I went for a walk in Yeong-do, an island on the southern edge of downtown Busan, looking for a cozy place to take a break. On the waterfront, I spotted a cafe that looked very old called “양다방” (Yangdabang). Dabang, the Korean word for a coffee shop is a place that serves mainly coffee, tea, and other non-alcoholic drinks. When I entered the Dabang, I felt like I was transported back to the 1960s and felt like I was part of an old Korean movie scene. Standing in front of me, a woman with pink curlers in her hair greeted me with the words, “Would you like to drink Ssanghwacha 쌍화차 ?” She said that Ssanghwacha was the most popular drink here. Everyone who comes to her establishment drinks Ssanghwacha, the lady said, If everyone here drinks Ssanghwacha, then I will too. I ordered from the lady, whose name is Lee Mi-ae 이 미애 (56), and who is the owner of Yangdabang. While she was preparing the famous drink, I had a conversation with her.
What kind of drink is Ssanghwacha?
It’s a traditional Korean tea and has been consumed as a medicinal drink in Korea for generations. It is made from high-quality ingredients such as jujube, peony, arrowroot, Mongolian milk root, goji berry, Korean angelica, ginger, and licorice. Then at the end of the preparation, you add a raw egg.
Looking around, I get the impression that time has stood still since the opening. A colorful mixture of old theater and film studios from the sixties. Just my impression?
No, the impression is not deceiving. Apart from the ceiling painting and the floor, nothing has changed here. Even the drinks menu on the wall is the same as it was fifty years ago. Since I opened this Dabang in 1967, Ssanghwacha has been on the drink menu. It is the most popular drink here. Many of the sailors who work in Yeong-do have been coming here since the Dabang opened. Some of them are already retired. They feel comfortable here and often reminisce about old memories. Every now and then, film scenes for Korean dramas or other movies are shot in my Dabang. If the films are public, I download them and save them on a USB stick. I then give this to the sailors who watch the film scenes that appear in my Yangdabang. This makes the sailors happy.
Scenes for Korean dramas and movies are shot here?
Yes. Many films have been shot here. About three times a week, different TV stations, dramas, and YouTubers come here and shoot a video. A few years ago, scenes for the drama called “Life On Mars” were shot here. Since then, I have also had many guests from Japan in my Dabang. Recently, scenes for a drama were shot at my place for four days. It is the drama “Moving” in which famous actors like Han Hyo-Joo and Zo In-sun play the main roles. Once this drama is aired, there will probably be more visitors here.
At that time, the coffee was filled into thermos flasks and brought to the customers and seamen on a tray, which was wrapped in a cloth.Lee Mi-ae 이 미애
Where do the many old objects come from, with which they decorate the Dabang?
I get many of these items from the neighborhood. There are always grandmothers who can no longer find a use for their objects. However, since they still share many memories with the objects that are valuable to them, it is often difficult for them to throw them away. Therefore, they bring the items to me at Dabang, where I give them a new home.
Are there still many Dabgangs these days?
When I opened this place in the sixties, there were still about 15 Dabangs in our neighborhood. But over the years, modern coffee shops replaced traditional Dabangs. For many owners, the cost of maintaining the pubs became too expensive. They had to go out of business. However, I was very lucky at that time and was able to buy the building. So at least the rental costs were eliminated for me…
Was it easier to run a Dabang in the past?
Definitely. At that time, there were five other employees working in my restaurant. They delivered coffee all over the city. At that time, the coffee was filled into thermos flasks and brought to the customers and sailors on a tray, which they wrapped in a cloth. But times have changed. Nowadays there is a modern coffee shop on every corner. So I deliver coffee the traditional way to only one or two locations.
Has this had an impact on the clientele?
Compared to the past, yes. But I’m in the fortunate position of still having a loyal clientele. Especially in the morning hours, it’s the sailors who stop by the pub and have a Sanghwacha before going to work.
The high season is in autumn and winter. When it gets really cold outside, many customers come to my Dabang to warm up with a Sanghwacha. On summer days like today, however, the place is almost empty.
How long do you think their Dabang will be around?
Many of my guests wish that the pub should stay as it is. The city government of Young-do itself also has a great interest in maintaining this Dabang. If my health permits, I would like to continue serving Ssanghwacha to my customers for many years to come.
After Lee Mi-ae had prepared the special tea, she put this rather special drink on my table and added the following: “Ssanghwacha is like medicine. Drink the tea with the egg yolk. Thus, you can prevent colds.” I took the cup and dutifully swallowed the egg yolk, which congealed a little due to the heat of the tea, like medicine. Now I just hope that Lee Mi-ae is right and that I won’t get sick this winter thanks to the Ssanghwacha.