I’ve been trying to find a Hello Kitty cafe in Hongdae, the art, design and student neighbourhood in central seoul. However, I’ve been hampered by the infamous tour guide directions: “go straight”. Possibly the two most useless words ever written – you can go straight in many directions. But it doesn’t matter, because there are even cooler cafes in Seoul that Hello Kitty’s vice-like paw doesn’t have a grip on. Such as Cafe Blue Fairy:
(Sorry for the lack of text-embedded hyperlinking; Linux has decided to disallow that today. No doubt somewhere there’s a page of programming that I can learn to fix it.)
I had walked by Blue Fairy a couple of times and been intrigued by the dolls in the window. It’s not unheard of for cafes to be filled with dolls, if the owner likes to collect them. Today, for example, I wandered into a store with dolls from all over the world:
But Blue Fairy felt different. All the dolls were of the same style, for one:
Clothing varied but they had similar skin tone, headshape and most of all, oversized eyes rimmed with brown that made them look sinister, to say the least:
“Come play with us, Danny. Come play with us, forever!”
Another remarkable feature was that the cafe was run not by a sweet old woman but by a larger middle-aged man, whom I asked if I could take pictures of his dolls. He nodded and I snapped away, feeling slightly voyeuristic. I avoided taking a photo of two dolls with their nighties unbuttoned, revealing bra and panties. Was it ‘that kind’ of place? But the owner was the picture of politeness, bringing me a cappuccino and carefully wiping up a bit of foam that spilt over the cup. I asked if there was wifi and he hovered nearby while I rebooted my miserable netbook to find it; later he came back with two logoed napkins, which he placed under my mug. He blasted soft jazz from a ridiculously good stereo, one with vacuum tubes:
Nothing felt pervy, just cute in a way that disturbed me. Maybe people like dolls; if you look closely you’ll see price tags at the bottom. The bigger ones go for $400 – clearly not a cheap collector’s item. But what do you do with them? Sit them on the windowsill?
I got my answer when a group of Koreans came in. They looked like university students: three girls and one guy. They sat down, ordered drinks and then pulled more dolls out of their backpacks. These were exactly like the ones for sale. They began to dress them, chatting excitedly with each other. Finally, I realized I needn’t have felt weird about taking photos, because they pulled out cameras and began taking photos of their dolls.
It appears that once you’ve spent your $400, you can come back and play with your doll. And playing consists of dressing it up and posing it. It’s something I’d expect a less-creative 8 year old girl to do, not young adults. But I don’t understand the cultural significance of these dolls: it clearly meant a lot to these people. I stayed there several hours and more people, with more dolls, came and went. Was it like a club, a bond that unites disparate individuals in their love of faux-victorian dolls? What’s the aesthetic appeal? Is it childlike or a respectable adult activity? Is it somehow rebellious?
You may wonder how I can describe Blue Fairy as one of the cooler cafes. As gimmicks go, it’s unique – I’ve never seen anything like it. It disquieted me, which is hard for a cafe to do. That’s a mark of good art: not only that it makes you think, but that it exudes some quality that unsettles how you see the world. Rows of child-adult dolls, and the adults who play with them, will certainly do that. For that reason, it’s worth a visit.