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Clubbing for the Seoul

Bright young things in the city of lights.

Seoul, one of the world's few mega-cities (25 million people and counting), boasting a booming economy, an affluent, young population and home of the world's biggest drinkers of hard booze (thanks to the massive popularity of Soju, a type of rice-liquor typically consumed neat which is potent but tasty); and yet Seoul is very much off the radar in clubbing terms. Whilst other big cities in the region can draw world-renowned DJs to well-respected clubs (Tokyo's Womb, Singapore's Zouk), Seoul is not a stop-off on the global carousel that takes in the big names - at least, not yet.

Who needs recognisable names on flyers and clubs you've heard of back home anyway? Sometimes the best part of clubbing abroad is finding something new and different: dropping into a local scene with hard-working promoters doing their own thing, clubbers with a different perspective on how to have a good time and DJs with no hope or care of making it big, just a dedication to making a great night.

Being so large, Seoul can be difficult to get a grasp of; there are several distinct districts, each with their own centres and nightlife. There's Hongdae, next to one of Seoul's many universities and featuring an appropriately studenty crowd, Gangnam, where the rich kids cruise around in fast cars and flash their cash at upmarket bars and clubs, and many others. We opted for Itaewon, bang in the middle of town and famed for its concentration of restaurants, bars and clubs as well as being Seoul's haven for ex-pats and US military (as the Korean War never officially ended, and with North Korea a mere 35 miles away with enough of Kim Jong-Un's artillery trained on the city to level it in nine minutes, there's a hell of a lot of US forces around - nearly 30,000 in the country in fact). Rest assured, they're still vastly outnumbered by the immaculately dressed (sometimes even in his-and-hers matching outfits), selfie-taking, hip, young Koreans who lend the area that indefinable “buzz” of energy you get in places where lots of people are enjoying themselves at the same time.

Hongdae, Gangnam, Itaewon.

The military do stand out though and supposedly all have a curfew, so seeing them get rounded up and sent home around midnight is a common sight. Many still seem to avoid this, however, and will still be partying along with the locals until the small hours. As you might expect, lots of Americans means lots of hip-hop in vaguely depressing bar/ clubs where the few women who venture onto the dancefloor are quickly surrounded and have multiple groins thrust at them. Whilst these haunts are best avoided (unless you like that sort of thing) there are also lots of brilliant places with great music and relaxed, friendly crowds.

There's a main pedestrian-only street where most of the action is. Korean BBQ restaurants (where you order particular cuts of meat and cook them yourself on a central grill built in to the table) are dotted throughout, alongside others that serve cuisines from around the world (Ethiopian? Of course. Bulgarian? Best place this side of Plovdiv). Rooftop bars sit above Irish pubs, which sit above sports bars which sit above record bars that only play requests from the patrons (great idea! Why don't we have more of these back home?) It's a chaotic mixture and great fun to just stumble from one place to the next, but this is a Spotlight review and some 4/4 was in order.

After one too many Soju's we made our way to Venue, a small, basement club just off Itaewon's main drag. With capacity for about 200 revellers (at a push), low ceilings and just one set of stairs in or out, Venue is the definition of intimate and upon entry feels like you've walked into the best house party ever. The crowd were up for it, their attitude being typical of Koreans – positivity, laughter and openness. It's worth noting here that there are no “youths” in Seoul (as this reporter's sister calls them), no shady goings on in dark corners, no aggressives shoving past you - no moodiness whatsoever. Everyone's having a great time and happy to show it; maybe it's that artillery just over the border that gives everyone a -could be the last night of their lives so they better enjoy it- attitude, or maybe I'm reading into it too much and I'm the only one who's aware that Armageddon is just a mad dictator's mood swing away.

Anyway, there was a healthy mix of locals and Westerners, a clean and clear, if not overwhelmingly powerful, soundsystem and a soundtrack of forward-thinking house and techno. A highlight was Robin S's set of atmospheric, percussive house that well-suited the sonic dimensions of the little room. From Berlin originally, Robin brought the moodier touches of his hometown sound sprinkled with the odd disco number that caught us a bit by surprise but was well-received by the crowd.

Venue, like Seoul itself, is a bit of a hidden gem: friendly, spirited partiers, cheap, flowing drinks but not a hint of trouble, a great soundtrack and an awful lot of fun. If things keep going on this way they'll be hidden no longer.

View this feature in the weekly Spotlight Magazine, Issue 18.

WORDS | Andrew Fulker PHOTOGRAPHY | +

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