The secret garden in the heart of the Hill

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The secret garden in the heart of the Hill

Which Hooker Hill bar has the best views, you ask? Ironically, it’s the only one without any female employees, Al Maz.
Go to Al Maz, which, yes, is a gay bar, and you won’t believe you’re in the thick of Itaewon’s sleaze zone. Walk in ― it’s just around the corner from King Club ― and you’ll notice right away that the whole back wall is a window, and behind it is a pleasure garden set against a wall of natural-looking granite formations. You’ll see charming little rock pagodas below willowy Oriental trees. Subtle lighting brings out the Edenic features to maximum effect.
How did this sublime little secret garden come to be? People’s memories are a little hazy on the subject ― it’s Itaewon, after all.
But according to one local who’s up on the lore, Al Maz was once a classy hostess bar called Aphrodite, catering to upper-echelon expatriates. Aphrodite’s owners created the garden, which originally featured little pleasure pools, so that on hot summer nights the fat cats could cool off in a sybaritic setting, while the resident pussycats made sure their guests wouldn’t be sending much money home that month.
The nymphs disappeared after about a year, though, when a man named Byeong-geun, who was looking to open a gay bar, dropped by Aphrodite on a snowy winter night. He beheld the snow-dusted garden out back, the story goes, and decided on the spot to sign a purchase contract. In due course, the sign out front was changed to “Al Maz,” which means “the treasure” in Arabic.
Byeong-geun guarded his garden treasure until about three months ago, when he decided to sell Al Maz so he could focus on his clothing business at Dongdaemun market. The new owner, Micky Um, wasted no time in making the best of the Eden out back. He built a wooden deck out there and furnished it with tables and chairs. Now it’s quite likely the best place in Itaewon to enjoy the night air.
Incidentally, the interior of Al Maz is pretty slick, too, with black leather sofas and dark tables. The hues at work are mostly woodgrain greens and creamy ivories, and the lighting mostly consists of built-ins. The soundtrack is funky house music, with the volume kept at conversation-friendly levels.
The clientele at Al Maz is about 90-percent gay men, the rest being gal pals or the occasional couple on a date. You won’t see many foreigners, but you might see the odd celebrity; the transsexual actor/singer Hari Su drops in about once a month, Mr. Um says.
Strike up a conversation with Mr. Um if you want to hear an interesting life story. Until two years ago, he was living in Chicago, with a good job as an agent for a shipping company, and a nice little apartment near O’Hare Airport. He’d probably still be there now, he says, but his parents told him to move back to Korea and get married or consider himself disowned.
Needless to say, though, Mr. Um is still single.

by Mike Ferrin
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