From macho to mincing
A traditional yeogwan in central Seoul, 1989. Your columnist ― a spotty backpacker touring the Far East ― has just landed in Korea. In my little, beamed room, I switch on the TV. Obviously, I won’t understand a word, but want to see what Koreans watch. What I see is this.
A heavy-set, slightly chubby bloke with short, spiky hair in a black suit is scowling and growling at the camera. Then he pumps one fist in the air; with his other, he stabs a finger at the shiny new belt he is wearing. A gangster movie? No: A TV ad for a men’s belt.
Curious, but even more curious was the man himself. The media was full of these alpha plus-plus males, known in the Konglish of the day as ``strong men.” Given how life imitates art, many, many Korean males aspired to this style.
They didn’t walk: They swaggered. They didn’t talk: They grunted or growled. When smoking (i.e. most of the time), cigarettes were clenched between teeth. Tables were to be thumped, fingers to be pointed.
Fashion? Suits were black, and thickly padded at the shoulder. God forbid if a guy fell into deep water: His de rigeur tie clip ― huge, clunky, embedded with faux precious stones ― would have dragged him to his death in seconds.
In short, Korean men back then were a ferocious tribe, imbued with machismo. Two decades later, today’s aspirational male is a radically different specimen.
In the 1980s, Korea men would gruffly deny the existence of a single gay nationwide: Now, a visitor might be forgiven for thinking half the male population is that way inclined, for the ``new Korean man” is an effete-looking fellow. Youthful, too: While the “strong man” of the past was in his late 30s, today’s aspirational guy is in his early-20s.
What is life like for ``new man?” As the wife and sprog are constantly urging me to be more stylish let’s imagine a day in his shoes.
Dawn. Out of bed, into the bathroom, and my first (of many) glances into a mirror. OH MY GOD. Is that a hair on my chest? I frantically grab the Lady Shave. A quick buzz and the impudent follicle is no more. Under the shower, I reach for the ``Siberian Wild Ginseng and Hawaiian Sea Anenome” body butter and apply liberally. Lovely.
After 90 minutes of cleansing, moisturing, manicuring and making up, I don threads. First: Calvin Klein satin scrots and socks. Then: beige drainpipes (damned tight around the crotch, but a chap has to keep up with fashion). Next: Skin-tight mauve silk shirt (no tie and certainly no tie clip). Finally: Bespoke Prussian blue jacket from my Cheongdam Dong tailor. (Crivens, why so tight? A sudden movement and it’ll rip.)
At the office, I compliment Ms Kim on her hair. She returns it. (Good! The shampoo-condition-gloss-fluff-gel treatment is being noted.) During our chat, and others throughout the day, I liberally pepper my conversation with current soap opera catch phrases: ``Bwing! Bwing!”
Lunch break means gym time. The brick-like physique is out; today’s look is streamlined. My yogalates personal trainer is waiting: We hammer my midsection from all angles, for the key physical personal attribute are not the shoulders but the six-pack.
After work, I meet some pals for supper. I could murder samgyeopsal and a few lagers, but there is no chance of that. Nosebag is ``well-being” California rolls; mouthwash is New World Chardonnay.
And our banter has changed. Once, it was politics, breasts, economics, thighs, military hardware, bums, sports, breasts again, jokes. No more. Now, we discuss Bae Yong-joon’s current look, and dissect the hairstyle Beckham is sporting this week.
I’d like to stay out for a few drinks, but mid-evening is approaching, and that means soap operas. If you are not up to date on these, you are a nobody. And anyway, by this time, we are all feeling a bit uncomfortable in our drainpipes.
So home we go.
These are big changes, and they have many pluses. The younger demographic suggests a more liberal outlook. The prioritizing of looks extends to the design of everything, from automobiles to architecture. And the emphasis on fitness can’t be faulted.
More broadly, the fact that Korea appears to be becoming a prettier, gentler country is commendable. But some things endure.
While today’s fresh-faced, floppy-haired pretty boys are a million miles from the gangster lookalikes of yore, that’s Korea: From one extreme to the other. And the pressure to conform to images dominant in the media and popular culture remains strong.
Finally, there is change itself: Few nations do it as fast or as consistently as Korea. And change, while inevitable, is not always good.
While I don’t regret the passing of TV ads for shiny belts, I am saddened that the yeogwan I stayed in back then, and the street of hanoks in which it sat, has been replaced by a shiny glass office block.
Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author. His latest work, ``Scorched Earth, Black Snow,” was published in London in June. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.