In 2006 the number of foreign residents in South Korea exceeded one million. This was big news in one of the world’s most homogeneous societies and the hyperbole-prone local media used the statistic as proof of a truly emergent, multicultural nation. It mattered not that these million foreign residents comprised a full two percent of the South Korean population, or that the majority of the foreigners were Han Chinese. The second largest group were Vietnamese farm brides. As a westerner outside a major city I absorbed long unapologetic stares. Curious middle-aged women followed me through the supermarket, occasionally pawing through my trolley (“look, see? The foreigners love cheese!”). Friends would share stories of being occasionally followed, or being refused entry into a restaurant or drinking establishment.
One central Seoul suburb was different. The infamous American military garrison-adjacent neighbourhood of Itaewon; the low-rent foreign ghetto where Koreans, by and large, feared to tread. By day the old tailors tried their best to interest you in buying another of whatever you happened to be wearing at the time. Westerners gravitated there to buy comfort food from the foreign market, or a pair of shoes that would fit.
At night it turned to a place for drinking, and fighting (if you were into that). It was a place of middle-eastern street food and prostitution, favoured by American soldiers, English teachers and Korean, Russian and North African gangsters. Itaewon earned its infamy after dark. Local media had long pounced (and still does) on any foreigner-related crime in the area, most notoriously the 1997 stabbing murder of a Korean university student at the Itaewon Burger King.
Women, young and old, plied their trade on the infamous ‘Hooker Hill’. The adjacent laneway had the gay bars, which in turn were a stone’s throw from Seoul Central Mosque and the Halal food stores. It was a unique place.
A few years ago though, Itaewon began to change. The bars and nightclubs are still there. The sleaze and criminal goings on still abound. Hooker Hill remains, though appears now to be increasingly ‘Trans Hooker Hill’.
Police patrol the area now, keeping the hill (and those who earn their living there) safe from violence, in a country where prostitution is technically illegal (and yet seemingly everywhere).
The transformation of Itaewon hasn’t (at this stage) been one of replacement, but rather addition. The rough Itaewon of old is there if you want it, but the once-infamous back alleys are now anything but. Those crumbling, urine-infused alleys are now home to shiny tap houses, fusion restaurants and gourmet burger joints. At Itaewon’s very heart is now this…
Wealthy, impeccably dressed young men now stroll and swagger, parading their beautiful, surgically perfected Gangnam girlfriends. This is the biggest factor in the ongoing transformation of Itaewon. Koreans. In this collectivist society, when a few popular or influential citizens decide something is cool, others rapidly follow suit… all.
With safety in numbers, young Koreans flock here and drink fearlessly until passing out in the street, as is custom.
This is an interesting time for the former foreign ghetto. The Yongsan American military garrison is currently being relocated out of the city, and is scheduled to be vacated by 2019. Army bases the world over tend to have flourishing, if not entirely wholesome subcultures feeding at their immediate periphery. What happens in the next few years is anyone’s guess, but the coming vacation of the Yongsan garrison equals the reclamation of 630 acres (2.5 square kilometers) in the center of one of the largest, most densely populated cities on Earth… some unfathomably valuable real estate.
Not only Itaewon, but neighbouring foreign hoods such as Kyongridan, and my beloved former home of Haebangchon (North Korean refugee village, turned foreign English teacher ghetto, turned hipster paradise) are becoming unrecognisable from a decade ago. The old low-rise villas on the hillside still stand in the shadow of N. Seoul Tower, just a walk from Seoul Station. I wonder, for how much longer.