The Hash of Seoul – Arirang Magazine (Fall 1979)

The Hash of Seoul

by Mike Seros
Arirang Magazine
Fall, 1979

The weekly run-cum-beer drinking ritual known as “Hashing” was a relatively obscure phenomenon outside the Malaysia-Singapore area until about ten years ago, at which time this peculiar form of madness began to sprout wildly throughout Asia and beyond. To date there are scattered worldwide about 120 branches of the Hash House Harriers, an “organization” which alleviates everyday pressures and commitment by means of some exercise, much companionship and a great deal of beer -all within the framework of institutionalized hysteria.

Most expatriates in Asia have by now read of how mature businessmen, pin-striped by day, will congregate in a different spot each week, take to the hills in a screaming frenzy and stagger back an hour later to attack iced cases of beer, the reward for traversing four to eight miles of wet rice paddies, thorn covered hills, incensed animals (and sometimes people) and whatever else nature may offer. Tropical settings contribute the ever oppressive heat; a run through a temperate climate’s winterscape can result in icicles hanging from moustaches. For the Hash runs every week – rain or shine, wind or snow, war or peace. But running and then returning home is not Hashing.

Subsequent hours must be devoted to beer drinking and ancillary activities. Non-beer drinkers, although considered somewhat bizarre, are not discriminated against as post-run supplies include soft drinks and food. It’s putting in the time that counts.

The legend of the founding of the original Hash is still in dispute. Recent excavations near the historical city of Malacca have led many to the conclusion that Hashing had . its genesis in the exploits of a fuzzy headed Greek-Australian by the name of Konomos, who used to run around the Malacca Padang to escape the mosquitoes. It is believed that some forty years ago in Kuala Lumpur, one A.S. Gispert, in attempting to duplicate Konomos’ feats, somehow collected a following which Konomos for some reason could not, thus giving birth to the “Mother Hash.”

In Seoul, HHH has been alive and well since 1972 and the surrounding countryside hasn’t been quite the same. The ROK army, in fact, has gradually come to ignore the Wednesday evening sight of fifty-some grown men clothed in orange singlets and foaming at the mouth while trampling the countryside underfoot. The Seoul Hash was founded under the motto of “Only Half A Mind” and continues brilliantly in upholding this tradition.

Since much has recently been written about HHH in general, perhaps a personalized and affectionate view of the Seoul Hash is in order. It has, like all Hashes, a distinctive character, a peculiar coloration and its own set of needs.

For most, the weekly cycle in Seoul begins late Monday afternoon when the first day of another seemingly insufferable week is edging to a close and the air is ripe with the smell of Hash Trash. The Trash is a largely scatological weekly publication. Both irrelevant and irreverent, it contains a ruthless commentary on the previous week’s run plus bits of information relating to up-coming non-events, future Hares (person who sets and marks the trail) and directions to the site of the next run. This last entry is often as confusing as helpful and may lead the unwary on a convoluted chase in search of the orange HHH flag which dots the rural scene at a different point each week. The experienced Hasher, however, is nothing if not wary, and somehow the site is found by all, if not always on time.

On Wednesday, office hours end early in the attempt to reach the site by starting time. Often changing from suit and tie to running gear in the car, the Hasher is greeted by some 30 to 75 comrades-in-drinking, the number depending on the weather and other variables. There is a hard core which will be found at every run and feeble excuses, such as a wife giving birth, are not considered adequate. It is indicative of Hashing’s growing popularity in Seoul that last winter saw no run of less than thirty people while veterans can recall some in the past attended by as few as six. There are a few madmen who not only never miss a winter run but also refrain from donning any “garment which would cover arms or legs. What price middle age glory.

At the On-On site, members of the waiting congregation pass the time in various states of repose, lugging on one last cigar or engaging in unnecessary stretching exercises. At the appointed moment, the Hare issues an unintelligible statement as to the marking of the trail, the Hash Horn (a noun given to the bugle as well as the person who carries and blows it throughout the run) sounds and, with cries of “On-On” reverberating, the pack sets off at every manner of pace. The run shifts and turns through every type of terrain available and each new check mark further spreads and divides the pack into small groups or individuals, each struggling to respond to increasingly distant “On-Ons” which signal new trails being picked up by the leaders. The original proud pack of a half-hour previous is eventually reduced to a disparate scene – some individuals running straight and hard, others stumbling and wheezing, enduring the laughter of villagers while trying to get home whole and without getting lost.

Hashing is by nature non-competitive and allows individuals to run the course as aggressively or walk it as softly as they like, but the technique known as SCB-ing (a uniquely Hash phrase describing one of questionable parentage who engages in shortcutting the trail) has reached high art form in Seoul. It can be discouraging to the less inventive runners who have steadfastly followed the trail only to see tail-enders continually reappearing in front of them. The Hare thus strives to lay a course which will make shortcutting difficult, but many veteran Seoulites are familiar with much of the country and this doesn’t always work. Each Hare’s proclivities also dictate the course, which can run the spectrum from pure mountain climbing to long, flat running.

An interesting phenomenon is that no matter how fast one runs or how single-mindedly one shortcuts, it is impossible to be the first back to the On-On site; there will always be someone already there, nonchalantly pulling on a beer. No one has yet been able to ascertain the source of this seemingly supernatural scene.

A recent run, typical in its confusion, saw a large group pick up, only five minutes into the run, the incoming rather than outgoing trail. Most of the pack followed suit and were shortly confronted with chalked arrows pointing in reverse of the running direction. Assuming “kids at work” (village children often change the trail around-or point out the wrong direction to passing runners) the pack pushed on. There followed a climb up a near vertical mountain, following trees marked with white paint. Finally the realization: this was the work of the Ministry of Agriculture, not the Hare. There ensued a scramble for home, every man for himself.

Back at the On-On, a festive air unfolds as the first-inners grab iced beer and an equally iced sandwich (gone are the traditional curries of Southeast Asian Hashes- Seoul is known for its “good guys” and accessible countryside, not for its food). A bonfire has been constructed and is surrounded by the growing gathering which mixes beer with discussions of politics, the prime rate, the just-completed run or whatever, while eyeing the stragglers filtering in, often blood spattered and cursing the ubiquitous SCB.

During the On-On, the Grand Master, whose position accrues from something less than a study in democracy, may hoist himself onto a rock to make vulgar pronouncements or to preside over a Mugging, a ceremony in which a departing Hasher is presented an engraved silver mug full of beer and duly doused with more of the same by his fellows. After an hour or so, many begin to leave and the fire gradually takes on an element of its own which nurses the flames well into the night’s blackness and the moon’s luminescence. Conversation now is subdued and this time is, for those who appreciate the fire, the most relaxed and rewarding of the Hash experience. It is a tired body, a bottle of beer, some heady conversation with good mates, and long sober stares into a flickering, mesmerizing flame. Only after the beer has expired is this part finished. The glowing coals are extinguished by means of recycled beer and the group heads through darkness to waiting cars, leaving a stench of smoke hanging in the air behind. The following morning will see the earth scraped clean of refuse and there will remain no sign of this particular evening’s activities near this anonymous rice field. The Seoul Hash has moved on.

In the city there is another On-On unfolding – more raucous, less aesthetic, but equally necessary for some. Many Hashers have begun to regroup into a neon studded club in the gaudy district of Itaewon. There is a large bank of tables set apart on Wednesday evenings by their white tablecloths and clusters of soiled, straining men who are clearly not part of the disco crowd. The Hash tables have been set aside for years – a member once called a waitress’ attention to a cloth on a non-Hash table, whereupon it was matter of factly ripped off . The wenches smilingly distribute beer, calling many of the group by name. This is, for many, a weekly home away from home, a respite from who knows what, and a source of resentment – some obviously feigned and some no doubt real – on the part of many Hash wives. Wives and girl friends are not allowed into this Wednesday evening sanctuary; one periodically hears stories, related with intense eyes and furrowed brows, of what happened to Hash members who brought their wives to Itaewon after a run. Some of the men dance with female customers to the music of a tinny band. Most remain seated, pulling apart bits of rubberized chicken, attempting conversation over the disastrous din. This Hash enclave in Itaewon shows a study in types – some enjoy this part, many need it, others appear bored, sitting stone-faced and clutching beer.

In recent years there have evolved a few ladies Hashes (Hong Kong and Singapore have large distaff clubs – no such animal yet in Seoul) known as the Hash House Harriets. Although the traditional Hasher will volunteer this concept is carrying democracy too far and Gispert is no doubt now revolving in his moist, tropical grave, the Seoul Hash makes a biannual concession to its loved ones in the form of a Saturday afternoon coed run. The function following the run includes better food, better music and better looking women than – found during a normal Hash, but these are wives, after all, and the event is held with little comment and some grumbling. The last Ladies’ Run was held in a beautiful area near the South Mountain Fortress. The Grand Master presented the first lady finisher with a discarded Korean shoe wrapped in a dirty newspaper and the post-run fire collected a top quality group of local residents – several women roamed through the group peddling greens, and an old stubble-faced, toothless man who, with a bummed cigar, stub between his gums, filled his hod carrier to capacity with empty beer bottles and I somehow hoisted this booty onto his shoulders and away.

It is this latter group -the local resident, the unflappable Korean farmer – which comprises a kind of universal third nationality and allows the Hash so much of its license. Children, and adults alike, they may dot the course and fringe the fire, collecting empty bottles, hustling beer and cigarettes, and generally enlivening the Hash fire, whether it needs it or not. But they view the sight of a dozen plus nationalities running across their land with nothing more than laughter and bemusement and one is hard pressed to imagine the North American or European counterpart reacting to such proceedings with anything less than a shotgun.

With a full cross section of members and, years of history upon which to draw, HHH vignettes naturally abound. One of the more famous is of the Hashers in Malaya during the Emergency who followed the trail through a camp of startled guerillas and later reported the position to government forces. There are many others, especially in Asia where Hashes frequently run afoul of local security boundaries. And there are numerous tales of the missing Hasher who has lost his way and doesn’t return home until the following day. There are, infrequently, anecdotes spiked with tragedy as well – the Taipei Hasher accidentally drowned a couple of years ago; the hanged woman discovered during a Hong Kong run.

Seoul has contributed to the lore. A visiting American journalist running with the Hash here last year was in the lead and inexplicably took a sharp turn only 200 meters from the finish. Ignoring the shouts of runners from behind, he vanished into the bush, to be found in darkness two hours later wandering along a village road. Questioned on this peculiar (even for the Hash) tactic, he replied, ” I got excited.” Another Seoul Hasher once arrived late for the run, took off after the pack and eventually became lost finally surfacing from dense hill country, with the evening’s curtain rapidly falling, he found himself in the middle of the Korean Folk Village -and about three miles from the waiting beer. Calling on his years of military training, he re-entered the hills, made another loop and arrived, fifteen minutes later in total darkness. …at the Korean Folk Village. At this point he took a taxi (Hashers often carry an emergency fund) back to the fire and a volley of honking horns, flashing car lights and not-so-delicate insults. And finally, the Hasher who fell into a manure pit and almost drowned.

HHH maintains little in the way of organization, but each club keeps a record of the number of runs since inception and gala celebrations (more beer) are held to commemorate various multiples (K. L. recently had its 1717th run). In 1978, Hong Kong hosted an “InterHash,” during which hordes of latent drunks from allover Asia and the rest of the world converged on the Colony to participate in a series of runs and drink fests. There were some subsequent charges of over-organization.

The Seoul HHH 350th run was held early this year through a soft and persistent snowfall. The run itself illustrated the beauty of Hashing in a temperate zone; the course was totally white, in perfect polarity to the usual greens, browns and yellows, and the running was gentle and quiet. A bath house session followed scores of steamy, hairy men with shampooed heads, protruding cigars and cans of beer, soaking in the central tub. A study in barbarianism, such a scene in Japan would call for a month’s fumigation of the premises, but this is Korea, where all is taken in stride. Next, a visit to a nearby kisaeng house on the top of a snowy hill. In true Hash fashion, it was a third grade house. Inside, it was freezing, lending an eerie cast to the shirtless Hashers sprawled on the floor. Into the night with cases upon cases of beer, tables of food, an outrageous band, dozens of semi-horrified young ladies, a few smuggled bottles of tequila. What more could a man ask?

Thus, in today’s world of sports in which professionalism has run amok and amateurism has been subjugated by jingoism, one can still find respite. The weekly cycle turns, and turns again; the narcotic is there to soothe cares and ease pressures. And the good times are etched in memory. The Grand Master and I are talking after a run. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a singed and crumpled piece of orange fabric. “You know what this is?” he asks. ” It’s the Hash flag. It fell in the fire last week and was left behind. I went back the next day and got it.” He holds it up and examines it with a slight grin.

Nearby, RTD (everyone has a Hash name) is holding forth at the fire. He is an Emeritus Master by virtue of having been on Seoul Hash Run Number One seven years ago and most of them since. At this moment, RTD, holding a beer, kicks at the embers and observes to no one in particular, “growing old gracefully, lads, that’s what it’s all about.”