While it mightn’t rival the Patpong district of Bangkok or downtown Amsterdam, there is no doubt that Itaewon is the epicentre of sleaze in Korea. Situated beside the Yongsan US military base just south of central Seoul, Itaewon has long had a reputation for all the wrong reasons.
On any given weekend, from dusk to dawn and beyond, you will see parading US GI’s, Russian pimps, drunk Arabs, wasted Koreans and zombie-like English teachers swarming the main thoroughfare, all in the pursuit of pleasure. Violence is as frequent as it is unavoidable. The irresistible mixture of sex, testosterone and alcohol fuels a tense undercurrent that runs through Itaewon once the sun goes down.
A few weeks ago, myself and some friends were rounding off the night in a Russian bar in the centre of the district. It was 9am and the place was packed. Overweight Koreans danced with scantily clad Russian whores. A group of Uzbekistani construction workers got drunk in a corner, watched suspiciously by the thuggish security, there to “keep the peace”. Suddenly the music stopped and the sound of broken glass filled the air. Some of the Uzbekistanis had got involved with a few Koreans. Things soon got nasty and as blood was being literally splattered about the place, four musclebound Korean mafiose ran in wielding chains and generally kicking the shit out of people. Predictably this “peacekeeping” measure didn’t calm things down and soon the only people not involved were ourselves and a gaggle of peroxide whores standing nervously in the corner. Eventually the fight ended, the music restarted and everybody went happily back to boozing and whoring.
While not an everyday occurrence, these fights are commonplace in Itaewon, just one of the reasons why many Koreans regard the area as a complete no-go. Most of the action is centered around ‘Hooker Hill’, which, predictably enough is not somewhere for that Sunday afternoon family stroll. No, Hooker Hill is the main red light district in Seoul catering for Westerners, mainly US servicemen. Walking up the hill once the sun goes down is a trying experience. Heavily made up Korean whores literally try and drag you into their ‘bars’. Shouting things like “You want play?”, “Me want talk to you…two minute…come on baby…” etc, etc. Some of the girls are undoubtedly attractive, although most are hideous. And while many Koreans would like to think that Hooker Hill is an aberration, an anomaly simply there to cater for frustrated US soldiers, in reality it is just the tip of a sleazy iceberg.
Go to any train or subway station in or around Seoul and you will be greeted by the same scene. In most of these red light districts, foreigners are not welcome, and some, like Yongsan or 588, are far bigger then the Itaewon equivalent. 588 for example is huge, a sprawling neighbourhood of alleyways lined by glass windows where the ladies parade their wares. 588 is the centre of legalized prostitution in Seoul, an effort by the government to control the spread of the red light districts. This evidently hasn’t worked as in virtually every street corner in Seoul sex is for sale. This takes the form of the ubiquitous barber pole, a symbol in the west of a simple haircut but in Korea you can expect slightly more than a blow dry. You can actually get a haircut in these places but most of the clientele are after (and get) something more substantial. These ‘shops’ are literally everywhere, many on the same floors as PC rooms or kindergartens.
There is no stigma attached to these places and customers come and go freely without any hint of the shame you might expect. They also illustrate the hypocrisy regarding sex in Korea. While it is acceptable for men to get their rocks off for cash, women who smoke are still regarded by many as cheap. This problem is exacerbated if the women happens to be with a western man. ‘Cheap’ then turns into ‘whore’ as it is assumed that the man has paid for the female’s time. Most westerners don’t care, simply happy as they are to be in the company of one of the many Korean girls who prefer foreigners to Korean men. This only adds to the animosity and I have been shouted at while walking down the street with a Korean girl.
And if you are coming to Korea next week and are wondering where to meet Korean women amenable to westerners “charms”…well that takes us full circle. Yes, Itaewon is the place to go. And for the English teachers that live in Seoul, Itaewon means only one place…Hollywoods.
Unlike the majority of other bars in the area, Hollywoods features a female clientele that aren’t working, in the strictest sense anyway. And this is the main reason that Hollywoods attracts as many women as it does men. Yes, every weekend hordes of goggle eyed expats stand around Hollywoods’ dance floor ogling the nymph-like Korean waifs that dance on seductively. The number of ageing western men that have beautiful young Koreans draped all over them is staggering, and a real indicator of why so many English teachers stay in Korea for years at a time. If you can’t get a girl in your local town, don’t worry! Come to Korea and find a beautiful Korean girl who will be with you simply because you are western, loaded, or both. While this might seem like an overly cynical attitude, one trip to Hollywoods on a Saturday night will turn you into a believer. There is a stigma about Asian girls in the west that has them penned as pliant, cooing submissives, frigid until marriage and even that is dependent on father’s blessing. Well, Hollywoods and Itaewon in general puts that myth to bed.
Even those not into the Asian look soon come round. Countless teachers I have met have professed no interest in Korean women at the start of their stay. Yet see the same person a few months later and there he is glassy eyed and grinning, due to the attentions of one of the natives. And while the social scene isn’t the be all and end all of life in Korea it puts many off making the ‘midnight run’ to distant climes. So while the majority of Koreans might not like Itaewon, without it the Koreans grasp of English would be far worse than it is…
Next log: The Business of Knowledge.