Korea In The Global Beauty Flow

by Liz on January 28, 2015

in Fashion


Fashion editorial from South Korean magazine Neighbor (2009)

Makeup is an interesting gauge of modernity.

At least, that’s what I thought after discovering the work of makeup artist Seong Hee Park, a South Korean beauty professional based in New York.

Park is an artist with the blush brush. She’s done work for major Condé Nast publications, ELLE magazine, and South Korean fashion editorials.

Elle Korea

Fashion editorial from Elle Korea (2012)

And, if you’re in New York, you can catch her lecture at the Korea Society, at 6 p.m.

Park knows a great deal about Korea’s beauty culture, having served at the forefront of its transformation for 12 years. What’s really illuminating though is her own transformation as she worked with scores of South Korean celebrities and models, including K-pop group Wonder Girls and TV star Yunjin Kim.

“Applying Western beauty (principles) to Korean actresses was not natural and even decreased their beauty,” Park told me by e-mail of a key realization she gained over time. She added that living and working in New York made her gain a renewed appreciation for a more natural look for Asian women.

Park’s professional realizations confirm broader themes of beauty globalization that have historical roots in Asia.

In Korea, for example, beauty standards of the West were vigorously pursued because of the influences of Hollywood after the Korean War. American media’s definition of beauty, such as the ideal of the blonde bombshell, was narrowly defined and was probably not congruent to preexisting notions of female beauty in Korea. But fair skin, while previously prized, became even more laden with meaning. It symbolized cleanliness, hygiene but perhaps most importantly – with postwar progress that emulated America’s.

Of course, beauty values have changed in Korea because of globalization and with it, a movement toward preserving cultural integrity.

Having been sold a Western concept of beauty for decades, in a boomerang effect South Korean cosmetics companies sometimes take an Eastern approach to the packaging and presentation of their own products. Could the tide be turning?

Sulwhasoo, for example, which Park recommends (“it’s my favorite Korean cosmetics brand”), is an upscale line of herbal-based products – that’s in trend with going green but also uses a traditional Korean ingredient, ginseng.

And if the popularity of South Korean skin care lines in the rest of Asia is any indication, it might just be a matter of time for Korean brands to enjoy a regular following stateside.

All photos courtesy of Seong Hee Park.


Myeongdong Encounters

by Liz on May 25, 2013

in Travel

Myeongdong Street Scene. Seoul, Korea

First of all, a disclaimer: I am not a photographer.

But I like taking photographs.

For years, I shied away from taking photographs of actual people.

Which is ironic, because people are the only subjects actually worth photographing.

Last year in my first semester of graduate school, and thanks to great teachers at NYU, I’ve been making strides in photojournalism and videography.

I have a long way to go, but in the meantime, I use what I know, and do what I can to capture the fleeting moments of life.

This summer in Seoul I’ll be interning at the Associated Press, and I am greatly honored to be part of a bureau that includes Jean Lee and Foster Klug.

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with these photographs of Myeongdong in weekend mode.

Myeongdong is located in central Seoul (aka non-Gangnam), and it is a bustling hub of shopping, dining, and entertainment. Every day, crowds wash over the granite walkways like waves crashing the rocks of a beach in Maine. They leave behind footprints, and come away with shopping bags.

Writerly superlatives aside, I really like the first photograph. In a forest of urban anonymity, this lady saw me, and I saw her.

I like that she is not glaring at the camerawoman. Instead, she just acknowledges my presence, as she moves on.

But, for a brief moment, we ‘met.’

Oh, and I also like her bag, which I think is — for lack of a better metaphor — ‘Myeongdong style.’

And you can check out more Myeongdong style here:


Laughter, and a cart selling Korean celeb paraphernalia.


One of many couples.


He wanted another hat, as she tried to distract him.


Half-foot long soft serve ice cream everywhere!




A steady gaze against the backdrop of a poster promoting loans.


Smartphones as walking companions.


Cultural Symbols and Nationalism

by Liz on January 29, 2013

in Opinion

Source: Tumblr

With all the buzz about the clash of nationalisms in Asia today, I found my attention slowly turning towards less newsworthy but visually arresting items.

Like this captivating photograph of a Japanese geisha, whose finery, grace, and beauty underscores an important point about gender: because in Japan, even if men are politically powerful, it is Japanese women, or at least their symbolic significance, who carry the charged aura of their nation.

Nationalism in Asia, of course, and the visceral discourse that it naturally gives rise to, is an unending conversation mired in a bit of modern absurdity.

The long forgotten logic of East Asia, or even the subjective notion that it is somewhere ‘in the East’ didn’t really enter the national vocabulary until the mid- to late 19th century, a pivotal historical period that I’ve been studying independently.

It was around this time both destruction and creation took place, starting in Japan, then moving along the Korean peninsula and Qing China.

Which kind of brings us back to the geisha.

When I look at this picture, I see a powerfully seductive image of not an actual woman, but rather an abstraction of femininity that may be a paragon of Japanese culture. (And please do correct me if I am wrong.)

But perhaps on a more subversive level, I also see an expression and vision of the Japanese nation that binds the collective imagination. It stays on, it lingers. We remember Japan because we remember the geisha.

And it’s images like these, or Korean pop music, or even the Beijing Olympics, that posits a near-superficial cultural unity or a source of pride for an East Asian national.

What we forget, though, is that limiting Asian identities to the cultural-turned-national symbol, in a way, also creates paradoxical dependencies on these potent concepts that now differentiate one population from another.

They fuel the nationalisms that make the headlines, and encourages the hostilities we see today.


Seoul’s Gwangjang Market

by Liz on January 25, 2013

in Food,Travel

It was a chilly day when I visited Gwangjang Sijang in Seoul, but the subzero temperatures didn’t seem to bother some of Korea’s hardiest street stall entrepreneurs.

Most of them, nearly all women, were too preoccupied with pancakes on the griddle, or cauldrons filled with porridge.

Maybe it was because it was a Saturday, but the food stalls from north to south were packed! Which, to me at least, came as a surprise, because I’m quite familiar with this market.

My maternal grandmother fled North Korea in the late 1940s with two little girls (one of them, my mother). After the Korean War she began selling fabrics at one of the above-level floors of Gwangjang. She worked there, I believe, for five decades, and we would visit her. She would awake at 4AM, so this was the only way we’d actually see her during the day.

On our way home, we’d sometimes stop at one of the many stalls serving Sundae (Korean blood sausage), kimbap or tteokbokki.

But up until recently, there were never too many people at this market largely dominated by humble migrants from Hamgyeong and Pyongan provinces.

All that’s changed now, and it seems TV media, both foreign and domestic, may have had something to do with Gwangjang’s status as the new, hip place to be.

It’s interesting to note food in Korea, even the most ordinary everyday stuff, is fetishized.

Koreans used to eat to live. Nowadays, it’s safe to say, they live to eat.

The Korean market has always been a traditional feminine domain. Women seem to be doing all the money-making, and the day I went certainly proved this point.

But with a new woman president at the helm in South Korea, perhaps the political power-making will be in the hands of women as well.

So here’s to a new year, new pancakes on the griddle, and more importantly, to our appetite.

Gwangjang Market is located at 6-1 Yeji-dong, near Jongno-5(o)-ga station, Line 1, exit 8.


The Last Prince Of Korea

by Liz on October 31, 2012

in Opinion

Many people don’t know this — but Korea’s royal family was guaranteed into the mid-twentieth century to regain their role as monarchs if Korea was ever liberated from Japanese colonial rule. For Korea’s royals, it was only a matter of time.

The end of the second World War and the near immediate effect of the Cold War, though, dispelled any dreams of that possibility.

I’m currently researching the Daehan Empire (1897-1910) and came across this photograph of Prince Yi U (1912-1945) who was born after the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, and was educated and later served in the Japanese Imperial Army. (Note the uniform.)

He was intelligent. First-hand accounts testify he refused to take a second seat to his Japanese peers, excelling in the Japanese language and in his military education. And when pushed to take a Japanese princess as a spouse, he adamantly refused and instead wed a commoner, Pak Chan-ju, the daughter of Pak Young-ho, a politician and noted ‘Chin-il-pa,’ or pro-Japanese collaborator.

But the rest of Yi U’s biography remains murky. It’s plausible he worked assiduously for independence in his own way. But he worked his way up to the higher ranks of the Japanese Imperial Army, served in battalions in the Philippines and northeast China. He was, by most accounts, a loyal subject of Japan, until he met a tragic end during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

He’s also enshrined at Yasukuni, a Japanese memorial that has attracted controversy for its dedication to soldiers who died on behalf of the Emperor during the second world war.

Yi U’s mixed legacy is probably not a topic of discussion among South Korean historians, at least not on a public level. And it’s a telling sign of the kind of complicated issues surrounding the Japanese colonization of Korea that continues to this day.


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