Saturday, December 10, 2005

Roots of Korean Coffee Culture

Dr. Andrei Lankov wrote an interesting article for his Korea Times newspaper column on Early Modern Era Korea. The title is the Bean and the Leaf. His topic is the tradltional tabang tea shop, which is the forerunner for today's modern coffee shops. One reason for the popularity and success of modern Korean coffee culture is the place the tabang had in Korean society.

One point not covered in the article is that today many Koreans see the tabang as catering to older and lower status Koreans, or that the tabang's in some cases had been a front for prostitution.

The Bean and the Leaf
For decades, one of the most typical Korean institutions was the tea house (or, rather, the coffee shop), known as a tabang (lit. “tea room). I still remember the times when a tabang could be found within a five-minute walk from any given point in Seoul.

Alas, the most recent decade witnessed a demise of this quintessentially Korean institution. The old good tabangs have been pushed aside by the proliferating speciality coffee shops. They serve a similar function ? they provide patrons with a comfortable place to talk over a cup of coffee. However, the modern specialty coffee shops, largely emulating the US patterns, are very different from the tabangs of yesteryear.

The old tabang had its golden era some 20 years ago, in the mid-1980s. In 1988 in Korea there were 39,128 teahouses. In Seoul in 1987 tabangs numbered 9,177. In other words, there was one tabang per 1,000 Seoulites.

Tabang history began about a hundred years ago, in 1902 Miss Sontag, the relative of the then Russian envoy, was granted the right to open the first modern hotel in Korea. She was the same Miss Sontag who introduced coffee to Korea, and her hotel was equipped with the first coffee shop, known as ‘Tabang’. Thus, the new term was coined and the new institution was born. Contrary to their name, however, tabangs have always served coffee, not tea!

Soon teahouses became fashionable. In the colonial era they were rather expensive, thus only people of independent means could frequent them. They often featured live music and posh interiors ? but they were still much cheaper than a yorichip, the early forerunner of a restaurant. In 1945 in Seoul there were merely 60 tea houses.

Nonetheless, tabangs were a favourite place for business meetings and love trysts, as well as favourite spots for merchants, officials, artists, and bohemians. For example, few books on the history of Korean theatre and cinema fail to mention the Cockatoo tabang in the Myongdong district. The Cockatoo (no relation to the Australian bird - despite its name) was the favourite meeting place of Korean artists and producers.

After the 1945 Liberation, tea houses began to proliferate at an ever increasing tempo. There were economic reasons behind this development. The impoverished country had very few public places where people could meet and discuss their business and life without paying too much. In 1950, on the eve of the Korean War, Seoul boasted 286 tea houses ? five times more than in 1945. Ten years later their number had increased fourfold to 1,041.

A traditional Korean tabang of the 1970s and 1980s was a comparatively large room with one or two dozen tables. Like a Western restaurant, it was kept in deliberate semi-darkness. Normally, low walls divided the tables to form a kind of cubicle, thus people sitting near other tables could not overhear the talk of their neighbours. Indeed, people came to tabangs largely to talk, and often these talks were quite confidential.

On the arrival of the patron, a waitress served him a glass of water or barley tea ? served hot in winter and cold in summer. Some clients spent hours sipping this water and in many cases the lady and ‘Madam’ (not what you probably just thought of, but rather the manager of the tabang) would not say a word. However, most patrons placed an order. The menu was not famous for its variety. Normally the patron could order a cup of instant coffee or tea.

The old tabangs seldom served brewed coffee. Usually a waitress just poured boiling water into a cup with instant coffee, sugar, and whitener (real milk was never used for whitening coffee in Korea). Often she did it at her own discretion, without even bothering to ask patrons about their preferences. On each table there was an ashtray, since tabangs were also a place to smoke.

In the late 1980s the tabangs met a serious challenge. Western-style coffee shops began to spread in Korea. They did not have table service, they were brightly lit and boasted huge shiny windows, and they served freshly brewed coffee. Such words as ‘espresso’ and ‘cappuccino’ invaded the vocabulary of the youngsters. The old good tabang could not really compete: it was seen as old-fashioned and unsophisticated.

It would be an overstatement to say that the old-style tabangs have disappeared completely ? they still number in the thousands. Nonetheless, it appears that they are doomed. The advent of Starbucks and the like is changing the coffee culture of Korea forever. But that is another story.…

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