Friday, June 17, 2011

Yahae! in the WSJ

In the old days (i.e., 2009 or earlier), yahae (야해) clothing or dress may have been described as slutty, but today the word appears to have become synonymous with a different kind of whore, the media type.

If you read Metropolitician's site, then you know all about his latest venture, Yahae! magazine. And I say "latest" because he really does churn out an awful lot of projects.

I am ambivalent about this one. I have already said my peace about the title of the magazine over at ROK Drop...
“Yahae” seems like the kind of title a non-native Korean speaker would think sounds really edgy but a native Korean speaker would find very grating. At least one native Korean speaker concurred with that opinion, but that person is slightly conservative.

Anyway, nice to see Metro is putting up fashion photos of people who clearly know their picture is being taken. ...

But it’s your magazine to succeed with or fail, and I know I couldn’t convince you one way or the other. I think, however, you’re being a bit careless to dismiss anyone who might caution you against it as conservative and square, as some might enjoy the content but think the title itself may bring unnecessary stigma to your venture. Sometimes listening to critiques is a crucial step in success.
Anyway, I'm putting up a post on this because somehow the Wall Street Journal's ROK(news)hound, Evan Ramstad, found out about the mag and decided to do a piece on it:
The South Korean media almost never miss the story when a Korean, or someone of Korean descent in another country, wins an international competition.

But Han Min-i didn’t get much attention for winning the 2010 Miss International Queen Crown in Pattaya, Thailand, last fall. The beauty contest is for transgender/transsexual contestants, which doesn’t jibe with South Korean cultural conservatism that’s reinforced by its no-risk media.

Now, a new online fashion web site in Seoul called Yahae is trying to push the envelope. And in its first “issue,” Yahae over the next few weeks will publish a set of stories about the challenges faced by sexual minorities in Korea. Its cover photo features Ms. Han in shimmering silver.
I'm not so sure I agree with Mr Ramstad. If transgender/transsexual issues "don't jibe with South Korean cultural conservatism" to the point of mainstream media exclusion, then just what the heck was the whole Harisu phenomenon all about starting ten years ago?

Seriously, Harisu (하리수) was inescapable. The media followed her every move, with ubiquitous bikini pics, news stories, gossip columns, etc., etc. Even nudes (NSFW!). Even a tampon commercial (now, come on... that is edgy)! Most of the coverage was quite positive, and she was a hit. All in "conservative" South Korea, even in its most conservative mainstream media outlets.

So if there's anything that "doesn't jibe," it's Mr Ramstad's description of what has been going on. I'm not even sure if what he's saying about Han Mini "not getting much attention" is even true. Her name brings up 210K hits, and if you Google her name in Korean (한민희), 1위 (first place), and transgender (트랜젠더), you still get 18.5K results.

Granted, those aren't Harisu numbers (1.64 million!), but that could just be an indication of a relative lack of interest. I mean, seriously, are people required to be interested in a transgender beauty contest? Maybe, just maybe, the phenomenon is a bit old hat.

But that leads me to another point, and maybe I'll get flak for this, but to some degree, Metropolitician is engaging in something akin to cultural imperialism. He has decided that Korean society is too conservative and square because — in his view — there are few people who share in the envelope-pushing interests he has (e.g., acceptance of transgender people as exemplified by interest in international transgender beauty contests), and so he is going to foist it on them.

Now, to be fair, I may be making a facile judgement about Yahae! magazine based on what Mr Ramstad is writing about it. Mr Ramstad may have cherry-picked the most unrepresentative article in the early bunch and I shouldn't conclude anything from it. In fact, I do like some of the articles (the Korean-language HPV awareness one focuses on an academic interest of mine), and I think it is great that Metropolitician is able to create such a wide venue for his photography and fashion interests.

I do feel compelled to address one other thing. Frankly, as someone working his arse off to concurrently get a PhD and a master's degree while juggling some serious family issues, I would never label myself as a "professor" or effectively talk about my PhD as if I already have it. But Mr Ramstad seems to be elevating Metropolitician to such a level:
The founder and editor is Michael Hurt, an American professor in Seoul who is well known for his photography and advocacy of Korea’s budding fashion industry.
I have utilized my master's degree to teach at two American universities and one Korean university, but I was a lecturer (강사), not a professor (교수), and I would correct people if they called me the latter. My résumé clearly says lecturer. If Metropolitician is teaching at a university that has given him the official title of kyosu, then so be it. But I'm skeptical, and PhDs are hard enough to earn that those who haven't yet done it (and I don't believe Metropolitician has, even though he talks about being "a Ph.D. candidate" from time to time) shouldn't be purloining that honor.

Actually, I do have a point that I wish I'd made some time ago, but if he hasn't completed his degree yet, it's still valid: at some point one is probably going to have to make a decision to pursue either these pet projects or the doctorate itself. Five years ago, Metropolitician wrote of being a PhD candidate, but he still seems to be no closer (I haven't heard or read anything about it). Either finish the doctorate or just admit that you've given up that goal and stop talking about it as if it's a credential you've accomplished. That's what you need to do to claim things like this:
I will be blunt – I am one of the most academically highly qualified and directly experienced foreign educators in Korea. Since I know that Korean society tends to respect credentials, I will begin there.
I don't say this to be mean; I actually mean it as a form of tough love. My ex let herself get sidetracked from her master's degree for what turned out to be a very long sabbatical, and it was my egging her to just hunker down and actually do it or admit you've given up that nudged her back on track. It was tough, but she picked up the pieces again and finished it.

Okay, okay. This is beginning to sound like a Ramstad-Metro bash fest (not that I would ever be critical of Metro), but I don't mean it to be. I would really like to see Metropolitician's magazine succeed. Really. But I also would like him to realize that getting this project to the level of sustainability that others have not reached might require him listening to — and sometimes actually heeding — advice and constructive criticism that he in general is a bit loath to hear and follow.

And HERE, ladies and gentlemen, is the magazine's site itself. Go read.


  1. I apologize to the Metropolitician for Korea not being "progressive" enough and loving "lady boys" just as much as the Thais do... :P

  2. Titling a magazine "Yahae" is about as wise as titling a magazine in the U.S. with the term "Sexy." It's a little tacky and overt.

  3. Metropolitician asked me to post the following comment from him because he's having HTML problems that prevent him from doing it himself.

    Just saw this post.

    Yeah, I need to finish my degree. But taking some quote from some old post or most likely, some bio (these are generally written to make one look qualified for what one is doing) and making it out to be like I go around introducing myself this way in public is silly. You could go through my blog, take a line about something, and fit it into whatever pattern you'd like, but in the end, you've never met me, and it's funny how very, very off you are in terms of my actual personality (or real issues in my life) you are.

    As for me not completing projects, I guess you're keeping some kind of tally? I start all kinds of projects, some of which do quite well and serve me well (my blog Metropolitician and Feetmanseoul, which Yahae! is really an evolution into) and some just peter out after they've run their course (my podcast, which went on for around 4 years, but was a great experience for me and through which I met a lot of cool people), or SeoulGlow, for which I never got the subtitling support I needed, but gave it the good college try for about a year. Others in more recent years, like Korean Media Watch, never got off the ground, as that one simply didn't seem to hit a nerve with the community I was aiming at, so I got the hint. Hub of Sparkle actually did quite well, because of Roboseyo's effort, and from jump, I never wanted to be too involved, since I know my name sets off something in certain people. It got taken out by a root-level malware invasion of the database (it had been like the 4th major attack, and for some reason, a lot of nasty ones were going around then), and even a friend who is a professional wizard/wonk/consultant in the field said the site was basically toast unless I wanted to spend big energy and time fixing it. So, had to let it go.

    This is one reason I learned my lesson, keep my main blog on TYpepad, and am sticking to public companies for Yahae! I don't want to deal with these kind of things again, and also, it's an experiment in social media.

  4. Metropolitician's comment continues...

    Will it work? I'm not sure. But I have the connections from Feetmanseoul with many major designers, got a lot of great experience that I never could have gotten in the pretty closed-off field of fashion, published a book that I am still quite proud of, despite the fact that yeah, had I known what I did then, I'd have done some things differently, etc. From my podcasting, blogging, and photography, I make a living off of teaching photo classes, something I love to do, and I think I've succeeding in my goal of streamlining all my interests/activities into a single place, have successfully done what many of us know is hard to do, which is find a way to make a living without teaching English while doing what one loves to do, and for every experiment/misstep in the past, I feel I'm learning, upping my game, and getting better.

    Which is how life works. If I were afraid to try new things, or too dumb/stubborn to realize when something isn't working (as I guess you think is my flaw), I wouldn't be here with a magazine that is actually receiving good responses from my target audience (which isn't older, conservative Korean ladies who work in an office, but are the young, irreverent kids who hang out in Garosugil and smoke in the open at Coffeesmith).

    Not taking YOUR advice isn't the same as being too stubborn to take ANY advice, Kushibo. I've done the diligence, asked around, and considered many opinions, had many conversations. And in the end, one has to make a decision, from the name to the font to the picture on the cover. And I think it's pretty good. Sorry that makes me an egomaniac.

  5. And the final installment of Metropolitician's comment...

    And in the end, you're simply wrong about the meaning of the word. The original meaning, for most of the time the word has existed in Korean as adapted from the original Chinese character that means "glowing" as in a hot piece of metal, is more akin to "gauche" or "gaudy." In Korean, even until the late 1990's, it was used to mean "화려하다" which can be translated to mean "overly colorful" or "aesthetically standing out" and such. Only recently did the meaning come to mean "overly sexy" (it doesn't just mean "sexy" by the way, which is used by Koreans exactly as it is in English, which is "섹시하다" and is even heavily punned, as in '색시" which means "young girl"). In a nutshell, the term is used to describe the girl who, up the 1990's, was so brash as to wear a brightly-colored coat, or color all their toenails (it was considered too much to do them all, and "nice girls" didn't), or have a "yellow hair" perm. It was not just about sex, but what was socially (and stylistically) acceptable. And that's the message the brand is trying to mine -- it has a story behind it, but yes, the name raises eyebrows. But it's also the first thing ask me about for interviews, and it sticks in people's heads. And I'd take it over the pap names like Ceci, Cindy the Perky, She's, or With ANYday. And the girls who get the name, GET it. And those who don't, 1)aren't my target audience anyway, but funnily enough 2) might still buzz about the name, anyway.

    If anything, the content will define the brand/name, not the other way around. And in the end, here we are, debating it, you posting about it, and yeah, Evan Ramstead writing it up. And in the little over a month since we soft-launched, I've gotten to around 200 daily unique visitors a day, which it took my little blog FMS more than a year to get to. It's not huge, but not a bad start.

    My point is that there are lots of good arguments -- on both sides -- about the name, strategy, etc. I listened to a lot of people, had a lot of conversations, and finally made a decision. I'm sorry it's not the one you think I should follow, but not listening to YOU doesn't equate being obstinate in general. It's not like I slapped my forehead and yelled "Doh!" because I didn't know the critiques you bring up. I didn't just look up a word in the dictionary and use the first one listed. There's a lot of thought and strategy behind it, the name itself IS somewhat of a risk (especially as older, established Koreans are concerned, who might be dismissive of it because of the "negative" connotations), but I think the benefits of a strong, decisive name that makes people look twice is worth it. Most importantly, my target audience seems to get it.

    And hey, this is coming from the guy who named his street fashion blog "FEET MAN SEOUL." And I got all kinds of crap for it. But ya'll apparently don't have a sense of humor. (Remember the original "Fat man seoul?") But I'm not stupid, either. In Korean, a person who walks the street knows a lot of people -- someone who is connected "has wide feet." It's a popular expression, and Koreans "get" it differently than westerners did. And when people saw the content, they ignored the funny name. It got me to the Korean fashion runways, in front of Korea's top designers, and made me a known entity in the Korean fashion industry.

    So I guess I'm not a total, egomaniacal idiot.

  6. Anyway -- thanks for posting that (I finally remembered that I could sign in from Google), as I am the type of person who likes to engaged in debate, and I DO care what others say, although I may not agree with them all the time. Otherwise, why do you think I am always explaining myself, taking the time to write these things out, and address people's arguments, point-by-point?

    Some people seem to think that makes me somehow weird or sensitive. I simply take things as they are -- if someone has some points to hash out, I'll do it. If someone is making all kinds of criticisms, I feel the need to address them.

    As in this case -- I've launched a magazine, it's getting reactions, and if I feel some people are misunderstanding or misexplaining the message, it's my responsibility to at least try to participate in the conversation.

    And hey, even that's buzz, in the end.

    See you 'round the Net!

  7. Tomorrow is (temporary) moving day, which means today is boxing day, but I wanted to at least set the record on the following comment.

    Metropolitician wrote:
    And in the end, you're simply wrong about the meaning of the word. The original meaning, for most of the time the word has existed in Korean as adapted from the original Chinese character that means "glowing" as in a hot piece of metal, is more akin to "gauche" or "gaudy."

    I'm "simply wrong about the meaning of the word" or you simply don't read through conversations you're a part of?

    Over at ROK Drop, in response to a thread about you and in which you were participating, I wrote: "And rather than 'gauche,' I thought the pre-sexy feel of the word was more like gaudy." So obviously I'm not "simply wrong" about the meaning if a month later you're in apparent agreement about it, at least partly.

    In Korean, even until the late 1990's, it was used to mean "화려하다" which can be translated to mean "overly colorful" or "aesthetically standing out" and such. Only recently did the meaning come to mean "overly sexy"

    Define "only recently." I heard it frequently used to mean sexy or especially overly sexy at least by the mid-1990s, when that word because such a euphemism. So it's been at least a decade and a half, and I would say now that gaudy, though still a major meaning of the word, may be the secondary meaning, behind overly sexy.

  8. Well, whatever the history of the term, you've got to go with the current meaning, how society defines it now because that is what the word means NOW and that is how people are going to see it even if they know the archaic definition. Why people would even think of such a definition for a MODERN magazine aimed at TODAY'S women is just boggling. But, of course, some people can never be wrong even if they have to b.s. about it to stay "right". lol.


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