Week 9 – Coffee consumption in South Korea

ELC 352 Asia and its Other, Week 9, April 27 / 29

The Soybean Paste Girl: The Cultural and Gender Politics of Coffee Consumption in Contemporary South Korea (excerpted and abridged)

Author: Jee Eun Regina Song, Journal of Korean Studies, Volume 19, Number 2, Fall 2014

The consumption of Starbucks coffee becomes an aspirational act of consumerism for many contemporary South Koreans. After the Asian Financial Crisis, the new middle class enjoyed a slow but steady recovery. Many, however, could not afford luxury brands like Burberry, Rolex, or Nike. Designer coffee provided a way to mark class status at a fraction of the cost of brand-name clothing. Many South Korean women see Starbucks as representing access to a more open and independent notion of Korean femininity, challenging Confucian patriarchy.


The first Korean coffee shop, better known as a tabang (teahouse), was run by a German woman named Antoinette Sontag (of the Sontag Hotel) in 1902. During Japan’s colonization of Korea (1910–45), coffee culture and tabangs offered important meeting places for elites and also for political and artistic activities. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, different types of tabangs flourished; in addition to the use of tabangs as meeting places, music tabangs gained popularity, as places to express desires for freedom and diversity during authoritarian rule under the Park Chung Hee administration. By the mid-1990s, as tabangs lost popularity, coffee shops continued to grow in popularity, especially as meeting grounds.

Coffee consumption in particular cafés like Starbucks became the norm in the new millennium and was celebrated by the media and popular culture. Shortly after its introduction, Starbucks became a popular verb. Going to Starbucks became an activity for thousands, if not millions, of people. Many people began using the coffee shop as their personal office.

Instant coffee was best suited for an economy based on manufacturing, intense productivity, and nationalized industries. In contrast, Starbucks coffee consumption seemed best suited for South Korean neoliberalism, in which work is more flexible, creative, and service-oriented. Starbucks, by providing a social space for leisure and flexible, individual forms of work—represented by people sitting in café spaces for long periods of time using their laptops—became the symbol of South Koreans’ new neoliberal identity after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. That identity was of a self-managing individual.


For women especially, Starbucks provided not only an alternative space outside the family , but also a space outside dominant systems of patriarchy [male rule]. For many of those college-aged and career women, Starbucks represented privileged Western lifestyles; new drink menus, jazz music, nonsmoking spaces, and the general professionalism of store managers and baristas. Many interviewees I spoke with called this “the Starbucks experience.”

Many South Korean men perceived this “Starbucks experience” as being too leisurely, implying time and money was being wasted on premium foreign products. But one customer, Yeongnan, said, “[r]ather than drinking two-dollar coffee at a loud and bright place, I’d rather pay a few more cents and experience the Starbucks culture. Some may argue fifty cents will add up quickly with daily visits, but I would pay the difference.” Customers were trying to carve out a safe, comfortable space in an urban setting that lacks spatial freedom for women. Many social and cultural spaces like Internet game rooms, pool halls, and bars have been occupied by men. Starbucks appeals to young women because they feel “free” in its space. Many describe it as an “uncontrolled” and “liberating” space, meaning individual customers can actually claim their space without being bothered by anyone who represents the company. All of the Starbucks employees remain behind the bar area and the customers are free to use “their” space however they wish. This means that customers can stay as long as they like without being “supervised” by servers.

This contributes to the sense of individualism often associated with the West. But it’s more than a desire to live like characters in a Hollywood film. South Korean women have long fought for their rights to participate and be vocal in all realms of society, including education, the workplace, and the political sphere. Many women who came of age during the years of prosperity throughout the 1980s and 1990s now face, in their twenties and thirties, a different reality.They are confronted with a host of “modern” problems, on top of the usual issues such as unequal pay and a much lower career advancement rate compared to men (issues women often face worldwide). Securing a permanent job, even with a college degree, is an increasingly unattainable dream. Many women feel trapped by the pressure to fulfill the hopes and dreams of middle-class families. Going to Starbucks represents a desire to achieve middle-class modernity without a lot of difficulty.

Men have drastically different perceptions of the café experience than women. The majority of both male and female consumers all had similar responses about coming to Starbucks: Korean men do not go to coffee shops; they go drinking. Men identified strongly with the alcohol-based drinking culture rather than coffee-drinking culture. Coffee shops were seen as feminine spaces of intimacy. Chulsoo compared Korean men to men overseas, explaining,

Overseas, two men can easily meet at a coffee shop for business purposes, but in [South] Korea, if men sit around [in a café] not dressed in a [business] suit, then that’s weird. If you sit around and chat in casual clothing . . . then people will be like, “Those two must not have anything to do. Look, they’re killing time in a café.”

When I asked why it is so awkward, Chulsoo responded, “Coffee is coffee. Many [men] would just get soju instead. Those men obviously don’t know the value of coffee.” Many men were expected to perform and reproduce masculinity, especially in public spaces like the café. You have to work hard to learn about good coffee, so Chulsoo is creating a new form of masculinity: learning about taste, instead of getting his knowledge from the social group of men (macho socialization), or by engaging in physical group bonding, which South Korean men do through sports, video games, and drinking.

The café is seen as emasculating [anti-masculine] for men because it is a space of luxury, where only certain kinds of white-collar labor can take place. Café space represents a waste of time, since all people do in cafes (supposedly) is socialize.


Many women enjoy the spatial freedom cafés offer in urban spaces like Seoul. South Korean men, however, perceive the same café space as a feminine luxury and a waste of time. This comes from anxiety concerning South Korea’s status in the global economy and the changing status of South Korean men. This gender divide became clear in the backlash against Starbucks. In the summer of 2006, various news sources showed that between three countries—Japan, South Korea, and the United States— South Korea had the most expensive Starbucks Coffee prices. Starbucks was seen as an incursion of US cultural imperialism, eroding traditional Korean culture. One major backlash affected women, through the doenjangny or “soybean paste girl” curse that emerged in the summer of 2006.

The term doenjangny described women who compulsively purchased luxury goods. One criticism was that a doenjangny spends the cost of a meal during one visit to a Starbucks café. A doenjangny: prefers Starbucks coffee in the morning over homemade breakfast; she goes to Starbucks regularly; she takes pictures of the drink in her hand and the Starbucks logo in the background; she asks men to buy her Starbucks coffee. Doenjangny are seen as irresponsible and against the ideal of virtuous Korean womanhood. For a doenjangnyŏ, the coffee has to be Starbucks, dinner has to be at Outback Steakhouse, and handbags need to be Louis Vuitton. The criticism targeted South Korean women as not only gold diggers, but gold diggers of Western goods and lifestyles. This contrasted her with the model of “virtuous” femininity seen as sexually desirable by many South Korean men. An ideal, virtuous woman was a wise, even frugal, consumer. Doenjangny became a label to criticize women with certain consumer habits and practices. Consuming coffee at Starbucks was no longer an innocent personal choice, and female Starbucks consumers were seen by the larger public as representative of consumerist excess and even the downfall of the national economy.


Doenjangny are seen as blind followers of Western lifestyle and material goods, rather than having the status or class to make their own cultural choices. This misogynistic backlash is part of a larger concern about increasing class disparity in South Korea. It asks who has access to expensive coffee, as well as Western cultural experiences.1 When men see women making meaning out of certain consumer practices and spaces, they reduce such cultural experiences to material goods, such as brand-name coffee. How you view your consumer identity, and your coffee, often depends on your gender and class. In a neoliberal society, choices in consumer practices have big implications. Often they show up in negative, even dangerous ways, such as the misogyny in discussions of the doenjangny.

1The author means that when men are upset about women drinking Starbucks coffee, they’re actually upset about the women’s financial independence. In neoliberal Korea, many people are still poor and struggle to make a living. Women who drink at Starbucks become scapegoats for broader issues of class inequality.


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