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In Seoul, club-hop till it hurts
Nightlife here doesn't always involve pie-eyed businessmen belting out "My Way" in a karaoke bar. In the northeast section of Seoul, an area dominated by four large universities, the nighttime crowds are younger, hipper and more international.
Yonsei University, known for its international studies program, and Hongik University, with its liberal, chic art students, mean Seoulites here are more accustomed to foreigners carousing among them. Packed with clubs, the area near the main gate of Hongik U. — called Hongdae — has become the most modish place for Korean students, expatriates and tourists to party.
There's a certain electricity in the air around Hongdae, where dimly lighted streets turn into fantastic displays of neon. At intersections, slickly dressed men advertise their clubs the old-fashioned way, by shouting.
About three years ago, 10 of the most popular Hongdae clubs — Hooper, Sk@, DD, SAAB, Hodge Podge, Matmata (now M2), M.I., Myungwolgwan, NB, and Joker Red — started Club Day. On the last Friday of every month, a single cover charge of about $12 gets you into any or all of them. The event has become so popular that tickets sometimes sell out before midnight, and the clubs are open until dawn. With 6,000 tickets available, that's a whole lot of shaking going on.
Being more inclined to pub-crawling than bootie-shaking, I enlist two guides to check out Hongdae. Sam and Brian, both expatriate English instructors, are self-professed experts on Seoul nightlife.
9 p.m.: Woodstock
I meet Sam and Brian at Woodstock, one subway stop from the Hongik University station. Iron Butterfly's rock anthem "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" plays so loudly it hits me like a Tyson left hook. The bar, a small, smoky affair, is packed with wooden picnic tables and people dancing between them.
It looks as if elementary school students decorated the interior with crayons and white-out; sloppy graffiti in Korean and English cover almost every surface. People who aren't dancing, drinking or scribbling on the tables are scratching request notes to the DJ, who has at least 500 albums and hundreds more CDs at his disposal. As the name implies, the song selection tilts toward the '60s and '70s.
Brian and Sam say Woodstock is an excellent place to begin a long night out: The music is familiar and the beer is cheap. After a few, my skepticism vanishes and my head bobs to the music. It reminds me of college.
An hour and a half later, I begin to wonder whether we are going to make it to Hongdae at all, let alone to all 10 clubs. Sam reassures me that it is only one subway stop away and the clubs don't get going until late. I reason aloud that even if we consume only one drink at each of the 10 clubs, we won't be able to walk by the end of the night. "That's sort of the idea," Sam says.
10:50 p.m.: Sk@
We buy our tickets at our first stop, Sk@, which is decorated as if a collage artist had gone mad. Paper products adorn the walls: business cards, tickets, beer coasters, origami figures, sketches. Hard-core rap and rock blare from the Marshall stacks and the crowd is already wound up.
A particularly clever man has pulled a swiveling bar stool out onto the dance floor and stretched across it on his belly. Someone gives him a spin as he imitates traditional Korean and break dancing moves.
Sk@ has seats and stools on the perimeter, but most people leave their drinks on the bar and thrash around on the small dance floor. Everyone is dressed in black or wearing old jeans, and head-banging seems still to be in style. The music and atmosphere are too violent for our tastes, so we stay for only one drink.
"It's a great place when there aren't quite so many people," Brian reassures me. That's unlikely on Club Day.
11:10 p.m.: Hodge Podge
Perhaps the most commonly mispronounced bar in Hongdae, Hodge Podge is "Hood-gee Pood-gee" to Koreans. The dance floor in the subterranean club is also packed, but the volume is lower and the crowd seems less interested in head-banging than at Sk@.
After worming our way through the crowd, we get lucky and find seats at the bar. The walls of Hodge Podge are decorated with modern paintings and strings of flashing lights. Empty cigarette packs, loosely taped to the ceiling, occasionally drop to the dance floor. Someone picks one up and politely asks who lost their smokes until a waiter or waitress lets him in on the joke. This ruse captures the atmosphere of Hodge Podge, laid-back and a little bit silly. The DJ plays bouncy songs from the last four decades that make you want to dance. By midnight all five bartenders are filling glasses nonstop, and at least 150 guests are taking up every inch of available floor space.
12:15 a.m.: Matmata
Next on our list, Matmata is the biggest club we have been in so far. (It's now called M2 and is at an even bigger venue.) The DJ, on a raised platform at the front of the bar, a red velvet curtain behind him, looks like an exalted dignitary. Working the turntables, he fuses disco tracks with straight driving beats. The bass is so loud, I can feel the cuffs of my pants move.
Strobe lights flash and a battery of blue lights shoots tendrils of light across the crowd. Almost everything in the interior, save the velvet curtain, is black or white, giving the bar an Art Deco look as the light show adds a psychedelic feel. Most of the men are wearing loose-fitting fashionable suits, and the women are squeezed into tight black dresses.
Dancing to deep house is all about inspiration. Here most people seem to draw theirs from the DJ and dance facing him. This doesn't stop Brian from finding a dance partner, a leggy woman who appears to be from Eastern Europe. Sam orders another drink before heading out onto the dance floor, where he moves like a 4-year-old with one leg in a cast. He always dances at Matmata, he tells me: "If there are enough strobe lights, it looks like everyone is with the beat."
1:30 a.m.: Myungwolgwan
Myungwolgwan has a watery motif, a large aquarium behind the bar serving as the centerpiece. The tables seem to float, suspended from the ceiling rather than resting on legs. Myungwolgwan's vibe is more relaxed: The room isn't quite as cramped, and the strobe lights aren't quite as blinding. The dance floor is full of college girls, wearing jeans under short dresses and silk scarves tied around their heads, laughing at one another. The men mostly have donned standard hip-hop garb: baggy pants, T-shirts and baseball hats or visors.
After hours of electronic music and a few tequila shots, I find it almost impossible to sit still. The DJ at Myungwolgwan is positioned inconspicuously in the corner, but he is producing the best beats I've heard all night. He has a magical ability to make a straight beat sound circular as he layers a disco bass line under an '80s keyboard track and a repeating hard-core rap lyric.
A smoke machine spurts out a huge spray of powder, and the clubbers cheer. Sam's strobe light theory suddenly makes perfect sense. Under the cover of the faux-smoke cloud, I make for the dance floor. I immediately understand why the club crowds consist of twentysomethings and not thirtysomethings like me. The tempo is so fast that dancing is more like aerobics. I last only a few minutes. In homage to my Appalachian roots, I do a few tequila-inspired bluegrass steps. I sit down convinced that these youngsters will begin emulating my moves any second and the new craze will sweep South Korea. "You dance like a wooden duck," Sam says.
3:30 a.m.: Joker Red
We line up under a sign for Joker Red that reads, "Music is a sound, hear it. Dance is an emotion, feel it." Me, I feel beat. I decide to call it a night. Brian argues that we still have six clubs to go. Sam questions my journalistic integrity. But my defense is sound: "I'm drunk," I respond.
As I walk toward a taxi stand, marveling at the clubs that still have lines of people waiting to get in, I remember a Korean man in Matmata screaming over the din, "I come here to party!" I'm sure he did not leave Hongdae that night disappointed.
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Where to get a groove on
From LAX: Korean and Asiana offer direct service (stop, no change of plane) to Seoul. United, Northwest and Air Canada offer connecting service (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $889.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code) and 82 (country code for South Korea) followed by the number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hotel Seokyo, 345-5, Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu; 2-330-7771, https://www.hotelseokyo.co.kr . A clean, moderate hotel within walking distance of Hongik University. Doubles begin at $125.
Holiday Inn Seoul, 169-1, Dohwa-dong, Mapo-gu; 2-717-9441, https://www.holiday-inn.co.kr . This recently reopened hotel is close to nightlife and near some great shopping as well. Doubles begin at $209.
WHERE TO DANCE:
The clubs in Hongdae are clustered to the west of Hongik University's main gate. Club Day tickets cost about $12 and offer admission to all clubs on the last Friday of the month. On other days, cover charges typically include the cost of one drink.
Woodstock, 2-334-1310. Near Hongdae, cheap drinks, great old rock 'n' roll. Open from 6 p.m. daily until they feel like closing. No cover.
Myungwolgwan, 2-336-7913. The coolest décor and yet still a great place to drink tequila to progressive, house and tribal music. Open 8 p.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays, free; 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. weekends, $8.
Joker Red, 2-325-4068, https://www.jokerred.co.kr . One of the first clubs on the Hongdae scene, it's a bit run down, but Korea's own DJ Sunshine mixes house, trance or techno here. Open 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. weekdays, $4; 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. weekends, $8.
Sk@, no phone available. Pint-sized club that plays earsplitting rock and metal. Open 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. weekdays, free; 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. weekends, $8.
Ohoo, 18-285-6972, https://www.ohoo.net . This huge new "entertainment complex" houses both the eclectic Hodge Podge and electronic club M2 (formerly Matmata). Open 7:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays and Sundays; 7:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. $8 cover.
Hooper, no phone available. With a slick hardwood dance floor, this is the place to practice some steps and sample Korean pop music. Open 6:30 p.m. to 4 a.m. weekdays, free; 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. weekends, $8.
SAAB, no phone available. The club offers free bowls of cherry tomatoes and Asian tangerines so you don't get hungry while you boogie to house and hip-hop. Open 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. weekdays, free; 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. weekends, $8.
M.I., no phone available. Another basement club with so many glow sticks zipping around you expect Yoda to walk out of the restroom. Music leans toward trance and house. Open 7:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. weekdays, $5; 7:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. weekends, $8.
NB, no phone available. Hip-hop club where the bass thumps and huge graffiti-style portraits and murals of rap artists adorn the walls. Open 7:30 p.m. to 4 a.m. weekdays, $8; 7:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. weekends, $12.
DD, no phone available. Small club, but the leather couches and footrests make it the best club to bob your head to reggae. Open 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. weekdays, $3; 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. weekends, $8.
TO LEARN MORE:
Korea National Tourism Organization, (800) 868-7567 or (323) 634-0280, https://www.tour2korea.com .
— Joshua Richman