Hongdae is the coolest place, with the swankiest bars and hippest clubs. People mix, mingles, and mack the night away, the very definition of the cool place to swing in Seoul.
But I hate Hongdae.
You see, back in the day, you didn't have to have signs like these:
I know – as a foreigner or cool Korean, one should have nothing bad to say about the place. And I should say that my hatred is not polemical or ideological, like some people who say that Hongdae is too full of "scary GI's" (which usually translates to mean raucous, muscled-up white boys or any black person) or "weird people" (meaning Koreans who perceive themselves to be extremely cool or possessed of an unusual sense of fashion). Hongdae doesn't represent anything to me, nor do I stereotypically associate the place with a single, certain type of person.
This means that sometimes I am known to go to Hongdae to meet people who have already decided to congregate there, or if there's an extra-special event going on over there. But generally, given a choice, I usually take a raincheck or gracefully bow out.
Now, I used to think that since I actually liked Hongdae at one point in time – back when I was a youngun in my 20's during the 1990's – my present aversion to the place meant that I am simply getting old. Maybe it meant that I should start hanging out in 단란주점 (old school hostess bars) and singing karaoke with middle-aged drinking girls. Maybe I should even start hanging out in 다방 (tea houses with "company"), getting drunk and ranting about politics, indignantly and emphatically pulling up on my pants belt every time I made a point.
But then I thought – naw – it ain't me. The place has changed. When I realized it was when a friend of mine dragged my old ass out to Suwon to hit a hip hop club there where a DJ friend of hers was spinning. I was quite suspicious, as I hadn't seen a hip hop club worth my time since I returned in 2002. I'll return to this part of the story later.
See, I'm from the old school. Of course, lots of young poseurs say the same, but if "old school" is relative to when you happened to start liking music in middle school, it doesn't count. That means Cypress Hill is not old school. Neither is Nelly, nor 50 Cent. And loving up some Justin Timberlake and Eminem does nothing towards anyone convincing me – especially if its a Korean person – that they know shit about rap. Unless you are talking Dougie Fresh, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Ice-T (before his role in Colors or New Jack City, fool), or even EPMD – you're not Old School. Yes, my love of rap also coincided with late elementary and early middle school – but importantly, this is also just after rap's maturation out of the South Bronx and Brooklyn in the early 1980's, when it started quickly gaining a broader following amongst black folks, and well before rap was 1) allowed even to be played on MTV, to say nothing of 2) being considered anything other than "black music," or more commonly, a "fad," "garbage," or simply "not real music."
So there is an agreed-upon beginning of rap as a black thing around the middle to the end of the 1980's, so if you didn't like rap since then, you're simply not "old school." This is not belittling your love of rap or comparing how much you might know about it – but we can't let the term "old school" just float along whatever newer generation happens to start getting nostalgic about their high school days.
And in case you're wondering – yes, this does have something to do with Hongdae. But back to my long segue...
Rap was fundamentally harder to like back when I was in middle school. It wasn't allowed on MTV, since it wasn't considered "rock" music (and had too many Black people in it for white audiences). You could only watch it on Black Entertainment Television and nowhere else. You get double old school points if you 1) watched Rap City, or 2) remember that "No, my brother. You's got ta get your own" commercial. BET was so ghetto, you knew only black folks watched it. I think white people just felt uncomfortable and flipped the channel. Black folks gathered around the TV and waited for Run DMC's "Christmas in Hollis" to come on around that time of the year. It was the height of entertainment and fun for me – spoof comedy, rap, and black Santa Claus. That was the shit.
So Hongdae is annoying to me now, since I got to know it when club and bar culture was still a natural part of the landscape, when it had a true underground pedigree – because it was still truly underground. It was a clear and desirable alternative to the mainstream ways of getting drunk and trying to get laid – hotel night clubs (J.J. Mahoney's and Pharaoh anyone?) and the Korean version thereof – the ubiquitous Korean 나이트("night" club). They're all still around, but they've been eclipsed by the unstoppable force of the "club" scene.
Now, back in the day, when clubs were gritty-but-loveable places to go to get your specialized groove on – punk, rock, metal, and rap – you could count on going to a place that was a community of people who loved the same thing and went because it wasn't offered anywhere else (the standard rap entries in the hotel or Korean night clubs were MC Hammer's "Pumps and a Bump" and Seotaiji's "Come Back Home" – once those were played, you were all hip-hopped outta luck for the rest of the night. People who went there all tended to go there because of their type of music – not just to go.
So they weren't there primarily to pick up poontang, find an excuse to act out one's hidden slut, going to act a fool, pose like you got major money, or just conspicuously ignore everyone as if there was nothing so offensive to you as the people dancing around you at that very moment. I mean, that's what you're supposed to do in a normal night club in Korea – not in da "club" in Hongdae. Hongdae was the place where middle and high school Korean kids obsessed with rap donned hidden gear from secret stashes and snuck out the house at night. Then there were the black people whom everyone else seems to either fear or loathe in Korea, who came out to get their shake or sway on. There were more foreigners than in a Korean club, since hip hop and rap weren't mainstream in Korea then, although it was already in the US, but there were a lotta Korean rap heads out there. College kids who had gotten into it were also around, as were the occasional girls who got a kick out of it all, or who were maybe looking to get a little more exotic action than the standard white English teacher action. Up-and-coming Korean rappers and dancers made more than an occasional appearance, and everyone seemed to be friendly, chill, and ready to have a good time.
Now, it's the same fucking commercialized meat market as the night clubs used to be. The very sign of its demise is "Club Day," something that I want to attend like I want a metal spike driven slowly into my skull. Now, some clubs have the unmitigated gall to charge foreign men DOUBLE the entrance fee, since we're obviously no longer wanted. Funny – we were the ones supporting your asses back before hit it big in Korea; now we're just unwanted. On top of the clubs being mere recyclers of commercialized boodie beats made specifically for clubs – the commercialization of rap, combined with the illegalization of sampling, is in itself a tragedy, but that's another rant – I gotta pay twice to just go in? After going to a couple places like that, I vowed never to return to them. I've never seen a more blatant display of discrimination in my life. I guess that's because I never lived during the Jim Crow era. At least now in the States, people have to hide the fact that they don't want certain people entering their stores and places of business. And the funnier thing about that in Korea is – they're discriminating against the very people who used to be their bread-and-butter only less than ten years ago.
And we know the result of "No GI's" policies in certain clubs. It effectively means "No Black People." Maybe that's not the intent, but that's the effect. Ya'll know it's true. No black people in a hip hop club. That's fucking ridiculous. Only in Korea. In this way, Korean people are just like white folks – imitate and steal all the accoutrements of Black cultural cool – then appropriate Black folks out of their own creations.
Want examples? Korean boys walking with faux afros. Girls wearing ghetto fabulous gold name necklaces. Korean getting cornrows. Boys in baggy pants and a strut. Korean rap. R&B. "Big Mamma." Ray Charles nowadays. But a brutha with a Harvard degree can barely get a job teaching English in this country, while any white Canadian high school dropout with a pulse can be getting duckets right off the plane. I'll paraphrase Paul Mooney by saying:
"Everybody wanna be a nigga, but don't nobody want to be [around] a nigga."
Now we got Korean American boys on vacation from college or summer break from Rancho Palos Verdes in LA coming to Korea (and Hongdae a lot) calling themselves "nigga." Now this is from someone who would probably disown his sister if she even talked to a real nigga, but now style as somehow "hard" or otherwise "gangsta." Well, everyone in LA thinks they're a gangsta, it seems. Now, my question to these (and other non-Black folks as well) is:
Why do you feel it necessary to act out your masculinity through perceived notions of Black male masculinity?
Has that ever struck anyone as strange? Why, if you come to Korea, if someone gets you all hot and bothered, causing you to want to talk shit, does it have to come out like, "What's up then? You wanna step to this, bitch?" accompanied by appropriately "black" gesticulations learned from movies and extended versions of rap videos? But these are the kids who got straight A's in high school and are now attending Princeton, intending to get some kind of internship next summer before going on to law school and a life living in the suburbs with Ikea furniture, Sharper Image doodads, an interior from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Don't get it? Again, I refer you to the Paul Mooney quote above. These are definitely the same people who will avoid black people assiduously when they are older, moving to lily-white suburbs, and locking their door when a black man in a suit walks too close to their Lexus.
Such Korean Americans are the first type of people who annoy the fuck out of me in Hongdae. Their Korean American female counterparts are quite similar in orientation. It's a waste of space to go on talking about them in detail – just add to the above description a good dose of "princess complex" and you've got the general picture.
Add in certain white dudes over here who try to take advantage of their own novelty and by pulling an Eminem – trying to be an actual, cool "black white guy" – in front of unsuspecting Korean girls, and you've got the basic picture. The more you actually look like Eminem, the better. Of course, there are the white guys who just try to get play from foriegner-worsipping English junkies, but they're a constant anyway.
Throw it all together and you get a club NOT full of hip-hop heads, wanna-be B-boys-and-girls, or people who simply like the music – but rather:
– Korean American posermen trying to be Black or simply "mack," which brings us back to Black
– Korean men trying to be Korean American posermen
– annoying white dudes looking for the next Yumi or Jihye or Sookyung to lay
– Yumis, Jihyes, and Sookyungs who overpronounce their vowels and speak in English unusually loudly, wanting annoying white dudes to lay them (and teach them more English)
– Korean American girls either trying to act like they're Korean girls, or alternatively spending way too much energy bitterly playa-hatin' on Korean girls
– a few straggler white girls being ignored by everybody, except some of the Korean men trying to be Korean American posermen, who are also being ignored by everybody
– a couple of black dudes mixed here and there, amusedly enjoying this whole scene
Now – before ya'll get all bent out of shape, let me just say that sprinkled in here are some chill Korean dudes, fly Korean ladies, cool foreign folks, etc. But they're not the majority anymore, which they used to at one time be.
That's why I'm pissed. It's the posers, punks, princesses, and pricks who make Hongdae suck these days.
This is a post with which I know most of the readers out there are going to simply get, or with which folks will vehemently disagree. But that's the scene as I see it. I first consciously realized when I arrived at that Suwon joint mentioned earlier in this rant.
The Suwon club was fly as hell, populated by the young rapheads, hip-hop hipsters, and interested onlookers I had always remembered. They were simply funky fresh!
And to be fair, I've also hit a couple cool parties in the Hongdae area. Encountered some fly people, but again – they are the exception, not the rule.
Nowadays, the rule is overcrowded, under-air-conditioned, and full of irritating fakes and fools. Foreign men didn't have to pay double at the door. Peeps were basically there to have a good time, were busy escaping the mainstream dullards who danced in large group circles at Korean clubs, pushing each member out in turn to do an especially silly dance. They were avoiding the truly slimy foriegn dudes at J.J. Mahoney's who sometimes had trouble distinguishing between normal and working girls, of whom there were definitely enough to make it confusing.
I won't post pictures of anyone who I'll just go on to just outright insult, so I'll continue to leave that to your imagination. But let me sum up by saying that I hope you have a better idea of why Hongdae sucks. Becoming mainstream has taken the edge away; Hongdae has become the urban equivalent of Madonna's appropriation of "voguing" from the gay underground, suburban white kids who now front "ghetto fabulous" fashion, or the once fresh-but-now-foul ebonical phrase "from the git go" – once everybody's doing it, it just plain bites. No one could seriously vogue after Madonna, white kids in F.U.B.U are snickered at, and soccer moms now use that once Black piece of slang freely. I shudder.
I'm just nostalgic for the days of the Golden Helmet in Hongdae or the Blue Monkey (before it burned down to be reopened as the present abomination that bears no relation to the original). Those of you who know, know.
Biggie Smalls put it best when he said, "Nigga, this ain't back in the day. But you don't hear me, do'."