A few days back I gave a nod to a very cool little bar that welcomed all comers, and will be missed. Before this there was another little bar, just down the street…
A few years ago many foreign residents of central Seoul’s happy little enclave of Haebangchon affectionately referred to their neighbourhood as ‘The ghetto’. It was a very different place then.
There was a noticeable absence of burger joints and coffee shops, though only in hindsight. For some reason people tend not to notice things that don’t exist. Nobody guessed the little wartime North Korean shanty settlement would suddenly become trendy. The mountainside nest of aging low-rise apartments was ever increasingly populated by young westerners, Nigerians, Russians, Filipinos and other random peoples’ attracted by the laid-back multicultural nature of the place, and the low rent.
The single narrow street running through the community was thick with peak-hour traffic. Korean businessmen and families used the “short cut” adjacent to the 7-lane main road to avoid the Namsan tunnel toll-booths and many took the chance to stare, wide-eyed at all the foreigners, doing their weird foreign things, like walking, or sitting around being foreign. Koreans not living in the ghetto tended not to stop there.
Nobody calls Haebangchon (Freedom Village) the ghetto anymore. There are way too many coffee shops. Now the wealthy folk from South of the river (Gangnam) make weekend visits to the trendy little community. Surgically enhanced young women step out of their Audis and BMWs, donning their best Sunday-morning cocktail dresses and stilettos. They line up for entrance to a burger place, for a fifteen-dollar burger that takes an hour to arrive.
They take photos of the restaurant exterior, which is famous because it appeared in a movie or something. Often enough they turn around and take photos of my friends and I (or whoever happens to be drinking makeolli from the bottle outside the convenience store across the street at the time). They never cross the narrow street to say hello. They just take the photo, so (I presume) they can return to their more luxurious parts of the city and regale friends with stories of how they went slumming with the foreigners. From what I can gather, this is now a cool thing to do (except for actually interacting with the poorly dressed foreigners – that would be awkward to say the least).
Yep, everything has changed, as everything in Seoul does. Four years ago however, Haebangchon had something it now once more lacks. It had a truly world-class dive bar.
For the first several weeks (or months?) the place did not even have a name – at least none that I knew of. Some people called it the HBC bar. Others referred to it by the name of the Korean guy who managed the bar. The place was unique, much like the guy pouring the drinks. After opening for business, it looked for about a month like some guy had moved into his new studio apartment, but not bothered to unpack. Unlabelled cardboard boxes full of unidentified stuff were scattered around the floor of the bar and piled up near the entrance.
A computer, containing an eclectic selection of all music ever recorded sat at the corner of the bar, facing the patrons, meaning whoever took the seat in front of it controlled the music. This alone meant the place was impossible to characterise, except to say it was very, very random. Some nights were heavy-metal night. Some nights were Bob Dylan only, or Tom Waits, or 1980s. One night I heard two straight hours of opera. Nobody ever seemed to mind.
A dartboard was strategically placed at neck height, just inside the entrance, so it was wise to enter the bar with caution. Other than the relatively minor probability of getting a dart lodged in your jugular, there was no great risk of physical injury. Actually, the only injury I know to have occurred there was to the bar owner, and she was in the bathroom at the time. The small, unisex bathroom was in a small, uncovered alley behind the bar (it wasn’t unusual to be rained or snowed upon while waiting to use the facilities). Some drunken idiot had fallen in there, somehow breaking off a large portion of the sink. The shards of remaining porcelain remained functional, kind of, so the sink wasn’t replaced until the bar owner, purely by chance, became the next person to fall down in there. She hit what was left of the sink and sliced up her arm pretty good.
People felt safe there amidst all the random weirdness, knowing it wasn’t a bar for fighting. The only fights to speak of were sporadic screaming matches between the guy who managed the bar, and his girlfriend, who owned it (and tended bar also). These were generally politely ignored.
An intense chess match would be taking place in one corner; a heated discussion about Monsanto, the Bilderburg Group, Israel/Palestine (basically any topic guaranteed to be divisive or induce anger) at the next, though everybody’s voice would be heard and never a punch was thrown.
There were impromptu movie trivia drinking games and three-hour drunken analyses of Moby Dick. A few regulars would be taking turns jockeying for the DJ’s chair. Barflies drank endless shots of very cheap liquor, poured from oversized plastic bottles, with handles, like jugs. I’d never seen bottles like this – it was clear that all expense had been spared on quality.
A friend of mine introduced me to her drink of choice, which was vodka/cranberry served in a pint glass. I was instantly hooked, not least because of the strength of the drink relative to its price. My friend explained the pricing anomaly was logical, if perhaps lethal to those uninitiated to alcohol. Each drink contained at least five shots of vodka simply because the vodka was cheaper than the cranberry juice (and quite possibly cheaper than the ice).
There was a rule for a while that all guys still drinking there at 5am had to take off their shirts. I have no idea how this rule came about. The rule was optional for women. The expressions on passing faces at 8.00, looking in through the big front window on their way to work, were always good value. Rumours started flying. A woman I knew in passing told me about the crazy new gay bar in the neighbourhood.
“Have you heard about that crazy gay bar? It’s just for old guys! And they all have beer-guts! And beards!”
“Oh, that’s just the HBC,” I said. “I go there all the time!”“Oh, I didn’t know you were gay”.
I don’t know for how long after 5am the no-shirt rule was enforced. It couldn’t have been until closing time because that was considered an abstract kind of concept. Sometimes the place would stay open until around lunchtime. A couple of times the manager and one or two of the least responsible/qualified regulars kept the place running around the clock. I believe the record was around 60 straight hours, during a particularly savage bender, when anyone entering without prior knowledge of the place may well have become permanently psychologically scarred. During such rare occasions, if whoever was behind the bar was passed out or non compos mentis, it was considered best for all involved just to serve oneself and leave the money on the bar.
Funnily enough, it was also (at least some of the time) the sort of place you could take your mother. Well, maybe that’s just me. I took my mother and her husband there when they were visiting, and they had a great night out! It was that kind of place. Inexplicably random.
The HBC is just a warm, hazy local memory now, and odds are that Haebangchon will not again see another place quite like it. Pity. As well understood by its staff and patrons (and those of the bar up the street that succeeded it) the HBC bar was definitive proof that money simply can’t buy character.