September 20, 2010 § 1 Comment
Your friend promises you that this place is real. He found it, he says, after quite a raucous night of eating a bit too much barbecued pork, and drinking just a bit too much sweet-potato wine. In fact, it is all he has talked about for weeks and if he could only remember exactly where it was, he asserts that you will not be disappointed.
The problem is, he can’t remember there being a sign on the door, and regardless, he never did find out what the place was called.
Surely it is just around the next corner. Or the next. Past the train station, past the cathedral.
Your friend’s face finally lights up as he spots an open door next to the entrance of what appears to be a student-run theatre.
Like an absurd assortment of gatekeepers, three young hipsters, two middle-aged men and one very fancy looking woman are smoking like chimneys and talking in rapid-fire Korean. They are huddled around a portable gas stove, sitting on dilapidated folding chairs in the shade of a potted plastic palm, and are sharing what looks to be a saucepan of clear broth with a few bean sprouts thrown in as garnish. As soon as it becomes apparent that you are hesitantly hovering, rather than moving down the road to the bright lights of the late-night shopping district, you are met with smiles and gestures that appear to suggest you enter.
You find yourself in what was once probably some kind of very small pawnbroker. The street-light coming through the grimy window dimly illuminates a room crammed full of junk. The only other light is cast by desk lamps perched precariously on piles of books, records, hi-fi’s, relics from another time. There is music playing in this cast-off jungle, spewing forth from a rude assortment of speakers variously sprinkled in amongst the mess. Your friend picks his way through the boxy undergrowth, towards a tiny counter slouched against the back wall. Your approach brings to life a tiny woman guarding an antique till. She greets you with an incline of the head and holds up two fingers – more a statement than a question. You acknowledge that there are indeed two in your party, and she uses a calculator to display to you the relevant cover charge. When all dues are paid, she motions with an outstretched palm towards a narrow gaping pit, partially obscured by a particularly precarious pile of records, and which on further inspection, contains a very steep set of stairs.
You descend in single-file and find yourself suddenly in a tiny, loud, hazy dungeon of a room. Party lights are strung at odd angles from the roof, providing only the dimmest of glows to see by. Lamps and televisions soundlessly displaying old Korean dramas offer the only other illumination. The owner of the venue is apparently quite a famous cinematographer who only opens it up when he is not on location. The walls are plastered with film posters in English and Korean, pasted to every surface with yellowed and crumbling sticky tape. Grimy kitschy, soviet-era paraphernalia is piled up against the walls, lined up on every ledge, filling every crevice. The accumulated detritus of 35 years in the business. Picnic tables, lounge chairs and milk crates provide surfaces for sitting and a giant umbrella, blown out as if caught unawares in a storm, flowers out of one table and meets the low ceiling, where it is swallowed by a sea of familiar faces. A sorry looking drum kit is wedged in one corner, and a wall of guitars, ukuleles, amps and other unidentifiable instruments in the other. These two fixtures bookend a cramped stage where the tangled mess of a sound system is set up, playing old-school Korean pop off a rickety record player.
A lone waitress makes sure you are seated and hands you a menu hand-written in Korean. The little marker-drawn illustrations make it clear that you have the choice of two kinds of beer (Hite / Cass) and two kinds of soju (Chom Chorom / Chamisul). She also asks in her adorably broken English if you would like tea or coffee. Everything about this place feels makeshift, improvised and special. A little slice of dirty, grungy heaven. The waitress places a bowl of what looks like styrofoam, but is probably puffed rice snacks, takes your order and leaves you to drink in your surroundings.
You get the feeling that everyone down here has been haunting this hole for years. There is a kind of comfortable familiarity about the place. Your wide-eyed fascination with every strange detail is met with warm smiles and encouraging nods from the locals. Slowly, the bunker fills up with a trickle of new faces taking their places under the sky, full of stars.
There is a little bit of a commotion. The owner is ousting some reluctant young men from their chairs and pushing them towards the stage. Unlit cigarette between his pouted lips, he leans over and fiddles with the record player and then finds a book of ‘Greatest Rock hits of the 1980’s’, and throws it at the tallest of the skinny white boys, trying to untangle a working guitar from the spiderweb of cable strung on the wall. You recognise them now. They are from a relatively good local band, but they look completely unprepared to strut their stuff under these conditions. It doesn’t stop the crowd cheering them on, some yelling out requests, and others starting to clap along, even though no one has started playing.
They sort themselves out with instruments that are unfamiliar, and more than a little out of tune. The boys manage to bash their way through some songs from the book, and are even able to squeeze in a few originals, which evokes an enthusiastic response from the proprietor who claps wildly and sings along to as much as he can make out. It’s a riot. Generally everything is a bit too loud, and a bit to trashy, but a whole lot of fun.
The impromptu gig comes to an abrupt close however as, at the conclusion of a rather rousing rendition of ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, the owner leans over and replaces the needle on the record, and returns to discussing animatedly with his table some of the finer points of the current bid for North-South reunification. The surprised musicians extricate themselves from the stage, and rejoin their party. You look down and realise that, out of nowhere, quite a large plate of dried squid has appeared, complete with lashings of chilli sauce and mayonnaise. Your mate assures you that it is safe to eat, but you order more beer just in case.
Suddenly you hear a loud voice, it seems to be making a noise somewhere in-between singing and yelling. Raspy, raw and full of emotion. A young man in an incongruous combination of skinny jeans and a traditional raw silk blouse has taken the stage and is singing in Korean…