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Coffee, Drinking the Memory, ‘Bong Dabang’

These days, it seems kind of a trend for many Koreans to hold coffee cups when they walk the streets. For people of all ages, coffee shops are one of the most favored places to meet and have a pleasant gossip. At the center of the ‘Coffee Road,’ the history of coffee in Korea, is Incheon. Indeed, Incheon is home to the nation’s first-generation coffee shops such as Daebul Hotel, the nation’s first ‘dabang,’ or coffee shops from the late Joseon open-port period. With the passage of time, the story of coffee has changed a lot.
However, ‘Bong Dabang’ is a coffee house which has changed very little.




Bong Dabang is located next to the former Baekma Theater in Sangok-dong, Bupyeong-gu. A small signboard hung at a narrow ally informs you that you are close to the dabang. The door of the outdated café is opened. “Welcome,” greets Ms. Choi Jeong-suk (57), the owner of the shop with a smile on her face. She has been running the café for 37 years since 1974. The location, name and owner of this dabang have remained unchanged to this day. “It was very crowded with customers years ago. They had to wait to grab a seat and the door was always opened to greet visitors,” said Ms. Choi with a mild smile, recalling the good old times. “I once employed a female manager and 5 or 6 ladies. This place was called the second Myeong-dong, the nation’s number one downtown in the past and visited mainly by fashion leaders. In the past, a dabang was a place where only the so-called upper-class could afford to go. It was very busy back in the day. I had to open the dabang even on the weekends or on holidays. Yes, I wore Hanbok, the traditional Korean clothing, and was busy in issuing vouchers at the counter,” she added.



Her story goes on. She ran a laundry house for about 15 years at the very place where today’s dabang is located. But after her husband’s death, she faced many difficulties in running the laundry house by herself. One day, she heard that a dabang would be profitable and found the courage to change the laundry shop into a coffee house. Of course, it was not easy to open and run a coffee shop for a woman, especially for a shy woman with little children. She had to endure many difficulties relating to the treatment of customers, management of the business, and, among other things, the employment of ladies. She still runs the dabang under the same name although there are now fewer customers because she does not have to pay any rental fees; she is the owner of the building. In the past, the café was so crowded with customers who hung out there as if it were a second home. Today only a few people visit this dabang and no ladies are employed. She deals with everything by herself. “I think the café is my room. I’ll run this shop until the day my health begins to fail. I’m very happy with the fact that I can still have my own work. ‘Bong Dabang’? I named it ‘Bong’ which means meeting.”



Thirty-year old hand-stained imported coffee cups are stacked on the shelf in the kitchen and the dark brown, thick cups of Ssanghwatang, Korean herb tonic tea, are piled up as if only waiting to be served. The narrow passage leading into the kitchen is where she has mostly come and gone over the past four decades. Ssanghwatang is prepared in the kitchen. She blanches eggs in the boiling Ssanghwatang and puts the yolk onto it. It is a recipe for removing the fishy smell of the yolk and adding more flavors to the tea. She still boasts a good handy skill to make a tasty and nutrient Ssanghwatang and present it in a proper cup. ‘Bong Dabang,’ with its comfortable and cozy atmosphere, still embodies the history of coffee and provides good memories.







Dabang coffee which refers to the Korean-style instant coffee mix of coffee, cream and sugar still attracts many Koreans with its unique taste. The somewhat bitter, sour-sweet tasting coffee, once called ‘western medicine soup,’ was first sold at Daebul Hotel in Incheon. Coffee, which was enjoyed as an after-meal tea for some up-town Koreans in the late Joseon period, was one of the most favorite processed foods of King Gojong.
Now, we had a chance to see the history of coffee, which was a symbolic image of the modern girl and boy, as well as the intellectual.

Incheon Museum held its 2011 special exhibition of coffee history under the theme of ‘From Western Medicine Soup to Coffee Mix.’ Diverse trifling articles connected with coffee that might be seen in a TV program were exhibited, allowing visitors to see the 100-year history of coffee. The special coffee exhibition was held between April 1 and May 29 in the Special Exhibition Room of the Museum.



Looking at the representative items of dabang such as old coffee cups, ashtrays and matchboxes, visitors could see how coffee became popular among Koreans and how dabang were developed in Incheon. They also had a chance to listen to the music played in dabang through different eras.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” suggests a lady in front of the Special Exhibition Room.
“I was not allowed to drink coffee as a child. When my daddy ordered a coffee, a young lady brought a red thermos bottle which contained coffee and she gave me yoghurt. When I was young, I heard that coffee would make you short and look older than others. I first tasted coffee from a vending machine when I was a high school student. It was sweet. It is good to see diverse articles and stuff relating to coffee, while enjoying a cup of coffee. It also reminds me of my childhood days,” said Choi Jae-yun (34, Okryeon-dong) who slowly walks along the exhibition room with a cup of coffee in his hand, appreciating the things on display.



Various items connected with coffee have been donated by 15 old dabangs including Kukje Coffee Shop, Gyeonggi Dabang, Dohyang Dabang, and Bong Dabang, as well as by individuals. “Taking this opportunity, we have tried to display the culture of dabang and coffee in more interesting ways. We hope the exhibited items will help visitors recall their past good times,” said Kim Rae-young, Arts & Culture Researcher at Incheon Museum.

Guest reporter: Kim Min-young  gem0701@hanmail.net


/ 편집팀(inchenews@korea.kr)


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