“Anyone who lived in Seoul during the winter of 1964 would know about those makeshift bars that appeared on the streets at night, the kind of bar that sold fish cake in soup, roasted sparrows and three kinds of alcohol, where to enter you lifted the corner of the tent, which was flapping in the icy wind sweeping the frozen streets, where once inside you could see the long flames of the carbide lamp flickering in the wind and a middle-aged man in a dyed army jacket serving the alcohol and roasting the food. That’s the kind of bar where the three of us met that night.”
This is the first paragraph of Kim Seung-ok’s novel “Seoul Winter 1964.” The pojangmacha (literally “covered wagon”) of Seoul, unlike the wagons of the American wild west, are horseless and motionless. They are not a mode of transportation but a makeshift bar or bistro on the roadside that you enter as you pass by, where you have something to eat and drink, and then get up and leave. The only common point it has with a vehicle is the fact that it is covered, and that it is easily accessible because it stands by the street.
These roadside bars or eateries that appear only at night are an indispensible part of Korea’s urban landscape. Contrary to the novel’s poverty-ridden 1964, the menu is now diverse. In addition to fish cake in soup, there is an impressive lineup of dishes including hagfish, chicken feet, pork ribs, stuffed blood sausage, deep fried foods, rice cake in hot sauce (tteokbokki), udong noodles — the list goes on. The famous roasted sparrow of the 1960s has now disappeared. Electric light bulbs have replaced the carbide lantern. Instead of the dyed army jacket, a relic of the Korean War, there are young people dressed in jeans and casual jackets. In TV drama series, the pojangmacha is where the distraught male protagonist goes to drink alone when his love has been spurned or he has found himself bankrupt, and where a woman incidentally passing by sees him and tries to console him in his already drunk and barely conscious state. And on the screen appear the words, “To be continued,” as if there’s going to be a reversal.
This roadside bistro, so easily accessible to everyone, stirs up a strong nostalgia in the heart. But these vagabond businesses are mostly illegal. So, at times, they are taken indoors, a legal but weird solution. The pojangmacha embodies the joys and sorrows of Korea’s modern history in its own way.