Twelve Scenes of Seoul, by Justin Chang


I saw that there was a

clear shot from the Namsan tower1, and

seeing the opportunity

before me, atop the

electrical city, sparked another flash and I

could view back to the

photo and contemplate in

the sound second what happened

across that moment.

1observation tower


On the jihachal2 above,

the concrete supports accrue

dormant rust – creeping brown scars –

over the Hangang and

jostling back and forth

rushing by the Hyundais

on the parallel lane. He

sat alone alongside the

company of indifferent




She stared off into her phone

messaging someone,

as her friend sat next to her

messaging someone.


Down the bright alleys of Jamsil in the live night, another generation jumps thru pubs existing off soju3 again,

jumbled telephone wires intersect into tangled chaos, invisible except for the reflecting shine off the black cords,

warm windows generate the setting of the scene – Koreans for late night maekjus4 and udon ramen, the shade of underground nightclubs dimmed with uv laser lights

sleazy tall guy, scruff on his chin, in the bucket hat with the stained cigarette slipping off his lips says he’s offering maanwon5 whores up the second floor with a single amber light lighting up the concrete steps

the BB gun target game through the window with each ping ping ping shot by each shooter,

a mix of K-pop and sporadic white noise – trite scratches of conversation blah blahing to static

the pungent air of vendors filtering spicy tteokbokki6

who then stared at homogenous women in symmetry – copying all fashionable fads in regionalized Vogue and Ceci

and walk past fourth floor internet cafes, deviants sitting stimulating at burning burning computer screens with faded pixel stains booting up starcraft,

attached to the façades of these concrete five to six story floors were the linear, bulb-backlit signs promoting velvet pool rooms, karaoke bars, attached by two steel beams on the side to extrude out

claustrophobic eleven story clothing malls lined up linearly sporting anomalous fashion of bart simpson patterns and snoopy the beagle cramped with the piling of thrift store vintage t-shirts in burlap sacks and bootleg handbags and pirated DVDs

cancerous, wrinkled men, wearing white tennis hats, sitting on green plastic chairs so abundantly found smoking their dunhills

ditching and stepping on them in torn chestnut loafers, pilling up with the rest of the smudged flyers for pork shops and finished butts wasting away,

all in the confined traversing backstreets and alleyways with all their one stop shops, like puzzling labyrinths and rocky unpaved streets complete with cracking potholes and infinite rumbling of the air conditioner high up, its metallic discharge drip dripping onto the damp road.

5equivalent to ten USD
6fried rice cake


In a modern museum

two photos adjacent another,

frame in clear glass

against a whitewashed wall.

In one, the men and their wives

stand before the sitting

grandparents and children;

all wearing the Hanbok.

The next is the same positioned photo

unchanged with the exception of time7

and absent:

four husbands

a boy with light black hair

and a mother.



On the corner of any street you’ll see the printed ads,

of promotional celebrities standing with their counterpart models,

stickered against the glass pane of a 7eleven

with other messages reminding them

that there’s dambae8 and coca-cola

and Lotte9 shit here too

beside the lotto tickets.

And with its blackened floors

dirty from the grime of footsteps;

aisles with shelves reaching

the ceilings collect dust on potato peelers

and various plastic chopsticks sitting

there since the store’s opening.

Her shift was beginning to end

and she was still young

to be wearing the uniform.



The Korean keyboard player,

with the bald head,

plays the chords on the grand piano

and pounds the keys vigorously like

they were bleeding over the

worn white and black keys;

to the drummer who,

naturally multitasks to the snap of the drop cymbal

and hitting triplets on the snare

and the upright bass plucks each baritone

string deep surrounding the brick room underneath the bar

in its sonorous vibration.

In conscious jazz, these are the rules.


400 years when the peasant

walked into Gyeongbokgung10 under the guise

of a rice farmer and Sejong11 was

still huddled in his chamber writing up Hangeul;

he glorified in the basking sun and

of hibiscus courtyards and the magnificent

stature of the palace – temples surrounded

by stone wall and the lavish reflecting pools

that surfaced the prosperous image of royalty.

The farmer’s home the spot of a relatively

successful starbucks12 and

tourists clamoring in the now arid courtyard,

not a tree for shade,

asking the guide when the tour’s about to end.

It was just too hot13!

10main royal palace of Joseon Dynasty
11Joseon Dynasty king
12 coffee chain originating from Seattle
13August 14, 2015. I was in Myong-dong. 105 degrees.


I didn’t need to be here, but she had insistently told me

to come because she wanted to recreate a scene that

she had seen from some tv drama. We were out by the

Namsan, nothing more than a place where dipshit

tourists bought a cable car ticket just for a view. She

bought a padlock on the way and she had Sharpied

our names around a scribbled heart. She checked the

railings for an empty spot; there were none she could

find so slipping it on a decorative tree branch, she threw

the key that locked our heart from the platform and

pressed against me, holding my hand. I didn’t know

why I had felt so indifferent.


Her father addicted to work

and mother bullied for her success,

stringent days in classrooms which you so


I asked you what you enjoy

and you couldn’t answer me.

Only yes or no, either/or and

I prayed for your opinion

say something that you acknowledge.

You are not Antoine Doinel14

but just as unheard.

14q.v. Truffaut The 400 Blows


From the lifeless flat

I could see the pollution sunset15


15 That invariable moment from the sub balcony of the 27th floor in concrete

middle to high class five room apartment housing near Gangnam where,

overlooking the Hangang and northern Seoul, the smog of the city reacts to the

sunlight deriving from the sun 92.96 million miles close, twinkling in the carbonic

air, the blinking red and green signal lights spotted from the barely visible

Namsan mountain in the deep ochre haze with the glaze of sunlight hitting the

other apartment complexes blinding – and it was a spot for every sundown that I

witnessed over the course of the good month.
167:18 PM


Where are you now,

as grandfather night eats away?

Padlocked away in this cage of

a two room apartment, bedroom-kitchen

bathroom in Hoegi17 shuttered away at the

loss of your house, crying because

you couldn’t recognize my face

after all these years and what a man

I transformed to and the lonely existence

you face when I inevitably depart.

Is this like the crowded roofs

of boxcars – huddled in UN blankets

with the burnished ground shelled,

the dying grass polished with snow

and infantry lifelessly rolling past in tanks

escaping the 38th parallel over the horizon

of this empty country18.

You told me that the stone bodies,

faceless in the streets

meant nothing near the end and that the crumbles of brick

and concrete powder covered them anyway.

when hal-abeoji19 left in the September

of that year20 – when he taught me hatu a month before –  

the only lasting memory I can recall of him –

voice and face forgotten ad infinitum.

How lonesome you must be there alone

sleeping in your stone bed and watching

the news every minute – for what is left to

do? your son and daughters whose

new phones are always off – but could

that also be your fault?

and when we walked one last time you couldnt even go off too far because the walk would only hurt your back to the station and i wouldn’t let that happen to you and i shed a few tears embracing you one last time with no guarantee, being that grandfather night may swoop you away until our next arrival, and i walked down the cobble brick alleys of hoegi and staring back you waved and i waved back multiple times and i turned a corner and you went back in, and i walked back to see if you were still at the top of the street and you weren’t, you probably walked back in your tiny complex and that was the final glimpse.

and I sat in the jihachal thinking only

about the day and I think but still,

I stop somewhere, waiting for you21.

17district in Seoul
20 2005
21q.v. W.W.

-Justin Chang