By Andrei Lankov
Where would a Seoulite go to relax in the 1930s when he or she had time and some money to spend? There were two basic choices.
They could go to the Myeongdong area, then often known as the ``southern neighborhood," and have a good time there. Alternatively, they could go to Jongno Street, a.k.a. the ``northern neighborhood."
There was a major difference between these two districts: Myeongdong was largely populated by Japanese settlers who made up about a quarter of Seoul's population in the early 1930s.
Hence, Myeongdong establishments catered to Japanese tastes, but did not mind actually serving a Korean patron. However, Jongno was essentially a Korean quarter, although some more adventurous Japanese people could occasionally be seen there, too.
Jongno was the major city street for centuries, but in the late 1920s its appearances began to change fast. New brick structures, some three and even four stories high, replaced the thatched roof buildings.
Trams began to move along the street, and from 1937 it also became the location of the Hwasin department store, the only department store owned and managed by a Korean industrialist (it was located in front of Jonggak). The YMCA located nearby was another major attraction, since it organized a large array of events for the city's youth.
All contemporaries wrote about the street as a place of ``frantic traffic." Frankly, the surviving pictures make me somewhat skeptical: on the old photos, Jongno looks very quiet, with a tram or two and perhaps a few cars within the sight.
Sometimes one could also see a rickshaw with a gisaeng as a passenger. Gisaengs can be described as Korean courtesans, but their services were by no means limited to sex. For most customers gisaeng (like Japanese geisha and Chinese ``singing girl") was above all a skillful conversation partner.
These entertainment services did not come cheaply: in the 1930s a first-class gisaeng charged 1.95 won for the first hour of her presence and 1.30 won for every subsequent hour. In those days the average monthly salary of a skilled worker was 20 won, so we are talking large money here.
Still, many affluent tourists who came to Seoul from the countryside, especially descendents and heirs of the affluent land-owning families, were ready to part with their money for an opportunity to boast back at home about the time they allegedly spent in the company of famous gisaeng girls, many of whom were seen as celebrities in the 1920s and 1930s. However, it was well beyond the means of the average urbanite.
Most gisaeng plied their trade (well, at least the less naughty parts of it) in luxurious restaurants which began to appear on Jongno from the early 1900s. Perhaps, the first such establishment was famous Myeongwolgwan, opened around 1904 by An Sun-hwan, a former chef to the Korean royalty.
Myeongwolgwan served the Korean palace cuisine, hitherto available only to the chosen few. An Sun-hwan had a number of emulators. The type of restaurant he pioneered, the so-called yorijip, was a very expensive place where the exquisite cuisine came at a price. The presence of the gisaeng, nearly obligatory in those days, further increased the bills.
Only in the late 1920s did some eateries begin to target the less affluent public, and much cheaper places began to appear in the Jongno neighborhood. For example, one would pay 0.20 won per a bowl of bibimbap or 0.30 won for galbi. This was quite affordable for a middle-class Seoulite whose monthly salary was 30-50 won.
There were drinking establishments as well. In the mid-1930s in the Jongno area there were 220 open stalls selling liquor to customers who were ready to have their drink on the go.
Those who wanted some comfort would probably go inside, to some establishments where customers were seated and more expensive side dishes were served to go with soju or other traditional liquors or even beer, back then seen as a sophisticated Western drink.
The area had a number of cafes. ``Cafe mania" had spread through Seoul with amazing speed around 1930, following a similar trend in Japan. Most of the cafes were not cheap places, but they were still much cheaper than restaurants.
By 1932, there were a dozen cafes operating in the Jongno area. Many of them were large, had live music and served some fancier types of coffee (no espresso yet, however).
And, of course, there were movies. The 1930s was a golden time of the Korean movie industry, and at that time the city had a number of specialized movie theaters.
Perhaps, the most famous of them was Danseongsa, which was founded in 1907 as a drama theater but around 1919 switched to movies, more profitable than maintaining a theater with live actors. Another prominent landmark of the area was the Joseon Theater which both showed movies and staged Korean-language dramas.
Around 1930 it became the first major theater equipped to show the then new ``talkies," and also was the place where major imported blockbusters were shown to the Korean public for the first time. In spite of the increasingly difficult political relations between Japan and the U.S., American movies dominated Korean theaters until the late 1930s.
And if somebody did not like Jongno, it was possible to go to the Myeongdong area where the atmosphere was very different. But that is another walk ― and another story.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.