The Big Issue (Gangnam Style)

Another stunning autumn day in the ROK capital. Trees are really showing off their warmer hues and the warmth is hanging in there. A beautiful day to venture around the world’s most trending districts, Gangnam.

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But I’ve jumped too far forward; the day really began (as it thankfully has all week) in the lobby of the Koreana Hotel, where we were met by our magnificent Korean Press Foundation enablers/saviours: Haejoo, Jiyoon, Claire and, on the bus, the raffish Mr Lee.
Returning to a world where a day of meeting a wide range of interesting people isn’t planned for me, and I get don’t get around town in a nifty bus…is going to be difficult.
There were a number of engaging meetings today, the diversity of which reflecting how much effort and thought has gone into this schedule. There were emissions-trading strategy briefings at the Korea Energy Economics Institute, a Roy Hill project overview at Samsung C&T, and a strategy Q&A at the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency. In all cases absorbing discussion ensued, and my business-card collection haemorrhaged.

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Add to this a marvellous bibimbap lunch and a wander around Gangnam in the sun…the day could not get better.
But it did. Late in the afternoon translator extraordinaire Claire and I headed off (dashing Mr Lee at the wheel) to the central bus station, where we met with the delightful Big Issue vendor, Mr Oh – known to friends and customers as ‘Killer Smile’, for obvious reasons.

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I hope to write Mr Oh’s story into a Vendor Profile for The Big Issue soon, as his account is better than a Korean Soap Opera: dragging himself up from homelessness and isolation; garnering purpose and hope for the future; even finding long-lost family after being spotted on a random TV interview… It was hard not to be moved by his story, or at the very least beguiled by that Killer Smile.

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A thousand goodbyes later, Claire and I were swallowed up by the tentaclous (I made that word up) Seoul Subway, and blurted out at the end of the line in Songpa. Then it was into a taxi for a ramble around the streets of western Seoul. Somewhere there, in a multipurpose space under a highway flyover, were the offices of The Big Issue Korea. Sharing the single-story building were a cafe as well as a hakwon (the ubiquitous evening tutorial classroom). I’ve realised that the two are symbiotic: the Korean study culture, where school/college students finish the main part of the day then take even more classes at a hakwon, has inevitably led to an insatiable desire for caffeine. This is why anywhere in Seoul you are never more than 17 steps from a gaudy outlet serving up caffeine in many forms.
Editor Mr Lee (not to be confused with that rapscallion bus captain) and the The Big Issue Korea staff generously took time out of their schedule (next-day deadline – my timing was abominable). They were happy to share their experience of putting out what has to be the world’s best-looking Big Issue magazines under a flyover in the Wild West of Seoul.

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Once again I hope to write more soon about the exchange, but I’ll say this much: The Big Issue Korea will publish the 100th edition next January; they are not satisfied with the look of the magazine (!) claiming they want it to look more analogue (Koreans are so crafty! – a gross yet accurate generalisation); the organisation arranges ballet classes for vendors…I’ll leave you with that.

To get back, all I had to do was say ‘Gwanghwamun’! It’s a subway station close to ‘home’.

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