Alternative Seoul – Hongdae’s B-boys, Makkeolli Men, and Guitar Gods
Seoul's Alternative Haven
Welcome to Alternative Seoul! To begin this tour, you should be outside Exit 9 of Hongik University subway station. Stand with your back to the exit. In front of you to the left should be a KFC and behind you is the busy street.
In Seoul, there’s everywhere else, and then there’s Hongdae. While the outside perspective of South Korea is too often dominated by inter-Korean tensions or by its moneyed Gangnam district, Hongdae defies both those images and pretty much all of the conventions that apply elsewhere in the country too.
The area around Hongik University has for a long time been the Korean capital’s most vibrant, most exciting, and most unpredictable neighborhood. It’s the city’s laboratory, its band stage, its design studio, its dance floor. It’s a place for rebels and misfits and good time kids, where Korean culture’s Confucian and conservative tendencies hold little sway. Young Koreans face gruelling pressures – get into the right university, get the right job, marry the right person – and they face them in a society where the opinions of others carry a lot of weight. Hongdae is where they come to escape those things, to create and cut loose and be themselves. Above all, though, Hongdae’s just insane amounts of fun.
My name’s Charles Usher, and I’ll be your guide for this walking tour through the heart of Hongdae. I’m originally from the U.S., but I’ve lived in Seoul since 2009, a couple of those years just a few blocks from here. I’m a freelance writer and the author of "Seoul Sub→urban," a book that profiles Seoul neighborhoods by subway stop. It’s based on my blog, seoulsuburban.com, and has been translated into a Korean language version.
We’re starting this tour from just outside Hongik University Station, Exit 9. Before we set off, a caveat. Unlike most neighborhood tours, there’s little history and architecture to talk about here. You won’t hear me utter words like ‘storied’ or ‘venerable.’ Hongdae doesn’t sit still. Businesses change here in the blink of an eye, which means that there’s every possibility that something I mention in this tour won’t be there by the time you listen to it. I’ve done my best to focus on the cultural aspects that make Hongdae unique and to limit mentions of specific businesses and sites in this tour to ones that I feel will most likely stick around a while. But if they’re gone, hey, that’s Hongdae.
VoiceMap’s tours are GPS activated, so you'll hear my voice giving you directions and commentary automatically at each location. If you get lost, or stuck, you can always take a look at the route map on your phone to see where you should be. I highly encourage you do some exploring of your own after you finish the route, but follow my directions until I say goodbye. Some silence between tracks is normal. Just keep walking straight until you hear from me unless I tell you otherwise. You can now put your phone in your pocket.
Now, as Koreans say, ‘Gaja!’ ‘Let’s go!’ With your back to Exit 9 and the busy street, start walking and follow the crowd up the side street in front of you to your right, away from the main road. This is the unofficial entrance into the neighborhood, and on weekend nights it’s packed with people on their way to and from Hongdae’s bars, restaurants, and clubs. Join the party.
Take your next left. At night this junction is usually the sight of a few small carnival games. Here, the bravest of the brave try to pop balloons with darts or to taekwondo chop stacks of breakaway plastic tiles in an attempt to win stuffed animals. Toys that, in all likelihood, will be forgotten at a bar sometime later that night.
Koreans have a charming affinity for streetside games like this, and in nightlife areas all over town you can find coin-operated punching bags and crane games, where the prizes can range from more stuffed animals to toasters.
See the concrete slabs sticking out of the ground up ahead? Stop here for a minute and take a look around them.
These serve as a rotating canvas for murals and graffiti. Their square form makes them perfectly Instagram-ready, and as you’ll no doubt notice they’re a popular spot for selfies, something that Koreans take as seriously as anybody. The selca, as Koreans call selfies – It’s short for ‘self camera’ – is a bit of a science here, going way beyond the duck face.
If you want to go local, go ahead and take your own selca . Here’s how to do it right. Default pose: Make a ‘V for victory’ sign, palm out, and hold it up near your face. More advanced practitioners can position the V horizontally at the outer corner of their eye, framing it in a ‘vogue’-type gesture. If you’re a girl and want to give the impression of having a slimmer jaw line - important to Koreans - place you palm flat against the side of your face, heel against chin, fingers up near your ear lobe. If you’re taking a picture with your friend, make sure you’re in the background so your face appears more petite. Now you’re ready to get your injeung shot, or ‘certification shot,’ as Koreans call it. Basically the photographic proof that you’ve visited the Eiffel Tower or walked the Great Wall or something. Hana, dul, set, kimchi!
When you're done here, keep going past the murals and down the street.
Seoul is not a city of plazas, and with a population density of 16,000 people per square meter public space can often be hard to come by, so locals make do with what they can.
Although the street we’re on now is technically a one-lane road, its wider than average sidewalks and the sheer amount of people on it turn it into a de facto plaza of sorts. It’s used as a setting for local music and performance festivals, but on weekend nights there are typically several buskers, guitar players, and rappers setting up amplifiers and giving impromptu performances here, making it hard to distinguish between when a festival is taking place and when it isn’t.
Traffic Circle - Straight Over
Up ahead is a traffic circle. Keep going straight over. Stay on the left sidewalk, with the shops and buildings on your left.
This general part of Hongdae is a common spot for people to start a night out, thanks to its proximity to the subway station and the large amount of restaurants it has. The left side of the road in particular is lined with cheap places serving fried chicken, jeon, savory Korean pancakes, and, especially, Korean barbecue. In warm weather most of the restaurants set up tables on the sidewalk, giving diners some of the best table-side entertainment the city has to offer.
Do your best to resist the scent of grilled pork belly and keep going.
Here we are at another roundabout. It has four exits. Leave the sidewalk now and cross over the street to take the one to your right.
Look for a small barbecue restaurant with a colorful wall mural of drawings of Michael Jackson and various Korean celebrities and tables made from steel barrels on the corner on your right. That's Hongik Charcoal Grill Galbi, and it’s been there forever so it’ll probably still be there by the time you’re hearing this. Get there and you're on track.
We're going to go straight for a few blocks now. This street is lined with cool shops and restaurants, so check them out while you walk, but don't forget to mind the traffic.
Hongdae is one of Seoul's major nightlife hubs. A typical night out for Koreans is a three part affair, divided into what’s called il cha, yi cha, and sam cha. Il cha, or part one, is dinner, which often takes place at a barbecue restaurant serving pork belly or beef or pork ribs. Eating in Korea is very communal experience. You’ll very rarely see a Korean eating alone. Most barbecue places won’t even provide servings for just one person. A friend of a friend once went to a barbecue restaurant alone, which, as a Westerner was a totally normal to do. But the Korean staff was so distressed by his plight that they sent out one of the old women working in the kitchen to sit with him while he ate. Not to eat , or even to talk to him, just to sit there and save him the sad ignominy of eating alone. Needless to say, this did not make him feel more comfortable.
Il cha dinners are also a chance to get started on drinking, an activity that Koreans take very seriously. Too seriously, in fact, as 13% of Korean males have an alcohol use disorder, the fifth highest in the world, according to the World Health Organization. The drink of choice with barbecue is soju, the national spirit. It's typically distilled from rice or sweet potatoes. Soju has precisely one redeeming quality and that’s that it gets you drunk cheap. Soju, or at least the common mass produced version of it, has no subtleties of flavour, no romantic story that can be told about its production, no classy way it can be consumed. It’s mercifully largely tasteless when cold and gets increasingly unpleasant as it warms so it’s usually drunk quickly, in shots, or poured into beers. But at about $3 a bottle in restaurants or just $1 at convenience stores, it’s cost-effective. To give you some idea of the intensity of Korea’s drinking culture consider the following. Jinro, the country’s main soju producer, makes nearly all of its sales domestically. Still, in 2013, it was the number one selling spirit in the world, selling 66.5 million cases, more than twice as many as Emperador brandy, which came in at number two.
Hopefully you haven’t been drinking yet, so you can continue walking straight. We’ve obviously entered a much more subdued area of Hongdae than that back near the station and the parts that we’ll get to later in the tour, but this part of the neighborhood is one its most interesting and fun to explore, full of fun little independent boutiques, shoe shops, music clubs, cafes, and restaurants.
Keep going. You'll hear from me up ahead.
Cross over Wausan-ro-29-gil
If you're not already, you should now move to the left side of the road. Cross over here at the pedestrian crossing and keep going.
Finding the Vinyl Bar
My favourite bar is coming up on your left but the entrance isn't easy to find, so slow down and listen closely.
The side road you're passing has a telephone pole on the corner. The very next telephone pole is right opposite the entrance to the vinyl bar. You're looking for a dark curving stairway to the basement. If you get to the next side road, too far.
Great, you're here. See the curved stairway? Make your way down into the basement now if you want. If you'd rather not, then just hang outside until we get going again. There's a bench if you want to take a rest.
If you've gone into the bar, take a look around. Stained glass lampshades dangle above a fake palm tree. The back wall is lined with old TVs and stereo equipment, and the wall in front of you is filled top to bottom with old LPs that the DJ spins. Nothing but throwback tracks. For many Koreans, and me too, this place is pure retro bliss.
This part of Hongdae's story is about two things: offal and rock and roll. Once dinner is over, Koreans will move on to yi cha, step two, for more drinking at a bar. This one here is my personal favorite. The sign above the entrance says ‘Gopchangjeongol,’ the bar’s name. It literally means ‘intestine stew’. You can get that here, but the main draw is the music.
Any time the word ‘music’ is mentioned in reference to Korea, most people’s first thought leaps to K-pop, the sugary, manufactured, and, let’s be honest, often super addictive genre that’s part of the country’s current pop culture renaissance. But Korea also has vibrant hip-hop, rock, and indie scenes, all of which are centered on Hongdae. The history of rock and roll in Korea can largely be traced back to one man, Shin Jung-hyeon, the greatest guitar player you’ve never heard of. Shin grew up in rural Chungcheong Province, but after being orphaned at the age of 15 he moved to Seoul. It was the post-Korean War period, and thousands of American G.I.s were stationed around the capital. To give them a touch of home, the Armed Forces Korea Network broadcast American pop.
It was the first taste of rock and roll for many Koreans, and Shin fell in love, even building a homemade radio just so he could listen. While working at a pharmacy and attending high school, Shin taught himself guitar, and soon he was playing for troops on U.S. Army bases. He founded the first ever rock band in Korea, Add 4, and went on to find fame as a performer and producer.
His popularity would turn out to have troublesome consequences. In 1972 the Korean government requested Shin write a song praising the ruling dictator, Park Chung-hee. Shin refused. After this, he suffered police harassment, many of his songs were banned, and, in 1975, he was arrested on marijuana charges. He was tortured and incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. Following his release, he was banned from performing in public, a punishment that lasted until Park’s death in 1979, when he was assassinated by the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. Shin’s reputation was eventually restored, and among guitar aficionados he’s talked about in the same breath as artists like Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
While Shin was riding his career ups and downs, rock music was gradually finding an audience outside of American army bases. The 1960s, 70s, and 80s were something of a golden age for Korean rock, producing legendary acts like Sanwoolim, the Pearl Sisters, Kim Jung Mi, and Kim Su Cheol. Sadly, these names and their music have been largely forgotten, drowned in the bubble gum wave of K-pop. Gopchangjeongol is both an archive and a temple, devoted to keeping the old sounds alive. Korean drinking tends to involve groups of friends firmly planted at tables, but, caught up in waves of nostalgia, the crowd here is prone to dancing and raucous singalongs. If you end up going anywhere for a drink after we're done, make it here. And if you want to dig deeper into the digital LP bin, check out the website goldkoreavinyl.com when you get a chance.
So! Back up the steps to the entrance. When you get outside, just continue going in the same direction we were heading. I'll meet you at the T-junction at the top of the road.
Take a right around the corner here.
This road leads to Hongik University, but we're not going there right now. In Korean, Hongik University is Hongik Daehakkyo. Korean speakers shorten that to Hongdae, the same way English speakers might say H.U. That shortened version gives the area its name, and the area's alternative culture can be traced to the fact that Hongik is home to Korea’s foremost arts programs.
Hongik’s presence also means that there are a lot of arts-related businesses around here, like the furniture makers and art academies here on Wausan-ro.
Keep going straight.
Korean Academy of Film Arts
Right about now we're passing the building that houses the Korean Academy of Film Arts, on the right.
Along with K-pop, film has been a major part of hallyu, the Korean wave of popular culture that’s washed over Asia and even spread to Europe and the Americas. Unlike K-pop, though, Korean film has a dark, mischievous side. You may already be familiar with directors like Park Chan-wook and his vengeance trilogy and film-maker Bong Joon-ho, who directed The Host and Snowpiercer.
But some of the country’s best films are lesser-known. One personal favorite is ‘The President’s Last Bang’. It's Im Sang-soo’s fictionalized, darkly hilarious treatment of the assassination of former dictator Park Chung-hee. Another is ‘Treeless Mountain’ by Kim So-young, the poetic story of two young girls abandoned by their mother in the Korean countryside. And then there’s Jeong Jun-hwan’s ‘Save the Green Planet!’ about a bee keeper who wears a rubber poncho, has a tightrope walker girlfriend, and kidnaps his ex-boss in order to prevent aliens from bringing about Armageddon.
You kind of just have to see it.
The Birth of Cool
Turn right here and head back towards Hongdae Station. There should be a Tom and Tom’s café on the corner. We've got a fairly long, straight stretch coming up. Just keep going straight.
As we walk, peek down the side streets. The little alleys around here are home to a lot of the neighborhood’s best finds. This is a great part of the neighborhood to wander through and explore, so you might want to make it a point to come back here after you're done with me.
We’re doing Hongdae from the outskirts in to talk about something Hongdae doesn’t really have much of: history. Hongik University was founded shortly after the end of World War II, when Korea finally regained independence after decades of colonial subjugation by Japan. Now, locals use Hongdae to refer to both the school and the neighborhood, but in the interest of clarity I’m going to stick with Hongik for the school and Hongdae for the neighborhood during the tour. Hongik had barely had time to have its first toga party when the Korean War broke out and, like most universities in Seoul, it had to relocate, in this case to the southeastern port city of Busan. When the war ended it returned to Seoul and went about its educational business.
The 1970s and 80s
So Hongdae's back home in Seoul. Fast-forward to the 1970s, when Korea was ruled by the military dictator Park Chung-hee. It was a time of civil discontent and protests, many led, of course, by students. One of the hotbeds of student demonstrations was Seoul National University, both then and now the country’s most prestigious school.
SNU was located in the Hyehwa neighborhood, not far from downtown. This was uncomfortably close to Seoul’s centers of power, and largely in an effort to blunt the protests’ impact, the government decreed that the SNU campus was going to move, to a mountainside campus in Gwanak, a remote district on Seoul’s southern fringe. By 1979 nearly all of SNU’s departments had been relocated.
Along with Hongdae, SNU had one of the country’s most prestigious arts programs, and the Hyehwa area reflected this. SNU’s forced relocation didn’t kill that. Still, today Hyehwa is a major theater district, with dozens and dozens of independent venues staging everything from musicals to experimental works. But the move no doubt took some of the spark out of the scene, and artists started looking around at other neighborhoods.
Hongdae was a perfect fit. It was home to Hongik and its arts program and, just as importantly, cheap rents. At the same time, Korea’s economy was booming, and the government had recently lifted onerous restrictions on foreign travel. Students started coming back from overseas with new ideas and influences about art and music and expression. Put all those things in a pot and stir, and you get a pretty potent creativity fertilizer.
The Pace of Change
So look around. This is where it started.
Hongik graduates stuck around and young people attracted to Hongdae’s artistic, free-spirited temperament began moving here in increasing numbers, opening up independent boutiques, bars, restaurants, and cafes, like the ones we saw on the street with Gopchangjeongol and the ones we’re passing now. A lot of these places tend to be pretty short lived. They fall victim to changing trends or just their owner’s desire or obligation to do something different. That causes a huge amount of turnover, with new places popping up on almost a weekly basis. If you’re taking this tour at the start of your visit to Seoul, you could probably come back again before you leave and see something new. That rapid pace of change is a defining feature of Seoul in general, but it’s at its most intense in Hongdae, making the neighborhood the capital’s most exciting and least predictable.
Sadly, another factor leading to the high rate of turnover is something eminently predictable, and that’s gentrification. What you see here is more or less how the entire neighborhood used to be. As we get into central Hongdae a bit later, you’ll see that things are quite different. To be sure, there’s no shortage of independent businesses there, but in recent years a corporate influence has increasingly been creeping in.
In a classic real estate pattern, Hongdae’s indie culture has been a victim of its own success. The neighborhood did its own thing, got super cool, and eventually corporations said, ‘Hey, Hongdae’s cool. We want to be cool too. Let’s move to Hongdae!’ So now, along with little punk clubs and specialty coffee roasters, central Hongdae is home to Zara, Godiva, Uniqlo, and more than a few Starbucks.
Fun fact: Seoul has more Starbucks branches than any other city in the world. So the result of all that corporate influx has been skyrocketing rents and a lot of smaller indie businesses moving out of central Hongdae, to its outer edges, like where we are now, and to nearby neighborhoods like Hapjeong and Sangsu to the south, and Yeonnam-dong to the north.
Take a left here at the bottom of the road.
If you’re taking this tour at night or on a weekend, you probably already passed a few buskers when we came down this road earlier. As we walk back down it in the opposite direction the number of street performers will likely be even higher, as this is one of two major street performance areas in Hongdae.
Besides boys with guitars, on a weekend night you’re likely to see dance crews, portrait artists, stalls selling handmade jewelry, amateur magicians, and who knows what else here. Performers often draw large crowds, and on Saturday nights making your way down the street here can feel like wading through a club, all bumped shoulders and shuffle steps.
We're back at the start. Keep going straight. Don’t take the small street that angles off to the left.
If you are here on a weekend night, things are probably starting to get loud. Like, loud to the point where you might have to crank your volume all the way up.
If you’re lucky, besides the musicians and artists you might catch a performance by a local b-boy crew around here. Breakdancing generally calls to mind images of kids spinning on cardboard in the Bronx, but for the past decade or so no country has produced better b-boys than South Korea. It took hold in Korea in the late ‘90s when a Korean-American b-boy named John Jay Chon gave a breakdancing video to some urban dancers in Seoul. That video got passed around dance circles, and within just a few years a Korean crew won the Battle of the Year, b-boying’s most prestigious international competition.
Since that first win in 2002, Korean crews have won the event six more times. Hongdae has become the hub of b-boy and hip-hop culture, and you can even catch shows at the nearby SJ B-Boys Theater up on Wausan-ro. It claims to be the world’s first theater devoted solely to b-boy and b-girl shows.
There Goes the Neighborhood
Up ahead is a tourist information booth where you can, you know, get tourist information. Stay on the left sidewalk, and keep going.
The booth arrived a few years ago along with roaming red-jacketed tourist assistants. It was greeted as a sort of ‘There goes the neighborhood’ moment, the official sign that Hongdae had gone mainstream and wasn’t the edgy, indie, under-the-radar hood it used to be; that it had become just another corporate, touristy area.
Stop here at the main road. Hongdae may have gotten a bit corporate and a bit touristy, it’s true, but you’d be hard-pressed to argue that it’s lost its edge or its rebellious spirit. Just look at the way people cross the street, which, at night at least, is pretty much however they damn well please. The authorities put up dividers in the middle of the road not long ago to try to stop people from doing that, with almost no effect.
So where are we going next? If your back is to the tourist booth, look directly across the street. There's a green parking signboard. We're going down that street. Here's how to get there. Turn to your left, and start walking up the street. There's a pedestrian crossing just before the next side street, in front of a KB Bank. Cross the street there and meet me at the green signboard. This may or may not be a test.
Congratulations! If you get this, you decided to use the pedestrian crossing and are officially an upstanding citizen. While you cross over or wait for the light, look over at the red signboard of Ho Bar, one of several you’ll spot around Hongdae. Contrary to what the name implies, it’s not a brazenly conspicuous brothel. What it is is a place to load up on really cheap drinks while listening to really loud music. The word ‘ho’ is actually a Chinese character, which some branches have on their sign. It’s made by combining two other characters, one for mother and one for child, which together create ‘ho,’ meaning a good, warm feeling. See, not what you and your dirty mind thought.
Meet you at the green parking sign.
Welcome to Parking Street, as this road is commonly known. It's a terrible name, but there is, I suppose, a certain appeal to Seoul's hippest road having its squarest name. We're going straight down here for a while.
Hongdae at night is something of a carnival, and this is its midway. It winds smack through the middle of the neighborhood, so this is where people inevitably end up as they move from restaurant to bar to club. The crowd is young and terrifically dressed, with clothes and haircuts probably way better than yours. Mine too, but at least nobody can see me.
Just keep your eyes open and soak in the spectacle. There are a few specific things to keep an eye out for, though. You’ll probably notice a number of small storefronts with lacy curtains or strings of beads in the windows and doors. Those are saju and tarot cafes, where you can get your fortune told for cheap.
The tarot part of course refers to tarot cards. Or you can go local and get a saju reading. Tell the fortune teller the year, date, and exact time of your birth, and they’ll do some cross-referencing in some very big, very old-looking books and then reveal the secrets of your financial, educational, or romantic destiny. You can also get couple saju readings. Engaged couples will sometimes visit a saju café to learn if their marriage will be a successful one or if it’s doomed to failure. This is typically done for a laugh, but it’s not unheard of for an especially superstitious parent to raise questions about an engagement after an unfavorable reading, or to at least insist that the couple visit a different café for a second opinion.
Parking street is also home to a large number of street food carts. In Korea, street food is less about an outdoor meal than a quick snack break, often while out drinking. By far the most common street foods are Korean holy trinity of tteokbokki, sundae, and twigim. Tteokbokki is the ultimate Korean comfort food: pressed rice cakes in a bath of spicy, slightly sweet sauce. Korean school kids run on this and instant ramen, and it’s an addiction that few Koreans ever shake. Sundae can be a bit more of an acquired taste. It’s a type of blood sausage and is typically served with pieces of liver and chili powder and salt for dipping. Twigim is Korean tempura - shrimp, squid, vegetables, or whatever else the vendor wants to batter and deep fry.
Keep going here.
When it comes to drinking in Hongdae, if you want to go local there’s a far better option that soju, and that’s makgeolli, a milky rice wine that was for a long time sort of looked down on as a farmer’s drink. It’s shed that negative image in recent years and become cool, which is good because it’s an utterly unique drink, full of personality. Like wine, it’s influenced by where it’s made, so different makgeollis from different regions can have remarkably different characters, just without wine’s snootiness.
Keep an eye out for a slightly wild-eyed guy dressed in rural commoner’s traditional gray clothing, pushing a two-wheeled cart around and ringing a bell. He might be Hongdae’s most well-known character. They call him the Makgeolli Man, and his cart is full of bottles of the drink. He’ll sell it to you by the bottle or the cup, loudly tell you that he loves makgeolli, and probably loudly tell you that he loves you too.
On your right you’ll see a three-story building with floor to ceiling windows. See anyone singing? Take a second to play the voyeur and check out their moves.
After dinner and drinks, the sahm-cha in a typical Korean three-part night out is a trip to a noraebang, or ‘singing room,’ as Koreans call karaoke joints. A lot of these are dingy basement places, but like this one, some are pretty upscale. And unlike this place, most noraebang singing takes place in private, windowless rooms so the only people you'll embarrass yourself in front of are your closest friends. If you're doing sahm-cha right, the sun will be up again by the time you stumble out.
Stop here on the corner for a minute. The weird gray building with swooshing concrete arcs over glass is Sangsang Madang, which means 'Imagination Yard.’ It’s an artistic hub for the neighborhood, hosting a gallery, movie theater, concert hall, studios, and a design shop where you can hunt through locally designed and made bags, light fixtures, sleeping masks, pillow cases, and all sorts of other stuff. It’s a good chance to see the fruits of Hongdae’s creative labor and support local artists.
OK now take a left onto Jandari-ro.
Hongdae is a big club district, and a number of clubs are clustered near here. Korean clubs range from the typical - dance floor, DJ, EDM – to the uniquely Korean.
As we walk, you may have to veer around groups of twenty-somethings waiting to get into a nightspot. If the lines are made up of groups of just guys and just girls, with no co-ed groups of friends, there’s a good chance they’re heading into what’s called a booking club. Korean culture is pretty heavily influenced by Confucianism. Its emphasis on hierarchy is even built into the language, so before you can have a conversation, you first need to know the other person’s age, and maybe their job title and social status too, just so you can know what language to use with them. That makes it uncomfortable for most Koreans to spontaneously start a conversation with a stranger, and virtually all new meetings start with an introduction by some kind of intermediary – a mutual friend, a teacher, a colleague.
This obviously doesn’t lend itself to casual flirting, which is where the booking clubs come in. Groups of guys will get a table, order a bottle of booze, and scan the dance floor. If a guy spots a girl he wants to talk to he’ll call a waiter over, hand him a tip, and the waiter will go bring the girl back to his table. It might sound suspect, but in effect, the waiters are just serving as mutual acquaintances for hire, introducing the two clubgoers so they can start up a conversation. Or not. Girls are free to take one look at the guy and walk.
Look across the street at the large wooden building with the retro signage and decor. That's Samgeori Pocha, something of a Hongdae institution. Take a left here, and keep going while I tell you about it. We're on the home stretch now.
Samgeori means three-way intersection and pocha is short for pojangmacha, meaning street stall or simple restaurant. These places serve stews, grilled fish, and lots of booze. Samgeori Pocha is one of the best places to eat in the neighborhood. Not so much for the food, which is good but not amazing. It's main selling point is as a place to observe native Hongdae-ites in their natural environment. It’s boisterous, fun, and unbeatable for people watching, especially if you can snag one of the outdoor tables in summer.
So we’re back on Wausan-ro, heading towards Hongik’s front gate. Around this stretch of Wausan-ro, the furniture shops and art academies that we walked past earlier are replaced by clothing stores, bars, and restaurants. Many of them, you’ve probably noticed, are local and international corporate brands. Wuite a bit different from the streets we started this tour on.
For pretty much as long as Hongdae has been Hongdae it’s been a center of club culture in Seoul. The scene here isn’t as trendy as the Gangnam club scene, and it doesn’t pull in as many big name DJs. But if you’re a club kid it has one major advantage: there are tons of clubs here, all within walking distance, making club hopping easy. And if clubbing isn’t your thing, the little streets off to your left are overrun with restaurants and places to drink.
This stretch of Wausan-ro has been hit hard by Hongdae’s corporatization. But for those of us who prefer the neighborhood’s alternative, more local side, it does provide some reassurance. Despite the presence of UNIQLO and the Gap, the sidewalk here is still the preserve of local DIYers. The little tables and blankets you might see are commonly set up here for people to sell jewelry, accessories and other little knickknacks.
Hongik University is off to your right. You can’t really see the campus from here but can you see the front gate on the right? It's that hulking structure that looks more like misplaced Star Wars architecture than the entrance to an arts school.
Double Back to the Left
Take a sharp left off the road here and double back towards the street stalls selling snacks or handmade jewelry. We're going into the park. It's officially called the Hongdae Children’s Park, though you rarely see children here. Everyone just knows it simply as ‘The Park.’
The Heart of Hongdae
Here we are. The heart of Hongdae. Head into the park here and find a place to sit.
No matter how much corporations might encroach on the rest of the neighborhood, the park remains a little oasis for Hongdae’s experiments and energies. It’s a meeting spot, a town square, a marketplace, a performance venue, an al fresco bar, a free-form theater.
A night out in Hongdae almost inevitably ends up here at some point or another. If you happen to come here on a Saturday afternoon between March and November, the park is home to the Hongdae Freemarket, a funky pop-up market where people sell more handmade jewelry, arts, crafts, and secondhand clothing. If you happen to come here on a weekend night, who knows what you might see?
It’s a pretty safe bet that there will at least two or three musical performances going on at any one time: beatboxers, African drum circles, moody boys with sad guitars. But pretty much anything is possible really. There might be pickup boxing matches. There might be tap dancers. There might be something I once saw called ‘Talk Busking’ where a particularly loquacious guy with a microphone engaged in conversation with anyone who came and sat on the stool in front of him.
There’s really no better way to see just what Hongdae is and does than to just sit here for a while and observe. So I’m gonna shut up and let you do that. Go grab a beer from one of the convenience stores next to the park or a cocktail from one of the mobile bars that are always here at night, take your headphones out, stay a while, and see what Hongdae has in store.
Thanks for joining me on this tour through Seoul's alternative heart. I hope you've enjoyed it. If you'd like to know more about the city's neighborhoods, from the touristy to the obscure and everywhere in between, you can do that at my website, seoulsuburban.com.