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Why salon culture blooms back in Korea

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For social salon Munto, talking with each other while eating is an important part of the cooking process. / Courtesy of Munto
For social salon Munto, talking with each other while eating is an important part of the cooking process. / Courtesy of Munto

By Jung Hae-myoung

Salon culture is becoming one of the popular trends among people in their 20s and 30s, as a means to find satisfaction outside of work. The term is derived from 18th century France, and is a place where intellectuals and artists gathered socially, expanding their networks and sharing knowledge.

Most of the new "salon platforms" require a fee to join and each runs for about three to four months, meeting once a week. There are also one-off sessions for those who just want to share what they like without making a weekly commitment.

Both are means for people to satisfy the need to fulfill their intellectual desires.

Kim Nan-do, a Seoul National University professor specializing in consumer trends, said in his book "Trend Korea 2019" that "people will spend more money on experiences and show up to different salons in order to find their own concept and identity."

While in the past people sought a sense of community at work and a "diligent life" was considered a virtue, now they realize that it's important to have a life beyond the workplace.

"In the past Korean people thought they could find this bond at work. Work was a place where they were paid, but also a place to seek community," Park Jong-eun, the founder and CEO of 2gyosi said.

2gyosi, a Korean term for the second period in school, is a community that provides hobby-sharing social meetings for office workers.

The type of gathering varies from book clubs, wine tasting and board games to mountain climbing and writing daily journals. Some of the classes run for a semester, around three months, with others occurring only once.

A member of a book club gathering arranged by the for-profit salon organizer 2-gyosi talks with other members of the club. / Courtesy of 2gyosi
A member of a book club gathering arranged by the for-profit salon organizer 2-gyosi talks with other members of the club. / Courtesy of 2gyosi
2gyosi arranges a gathering where people drink beer and talk about their daily lives/ Courtesy of 2gyosi
2gyosi arranges a gathering where people drink beer and talk about their daily lives/ Courtesy of 2gyosi

2gyosi CEO Park said changes in the working environment have pushed many workers to seek places to invest in their interests and hobbies.

"I think people did not know what their true interests were in the old days, because they thought working hard and saving money were virtues," Park said. "Now investing in oneself and one's time have become more important than the reason for working."

A 37-year-old salaried woman surnamed Yang, says her company shuts off immediately after six because of the 52-hour workweek policy. While searching for what to do after work, Yang's friend recommended she attend one of the meetings on 2gyosi.

"I really like going to art museums. Although I don't know much about art, I like places where I can focus," Yang said. "But while I am there I thought it would be nice to look around an exhibition with a bit more knowledge, so I signed up for 'One art gallery per month.'"

Some took the class to reconnect with their former hobbies. A 29-year-old developer called Park said she also used to like going to museums and galleries, but could not find time after she started work. She said her biggest aim is to restart her hobby.

Lee, a lawyer, participated in a gathering where people discuss how they established business models and found success. He explained the reasons behind his willingness to pay for the experience.

"Compared to the quality and quantity of information I get from these gatherings, I think the participation fee is rather cheap," Lee said. "It is hard to meet and hear the stories of people in the environment where I work, they provide a chance I really need and I don't feel like this is waste of money," he added.

The art gallery program's leader, a 34-year-old surnamed Kim, is an office worker who goes to work every day. He is not an art connoisseur but a big fan of artists and who enjoys visiting art galleries. He just likes studying art history and learning the stories of artists.

"I felt the work in my company was not all there was to life. While searching for other activities I found 2gyosi," Kim said. "Most of the work at my company is work I've been ordered to do, which is mainly very passive. But for this gathering I can plan the content and run it as I want. I get a huge sense of satisfaction from running my own project. The fact that I can profit from what I like is also another reason I am continuing this group."

For Kim, this activity fills his need to make and direct a project. With his favorite subject being art, leading the group is his way of relieving stress rather than creating more work.

"As a leader I can launch various classes on the subject that I am interested in. I meet so many different people while doing these fun activities, and when talking with them I feel the world is much bigger than I thought. When I go back to work, it feels like a small society," he said.

This is also the reason that Park founded 2gyoshi, as he tried out different projects to make him feel better outside work.

Outdoor activities such as tennis events, are one of the areas for social gathering the company provides. / Courtesy of 2gyosi
Outdoor activities such as tennis events, are one of the areas for social gathering the company provides. / Courtesy of 2gyosi

"Before I made this platform, I was running a separate project called 'Sling.' This started after I became an accountant," Park said. "There was less time to see friends and people I like. The conversations were the same and did not lead anywhere. The conversation was neither constructive nor productive and mostly complaints about reality."

He felt the time was too short to sit around and complain about work. He made a group with five close friends, built a network and shared knowledge on a field of expertise. They tried different projects such as doing volunteer work, running a mentoring program for jobseekers, and made a pub and cafe called Sling Pub.

"We did not want to leave the dream as just a dream," the CEO said. Starting from June, he is trying to launch the social gathering platform in Vietnam and Singapore to expand the network internationally.

For a social gathering called a
For a social gathering called a "thinking kitchen," people cook in the kitchen together, share food and tell stories about a certain topic./ Courtesy of Munto

Another popular social salon is "munto," which focuses more on personal tastes. The social gatherings on offer include titles such as "Guidebook to Myself," "Wine Salon," "Cinema Recipe," and "Friday Jazz Club."

Lee Mi-ri, CEO of munto, said she started the business because she "needed it."

"At first I had a strong will to try new things. It started as a small group of people, and became big. After a year, it was time to decide what to do. I decided to launch this as a business," Lee said. The platform was established in March 2017.

She was also a participant of various groups, where she found such experiences can help other people to find their own identities.

"I was interested in acting and had acting groups," Lee said. "Acting was such a life-changing experience for me, because I could be someone else than just a company employee. I could look into myself better and talk with people who had different life stories.

"It was fascinating how people can interpret the same text differently. Communicating with others during these activities can be very refreshing and new. It was the process of understanding myself and others."

She believes such experiences give participants a stronger and healthier sense of self.

"I have many different identities. While working as a marketer at a company, one can also be an actor, a musician and a dancer. These activities gave me a different world of possibilities," she added.

When in the past, trying out different roles could mean sacrificing one to play another, now people have multiple options.

"I think one of the major stereotypes in society is an activity should have a result, accomplishment, or at least a certificate," Lee said. "For example, if I wanted to learn about cooking, people would expect me to go to cooking class at an academy."

But the academy system has certain goals and misses a lot of things. The recipes are fixed and one needs to pass an exam, people work in a group but never talk to each other, because the class itself is goal-oriented.

"Through many cases we realized, certificates are no longer the goals of our lives. I think we are now past that stage. Before we had to be fully prepared with certificates and pass exams, it is now the time to enjoy experiences while we can," she asid.

Lee says society and culture has changed, as people put more significance on the process and reasons for participating in activities rather than just achieving a goal.

"I heard one of the members complaining about how she threw out all the food after the cooking class in the academy. The recipes are too strict, and do not fit to every person's taste. When food is for eating, people just talk about how many tea spoons of sugar they should put in and throw the food away without eating it.

"So we tried to make a cooking salon where we value the process of cooking and sharing the food. We experiment with different ingredients, taste the food, and try different recipes to make a meal. And I think that is where it all starts.

"The stories we tell at the dinner table, the value we share and happiness of solely eating a wholesome meal, are what we think is the essence of cooking; we are just focusing on that," she said.

One of the members of social gathering Munto is sharing his writings with other members. Journal entries aim to help its members know themselves better./ Courtesy of Munto
One of the members of social gathering Munto is sharing his writings with other members. Journal entries aim to help its members know themselves better./ Courtesy of Munto

Lee thinks that personal taste can free an individual.

"We live in a society where others decide for us. Most of them are things that we should do, and live in other people's clothes that are burdened upon us," Lee says. "Finding a personal taste is the process of questioning ourselves and focusing on what we want rather than what is given to us by others."

The journey to finding one's personal taste would requires questions like "What do I like?" to "Why do I like this, and not that?" to "Which one is a better choice for me?"

"From the answers of these questions, we can escape from a given title like 'marketing staff' and become a person who likes jazz, is a fan of certain jazz musicians, and a person who likes to walk at certain times in the day," she said.

"This is especially important in contemporary society. Until now, many people lived by given roles like a daughter of someone, a friend, wife etc. However, personal taste is what I found and discovered which liberates me from these roles in society," she emphasized. "It is also one's power and a tool to explain oneself."

Yet the reason that these tastes should be shared with others is because we can learn efficiently in a society of overflowing information.

"A person can learn jazz by oneself, but learning in a group one can find better quality of information and content," Lee said, "Moreover, it is more fun to share with others. It is more meaningful to share what I see and learn from what other people think. Everyone has desire to share what they have."

Among the feedback, Lee says such comments give an apt description of a social salon. "One of the oldest members in a Munto salon said, 'before I would just pity myself with my friends drinking, but when I join these salons, I can have deep and meaningful conversations with smart people whom I would have not met before.' I think that really describes what it is all about," Lee said.

"Salon culture is not about one-way learning or a lecture for self-improvement. It's using the place and time to expand on one's skillsets and tastes."

People seek bonds, but not just any kind of bond. The meaning in the time and space is ever more important in today's society including Korea. From the deep conversation, people hope to find a meaningful bond as well as different identity they can embrace.




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