Friday, March 26, 2010

Anniversary of Ahn Jung-Geun's Martyrdom

Today, March 26th, 2010, was the 100-year anniversary of Korean patriot Ahn Jung Geun's execution at the hands of the Japanese authorities. Here in South Korea, Ahn is one of the most celebrated names in the early anti-Japanese resistance movement. His familiar mustachioed face stared sadly out from newspapers and TV screens today as various historians, pundits and other notables commented on his impact.

In October of 1909, Ahn waited in the crowd at the train station in Harbin, China, and assassinated the first governor-general of Korea as he stepped out of his train to greet the assembled welcoming party. It was a largely fruitless act of defiance and, many argue, actually helped the Japanese to cement their hold on Korea, as it gave them an internationally acceptable excuse to take over Korea's police force and crack down strongly on the budding independence movement, in the name of maintaining the peace. Ito Hirobumi was no longer governor-general at the time, and during his tenure he actually had opposed the annexation of Korea, believing that Korea should remain a Japanese protectorate and maintain some degree of independance. Ito's successors were much less sentimental about Korean rights.

Nevertheless, for his one patriotic act of defiance, Ahn is a hero known to every Korean old enough to read, at least here in the South. I have to admit that I find the beatification surrounding this man a little disturbing. However laudable his motive may have been, he did in fact kill a man in cold blood. It cannot be denied that it took some stones for young Ahn to step out and open fire in front of the squadron of armed guards surrounding Ito, knowing that he would be arrested and executed for his crime. And I personally sympathize with the Korean feeling of powerlessness and their need to do something, anything, to strike back against the power that was eating away at their sovereignty. But in the largely Christian society of Seoul, what with their doctrine of "Thou shalt not kill" and "Turn the other cheek" and all that, I kind of hoped to hear more thoughtful debate about the spiritual consequences of Ahn's act.

Koreans don't have a lot of heroes of peaceful resistance from the colonial era, like a Ghandi or a Martin Luther King Jr., to fall back on. There were intellectuals and leaders of the independance movement who traveled abroad and wrote letters appealing to various foreign powers to intervene on their behalf, but as Japan's influence was too great and the Western nations had their own interests in Asia to protect, their words fell on deaf ears. In that light I can understand how someone like Ahn, who at least managed to take one for the team, could be raised to hero status. The Japanese, on the other hand, will always remember him as a "terrorist assassin."

My recent trip to Cebu further enlightened me on the way historical figures become deified over time, regardless of the merits of their acts. Cebu has the dubious honor of being the site where Magellan met his end during his historic circumnavigation of the world, killed at the hands of a chieftan named Lapu-Lapu in a local conflict Magellan somehow got mixed up in. Today, Lapu-Lapu is a hero with a town named after him and a large statue erected in his honor. At the same time, there is also a shrine to Magellan, and Magellan's cross is maintained to this day as one of the cities' most sacred religious relics. So it seems that for one historic act of violence, both killer and victim have been immortalized as heroes by the local population.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Vacation in Cebu Part 1

I took advantage of the break between semesters to go on vacation in Cebu, the Philippines, with my friend Yukiko from Kyoto. Our purpose was entirely relaxation; our daily mission was to gain access to some resort's pool or beachside area, and sit out reading books and enjoying the view. From this experience I put together a pretty thorough knowledge of the area.

We stayed at the Crown Regency Residences in the Guadalupe neighborhood of Cebu City, which was the cheapest of several Crown Regency hotels in the area. We certainly got what we paid for. The hotel staff were friendly and helpful, and breakfast was included every morning at a pleasant dining area. But many the advertised amenities, such as airport pick-up and mail service, were actually not available. In addition, the wi-fi service was frequently out of order, and the small hotel pool was "closed for cleaning" for the entire 6 days we were there.

However, because the pool was closed, we were given permission to use the nicer pool at the nearby Crown Regency hotel in Mactan, a smaller island connected to Cebu by 2 bridges. We quickly learned that Mactan was the place to go for beaches and luxury resorts, and we settled into a routine of taking a taxi over to some hotel in Mactan every day after breakfast, paying for a day pass which usually included various coupons and free lunch, and returning in the evening.
Poolside at Crown Regency Hotel, Lapu-Lapu

A taxi from our hotel to the beach shore of Mactan usually took 30-40 minutes and cost about 250 pesos ($5.50) but in the morning no taxi driver would take us there for less than a set rate of 300, claiming it was too far and  they couldn't get a fare going back. Aside from taxis, for shorter trips we also rode twice on the cheap local transport called the "jeepney", which is a converted army truck open the back, used somewhat like a small bus. The jeepneys stopped just long enough for passengers to jump in the back, and traveled in numbered routes for the low price of 7-9 pesos per passenger. My favorite thing about jeepneys was the way each was brightly painted and decorated with some theme unique to the owner.
One day we tried a "public beach"; our concierge directed us to a place in Mactan called Hadsan Cove, which was so filthy and covered with green weeds and algae that we immediately left it for the privacy of a hotel. Our taxi had already left, so we took another imaginative form of transport, the motorcycle-powered rickshaw.
I also saw variations of this using a bicycle instead of a motorcycle.

That day we spent at the Vistamar resort, which charged us only about 500 pesos each for the pool, which included 150 pesos "consumable" which we could spend on drinks, food, etc. It had not much of a beach, but a nice enough pool and seemed to be more popular with Philipino tourists than any other hotel we saw.

Another fun day was spent at the 40-story Crown Regency Tower in Cebu City. They offered a deal called "888", where for 888 pesos we got access to their beautiful open-air pool on the 11th floor, as well as buffet lunch, a 1-hour massage, and a choice of one of the adventure rides on the top floors. One was a ride which conveyed passengers around a track the outside of the hotel, tipping the car over at a 45 degree angle at some points for added thrills. The other, which we chose, was the "Sky Walk" in which we walked around an exposed catwalk on the outside of the 37th floor, harnessed to sturdy ropes which went around a clothesline pulley system, just in case we might get blown off. The wind outside the building was quite strong, and the sense of vertigo of being outside at such a height was exciting, but with our safety harnesses and under the watchful eye of our guide and cameraman, there was really no danger. We made one circuit around the building, and they showed us how to pose for various photos which we could then purchase. We were lucky that we just happened to do this at sunset, producing some stunning views of the city.
At the end we received cute little diplomas certifying that we completed the skywalk. I approved of the way this hotel had made maximum use of its tower, which was the highest building in the city by far. Most would be content to have just a boring observatory or maybe a restaurant on the top floor. They were planning to use the adjoining tower and another under construction to add more rides in the future, including a zip-line, some kind of giant swing, and a rock-climbing wall.

On the upper stories there was also a rooftop "sky bar", which looked nicer in the brochure and in fact served no alcohol (probably some silly regulation against drunk people on exposed 40-story balconies), and an overpriced buffet restaurant full of people flourishing their skywalk diplomas. We gave both of these a pass and ended up eating a wonderful dinner at Mr. Grill on the 21st floor. This was like a buffet except the trays contained cuts of raw beef, pork, chicken and fish, which you selected and then gave to the grill-guy to cook. Despite being quite cheap, it was some of the best grilled fish I've ever tasted, and we went home happy.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Moving Day

This morning I glanced out the window to see what my kitty was looking at, and saw that two moving trucks were operating side-by-side. In high-rise apartments in Seoul, people move their belongings up from the outside via these ladder-like conveyances that can extend up 20 stories or more. The person at the top hoists things in through the large sliding windows.