BANJUL: The Story of a Collector
By Hellynn Jung
In a back alley of Jongno, hidden beneath layers of high-rise buildings and streets full of suits lies an undiscovered haven for music and culture. Once a district rich in the arts, Jongno has developed into an area heavily populated with people, traffic and noise. Yet Banjul is a venue that conserves the beauty of its earlier days when creativity thrived in its premises.
It was more than just a place to drink tea while listening to music, as suggested by the endless collection and assortment of furniture and all things vintage displayed from the third floor all the way up to the rooftop terrace on the fifth. The wall of the third floor was decorated with hundreds of items that hinted at the owner’s passion for a drink that’s best smelt in the morning — vintage coffee grinders neatly placed on the shelves.
“My mother would travel and bring home at least one or two coffee grinders for the collection,” owner Kihwa Lee said, “and I eventually started adding to it.”
Travel wasn’t something that women of generations past were privy to, and neither was 45 years of collecting something as overlookable as the coffee grinder. Further satiating the curious eye was a melting pot of kitchenware, furniture and instruments – of both Eastern and Western influence on the opposite side of the café. Indeed, the founder of Banjul was an adventurous woman of eclectic taste.
One thing that grabbed my attention was what looked like damaged harps amidst the multicultural assortment of furniture. At first, I thought they were antique instruments used as décor, but Lee explained: “There was a fire on the fourth floor about five years ago. As a harpist, they’re very precious to me, so I had to keep them.”
She expressed how the ordeal was a painful memory and had left her heartbroken. Yet, I couldn’t help but think that her decision to include pieces of the traumatic event pointed to the fact that she was a true collector of experiences, good and bad.
A more private side of Lee unveiled as we walked up the stairs to a quieter floor, an extension to her life of collectibles. At the entrance was a monitor revealing the images of artists and musicians that had visited since 1974. This time, the wall was decorated with a cluster of 2,000 teaspoons and other kitchen utensils accumulated for over four decades.
“My mother brought back a few spoons while traveling, and after a while of discovering the tradition and history of its origin, she found a passion in collecting teaspoons.” Lee explained.
Every spoon hung on the wall had a story behind it. For instance, a spoon much bigger and rustier than the others, so worn out at the edges that it was more like half a spoon, told the story of Korean women during the dynasty days, and how they had to scrape the enormous stone-like bottom of rice pots. This sharply contrasted the convenience of our modern-day rice cookers and plastic paddles.
The floor was a space of spoons galore. I even noticed the spoon earrings dangling from her ears. Like the coffee grinders, it was quite the unique item to collect, yet one that had so much substance.
In the center of the room were a piano and a harp, a performing area for musicians such as Lee herself: “I played piano since the age of five, but my mother wanted me to do something more unique. When I saw the harp, it was love at first sight.”
As the harpist played various pieces of music for me, I realized that this was not your usual classical harp show at the concert hall. Although she studied classical music in Manhattan, her inspiration came later when the performance of Deborah Henson-Conant, a jazz harpist, opened her eyes to a less formal and more flamboyant world of music. Breaking away all of my preconceived notions of conventional harpists, Lee let me in on her jazzy take of the instrument.
I felt like I knew her well by the time she finished her last song. But there was still one more level to explore – the rooftop terrace.
“Jongno used to be the center of culture,” Lee said as she opened the door, “and I wanted to preserve the nature of its original state.”
The sun was setting between the tall buildings around us and it occurred to me that the garden at Banjul was a beautiful contradistinction to the heaviness of its surrounding urban environment. A serene outdoor venue collecting the performances and gatherings of musicians, it was the perfect retreat from the city life.
Each floor progressively uncovered an intimate side of Lee and her story as a musician and collector. Everything, from her curious collections to her bold harp playing had begun with her mother, and developed into an eccentric locale by Lee. Banjul is without a doubt a hidden treasure within Seoul, a place everyone should visit to replenish the soul.
“Without any limitations of genre or age, I hope this space becomes a place for artists to network and experiment with art” Lee concluded.