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The Purification of Itaewon and Why I Miss the Foreigner Ghetto

August 16, 2011


” Itaewon – it means child from a motherless womb.” Though I later found my friend Craig’s words were untrue, my early experience of Itaewon lived up to its urban legend definition. In the mid-nineties, as part of a small group of 20-something English teachers living in the satellite city of Bundang, we would take the bus into Seoul almost every Saturday, headed for the area that had sprung up next to the American military base, Yongsan Garrison. The appeal? It was a place that looked and sounded like a version of home, where we could have a break from constantly being foreign.

With its proximity to the huge American base, Itaewon quickly developed into an area of shops, bars and restaurants that catered to the American soldiers. Kitschy tourist souvenirs and western-sized clothing could be cheaply bought, and real hamburgers could be ordered in English while listening to Country music. With the ease of conducting business in English, the area had appeal to many different kinds of foreign residents, and the main street soon became very colorful, with one exception – there weren’t many Koreans.

Most of the Koreans I talked to in those days were scared of Itaewon, a fear that was stoked by some isolated violent incidents and the Korean media. They seemed to believe that it was a cesspool of Nigerian sex predators, drug-crazed English teachers and drunk, violent G.I.s itching for a fight. They were partially right.

For me, a typical night out in Itaewon would start off by grabbing a burger at Nashville – a basement Country bar that had the reputation of having the best burgers in Seoul. From there, we would cross the street to Hollywood, the most popular bar in the ‘twon at the time, where we would drink and dance with all the other English teachers. Around midnight, we would venture up past the fire station, past a bar that had a huge pink door shaped like a vagina, complete with a few decorative hairs, past the Bald Eagle, the only metal club in Seoul at the time and turn onto hooker hill. Hooker hill was home to dozens of juicy bars, where Korean prostitutes openly hung out the doors, trying to tempt lonely foreign men to buy them drinks. Regular Korean prostitutes usually refuse to service foreign men, so women who worked on hooker hill were mostly those who had run out of other options. At the top of hooker hill, we’d find a bar called Polly’s Soju Kettle, which would just be starting to get crazy at around 2 am. You could buy a “kettle” – which was a sawed off 2 litre coke bottle filled with soju mixed with with kool aid – a cheap and potent concoction that made all of hooker hill come alive, with the party spilling out onto the street. After we had our fill, we would sometimes venture down another hill, lovingly called “homo hill” – where all the gay and transgender bars were located, to dance off the soju kettles. Finally we would wind our way up a back alley to find some fried dumplings at 4 am, before all piling into a taxi. Itaewon was like a frat party at triple speed, with foreign subtitles – a lot of fun, but quickly tiring.

Still, word spread that almost anything you wanted could be found there. Craving Kraft Dinner? There’s a small unmarked black market shop that, if you can find it, will sell it to you for six dollars a box. Need to send money out of the country without reporting it? There’s a lingerie shop that will sell you travellers’ cheques without stamping your passport, which you can then mail to yourself. Are you a plus-sized lovely? Only in Itaewon can you find clothes that will fit you. Smoke Marlboros? The smoke shop in the Hamilton Hotel is your new best friend.

This is not to say that Itaewon didn’t have its true dangers. Everyone knew about the guy who had been murdered in the Burger King bathroom, about the homeless guy who had gotten a knife out of the garbage can and stabbed a visiting doctor. It was true that there were men of some nationalities with whom a woman couldn’t make eye contact for fear of being aggressively followed in and out of shops. Drug busts were common.

Korean criticism of this locale, however, was definitely hypocritical. The sex trade, at the time, was very healthy in other areas of Seoul. Sexual assault happened among Koreans though often went unreported due to the face-saving culture. There was use of speed and other pills among certain Koreans, and public drunkness was not only acceptable, it was encouraged. Still, Itaewon was the easy target because it was different. It was the area where foreigners brought all their dirty habits from home. These were not Korean problems. It was, after all, a foreigner ghetto.

Over the years, something has changed. With talks of the US forces scaling back prescence in Korea, the government, afraid that the Itaewon business district would die, pumped funding into its beautification and development. Everything on the main street has been given a facelift, and now multi-lingual tourist guides roam the streets offering help. Many of the little shops have given way to large brands like Nike and Calvin Klein. Itaewon has truly become a foodie heaven. There is every kind of international cuisine to be had in upscale, designer-decorated cafes and bistros. On Monday, I took the bus there to pick up some grocery items at the newest gourmet shop. I bought real rye bread, sharp cheddar cheese and sliced deli meats – something I had never dreamed I could do under one roof in Seoul, and at a reasonable price – not jacked-up import prices or through-the-roof black market prices. As I waited for the bus back home, I looked around and saw a new late-night tapas bar, a new brazilian buffet and a very swanky steakhouse, all which hadn’t been there on my last trip through.

I rode the bus back down the main street of Itaewon, and looked at all the progress that had been made in a very short time. Itaewon has become trendy. Then I noticed something else. In almost all the restaurants and coffee shops I passed, almost all the clientele were Korean. They had taken the best of us, our exotic foods and cultures, cleaned them up and repackaged them, and made them cool. Certainly, I thought, as I went home with my parcel of familiar- looking groceries, I am reaping the benefit of the purification of Itaewon. And of course, the seediness is still there – just not so blatantly.

Still, I felt sad on that bus ride home. Itaewon, with all its faults, had been a place to escape when expat life got to be too much. The area had been a kind of twisted nest that was at once exciting and comforting. It’s great that it has been cleaned up, but with the purification has also gone its character, making it nicer to look at, and much less interesting to experience.

It was a quiet, reflective bus ride home, followed by an amazing pastrami on rye sandwich.

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16 comments

  1. This is absolutely brilliant, Shelley. I’ve never been a pirate sailing the seas of Itaewon, but I do recognise many of your observations. I too lament the loss of the ‘character’ of Itaewon, all the while celebrating the Brazilian churrasco restaurants, better variety of restaurants and What the Book?

    I’ve been enjoying your scribbles and poems, but think this is the best yet.


  2. Thanks, Shad. We will have to go mourn the loss over a Dillinger’s burger when you get back. 🙂


  3. wonderful piece. My goodness. I’m sure I wouldn’t recognize the place anymore…
    LOVEDLovedLOVED your poems above. You have an amazing voice. I miss you all the more. xox


  4. Actually, it does mean child of a motherless womb.

    History

    The origin of the name is an issue of dispute. Two interpretations of its hanja, which give unambiguous meaning, are:

    1 Itaewon (梨泰院). This references that the area was noteworthy for having a lot of pear trees.
    2 Itaewon (異胎圓). It may have been called this, referencing the Buddhist nuns who were raped by the Japanese soldiers living in the area and raised their offspring, during the Japanese Occupation.

    http://wiki.galbijim.com/Itaewon


    • Thank you, Kacey. Very interesting, and something I should have checked out. I appreciate the heads up.


  5. Wow. It’s really neat reading another person’s perspective on the place where I had the most fun in my life. My friends and I practically lived in the Eagle. In fact, we were so well known that a year after I left korea, I returned for a visit and the bar-keep remembered me like a long lost friend…she even remembered my favorite beer/shot combo. Awesome reading this!


  6. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. This article is articulate, and a good read. I enjoyed ‘tagging along’ on one of your nights out in Itaewon. Enlightening. Thanks.


  7. I feel as if I have walked through yesterday’s Itaewon; very descriptive…I believe part of the clean-up was also due to the increase in military families allowed over the last few years; an entire compound sits behind Itaewon and is filled with hundreds of US families.
    I also checked with a few Korean workers that said it is named after the pear trees that used to be plentiful in the area and, still are in some areas.


  8. I was a soldier once, and young, in Itaewon. All the way back in 1976. Back then it was completely a hooker area, and all of them were Korean girls catering to the GI’s. There was one seedy club after another. There were absolutely no American brand-name stores or restaurants around. There was an open-air market with all sorts of vegetables, fruits, and meats all in plain sight. Whole dead fish lined up in a row on a table with no ice or anything to keep them fresh. What a smell! There were the souvenir shops with brass items, carved chess sets, korean dolls, and such. There were also many clothing stores where they sold hand-made Western suits and clothes to the GI’s. The quality was not that good though. Off the main street, it was mostly a maze of walled-in single-story dwellings. It was easy to get lost if you didn’t know where you were going. Back then you had to be off the streets by 1 AM. There was a universal curfew from 1-4 AM. I guess they’re not worried about North Korean infiltrators as much as they were back in the day.


    • Wow, Willi, thanks for the comment. How interesting….have you been back to Itaewon?


  9. No, I have never been back. I have however gone to Google Maps and gone down to the street level where their car drives around town and takes pictures of the whole city. I can’t believe the changes. It is a modern city as you say, with Starbucks and every other American store. Back then, the vast majority of signs were in Korean characters, very few in English. I can’t believe how beautiful the city is now. Trees and flowers all over the place where there were none 35 years ago. And of course all of the modern buildings and public sculptures. It looks like you can still see Namsan Tower from just about everywhere in Seoul. Back then it was just a communication tower. No restaurant or anything, and not open to the public. I would love to go back some day and see the city in person.


  10. […]  https://shelleyscribbles.com/2011/08/16/the-purification-of-itaewon-and-why-i-miss-the-foreigner-ghet…  […]


  11. I was at Camp Stanley in Uejongbu from Jan ’96 to April ’97 and my trips to Itaewon never disappointed. I, too, loved that place. Meeting so many people from all over the world and partying without fear or judgement. I loved the Canadian women…so much fun. I often think of my time there and how much I miss those carefree days. Thanks for the update on the area. Gentrification is a bitch’


  12. I was stationed at Yongsan in ’02 and Itaewon was an American haven; fast paced indeed but not scary at all. I’ve rocked at the Bald Eagle, two stepped at Nashville and threw up at Polly’s. We were young soldiers, most of us were nineteen to about twenty four and this was our college experience. The barracks were the frat house and Itaewon was our college town. Hooker hill, or just “the hill” as we called it, was not the den of ill repute like most people think. Those of us who were stationed at Yongsan didn’t go into the juicy bars, at least I didn’t know of any one in my unit who did. We all guessed that the Americans who visited the juicy bars were soldiers from the 2nd infantry division who were visiting Seoul from Uijeongbu. Although, we didn’t know for sure. The music, dancing, drinking and fast living were done without inhibition. Because most of us were there for one year at a time, there was a very temporary feeling. This feeling was as if there was no time for judgement about the boisterous behavior. The Korean people in Itaewon knew us and I never felt like they didn’t like us. Of course we were their reason for being there. They surely wouldn’t turn us, or our money away but they didn’t treat us like a business opportunity. Or it didn’t feel like it. There was one bar called “Friends” on the hill, just a few steps up from the Bald Eagle, on the right side, were we got to know the bartenders and manager very well. When I walked in, I got a head nod from the manager/DJ, his name was Jay or J(i never asked) and he’d play my favorite song. He, myself and a couple of my friends had the idea to finish a large bottle of Mezcal before I left Korea. I noticed the bottle behind the bar when I first visited Friends, it was untouched and the worm was bloated with the swill …We finished it well before I left Korea. In all, it was a good experience, it was peaceful, save the occasional demonstration by Korean students. It was fun and lively. Thanks for the article and the opportunity to reminisce.


  13. I was there in 1999 pretty much through 2014. I was prior Army and then married a Korean national. It was different when I was younger. I would always end up in the same place Friends on the hill and would not go back to Seongnam until the sun came up. I enjoyed the bars thoroughly of course that goes well when you are an alcoholic and there is no such thing as “public intoxication” there.

    Been in the States for 2 years now and lament the bygone days.
    Going out to Las Vegas for a few days next week. I am not well.


    • Thank you for your comment David. I’m surprised we never crossed paths at some point.:-) Enjoy Vegas and I hope it cheers you up.:-)



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