First published in Groove Korea magazine September 2014
There is a close-knit community outside of Seoul called Cheongju where there is always someone to share a drink or game of darts with, rock music is a draw and there’s plenty of space for people to share their talents. Restaurant and bar owners catering to the city’s expat population know their customers by name, and the host of sports, language and cultural clubs ensures that those who prefer to spend their social lives sober have mates to do it with.
Located almost smack in the middle of Korea, Cheongju has all the spoils of a big city but manages to maintain a small-town charm. As the capital city of North Chungcheong Province, it also boasts the most foreign residents in the landlocked province, with an estimated 400 English teachers working here.
It’s only an hour and a half away from Seoul and 40 minutes from Daejeon, so it’s easy to get out on the weekends, although there’s enough going on here to keep residents entertained the whole year through.
American David Sparks, who has been living in Cheongju for the past five years and plays in two local bands, sums up many expats’ sentiments about the size of “The Cheong,” as it’s affectionately called:
“My wife and I really enjoy the size of our city. The expat community is tightly knit, so we always feel welcome, but it’s large enough that we can be wallflowers and just hang around if we want.”
Bars and guitars
“Music has always brought foreigners together here,” says Lee Won-jae, who has owned expat-friendly bars in the university area, Cheongdae Cheongmun, since 2002. “The rock music that played in the stairwell of my first bar is what drew English teachers in, and from there musicians would meet up, talk about and create music in the bars.”
Open mic nights at The Bugle (previously known as Pearl Jam) and rock ‘n’ roll bar Soundgarden see Korean and foreign musicians get up and strut their stuff weekly. Local expat bands The Primary, OTL and the Prison Murder Gospel Choir also play regular gigs.
It’s not just rock music that gets Cheongju going. Soundgarden has played host to successful Motown, garage and funk nights, while Buzz bar, Road King and MJs keep people dancing to ‘80s and ‘90s classics, house and hip-hop every weekend.
Still, many agree that the live music scene is not quite what it used to be. “A lamentable development is the decline of the music scene here in Cheongju,” says American saxophone player and longtime resident Tim Crawford. “There used to be a good bunch of pretty decent musicians, but many of them left and no one has come along to replace them.”
In an attempt to remedy the situation, Crawford, along with Sparks, has put on a few arts and music festivals that have gained national attention and had widespread community support. The Art from the Moon and Live from the Moon 1 and 2 events featured art exhibitions and auctions, local and national live music, DJs and juggling performances from American couple Bob and Trish Evans.
“We’ve been actively involved trying to create a ‘culture initiative’ that crosses between Koreans and foreigners here,” says Sparks.
Groups and gatherings
Although it’s not uncommon to see foreigners crawling home as the sun rises on the weekend, many of them are up early to play sports. The Cheongju Tigers soccer team keeps many a beer belly at bay, while social male and female friendly soccer games take place during the week. The Reapers baseball team plays every weekend during the season, and American and Canadian hockey players hit the ice in winter. Ultimate Frisbee is also a popular way to keep in shape, as is cycling along the Musim River or to nearby Daejeon during the less extreme seasons.
Language exchanges take place weekly across the city, and it’s not only Korean and English that are being shared: French, German and Spanish exchanges also go down.
Once a month, brains are flexed and egos flaunted at The Bugle’s pub quiz. Quizmasters come up with questions on a huge array of subjects as quirkily named teams battle it out for the pot or a second-prize pitcher of beer.
The Cheongju Art Club meets every Sunday for workshops with Matthew Anderson, and their efforts are exhibited at events throughout the year. Originally from the U.S., Anderson has been teaching art classes and art history since he received his MFA in painting from Miami University in Ohio in 1994. “I studied Eastern-style painting after graduate school and my teacher, who was Korean, taught me a lot about Korean culture as well,” he says. “This, along with my studies in Eastern art history from my university days and my enduring interest in Asia, led me to Korea.”
Board games and role-playing games are other ways some Cheongju folks spend their free time. Canadian Joe Brady, who has been in Korea for close to six years, is involved with an ever-changing group of players who dive into games like Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer and Silverline. “The groups change pretty regularly and the dynamic of the game changes with it. So some groups tend to use a lot more role playing, while others use meta-gaming a lot more.”
He is also heavily involved with the Cheongju Board Game Nerds, which began in April and always welcomes new members. The group meets at Monopoly, a board game café in Cheongdae Cheongmun, which stocks a wide selection of English and Korean games. “Most of the games we play at Monopoly are strategy board games and card games, but everyone is very accommodating if someone wants to try something new or different.”
Camilla Ugarte, a Canadian who recently returned to Cheongju, says the public parks and the walking and bike trails that line the city are some of her favorite things about living here. The most popular place to gather outside is the square beside the Musim River, just below the main bridge downtown. It’s a perfect place to rollerblade, skateboard, ride your bike, have a picnic or just people watch.
The Sandangsangseong mountain fortress is also a popular spot to get some fresh air. The fortress wall dates back to 1716 and stretches over 4.2 kilometers in circumference, and within it there are some great hiking trails, the brightly painted Suamgol cultural village and a selection of restaurants from which to enjoy the view.
The nearby Hwayangdong River within Songnisan National Park is also a top spot to visit with a picnic and bathing suit. Foreigners have often tried to find hidden swimming and drinking spots away from the demarcated areas, but park officials have wised up to this and now keep an eye out for pesky interlopers.
Cheongju’s claim to fame is the Heungdeok Temple Site, home to the Early Printing Museum. There you can learn about Jikji, the oldest existing book printed using moveable metal type. Yes, Cheongju did it before Johnannes Gutenberg.
Cheongju residents don’t have to leave their houses for a sense of belonging in the community thanks to Amanda Hayes, an Illinois native and Cheongju resident since 2007. She keeps people in the know with the Cheongju Weebly site, which she says was a labor of love that took about five months of organizing, research and writing to create.
“I just got tired of the same questions being asked over and over, and thought there had to be a way to compile all of this information about the city,” she says. “I would have loved to have a reference guide like this when I was first here.”
It’s a sentiment that seems to be shared by many of the city’s new arrivals.
“I’ve been getting a lot of good feedback, especially from newbies, saying that it’s helped them a lot,” she says.
Hayes also moderates the What’s Going on in Cheongju Facebook group, which is the fastest way to peruse opinions about the area or get advice and even a laugh.
Making people laugh is something Manchester native Mark Hulme certainly enjoys. Besides often making wisecracks on the Facebook group, the cheeky bugger has made a parody page. His What Street Shit is for Sale in Cheongju! group encourages people to post photos and bid on the furniture people leave out on the street for garbage collectors.
Jokes aside, he’s proof that there’s a current of creativity running through the city that’s given rise to a community of self-starters, whether they’re seeking to share their art or engage in an enterprising new venture.
“The cool thing about Cheongju is that if you’re interested in something and you put it out there, chances are someone else will share your passion and you can start something,” says South African Helen Lloyd, who recently left the city after two years. “Cheongju folks are proactive. It’s one of the reasons I love them.”