Looking for signs of a pulse on the HillThis just in: Hooker Hill is still dead. It’s sad to say, but the Hill has been dead for years now, after a couple of decades when it was the center of the action for Seoul’s foreigners and its more adventurous natives.
But hey ― Kim Il Sung has been dead for years now, and he’s still North Korea’s president. So maybe there’s still hope for the slope.
Back in the Hill’s heyday, you’d find scores of revelers spilling out of lively clubs like Stomper and East-West, rendering the Hill itself one big party zone. But now, whether you go on a Monday or a Saturday night, you’ll find the whole Hill empty, save for the military police making their midnight sweeps.
The crowds, of course, have migrated to the lower altitudes, like the clubs around the Hamilton Hotel, or in Sinchon or Apgujeong.
Will they ever come back? Sure, says Juang Hae-jin, the owner of Barcode, a slightly juicy bar that opened last October in the basement below Polly’s Kettle House. In fact, listen to Ms. Juang talk about Saturday nights at Barcode, and you might think, as Yogi Berra would say, that nobody goes to the Hill anymore because it’s too crowded. “On weekends we’re almost full,” Ms. Juang says. “You have to bump your way through to get to the bar.”
That’s saying a lot, because Barcode is big ― maybe 50 pyeong, or 165 square meters. About 150 to 175 people squeeze in on weekend nights, Ms. Juang says, with GIs, foreign businessmen and Koreans making up a 70-20-10 ratio. Besides the bar, the action is mostly around the pool table. Incidentally, Tuesdays are also busy at Barcode, because Ms. Juang hosts a pool tournament that regularly draws about 20 competitors.
Besides the atmosphere, though, the best reason to make the climb to Barcode is the scenery. Within the last week or so, Ms. Juang has hired several lovely women to serve and accept drinks and keep everything upbeat. (Mind you, Ms. Juang, 33, is quite attractive herself; in fact, if you know your Korean pop culture, consider her a “hot issue.”)
Besides Barcode, the only bars on the Hill where you can bide time nonincriminatingly are Friend, Space, Polly’s and Shooters. Space, right below Friend, is one to watch. Right now it’s boarded up, and in the process of a complete makeover. Word is that its owner will transform it into a pub, like the lower-Itaewon institutions Gecko’s or 3-Alley. That could help solve the Hill’s emptiness problem.
Ask Ms. Juang what the problem is, and she’ll take a page out of North Korea’s playbook: she blames U.S. hostilities. “They need to abolish the curfew!” she said, referring to the post-9/11 stricture that calls for GIs to be safe at home by midnight on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends. “Without the curfew we’d get so many more customers.”
She’s right. There’s no six ways about it.
by Mike Ferrin