On Jeju, a haven for rock 'n' roll

by Timothy Cushing
Groove Korea (groovekorea.com)

Nestled next to a love motel in Jeju’s bustling City Hall district — an area packed with cars, bars and neon lights — and up a dingy flight of stairs is the Factory. It’s easy to miss the Warhol banana that marks the entrance, but attracting foot traffic is beside the point. The Factory’s clientele come by word of mouth, welcomed into a loyal circle and greeted by Oh Myoung-ae, the pleasantly enigmatic owner sitting behind the dark bar.

I first read about the watering hole in my compulsory copy of Lonely Planet Korea shortly before moving to Korea in 2011. Thumbing through the disappointingly short section allotted to Jeju, I came across their write-up of the Factory. I dog-eared it based on the simple description: a rock ’n’ roll bar with friendly management.

With Jeju’s rolling hills, crisp blue oceans and dramatic volcanic mountain at its center, I expected to find the island crawling with artists. I imagined colonies of dreadlocked expats hanging out around beachside barrel fires during long-winded acoustic jam sessions and landscape painters living monastically in the jungle. I partially blame these misconceptions on the aggressive UNESCO bid that hailed Jeju as the “Hawaii of Asia,” a campaign which eventually succeeded in securing its spot as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

For better or worse, however, Jeju has a character all its own. Littered with hundreds of strange museums frequented by droves of tour buses and their attendant tourists, the island is in flux.

When it comes to tapping into the tourist market, one popular idea is to offer visitors a more convenient, sanitized, comfortable version of nature — rock-shaped speakers discreetly pipe music all the way up the rubber-treaded ascent of Jeju’s famed Sunrise Peak, while convenience stores are located every few kilometers on a trail to the top of Mount Halla.

As I saw it, this facade of tourism and familiarity was not far removed from the K-pop littering the airways. “Mr. Simple” pumped from phone accessory booths, batting cages, elevators and electronics stores; always, it seemed, accompanied by neon sign boards flashing the Hangul characters that I had learned to read but didn’t know the meaning of. It all came together in some strange validation of Jeju’s catchphrase, “We love having you here.”

One Saturday, a few co-workers and I walked past the arcades advertising 4D, Korean barbecue joints and chain coffee shops before we made our way to a cheap hotel. We dropped our bags in a 70s-era room with mysterious copper-red smudges on the wall and immediately stepped back into the dingy hallway to go out for the night. As my gaze slowly moved up from the decaying carpet and atrocious floral wallpaper, I looked out the grimy window and saw the faint neon glow of a banana.

The Factory immediately feels familiar, with its L-shaped countertop at the back of the room, tables scattered throughout and stage with a large screen. There’s a comfortable level of seediness to the place and its dark walls are painted with inspirational quotes.

I ordered a pint of Red Rock, and the bartender struck up a conversation.

This was my introduction to the Jeju music scene. After a month of divining in the desert, I had struck the main nerve and at the helm of the machine was Myoung-ae, an outgoing woman with an infectious smile and passion for independent music.

Myoung-ae’s interest in music began at an early age when her sister gave her an album by the Korean psychedelic band 산 울 림 (Sanullim). She fell in love with The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul,” Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden’s “Beyond the Missouri Sky,” Korean bands Frida Kahlo and Sanullim, and The Velvet Underground and Nico. She sought out live music on Jeju and remembers the band Crying Nut as her first memorable live show.

At the time, Jeju presented some problems for an aspiring art lover.  “It was just like a hell! My friends didn't like books, news, culture and history. My school teachers were so classic. That's why I went to university in Busan,” she explains.

As Myoung-ae pursued studies in journalism, her politics grew increasingly radical and she became a head editor of multiple anti-government publications. Friends urged her to pursue journalism following graduation, but Myoung-ae had reservations. “I thought that revolution in Korean politics was impossible. Only in culture, it seemed to be possible.” She returned to Jeju and started putting together a plan for a bar.

The Factory opened in July of 2007 as Myoung-ae’s way to introduce the music she loved to her native Jeju, an island whose scene she still describes as “stiff and classic.”

“It was a simple reason to start a music bar. I just loved the music and wanted to make a free place without genres. Yes, I was dreaming — but some musicians who played the guitar well started playing covers, and then their friends played or other good indie bands did. They were not professional but it was precious to me.”

As far as artists go, Warhol is not at the top of Myoung-ae’s list, but his scene and relationships with younger generations of artists was more central to her vision. “Actually, my favorite artist is Basquiat,” she says. “I just borrowed Warhol's banana and Factory. My favorite albums, artists and musicians are all related to Warhol and his Factory.” Basquiat himself famously rendered Warhol as a banana in his 1984 painting “Brown Spots.”

Myoung-ae has been able to attract as loyal a following as one can expect from a clientele with a one- to two-year expiration date. In addition to expat patrons, she has cultivated a group of consistent Korean performers and drinkers, with occasional acts from Seoul. Most recently, she’s taken with the positively charged ska music of South Carnival. 

The bar is also home to whatever ideas clients can sell to Myoung-ae; on any given weekend, one can find anything from open mics, ska bands and holiday parties to metal bands, 8-bit DJs, indie bands and theme nights.

Of course, it’s not perfect. Jeju’s Factory is not the bastion of subversive art, music and fashion that the original was. The Jimi Hendrix quotes and pictures of Kurt Cobain could easily read as tacky — like a Led Zeppelin t-shirt from Hot Topic — if not for the owner’s sincerity. Myoung-ae’s singular vision of an open and friendly music bar seems to magically attract like-minded individuals.

It’s this sincerity that keeps people coming back, despite the occasional 30-minute session of Middle-Earth inspired classical guitar or acoustic covers of “Hey Ya.” I ended up becoming a regular on the Factory stage myself, and the bar even compensates for my frequent performances. The point is that the crowd is supportive and patrons are often more interested in soaking up the bar’s creative feeling than being there explicitly for the music.

One thing that Myoung-ae can’t control is the entertainment market; Jeju is small enough that a volleyball tournament can kill business for an evening. The Factory is, however, a consistent go-to for the Saturday evening parties that seem to be an island tradition. Even on off-nights, one will find Myoung-ae tending bar and curating YouTube music videos to project onstage.

Nor is music on Jeju limited to the Factory. Sixty kilometers away in the southern city of Seogwipo, a hole-in-the-wall called Café MayB hosts acoustic-based material and several well-known indie acts, including Fortune Cookie’s Yoo Hee Jong. Tiny theaters speckle Jeju City, attracting a refreshingly high percentage of ajumma to even the loudest and most experimental of performances.

Nevertheless, Myoung-ae is as good a Warhol as this small island could ask for. It seems that anyone even faintly connected to music knows her and her bar. In addition to running the Factory, she has co-founded the Iho Beach music festival, an event that is now in its third year running.

Myoung-ae remains self-deprecating, expressing gratitude for any attention paid to her “small and shabby” establishment. Asked about her hopes for 2013, she says that a main goal is to “make an ongoing experimental show.” Beyond that, she hopes that musicians from other cities visit and mix to create a unique Korean scene. “Our country is so serious and heavy about life and music, so I want to tell them: music is like a romance or picnic in our life! Not so far from you!”

Address: 1180-1 Ido 2-dong, Jeju City, Jeju-do, South Korea

Getting there: From the City Hall bus stop in Jeju City, walk past the Tom N Toms Coffee and take the first left. The Factory will be a block down on your right on the second floor above a boutique called Gentlewoman. Look for the Andy Warhol banana.

Online: www.facebook.com/jejufactory

Phone: 070-7575-1579

Groove Korea website

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