329-1 Seokyo-dong, Mapo-gu
+81 2 338 0407
Tucked away cozily in the outskirts of the frequented underground music & art district of Hongdae, Seoul, stands an independent cafe - Cafe Oui. Taken over nearly five years ago in 2008, current owner Ji-Woo Nam bought the quaint brick-walled Hongdae cafe from two acquaintances who were putting it up for sale. After working the routine life of the typical Korean white collar worker at an export company, Nam chose to start a new chapter in her life as a barista and cafe owner. The drastic change to Nam’s course of life and occupation has become a romanticized wish for many busy and stressed Seoulites. In fact, it is a common line of thought that can be heard from people while crossing the crosswalk in this cafe-consumed city after a long hard day of being cooped up in a cubicle: “I should just quit my job and open up a cafe.” Even though most will never be brave enough to leave the stability of office work for entrepreneurial ventures like Nam, for the residents of Seoul, cafes are so embedded in their lives that it is no surprise to hear such a statement.
Fast service, relaxing playlists, and shots of espresso are easily found at any commercialized cafe. However, places like Cafe Oui can provide something that franchises such as Holly’s Coffee, CaffeBene, and Starbucks cannot - intimate experiences. It is why independents such as Cafe Oui have come to define and culturalize the streets and alleys of places like Hongdae, Garosugil, and Insadong. Nam hand roasts and drips all her coffee herself. Every detail of decoration does not go untouched by her hands. Polaroids and printed photographs line the cafe’s clean walls while Oui’s playlist streams from Nam’s own music playlist that is made up of a diverse collection that spans from Korean Indie music to MusiqSoulchild and even Mandy Moore. Moreover, what is unique about Nam’s cafe is that it is a one-woman show. She is the owner, barista, cashier, interior decorator, waitress, and deejay. When a regular customer walks in, she just asks, “How do you want it?” They reply, “Just light today.” No other questions are asked and within minutes she comes out with their regular order and gifts a warm smile along with it.
Just as Nam’s personal touch is equivalent to the essence of Cafe Oui, as a whole, Korean cafe culture itself most certainly has its own fragrance to it.During my time here in South Korea as an exchange student, my identity as a Korean-American has been a thoughtful source and lens to certain aspects of Korean culture like cafe culture that I am unsure local residents ever notice. Despite the changing streams of Korean modern society, it is still considered as collective and conforming to most visitors. Even in this realm of Korean culture, it is still uncommon to find anyone sitting at a cafe, alone. Back home in Southern California, cafes were places that were simply alternatives to the library with great air conditioning. When I stepped into my local Starbucks, most people were alone with computers as their only companion. The purchase of a drink was usually a reluctant price paid for a right to a seat. A seat that would be warmed for several hours. Here, cafes are exasperatingly used for their purpose. One to two hours of conversations, group dates, catching up sessions with friends and studying with a group of your friends is most likely what will be found at your local cafe in Seoul. It is especially difficult to find an empty seat during the weekdays.
Perhaps that is why I was especially drawn to Cafe Oui and other independent roasters that keep the street culture alive. For enthusiasts like Nam, there is no doubt that strings of intimacy and attention to detail may be the only advantages that she has to survive in the oversaturated Korean cafe market which Nam describes as a “red ocean.”
“It’s all about the eye… people are drawn to cafes because of the eye. They walk in. They look at the cafe as a whole. They feel the relaxed ambience, the music… it captures their heart. All the hard work and every single detail I put into the drinks and decorations can go unnoticed… but the atmosphere that the details bring all together and the feeling of calm that comes over people… that’s what makes my regulars to keep coming back. People at my cafe often come alone. They come and read a book. They write in their blog. They listen to music. Sometimes they don’t do anything at all.” - Nam Ji Woo
Nam hand-squeezes her lemons for her tart lemon tea and has perfected ratios for her Caramel Macchiato. On top of that, she has a couple dessert specialties like her “Cool Cheesecake” and “Candy Soda” that her regulars often order. With summer now around the corner, Cafe Oui has also brought back its “Pat-bing-soo,” a layered cold dessert of shaved ice, creamy milk, corn flakes, red beans, and powered “misutgaru” (grounded and roasted grains). Despite her lack of confidence that customers do not notice, it most certainly is lovely details that sets Nam apart.
When I asked my roommates, native Koreans, to describe what cafes symbolize in the thread of Seoul’s Korean society, one of them answered, “Cafes… are like parks. People outside of Seoul and abroad may have spacious areas everywhere. We have no place to rest. No space at all. Cafe’s give us a place to rest… kind of like a park.” The other described them as a “healthy replacement.” She said, “In the past, when we got together with our friends, it was always drinking. Always alcohol. But now, we go to cafes. It’s healthier. It’s something that we can’t be without now.”
Within the blur and bustling of the streets of Seoul, cafes are the parks that are inseparable from daily life itself for Seoulites. In this concrete jungle, cafe’s give people the room to breathe and rest, let loose. If the crowded and oversaturated cafe scene stays true to Korean nature, it will pass and the high fever will most likely may calm down a little in the near future. It is a strong wish of mine that survivors such as Nam continue to solidify their relationships with not only their intimate spaces and customers, but with the core of Korean societal strings as well. And as long as the nature of person to person intimacy stays strong within Korea’s core attributes, there is no doubt that Nam will still have her regulars step into her cafe, be able to hear, “Just lightly today,” and seamlessly provide the love that only metaphorical urban parks like Cafe Oui are meant to provide.
Special thanks to Cafe Oui’s Ji-woo Nam, Esther Son, Sujung Yoo, and Yeon Shil Seol
© Emerline Ji, K-Colors of Korea