Unusually for this project, my initial visit to Sillim was made on a Tuesday morning, and I was a bit surprised at just how much activity there was around the station. A lot of people out and about, and outside Exit 2 a soundtrack of loud K-pop streamed from speakers mounted on light poles in front of the Podo ‘Style Collection Mall.’ Outside the mall’s entrance, wheeled tables with boxes of Reeboks stacked seven high had been rolled out, and customers were poking through those and the piles of discounted jeans next to them.
In recent years there’s been a lot of development in Sillim, at least in the area immediately around the station. There’s the aforementioned Podo Mall, and the invasion of the bourgeois chain stores – Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, A Twosome Place – is complete, providing those with the means with trendy places to spend. There are a lot of new buildings, as well as older ones that have been remodeled or are in the process of being remodeled. As I walked south on Sillim-ro (신림로) I watched a half-dozen guys work on the interior of a second floor space that they were in the process of turning into a hair salon. It had windows that ran from waist height to the ceiling, though the glass hadn’t been put in yet and a pair of the workers was taking a smoke break, leaning out and watching the traffic.
Continuing in that direction, the north and south bound lanes of Sillim-ro split around the Dorim Stream (도림천), and it was at about that point that the area’s recent development petered out and the surroundings got decidedly more working class. In the distance ahead I could see simple homes terracing up the lower slopes of Gwanak Mountain (관악산), the top third of which was a cap of mostly denuded trees. It was quieter here too, and during lulls in the traffic I could catch snippets of classical music drifting up from speakers along the stream, those two things a nice bit of non-commercial development for the area.
To the east, the sidewalk outside Exit 1 humps up about five meters above the road before dropping back down and running past cafes, to-go pizza places, and the Play Girl Bar. Just past that, the Sillim Central Church (신림중앙교회) had set up some tables and chairs beneath a small tent on the sidewalk. An ajumma was handing out the standard packet of tissues with church info printed on it, and congregants were serving up cups of tea. There was also a bowl of what looked like pajeon batter waiting to be fried up in the oil that was already bubbling away in a pair of skillets, though the only people taking advantage of the things on offer were several old folks who were likely already Sillim Central members.
While just steps off Nambusunhwan-ro (남부순환로) the surroundings turned very quiet and residential – red brick apartments and pretty Gwanak backdrops – on the avenue the scene was relatively busy. Just after the church a large construction site marked the future site of a hospital, and cars were pulling in to park at a barbecue restaurant that had a sign declaring a ‘Safety Honesty Zone.’
A small curiosity: The sidewalk on the south side of Nambusunhwan-ro is trisected by parallel gray strips – the usual grooved one to aid the visually impaired and another thin strip of stone suggesting what’s supposed to be the walking section and what’s supposed to be the biking section. The latter is marked by metal plates embedded in the pavement every 20 meters, but instead of showing a picture of a regular bike, they’re imprinted with penny-farthings, the 19th century bikes that had an enormous front wheel and a tiny rear one. No sign of anyone actually on one of these, however.
The north side of the street was similar to the south, though without bike lane plates. A couple grocery stores weren’t far from Exit 8, each with produce stacked up outside. At one of them a 50-something guy – maybe a shopper, maybe an employee – smoked a cigarette as he picked through zucchini, his sleeveless t-shirt revealing a portrait of a young boy wearing hanbok tattooed into his upper arm.
Something that’s bugged me for a while is the highly circumscribed number of places in the city where I’ve experienced Seoul’s nightlife; although I get to a lot of different parts of town in the course of this project, that’s done almost exclusively during the day, with few opportunities to see the neighborhoods after dark. When I do go out on a Friday or Saturday night it’s almost invariably to Hongdae, since I live just a few minutes’ walk from the station, as do many of my friends. Occasionally I’ll go to Sinchon or Itaewon or, even more rarely, Jongno, but even those are few and far between. And as great as it is, even Hongdae can start to feel stale after a while. Another niggling bullet point on my Seoul to-do list has been to try going out in spots that the local expat population doesn’t generally go to, to see a side of Korean nightlife that might be a bit different. So with Sillim being a big night spot and not knowing any other foreigners who’d been there, I wrangled together a group of like-minded friends to eat, drink, and be anthropological.
A proper study of an area’s nightlife must necessarily begin with the proper feed, and in Sillim that’s sundae bokkeum (순대볶음), stir fried sundae. A few dozen meters down Sillim-ro from Exit 3 is a small sign pointing to 양지순대타운 (Yangji Sundae Town), and if you turn right here and walk down Sillim-ro-59-gil (신림로59길) just a short ways you’ll get to Original Traditional Sundae Town (원조민속순대타운). Its un-missable neon sign, sticking out even in a neighborhood full of neon signs, has the name in large Hangeul letters splashed across the front, arching over a traditional hat and long-stemmed pipe.
The building holds four floors of sundae bokkeum restaurants, though we didn’t really have any choice about where we ate because as we arrived at the second floor landing we were all but grabbed by the ajumma working the door of 왕후순대곱창 (Queen Sundae and Offal). Despite the royal name, the restaurant was sparse, with orange tables and benches, and rectangular metal pans above the gas burners embedded in the middle of the tables. It was like a middle school cafeteria, only with access to fire.
We split our order between sundae in a spicy sauce (양념순대) and plain sundae (백순대), which was delivered to our table by waiters wearing lime green aprons with pictures of teddy bears on them. The sundae was fired up and stir fried with liver, intestines, cabbage, onions, green onions, tteok, jjolmyeon, and perilla, and could be consumed either wrapped up in sesame leaves or simply dipped in a delicious gochujang-based sauce. Sundae can be something of an acquired taste, and although I’ve acquired it, I’d never actually had sundae bokkeum before. It turned out that was quite an oversight, as the casual and umami-heavy dish is a perfect meal with which to start a night out.
Sillim’s nightlife is centered on the small streets and alleys outside Exits 3 and 4 that surround Sundae Town. I’ll cop to the fact that, while I was certainly aware that there were other nightlife areas in the city besides Hongdae/Sinchon, Itaewon, Jongno, and Gangnam/Cheongdam, since I never went out in any of those other areas I didn’t really imagine other people, expats or Koreans, going out in them either. Therefore, my preconceived notion was that Saturday night in Sillim would be rather ho-hum, active but not that active.
If my one Saturday night there was any sort of indication, though, Sillim gets packed. Granted there were six of us in our group, but we were turned away from the first three bars we tried to go to, for lack of open tables. (One thing that’s different about Sillim from night spots with more Western influences and crowds is that the bars here are all (or at least nearly all; we obviously didn’t go to every bar in the neighborhood) very Korean in their layout and setup for drinking, which is to say that it’s done at a table with the group you walked in with. The closest you’ll come to an open space for mingling with strangers is the occasional seat at the bar. Since sitting, drinking, and chatting with friends was what I had in mind that night, at the time the implications of this didn’t really register. The fact that I’m in a relationship put blinders on a bit too. But if you’re single and looking to meet someone in the course of a night out, it’s awfully hard to do so in a joint like that, and the necessity of sogaeting and meetings starts to become apparent.)
As if to drive home the point, the first place we were able to have a drink in, after wandering through the bar flyer-littered streets, past twenty-somethings playing crane games and hitting coin-operated punching bags, was a room bar called Gaya. This was the first time I’d ever been in, or even heard of, a room bar (not to be confused with a room salon), which is basically what its name says it is: a bar divided into small rooms where you and your friends can drink in privacy. This can be either terribly dull or pleasantly intimate, depending on your proclivities (and, perhaps, your friends). To me it felt like drinking in a train cabin. The six of us piled into our little room, three into each bench on either side of a narrow table, the waiter handed us a menu, and then slid the door closed.
The room bar was fun for about a pitcher, but it certainly was no good for exploring the neighborhood, so after we finished our drinks we went back out. En route to the next bar the two Koreans in our group overheard a pair of girls talking behind us and started to chuckle. When I asked them what it was about, they said that the girls were commenting on the number of 양아치 in Sillim.
For a long time, Sillim was a poor area and had a reputation for prostitution, other shady dealings, and 양아치 (yang-ahchi), a word that roughly translates to ‘thug’ or the Australian term ‘bogan’ and can refer to someone who’s actually a thug, in the literal sense, or to a guy who fancies himself one, dressing in track suits, spitting, and smoking cigarettes with the butt pinched between their thumb and first two fingers. It can also refer to what the two girls behind us had been commenting on: other girls, tackily dressed in cheap clothes and in poorly done makeup. To be honest, I hadn’t noticed this phenomenon up to that point, but my two friends assured me that Sillim was indeed filled with 양아치, and as the rest of the night turned largely into a 양아치 safari I gradually fine-tuned my 양아치 radar.
양아치 presence notwithstanding, Sillim’s not a bad place to go out, particularly if you’re looking for something different, though it does still have a slightly seedy aspect to it, especially if you go north of Nambusunhwan-ro. The areas behind the Renaissance Mall near Exit 7 and outside Exit 6 feature a few bars and restaurants that attract an older clientele and also a lot, and I mean a lot of love motels and noraebba (노래빠), noraebangs where hostess girls sing with/for you, pour drinks, and potentially more. The playground of vice is rounded out by room clubs and ‘business clubs,’ where lots of important business is conducted, to be sure. Near Exit 6, running parallel to Sillim-ro, one street was essentially nothing but love motels, more than a dozen of them, lighting up the alley like a pinball machine, a cacophony of neon vying for your amorous attention.
Continue straight on Sillim-ro from Exit 6, past the largest concentrations of motels, and you’ll come to the oddly named Culture Street That You Want to Walk (걷고싶은문화의거리), on which the only sign of culture that I noticed was a giant mask mounted as decoration on the wall outside a restaurant. Mostly there were just a lot more restaurants and a lot more neon. There were also quite a few minivans parked on the street. These, my Korean friend informed me, were used as shuttles to ferry noraebba hostesses to and from work.
Hanging out with middle-aged men around hostess bars not really being our thing, my friends and I decided to head back to the area south of the station, which after being on the north side appeared almost classy. To top it off we found a bar called 미술관, meaning ‘art gallery’ (but if you break up the characters could also mean ‘beautiful alcohol hall’), and were intrigued to discover that they even had Taedong River (대동강) beer on their menu, North Korea’s finest brew. When we tried to order, though, we were told that it currently wasn’t available due to trade restrictions. Damn Norkies. Now there’s a bunch of 양아치 if I’ve ever seen one.
Dorim Stream (도림천)
Exit 3 or 4
Original Traditional Sundae Town (원조민속순대타운)
Right on Sillim-ro-59-gil (신림로59길)
Sillim-dong Nightlife Area
Exit 3 and 4
Culture Street That You Want to Walk (걷고싶은문화의거리)
Straight on Sillim-ro (신림로)