Down home in Hongdae

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Down home in Hongdae

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Young Koreans enjoy a summer evening in Hongdae

In the minds of young trendsetters, you are defined by where you spend your money. That is truly the case in Hongdae, the area around Hongik University, where the atmosphere is starkly different depending on where you set foot.
Hongdae is full of micro-neighborhoods. The first alley, which crosses the main road leading up to the university gate, just past the subway station, is called “the meat-joint block,” because of its restaurants specializing in grilled meat. The “playground” area is where vendors sell accessories, vintage clothes and snacks; the “parking lot” is the hotbed of posh boutiques and foreign cuisine. Then there are the small alleys that cross the main road toward the train tracks facing Sinchon.
Here, in these relatively undiscovered sections, is where Hongdae’s original underground spirit remains.
These alleys are called Obok and Dabok-gil ― gil is Korean for street. But hardly anyone outside of Hongdae refers to them by their names. Obok-gil is a long hill that goes past the Saullim Theater. It runs parallel to Dabok-gil, which has attracted the attention of small shopowners and female students, who live in the area’s many one-room apartments.

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Top to bottom, Cacao Boom, Market M, Wabisabi, Gallery Loop

Obok-gil’s tenants run small teahouses, cafes, unusual clothing shops and theaters that screen art films. It’s fashionable for shop owners here to do without names or signboards, as if to muddy the visitor’s perceptions of the shop’s identity.
Many spaces are used for more than one purpose and most shop owners don’t just sell. I-gong Alternative Visual Culture Factory on Obok-gil holds regular screenings of feminist activist videos, but it also exhibits art, publishes books and hosts media festivals.
Traveling is another part of the area’s identity. At Market M, a lifestyle shop, there are a series of canvas bags printed with the logos of airline companies. The shop offers a free voltage converter to anybody who buys one of their European lamps. On Onbok-gil there are “collection shops,” which sell vintage souvenirs from overseas trips.
The idea of the “intellectual nomad,” which many shops in the alleys are trying to exploit, is descended from the bohemian spirit of previous tenants, many of them artists and musicians who took advantage of the area’s cheap rents four or five years ago.
Many were forced out when the area’s rents soared after the city government designated it “a pleasant walking district” to attract more crowds.
“On the outside, the area is laid back and casual,” says Song Seung-yong, at City Real Estate on Obok-gil. “But every shop has an edge here. Even clothes which are bought from wholesalers are altered by the designers here to fit into Hongdae’s style.”
Indeed Obok-gil represents the culture of a new generation of young Koreans who increasingly advocate individuality. These are people who live alone, buy flowers for themselves, have dress codes free from brand-names, spend time on hobbies, take classes after work and enjoy eating brunch alone while reading a book.
“It really reflects the mindset of young Koreans who grew up with some urban exposure,” says Song. “For those who are not familiar with the culture, there’s nothing to explore here. It’s too bland. But once you know about it, you get hooked.”
Tea Terrace, (02) 323-0036, has wonderful homemade English scones, which are unusual in a Seoul teahouse. They are made fresh and take about 20 minutes to arrive. They cost 1,500 won a plate. The owner decided to open her shop after she was captivated by her first bite of a scone on a trip to London. The shop’s royal milk tea was specially blended at the “London Tea Room” in Osaka.

Kaldi, (02) 335-7770, is a coffee house, which has made a name for itself by roasting all its beans over charcoal. The shop imports rare beans from all over the world, catering to coffee enthusiasts. Classes are held on the first Monday of every month from 10 to noon.

Wabisabi, (02) 324-6669, is a Japanese bistro that sells appetizers and main courses like ochasuke and oden at reasonable prices. Grilled eggplant with miso sauce paste is one popular item on an eclectic menu. Reservations are recommended, as the space gets packed with beer drinkers in the evenings.

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Top to bottom, I-gong alternative media factory, Kaldi, Gopchangjeongol, Suite 101. Photos by Jeong Chi-ho

Gopchangjeongol, (02) 3143-2284, moved here last year from the playground area and has over 4000 LPs from the ‘60s to ‘80s. It’s probably the only bar in the neighborhood that plays only Korean music. The menu has wholesome food, ranging from steamed squid to vegetables.

I-gong Alternative Visual Culture Factory, (02-337-2870, is a collective of media activists who produce videos, books and holds workshops on issues that affect women and minorities. Through July 8 they are screening videos by Lynda Benglis. They also host the New Media Festival in November.

Suite 101 (02) 3143-1015 is a sake bar run by two sisters from Daegu. It is set up like a traditional Japanese sake bar and there is a terrace for summer drinking. The shop has over 15 types of sake. Best-selling snacks include fried marinated chicken, wasabi octopus and koroke or mashed potatoes mixed with diced vegetables and meat.

Cacao Boom, (02) 3141-4663, which means “chocolate tree” in Dutch, specializes in handmade Belgian chocolates. The owner trained as a chocolatier in Belgium. The ingredients are strictly based on the Belgian praline recipe, using pure cacao butter as the main ingredient. Classes are available for groups of four or five people. Boxes are available from 9,000 won for six pieces to 36,000 won for 24. Hot chocolate is also available, made from cacao leaves.

Market M, (02) 337-4769, offers cheap designer-made stationery, bags and lifestyle goods like plant holders and antiques which the owner purchased on overseas trips. T-shirts and bags make up a significant part of the collection, including large travel bags imprinted with airline logos. Flea markets are held here on Friday, from 5 to 10 p.m. and on Saturdays from 2 to 10 p.m.

Container 7 Story (02)3143 3833 functions as a shop and a gallery for rare items used in home decoration. It was opened by an interior designer.

Gallery Loop, (02) 3141-1377, was one of Korea’s first alternative spaces and it hosts workshops and art shows for young experimental artists working in contemporary media. It is currently hosting an exhibition of works by video artist Seo Dong-wook. Admission is free.

By Park Soo-mee Staff Writer [myfeast@joongang.co.kr]

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