Archive for March, 2011

Mother and Musician, Part 2

by on Saturday, March 26th, 2011

On a few occasions when our little group of twenty or thirty foreigners got together in the university guesthouse for a potluck dinner, we listened to an accomplished songwriter and singer of traditional British, European and Appalachian folk songs. Here she talks about performing English-language folk songs in China and her experience with traditional Nanguan music, which is also called Nanyin. To hear and see performances of this music, click on the link provided at your right labeled “Traditional Music of South China.”

Sue’s Story

Western music

I was hired by the American Embassy to give concerts. In April they gave me a trial run in Shanghai which consisted of three performances. I played at the music conservatory, at the Foreign Language Institute and at the American Consulate. The last one was the most interesting for me, because I was better prepared and the whole situation was better. They invited about fifty people, the top people in Shanghai culture and education and people having something to do with America.  The concert was held in the living room of the consulate, which is one of the three or four really beautiful rooms in the building. They brought in a piano, and I had my guitar and dulcimer. I also had a good interpreter. I explained each song before I sang it, and they listened to every word. It was good to have such a responsive group of people. They laughed and joked, and I had about three or four encores. Afterwards they had a reception. Some of the musicians were really interested in the dulcimer. They’d never seen one before.

That was in contrast to my first concert at the music conservatory. Due to the weather, I’d waited seven hours for an airplane the day before, but I couldn’t get out until a few hours before the concert. I had Carrie, my two-year-old, with me too. I was exhausted when I got there. I got off the airplane, into the car, changed the strings on my guitar at the consulate, washed my face and got taken to the concert hall. I tried to figure out the sound system, but it was really a mess, and there wasn’t time to work out the kinks. I hadn’t given a real concert since last spring so I was very nervous. I was tired, and I hadn’t had time to prepare myself properly.

The hall was huge. They had sold eight hundred tickets. Some of the people in the audience thought a string quartet was going to be playing. It was very dark. I couldn’t see anybody. I didn’t know whether they could see me. There was a guy translating for me, but it was just off the cuff, and he didn’t speak very good English. People talked, which is Chinese, but since I couldn’t see anybody or tell how they were responding, it really made me nervous. During the dulcimer set, the vocal controls were all screwed up, but I had no monitor so I couldn’t tell. I know there were some good moments, but I felt it didn’t go very well. People said they really liked it, though, and they invited me to come back.

The second night I went to the Foreign Language Institute. That was in a smallish auditorium, about three or four hundred people. I asked them to keep the lights on. Most of the students could speak English, so they said I didn’t need an interpreter, I could just speak directly to them. They were just great. I sang John Prine songs, and they got the jokes, they were laughing in all the right places. Throughout the evening as I was singing, I realized how much American music—my own as well as other people’s—was about individualism and about love. Chinese popular music isn’t, or perhaps it’s just becoming that. I really felt as if I was putting forth a statement about American culture, that the evening was sort of an introduction to the obsessions, or the themes, of American pop music. I had a similar experience at a college in Taiwan when I could see the audience.

When I first started giving concerts in Taiwan, I would begin by saying, “I have some Irish and English and Scotch ballads.”  I showed them the differences. But they all sounded the same to them. So I have to be careful not to do “Willie of Winesburg” next to “Johnny and the Shoemaker.” They think both are pretty, but they haven’t any senses that they’re different songs, especially if they don’t know the stories and they can’t catch the words.

For the Chinese audience, the concept of ‘listening to music’ is very different from what we’re used to in the West, and as a performer I’ve had to adjust to it. I noticed it the first time this fall when I went to a really excellent performance given by a Guangzhou opera company which came to Xiamen. It was the first time this play had been performed since the Cultural Revolution. The audience was eager to hear it, the room was packed, and there was one actor who was superb. I was puzzled by the fact that everybody was talking. Then I realized that they were talking about the play, everybody was discussing it, and if they hadn’t been, they wouldn’t have been enjoying it. That was their way of showing appreciation. They were interacting with the characters and the melodrama on stage and commenting about the voices. There isn’t our “concert respect.”

Personally, my favorite audience to perform for was students who were studying English, because the students in China are really enthusiastic about hearing Western music, and the English students understand and get the jokes. The older Chinese people who’ve never heard Western music are usually not interested in it. It’s a big problem for me unless the audience is a special group. They might want to hear one or two Western songs they’ve heard before, like ‘Old Susanna,’ but they get bored really fast. They’re just not interested and haven’t got the ear for anything new.

Chinese music

There are basically two categories of traditional music in Fujian or Minnan [South of the Min River, or Fujian]. In addition to the local opera, there’s Nanguan, a type of court music used for almost every occasion, for rituals, in funerals, as entertainment in a longer festival. It also had an opera form once. Nanguan is a very old musical form which dates back five hundred years. The music is sung, and it’s also instrumental. The songs are something like the medieval Provencal troubadour songs. Like the troubadour songs, Nanguan often expressed sorrow. It’s a very interesting, rather abstract music, very slow, very loud. It can be very expressive—really stunning.  Great music for a good tenor.

The four major instruments in Nanguan are a flat and hollow-sounding version of the Chinese lute which is held horizontally, a Chinese violin, the long Japanese bamboo flute or the side-flute, and a sort of snake-skinned banjo with three strings. There’s also the two-stringed bowed instrument held on the knee, and then there are all kinds of percussion instruments. The distinctive feature in Nanguan music is the singer, who holds the group together by keeping time with her clapper, which is made of three or four heavy wooden boards that are bound together at the top. The old-style singers, who are really the best, I think, hit the clapper very hard, very emphatically.  All of the Nanguan instruments also appear in the Minnan opera, which is the other category of Minnan music.

Ten years ago, when I first heard Chinese singing, I thought, “God, I’ll never understand this.” I really hated it. It is the completely opposite of the operatic booming technique of the West—more piercing and high. If you listen to a lot of traditional folk music sung in Ireland, Scotland, Yugoslavia, places like that, you find similarities in the sound, although the Chinese form is not a folk form, but a highly refined, trained vocalization. It fits with the tonal language. Minnan language [spoken in Fujian and Taiwan] sounds beautiful when it’s sung this way, so I think the sounds of the music were influenced by the sound of the language. The sound is produced in the upper part of the head, a higher part of the throat, and I think it was designed, like the shout-singing in Yugoslavia, to travel long distances without a microphone. It does travel really well, which may be connected with the fact that these events are always performed outdoors. If you listen to enough of it, you develop an ear for good singing. In fact, I have learned to sing some myself, but it’s very hard to learn a Nanguan song. I have a tape of very old people singing the Minnan folk music of Taiwan, which is dying out. There’s an old blind man on the tape—he’s now dead—and it’s amazing how much it sounds like an old black blues singer from Louisiana. The language is definitely Minnanhua, but otherwise you could be listening to Leadbelly.

Traditional music was suppressed during the Cultural Revolution. It’s made quite a comeback, and now the government supports it. For example, there are the Nanguan music groups in Quanzhou, the center of the Nanguan tradition, and the music festival that was held there. But the young people, particularly educated young people, have never learned much about Chinese traditions. They’ve only heard “disco” [Western-style popular music in general]. They’ve only heard ABC-CGF simple harmonies. It is very hard for them to hear the beauty in their own traditions unless they grew up hearing this music or having a sense of the larger traditions around it. In the countryside young people often still enjoy traditional music and often know someone who performs it. It’s played on the radio a lot, both here and in Taiwan.

There’s a lot of pressure in mainland China—but not in Taiwan—to make the music more “accessible,” which means to Westernize it or to modify it in some way. This happening all over China. So they’re adding new instruments that don’t belong, speeding up the rhythms, and acting things out—basically destroying the tradition. That’s happening all over now, which is quite sad.

There’s a definite bias against traditional vocal production. Recently I watched a television broadcast of a singing competition. There were some really good traditional singers, but they weren’t chosen. The young women being trained now want to be really feminine and pretty, and they barely make any noise when they hit the clapper. Today I read a newspaper article about modernizing some opera form up north and how wonderful it was that they were putting in an electric organ. The changes are being instituted partly because there’s such pressure on the opera companies from the government. Bureaucrats in charge of the cultural sections make decisions on aesthetic matters that they’re just not qualified to make.

When I was in Fuzhou just now, I had the most interesting experience I’ve had in China. Up on the mountain in Fuzhou is an organization called the Retired Staff Workers Propaganda Team. Every day from 2:30 to 5:00, between two and three hundred people hang out there by the temple for the most wonderful amateur performances of Fuzhou opera. It’s all very casual. There are rarely any costumes. The relationship between the participants and the singers is very fluid, as people might listen sometimes and then get up and sing. The whole thing is organized by and for the old people, though there were a few younger people involved as well, and the old people clearly love it.

I love traditional opera. Every region has its own opera, but even within Fujian there is a lot of variety in the operas, stories and plays, instrumentation, and melodies. In general, Southern music is more lyrical and melodic than Beijing opera, which has a lot of percussion and clanging and bashing. The instrumentation is very interesting and uses different melodies played against each other or the same melody played by all the instruments but with slight variation. It’s kind of counterpunctual. The percussion is quite complex because the rhythmic structures are melodic, too.

The plots are all about the social structures of old China. The marriage play is very Chinese. The production is extremely stylized. When it’s done well and the singers are good, it’s like motion under pressure, like ballet. Everything is done through slight and subtle gesture. The hand movements are important, so the hands are incredibly expressive. The clothing and the costumes are designed to accentuate that. Wonderful stylized characterizations, and very expressive faces. I love to go backstage and see the real actors before they put their makeup on, when they’re not on stage and they’re just normal people. You can see a wonderful transformation once they’re on stage.

In the West we really respect a fascinating individual actor. Here often the makeup is so elaborate and mask-like that it really creates an anonymity. The actor melts in, and the character doesn’t stand out as much. He’s just one piece in an entire jigsaw of the play, the costume, the colors and textures. The characters are symbolic, like the character types in comedia del arte. Within those restrictions you have really fabulous actors and actresses who can load the character type with much more emotion than they could with more realistic interpretations of the characters.

In China, theater has always been part of ritual, and ritual has a lot of theater in it. Traditionally, drama played an important part in Chinese culture. There are the traveling minstrel shows that go round from town to town, there’s the very casual erhu [Chinese violin] player with his cigarette dangling out of his mouth all the time. These groups have seen it all, they know their parts, and there’s a really wonderful, unpretentious social world you can see onstage.

Mother and Musician, Part 1

by on Friday, March 18th, 2011

Cute Chinese girl on a Xiamen street

On a few occasions when our little group of twenty or thirty foreigners got together in the Xiamen University #2 Guesthouse for a potluck dinner, we listened to an accomplished songwriter and singer of traditional British, European and Appalachian folk songs. Sue also saw China from the perspective of a Western mother, as she explained in this 1985 interview.

Sue’s story

I’d like to talk about being a foreign mother, the mother of a blond baby in China. This has really gotten to be quite an issue for me. With Carrie, my two-year old, you just can’t walk anywhere without attracting dozens of people. I get very tired of that. I went to the market yesterday and I could barely buy anything because people were poking at her so much and doing the various tricks they do with her.

There’s a game they like to play. She’s playing “it’s mine,” and they want to take away her bottle or her doll or whatever she has. Normally you’d say, “That’s fine, it’s good for a kid to learn that,” but when it happens with every social encounter she has in public, it really gets to be too much. She’s been very possessive of her things lately, and I think that’s one of the reasons. So I’ve started trying to explain to the Chinese why I don’t want them to do that. I don’t want them to think I’m a possessive mother, but I don’t like the pattern I see developing. They’re playing with her like she’s a little dog or something. They don’t ask. They just grab.

This morning I took her down to the beach because I wanted to just relax and read and let her draw and have a peaceful morning. I looked up and there were about four hundred people staring at us from the top of the wall. Then about half of them came down on the beach and started crowding around us and asking questions. She doesn’t really mind much of the time. She was born in France and has been around most of Western Europe, but she was too young to remember that. The only thing she remembers is living in Taiwan and then China. She speaks Chinese, and she loves Chinese people. For a while she was afraid of most Westerners and clearly identified with the Chinese.

But there are times when she doesn’t like being stared at or handled, and then she gets aggressive. If we’re on the ferry, and everybody is crowding around and trying to touch her, and she’s in a bad mood, she may start kicking at them. I used to make her stop, but I’m beginning to realize that that’s her only defense and it’s better for me not to interfere. So I just let her interact the way she wants. I figure she puts up with an awful lot more than most kids.

I would say that the Chinese are among the most child-loving people in the world. It borders on the obsessive at times. It’s my theory that in our culture people who like children interact with them, and the people who don’t like children don’t. In China there’s a real social pressure to play with children. Everybody has to play with kids. The whole spectrum of individual personalities and subconscious attitudes towards children comes out in the way people behave toward your child. You get lots of incredibly, amazingly wonderful people, some very helpful people, and then also people who are quite vicious—who in the States wouldn’t have anything to do with children. These people are all interacting with the kid, especially a little blond child. It’s not that the Chinese are any better or worse with kids, it’s just that the attitudes toward children are different. I’ve had two experiences where strangers slapped her just to get a reaction out of her.

The first time was when Bob was out of town and some of the foreign students asked me to come out on the town. Carrie had been really good all evening, but when we got to that sidewalk coffee place in Suming Lu [a main street], she wanted to run down the street. I didn’t want her to run too far, so I had her on my lap, and I was trying to restrain her and saying, “Look—you can’t—no.” This woman who works in the shop, who the other foreigners say is really a very nice, gregarious, outgoing person, saw that Carrie was being a little bit naughty, and she wanted to get a rise out of her. So she came over and just hit her face. At that time I didn’t have enough Chinese to say, “What are you doing?” She hit her again. Nobody else had seen this, but Nelly had caught a bit of it out of the corner of her eye. At that point I asked Nelly to tell her to stop.

Once we were in a restaurant. Bob was holding her, a man came up to her—he was a bit drunk—and said “yang wawa, yang wawa” [foreign baby] and tried to get her to kiss him, but she didn’t. She was in a mood, and she jerked her head away, so he slapped her face really hard. I don’t think he meant to hurt her. I don’t think he had any sense of what he was doing, like someone might push an animal to watch it react. It happens in China because, though people love children, many people don’t respect them as individual people. Among the twenty-odd fuwuyuan [maids or service personnel] who work at Guang Hai Yuan [Sea View Gardens], only maybe four of them are sensitive to Carrie’s needs and to her as a person.

I don’t want to give China a bad name because on the whole I would much rather have a child in China than in most other places. For example, whenever I go out to a restaurant there’s a person there who helps me look after her, and everyone seems to take responsibility for her in a way that they wouldn’t in Hong Kong or Europe or the States. Everybody in China plays with kids, from old men to teenage boys, in ways that certainly you don’t see in America, though you might in Italy. Here I sometimes find the sense of group responsibility for kids very irritating. Chinese people generally think they know better than Westerners about a lot of things, and they’re often telling me what I’m doing wrong. But on the whole I like it better than in the West, at least for a child like Carrie who’s been raised in the East and doesn’t have a fear of being handled by a lot of different people. It would be different for Western children coming here at the age of three or four.

Today there was an old man who lives down the road actually playing with her, and Carrie had a good time playing and talking with everybody. People love it because she speaks Chinese. Oh yeah, people run their hands through her hair all the time. I can’t walk down the street without someone doing that. She doesn’t mind as much as I do, and sometimes I don’t mind, either. It all depends on the mood I’m in, how much it’s happened that day and how much pressure I’ve been under. Westerners have a much stronger need for anonymity and privacy because we’re used to it.

It’s also true that we get about 50,000 times more attention than any Chinese person does. Many Chinese do not like their babies to be handled the way they handle Carrie. The children are often quite shy and quite afraid of foreigners. When I go over to pick up a Chinese child, about half of the parents say, “My God, what are you doing?”

The only way I can get a Chinese to understand my view is to say, “If this was your child, you wouldn’t want me to do that.” Immediately then the light bulb will go on. Sometimes if she’s in a really bad mood, kicking and crying and not wanting to be touched, I say, “You know, every day hundreds of people try to touch her, and they all stand around her and look at her. It’s too many people. She doesn’t like that. You wouldn’t like it either.” Then they back off. Otherwise it never would have occurred to them.

Carrie went to a daycare center for about a month and a half. She’s two years and four months old, but I put her in the room with the three-year-olds. She’s as big as some of the three-year-olds, and she plays with older children better than younger children. Also, the two-year-olds had a much smaller room. It was darker, and I just didn’t feel they got the activities the others did. Her best friend, her gege [older brother] is in the three-year-old class, and I wanted them to be together.

I stopped sending Carrie to the day-care center regularly, even though the teacher really wanted her to come. The main reason I took her out was that in this daycare center there are a lot of children who are often sick. Chinese parents both work. Unless there’s a grandmother at home, they have nowhere else to put a sick child, so the child is just sent off to school. I’ve got a Chinese friend whose child had bronchitis, and she was in school every day. I felt like saying, “The child’s not going to get any better if you keep sending her to school,” but there was nothing he could do. Carrie kept coming down with colds. I was just going to take her out for the winter—the center isn’t heated of course, and it’s very cold—and put her back in the spring, but then I began to realize there’s a potential problem with encephalitis here and she shouldn’t be in that environment until she’s been vaccinated in the States this summer. I don’t want her to have the Chinese vaccine or non-disposable needles.

Changing her diapers was also a lot of work for the teachers at the school. She kept coming home with diaper rash because the teachers didn’t have time to do it properly. They only have two teachers for fifty children. The teacher-child ratio in itself didn’t bother me as it would have in the West because she gets so much extra attention out here anyway. But the other kids have been potty-trained.

Traditionally, the Chinese family has a lot of people in it holding a new-born baby, and they observe when the baby has to go to the bathroom, and they hold it over a pot and whistle. After a while the child tunes in to the whistling and the family gets attuned to the child’s habits, and a conditioned response is established. Then small children wear split pants [with the inside seam left unfastened], so it’s easy for them to go themselves. You see them on the streets going in the gutters or inside in the spittoons. Since Chinese don’t have rugs on their floors, it doesn’t matter if they miss. People can easily clean it up. The children wear split pants until they’re anywhere from a year and a half to three years old.

Getting paper diapers in China is a big problem. You have to import them yourself from Hong Kong, and they’re so horribly bulky and very expensive. I’m using cloth diapers now and washing them myself, but that’s really a pain when you don’t have a washing machine or a kitchen or a regular supply of hot water. I was hoping she would train early, but now I think she’s actively resisting it. She started to show some interest, and I got too frustrated and angry with her and tried to push her too fast.

Chinese put lots of clothes on their infants, even in the summertime. In Taiwan I could never imagine how the babies could survive, they were sweating so much, but they do. I get a lot of people telling me she’s not dressed warmly enough. Sometimes I think they’re right. She’s gotten colds because I haven’t put enough clothes on her. At least they have more experience living in a subtropical climate.

Chinese kids are very well socialized. They seem to share much more easily and look after each other a lot more than American kids, and they are much more maternal at an early age.

I think all that’s going to change with the one-child system when the children don’t have younger brothers and sisters to look after. I think there will be the same problems of isolation and children being left alone to fend for themselves that we find in nuclear families in the West.

China won’t necessarily become a nation of spoiled brats, as some people are predicting, although there certainly are a number of them here. The Chinese are certainly aware of the potential problem and are trying to deal with it. There are a lot of one-child families where the kids have lots of things now, but in the countryside the parents don’t have the money or the time to give children a lot of toys and attention. Toys themselves seem to be a newly-acquired luxury. I know lots of children who don’t have any toys—not one. I bought a little boy two plastic balls, and he was amazed. He loved them.

In the countryside when people are working in the fields you see kids still being swaddled. The mothers or grandmothers tie the babies on their backs, and they’re held in pretty tightly. Bob was in a village and saw a nainai [paternal grandmother] take the child off her back. This was an 80-year-old woman who’d been carrying the child all day, as she did every day. When the weight of the child was off her back, she promptly bent over double. She could stand up straight only under the weight of the child. Can you imagine your grandmother doing that—carrying you around on her back all day?

Old people here are beautiful. They’re so strong and still. They look like they’re worn out, but they have a lot of character etched into their faces. It’s a different type of aging than you usually see in the West, very few people overweight or bored or very unhealthy-looking. You see old men and women on the street wheeling babies around. There is also a real community of old people. There are gathering places for them, and you get the sense that they’re really enjoying their old age. Age is very public here—in the parks and on the sidewalks there are old men playing cards or tending birds in cages. You see them everywhere. You can’t imagine China without its old people. They’re one of the most fascinating visual aspects for a foreigner. They’re incredible-looking people.

I think if you’re a really protective parent, and you’re very obsessed with cleanliness, and you really don’t like your child to be handled by a lot of people, then China’s not a good place to bring your children unless you’re wealthy enough to create a little Western environment. But if you’re more sui bian [casual] and like having people help you with your child, it can be very good. I think Carrie’s an extremely social and friendly child and very brave because she’s been raised in an environment where she’s gotten to know lots of people and has been exposed to lots of different things.

More Than One Right Way, Part 3

by on Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

My friend Lawrence is a confident, good-looking, soft-spoken man, a 45-year-old executive vice-president of an investment bank here in Seoul. When I asked him what he felt he had gained from his six years in Korea, he said, “Finding out that there is more than one right way of doing things.”  He enjoys watching people, and he speaks of his Korean colleagues with obvious affection. I suspect that he also enjoys molding himself to fit into different environments and circumstances.

Part 3

With the strict hierarchy of Korean companies, sometimes crazy things happen. When the president and I chose our office furniture, we were like two kids going through a Sears catalogue. Without giving it a second thought, we chose the same furniture, which meant that my desk was the same size as his. The bujang [manager] in General Affairs had a problem with that, but he couldn’t insult me by asking me to change my order. This was someone who liked me, too—it wasn’t an anti-foreign thing. Acting totally on his own, he ordered me a custom-made desk which was twenty centimeters shorter than the president’s desk but which cost more as a custom order.  Now, this other unit I have the computer on was supposed to fit under the desk so the whole thing formed an L. But if you tried that, there was no room for the chair.

So then I said, “It doesn’t fit together.”

He had a couple of meetings with the people in his department and then came back to me. “This is terrible,” he said, “there is no one else senior enough to have this desk. So we will have to abandon it.”

“What do you mean?”

“We will have to put it in storage and never use it. And then we can order you the other desk.”

I could tell he did not want to order a desk the same size as the president’s, although he might have readily agreed to another custom-made one that was a half-centimeter shorter. It was such a typical culture clash that the president and I laughed about it. It hadn’t occurred to him to plan for this eventuality. I was a little frustrated at the sheer idiocy of the whole process—this is just mass-produced furniture, for crying out loud. So in the end the image of the president was preserved, and with it the image of the company, but I sit here with an L-shaped desk that doesn’t form an L. It’s interesting, because in Japan that sort of thing is life or death.

The Koreans are called the Irish of Asia, and they’re thought to be emotional and quick to anger. I like that about Korea. In Japan I spent half my life trying to figure out what people were thinking—which the Japanese do as well. There’s this sense of shibui, or subtle understatement. The worst thing you can do is ask somebody directly, “What do you feel about this conflict?”  I saw some situations ten years ago where I think, looking back, nobody ever figured out what was really going on. In Korea I have always felt I knew within ten minutes what was happening—what the issue was and who felt what about it. I’ve had heated arguments about things that were important to both sides, like a disagreement between foreign and Korean shareholders. But afterwards we have forced ourselves to go to lunch with each other and then have quickly forgotten our differences.

Banking in Korea means putting up with a certain amount of government interference. According to law, all banks must have a Standing Auditor. We already have an accounting firm outside that audits the books. So his is a prestige job with no content, a no-work job which was created by government fiat right after the war to find dignified employment for military or government personnel after they were pushed out of power. These days they’re usually Ministry of Finance retirees. The Standing Auditor is the second-highest paid person in the company. We buy him a new car every two years, and he has a little putting green in his office and a secretary who’s never written a memo.

Our senior management, in a private corporation whose profits have tripled in five years, would be getting mega-bonuses in the United States. The president would probably earn close to a million dollars. Instead, he is not well-paid and, in the last five years has had only one five-percent raise. Every year our shareholders vote substantial salary increases, but we ignore the vote because theMinistry of Finance calls on the senior members to say, “As a show of solidarity with government employees please do not take raises this year. We need to restrain ourselves, to avoid conspicuous consumption and to demonstrate that we’re not wastrels.”  So you can give your staff raises, but don’t take them yourself. We’re audited by government agencies. If they found out that we had found ways to increase the president’s salary, they wouldn’t come in and insist that we fire him or take the money back, but the next time we applied for permission to launch a new product in the market or asked for an increase in the limit of money we could raise offshore, we’d be refused.

One of the shareholders of a Korean financial institution has a foreign car distributorship. He called up the president of the bank one day and offered him a luxury foreign sedan. The banker couldn’t turn down the shareholder. Within two weeks he got a call from the Ministry of Finance saying, “The presidents of merchant banks drive Hyundai Grandeur V6’s. Get rid of the foreign car.” He was never seen in that car again. He gave it to the foreign executive, who was delighted to have it.

There are six merchant banks here. We were forced to create an association so the government would have an easy vehicle for dealing with us—this was supposedly something we wanted. We’re also forced to be members of the short-term finance association, the credit association, the futures and options association, and there’s one other. We are paying over a million dollars in fees to these associations. In reality, the associations are retirement camps for Ministry of Finance people. The head of the associations receive Hyundai Grandeurs and very nice offices—some associations even bought their own buildings. By supporting them we curry government favor. These people have great prestige, but since they are not experts in the industries they serve, it’s hard to see what tangible benefit they bring to us.

The associations ask us for information, compile it and share it among all the competitors. So, for example, when we created an interesting new product, my boss at home said, “Well, that will give you about a year and a half leap on the competition.”

I said, “Try two weeks.”

President Ahn laughed and said, “He’s right.”

That product was suddenly being reviewed by the association, it would be explained to the government, and then everybody else got the specifics of it. If the association didn’t leak it, our staff would. They’d fax it over to their fellow college alumni at the other investment banks. So we’re knocking ourselves out just to stay average.

Possibly the reason why the president tends to be involved in the most minor decision of a company is that, as Representative Director, he is responsible for everything. I have a Korean friend who was president of a foreign cosmetics firm. In order to import the cosmetics into the country, you’re supposed to list the chemical contents of the box on the bill of lading. Well, these are gift sets of ten lipsticks, and the chemical composition varies minutely little from color to color. The sets are shipped in boxes of two hundred and forty with one list of chemical contents.

The Korean cosmetic manufacturers suddenly started worrying about competition from imports. They bought a judge. They had the government set up a special secret prosecutor, whose name to this day has not been revealed. Then they set up an investigation of my friend and five other importers. They bugged his office and his home. They followed him and his wife. They finally arrested him. He spent a total of eight weeks in jail without ever having been charged with anything. He was released just after the Christmas selling season.

One of the things they dangled in front of him was 2,400 counts of import fraud—each of which carried a penalty of up to ten years in jail—for each case imported. The company probably brought in a hundred cases a month. He had no knowledge of the fact that all the chemical contents were not listed. It was probably a decision made by the shipping manager so he wouldn’t be typing until next Tuesday—and running a separate chemical analysis for each color. But as Representative Director my friend was vulnerable.

In 1978 when I was here for my overseas office, times were much tougher. Korean businessmen worked seven days a week from early morning until very late at night. For example, one morning I ran into a Daewoo man at two o’clock after he’d been entertaining business associates, and at five o’clock I saw him again in the lobby of the Lotte Hotel, where he had to attend a breakfast. He’d had two and a half hours’ sleep.

We had strict energy conservation in those days because it was a poor country. The government was trying to direct every available dollar into capital investment to fuel the engine for exports. I would sit here in this building—which had just opened—wearing a winter jacket, heavy gloves and boots, with my feet on the space heater. I could see my breath.

If you compare 1978 with 1994, it’s night and day. Simple things could be very complicated in 1978. When we arrived we wanted to buy a telex machine because we had not been allowed to bring one with us. We had to buy it here. We went over the Hannam Bridge—in those days the city ended at the Han River—and took a dirt road through the pear trees for about an hour until we came to a shop with a concrete floor and a roll-up door, which allowed the wind and the dust to blow in on whatever they had for sale. They had two telexes available–one about twenty years old, and the other five or six years old. For the six-year-old machine they charged us six times the U.S. price of a new telex, and we also had to tip the man personally for selling it us. Then we had to hire a truck and tip the driver to be careful with the machine. In order to get a license to operate it, we had to hire a government-licensed telex-operator at a relatively high salary. In those days licenses only went to the daughters or sons of veterans’ families. The operator we hired did not know how to type or use the machine. We then hired a secretary, who actually operated the telex and gave some mail-room and tea-making duties to the telex operator. Then we needed to have wiring put in so that we could actually plug the machine in and operate it. We were told that was going to take six months because every electrician in Seoul was busy. It couldn’t be done. We bribed the electrician with about ten thousand won—fifteen dollars in those days—which was quite a bit of money, considering that I got the heat restriction bypassed in my office for two packages of foreign cigarettes, which was probably a dollar then.

In 1978, we used to have policemen stopping by regularly to ask, “Do you have anything for charity?”  Our charitable donations became a major expense item. Today there are many things you can do without bribing anyone, but Korean companies still have a percentage of their expenses that by law are not auditable by anyone. The percentage varies by the type and the size of company, but if you look at that category of expenses, you understand why you have the customers you do, why you have the relationships you have, why the government agencies are helping you or hindering you, and why the tax authorities are really nice to you or not. Every year the government tries to cut the corruption down a bit, but since the government has been the prime beneficiary in the past, the progress is slow.

The amazing thing about Korea for me is that this country responds. Korea has a great ability to move everyone together. Homogeneous societies are like that. And here there’s a much stronger middle class and a much more social consensus than in Japan. In other countries, government bureaucrats may be sitting on the tracks, and when they hear there’s a train coming they’ll say, “Well, it’s not coming for another five minutes. Let’s sit here a while longer.”  Koreans say, “Train!”  And everybody moves.

For example, government officials, concerned about rising residential real estate prices, said, “We’re going to build apartments,” and they built two million apartments in three years. Think of two million toilets and showers! Because nobody was equipped to produce that amount of porcelain in Korea in such a short time, in the end much of it was imported. Construction companies were working around the clock to build six satellite cities. It was a response to a need, if perhaps an over-zealous one. There was some inflation and some imbalance of payments because of the import component that wasn’t factored in, but everybody just jumped in and got it done. Sure enough, real estate ended. And I’ve seen that so many times.