Experiencing beer halls, makgeolli houses in late 1960s
In late 1969, Korea Times columnist and future novelist Ahn Junghyo wrote an article about makgeolli houses narrated by a drunken local who had bumped into a foreign tourist, told him to “Throw that damned tourist map away” and offered to show the tourist a “real place”: Octopus House.
“We call this place NowhereHouse,” the guide explained. “Means we come here because we don’t have no other place to go. Don’t have a wife or a girl to spend the evenin’ with. Ain’t rich enough to go to a bar and you come here. When you’re so happy or so blue that you want to go somewhere, ya come here. People come here to complain about their sad life. Folks come here to feel big and happy. On all kinda occasions, you’re here.”
This was a far cry from another drinking spot explored a year earlier by American columnist Patty Barker, who decided she wanted to experience a beer hall, but found her husband and his translator, Mr. Kim, less than enthusiastic. When she asked Mr. Kim whether women were ever taken to beer halls, he answered, “There’s no reason to take women to beer halls, they’re already there!”
Deciding to “shatter precedence” and go, she first visited the “respectable” Tour d’OB in Myeong-dong before heading to a beer hall in Mugyo-dong, which she described as being on the “fine dividing line between the cabaret and a beer hall,” what with its band and a “troupe of very attractive young ladies.”
For Barker, the economics of the beer hall drew her attention. The beer hall had “30 tables and easily 30 or 40 girls, plus male waiters, and the manager. None of these people are paid a salary. In fact, usually the only salaried souls are the little boy barker down on the sidewalk, the bartender, and the cook, and a cashier.” Everyone else worked on tips and percentages.
The beer hall owner took in a 10 percent service charge tacked onto the bill, 15 percent or 20 percent of what each waiter sold, and 30 won to 50 won for each table served by the hostesses. The women kept the rest of their tips. On top of sitting on laps and pouring drinks, they were expected to go up and sing songs with the band after convincing a customer to pay a song fee of 100 won.
The band was salaried but also took in these fees, and provided added pressure: “The combo leader calls out the girls’ numbers all evening long. Of course, the customer feels like a piker if his girl’s number, after a long embarrassing interval, is passed over.”
The waiters had a tougher go of it. They had to put down a security deposit of tens of thousands of won for the privilege of working in the beer hall and guarantee that loyal customers would follow them from their previous workplace.
Keeping customers loyal often meant loaning them money to pay their bills, which came out of the security deposit. The head waiter would take all his waiters and clientele along with him when he left for a better job, leading Barker to describe “the beer hall game” as “a continuous round of musical chairs.”
While Barker enjoyed her hour “watching the girls table hop without missing scarcely a beat in their smiles, gay chatter, and a tentative interest in their customers,” the hall’s extravagance made it a far cry from the makgeolli house experience. As Ahn’s narrator put it, “We don’t come here to enjoy teasin’ or jokin’ with dames. We come here for a more urgent need — relaxin’. What we need is just to sit and talk, laugh and feel free.”
He also added, “Even girls come to makgeolli houses these days. Most of them come with their boyfriends. What a place to date! Yet, they still come.” This was, in fact, a fairly new phenomenon. A September 1968 article noted that “The drinking boom among young women has brought a subtle confusion to the nightclub scene, since no longer is the woman with a martini or gin and tonic the professional hostess but just as easily an educated young woman with her date.”
It was also pointed out that women majoring in art and music were the most frequent visitors, and that they were seeking something more than intoxication. As a “pretty
art student at Ewha” Womans University who didn’t smoke put it, “holding a cigarette in one’s hand will definitely create a mood. I like to watch circles of smoke go up… listen to drown out noise of people yakking. You can feel alone and together at the same time. It’s that mood I like and want to have.”
Ahn’s narrator also argued that mood was important, but for different reasons. Though he believed the owner of the Octopus House could easily have afforded to convert it into a fancy place, this never happened because “He wants to preserve this mood, the mood the common salaried folks love. We don’t want to go to fancy places. Makes us feel small. This is a proper place for us. We know that. The owner knows we know that. This is a sad place that shows what we really are. We are common people. And it’s sadly happy to become one of the common people.”
We don’t want to go to fancy places. Makes us feel small. This is a proper place for us. We know that. The owner knows we know that.
Male customers enjoy a night of drunken antics in a makgeolli house in this illustration that accompanied columnist Ahn Jung-hyo’s Dec. 28, 1969 article.
Women from Ewha Womans University are depicted drinking in this Korea Times illustration published June 16, 1968.