Sharing dreams, making a difference in life at unique clubs

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Mar 8, 2013 - 19:43
  • Updated : Mar 12, 2013 - 09:38
Office worker Choi In-hwan is an oddity among peers for his idiosyncratic love of self-brewed beer and tango.

Not many understand why he spends so much of his time and money on his peculiar hobbies. Four years ago, he knew that he was not alone when he came across an online club of people seeking the pleasure of drinking homemade beer.

“I was a stranger to many … even had some girls on blind dates running away from me if I said I liked to dance. But by joining the club I was able to meet two friends who were more passionate than I was about drinking and dancing. We were surprised that we were all pursuing a similar goal in life,” said 38-year-old Choi.
Choi In-hwan (left) and his club friends clink glasses of ginger-flavored beer on Wednesday evening at their brewing studio in Oksu-dong, Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Last year, Choi and his friends, opened a home brew studio called “Soma” in Oksu-dong, Seoul, to help people who share their passion for home brewing, but are unable to do it because of limited time and space. At the studio, the three self-taught amateur brewers hold classes for other club members on how to make creative liquor of their own from citron-flavored beer to wines made with strawberry or apple.

“We never knew that we could come this far with the unique hobby we enjoyed so much. Our acquaintance at the club, I guess, completely changed our lives,” he said.
Choi In-hwan makes beer at his club’s brewing studio. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Like Choi and his friends, a growing number of Koreans are joining unique clubs to share special interests of their own.

Even less than 10 years ago, clubs ― or “donghohoe” in Korean ― were usually filled with people who shared common interests such as movies, music, mountain climbing or photography. Clubs used to be an open place where single men and women searched for their other half or to build social networks beyond their existing connections to schools and hometowns.

Clubs nowadays are not just communities where people make friends, but places where people build their dreams together or change their lives.

“Our members don’t really talk about their jobs or ages and I don’t care at all,” said a manager of online community Microbrewery on major local portal Daum. “What I do care about is that I have people who I can share my beer with and exchange ideas to make them taste better next time.”
Members of Smeagol’s Cave, an online community for skinny men, pose during a training session. (Smeagol’s Cave)

Skinny men in a club called Smeagol’s Cave share dreams of a more “healthy” appearance. The Internet cafe is one of the most popular online clubs among self-conscious skinny men wishing to gain weight and also improve their appearance. The name of the group comes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s emaciated villain, whose name has come to refer to gaunt, skinny men who look unhealthy.

“I myself used to be a Smeagol,” said Kang Seung-gu, the founder of the club.

“In the past, I was 180 centimeters tall but weighed 57 kilograms. For all my life, I was ashamed and lacked confidence because of my weak appearance.” As Kang gradually built his figure, he shared his experience and advice on his cafe. After a television appearance, the cafe’s fame skyrocketed. Since 2004, the cafe has attracted 97,609 members.

Here, members also encourage each other to work harder, and congratulate one another for their hard work. Successful members record their exercise know-how so beginners can take tips. The cafe holds a regular offline meeting four times a year. Korea’s top trainers come to the meeting to give courses and coach members’ exercise. Kang, who has published his own book to help skinny men gain weight, also has a cafe book through which he and experienced members pool their know-how on developing their bodies.

“After 10 years of exercise, I now weigh 80 kilograms. I am now very confident. When people tell me how much they benefitted from my cafe, I cannot be happier,” Kang said.

People with caring hearts have been saving lives.

Kim Hyoung-chan, a 42-year-old man in Jamsil, southern Seoul, runs an Internet cafe to help people with the Rh-negative blood ― which is rare in Asia.

“The cafe was a recreational gathering when it opened in 2004. But soon it became a network to connect donors and recipients effectively in dangerous crises,” he said. The cafe was the first such community in Korea linking Rh-negative individuals to share blood in emergencies.

“The Red Cross was not able to effectively provide Rh-negative blood in the past. Therefore, Rh-negative individuals requested help at our cafe, which is the biggest community of its kind.”

Some beneficiaries from the cafe members include a child with leukemia, a high school student who was in a dangerous motorbike accident, and many pregnant mothers who need to prepare two packets of blood prior to delivery.

Love of spicy food also connects people.

So Jung-won, a senior researcher at a company, opened “I Love Hot Flavor” in 2011 to find friends to enjoy hot food with. In the online community, members share information regarding spicy food restaurants and dishes. Recent recommendations include a spicy tteokbokki restaurant in Sadang-dong, cold noodles with burning pepper garnish at Dongmyo and a spicy pig trotters restaurant in Bundang. Members meet in person to explore the spicy food they searched together, and rate how hot the food was.

“Meeting strangers and having a meal with them can be awkward at first. But as we share a common taste in food, we became friendly very quickly,” So, 38, said.

At Super Car Korea, people share the pleasure of driving sports cars.

“Through the Internet cafe, members share information about sports cars. We also discuss car insurance, car safety and how to respond when an automobile accident occurs,” said Park Dong-beom, head of Super Car Korea, a club for sports car lovers.

Members sometimes go on trips together and talk how fabulous their cars are. Park emphasizes that though cars are fun, his club is not only for people who own them.

“We don’t exclude people because they don’t own a sports car; instead, we do many kinds of activities to enjoy ourselves based on our common interest, which is sports cars.”

Unique clubs also include a group of people who believe that the world is nearing its end.

Members of online community Moon Jae-in and Nature Culture, formerly known as Catastrophe Survivors, try to prepare for the worst. They share their ideas to survive in what they call “endangered world.”

Established by a farmer in 2007, the Internet cafe currently holds more than 33,000 memberships and has an average of 6,000 visitors a day. Members openly talk about mysterious theories and bizarre topics such as Mayanism, the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, alien invasions, and evidence of unidentified flying objects.

They share survival kits and methods for filtering rainwater, finding plants for food and giving life-saving first aid in the event of a catastrophic disaster. Small groups in the community often organize meetings in person to discuss ways to build sanctuaries out of city areas and train themselves to survive through all kinds of environmental hazards.

“We have a common goal ― that is, to survive for our future generation and to pass on our heritage,” said Hanbyeol, the founder of the community, who declined to publish his real name.

Hanbyeol, now based in Muju, North Jeolla Province, has built a self-made shelter near his residence. His distinctive site has been visited by members of the community who want to experience how to live and survive in the wild without a water or power supply.

“Manmade disasters and shortages of natural resources suggest that the world is nearing an end, but not many people are aware of this serious consequence,” said Hanbyeol who claims to be a believer of many apocalypse theories.

“Letting people know that we are living not in a fantasy world, but in a world that is about to collapse, is our job,” he said.

By Cho Chung-un and Lee Sang-ju