Technically, this was a 7/11 afternoon…
The weather forecast had promised a typhoon but had failed to come up with anything more than drizzle, and so T. and I strolled down to ‘Bar 7’ in search of a table and some light refreshment.
'Bar 7' is, ostensibly, nothing more than a 7/11 Convenience store in a grubby little back street, with some wonky plastic furniture out front, squashed up my the bins. However, it could actually be the centre of the universe. All walks of life must, and do, pass through here. After all, the 7/11 has something for all, no matter what the time of day- whether it's toilet roll, a lunch time snack, sugar for your coffee, a pack of cigarettes to easy those junkie jitters, or a few cans of beer to enjoy outside. Cars pull up and drivers or passengers dive in and out; brisk business men on their way to the train make a brief, scheduled detour; high-school students in lolling packs playfully push and shove each other through the doors and round the aisles; housewives missing an all important ingredient; builders needing a boost line up for the caffeine/nicotine deluxe combo and old fellas with nothing much else to do converge here to drink beers and bottles of shoju; and all of them set that little cluster of chimes on the door ringing, ingress and egress, summoning the clerk from the back room, or his thoughts.
I’ve been lucky enough to meet people from all walks of life and gain an insight into everyday Korean culture in the few short weeks that I’ve been here.
Today was no exception:
As we stroll up, we spy the table is occupied by 4 aging ladies, one veering beyond aging to ancient. The table itself slumps at a perilous angle and yet is filled with an array of snacks and bottles of beer and shoju (mixed together to make somak). They’re hooting and howling with drunken glee, their voices dialled up in their debauchery and it’s not even five p.m yet. The oldest of the group gets up to go for some more booze from the ‘bar’ and there’s cross words and confusion, tempers flare for a moment over a disagreement over who’s paying and who’s paying what and for a moment I wonder if the whole table is going to be thankfully cast aside, allowed to meet its slow, sinking destiny much quicker than expected, and old, brittle claws be unleashed. But it’s all smoothed over and these golden gals are whooping and waving and clutching onto each other with dear, drunken love.
We manage to squeeze in to one side, pushed up against the bins and open our own beers and it’s not long before we’re drawn in.
The ladies have no English and, to my discredit, I still haven’t managed to pick up any Korean. Regardless, we manage and move through any potential problems by falling into the flow of it all: the laughter, the smiles and, if anything ever began to slow or stick, we’d raise our beers and say "Gambei!" (cheers!). All I really glean from them is that one of their number is 83 and still going strong.
I’ve seen her about, a withered prune of a woman, buckled slightly by the years weighing down on her and shrinking into the obscurity of old age but always dressed in some wonderfully mismatched riot of colour.
Eventually, it’s time for them to go. One of their number is flagging, her eyes look painted on, glazed and her face is slumping into her palm and soon she’ll follow the inevitable descent of the table at which she’s sat. However, as they gather their things- bags, umbrellas and those weird, wide visors so popular amongst older women in Asia- she perks up enough to dash inside and recharge our beers before planting a big, wet materteral kiss on my cheek! (I had hoped my first kiss in Korea would be quite different).
Still laughing and waving and whooping, they totter off homeward into the drizzle, no doubt to berate husbands, or stumble round the kitchen preparing dinner, or to take blissful, snoring naps in front of the TV. Whatever their afternoons held in store for them I wished them well and raised my gifted beer in their health.
Yongsan, Seoul. South Korea. July 2014
Photography is more about luck than anything else- being in the right place, at the right time and being fast enough to capture the shot.
I walked out of the shopping mall, lugging my new printer, and was crossing the short, covered space to the station when I noticed a man just staring out of the windows to one side. Following his gaze, I saw this…
These guys told me their names but they got lost between their drunkenness and mine. It was late and they pulled up seats next to mine at ‘Bar Seven’. We “talked” for over an hour, me without a word of Korean and them with only a handful of English at best. Somehow we communicated- they taught me the Korean word for ‘cheers!’ and we used it a lot. The guy in the right asked me if I liked kimchi - a sort of spicy, fermented Korean coleslaw- and I said that I did.
"My wife’s kimchi number one! She make you!" At which point he insisted, really insisted on taking my address so that he could send me some of his wife’s grade-A kimchi.
We shuffled conversation around a while longer, those guys draining shoju, me with my beer, and then a huge black car pulls up (the cars here come in only black, white or silver. They’re usually Kias).
"Aha!" proclaimed the man on the right, excitedly, "My wife!". The woman in the drivers seat looking at me, smiling but somewhat off-guard, over the slight annoyance of having to collect her well-oiled husband from his fun.
"You will make him kimchi!" He said, pointing at me as he fell into the back seat of the car. The wife smiled nervously at me, shooting a scolding look back at him that bounced off his shield of inebriation.
I still haven’t received any kimchi.
Train Girls. Seoul, Korea. July 2014
This is “Eebu”. Or rather, “Eve”- a combination of Asian pronunciation, exacerbated by a cold, turning Vs to Bs. It’s his nickname- he was born on Christmas Eve. He’s my local ersatz bartender, he;s the all night Seven-Eleven clerk. I drop by there every night, for water, or toilet paper, or smokes, something to eat, or tonight, to sit outside and drink some beers. Between customers Eebu comes out for a smoke and a chat. His English is broken, but conversant. The result of having an aunt, or a cousin, married to a foreigner.
"When I was young my parents wanted me to be a judge, or something at City Hall. But in school I joined the band, learned the trumpet. Before that I was a good student, study velly velly hard. I was in the Top 8 in the school.
But I velly, velly LOVE the trumpet.
When I tell my father I want to be a trumpet player, he hit me! My mother cry.
But I love trumpet.
My father, my mother, my sister, I haven’t seen them for a year. Maybe next year I will see them”.
I’m not sure when this rift occurred as he;s way beyond high-school now. early thirties maybe.
I ask for his photo, he’s initially embarrassed, zipping up his company tabbard and asking me not to get his sandalled feet and leopard print cotton pants in shot (the only trousers Ive ever seen him wear).
"In Korea, Musician is paid very bad. I play for symphony orchestra but not enough money, so I also teach trumpet and, at night, I work here"
"When do you sleep?" I ask.
"Maybe two or three hour every morning, between here and my other job. Teaching.
When I was younger I played a lot of football- I football CRAZY! Now I watch all games. I like premiership.
I was good football player but I broke my leg and then I got very ‘pat’”- the Korean /f/ /p/ difficulty (Which often results in me being called ‘Pin’)
-“But fat is good for trumpet!
At two or three o’clock in the morning there are no customers, so I practice trumpet. I LOVE playing trumpet”
I like Eebu a lot. He’s a nice guy on hard times, the way nice guys often get, hopefully I’ll be lucky enough to hear him play sometime…
One of my favourite things about Korea is the garden furniture often set up outside Seven Eleven, turning them into probably the cheapest bars in the city.
There’s one really close to my apartment, set one road back from some major traffic, it’s neighboured by a bibimbap restaurant and looks out over the back of some other kind of restaurant that I have no desire to ever eat in ,based on the things I’ve seen going on from that sweet spot by the Seven.
It was the end of my working week and I stopped off there, it being nicely positioned at the halfway point in the three minute walk from the station to my front door, to ease into the weekend with a beer. I pulled up one of the red plastic chairs, cracked a beer, lit a smoke and took up my notebook.
I was getting to the end of that first, freedom beer when I became aware of a shape, a figure, hovering nervously at the edge of my vision. Looking up I saw a tall, young kid- polo shirt, chinos and those thick-rimmed specks so popular, and so fitting, in Asia. Removing my earphones I returned his uncertain smile and said “Hi”. I noticed then his friends, stood further off to one side, four or five kids in their late teens or early twenties, at once trying to disassociate themselves from him and any potential embarrassment, while simultaneous hanging on the moment.
The “Envoy” explained that they needed my help with some English. His friend had made a movie and they wanted to add some sort of caption and could I help?
As soon as I agreed, one of the group, the director, was jettisoned from the others and shoved my way. He was a goofy looking kid, yet possessed of an artistic intensity and integrity. He had shoulder length hair and wore his baseball cap inverted. He produced a Macbook from nowhere with a magicians flourish and placed it in front of me. The movie he’d made featured a kid, another of the group, shot mostly from behind and above- a GoPro camera fixed to his backpack- wandering around Seoul high-fiving strangers. It was a simple and wonderful idea. I loved it.
Once they had me hooked the rest of them all dashed over, surrounding me.There’s a kid with his hair fringed in a wide slash over one eye, wearing a T-shirt with a picture of the periodic table beneath the slogan “SCIENTISTS DO IT PERIODICALLY”; another, the star of the movie, was a pale collection of effeminate limbs and joints. He has a fluffy bundle of hair that seems to be exploding from beneath the rim of his baseball cap (right way round but pushed slightly back on his head). He’s wearing black denim cut-offs and a baggy white t-shirt that I think (should) read “FRANKIE SAYS RELAX”, but doesn’t. His whole style seems cut and pasted from a decade that was years gone before he was born.
Between them they cobbled together their English to explain in fractured sentences and heartfelt ideas what they wanted to say. I pulle dout my pen and notebook and began to fill in the cracks, smooth out the language and hopefully give them something they could use.
My first draft gets translated back to the group, there’s some discussion in Korean and then ideas for change are passed back. I write a second, something about how we’re all just friends waiting not to be strangers- my second beer gone, the third begun- and there’s an awkward moment as the words get translated. The moment stretches as the group consider it for a moment, asking for further clarification from ‘The Envoy” and then everyone breaks out smiling, happy. Apparently, I’d nailed it.
With the same legerdemain as he’d produced the laptop, the director hands me a bottle of cola and a box of chocolates, his intensity dropped in favour of this goofy, clownish smile. I accept but also demand a photo:-
Job done they leave to prowl the streets, directionless but free in their youth, close in their friendship, the night holding all the possibilities in the world, including the one we had shared.
(You can see the video here- although, unless they translated it in to Korean it appears they decided not to use my text afterall.)
Smoke Break. Seoul. S. Korea. July 2014
There’s a restaurant of sorts and a 7/11 right out back of it. The 7/11 is equipped with an array of plastic B&Q garden furniture so that you can sit and enjoy your beer in a grimy backstreet amidst the tobacco and abattoir fugue that emanates from behind the scenes. Kitchen porters dash back and forth. They run outside and unload delivery trucks, hose them down and fling vinyl sacks of body parts inside. Every now and then, one of them runs outside for a moment of respite. None of them smoke a cigarette through, just a few furtive puffs and with a flick into the street it’s gone and theyve donned gloves and back to work.