The Ballad of an Enduring Cafe

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The Ballad of an Enduring Cafe

Hakrim, a small coffeehouse in Daehak-ro known mostly for its creaking wooden staircase and a vast collection of classical LPs, is one of those places you feel the instant stillness of time as soon as you walk in the door.

For students who took humanities classes at Seoul National University before the 1970s, the cafe is mostly remembered as a place to rest near the campus where a poor philosophy-major could order a cup of coffee and keep his seat all day without being kicked out by an angry owner. That was why in the evening this hangout was typically packed with student actvists, mostly liberal arts majors, many of whom have now become the established poets and critics in the Korean literary scene. Opened in 1956, Hakrim, which means "school in the forest," is now more of a beer joint for exhausted theater actors who have finished their final performance at a nearby playhouse.

Certain signs of the resistant past still exist for people who come to Hakrim today. Some people describe this common attitude as the brainchild of the 386 generation - those Koreans who are now in their late 30s, went to college in the '80s and were born in the '60s. They now make up about half of Hakrim's customers.

The 386ers have lived and witnessed the country's most turbulent periods, either economically and politically; including the post-war poverty of the '60s, a quick economic boom in the '80s, which eventually gave birth to many problems that Korean society suffers from today.

They come to the cafe and grouse about the current age, which lacks romance, and people who have lost loyalty. Kim Ji-ha, 50, a poet and a patron of the cafe since his college days at SNU, recalls Hakrim as a symbol of "romance and a painful aftermath of my lost love and failed revolutions."

Legends lived and died in Hakrim. Jun He-rin, a writer who many critics now describe as "a madness of genius," spent her final hours in the cafe with her close friends in the winter of 1965. Jun's story appeared in the newspaper the next morning as a depressed female writer who died after overdose from sleeping pills in her apartment. Her death remains a mystery for many who knew her. Kim Ji-ha, a dissident poet, often borrowed the cafe address for people to send him urgent messages while he was hiding from the police. During the 1980s, Hakrim was also a frequent gathering place for college students who met to discuss their lastest protest plans before they moved onto the street.

Unfortunately, there is no longer a college in Daehak-ro. The campus of Seoul National University was relocated in 1975 to Sillim-dong, then a remote mountain area, where the school remains. The relocation of Seoul National was part of the former President Park Chung Hee's political strategy to weaken the effect of students' democratic protests in downtown Seoul. The main idea was to put SNU students out of sight, where they wouldn't make trouble. A few years later, the government sold the property to Korean individuals, and even filled in a small reservoir near Maronier Park, across from the cafe, to redevelop the area into, ironically, "a cultural district." That was when the fast-food chains and Western steakhouses started arriving in the district along with a few underground theater.

"It was a mess," says Lee Chung-youl, 44, who is showing a visitor a stack of old guest books that are filled with scribbled words and drawings left by poets and celebrities who have visited the cafe over the last 15 years. Mr. Lee took over Hakrim in 1985. The previous owner had turned the cafe into a semi-Western style restaurant that sold overpriced pork cutlets and curry dishes. To adjust to the changing Daehak-ro of the late 1970s, the previous owner had also renovated the place into a more modern atmosphere, and played a mix of Korean pop and popular radio programs.

"People who used to come here were so angry with the changes that they walked on the other side of the street to avoid seeing the cafe sign whenever they came to Daehak-ro," Mr. Lee says.

Mr. Lee, who had been a faithful Hakrim patron ever since he started photographing the cafe as a hobby, restored its traditions as soon as he took over. He brought back the wooden tables, similar to the ones used in the original place, and reestablished classical music by building a separate hall upstairs for people who wanted to listen to Brahms and Bach. He even traveled to Japan to study the art of coffee-making. But running the place and competing with the new franchise cafes in downtown Seoul was not an easy job.

"I often joke that we are on the side of Kangbuk (north of the river) and they are in chic Kangnam," he says sighing, while pointing out the window across the street where stores such as Starbucks and Kentucky Fried Chicken are lined up amidst other fast food restaurants and convenience stores near the area. "This is like an island," he adds quietly.

In fact, Hwang Dong-il, a literary critic who often visited the coffee shop, once described Hakrim as "an isolated island that floats in the sea of Daehak-ro's frontier of consuming culture." That phrase is written and hung in the wooden panel near the cafe entrance, as if it invites people to an entirely different dimensional space from its street block away. Perhaps Hakrim is separate from the secular world.

"Everything has been changing so quickly since the '90s," Mr. Lee continues. "College students nowadays no longer hang out in groups. I think the influence of Western individualism is spreading very fast."

Mr. Lee says that after the economic crisis in 1997 there has been fewer visitors to the cafe each day. He says the majority of today's customers, who are now in their late 30s through early 60s, are busy "feeding their children." Ironically, those offspring come out to places like Daehak-ro every evening and spend double the amount of money their parents would spend on a weekly budget.

"With 4,000 won ($3), parents that come in here today would rather eat lunch than drink a cup of coffee," he says, solemnly acknowledging the kind of dilemmas people in his generation face in their everyday lives. The legends are gone. Only the raw memories of the good old past remain.

by Park Soo-mee

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