I used to live in Songtan, South Korea. Not Songtan. That means something like Santa Claus in Korean. Syeong-tan. The inflection is key.
I’d been around for a while and was nearly immune to it all. The thick smell of diesel fuel in my apartment for the under-floor heating, the airborne particulate matter that settled on every flat surface, the landlord’s nonstop muttering (Okay, okay. No sweat, no sweat), the super’s early morning trash burning. Tires, shoes, plastic bottles—nothing was sifted out. Aerosol cans exploded like mortar rounds. Muscular caged dogs barked all day and night. I no longer wondered if they were bred for fighting or for the dinner table.
The U.S. airbase was nearby, and Songtan seemed to exist for no other reason than to sell trinkets to American servicemen. And to keep them well watered. In Korea, every town is near a U.S. military installation, so nightlife equals GI bars. And for Koreans themselves, drinking is serious business. The Korean language doesn’t have a phrase for No thanks, I’ve had enough and, as such, most evenings were filled with singing, yelling, high-fives, stumbling, puking—seemingly a scene shy (or beyond) Will Ferrell running naked through the streets.
The bars of Songtan don’t stock nice wine. There are no jukeboxes curated with fetishistic precision. They aren’t colorful or interestingly decrepit like your city’s most beloved dive. The bars there are depressing hybrids of Las Vegas glitz and third-world squalor haunted by “juicy girls” who speak with lethargic enthusiasm for the price of a $20 cranberry cocktail, by old women and children selling Hippo lighters and Marlboros and by tattooed GIs looking to scrap.
One night, while in a taxi going home, a man lurched down the street towards us. Our headlights revealed a face unconcerned with oncoming traffic. We slowed to a stop. The man put his hands on the hood as if being frisked. He laughed, cursed, argued with himself and then fell asleep on the hood. I helped the driver carry him to the bus stop. When I told a colleague this story, he said, “Yeah, that happens a lot.”
In one second-floor window near my house, there was a handwritten sign: Jazz Bar. I tried it one night. After mounting the dark, cold staircase, a cardboard Kenny G greeted me on the landing. His left arm was missing. The piped-in music was hair metal and the room was empty. Joke? Performance art? Translation error?
I didn’t want to stay, but I wasn’t ready to go home. There was another option: the soju tents.
Soju tents are a form of pojangmacha, a catchall term for a small tarp-covered restaurant—roadside tents and stalls hastily rigged up in alleyways or next to train stations. Seoul is littered with pojangmacha, which started popping up in 1945, following the end of the Japanese occupation. By one count, there were over 3,000 in 2012, though the city has been shutting them down in large numbers. They are, according to some, ugly and unsanitary, but it would be a shame if they disappeared. Pojangmacha are democratic, semi-permanent institutions offering quick, inexpensive food to the working class and a space for young people to mingle. They represent peace, independence, joy and indigestion.
These Pojangmacha sell street food: fish cake broth, fried eggs, spicy rice cakes, blood sausage, skewered meats and deep-fried everything. The mainstay is anju, or food to accompany drinking. I’d eaten at pojangmacha in Suwon, Wonju, Pusan, Pyeongtaek, Kunsan, Osan, Seoul, but I’d never been to a real soju tent—a spartan Pojangmacha selling nothing but Korea’s national drink, a spirit distilled from wheat, rice, barley or potato.
Sontang’s soju tents exist on the outskirts of town. That night, I left Jazz Bar and took Arcade Street past McDonald’s. I passed gray-haired ajimahs, bent in half, grandchildren strapped to their backs. I shrugged off the men trying to sell antique Korean wedding chests made last month in Hong Kong. I passed grizzled defense contractors in cowboy boots, jackknives sheathed to their belts. They had thin beards and young Asian girlfriends.
I climbed the hill. Squat houses with corrugated tin roofs appeared. Drunks staggered down every side street with forward-thrust arms, like extras in a zombie movie. The shanties and bodegas, which can be hard to disambiguate, gave way to dirt and gravel lots, a Baptist church, garlic fields covered with black canvas and, finally, a cluster of makeshift, saffron-colored tents.
There were three soju tents straddling the shoulder of the road along a worn patch of grass. A tented polyethylene tarp was tied to the ground with thin ropes, secured by white plastic pegs. I’d slept in a tent like this at Boy Scout camp in 1977.
I ducked down and stepped through the folds of one of them. Unless I was standing in the center, I had to crouch. A pair of two-by-fours supported the tarp. There was no floor. A ventilation hole had been unevenly cut into the “roof” and there were two folding tables in the center. A battery-powered lantern hung from a nail pounded into one of the pieces of wood.
Stocky women wearing cotton sweatshirts, rubber sandals and aprons decorated with pale-orange flowers stood impassively behind the tables. They hovered over cauldrons of steaming soju, gripping ladles that were homemade and likely infrequently washed. Men sat hunched on ancient wooden stools in front of the tables. There was no anju. No cooking smells. No food. No beer. Just soju served in mismatched glasses and mugs. The tents—which are not legal, but quietly tolerated—act as places for grown men to drink, alone, without chitchat.
That is, until the men stumble home, singing sentimental songs, yelling, spitting and urinating in alleys. One night, while in a taxi going home, a man lurched down the street towards us. Our headlights revealed a face unconcerned with oncoming traffic. We slowed to a stop. The man put his hands on the hood as if being frisked. He laughed, cursed, argued with himself and then fell asleep on the hood. I helped the driver carry him to the bus stop. When I told a colleague this story, he said, “Yeah, that happens a lot.”
In my chosen tent, I took an empty stool. The women didn’t approach or speak. The other patrons were motionless. I said Anyoung haseyo—”hello”—but no one anyoung’d me back. I had exhausted my Korean-language skills. The nearest matron eventually took a step forward. I held up one finger. Soju, please.
She stirred her cauldron and ladled a few inches into a milk glass. I sniffed the drink, took a sip, had a look around. This was no place for women or young people. This felt more like a filmstrip screened in health class to dissuade teens from binge drinking.
I downed the rest of my soju in one go and noticed—too late—that the other men took small sips. The effect was instantaneous. I recalled a bad experience with Unicum and absinthe in Budapest. Or maybe it was a good experience—I can’t remember.
Soju’s formula is simple. Ethanol and water. Not that the matrons were using a formula. There was no science, no measuring cups, no graduated cylinders—it was all dump and stir. The homebrew I was drinking was tasteless, but somehow horrific—like cardboard had thrown up. But at 80 cents a pop, I wasn’t complaining.
Commercial soju is made from the same basic ingredients as the homebrew sold in roadside tents, but it’s often flavored with plum, apricot and melon. It’s typically 40-proof and available in shops, local bars and soju tents in Seoul. The homebrew I was drinking? My best new Korean friend was 100-proof, at least. Maybe 150. But who knows? No one was measuring.
Soon I would join the zombies outside, lurching through the precarious streets. For now I was happy to sit and drink. The tent was quiet and peaceful. No one was trying to sell me a cheap suit or awkward conversation. No hucksters or neon lights, no brawling soldiers, not even a cardboard Kenny G.