My summer is kicking off to a great start. There are still more festivals and events than any one person could ever hope to keep up with. The weather is heating up, but I’m learning some native tricks on how to keep cool (and avoid the sunburn!). In preparation for the out of town trip next weekend, I’ve been trying to take it a little easy, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t get to see and do amazing things. Last weekend, we went to the Sand Sculpture Festival at Haeundae Beach, and this weekend we found a visiting Drag Show and a secret speakeasy bar.
Sand Sculpture Festival
Haeundae Beach is one of the most famous beaches in Busan. It’s a little small compared to say… California beaches, but it’s beautiful and full of fun activities. For example, the Holi Hai Festival I went to in the spring was held there. In this case, it was a sand sculpture festival. Artists from around Korea came to the beach to build gigantic sand sculptures and people from around Busan came to admire the art, eat fun snacks, and have fun in the sand and surf.
As soon as we stepped off the subway, we were greeted by a parade. This is the second one I’ve seen at Haeundae and I’ve only gone down there a few times. I’m not sure if it was for the sand sculpture festival or the Port Festival, but it was fun to watch. There was a pirate ship, some movie characters, dragon dancers and plenty of people in random costumes.
When we arrived at the beach we were greeted with banners, flags, a crazy fish/car/bike, a giant cat bounce-house and some para-sailors with giant fan propellers. The first few sand sculptures were smaller, about the size of a car, and were clearly propaganda or advertising rather than part of the art display. Nonetheless, the skill involved in creating a sculpture from sand that had such precise shapes and lines was awe inspiring. I’ve worked with clay before, and it holds a shape well. It has tools that you can use to create super flat surfaces or precise curves and lines. But anyone who has tried to build a sandcastle knows that sand is treacherous, crumbly and not easy to shape.
I did a minimal Google search on the how-tos of sand sculpture and it’s a major undertaking to make any sand structure higher than about half a meter. These sculptures were easily 4-5 meters high. The first one we came across was a giant mound of sand carved(?) with a very simple design of a pillar decorated mansion. Even while marveling at the size of it, I wondered a little about why it was so simple. But later on in the night, it was functioning as a screen for a projector light show part of the festival.
As we continued to wend our way through the sculptures, I realized that each one was based on a nautical literary theme. The very first one was The Voyage of the Dawntreader from the Narnia series (my favorite book from that series, by the way). We could clearly see Aslan, the Dawntreader, Edmond, Lucy, Caspian and Eustace as a dragon. The only sad thing was that the whole wall was in the shade, making our pictures a little lackluster. The other side of the sand wall was a mural scene of Perseus holding the head of Medusa and facing the Kraken as it destroyed a ship.
There were some that may have been based in stories I don’t know, or were simply nautically themed. There was a smaller sculpture with a scuba diver, and another with a man who appeared to be alone on a small boat. But, we also recognized Moby Dick, Gulliver’s Travels, The Little Mermaid, The Odyssey, and King Poseidon. There were a couple of pieces that looked more like they came from Asian literature or history, and I’m sad to say I didn’t recognize them, but the detail on many of the works was simply stunning.
I was particularly taken with the sculpture of Ariel and Ursula. On one side, was the mermaid art, but no average mermaid. The artist had managed to represent both the fin and the legs in the same pose. I knew it was a mermaid at once, even though the fin was not as prominent as it usually is in mermaid art, but it wasn’t until I got to the other side and saw the unmistakable visage of Ursula that I knew it had to be Ariel.
The Odyssey was possibly the most impressive sculpture. Rather than being two sided, it was more conical with images relating the the adventures of Odysseus all the way around it. It wasn’t so much a chronological mural of the tale as a mish-mash of imagery of all the monsters and events with the Cyclops dominating the mountaintop and the wrecked ship laid out below.
At the end of the roped off displays were some much smaller sculptures that were not quite as high quality and also covered in color. There were kids playing on and around them, so they were clearly not being protected or preserved. I guessed that there might have been a timed competition earlier in the day and these were the remains. Famous characters Spongebob and the cast of One-Piece were at least in keeping with the nautical theme. Ironman was there just because he’s the most popular superhero in Korea.
Someone had also built a fantastic hill of sand for the purpose of playing King of the Mountain and also for sand tobogganing. Kids were clambering up the man-made dune and sliding on plastic sleds back down to their parents waiting with cameras below. There was also a walk through sand maze, a dune buggy arena where people could drive rented 4-wheelers around a track marked out in sand, and a whole bunch of tents with activities and souvenirs. We found some artists throwing pottery, some face painting, and other kid-oriented crafts as well.
As the sun was getting low, it was getting time for a snack or even dinner, and just as we were thinking about heading across the street to one of the many international restaurants that line the beachfront, we stumbled into the festival’s own eatery. About a dozen tiny seafood stands had set up shop in a parking lot. This was no small feat, since each food stall had at it’s core a stack of aquariums holding the live sea creatures that would be cooked up fresh. There were many kinds of shellfish, lobsters, fish, and the strange looking “sea penis“. I’m not kidding. That’s really what it’s called. I haven’t been brave enough to eat one yet, but I see them at pretty much every waterfront festival.
We spotted some mussels, of which I am a big fan, but then right next to them I saw some beautiful spiral shelled mollusks that I’d never tried before. I was hopeful that they would be a similar taste experience to the mussels nearby, and I proposed that we split a plate of new experience instead of going for the safe bet. This was not a disappointing choice. I understand that for some, the concept of oysters, mussels, and other sea mollusks is not an appetizing one. For me, well, there’s a reason I loved eating in Japan so much. Most of the animals in the sea are flipping delicious. Especially fresh. These little morsels were no exception. The plate of shells was served with wooden picks for us to pull the flesh from the shell. The fascinating part was that the shape of the meat was the same as the spiral shape of the shell, maintaining it’s spring-like appearance even after it was removed. Instead of garlic butter, the Koreans enjoy their shellfish with a spicy yet piquant chili sauce. So yum. The shells were too beautiful to just trash, so I tucked one away in my bag and now it lives on my souvenir table.
We went for a more substantial meal at a magnificently decorated Indian restaurant with a beautiful view of the ocean. The meal was delicious, and felt so extravagant, but it was really quite reasonably priced. It’s not quite as cheap as the four-star meals I used to get in China, but it’s really nice to live in a place where you can get a high quality dining experience for an Applebee’s price range. Plus, as much as I enjoy Korean food, I get tired eating the same cuisine for too long (no matter what it is) and I love to be able to hop over for another cultural culinary experience so easily.
After dinner and watching the sunset from our table, we headed back out to the beach to see what the after dark part of the festival would be. I’ve learned well enough now that Koreans are a night loving people, and that every festival has a plan for darkness. In this case there were some bright halogens lighting up the sand sculptures with new and interesting shadows. Because the images were done in bass relief and not full 3D, the directionality and quality of the light made a big difference to the way the art appeared. Taking pictures was a little more challenging because the lights were all at human height and people kept walking in front of the lights casting huge shadows on the images, but with a little patience I managed to get a couple decent ones. Please check out the whole day’s photo album here.
As we made our way back toward the main entrance, we spotted a number of night time entertainers. Buskers and fire dancers were drawing small crowds, but the main event was a stage set up on the beach where a DJ was spinning some dance tunes. The greatest part about Korean festival culture is the total inclusiveness. Even after dark, with club music and flashing colored lights, the beach was still full of all ages. Little kids running around and playing in the sand, old grandparents bobbing along to the beat, young couples taking the opportunity to hold hands and dance close.
We couldn’t quite push our way up to the stage, but we plopped our bags down and danced barefoot in the sand to the club music while the Koreans around us giggled a little at the strange foreign behavior, and more than a couple took our abandon as an excuse to dance a little themselves.
When we were all worn out, we headed down to the sea and sat down just beyond the tide line with some beers to enjoy the night. People were setting off small fireworks all over. Despite the fact that the authorities tried more than once to announce that fireworks were not allowed on the beach, everyone around us brought armfuls of tubes to stick in the sand or hold on to and point over the water. The beach patrol came by more than once to stop it, but the Koreans just did not give up.
As the night wore on, people got more and more wild. The fireworks increased in number and in closeness to us. A couple times I was worried that the live sparks might just hit us, but we remained unburnt if slightly ashy. Young men started daring each other to run into the still cold seawater. Young ladies waded in and shrieked at the cold water around their ankles. Soon, all pretense was gone and men and women alike were chasing each other fully clothed into the water, splashing and dunking and having fun. I was tempted to join in, but I didn’t have a change of clothes and I was worried that we might not get a taxi to take us home if we were dripping wet. I think next time we go to the beach I’m going to have to pack a towel and a change or be extra careful to leave before the subway stops running.
When we finished our beer and needed to find the bathrooms, we decided that it was time to move off the beach. After some serious de-sanding, we made it back onto the main road and started trying to find a nice bar to settle into. Unfortunately, all the expat bars were crammed to the gills and our day had just been too relaxing to finish it off with a meat market, so we kept walking, looking halfheartedly at bars and keeping an eye out for empty taxis. Just as we were about to give up, I spotted a sign for The Back Room. It was up on the second floor and looked intriguing.
We couldn’t see a way in, so I thought maybe the stairs were inside the first floor restaurant. We went in to check it out, but when we asked about going upstairs, they directed us to a phone in the wall. I picked up the handset and pressed the white button. I was greeted in Korean, but responded in English, at which point the voice switched into a pleasant European accent of some kind and asked if we were wearing “slippers”. I was a little confused, but Koreans have a kind of shoe I tend to think of as a “sandal” that they wear mostly indoors or in bathrooms. They’re not all obviously plastic casual things, and I’d seen lots of people wearing them around the beach, or just down the street in the warmer weather, but I guess it’s like fancy restaurants not wanting people in flip-flops.
I thought my shoes were classy enough, being solid black with a little decal on the strap, but they didn’t pass muster and we had to move along, vowing to come back later with more appropriate footwear.
Queens of Seoul
During the week, I ran across an add on Facebook for a show featuring the Queens of Seoul here in Busan. The LGBTQ+ culture in Korea is still trying to find it’s feet and there aren’t a whole lot of drag queens in the country. I found Hurricane Kimchi online shortly after I arrived, and I made plans to go up to Pride in Seoul (next weekend) way back in March, but most of the info out there is either coming from expats trying to find each other or just news stories about how LGBTQ+ are being treated, protested against, and ruled against legally in Korea. So when I saw this ad for something fun and friendly, I was psyched to go.
The FB ad said the show started at 10pm, and that cover was free from 9-11pm, so we decided to head over to the bar in time to get in free and get a table before the show. In this endeavor we were wholly successful. The Yaman Joint turned out to be a Jamacian/Rastafarian themed bar with a small stage and tiny dance floor. We were shown to a table and left with a tablet menu. The drinks were a little more expensive than I was used to at our neighborhood dive bar, but not crazy. Plus, they had shisha on the menu. For those of you who don’t remember, I fell in love with the flavored tobacco served in hookahs while living in Saudi Arabia. (I know, smoking is bad. Don’t smoke kids.) It’s not something you find much outside the Middle East, and often it’s not very well made when it is. The Shisha here was a very reasonable price, so we ordered some double apple flavor and a couple of tri-colored frozen rum drinks and settled down to wait for the show in abject happiness.
Around 10pm, a young lady came out and started doing a little light jazz on a piano keyboard. Soon she was joined by a saxophonist and we were treated to a mellow improv performance. Next a tiny little Korean woman dressed in plain black slacks and a white blouse came on stage and channeled the soul of a pop diva. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, a big guy came out with a mike and started beatboxing. I’m not a huge fan of this activity unless it’s done well. This man was talented. Not only was he good, but he became the third “instrument” along with the piano and saxophone. If you’ve never heard anyone do a jazz/hip-hop improv with piano, sax and beatbox, I recommend you make that happen.
The performances went on, varying in style. The beatboxer and saxophonist did a duet of “Uptown Funk” that was truly funky, and he managed a solo dancetronic beat that got half the bar out of their seats and on the dance floor. I thought it was just an opener for the drag show, but once people were up and dancing, the DJ took over and began spinning tunes. It was fun for a while. We got up and danced, we ordered another round of drinks, we wandered out on to the porch to admire the view. As midnight came and went, however, I was starting to get anxious that we might have somehow wound up in the wrong place or that the show had been cancelled. On top of that, the fun dance music the DJ started with had morphed into some of my least favorite overly repetitive style of hip hop. Not the kind of stuff I enjoy listening to or dancing to. The glow was fading.
I managed to pull up the ad on my phone and ask the waiters when it was starting. We were informed 1am. Now, I am not a fainting flower, but I do wake up at 6:30 am on weekdays. I know that even if the ad had said the show started at 1am, I would have still gone because the chance to see a drag show here in Korea was too good to pass up. I’m also a little torn, because I might have missed the 10pm musical performances if I’d shown up any later. C’est la vie. We stuck it out anyway and shortly after 1am, we were rewarded for our efforts.
I have to admit, I didn’t even notice at first when the show started because there was no announcement, there was no break in the music and no one left the dance floor. I was trying to keep an eye on it, but the stage was totally blocked from my view by the dancers. My first clue was when I realized no one was actually dancing anymore, and everyone was watching the stage. I stood up on the chair to see over the crowd and spotted someone on the stage, but couldn’t really get any kind of view. Then I decided to take my chances and see if I could get closer.
I’m not a tall person. 5’4″ in shoes, maybe. The stage was barely elevated a few inches off the ground and it felt like nearly everyone in the bar (at least 50% gay men) was taller than me. I joined the shove of bodies and tried to work my way closer, holding my camera up in the air to see if I could get any shots. My first pictures were half the back of people’s heads, and all I could see was the face of the performer (and only then because she was taller than nearly everyone else in the bar).
A super drunk rude dude just started shoving his way up to the stage, leaving a wake of upset people behind him. He shoved me straight into the two Korean girls in front of me, who nodded in sympathy when I pointed at him as I apologized. The first number I caught was Charlotte Goodenough, who did a fun and silly combination of Lionel Ritchie’s Hello and Adele’s Hello (from the other side). She had a prop phone that would “ring” as she was singing, interrupting her performance with some line from yet another song, such as “It’s Brittney, bitch”. Drag queens are famously lip syncers, not singers. But it was a clever combination of songs that made this number so fun to watch.
As the show progressed, the two girls in front of me decided to head back to their table, and I was one step closer to the stage. Then, another expat friend of mine (tall, black man) came in behind me and helped clear the rest of the way. He could easily see over my head (tall) and I was so close to the catwalk part of the stage, I had to put my foot up on it to keep my balance.
After Charlotte’s opener, we got treated to another 4 numbers: 2 by Kuciia Diamant who sports a sort of industrial goth look and is sexy as hell, 1 by Cha Cha who came out in a super fringed dress and ‘sang’ Rollin on the River while shakin’ her fringe and hair all over the place, and another by Charlotte who treated us to a vintage army girl costume and a little burlesque strip tease.
The crowd was wild. Korean crowds are often subdued, offering polite applause. I was surprised by the number of Koreans at the club that night, and possibly even more surprised at how excited and loud everyone was in support. Expats and Koreans alike showered the Queens with cash tips and everyone screamed their cheers at the end of every number. There wasn’t an ounce of protest or negativity. I feel lucky to have had the chance to see something that, while common in my home country, is still rare and often misunderstood here. I’m glad these performers aren’t letting that slow them down. Please check out the links to their pages and see all the pictures from the show on my FB page.
The Back Room
So, remember that secret speakeasy we passed by on our way back from the beach? Well, we went back. Armed (or maybe footed?) with proper shoes, we knew this time to head straight for the secret phone and dial up. They asked how many we were and then a wooden panel in the wall slid aside and revealed a hidden staircase. The stairwell was decorated in homage to the prohibition speakeasies with shelves of empty liquor bottles and art representing the roaring 20s.
We were greeted at the top of the stairs by the handsome young man with the European accent and seated at an elegant little table. The bar itself, like so many, was dark, but each table had a tiny spotlight that created a concentric ring of light on the marble tabletop. The decor was classy and minimalist, the music was fun but not so loud as to inhibit conversation. The menu was full of craft cocktails and a scotch and cigar menu that made me want to cry. I’d just enjoyed some shisha the night before, so I decided scotch and cigars would have to wait until another night, but the cocktail menu was more than appealing.
Sometimes, people tell me they don’t like the taste of alcohol. I wonder if these people have only ever tasted low quality brands, because I can’t imagine not enjoying the smooth taste of good whisky. The best cocktails are designed not to conceal the taste of the alcohol, but to compliment it. Using fresh juices, herbs, spices and other high end infusions to create works of gastronomic art that play into the alcohol of choice. These are not cocktails to get drunk to, they are cocktails to savor.
My eye was drawn instantly to the Whisky Sour which included fresh lemon, sugar and egg whites. Sour mix is a sad abomination of citric acid and corn syrup that can only fool someone who has never tasted the real thing. Aside from the difference that fresh fruit juice can make, the egg white makes the whole beverage rich and a little creamy. I’ve had only a couple in my life, and I was never able to order a “regular” whisky sour again afterward.
When the drink arrived, it was everything I could have hoped for. The whisky was present, neither overwhelmed by the flavors, nor hidden by them. The lemon and sugar balance was spot on, not too sweet at all, and the egg white froth made the whole thing perfect. These were not by any means cheap drinks, but they were very reasonably priced for the quality.
We stepped out onto the balcony between rounds and were treated to a wonderful city view and the pleasant summer night air. For my second, I chose the TBR (the Back Room) Mule. A twist on the Moscow Mule, it was made with ginger syrup (not just ginger ale) and came with a sprig of fresh rosemary and a rough stick of cinnamon bark that was charred briefly to activate the oils. It was served iced in a copper mug and had a light smokey smell from the cinnamon that was deep and savory along with the copper tang and hint of rosemary.
The whole experience was steeped in class and elegance. It’s definitely not a party bar, but I hope to go back there several more times while I live in Busan to continue sampling the amazing menu. There was a selection of tapas as well that we didn’t even start to get into, and if their food is anything as well selected and prepared as the drinks, I know it won’t be a disappointment. Sadly, my camera does not do well in dim lighting, so I don’t have an album to share, but you can check out their website here.
I know these posts make my life in Busan seem a bit like a non-stop party, but I do work at school every day for 8 hours a day. Most of the time my weeks are full of little kid smiles, English lessons, and binge watching shows on Netflix. Five or six days a week, I live a very normal life. Maybe one day I’ll be able to write a bit about that, what it’s like at school or where I go for regular dinner. However, the reason I choose to live and work in another country is to see and experience as much as I can. I know that there are interesting things and cool places in the US, in Seattle, but for some reason it’s so much harder to motivate myself out of a routine to explore them at “home”. I find that’s true no matter where a person is from. My Korean co-workers are amazed at how much I do here in Busan because they’ve lived here all their lives and just don’t think about the city as an adventure any more than you probably think of your hometown as one. It just goes to show, adventure can be anywhere; we just have to take ourselves out of the daily grind in order to see it.