Expatriate Writer Catches 'Korea Bug'
New Book Collects Best of Underground Culture Magazine

By Tony MacGregor
Contributing Writer


Expatriate magazine writer Scott Burgeson talks during an interview in downtown Seoul, Thursday. Burgeson's new book, "Korea Bug," is a collection of articles from his magazine of the same name that look at the oddball, offbeat, peculiar aspects of life in South Korea.
/ Korea Times
Scott Burgeson, a fixture of the expat literary scene since 1996, never came to Korea to make money. He came in large part to explore the culture and that certainly shows itself in his latest book, ``Korea Bug.’’

The 460-page book, published by Eunhaeng Namu of Seoul, consists mostly of essays and articles from Burgeson’s zine, a self published, underground magazine that he sold on the streets of Seoul.

Written in a style somewhat reminiscent of Jack Kerouac (1922–1969), a writer and spokesman for the rebellious Beat generation, ``Korea Bug,’’ is a combination of personal insights and solidly researched material that I suspect will be mined in future years by scholars examining this era in Korea’s history.

As you might expect from an underground, counter-culture kind of writer, Burgeson looks at the oddball, offbeat, peculiar aspects of Seoul, but taken as a whole, the essays do give you a picture of contemporary Korean society and how it is evolving. ``Korea Bug’’ is his second book. His first was 1999’s ``Maximum Korea.’’

I met Burgeson in a Starbuck’s Coffee Shop last week in the Luxurious Somerset Palace, perhaps an inappropriate spot to meet the 37-year-old writer who has spent most his time here living in cheap digs on a shoestring budget.

He arrived in Korea after spending one-and-a-half years in Japan in September, 1996, with almost no money and no job. He plans to leave for China within the next few months, again with little money and with no firm job as of yet.

Relaxed and friendly, wearing a baseball cap backwards, a red T-shirt, black shorts cut below the knees and thongs, he definitely looks non-mainstream, but his book is not a collection of off-the-top-of-head views. It is opinionated, yes, but also meticulously researched. You might not agree with his interpretations and comments, but the details he brings out shows that he has done his homework.

I especially liked his interview with Kim Ja-ya, Korea’s last traditionally trained ``gisaeng,’’ or female entertainers somewhat similar to the Japanese geisha, although the gisaeng do not like the comparison.

Kim Ja-ya was 82 when Burgeson interviewed her in 1998. She died in 1999. What good fortune that Burgeson was able to record her memories of a dead age before she died. And what memories she had! She was born into a ``yangban (noble)’’ family in 1916, shortly after the Japanese annexed Korea. When her father died, her family went bankrupt and she trained as a gisaeng _ the only gisaeng of a yangban family.

Through Burgeson, Kim paints a vivid picture of her training, the living conditions of the gisaeng and life under the Japanese occupation as well the great romance of her life with Korean poet Baek Sok.

I also enjoyed the introduction to ``Korea Bug,’’ which in large part is a history of the English-language, often underground, publications in Korea starting with Ernest T. Bethell (1872-1909), publisher of the Korea Daily News and its Korean language sister The Daehan Maeil Sinbo.

An eccentric, anti-authoritarian Englishman, who was threatened and bullied by the Japanese authorities, Bethell attracted renowned patriots to his newspaper, which eventually had a circulation greater than all other Korean newspapers combined.

He was hated by the Japanese authorities, who couldn’t kick him out of the country because he was British and the Japanese had an extraterritorial agreement with Britain. But they did manage to influence the British authorities and Bethell was eventually brought to trial and sentenced to jail.

Bethell’s story is just one of the dozens of little-known, forgotten or hidden stories of Korea’s past and present that Burgeson has brought to life in ``Korea Bug.’’ Burgeson may not have made much money during his eight years here but in his book he has collected treasures that will be mulled over and discussed for many years to come.

During our conversation, Burgeson pointed out that South Korean publishers can’t afford full-time English-speaking editors. That is a pity. My one criticism of the book is that it needs some heavy editing. But that is a minor criticism, and it didn’t stop me from enjoying the book and chuckling often at the numerous funny anecdotes it contains. I recommend it. For more information, visit Burgeson’s Web site at www.kingbaeksu.com.


  Bugging Out


tony.macgregor@gmail.com

09-20-2005 20:22