The Purification of Itaewon and Why I Miss the Foreigner GhettoAugust 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.