Latest posts by Martin Moodie (see all)
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And so to the final day of 71 on the road since departing Hong Kong for London. I’m in Seoul, capital of the Republic of Korea, a country dubbed ‘The Land of the Morning Calm’. Given a pandemic that refuses to be curbed here, there is little that is calm in this land or in its sprawling capital right now.
Yesterday in this city of some 9.6 million people, 498 were newly reported as COVID-19 cases. A tiny proportion you might contend (London, England is running at around 3,800 daily cases out of a population of some 9 million) but that’s rightly not how the authorities see it here. With new infections continuously cropping up, the authorities have decided to extend the Level 4 distancing measures – the strictest in a four-tier system – for the wider Seoul area until 22 August.
My Interim Seoul Bureau is the excellent Shilla Stay Gwanghwamun overlooking the magnificent Jogyesa Temple, which dates back to the late 14th century. About the same age as me, then, or so it feels, having been woken at around 4am every morning to the chants and rhythms of morning services, the giant Dharma Drum and temple bell resonating their pre-dawn chorus. Lovely, of course, but not what one of life’s perennial insomniacs needs after finally managing to doze off.
But I quibble. This is a place of beauty and tranquility. The main courtyard is graced by two 500 year-old trees, a White Pine and a magnificent 26 metre high Chinese Scholar (tree not person, just for the record) that seems to stand guard over the temple.
I had planned my Seoul schedule many weeks back in the belief that I would be able to have a series of business meetings but the pandemic has put paid to many of them. Yesterday though I had the great pleasure of catching up for lunch with travel retail industry veteran Allen Hong and the dynamic duo which owns beauty and fashion distributor After J International Corporation Eunkyung (Lydia) Lee and Hwasun (Hannah) Kim.
I wrote about After J earlier this year, relating how the company is now bringing an eclectic range of Korean fashion and beauty brands to the Hainan offshore duty free sector.
After J is far more than a trade agent; it is a full service provider to retailers, manufacturers and brands. Benefiting from Lydia’s and Hannah’s former senior roles with Lotte Duty Free and AK Duty Free, respectively, it handles all aspects of retail store operation from product supply, sales, promotions and marketing to training and in-store installation.
I’m glad to see their business already off to a promising start in Hainan, testament to their professionalism, integrity and hard work. And also to their wise decision to work with Allen Hong, who has a perhaps unrivalled knowledge of the Korean duty free business and a great insight into travel retail in general.
We dined in traditional style at the wonderful Jihwaja in Jongno-gu, where it is no overstatement to say I was treated like a king. That’s because the restaurant (which carries National Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 38 status) offers banquets based on traditional royal court cuisine.
We had the Daejanggeum Mancha, a sumptuous seven-course re-enactment of royal banquets inspired by TV drama Dae Jang Geum. ‘Jihwaja’ (지화자) is a traditional saying when one is toasting (a little bit like ‘Cheers’ or Sláinte).
I suspect there will be many toasts to After J in the future. Here’s a company that enjoys tremendous trust from brand principles. Lydia and Hannah are looking to add more international brands to their portfolio both in Korea and China so if you’re seeking a quality representative here, look no further.
After yet another COVID test on Friday, this time at the excellent Seoul National Hospital University, my wife Yulim and I are all clear to head home to Hong Kong. Having had my (nostril) fill of testing centres in recent weeks, I have concluded that there is something terribly barren and alienating about these unfortunately necessary facilities.
It feels like you are turning up to an army barracks for duty, but instead of being decked out in military kit you simply have a cotton bud shoved up your nose with varying degrees of dexterity according to who is on the other end of the implement. I won’t miss the experience in the weeks and perhaps even months ahead without further travel.
This afternoon I will head to Incheon International Airport early so that I can get a close-up look at how this world-class airport is being affected by the crisis. The airport served 288,664 passengers in July, up +31.9% year-on-year which sounds good but isn’t really. That’s because in July 2019, 6,179,014 passengers flew into or out of Incheon, a -95.3% disparity.
I will at least add to Incheon’s much-depleted duty free revenues before I depart. With a two-week hotel quarantine starting on arrival, I’m going to need a little quality liquid sustenance to help sustain the website that never sleeps. Jihwaja!
SCENES FROM SEOUL