May is the month of college parties in Seoul.
At 5 pm on a Friday night, May 12, students dressed in Hogwarts School of Wizardry cloaks were taping ribbons onto the street in Sinchon district, along with signs and arrows. Others dressed as characters from Hiyao Miyazaki films held signs advertising “one day pub” parties. Some intersections had six different ribbons crisscrossing leading to six different parties.
May is the month of college parties, and Sinchon is the college party district.
On the northeast of the ring subway line around Seoul, Sinchon is located at the nexus of Yonsei University, Ewha Womens’ University, Seogang University, and Hongin University. Along these narrow streets, where neon lights adorn three-story shophouses, masses of young men and women walk to and from bars, karaokes, barbecue restaurants, burger shacks, Japanese izakayas, arcades, and cheap student guestrooms. Groups gather outside convenience stores drinking beer on the street or challenging each other to see how hard they can hit the Dragon Punch power game.
On any given weekend in the spring, there are always a lot of ribbons on the street. It’s perennially marked with green tape stuck to the pavement. But the parties really get going in May.
“Ewha Nursing,” a sign says. “Performance at 8:30.” One group has a raffle game on cardboard. I pick a post-it note and win a free order of chips with purchase of a drink if I attend their party.
I don’t end up attending their party. Instead I and Pato Rincon, my classmate from Indiana University who is also in Seoul and is just getting started as a writer (read his debut piece for Bombs + Dollars), go to the event at Barfly held by Ewha University’s foreign studies students featuring their dance team. The pretty girl standing outside in baggy hip hop apparel wearing a bandana couldn’t have influenced my decision.
Inside, after paying a ₩5,000 (US$4.47) cover each, we bought beers for ₩4,000 each. The underground bar was dark with colored lights, red and green streaming lights, and bright Finlandia adverts. Most of the tables were reserved for Ewha students. Pato and I took a seat at the bar. Behind the counter, a bartender was pouring Barton vodka (on whose bottle the word “vodka” is written in larger letters than the brand name) through a funnel into empty Finlandia bottles and adding juice.
“This isn’t what I imagined when you said we were going to a college party,” Pato said.
After all, we had had the experience of drinking together at house parties in Bloomington. Not so in Seoul, where the population is dense and houses are smaller. Instead, students and other groups rent out pubs (known as “hof” (호프)) and have the place to themselves for a day or night. The practice is called “ir ir ho-pe” (일일호프), which means “one-day hof.”
Typically it is the freshmen or underclassmen (underclasswomen, more often, it seems) who host parties to connect with each other, earn money, or meet upperclass friends. The large number of parties hosted by women in Sinchon could be explained partially by the fact that Sinchon is so close to a few women’s universities, and the fact that female students are not surprisingly used to promote mixed parties. One person suggested it was a good way for Ehwa students to meet boys at other universities, such as Yonsei. But Yonsei students have hosted their own parties for particular groups, too, including the Yonsei hockey team.
Students began lining up in front of a marked dance floor. Anticipating an event, we took places along the edge. Before long, Kpop began playing, and girls in hats and jackets, including the girl who was promoting at the door, came out to dance. Showing their power and precise dance moves, they earned big applause. They took off their jackets and top layers and confidently put their bodies on display for the next song.
With so many one-day hof parties going on at the same time, Pato and I didn’t stay too long. After a few separate dance teams, the dance performance was finished, and we went out for some pajeon and eventually to another student party. The next one was in another underground pub, with no cover, but rather a menu with various Korean comfort foods. We ordered spicy rice cakes.
When we were heading back home just after midnight, the same students who had put down ribbons a few hours before were tearing them off the road and rolling them up. Groups of people were milling around outside 7-11 and GS25, and guys were punching arcade games. Another week, and it will be all the same.
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, USA Today, the South China Morning Post, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.