[SEOUL LOUNGE] The street culture revolutionI don’t spend a lot of time in Itaewon,
but here I am, sitting in a new, flashy
three-story coffee shop writing this column
as I wait for my next appointment.
As I look around for a moment, I cannot
help but notice that I am the only non-
Korean in the entire place.
Seoul never sits still, but surely no area
of this great city has changed more in the
past five years than Itaewon. I used to play
guitar in a band, and we’d sometimes have
a gig in Itaewon bars that smelled of 97-
year-old beer spillage, for a 98 percent foreign
audience. No money changed hands;
befitting our lowly status, we’d just receive
free drinks. Itaewon was dark and dingy,
and had a certain edge to it. It was what the
British call a “guilty pleasure.”
Back then, I didn’t have a single Korean
friend who hung around here. “It’s
dangerous! American soldiers will beat
you up!” they would cry. But the wave of
gentrification set off by the likes of Hong
Seok-cheon has now seemingly made
Itaewon into the new Gangnam.
Hong’s name is associated with one
specific thing in the minds of most people.
But he is also someone who has changed
the face of one of Seoul’s most famous districts.
What he and other entrepreneurs
here have done is to take Itaewon’s “otherness”
and make it palatable for a mainstream
audience. Starting from a handful
of plush restaurants, they have created a
revolution based on what Hong refers to
as “street culture” — building-by-building
change, coming from the back
Specifically, the new Itaewon is presented
in an exotic but upmarket (and
therefore acceptable) way that appeals to
young women. I know very few young
Korean men who are genuinely interested
in going to the latest hip new Thai restaurant,
but when your girlfriend insists on
it, you don’t have much choice.
The funny thing is though, the foreigners
are leaving. The new Itaewon is
too expensive, especially if the 10,000
won ($9.15) glass of imported beer on sale
in that funky new bar costs half of that
back in your own country. So the new old
Itaewon is now Gyeongnidan, just down
the road, where more modestly priced
pizza restaurants, or bars (serving their
own craft beer), are springing up.
Across from Gyeongnidan is Haebangchon,
long considered a foreigner’s
ghetto, even by foreigners — “Oh, you
don’t live in Haebangchon, do you?” is
the attitude people had about it. But this
hilly outpost of Itaewon-world is now developing
into a “hipster” enclave of independent
Both Gyeongnidan and Haebangchon
still have their share of Korean establishments,
but like the musty rock clubs I used
to play in, I cannot help but wonder how
long they will survive.
There is always a loss involved in gentrification
— not one related to GDP, but
Such is the case with the landmark
Richemont bakery in Hongdae, beloved
by locals for over three decades. Hongdae’s
youth culture clout has resulted in
phenomenal rents, meaning that
Richemont can no longer justify its existence
there. Depressingly, it has been replaced
by — what else but — a chain cafe.
Richemont has moved to a cheaper area,
making old Hongdae hands lament the
runaway popularity of the district they
helped popularize. Hongdae itself was
once a cheap adopted homeland for refugees
from Sinchon, after all.
The coolest, artiest (read: poorest)
people in Hongdae are themselves now
starting to move on, to places like Mullaedong
— a cheap industrialized area no
longer blessed by much industry. Perhaps
one day Mullae-dong, and Haebangchon
too, will be hot spots for dating couples,
with a Starbucks on every block. I wonder
where else a street culture revolution then
might take place.
*There is always a loss involved in gentrification — not one related to GDP, but rather emotion.
by Daniel Tudor