Ed’s Notes: This begins a loose-leaf, round the dial, yawp heard round the world on diverse (hopefully) neighborhoods in Seoul.
In the basement of the apartment building I lived in is the Police Bar. My room was above it out of earshot; a 5th floor walk up to a small room of cubist angles and a sky light. TV and cable provided and a shared public bathroom cleaned for real every morning by a Chinese woman from Szechwan who for whatever reason didn’t mind fishing used condoms out of the toilet. At three-hundred bucks a month and an around the clock bowl of rice available how could it be better? The first few nights and for some months to come Sinchon had a helter-skelter pace to run in and the neon dreamscape of a modern Kubla Kahn to be seen in. I’m back in again and the only thing that seems new to the neighborhood now is that a quirky comic bookstore off the main road has transfigured itself into a “Purple hair redux” boutique. And contrary to a rumor, the Police Bar has not closed. The Japanese students that I used to cohabit the building still drop down to it at around 12 a.m. and then the Police Bar would has to stay open till the sun comes up. This is still part of that Sinchon de-rigor—as long as there are customers keep the place open almost every place open and let them revel on the streets in the smells of the crackling pork and bubbles of far-reaching perfume. Of extended tongues clicking on soft swirl ice cream with frozen breaths forming in the air, “Opah Ice Cream!” In Sinchon girls in high heels or with their Minnie mouse sweatshirt just out of the dry cleaners would bend parallel to the street and text and puke and cry all at the same time. It’s a primordial scene; everyone running around in unfathomable self-contained drama. It would also all fit on a glossy and tasteless post card. An endless hubbub of honey cats and poodles, part Venus part Mars buzzing in the bee-hive and wrapped up in distressed leather and urban denim. Baseball caps turned backwards, plastic flowers in hand, and everyone in the grilled smells—the porked and the unporked. Sinchon might never get hip but that also means that it never rests to reinvent itself. Sinchon: no one has ever called it boring and I for one never will.
You may wonder what’s the punch line here; it’s proximity and sociability. Unlike other have-a-good-time districts in Seoul there are rarely any flare ups in Sinchon. Natives and foreigners alike just glide and shamble around the corners under the bug inviting neon sky, everyone getting ninnyhammered drunk and no one saying enough is enough.
Yet inside an old scared boozer, The Doors is in the empty fall towards neglect. You can’t just get a beer for 3000 ($3) won but need to pay 10.000 won a pitcher of Korean value beer and with the ice machine klunking out cubes and no one there to only play music, or only pour beer somehow it’s hard to be sure if the place wants to be open. Through the windows outside of the bar the sky is slate colored and matches all of the empty shelves in The Doors. The shelves where expensive whiskey bottles had been were sold many moons ago and have not been replaced. A trio of international students sitting next to me commented on how quiet the place is and how it reminded them of, “Drinking in Nordic countries.” They talked about not being depressed at school in Madrid and as the bartender turned up the Kpop have a good time songs, as if to block conversations, I couldn’t clock theirs until in-between songs where the talk had shifted to,
“Buying revolver in Texas .”
I wasn’t sure if they meant a gun or the Beatles album. There were a couple of other groups in the bar all secluded and distant in body manners while waiting to hear their request songs. It’s as if everyone didn’t want to notice anyone else around them or they were afraid that the bar man was going to start charging more for the beer or start crying about not having enough customers.
The Voodoo Bar is gone now and yet when it would open was always an up-and-down spinning yo-yo and about as rock ‘n roll demented as Korea can allow. The patrons were part star struck with themselves (for knowing who The Dandy Warhols were) and bee hive drones in service to the unique bar owner. The curvy queen bee went by several names (Eun Ju, Miss Park, Sophia) and liked foreigners when they played up to her, told her Korea is great or her bar was the best in the world, and hated foreigners who brought up anything unfavorable about the place. The bathroom door had trouble closing and sometimes she would barge in while a man was pissing and reprimand him for not closing it properly. She would on wish and whim shut her bar for no apparent reason other than it was hers and she could and once her mood swung as freely as that bathroom door there wasn’t a damn way to motivate her into staying open. To crack the code on who was who and why they are who they are in Sinchon, you had to look and look again. Look to the point of staring. By any western account of desire this woman was a MILF, yet bi-polar bordering on Dissociative Disorder. In Korea, there is one word that encapsulates her universe: Ajumma.
And when you become a little more recognizable the hang around Sinchon people will start up conversations and reveal something real. Another bar owner I spent time with was Chris who owned the Cure Bar. He dressed the part; a softer feature version of Robert Smith in black and white with anti-glare make up. All I ever heard in his bar was of course The Cure plus New Order, Bauhaus and Joy Division. Towards the end of that bar’s allegiance to cool, before it became a post-gothic Karaoke house, he complained that Japanese and Americans patronized his bar but was worried that customers were vastly thinning out, and, “Young Korean peoples just not cool. They like bubble gum love music.” He always mentioned that he liked to hang out in LA’s Korea town, “Besides London, that was where real style was, ” and if you believe him the shutting of the Cure Bar in Sinchon came via LA’s Korea town as months later he confided to me over a game of pool. Chris closed his bar because his brother jumped off, “The Wilshire Bullocks” building. He meant the currently standing Southwestern Law School which used to be The Wilshire Boulevard Hotel of course, but I didn’t need to tell him anything. Nor am I sure whether to believe him or not. Often when a business rolls to dust the owner will say something morbid and iron cast about their father or someone dying in the family and that they had to shutter the business in order to go and take care of their family. Yet before there was post-punk there was punk and it seemed obvious to me that Chris’s real family was anyone who could move easily in the alternative rays of life. Who knows what his family really thought of him?
This was Sinchon 1st wave. I wasn’t going out every night or playing records downstairs at Nori yet just living in the nightly madness of others. Watching locals with perfect teeth and nipples getting a grip on life while holding a Jack Daniel’s bottle. Yoon Soo was absolutely Sinchon 1st wave. At Nori Bar she’d go thru about 3 bottles of JD a week. She was generous with her hooch to a point yet she would never let boy or girl get in the way with her own getting tight. For some reason I never found out why she wouldn’t or couldn’t drink in Police Bar so one night when Nori had played out early (and that was rare) Youn Soo, a few others and myself skipped the 2 a.m. rush at Police Bar and walked up to my fifth floor. Just about crossing into the common area is when we could hear the weeping. My Japanese floor mate with at least half-Korean blood was lying naked on the middle of the floor and weeping incessantly if barely audibly. He was shipping back to Tokyo the next day and the emotions he had about that were complex to say the least. I never got his name but he taught me a few things like to how work out (Home gym) even if all you have is a small room and he would play J. Pop loudly yet not too loud and I heard how every audible syllable in Japanese (and of course Korean) is stressed. When he would train to a pop song the whole scene would look and sound so stereoscopic like it was some sort of amped up hallucinatory battle cry. And with the Japan/Korea relationship so revved up and complicated i.e. part myth, part folktale, active politics, all history, I felt the sting of overwhelming contradictions biting in his soul, but right now he was lying frontal nude to the ceiling and I was worried that Youn Soo was coming over to mount him right there in the middle of the floor. I plied him into his own room where he closed and locked the door.
The reason I wanted to stop at Police Bar was for a nightcap and a lullaby. I wanted my Korean friends to hear Pearl Jam’s, Black. For sure they had heard it often in Sinchon but I wanted to suggest to them how its psycho-tropic melody and rhythm from a Greek chorus suggested an American cartoon jingle meets a Buddhist mantra chant. Even in what can sometimes be one-of-the-late-night-loud-corners-of-the-world Black was not gonna fly so we sat around the floor, smoked up and I picked up Sylvia Plath and read out Daddy. There was no skinship for anybody that night. Youn Soo shortly went home and sometime later she was having a problem contacting her own father, plus something about her uncle taking her to China and then splitting on her. Some months later she sent me this original poem.
In a Train to Sinchon (By Youn Soo Lee)
Hmmm, Something smells burning.
It smells like rubber.
A boy with sneakers is sleeping with a dirty band on his arm.
They will come back again; pain and sorrow have always been coming back and going away.
But, also, images on a postcard.
Permanent like a ROCK at the bottom of The Ocean,
It can be stormy, rainy, the fact is, nothing moves it.
It brings its own disturbed peace.
The truth is, Argument is so tactless.
Stay silent, move, give this guy with widely opened legs some rest.
Hah, funny, he just took my seat.
I dream to take all guys on this train with clothes off and see what they have.
A girl wearing Kill Heels on the passing billboard wears 3 watches, and her dizzy face can’t move.
Why would any woman be bothered with tying 3 watches on her arm?
Whoever’s idea that is, it’s a total failure. There are at least 5 men wearing ties on this train.
Let them come…
Before this whole riff begins to sound like a quasi Jim Carroll song , and a post-mortem blast of a rickshaw slamming into a sarcophagus, 1st wave Sinchon was more exciting than it was dark. There are also life affirming flashbacks. Rock ‘n’ roll moments that music critic turned novelist Nick Tosches remarked, on as music and frenzy that offered,
“a cold hard blue-veined cock right up under the tie-dyed skirts of benighted sensitivity.”
It happened outside the bathroom in Sungmin’s bar, another Sinchon bar which is right above Nori. And also for sure Sungmin is definitely Sinchon 1st wave. She knew The Replacements’ songs I wanted to hear leading up to a good-for-the-public rock anthem by The Who. And even after the no holds barred copulation in her bathroom with some hipstomatic art chick, she was kind to me and good with the music. I am not doubtless how it went down that night. Downstairs the Nori bar was too crowded to get in the door so it was up to Sungmin’s which was not the overflow bar for Nori but had its own Raison d’être. Eccentric arts and crafts on the walls and a seated local clientele at the bar, multigenerational in age, men and woman, mixed, with a demeanor portraying that even if they were about to roll off the conveyer belt of a mandatory marriage to another Korean they would hit the floor just to get up and drink another drink.
The bathroom was free and as I closed the door glossy pink fingernails pointed through. She moved in and closed the door. She was possessed by Dionysus. Inside the stall we got it on for a respectable amount of time and right when our planets were colliding it seemed the music was turned down as if to catch the clarity of our noise. It didn’t matter who knew that the prelude was a Stone Roses song playing in the bar. When you meet a true voodoo doll who was dressed for Warhol and she follows you into the toilet there is just one thing to do and that is stick the pin in the cushion.
It’s now a chilly fall night and Sungmin’s bar hasn’t changed much in appearance from then. The fact is it’s locked on intimate size and walking in is like opening a shoe box loaded with memorabilia. The bathroom has been remodeled and inside it now I notice that the four Sinchon bars I have been to tonight all have a map of the world tacked to the walls in plain view. Like an obsolete postage stamp. Not even a collector’s item. It seems all the bars in Sinchon have 7 or 8 years or 17 or 18 years of crafted memorabilia on the wall. Tonight, a posse of Korean students are taking the pictures of individual Beatles off the back wall and posing for a snap with them. A photo for their collection. All this with ABBA songs playing in the background. George Harrison was the Beatle of choice and I have to get the Hell out of here.
The previous time I saw Sungmin was at an exhibition opening and I wanted to at least say hello to her, but getting to the bar wasn’t easy. It wasn’t really crowded but some foreigner dude was standing in front playing at traffic cop and in a fey voice kept repeating, “ABBA is a Palindrome. ABBA is a Palindrome.” That’s nice I mentioned back to him. Sungmin had already poured a beer and started to explain how Sinchon has changed, I asked her how and she replied, “You don’t want to know.”
While I was getting out the door I heard a sotto voce whisper towards me, “I like my Indie pop sweet. Very sweet…”
Listen here for the song that should have been playing at Sungmin’s that night.
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