Stamped #6: Yeonnam, Seoul

This blog series is originally posted at decomP Magazine. It is an experimental (anti-)travel (fake) memoir from an itinerant artist.

My deepest confession as a travelling writer is that this entire Asia fixation began in the most predictable way possible: ten years ago, when I taught private school English in South Korea, and I learned to like, accept, and eventually expect, the privilege I carried as an American. And while I trained Korean children in the global civility that they would need to hop the corporate ladder, I received my own education in Korea’s nightlife, a school of building endurance, of eating only enough snacks not to offset the high of soju bottles mixed with Gatorade.

Over the past decade I’ve returned to Seoul at least once a year, and coincidentally, I get smashed, undone, and driven to excess. Every time I return, it feels like returning to a buffet line that only carries fried chicken and cheap liquor. Between buffet-runs, I try to maintain some semblance of expatriate coolness by claiming to discover some new indie hotspot. Ten years ago it was Hongdae, a trendy art and music district now turned into a glitzy gentrified monstrosity. Years later it was the gallery-rich district of Samcheong, an area now museumified with corporate-sponsored art and American chain restaurants. Just a couple years ago it was Daehangno, a street of live theaters, a cool and exclusive nightspot that was recently rebuilt for middle-class Disney tourists and is full of corporate chains that have surfaced to net in the area’s tourist potential.

This year, my local informants tell me to forget the old hot spots. This year, it’s all about Yeonnam, a slow-moving urban village of artisanal coffee shops and handmade soaps.

I arrive in Yeonnam alone, just after waking at 5 p.m., and feel embarrassed by the fact that I recognize this area. I came with a good friend two years ago, hungover and expecting a new crazy art scene glittered with hip hop dancers and LGBT street art, the “low culture” of a kind one can expect in Seoul. Back then all I saw were a couple calm cafés and dusted stores. The district seemed deserted, a desert. Perhaps this was just my imperial eyes seeing nothing where there was everything. What was run down now appears to carry a “run-down” aesthetic. What was a ruined place of bricks and pipes is now a stage for the art of ruin. What was once an ethnic enclave of Chinese workers (hwagyo) is now a meditation on “enclavity,” with its hybrid restaurants that mix Chinese foods with Japanese, Mexican, and South American ingredients. All the things I associate with Seoul–the fast, the new, the glossy, the speedy, and even Korean food, have little presence here.

Quiet side-streets lead to gardens and bistros. It’s hard to mark what is vintage style and what is European fetish, what is authentic and what is hybrid. But the codes of the space slowly begin to register (the authentic is bright and exotic, the hybrid is dark and small). Cafés hide inside bookstores, bars, floral shops, artist workshops, and pet sanctuaries. Which is the slow, paced rhythm of the parochial, and the trendy, exclusive craftiness of the global?

I watch children play on the old train tracks, sipping my latte on the porch of a café that doubles as a snack market. I sip slowly, hoping to make the single cup last three hours so as not to miss any of the quaint atmosphere of the space: the picnicking families, the couples on rollerblades, the exchanges at the nearby craft flea market, where I bought the bamboo pen I am using to write this. I listen to the absence of cars, I pause over the lack of advertisements, I am warmed by the sound of distant laughter echoing at me through the ginkgo trees.

A pair of young men step onto the porch yawning and collapse backwards into stitched straw chairs, their bedraggled club clothing draping over them like baby blankets. They go on about their night, popping aspirin and sipping drip coffee in between tales of whose pussy they nearly smashed and whether she was an eight, a nine, or a ten.

The one with the beard and sunglasses says, “Dude, you have been here for six years and that was your first time at that club? I feel so sorry for you right now.”

And the other: “Dude, don’t. I’ve been balls deep in so many hot Korean women for six years.”

That feeling when you realize that what really makes a place seem special is the fact that people like you don’t ever go there. It was the same in all those places you visited–the art and live music of Hongdae, the galleries and food stalls of Samcheong, the street performances of Daehangno. You being there upset the fantasy. Your need to find placement on a map, to look for the next desert.

We are always the first wave, a red flag for what’s to come. They run, we give chase. It works out, then, that we never really end up catching them.

And as the chill of night wavers through the air, I can’t help but ask the men sitting nearby for directions to that club.