:
If you look closely, among the first figures to emerge from the bottles is a little woman. She’s an important figure, if you pay attention to the narrative logic of the advertisement. After all, one of the first things we see is our heroine unscrewing a bottle of soju:
… an action which our small, cartoony woman repeats later on:
It’s not a man who introduces soju into these social situations: it’s a woman. In all cases, it’s a woman, and in several situations, the soju allows her a degree of (positive) control over the behavior of men — her date, her father, the awkward male half of her circle of bored friends.
This hearkens back to a lot of ads about soju that James Turnbull has blogged about in the past few years, but it goes, I think, beyond that. I began a series of posts a long, long time ago paralleling the situation for soju in Korea today and gin during the English Gin Craze.
(This here post is the second installment in that series. I’ll try get a third written by year’s end.)
One of the interesting points is that Gin was — and even now occasionally is — called Geneva, or “Madame Geneva.” Despite the histrionics over the effect of gin on mothers and their child-rearing abilities, gin was deeply, deeply linked in the popular consciousness with a feminine “folk identity” (as it’s called in one of the two books I managed to track down and read about the Gin Craze). And in fact, many gin vendors in London were women, as were many consumers. It’s an interesting parallel, and I’m not sure why it exists, though I bet a number of interesting possibilities lurk there — after all, women, like gin (or soju) were historically seen as something “for men,” and indeed both had some indelible link to sexual excess — perhaps, as a consequence of the lowering of inhibitions; but women, we’re often told, are also socialized to smooth over social relations, and it seems that’s one purpose gin served in London — in the sense of it being a very effective “opiate” for dealing with the pains of urbanization, industrialization, and modernization — all of which I discussed in that earlier post on the Gin Craze .
There may be other, subtler links as well; Mary Frances Wack’s text Lovesickness in the Middle Ages — of which I’ve finally gotten myself a copy, whee! — argued that in folk-mythology (of the poor, concerning witches; of the rich and “educated” of the Middle Ages, concerning the pseudo-medical condition of “love-sickness”) may have reflected dislocations within family structure; I think she’s all too Freudian in that, and that the real root of these anxieties about women is the difficulty of separating a man’s feelings for a woman (and the power those feelings have over him) from the problem of the uncontrollability of womens’ feelings for men in partiarchal societies founded on the notion of men controlling their lessers (including hierarchically inferior men, but also controlling women in general). Lovesickness is the nagging confrontation that no matter how rich and powerful you are, you cannot make a woman love you back — and the challenge this presents to the fundamentality of male power.
But I’ll leave that aside for the moment. In any case, the other interesting thing about our heroine’s invisible ethanol friends that I wanted to discuss is that, when they are visible, they have very specific qualities. Here’s a good close look at them:
Besides the clear nod to both nationalism and the current World Cup hysteria — the guy in the red shirt with “KOREA” emblazoned across the front, kicking a soccer ball around — it’s worth nothing that the little cartoon men outnumber the women not only in this picture, but even more profoundly throughout the advertisement. Compare with the image directly above this one, and you’ll see only one character who is constant: the brown-haired woman in the purple dress. (Though the soccer ball guy seems pretty constant in other scenes, and other characters recur as well.)
Repetitions or not, I propose that the woman in the purple dress is an important figure, because of her relative prominence as emerging almost first, as the unscrewer of the soju bottle — while being hoisted aloft by a whole column of guys, and so on — unlike, say, the glasses-wearing guy in the bottom left of the second-last picture, who shows up at the end of the ad but is far from prominent anywhere. Why would she be important?
Well, for one thing, makgeolli is getting popular now. Whether or not it’s true, there seems to be a widespread belief among young people I know (like, yes, my students) that the reason for this surge in popularization is that women are driving the shift, since women are (a) watching their weight and (b) prefer something with lower alcohol and a milder flavor, while (c) wanting to join in on the fun of drinking with friends more, and more often.
(I’ll add that most of the women I’ve known well didn’t drink much, or as much as men, but that I’ve known some women who could drink most guys under the table. However, even they didn’t often do so. Maybe that’s changing, or maybe it’s part of the rhetoric of whatever cryptic, nascent [let’s-not-call-it-]feminism[-though-that’s-what-the-word-for-it-would-be] that may or may not be brewing among young women. I dunno.)
Anyway, it’s crucial here that soju is being presented not just as improving a woman’s life, but also as the very thing that, by introducing it into any awkward social situation, she can gain control and reap such benefits by — simply by specifically being the one to introduce soju into each situation. (For she is the heroine of this little tale, and if you look above you will see her sitting in the middle of her group of friends, as well as between her father and her boyfriend — the perfect intermediary both spatially, as well as in social terms.) If it’s true what I’ve heard a million times before, and women are indeed socialized to make peace, to try to manage social situations and minimize tensions and so on, then this makes perfect sense: it’s a socialized role being conflated very cleverly with a consumer role — and specifically, a consumer role from which women were traditionally less expected (or supposed) to play.
Lastly, and I can’t help but point this out, the cartoon characters aren’t unusual in their neoteny (which is of course the scientific way of saying they’re childlike figures): they have oversized heads, and simple facial expressions. Yes, not unusual at all — neoteny is simply a part of most cartoons by design and convention.
Yet I daresay that here, the childlikeness is very prounounced, not just in physiology: their movements are precarious — not only moving like children, but also mostly running, the way a kid who hasn’t quite figured out balance but is learning to walk just the same seems to do. There is a clear suggestion: drinking can return us to childhood. Drinking can alleviate the crappy stresses of adulthood, so that you don’t need to confront the problems that cause those stresses and make your life actually better. Drink, and be a kid again.
Which is why this ad depresses me: it seems to say, “You know, most of your life really is unbearable…” — something alarming numbers of people seem to feel here such that they act upon it — “… but instead of doing something about it, why not just dull the pain?” Religion may be popular in this nation, but through this advertisement, Jinro’s Chamiseul inadvertently lays bare its claim to the title of the real “opium of the people” to a degree bordering on the stupefying. I daren’t cite Marx further, though I believe his phrase about “illusory happiness” is quite fitting to the joys modeled in this particular advertisement.
The next installment in this series will take some time, but I will get back to it eventually, I promise.
This post is going to be a preamble of sorts, and explain why I think the Gin Craze is worth examining at all, let alone why I think it’s worth looking at Korea’s handling of soju in comparison.
Jeremy Tolbert had a great post up a while back about some of the things that an American writer named Clay Shirky had to say about social surplus. Go on ahead and read Tolbert’s post and follow the links he offers, like to the transcript of Shirky’s talk. Or if you can’t be bothered to click away, watch this video:
Okay. Now, if you’re anything like me, you’re a little discomfited by this, because, er, isn’t he misremembering things? Isn’t it the cotton gin that would have been described by that half-remembered philosopher as the pivotal technology of the Industrial Revolution? I commented as much on the transcript linked above, but the comment never got out of moderation on Shirky’s site; perhaps, I suspect, because the number of people who have pointed this out online has made Shirky quite aware that his claim about gin being the primary social glue for London in Georgian England is a rather holey one — and while the rest of his argument is kinda interesting, that argument he made about gin keeping the Industrial Revolution going is really quite holey. Well, sort of.
But only sort of. What I’ve read suggests that gin probably didn’t help keep things going at all — but it may have kept society going through the pains and stresses of the Industrial Revolution while also, to some degree, slowing it down and draining productivity — just as I will later show soju necessarily does in Korea.
But the bigger idea, the notion that societies self-medicate en masse when faced with tense, difficult transitions — until such point as they manage to adjust and start to exploit their “social surplus” to make life easier and better (by establishing libraries, say, or a creative commons), is a fascinating one, and one that immediately brought me back to Bucheon, to Seoul, to practically every place I’ve ever been in Korea, and to the presence of fridges full of green bottles in every restaurant you pass on the street.
After all, the Gin Craze took place, as Shirky notes, in a period during which mass emigration into London was at an all-time high. What several generations — not just one, as Shirky claims — of Londoners experienced from around 1710 (or even as early as 1700) to 1750, is roughly what Koreans experienced from around 1960 to the present — a period of rapid social change, of movement from countryside to city, of rapidly shifting social values and standards, and more. And it’s undeniable that, in very interesting ways, soju has been a part of it.
Other Parallels, Like Squalor
Reading Craze, the parallels hit me harder and harder, for there are many to be made. This quote, from page 55 of the paperback edition, is a good example:
To the extent that most gin shops consisted of nothing more than a spare room, they were probably no better — and no worse — than the other run-down dwellings frequented or inhabited by the working poor. The gin shops were squalid, but so, too, was much of London itself; their clientele was unseemly and on occasion poorly behaved, but so, too, were most of the people who lived and worked in the capital.
The squalor described may well be less now than it was in, say, Bucheon in 1976, when this picture was taken by Kim Ki-chan, and appeared in the collection of his (?) photos, Lost Landscape:
Or, hell, the now well-developed Samseong-dong, only a short five years later, in 1981:
These are, indeed, “lost landscapes”, and Korea has changed a great deal since these pictures were shot, in one of the great heydays of land development in and around Seoul.
But in places like Yeokgok, where I live, there is still a fair bit of squalor to be seen. In Craze and in Patrick Dillon’s Gin: The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva — The Eighteenth-Century Gin Craze, the text I’m reading now, discussions of the concentration of gin houses by contemporaries repeatedly note how common the places were, how readily available the stuff was. And common they were: at one point, in some parts of town, as many as one gin shop for every five residences… though of course, one must remember that the squalor and slow urban development meant that any number of people could have been living in a single “residence.”
Surely, the squalor of eighteenth-century London is nothing like the squalor of early twenty-first-century Yeokgok… and yet, one can as easily say that the vicissitudes of eighteenth-century London were not so quickly banished as all that. H.G. Wells, writing in the 1930s of how the London he knew in his youth came be a over century before, had this to say:
So far as I can puzzle out the real history of a hundred years ago, there was a very considerable economic expansion after the Napoleonic war, years before the onset of the railways. The steam railway was a great simulus to still further expansion, its political consequences were tremendous, but it was itself a product of a general release of energy and enterprise already in progress. Under a régime of unrestricted private enterprise, this burst of vigour prodced the most remarkable and lamentable results. A system of ninety-nine year building leases was devised, which made vast fortunes for the ground landlords and rendered any subsequent reconstruction of the houses put up almost impossible until the ground lease fell in. Under these conditions private enterprise spewed a vast quantity of extremely unsuitable building all over the London area, and for four or five generations made an uncomfortable incurable stress of the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
It is only now, after a century, that the weathered and decaying lavaof this mercenary eruption isbeing slowly replaced — by new feats of private enterpreise almost as greedy and unforeseeing. Once they were erected there was no getting rid of these ugly dingy pretentious substitutes for civilized housing. They occupied the groud. There was no choice; people just had to do with them and pay the high rents demanded. From the individualistic point of view it was an admirable state of affairs. To most Londoners of my generation these rows of herry-built unalterable homes seemed to be as much in the nature of things as rain in September and it is only with the wisdom of retrospect, that I realize the complete irrational scrambling planlessness of which all of us who had to live in London were victims.
The recklessly unimaginative entrepreneurs who built these great areas of nineteenth-century London and no doubt made off to more agreeable surroundings with the income and profits accruing, seem to have thought, if they thought at all, that there was an infinite supply of prosperous middle-class people to take the houses provided… This was the London house, that bed of Procrustes to which the main masses of the accumulating population of the most swiftly growing city in the world, including thousands and thousands of industrial and technical workers and clerks, students, foreigners upon business missions, musicians, teachers, the professional and artistic rank and file, agents, minor officials, shop employees living out and everyone indeed who ranked between the prosperous householder and the slum denizen, had to fit their lives. The multiplying multitude poured into these moulds with no chance of protest or escape… It is only because the thing was spread out over a hundred years and not concentrated into a few weeks that history fails to realize what sustained disaster, how much massacre, degeneration, and disablement of lives, was due to the housing of London in the nineteenth century.
(H.G. Wells, An Experiment in Autobiography, Vol. I, Chapter 5, pgs. 274-276)1.
Wells goes on to note that this was probably not peculiar to London, but also to any other of the “swelling great cities of the nineteenth century,” but I’m afraid I cannot help but think of urban South Korea, and its sprawling acres of characterless, ugly high-rise apartment blocks — all of them the same in design, impossible to differentiate in their blandness and ugliness, save for the ridiculousness of the names painted upon them — when I read it.
Wells probably does not track the monstrosity back far enough: the squalor of the nineteenth-century certainly grew out of that of the eighteenth, just as the cold-and-deadness of Seoul, Bucheon, and most other Korean cities grows out of how Korea was urbanized throughout the twentieth century.
In any case, to my eye, the parallels abound. I’m leery, like anyone whose brain is worth his or her body’s sodium content, of the idea that there are teleologies built into things like development. But that the same time, the appearance of parallels doesn’t surprise me, and in fact, I figure they are to be expected when one society is consciously, explicitly following the lead of another — the way urbanization, modernization, and industrialization in Korea were modeled on foreign models. Perhaps not London, but we can expect — given the intersection of money, land development, rapid mass urbanization, and the founding of an industrialized economy — a lot of mistakes to have been repeated here. After all, London in Wells’ day, and certainly in the era of the Gin Craze, was what I’ve just discovered (thanks to this interesting post by James, whom I should also thank for suggesting the hopefully catchy series title “Gin Lane & Soju-ro”) is termed a “primate city” — that is, a city that far and away dominates the nation in terms of concentration of people, money, industry, and power.
So anyway, it was this parallel — a high rate of migration of people into relatively unprepared (and undeveloped) cities, a massive destabilization of what had previously constituted human communities as rural people understood them, and a high rate of consumption of hard alcohol — that got me wondering what other parallels exist between the Gin Craze and Korea’s handling of soju.
It is those parallels — and the stunning, fascinating divergences that also exist in this area — that I will be exploring in later posts in this series. At present, I plan to touch on the following:
- Premodern Attitudes and Uses of Alcohol: What Came Before Gin and Soju
- Soju and Gin At Work and “At Play”
- No Control: The Differing Responses to Alcohol and Legislation in Georgian England and Modern Korea, and their Economic and Social Consequences
- Soju, Yangju, Beer, Brandy, Punch, and Class-Stratified Tastes
- Miss Lee and Madam Geneva Ride the Rising Tide of Capitalism: Gendered Consumption, Marketing, and Conception of Soju and Gin
- She’s Hot: Gin and the Origins of The Urban Legend of Spontaneous Human Combustion
- Conjurations & Summonings of the Lost Village Life: How the Soju Drinking Ritual Make the Impossible Possible
I will be interspersing my discussion of Gin Lane & Soju-ro with posts about Korean SF movies as I work my way through the paper I’m writing — and that will be my priority for the next month or so, in terms of posts here — but I will revisit this subject from time to time, as it’s somewhat captured my imagination, and the more I read, the more interesting the parallels and divergences alike become. But before I am quite ready to end this post, there’s a wholly different parallel that is quite interesting, and which is worth noting, though I’m not sure I’ll make a whole post out of it.
The Gin Panic and the U.S. Beef Panic
One of the most interesting parallels between the unfolding of the Gin Craze and events in Korea is an inverted parallel, and that is, between the “Gin Panic” and the ongoing protests that, in their inception, were about — and to some people still are about — the government’s handling of U.S. Beef importation into Korea.
What’s interesting is that in both cases, decisions were made about a popular food/consumable product on the basis of national economics — King William III, that is, William of Orange, chose after declaring war on France to ban the importation of French brandy, and to create an environment that would promote the domestic distillation of spirits from “corn” — that is, wheat, barley, rye, and oats — which was achieved by the passage of an act in 1690. The result was, essentially, the creation of a whole new domestic industry of distilled “corn” spirits.2.
Comparably, it is for economic reasons — presumably to ensure the passage of the KOR-US FTA, the Lee Administration decided to drastically alter South Korean legislation with regards to the importation of beef into Korea from the US.
What happened in England, over the next few decades, was that the working poor enthusiastically embraced gin as a conumer product, and it became part of the general culture; but at the same time, polite society was horrified. The etchings of William Hogarth that are most often displayed in relation to these fears and this horror are those below:
… and it’s obvious that there’s a propagandistic element to Hogarth’s art here — the sensual virility, industry and activity that abound on Beer Street are replaced by depredation, horror, death, and monstrosity on Gin Lane.
But there’s another dimension less visible in those depictions that is more apparent in this print, included along with the above in Warner’s Craze, and that is this one:
What’s clear here is a horror at the masses themselves, a class-based digust at the common people and their doings. The “musician” is the fellow in the wig with the violin bow, angrily looking down from his upper window, and not the clarionetist, the hornblower, the little child banging upon a drum: they are not musicians, they are the unwashed masses, of a piece with howling dogs, ladies holding mewling babies, peddlers shouting out to anyone who might be interested in their wares.
The noise in the street expressed in this picture is of a piece with the presence of gin in the poorer districts of London. And Hogarth’s art, indeed, served upper-class purposes well: Beer Street and Gin Lane were part of a wave of propaganda against the gin industry — indeed, the last major wave of anti-gin propaganda. It was the last because the popularity of gin was, for various reasons related to income, tempreance movements, and other factors, in decline. But this only came after several decades of sustained efforts to pass laws against the gin industry, and it was several decades of Gin Panic that fueled these constant efforts.
Had gin rendered London a seething, scabrous mess like what we see in Hogarth’s Gin Lane? Probably not, although it probably did mess up many people’s lives. Many parallels have been drawn between the Gin Panic and the Drug Wars, indeed: the way that irrationally exaggerated (and often gendered) depictions of the horrors of a drug popular among a minority or lower-class group allowed legislation to pass that might, in other circumstances, have been unthinkable. (The criminalization of marijuana, a Mexican drug, has been possible; the criminalization of sale of gin, the drink of the poorer classes, was ㅑimaginable; the criminalization of Glenfiddich or of alcoholic punch is utterly unthinkable.)
What’s interesting is that in both cases, the means that was used in in order to mobilize opposing support response was the manufacturing of a panic in which a belief was manufactured that a consumable product could or would lead to widespread depravity, death, or sickness. But in London, from 1720-1750, the fact was that the public wanted their gin, while in Seoul right now, the mobilized portion of the public simply doesn’t want American beef.3.
The results in London were mass riots, as well as rather surprisingly (to me) creative demonstrations that, even if they were, like the current anti-2MB demonstrations4., organized in part by those with an economic interest — gin-distillers paid for the mock wakes that were held and funeral processions that marched through the streets mourning “the passing of Madame Geneva,” as Gin was commonly known — involved rather large numbers of people whose opinions, as the working poor, realistically were not of interest to the British government, much as many young Koreans seem to feel in relation to the Lee Administration.
(The Londoners, most of whom were utterly denied a voice in British politics then, were obviously more disempowered than any Korean citizen has a right to claim to be, but the perception even many who voted for Lee seems to be that the administration’s attitude has been, generally, dismissive of public opinion.)
In any case, there’s room for more discussion of this, especially in the area of iconography and the gendering of protests and protesters, but for now, I’m going to leave off on this topic. Updates will be occasionally, but I’ll make sure to be quite careful to link things together so even if you miss an update, you’ll be easily able to catch up.
1. I first encountered a portion of this long quote in the text Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction by Brian W. Aldiss, although, in my 1974 Shocken paperback edition, Aldiss omits a great hunk in the middle (with no ellipsis to indicate any omission), and mis-cites it to Chapter 6 of Wells’ Experiment in Autobiography. Fortunately, I have a copy of the original Wells, and located the passage, after some searching, in Chapter 5.
2. This is discussed in both of the books I’ve mentioned, Craze and Gin, but is handled in a little more depth in Chapter 1 of the latter.
3. Though I (and other commentators) have repeatedly pointed out that the current demonstrations have come to be about much more than just beef, it is undeniable that a number of protesters still are focused on the US beef issue, and that in any case it was the overt issue that brought people out in large numbers in the first place. If you talk to protesters, some will tell you that the protests aren’t really about beef anymore, while others will insist it is, or speak in such a way that it’s obvious they think so. It’s complicated.
4. For those who don’t already know, 2MB is the mocking nickname that netizens — long before the protests began, it’s my impression — gave Lee Myung Bak. The “L” on Lee is an anglicism — in Korean, the name sounds like the letter “E”, and this clan name is synonymous with the number 2. Substituting 2MB for LMB is an obvious jape at his intelligence, implying that he has only 2 MegaBytes of processing capacity in his head. The joke would not have made sense a decade or two ago, but in our current era of gigabytes of storage and RAM, it is cleverly, and technofetishistically, cutting. One wonders whether members of older generations even get the joke, however.