I like Haebangchon. I have only lived there briefly, but I lived nearby for a while and spent many formative years in Korea there. I made a lot of friends there, and I still have plenty who float in and out of bars and cafés and shout and wave at me when I turn up on random sorties. A bit like me, Haebangchon has changed a lot, and I’d even say it has become more sophisticated, but still with its old town grit that people come back for so much.
Haebangchon is, in essence, a slum. At least it started out that way. Officially named Yongsan-2 dong, the place gets its name after it became a place where North Korean refugees settled after the war, which is why it’s called Haebangchon, meaning Freedom or Liberation Village depending on who you’re talking too. I know that when residents ask a taxi to take them there, regardless of where in the city they’re coming from, they’ll ask the taxi driver to take them to Yongsan-2 dong. It has a dubious nature, and you’ll do well to get a taxi from Itaewon to there late at night, but that has nothing to do with it being a dodgy neighbourhood. As far as I know, there are a few more former North Korean refugee enclaves around the city, but this is the only one I’ve heard off, and it’s also probably the most famous.
Foreigners moved in long before Korea became obsessed with learning English. A long term veteran of Seoul (I’m talking 30+ years) then informed me that it first started with GIs who were posted on the Yongsan post next door. This, I’ve been told, first started happening sometime in the 70s. Sooner or later, the powers that be decided that Haebangchon wasn’t a suitable location for soldiers to be living, so rentals were no longer approved for the neighbourhood – I’m not sure if the situation has changed. Once the GIs moved out, pimps and whores from countries that would stereotypically provide such a skillbase in the Itaewon area moved in. It wasn’t until after the World Cup that the English teaching variety of pimp and whore started to populate the basements and box rooms of Haebangchon.
For me, Haebangchon has always been the epitome of the waeg existence in Seoul. There’s no better way to typify the aspirations of people who came to Korea. That street with its adjoining alleys is full of hope, disappointment, effort, failure, escapism, reality, and imagination. There is creativity living right next door to absolute depravity. There is poverty and there is wealth. For everything in Haebangchon there is its opposite, and in fact I don’t think it would be wrong to describe the whole area as completely bipolar.
I first started coming to Haebangchon not long after arriving in Korea back in 2005. I had a couple of friends who lived around the corner from what was then New Phillies (now it’s Phillies Pub). The first night I stayed I remember waking up on the floor after a heavy night on the sauce, eyes blurred, seeing a flash of a character pass by the window, look in, then dash off again to some unknown place. I didn’t know that this would soon be a very good friend of mine who was stopping by to borrow my friend’s roof to sleep on.
If you are unfamiliar with the layout of city houses in Seoul, let me tell you that many have accessible roofs where people either have nothing but laundry drying or they might have some plants in pots growing. This house had a few plants, but aside from that it was a big open concrete space which my friends colonised with the likes of me during the summer months. Haebangchon is still a great spot to find a party on a roof in the middle of summer, all you have to do is walk around and look up.
Back in 2005 there wasn’t much going on in Haebangchon. There was Phillies, a bar run by a guy from New Zealand, Ssen, run by I don’t know who, and the Orange Tree, another bar with wider pretentions which was run by a Korean guy named Steve. There may have been a few other places, but being who I was I could never have noticed them. If it didn’t have the facility to provide drink or listen to music, I generally didn’t go there. I should also not forget to mention the Kobawoo Supermarket, still there and still selling Haebangchon residents its beer, however I believe it also sells milk and stuff, but I may be wrong.
In 2006 the first HBC Fest took place on a hot and overcast July afternoon. The streets were a little bit full, but the bars had a decent crowd. Back then, the venue hosts were kind of an important concept for each venue and I was the one in charge of the stage at Orange Tree. Steve, who usually gave the impression that he had a couple of bramble bush branches stuck up his ass, was especially nice to me as he allowed me to refrain from removing money from why wallet if and when I required more drink. I made sure to avail of this service as much as I could.
Around the time of the first HBC Fest, places like the Orange Tree and New Phillies had been attracting a few new people into the neighbourhood, as had the people who lived there who brought their friends in. A lot of people liked what they saw; a small and friendly residential area with a few bars with less of the usual Itaewon crowd. Haebangchon was where people went for a civilised drink away from loud groups of GIs, out-of-towners, and ajummas trying to sell roses to a table full of men. For others it was a good place to warm up before you were psychologically prepared to take on the weekend chaos. When word got out the rent was affordable thanks to small deposits, more people started to consider moving into the area.
The HBC Fest had a lot to do with this. The crowds of people would see what was going on and come back when the festival wasn’t on. Gradually new businesses opened, and closed, and others opened instead. Haebangchon turned from an obscure road to a vibrant community of foreigners looking for a place that could described as home, or at least more so than a one-room in Bongcheon-dong, or wherever it was that people had to work.
Haebangchon and the music festival gave visitors this impression that here was a friendly neighbourhood for foreigners. With more and more bars, restaurants, and cafés opening, the long street was a buzz of activity. Soon, more Koreans started to wander in, either noticing all the places as they passed through from Huam-dong avoiding the Namsan tunnel, or if they also were dragged in by friends, or friends of friends, who also had experienced the festival. There were equally curious about the street and how it looked when it wasn’t awash with foreigners washing themselves in Cass.
Probably the turning point for Korean business involvement was when Jakoby’s opened. The bar owner of Ssen (now closed) and Phillies (purchased off its previous Kiwi owner) opened this burger restaurant in around 2008 I think – I wasn’t in Korea at the time – and it soon gained traction as one of the burger venues of choice in Seoul. Apparently the burgers are fantastic, the management not so. I think in the end it turned into a place that foreigners in Haebangchon loved to hate for a whole plethora of reasons. Still, every time I go by the place is packed.
Maybe, Korean businesses started to open up in Haebangchon for the same reasons as foreigners who started to move in. The owners came, they saw what they liked, they sniffed around, and decided here was somewhere they could open a business of their own. The further you walk up the street, the more chic and modern indie cafés, all with their own theme. I was in one the other day the place had a wood-fired (I think) pizza oven, and very respectable cocktail menu, and prices that suited to the kind of customers this place wanted to attract.
One thing about the neighbourhood is its future, and this may have a lot to do with the rents being somewhat affordable or accessible. As long as I’ve been in Korea, people have been talking about when Haebangchon is going to be leveled and recreated as an expensive highrise development on the banks of the Han. Much, so I’ve heard – don’t ask me where – depends on the future of the US garrison in Yongsan, which seems to change its plans for completing its move to Pyeongtaek every time the North Koreans let off a firework…or do a nuclear test…same thing, right?
When the garrison moves there’s supposed to be a park going in there, and with that park comes developers willing to pay top dollar to develop and charge topper dollar for the right to live, not only within walking distance of this new spacious city centre park, but also a short skip to Namsan and the Han River. Yes, I can see the dollar signs in their eyes too.
The residents, and I mean the building owners, are mostly older people who don’t really work. These people are patiently (or impatiently) waiting for this to happen. When the call comes, these people will cash up and move out, and the historic neighbourhood will be no more, or at least will not look like it was previously. All these new tenants are merely pocket money for the building owners who are probably in a good position to take the money and save it, or spend the money on new flatscreen TVs or whatever.
It’s a win-win situation for everyone, as forking out large deposits for accommodation in Seoul is a pain I know all about. Most building owners prefer the deposit to the cash (although I think this is changing slightly). For people who don’t have 20 to 30 million won handy, this can be a problem. When you’re an English teacher and your school gives you five million deposit and 400,000 for rent, then you bunk up with a couple of mates, you can get yourself a very nice place in Haebangchon.
Maybe this is why people turn their noses up at Haebangchon. This ease of accessibility to a more realistic and familiar kind of living, renting and eating in fancy cafés, and the fact that it provides a lot of freedom when because people aren’t tied to their job for a place to live, gives Haebangchon a reputation as a haven of hipsters and haters; people who’ve been in Korea too long who have nothing going for them back home, which is quite a broad and harsh generalisation. Obviously, I’m not talking about every foreigner who lives here, but even with people who don’t fit this bracket you can get the impression that a lot of people are just trying too hard around here. They revel in the non-Koreaness of it. It is, I suppose, a little Freedom Village for a lot of the foreigners who live here and the residents like to celebrate this in their own audacious way. For some of us who don’t live like this, it can be a little irritating.
Then there’s the fact that it’s dirty. Don’t be surprised if you find plenty of cockroaches in your apartment when you move in. You’ll see rats and rubbish on the street. The hills to most of the apartments are a pain in the arse. Cars will not avoid you less. You can experience the casual Korean racism on a daily basis. It is near nowhere useful except Itaewon (note: Itaewon is near nowhere but Haebangchon). I could probably find more to say against Haebangchon. It is a dislikeable place.
Whatever about this, I still like Haebangchon. I have good memories there. It’s not the same as it used to be and this is something I struggle to get used to, but when I was at the HBC Fest last week I saw how it used to be and what I liked about it. Lots of people around who I knew and I could catch up with while they ridiculed me for still living in Suwon. I suppose with Haebangchon, I know it well enough, like my home town, to know where to avoid and where to go, when to be there and when to stay away. It’s nice like that, because whenever I’m a little lonely or a little bored I can still wander in Haebangchon, sit in café or bar, and before long a person I know will walk in and I can start a conversation and catch up. I don’t get that much in Korea, and to know I have a refuge of familiarity in a city as big as Seoul and not far from the sparseness of Suwon gives me comfort.