Slices of Another LifeKorea is known as one of the most homogeneous countries in the world, never especially open to outside influences. At the same time, Korea has had its share of antagonistic relations with its closest neighbors, Japan and China.
As far as Korea's younger generations are concerned, though, a whole new chapter of openness and exchanges has begun. Epitomized by the co-hosting by Japan and Korea of this year's World Cup soccer games, the three Northeast Asian countries have become closer, largely due to the cultural interests of young people. Koreans love to sing along to "Endless Rain" by the Japanese rock group X Japan and adorn their cell phones with the Japanese animation character Totoro. Plenty of job seekers consider learning Chinese a must.
In the high-energy nightlife district of Sinchon in northwestern Seoul, you can find little slices of Japan and China in the form of cafes frequented by fans of the neighboring cultures.
You don't have to be from Beijing to enjoy yourself here. However, it would help if you liked tea.
Sinjupung - a Chinese culture room
"Ni hao!" is the welcome visitors get at Sinjupung, where the owner tries to squeeze the atmosphere of the 9.6-million-square-kilometer People's Republic of China into just 7 square meters of floor space in Sinchon. The theme cafe, also known as Shinzufeng, serves as the Chinatown for the college area. "This place is not merely a teahouse or cafe, but a wholesome culture room where people can relish the quintessence of China," the owner, Hong Yun-je, told the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.
Mr. Hong named the cafe after the ancient name Chinese used for their land ?Sinju, meaning the land of god, along with pung, referring to the wind.
The wind of the land of god began blowing here about two years ago. The shop is now frequented by Koreans and a number of expatriates from China and other countries. Forty percent of the patrons are expats, according to Mr. Hong, such as Chinese from the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan or Macao. Most of the other foreigners are Westerners like Americans and Australians.
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Hong was on the phone giving advice in Chinese to a Chinese businessman who wanted to make a contract with a Korean company. An employee, hardly distinguishable from the patrons, was busy brewing authentic Chinese teas. At a table, a businessman from Hong Kong was giving an impromptu Chinese lesson to a few young Korean men and women. In all, four groups, representing an array of age groups and nationalities, occupied about half of the cafe's 44 chairs.
If you had to describe the typical Sinjupung patron, he would be a college student clad in jeans and sneakers carrying a bookbag containing a weighty Chinese dictionary. The shop is not the place to take a date, or to come in any kind of formal attire. It's a casual place for friends to meet and learn about what's happening in China.
The cafe has a Chinese culture room, as Mr. Hong puts it, which is something like an amalgamation of Korean "room cultures." It has a DVD player, a karaoke machine, computers, comic books and music CDs. Visitors can use any of the equipment free of charge. Mr. Hong goes to China about once a month to pick up necessities like movies and music as well as oddities like liquid cigarettes and rare cultural properties. On a recent trip he bought a painting of 100 tigers, which is believed to bring good luck. Customers can buy the Chinese pop music CDs for 10,000 won ($8) to 15,000 won.
The most exciting thing to do at Sinjupung is don Chinese traditional clothes, or qi pao (pronounced "chi pao"), and take Polaroid pictures. There are five or six chi pao available, some bearing intricate embroidery featuring dragon motifs. "Only an emperor could wear this design, for a dragon symbolizes the imperial power," Mr. Hong explained. "But here my visitors are all emperors and empresses." The cost of wearing the clothes and the picture is a small donation that goes to Unicef.
Plenty of Chinese games are available. If there are four people in your group, you can learn to play mah-jongg. Also on tap are traditional Chinese bingo and card games.
The cafe's menu is extensive, containing 60 kinds of teas, 10 dishes and 10 liquors. Conspicuously absent is jjajangmyeon, a noodle dish on offer at any Chinese restaurant in Korea but unheard-of in China. The teas cost 3,000 to 5,000 won. Mr. Hong recommends rose petal tea, steeped in pre-bloomed flowers, which is a rare treat even in China. His kitchen's specialty is palbojuk, a porridge with eight ingredients such as pork, squid and abalone.
Undoubtedly, though, the best thing about Sinjupung is the opportunity to socialize. You can encounter a wide variety of people in one small place. As Mr. Hong observed, there are myriad differences in people's characters depending on what part of the world they come from. He suggests that Taiwanese are gentle and usually have stable jobs. Those from Hong Kong, he says, are innocent and warmhearted, while those from Macao are crafty and clever. People from the mainland tend to be streetwise and sometimes a little bit egotistical. The best way to confirm - or shatter - those generalizations is to visit the cafe yourself. And don't forget to say "Zai-jian!" ("Goodbye") when you leave.
Sinjupung is open from 11 a.m. to midnight every day. The restroom is outside and is far from immaculate. You can get discount coupons from its Web site, www.chinawind.co.kr, which is in Korean only. You can make reservations by calling 02-365-0086. Take exit No. 3 at Sinchon subway station (green line).
No sushi or sashimi in sight, but many familiar songs fill the air, while comic books cover the walls.
Kakehashi - a Japanese theme cafe
While there are few Chinese-themed cafes in Korea, Japanese-themed cafes are popping up all over. The first, Kakehashi, founded five years ago, is the most popular gathering spot for Japanese expats and Koreans interested in Japanese culture. The owner, Lee Yeon-jun, told the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition, "Akin to how the name of this place, Kakehashi, means a bridge, I hope we can contribute to the exchange of various cultures."
While Sinjupung is like a cultural center, Kakehashi seems at first more like a library or a seminar room - the patrons are engrossed in Japanese comic books and television shows. The customers can generally be classed in two groups: students seeking to practice Japanese and expatriates wanting to make new friends. What to eat and drink is secondary, as nobody expects fresh sushi or sashimi. Instead, the top priority is whether the latest edition of this or that comic book or magazine like "Man's Non-no" is in stock. On one wall is a bulletin board covered with notes, mostly in Japanese, from people seeking friends, jobs or study groups. For learners of Japanese, Kakehashi offers a three-step program of informal classes - gratis.
The space contains tables of varying sizes that can seat groups of 2, 4 or 10 or more customers. If you want a quiet place to read books, go to the cafe on afternoons; on evenings and weekends throngs of studiers are busy boisterously reciting from their Japanese textbooks. Occasionally, Mr. Lee arranges musicians to perform Japanese music in the cafe.
On a recent Monday afternoon, the place was serene. Only three customers were there, with their noses buried in comic books. Katayama Kenji, a Japanese student learning Korean at Yonsei University, was absorbed in "Slam Dunk" by Inoue Takehiko. "I used to feel lonely as a foreigner in Korea," he said, "but now when I come here, I can feel like I'm back home with my friends."
Kakehashi is open from 1:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. every day. For more information, call 02-332-0505, and don't be surprised if the person answes in Japanese. Korean and English are also available at basic conversational levels.
The name of this bar, which is operated by Seki Chikara, a Japanese national who has lived in Seoul for almost three years, means "flame." The gathering spot is especially recommended for those who are interested in Japanese pop culture. Hanabi is also located in Sinchon, and its sign advertises it as a hof.
But once inside, you'll see that the bar is similar to Kakehashi. A community of Koreans interested in Japanese culture and expats come here, and the regulars are more interested in sharing their interests than sharing shot glasses. In addition to beer and liquor, many kinds of soft drinks are available. This is a great place to find Japanese comic books, as the owner has more than 2,000 in stock. Also available are videotapes of well-known Japanese TV dramas and animated movies. For more information, call 02-323-4297.
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