Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Cars and colours in Korea

Let's start with a topic everyone knows something about : cars.
What about them? Well, if you haven't visited Korea yet, here's what it is about them : in Korea almost all cars are either:
- white
- grey
- black
- any shade of the preceding non-colours

A little picture to illustrate this (this photograph, not from me, can be seen in context on the Korea Times online, here) :

OK. Let's be honest. It's true you sometime find a car whose colour is dark-blue, or marine blue (the same thing?), or some kind of dirty brown, but that's about it. No bright or even nice colours. None. Nada. Niente.
Why is that?
Hmm... I guess it's rather difficult to find a clear and definite answer to this question, but here is my interpretation.

We may better understand this phenomenon - I call it a phenomenon because for me it's clear it's quite peculiar. You don't really find this in Europe or the West in general, and I think also not in Japan - by having a more precise look at cars, vehicles, that appear to be coloured. I know I just mentioned that all cars are kind of monochromatic over here, but I should have mentioned "personal cars", because when you actually have a look around in Seoul, you will see in fact a lot of coloured cars, coloured vehicles, but all (most) of them, are not "personal cars" but either:
- trucks : construction trucks, firemen, etc.
- buses : all school buses are yellow - I mean ALL! to the point that it makes me wonder whether it's mandatory...and other ones are either green or blue.
- any kind of utility vehicles with some kind of "function". In other words, vehicles that are not of a personal use, but rather that are used by some kind of organization, institution or company. For example, cars from the City of Seoul, police cars, cars from any company as a way to advertise the company's services, etc.

There might be other examples that do not come to my mind at the moment, but you probably get the picture.

The main reason Koreans do not wish to have a coloured car is because they think it will make them stand out of the crowd, and that's something Koreans really do not want. Why not? Well, for one, standing out means being potentially open to criticism, and with the mentality of collectivism that dominates all aspects of Korean culture, everyone should do his/her utmost to be a member of the collectivity without creating any disturbances. And having a coloured car definitely creates something to look at. ie. something that can be a potential target for comments, be they positive or negative.

Since all cars are monochromatic, having for example a red car means people will see it much more than if it's white or grey, and so might (will) wonder why you departed from the norm; and departing from the norm can raise questions about you as a good, well-behaved member of society. As a result it can have some threatening, even if unconscious, effect on the collectivity as a whole and mean the owner of the red car will probably have to face more criticism than if the car were plain white. And who likes being the target of (potential) criticism?

This means that when you do have coloured cars (yes, you CAN actually find some), they are always almost (personal) cars whose aim is to display somebody's status. Sports cars are the best example. Of course, as we all know, it's not just in Korea that sports car are red (thank you Ferrari), but it certainly is a Korean exception that no middle-of-the range cars are coloured.
For example, a few foreign carmakers that are playing on this status image in Korea are Peugeot (Peugeot 206 range) and Volkswagen (with the Beetle). They target young and cool (and well-off) audiences who wish to project a fashionable image. In these cases the colour of the car fits with the image that the car projects.

Oh! I am forgetting something hugely inportant.
There ARE coloured cars that are not status cars (hmm...) and that are not vehicles with some kind of function. But you know what? It's quite interesting, because these cars are at the opposite range of the status cars mentioned above. Yes. The cheapest, and smallest, cars are often (always?) coloured ones. Isn't that great?
The cars displaying the lowest and the highest status can be found in colour, but not the other ones. It speaks volume about the vital importance of status in Korea, a subject that will certainly constantly come back in these posts.

Knowing that having a (small) coloured personal car displays to the world that you basically haven't got the money to buy a better (ie. bigger) one, why would anyone want to buy these? Well, for one, those who really haven't got the money, and, second, those who are not supposed to mind driving them because it fits with what people think about them, in other words, usually young female drivers; probably because cars are mainly a man’s thing in Korea, rather than a woman’s (but certainly not just in Korea). These cars can actually also be in some cases, status cars. But 'status' here is to be understood as 'cute'. Just like when you watch a little kid driving a car-toy.

I am quite serious here. The Korean society is a very macho, a male oriented society, and this remark will not surprise someone familiar with the culture. Women are more expected to play the cute role and be quiet rather than the opposite. Therefore it fits with the image of the cute little coloured car I am talking about. But I'll certainly have to come back to the place of women in Korean society in later posts. There's too much to say about this subject to afford not writing about it seriously enough.

I almost forgot. We can also find another type of drivers that drive these little cars. They are civil servants and company employees. The main reason for the use of these vehicles is linked to limited budgets. Since they are the cheapest cars, they are very economical for companies that have to provide cars to some of their employees or to a government with a small budget.

These remarks about colour do not actually mean that all status cars are coloured, because, in general, they are not anyway. Having a look at the most expensive cars in the Korean car market, we see that they are usually black, big, and with a chauffeur (not provided).
One of the largest Korean car is called "Chairman" or "new Chairman". And you know what? It really looks like they are targeting Korean CEOs. These are cars, literally, for "Chairmen". I know, it sounds quite depressing, and certainly is, from a non-Korean point of view (and probably also from a Korean one), but it all has to do with the importance of making sure people know your status straightaway, so that you get the attention, and the respect, you "deserve" as chairman of this or that company. Status, status, status, and status. Nothing else, nothing more. Do not think it's my obsession here, it's just that it's such a dominant element of Korean society that you cannot escape from it.

Cars and status are not something unique to Korea. In every country every given car has a precise status, a precise image, but it is certain that it is working quite differently in Korea. Belonging to a certain social class in (Western) Europe does not mean that you must buy a certain type of car. There are a whole series of factors that affect what car you buy and what colour you are interested in, but, in the end, the society at large will not pressure the potential buyer into getting a precise model. In Korea, the general feeling is that you should drive a car appropriate to your class. ie. driving a bottom-of-the-range car while belonging to the upper class is a big no-no, and driving a yellow beetle if you're professor of French at Seoul National University would be most inappropriate (that is, if you are a male and Korean).

Coming back to the non-personal cars, it is interesting to mention taxis.
Strangely enough, and I will take that as an exception, Korean taxis are usually grey, white or black. Well, I say "strangely enough", but it actually fits with the rest of my interpretation of this phenomenon, for the simple reason that a person who takes a taxi might wish to be discrete the same way he/she is when taking his/her own car, since it basically has the same purpose: discrete personal transportation.
It is also important to note that, in Seoul, you have basically two different kinds of taxis, the regular ones, that look like any ordinary car mentioned previously (the black and white personal ones), and the "deluxe" ones, that are actually quite different. How are they different? Well, it is revealing to observe that these "deluxe" taxis are ALL, with no exception whatsoever, black. What a coincidence. It fits with my previous comment about the top of the range cars, which also happen to be black.

To end this post here, let me go back to this rule of (non) colour. Let's make things clear, you will always have exceptions to this, but, as we say in French, the exception confirms the rule, and if anybody disagrees I would be glad to hear other arguments on the subject, anytime (as soon as there will be people reading my posts...hem...).

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