Well, the clock says it’s time to close now
I guess I’d better go now
I’d really like to stay here all night
The cars crawl past all stuffed with eyes
Street lights share their hollow glow
Your brain seems bruised with numb surprise
Still one place to go
Still one place to go
The Doors- Soul Kitchen
BUSAN, South Korea — A bar is an inanimate object, wholly dependent on its patrons to make it come alive or seem dead. The average watering hole in Korea has zero personality. It’s merely a place to drink, and you’re nothing but a wallet with legs. The Western-style pubs occasionally get the look right, but then proceed to blast the wrong kind of music at an insane volume. Crossroads was always a combination of so many things that made it work. When one of my friends heard about the news that the bar had recently been sold, he casually remarked, It’s just a bar. He was right. He was also very, very wrong.
When I first arrived in Busan in December, 2000, I had never stepped foot on Asian soil before. My boss’s husband took me to PNU and into what was then the place to be, Soultrane. Some Korean band was butchering Drive My Car while in one of the corners sat the chain-smoking and coffee-drinking proprietor. He was introduced to me as Kim Dong-ha, the Godfather of the foreign bar scene in town. He had taken over Crossroads (originally called Guru) in 1997 and infused it with his own unique charmânot to mention a portion of his enviable vinyl collection. What it lacked in pretension, it made up for in hominess. The staff made it a point to remember your name, what you drank, and what album you wanted to hear right there and then. If they didn’t have the album in question, Dong-ha would make it a point to have it at the bar the following week.
Real Pusan veterans (yes, back when we still used a P) will tell you that there were really no other options for foreigners to just unwind with a beer, not be hassledâor turned away outrightâand hear the music they wanted. The Kyungsung area had nothing. Seomyon had nothing. Gwanganli and Haeundae were little more than sand and hotels on the strip. Dong-ha encouraged live music at his bar, and though not all of it was great, at least it was ours.
Dong-ha later expanded his influence by opening up the aforementioned Soultrane in PNU, and later on was responsible for kickstarting the present bar/music scene in Kyungsung by opening Vinyl Underground (followed later on by Ol’55). And while they all were and are highly frequented spots, nothing ever truly replaced Crossroads as the place to be in PNU, much less the city. During my first year here, I would often go there on nights where I finished work early, get out the paper and pen and just write. If I wanted them to stay open a little later, no problem. Dong-ha would recommend albums to me. I’d loan him some of my CDs. I could open up a tab and pay the following week. I lost count of how many times I saw the sunrise on that block.
He established a relationship like this with literally hundreds of people over the yearsâin some cases, getting the raw end of the deal, considering all those who skipped the country owing enormous tabs and never paid them off. Dong-Ha never graduated with an MBA, and though having one might have made him a more prosperous businessman, it still doesn’t diminish the esteem that so many hold him in.
Of late, Crossroads had been receiving all kinds of complaints about noiseânothing new over the years. Compound fines from Korea’s version of the EPA unfortunately made selling the bar a necessity, as the alternative was for him to eliminate all live music from the premises, something he wasn’t willing to do. So, while Soultrane downstairs still belongs to Dong-ha, he’s no longer in charge of his maiden project.
Hey, the sign still says Crossroads! (actually, the main sign hasn’t said that for years, having lost some crucial letters), some might counter. I was there last week and with the absence of the man behind the bar, the space itself just isn’t the same anymore. I felt it. No disrespect intended to the new owner, but it was proof positive to me that the spirit of the place was well and truly gone.
There will always be other haunts, other joints, other speakeasies. But none with the same energy or vibe that Crossroads had. Perhaps what saddens most of us who were there since (or near) the beginning of its inception is that a door has slammed shut on so many fantastic memories. In many respects, no different than when a long time friend departs Korea never to return. In real life, I would always depart Crossroads with a song. On the written page, I can do no less. Thanks to Dong-ha and Crossroads for making Busan a lot friendlier on nights where we really needed it.
We saw shadows of the morning light
Shadows of the evening sun
Till the shadows and the lights were one
Jane’s Addiction â Three Days
Photos courtesy of Johnny Ioannidis and Ben May