Interview: Kim Dong Ha, Godfather of the Busan Bar Scene


Back in 1996 Kim Dong-ha opened The Crossroads in PNU. Today it still stands along with several other spots around Busan that he founded along the way. With arguably the best collection of music in town and a memory for names that defies reason, Dong-ha remains a force on the expat scene. Drummer, Ben May, sat down with Dong Ha and asked him what it’s been like running bars all these years.

-What made you want to get into the bar business?

I went to college, but it wasn’t for me. I was just really into music. I wanted a little place to hang out and listen to good music with some friends.

-Why did you start out in the PNU area?

I grew up around PNU. It’s always been a great hang out area.

-How did you start hanging around foreigners?

Before I opened Crossroads, I used to go to this record shop nearby, called “Led Zeppelin”. It was there that I met guys like Craig Lee who liked the same kind of music: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bob Marley.

-Did you intend to cater to the foreign crowd?

Not really. I just had a few foreign friends who shared the same taste in music. I opened the bar and they became my customers

-What’s your impression of the foreign crowd in Busan?

I love my job because I get to meet a lot of nice people. We all look different, but I was surprised to find that basically we are all human- we’re all really the same. It’s great to experience a lot of variety, though. There are all kinds.

-Is it different now from when you first started?

Basically it’s the same, but I have continually learned new things and about new music from all different people.

-What’s your impression of the Korean crowd at your bars? Are they are different from your typical Korean?

Honestly, I have had a lot of experiences where they can be narrow-minded. If they come into the foreigner environment with an open mind, then it can be a good thing and they can make new friends. If they have a closed mind, then there could be problems. It’s like that with most of life, isn’t it?

-Have you had any trouble with other bar owners or neighbors of your business?

There has been some competition and a little jealousy from some people- it’s just business. I don’t want to pay attention to it.

-Do they ever complain about too many foreigners hanging around?

There have been complaints about the noise and lots of people hanging out on the street in front of the bar. Sometimes they call the police. The police don’t really know what to do and they just complain to me. Some things are out of my control, but sometimes I am a bit of a target.

Kim Dong ha busan

-Some entertainment areas are mob connected. Any run-ins with them?

No. I stay away from them and they stay away from me. That’s the way I like it.

-University areas are generally mob free. Why is that?

Gangsters want high profit businesses and university kids don’t have much money. There’s no money in it.

-In the past, Korean law did not allow dancing and also took an issue with live music in the bars around universities. Why was that?

The laws were kind of a mystery. They were real strict about specific licenses where you could have a dancing night club with live music or a sit down pub- it couldn’t be both. Thankfully, the Kim Dae-Jung administration relaxed the laws, so there aren’t really any hassles from the authorities any more. People should be free to express themselves with music.

-You’re not the typical “ajeoshi”. What’s your philosophy of life?

Life is difficult for everyone. Just follow your happiness. Doing what makes you happy can be the real success in life.

-What do you like to do outside of the bar?

I go hiking on the mountains, do some amateur boxing, and hang out with my family

-You’re known for your widely varied taste in music and impressive record collection. How did you start getting interested in music that most Korean people do not know about?

When I was young, I was really introverted and I listened to the radio all the time and heard all kinds of western music: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel. I got interested in collecting records and have been ever since. I think of collecting vinyl like someone collects old books. My records are my good friends.

-Do you think that your generation of Koreans knows more about other kinds of music than the younger generations? If yes, why do you think that is?

My generation seemed to have more free time and more curiosity about music. We always searched for new music and Rolling Stone magazines. These days, young people have no time for that. Also, it’s too easy to get what you want on the computer- there’s no big search to drive the curiosity.

-In the early part of the decade, PNU was the only place to be. What made you decide to open Vinyl in Kyungsung?

Guitarist Lee Byung Hoon recommended the place. I thought about opening a bigger place that was for live music and dancing. I don’t dance, but a lot of people love it. I know dancing is important- even the Rolling Stones make people dance. I thought it would be good to open a place that people would like.

-That really opened up the scene in Kyungsungdae and started the expansion of foreigner friendly bars there and in other parts of town. Do you think you inspired a lot of competition?

Yes, there were a lot of bars that copied what was happening. It doesn’t bother me. I just hope that if they are successful, I am successful, too.

-Do you feel any difference between the scene in PNU and that of Kyungsung?

It’s a very different atmosphere, from the music to the fashion. PNU is like Busan, while Kyungsungdae is like Seoul.

-How do you deal with fights in the bar?

I try to calm them down and work the situation out. I don’t like to call the police. I still feel like a bit of a rebel, so I just don’t like having the police around. Back when there was just Soul Trane, there were a lot of people in one small club and there were many fights. Now, there are a lot of places to go, so there is not as much trouble.

-What’s the downside to running bars?

Keeping up with the business. Numbers have never been my strong point.

-What’s the upside?

I have met a lot of great people, get new ideas and learn about new music.

-Over the years, I’ve heard many people say “Dong-Ha must be rich!” Is it true?

Totally untrue. I would say that I am rich at heart!


Dong Ha owns four bars in Busan:
The Crossroads and Soultrane in PNU
Vinyl and Ol’55 in Kyungsung

Ben May is the drummer for One Drop East




HQ bar