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Gin Lane & Soju-ro: Part 1 — The Preamble

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Gin Lane & Soju-Ro

Right, so I said this would be a long time in coming, but yesterday afternoon and evening — during my train ride in and out of Seoul, as well as during a couple of breaks I took when the humidity and heat and human density proved too much for me at the protest I attended — I all but inhaled Jessica Warner’s Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason, a kind of legal and cultural history of the Gin Craze that swept through the poorer classes in London in the first half of the 1700s (and, to use the term put out by Patrick Dillon, whose book I link a little further along in this post, the accompanying “Gin Panic” that flooded polite society at the same time).

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.

Why Gin?

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:

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.

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