Gangnam, Seoul, Friday 13 September, 5pm. As usual, traffic south of the river is gridlocked. I can see it’s going to take a while to get to civilisation. The cab driver seems to be getting frustrated by the jams (who wouldn’t be?) and I’m regretting that I have luggage, otherwise it would have been so simple to get the subway from Nambu terminal to Jonggak. As we inch through the traffic, my phone rings. It’s a friendly soul responding to my request for a dinner companion on the Sunday night. Splendid. We arrange a 6pm rendezvous (people seem to eat early in Seoul) – rather too early for me, but it’ll be good to see her after so long. My companions for this evening and Saturday are already fixed.
As for tonight, the clock is ticking, and no way am I going to get to the Seoul Financial Centre by 7pm, which is where I am to meet my companions for the evening. I get to my hotel in Insadong by 6:30, have a quick shower and change of clothes, and set off on foot for the Gwanghwamun area. I know I’m going to be late, but I can’t ring to let them know as my phone has run out of credits. En route, I venture into a couple of convenience stores in the hope that they might be able to top my phone up, but my expectations are always, rightly, low.
I eventually arrive at ChunSan after having paced up and down the B1 level of the Seoul Financial Centre mall several times. The restaurant’s sign, bearing the name Izakaya, contains no clue of its identity to the westerner unable to read calligraphic hanja. I’m around half an hour late, but fortunately my companions are still working slowly through their starters. My priority is to cool down and de-stress quickly, and a couple of Asahis does the job.
My main host for the evening is a former work colleague who had been generous enough with her time to accompany me to Tongyeong the previous year. The plan for the evening is to have dinner in the business district before heading off to the Hongdae area for some live music. The main attraction is to be Love X Stereo, a rock band that had been getting a reasonable amount of coverage in the blogosphere recently, in part because their lead singer, Annie Ko, is a good networker with excellent English, having been a writer for Seoul Magazine for a while.
Annie had dropped me an email a week or so previously to see if she could get some coverage for the band on my website. I almost placed the email into my permanent pending pile, but then on browsing some of their music videos I noted a serendipitous connection which made me put the email in the “action” pile. The artwork for one of their videos had been provided by Shin Il-seop, an experimental performing and manhwa artist also known as The Jack, whose work I had seen and enjoyed both at I-MYU Projects in London and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Gwacheon. The artistic link immediately made me follow up the contact. A few email exchanges later I discovered that they were going to be performing live in Hongdae on the last Friday of my Korea trip, to launch a new EP and as their last gig before a US tour. This was an ideal opportunity for me to fit in a Hongdae trip, and for my host, it was another opportunity to keep me company without having to go to the other end of the country to do so.
My host is with her colleagues from two other banks – together, three CFOs from the Seoul operations of foreign investment banks. And they are all very good company. Korean-style, they pay for my meal – a collection of very good Japanese fusion dishes – and all three of them insist on escorting me to Hongdae. The taxi drops us vaguely in the vicinity of where we want to be, and we track down Club Freebird where Love X Stereo are due to perform at around 10:30pm. All you have to do to get in is to buy Love X Stereo’s new EP. The first band is excellent. The second band is very dull, and my companions bail out at this low point of the evening. I remain behind on my own and enjoy the third band which was better than the first, and you could tell that the evening is about to hot up. But it’s 12:30 and I’m flagging. I have a busy day the following day, and Love X Stereo are now at least two hours later than their anticipated start time. I present my apologies to Annie, wishing her all the best for the US tour, and find a taxi back to Insadong, clutching Love X Stereo’s latest EP in my hand.