Book review: Entrepreneurial Seoulite: Culture and Subjectivity in Hongdae, Seoul

by Cho Mihye and reviewed by Harvey Chan

14 Nov 2019, 11:55 a.m.
Harvey Neo

Entrepreneurial Seoulite book cover

Book review: Entrepreneurial Seoulite: Culture and Subjectivity in Hongdae, Seoul

by Cho Mihye and reviewed by Harvey Neo

Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2019; 153 pp.: 978-0-472-05416-9, US$19.95 (pbk).


It is perhaps fitting and a testament of Mihye Cho’s assured pulse on the spirit of the times that the same year her book was published also saw the global ascendance of K-pop, led by the massively popular boyband, BTS. While this phenomenon cannot be foretold in the late 1990s (the period from which Cho’s 20-year-long research on Hongdae germinated), there were plenty of anecdotes sprinkled within the book to explain how it could have happened.

However, to say Entrepreneurial Seoulite focuses on the manufacture of mainstream cultures (such as pop music) as opposed to the nurturing of authentic culture is to sidestep several other themes that this book shines its light upon which are equally important. Indeed, despite its relative brevity (which is not necessarily a bad thing), Cho has managed to weave a complex story of the people and places of Hongdae, Seoul, which spans more than two decades, succinctly and with great clarity. One such complex story line in Entrepreneurial Seoulite includes a detailed exposition of the various attempts to ‘remake’ Hongdae to become more ‘cultural’. This line of enquiry is sustained throughout the book and it is one with which scholars who are interested in urban place marketing should be familiar. That said, Cho manages to rise above the tired exercise of telling how places and people are reiteratively shaped by investing a pulpable gravitas and heart in developing the argument. This she was able to do by virtue of her long-standing links with the people of Hongdae and her persistence in never really turning her gaze away from the place.

The fairly conceptual discussion of what constitutes (mainstream/alternative) culture is usefully augmented by a consideration of the role capitalism (or, put another way, survival) plays. It is moreover fleshed out through the example of the dichotomous fates of live clubs (where live music is played) and dance clubs in which DJs play to dancers. The former is asserted to be more representative of a creative culture than the latter, notwithstanding the fact that top DJs creating a playlist is no less a creative endeavour. Cho rarely gives away her personal opinion on these developments but it is clear that, for her, regardless how culture is defined, the makers, labourers and entrepreneurs behind the performances of such cultures should be fairly compensated. Culture (be it popular or alternative), in that sense, cannot be sustained through the exploited labour of the masses. Incidentally, to return to our point in the first paragraph on K-Pop’s popularity, an important explanation for its success is the highly commodified and capitalised system of training pop stars in South Korea.

Cho carefully shows how the subjectivities of people influence the way they understand places (such as Hongdae) and activities (clubbing). More importantly and with deliberate nuance, she was able to demonstrate how places and events in a person’s life history can upend the subjectivities of people in sometimes heartfelt ways. One such example is Sung, who began his alternative music career in the 1990s. As he reminisces about the early days where he rebelled against the system through his music, he nonetheless acknowledges the increasing difficulties for the younger generation of maintaining livelihoods whilst staying true to one’s musical beliefs. In what can be understood as a paradoxical amalgamation of feeling jaded, resigned and hopeful, he elaborates on his purpose in life (and in sustaining his livelihood now):

I am now doing music as a way of living through everyday life, … not like an agitated indie musician during the 1990s … without looking too shabby or grungy. If I appear like that, younger ones might feel bitter and decide to give up music. If we seniors make a living by doing music and staying in this village [Hongdae], then we might be able to show hope to them. (p. 102)

Cho’s clear strength as an ethnographer in drawing out poignant reflections from her respondents (such as Sung above) is affirmed time and again. Another striking example is Choi, a lifelong activist who is highly critical of the harshest aspects of capitalism and deeply involved in the remaking of Hongdae as an authentic arts district through the exemplary lead of the local community. In Cho’s most recent interview with him, Choi makes a remarkable concession which negates a lifetime of work and personal ideology:

I came to view the endogenous development of a locality as impossible. I started contemplating the issue of place … I came to give up the idea of the village and determined not to do anything related to village making. Already the village has been fragmented, and life conditions have all been integrated into the market structure. We, embedded in this structure, are too far away from determining our life directions. (p. 97)

Probably the most valuable contribution Cho makes is to realistically demonstrate how individuals find solace and acceptance of themselves in a world where ideals, economic survival and the desire to make a difference to one’s community collide with the global capitalist system and the unpredictability of rules and political governance. Might I add that this point applies to the author herself too. In a raw moment of self-examination, after a seminar she organised in 2018 saw some of the younger participants disparaging the pioneer community activists of Hongdae, Cho confesses:

I harboured mixed feelings after the seminar. It felt as if I had been taken to task for being a complacent scholar. I felt like a miserable Generation Xer who has been worn down by the struggle for survival and did not even notice that she had become a grown-up. I felt embarrassed. (p. 112)

Hongdae might be the spatial focus of Cho’s book, but the arguments she makes and the stories she retells could resonate with many places where culture features prominently in not only how outsiders understand the place but also in how locals leverage said culture to live and live authentically. Cho’s book is the culmination of 20 years’ work and her knowledge of the people and spaces of Hongdae is inspirational. Couple this knowledge with the way she infuses humane sensibilities in her writing, and we have a book that is really a love letter to a place of which she is obviously very fond and also a place which every reader will feel for. Given this, the book appeals to a wide spectrum of readers. As the narrative is compelling and the book written in an accessible style, even non-academics will find it of interest. This is a noteworthy achievement which I hope more scholars can strive for when writing a book. For academics, the book is a persuasive argument, resting on ethnographic fieldwork that stretches over two decades, on how capital and the contested nature of culture impact on the subjectivities (and activities) of people as well as the identities of their place.


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