All work, no play once made the Korean capital a sober and somber city. But the dictators are gone, the economy is booming, and the culture and nightlife are exploding. Here’s one longtime expat’s take.
Story by Dave Hazzan, Photos by Jo Turner
(feature photo: Sean Pavone/iStock)
Seoul Central Plaza. A very hot and humid Sunday in June. Twenty-thousand LGBT partiers and their friends are having a wild time at the city’s 16th annual Korean Queer Culture Festival and Pride Parade. There are cans of cold beer for everyone, cocktail stands preparing the most exotic beverages, chilli dogs and bratwursts for the hungry.
People lie on the grass, snuggle and kiss, drink and watch a succession of drag shows, all-lesbian choirs, and the maddest dance routines this side of Copacabana.
All around the cordoned-off plaza are fundamentalist Christian protesters, denouncing everyone inside for their sin—but never mind them. They are the old Korea, the old Seoul. There is barely anyone under 50 out there, whereas within the square it is all ages, not to mention all ethnicities and sexualities.
At 5:30 in the afternoon the gates of the plaza open, and the parade begins winding its way through one of Asia’s greatest cities. Men and women, in drag and otherwise, dance on floats to the latest K-pop hits, as well as Lady Gaga, Pharrell and Daft Punk. Every so often the parade is met with more fundamentalist protesters, but they aren’t jeered or yelled at, they are cheered.
There is a blanket feeling of “You can’t bring me down!”
It is a feeling of exuberant joy, one that would have been considered wrong in the past, and not just because it celebrates queerness. Such glee was wrong for its own sake. Life is hard, Koreans once said. Life is serious. Life is not to be frittered away enjoying yourself.
Those days are dead and buried, next to most of South Korea’s long-forgotten dictators. Koreans still work hard, there is no doubt of that—office workers routinely spend 14 hours a day in their cubicles. But this is not a story about how Koreans work. This is a story about how Koreans play. And Seoul is Play City.
Located in the centre of Seoul, Gwangjang Market was founded in 1905, during the last gasps and incarnations of the Joseon Dynasty, Korea’s final kingdom that had ruled for more than five centuries.
In 1910 the country was annexed by the Japanese, resulting in 35 years of savage foreign occupation. When Japan lost the Second World War, the peninsula was split between the Soviet-occupied North and the American-occupied South. In 1950, the North (soon to be backed by Communist China) invaded the South, precipitating the infamous U.N.-sanctioned Korean War, a three-year conflict that ended in an official stalemate at the 38th parallel, where the peninsula remains divided today.
A series of military dictators in South Korea swept away the impoverished old Korea and built the new, prosperous one; but they did it by pointing guns—sometimes literally—to the backs of people’s heads. Democracy finally came with a popular uprising in 1987—a de facto revolution—and that’s when Koreans slowly, and then quickly, learned how to enjoy themselves.
Gwangjang market is a wondrous hustle and bustle. Two stories high in most sections, it is a spider-web of long alleys where you can buy everything, from offbeat second-hand clothes to ginseng to material for hanbok, the traditional Korean dress still worn at weddings and other special events. Where we entered it was miles of bolts of fabric, being fondled and appreciated by dozens of Indonesian buyers in long dresses and hijabs.
The five of us pushed our way through the crowd: Lauren Andrews, 32, the most hilarious Newfoundlander to ever wear cat’s-eye glasses, bright orange hair and a polka-dot dress; Terri Easter, 23, transplanted a year ago from Tennessee, who believes yoga pants are a religion, beer is a vitamin, and the purpose of life is to squeeze the maximum fun out of it; Jessica Tate, 27, her legs still smarting from fresh tattoos down both thighs, a fierce look in her brown eyes, her Alabama drawl like honey straight from the comb; Jo Turner, 34, the most beautiful and talented photographer to ever leave New Zealand for the Hermit Kingdom (and my wife); and myself, Dave Hazzan, 39, from Ottawa, 13 years in and around Seoul as a teacher, writer and general bon vivant, even if some of those times have been a little too “bon” for everyone’s taste.
Through the bolts of fabric and Indonesian buyers we snaked, working to find the core of Gwangjang Market—and when we found it, it was exotic pandemonium.
There are hundreds of food stalls in the covered market, and on any given day there are tens of thousands of people looking for a nibble and a drink. The stalls were mostly manned by older women in aprons with their hair tied up, sometimes under plastic caps.
Behind glass they displayed their offerings: tteokbokki, small cylindrical rice cakes covered in fiery hot sauce; soondae, pig’s intestines stuffed with glass noodles and served with sliced liver; jokbal, or sliced and steamed pig’s trotters; and dalkbal, chicken’s feet, sometimes with the bones removed, sometimes not, but always smothered with more fiery hot sauce. All of it is served with cold beer and soju, the clear liquor virtually every Korean drinks, usually to enormous excess.
The point of a place like this is to get lost and let the crowd push you along. Koreans have no compunction about banging you with their shoulders and arms, and in a crowd like this, you should have no compunction about banging back. We were thrust forward through the mass like bubbles through the ooze, until we finally stepped off and over onto a bench.
We sat down at Grandmother’s House Sausage, a food stall going now for 50 years. We ordered pig’s and chicken’s feet and plenty of beer and soju. The titular grandmother who ran the place was happy to have foreigners and fussed over us, making sure we got exactly what we wanted, how we wanted. She laughed, and particularly seemed to like Jo and Lauren’s hair.
Eating at street stalls in Seoul involves a certain etiquette, mostly about keeping your elbows in so others can squeeze in next to you. You also need to stay calm in the storm, keeping out the thousands behind and before you. It’s like having a picnic in a war zone, and it takes some getting used to. Jo, my lovely wife, has been known to push back against others when they get too close, causing a wave in the stream that can continue for a hundred metres.
The jokbal was sliced about a quarter-inch thick, and you dip it into pink rock salt and shrimp brine. The chicken feet were boneless, rubbery and very spicy—it was kind of like eating uninflated balloons dipped in hot sauce.
The soju and beer, even in a place like this, should be served following proper etiquette: from the bottle into the glass, with two hands. Always pour for your tablemates, starting with the oldest and never for yourself—pass the bottle and let someone else do it. Since I was the oldest I got served first, and then we went down the line, with Terri, as the youngest, getting the last glassful. I also had the privilege of making “the tornado” in the bottle: you hold the bottle upside down (it’s about the size of a regular beer bottle) and shake it around in your hand until the bubbles inside make a funnel. It’s important to keep a firm grip on the bottle because if you let go, it could go flying into someone’s head.
When I asked who wanted beer, Lauren gave me a sharp look through her cat’s-eye glasses. “I,” she said, “want somaek.”
“Now let’s be reasonable,” I said. “It’s only 4:00 in the afternoon. We have the whole evening ahead of us. Is it really somaek time? Even your Newfoundland ancestors might consider this going a little overboard.”
“I,” she repeated, “would like a somaek, and if you will not pour it for me, I will find someone who will.” Jessica was already reaching for the bottle.
“Very well then,” I said, snatching it before Jessica could get her grubby rebel hands on it. “Don’t blame me later when you are seeing Gwangjang Market upside down.”
So I prepared her a somaek. I filled her glass with beer, and then she dropped the glass of soju in it, and drank it down. Somaek, so named after the soju and maekju (beer) that goes into it. I have only thrown up twice in the past two years, and both times were thanks to messing with somaek. Unlike a boilermaker you can’t really taste the soju in the beer, so it’s easy to drink too much/get really drunk. But Lauren is a champion, and also seven years younger than me, so hopefully she could handle it.
“Again?” I asked.
“Not yet,” she said, letting it settle. I just poured her a beer and we tucked into the chicken and pig’s feet.
Half an hour later and sufficiently fed and lubricated, we went to check out the vintage clothes upstairs. I’ve always hated the word vintage—to me it’s an excuse to charge extra for used clothes. But in many cases these really were vintage, and not just vintage to the past but vintage to the Fifth Dimension of Funkdom, the fashion runways of mid-nineties Moscow, or the set of Flash Gordon.
Scarves with the fox-head still attached, T-shirts with motorcycles of every description, and plenty of glitter and glamour all around. Entire sections seemed to be missing sleeves. Olive green was the colour of choice for much of it. When Terri went to try on a couple of dresses, two men held up an olive-green sheet for her to change behind, modestly looking into the distance, away from her. She bought the dresses and we declared success.
Two hours later, and we were sitting outside CU Mart, a corner store, at a bus exchange. One of the great joys of Seoul is “marting,” the practice of (legally) sitting outside a corner store with cans of beer. In front of us, buses whizzed in and away, dropping off the punters from the suburbs, bringing them to Hongdae.
Hongdae is the Montreal of Seoul. It is a party neighbourhood dedicated to providing you with as much pleasure as your Saturday night budget will allow. It explodes with bars, restaurants, clubs and cafés, and in the summer people just hang out on the sidewalks, shops and parks. Though it’s out on the western end of Seoul, it is the epicentre of Play City. Some visitors to Hongdae never leave.
“Hongdae’s just getting much better,” says Joe McPherson, a food blogger who is a longtime expat here. “It’s not gentrifying yet, but it’s not as much the skeezy place for drunk college kids to hang out. It’s becoming a really good hotbed for experimentalism in different types of places.”
Zion Boat in Hongdae is Seoul’s premiere location to get Jamaican jerk chicken. Shim Changsuk, the owner, learned to make jerk chicken while in Japan for a reggae festival. He’s admitted to me before that he can’t get the exact ingredients he needs to pull off a perfect Jamaican jerk sauce, so he creates what he calls a “Korean jerk.”
It is a sloppy, slobbering experience. The chicken legs and thighs marinate overnight in 18 seasonings, are charbroiled, then topped with the thick jerk sauce. It is extremely spicy, full of Asian red pepper and cayenne, and is on par with the most powerful curries, kimchis and pepper sauces the world has to offer.
Zion Boat is dimly lit, cozy and intimate, but not the place to bring your romantic partner. I felt the sauce roll down my chin as I struggled to breathe through another bite, and at one point launched into a coughing fit as a pepper flake went down the wrong way. The restaurant is decked out in beautiful reggae kitsch, including dozens of concert posters from Japan, plastic marijuana leaves, Bob Marley posters, and a red, yellow and green colour motif. There is a guitar in the corner you can strum if you like, and sometimes they have DJs and the place ends up packed with people dancing to Jamaican music. Ten years ago it was impossible to imagine such a place in Seoul—today it’s becoming more and more common.
Down the road from Zion Boat is Ruailrock. It is everything a small underground bar should be.
It is dark and lit mostly with red light. Behind the tiny stage are lines of records, speakers are bolted to the rafters, and there are enormous posters of past shows hung around most of the bar. It has cheap beer, a packed dancefloor, the nicest punk-club bathroom you’ll ever see, and a lot of young punks banging away.
Despite the violent music and look of the place, Ruailrock is very friendly—the whole punk scene in Seoul is extremely friendly, with everyone thrilled to have a place of their own to play, listen and bang wholeheartedly into each other.
Hongdae is Ground Zero for the Korean music scene. The Korean government and most Koreans are focused very squarely on K-pop, the mass-produced, electronic pop that is exported all over Asia, and has even found its way to South America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. But it is in Hongdae you’ll find the rock, punk and metal bands, the independent DJs spinning vinyl, the few remaining CD and record shops, and the bars and clubs dedicated to playing it all.
Jeff Moses, 34, is the singer, songwriter and guitarist for the Seoul punk band “…Whatever That Means.” I ran into him outside Ruailrock, where he was working the door, his thick tattooed arms over his chest, a newsboy cap on his head. In an interview later he said one of the reasons the punk scene in Seoul is so ripping is because no one has any expectations to make it big.
“In the U.S., people in punk rock and hardcore bands know there’s almost no chance of making it as professional musicians, but there’s still that little bit of hope. In Korea, there really is ZERO chance,” he says. “It’s actually one of the things that makes Korean bands and the underground scene so good. People play in these bands just because they want to and because it means something to them, not because of some expectation of fame or money.”
When we went down, we were treated to a set by Dead Gakkahs, one of the most exciting hardcore bands in the city.
DG is one of the few female-fronted bands in the scene. They are very young—maybe 21 or 22 years old at most—and they play what they describe as “fastcore,” a form of very fast, heavy, high-energy music. Their sets rarely last longer than 20 minutes, but once they’re done your ears will bleed and your heart will fill with joy that such a band exists. They sing—yell—about the patriarchy in Korea, the ineffectual political system, and authoritarianism and rigid social roles in Korean society. After a set of “Summer Never Comes Again,” “8 Month,” “Gutter,” and “Go Suck Man,” I too am ready to go tear down the patriarchy.
I could listen to Dead Gakkahs, and their compatriots the Kitsches, Yuppie Killer, …Whatever That Means, Startline, Scumraid and Animal Anthem for the rest of the night, but Terri and Jo wanted chairs and something quieter, so we left and headed to Suzie Q.
Suzie Q is a basement LP bar. Though not as common as they used to be, there are still plenty of LP bars around the city. They’re often named after classic rock bands (The Doors, The Beatles, Deep Purple) or songs. Inside they are usually dark, with a clientele of both young kids like Terri and Jessica, and old miseries, like me. Obligatory is a wall of albums, even if the songs can now be downloaded. Suzie Q is dimly lit and perfect for introducing yourself to new people over your favourite songs.
We sat down with short bottles of Hite beer, and scribbled requests on the white 4×6 pieces of paper they provide. There is an art to this—you guess how old the DJ is, take a look at what he’s wearing, check the ages of the older staff, and try to fit in at least one song they’ll like. We ended up hearing “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum, “Moonage Daydream” by David Bowie, and “Roadhouse Blues” by the Doors.
There was a group of 14 or so university kids at the table across from us, and competing with them for the DJ booth was not going to work—but then the joy of this experience is getting to hear what weirdness other people choose. When they played “Nowhere Fast” by Fire, Inc., Terri looked madly through her phone.
“What is this?” she said. “I know this!”
“You are doing the right thing, my young Padawan,” I said. “That’s the point of these bars. To remind you of songs your dad played in the car 20 years ago.”
“You’re the same age as my dad, why don’t you know this?” she said, though that was not exactly true; I did the math.
“Because I’ve wasted my adulthood playing in Seoul,” I said.
It was a true confession. My friends in Canada all have houses, cars, careers, children, dogs. I have a one-room apartment north of the city with my—albeit wondrous and wonderful—wife. We have a wealth of memories, but some cut in and out.
Speaking of my wife, the following Saturday it was only Jo and I. We grabbed our bags and took the subway to the recently redeveloped train station at Yongsan, near the centre of the city.
Yongsan is the best place in Seoul to buy electronics. Behind the station are enormous markets that are like temples to high-tech—great flatscreen TVs, computers smarter than their programmers, tablets, laptops, multifunctional appliances that will wash your food and cook your clothes, and of course smartphones. Korea is the 21st century’s master of high-tech, long ago forcing Japan out of first place. With some of the world’s fastest Internet speeds—every apartment was wired for broadband 15 years ago—it has become the e-capital of the planet.
Korea is also number one in electronic online gaming. I admit this is a subject I know nothing about, but it was in the spirit of trying something new and different that we entered the e-games on the ninth floor of I’Park, the premiere electronics mall. There were three great lines of teenagers and kids in their early twenties, all waiting to get in to the e-games tournament.
In line we met two tourists from Toronto. Steve Choi and Allan Lew, both 26, spend their days working in IT and their nights gaming.
“We came to Seoul mostly for the gaming,” Choi said. “We have a bucket list of Korean things to do: eat the food, drink the soju, go hiking.” They said they were hoping to see a K-pop show, too. “But we are really here for the gaming. We saw a StarCraft tournament this week, and now it’s time for the League of Legends tournament.”
They were visibly excited, rocking in their shoes, like I used to be 25 years ago waiting for concert doors to open. Only behind these doors it wasn’t 54/40, the Tragically Hip or Furnaceface: it was two banks of young men on either side of an enormous movie screen, ready to square off against each other in a best-of-three bout of electronic mayhem.
They were playing something called League of Legends. Like a European seeing North American football for the first time I had no idea what I was watching but was fascinated by the violence. Every so often the crowd would erupt in cheers, and the commentators (there were three) spoke a mile a minute about whatever was going on.
The action was all shown on an enormous screen in front of us. To our sides, video cameras swung around, broadcasting it to the nation on a TV channel dedicated to professional gaming. It was simulcast around the world online. We watched enraptured as fantasy creatures made war, cutting each other to pieces, and we roared along with the crowd. When we left, our eyes were blurry with the images.
“What the hell was that?” Jo asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But it was psychotic.” And something you can only seriously do in Seoul.
That evening, as we drank beers at a 7-11, Lauren, Jo and I got into a heated argument: what were we having for dinner?
We had decamped to Mapo, a large section of Seoul that stretches north of the Han River—the city’s primary waterway that’s more than two kilometres wide and Seoul’s most beautiful natural wonder—to Hongdae’s party life. We were just a block north of the river, in Mapo’s restaurant district, near Mapo Subway Station. This was the place that Joe McPherson, who is actually the founder and premiere blogger at ZenKimchi, a popular online Korean food journal, had told us to eat at before all others.
“I love that area,” McPherson said. “It used to be an old ferry terminal. Then it was quickly getting gentrified and the government came in and put a stop to some of it, and identified certain areas just for restaurants. And it’s not touristy at all, it’s really for locals.”
Though there are many types of restaurants here, two are most common: chi-maek, meaning fried chicken and beer joints; and galbe, meaning Korean barbecue, where you cook great slabs of pork and beef right in the centre of the table. We didn’t want chicken, but right behind us there was also a gamjatang restaurant.
Gamjatang is one of the world’s greatest meals, and my personal Korean favourite. It is a big pot filled with a red pepper soup and huge sections of pork ribs boiling within it. The soup has loads of kimchi, cabbage and other vegetables, pyramids of black pepper piled on top, and at the bottom, potatoes boiling away. You get at the meat by taking out large chunks of bone, placing them on your plate and as best you can, removing the pork from the bone with your chopsticks and dipping it in a wasabi sauce.
But Lauren and Jo were gunning for galbe.
“Beer outside is the best beer,” Jo said, pointing out that many galbe restaurants were in the beautiful outdoors, whereas our only gamjatang restaurant wasn’t. She was also concerned about the quality of her photos. “Let’s face it, gamjatang does not look pretty on a page, however you think it tastes.”
“And isn’t galbe really the ultimate Korean food?” Lauren piped in. “What kind of ambassador would you be without demonstrating to your readers the joy of galbe?”
So we ended up at Cham Na Mun Bok Ga, cooking thick slices of ogyeopsal, or five-layered pork belly over our own coals in the open air.
An integral part of dining in Korea, and especially barbecue, is the side dishes, which you can have refilled at will. If the waitress does nothing but slop a plate of kimchi from a bucket onto your table, you’ve chosen poorly. Cham Na Mun Bok Ga, on the other hand, had three types of kimchis, garlic, peppers, mushrooms, salads and a sauce made of pig’s trotters (pig’s feet, a very common food here) to dip the pork into—a pork sauce made of pork.
We revelled in it, in our cheap plastic seats, out in the warm early summer air.
We flipped over slabs of pork and poured each other shots of soju and glasses of beer. We cut up the pork with scissors and tongs, dipped it in salt and pork sauce, and wrapped it in lettuce leaves with garlic, kimchi and touches of ssamjang, a thick spicy paste invented for the purpose of eating meat in leaves.
Rice came in little tin bowls, which we spooned out and dipped in bowls of bubbling doenjang jjigae, a pungent, soybean-paste soup. We yelled for the waitress “yogi-yo!” to refill our kimchis and salads—a Korean practice I still haven’t gotten used to after 13 years. It still seems intolerably rude; but if you don’t do it you will never be served, and the wait staff will wonder what exactly to do with you.
The Grand Ol Opry of Seoul. The meal came to somewhere under $60, another only-in-Korea moment—that in such a developed country, eating out is so cheap. The problem is it can become a habit, and the next thing you know you’re 50 pounds heavier than when you arrived.
Nowhere personifies the new Seoul quite like this central neighbourhood. Thirty years ago it was a dirty U.S. Army camptown: nobody came here except American soldiers and the sex workers who serviced them, often in desperate hopes they could get a marriage visa, and leave the dismal, sad, poor and polluted dictatorship that South Korea once was.
Today, Itaewon is one of the most vibrant and exciting places in a vibrant and exciting city. Many of the best bars and restaurants in Seoul are here; some foreign, some Korean, almost all of them very good. At night it bustles with Koreans and foreigners alike as they make their way from Spanish tapas to Korean barbecue, to a British pub or swinging nightclub or Turkish kebab stand for a final snack before hailing a cab out.
We began in Dillinger’s Bar, a second-floor pub just set back just from the neighbourhood’s main street. The special here is 6,000-won Mason jar doubles, and we each got one. There was a baseball team celebrating their seventh win in a row, and Terri flirted with them mercilessly while the rest of us planned our next move.
Up Texas Street you can still get a feel of the old Itaewon. There are three hills here, known colloquially as Hooker Hill, Homo Hill, and Halal Hill (in the infamous local vernacular). Halal Hill is home to Seoul Central Mosque, a beautiful onion-domed edifice, and dozens of Islamic bookstores, Halal butchers and restaurants, Islamic guesthouses and travel agents offering package trips to Mecca. A beautiful place to spend an afternoon exploring, but not a vibrant nightlife hub.
Hooker Hill was once exactly that, but in the past 15 years, with both the U.S. Army and Korean government crackdowns on sex work, it is largely just a few old-time bars that can still be great fun. (And a few sex workers, largely confined to small brothels.)
Midway up Hooker Hill, Mama Kim has been running the Grand Ole Opry since 1975. It’s a country-western bar with an elevated dance floor, and Saturday night sees couples two-stepping their way through the night. It’s a haze of cigarette smoke (illegal to smoke inside for two years now but they seem to get away with it), and soldiers and foreigners having a very good time.
To request music, you have to go through a couple of goons to get to the computer. Unknown requests are met with the following question: “Is it country?” At midnight they play the Star Spangled Banner and everyone, American and otherwise, stands to salute the flag. By 1 a.m. all is quiet since it’s curfew time for the U.S. Army and the Opry is one of the places the Military Police check for stragglers.
We met Jessica there, who was with her girlfriend, Kaci, a GI with the Eighth Army stationed at Yongsan Garrison. She’s from Oklahoma and my God, she can really dance. She and a succession of cowboys whipped, twirled and two-stepped their way through “Copperhead Road,” “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” and “Fishin’ in the Dark.”
While Kaci spun like a top we sat at the table with two young GIs, one from Alabama, one from Pennsylvania. Both were underage (to legally drink in the U.S., which are Army rules too) and had never left America before. They agreed Seoul was a plum posting—not a place they would choose to leave, considering where else they could be sent. They were debating whether to head back to base on time or hot-tail it to Hongdae, where the MPs searching for curfew-breakers are not allowed.
As the Opry wound down, we made a horseshoe around the top of Hooker Hill and crossed over to Homo Hill. There are about a dozen bars here but in the warmer months everyone spills out onto the street, drinking, smoking and chatting each other up. There are a few women and a few straight friends, but overall it is a great gay sea of dudes, both Korean and foreign.
Leaving the Opry just as it winds down and then coming up to Homo Hill just as it gets going provides a great contrast in Seoul’s foreign-focused community. One is a shit-kicking GI country bar, empty by 1 a.m.; the other a loud, joyous and very crowded gay party scene only a block away. There is a good selection of places here, from the dance club Queen to the railroad-style long bar Oz, to Soho, where they play a long loop of Kylie Minogue and Beyoncé videos.
We sat at Oz and talked about how much Korea had changed in the past few years, and whether Kaci would make her softball game at 1300 hours the next day.
Until a few years ago, it was common to hear Koreans say, “There are no gays in Korea.” As a result, the LGBT scene had always been centred around foreigner-friendly Itaewon. But now it is expanding—bars are opening elsewhere, people are less scared to reveal who they are, and for the first time ever Pride took place in the centre of the city, rather than in a university focused neighbourhood like Hongdae.
The night broke up, and the five of us headed our own ways: home, to someone else’s home, to takeout for kebabs, or to get further inebriated. Play City spun out all around us, and like Kaci’s dancing, it was a whirlwind. May it never stop. ♦
Dave Hazzan lived in Seoul, South Korea, with his wife, photographer Jo Turner, for almost 15 years, and wrote a series for Outpost online, “Four Oceans, No Planes,” about their 6-month Eastern Hemisphere trip on route back to Canada. This article originally appeared in Outpost magazine.