Bar Rescue, Seoul-Style

“I can’t believe there isn’t an open table even here.” David Beckham whined as he and Q-ball collapsed onto the curb. It was Halloween in Seoul and we’d just spent three hours unsuccessfully visiting every bar up and down the cities biggest arts district. We had now come up empty at the convenience store circuit too.

Hongdae Center

On the long list of unexpected discoveries that are part of Korean drinking culture, the joys of cracking a can at the local minute mart has to be near the top. Simple, cheap and (to us at least) genius, in Korea, most corner markets in highly trafficked areas customarily put a few plastic chairs and a rickety table near their entrance. It’s often an annoyance to staff and an oasis for foreigners. Koreans, whose social antennas are always scanning surrounding frequencies to ensure they aren’t disrupting norms, tended to avoid these hobo hangouts, leaving them open to us opportunistic expats. When combined with the lack of open container laws, these tables were the perfect place to take in the batting cages, karaoke halls, and soju tents that wallpaper the narrow thoroughfares of popular walking districts. At night, the languid daytime streets become chaotic and illuminated roller-derbies of propellant neon energy. Stumbling out into the street from a bar was like taking a hit of societal smelling salts. Everything was turned on. And like an apex predator that comes awake at night, the scene grew increasingly alive as the darkness expanded and the hours bled on.

At the time of our curbside conundrum, I’d spent nearly a year living in Seoul’s southernmost step child, Busan. But despite Busan having a population the size of Chicago, there were few international art galleries, music shops, or burritos. My two companions and I came up on my first visit to Seoul starved for culture, and in need of a fix. Over the course of our visit we’d seen rock shows, bought guitars and even found some sour cream and skunky cheese. Now on Halloween, we were hoping to crown our cultural cornucopia with a night-cap as we people-watched a society dip its toe in one of the wackiest of western holidays.

Except there was no place to sit.


“Maybe we can build our own table like Issy’s neighbors did the other day.” Offered Q-Ball with a smirk. Beckham laughed. I did not. Q-Ball was referring to the recent molestation I’d undergone at the hands of some mottled geriatrics in my Busan neighborhood. The previous week I had visited my local minute mart on my way home from work and upon exiting was confronted by a huddle of middle aged men with splotched red cheeks that spelled certain soju poisoning. They surrounded me and gestured at some plywood and a garbage can lid they had decorated with a dozen empty beer bottles. “Sit sit sit!” they yelled. The youngest knew a few words of English and served as spokesperson. Upon reluctantly squatting on a bucket they had pulled from a nearby dumpster it was an immediate free for all to see who could put their hands closest to my nuts. As their hands ran out of real estate on my thighs, they reached for their disposable chopsticks to start feeding me. These intimate activities were only shared between close family members during a holiday, or in this instance, with complete strangers when totally shitty. I’d had three pieces of chicken, two bites of pickled radish and 20 fingers massaging closer to my genitalia than I’d like to recall by the time I’d put down my shopping bag.

So happy to meet you! The spokesman repeated as they kneaded my quads and poured shots of soju. The elder of the group, who was wearing a lipstick red jumpsuit, got up every two minutes to puke on a nearby SUV. Our elder highlighted one of the few flaws of the convenience store party circuit = no toilet access.

All Korean men have mandatory military service where they train in their home grown flip-kicky taekwondo. Banking on this universal experience, and fumbling for distractions, I shared with the table that I’d recently watched a popular martial arts event in the region and was curious what they thought. I signified this by yelling “K-1….Hong-Man Choi…. GOOD!” with an eager two thumbs up. They almost fell off their buckets. “Ooohhhhhhhh! NOooooo! Not good!”  Hong Man Choi was on a well publicized losing streak. “So GOOD!” I screamed back. They laughed hysterically and I laughed at how hard they laughed.

 I started eyeing a chance to slip out behind the old guy the next time he got up to barf, when the spokesman squeezed my leg and asked a common refrain, “Do you know David Beckham?”

Hongdae Side street

“No, lets not make a table like that.” I snapped at Q-ball, as we sat on the curb in Seoul and pondered our next move. We decided to visit the nearby record store, thinking maybe the extra time might open up a spot somewhere back in the arts district. “Beck-hum!” A college student shouted as we entered. Try as we might, we were unable to convince Koreans my friend was not David Beckham. So we’d given up and now just acquiesced to the photos. After wading through the celebrity gawkers we selected a few of our favorite CD’s and became excited about the prospect of being able to listen to them back in Busan. We agreed on one final lap in search of a spot before giving up and calling it a night.

And then it happened.

A hip older fella drove slowly down the street in our direction. He parked his pickup truck directly in front of our curb creating a slip stream of foot traffic around him. The driver got out and started fiddling with bottles and nobs and different contraptions that I eventually realized were kegs. We assumed he was delivering them to the convenience store behind us, but when he had finished with his twisting, popping and lifting, he dropped three barstools down and swung behind the rear window of the truck to man what we now realized was a bar. Wide eyed we hopped off the curb and lurched onto the stools before anyone else could sit down.

The offerings were simple: two common Korean drafts, Hite and Cass, and a few options for mixed drinks. Our host poured with panache as we practiced our Korean and his English. He informed us the one thing he’d forgotten that evening was his music. Not a problem, Q-Ball replied, and handed him our recent record store purchases. He played through our albums in their entirety, and we sang along for hours at our bar in the middle of the street. Songs we hadn’t heard since we’d left home.  At some point in the night, Beckham grabbed my thigh in the excitement. I slapped his right back. We sat frozen like that for some time, arms interlocked, like two affectionate locals, or strangers starting to recognize themselves in a foreign land.

Where: Hongdae, Seoul.
What: A Korean Optimus Prime Bar.
When: Keep your eyes peeled for a bottleneck forming about 10pm.
What to bring: Music and awareness of the nearest public toilet.

Issy on Sojo

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