Sorry, soldier, can't let you in

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Sorry, soldier, can't let you in

American soldiers who go to the Hongik University area for their nightlife got a rude shock one Friday night in late October. Outside most of their favorite clubs were signs saying they were no longer welcome.

Now, at 10 clubs in the area that play hip-hop or techno dance music, if you look like you may be a GI you must show identification to prove that you're not one before you can enter. And some other bars in Hongdae -- such as "Elvis" and "Doors," ironically -- have even banned all foreigners.

The first thing you now see at the threshold of the 10 clubs is a yellow, 60-by-45 centimeter sign in English. In bold, black capitals it says: "We sincerely apologize, but due to many previous bad experiences, GIs are no longer permitted to enter Hongdae clubs." The letters in "GIs" are bright red. Right next to the sign is usually a red sign that warns, again in English: "Things not to do at Hong-dae clubs." The list provides hints at what the "previous bad experiences" may have been ?drugs, fights and sexual harassment. Clearly, the signs target foreigners, including Korean-Americans.

The enmity against foreigners has led to some scary, though mendacious rumors. A few months ago, Korean clubbers were spreading a story that an American GI had stabbed a young Korean woman while she was dancing at a club, NB, that was popular with GIs. According to the rumor, the woman died immediately, and the GI was handed over to the U.S. Army and nobody knows if he was punished.

A manager at the club, Hwang Jun-gi, says there's no truth to the story. There have been fights in which people pulled pocketknives, he says, but nothing like the rumor. Fights usually start "when there are just too many people dancing and they tumble and get mixed up with the crowd," he explains.

A detective at the Mapo Police Station, which covers the Hongdae district, Choi Oh-shik, confirms that there has been no such case. But he did say that since the 10 clubs banned GIs, troubles have dropped sharply. "We used to get several reports of fights between Koreans and Americans," he says. "But since late October, there have been almost none."

Chae Hee-jun, a manager at Hodge Podge, one of the clubs favored by GIs before the ban, was the one who led the decision to close the doors to American soldiers. "Over time, I learned that more foreign customers meant more troubles -- fights, drugs and sexual harassment," says Mr. Chae. "It was not an easy decision to make, but we had to take serious measures."

Student activists from Hongik University, the main gate of which is about 200 meters from the place where the 10 clubs are clustered, were also involved in restricting GIs from the area. The students say they have seen enough of the "arrogance of GIs," and that the soldiers "have an attitude that Koreans should be grateful that the U.S. Army is there to protect the country."

In September, a union of local club owners, led by Mr. Chae, held an online discussion over whether GIs should be driven out of their clubs. After a heated debate that went on for weeks, the decision was made.

Before the ban, almost half of Mr. Chae's customers were Caucasian, he says, and many of them GIs. Besides denying entry to GIs, Hodge Podge now charges double for other foreigners to enter the club. As a result, revenues are down 30 percent, but Mr. Chae says he has no regrets. "It's too bad that we had to single out the GIs," he says. "But I feel, after all, like we did the right thing. It was something that had to be done."

Since the mid-1990s, the Hongdae area has been a mecca for clubbers. Dance-minded expatriates and Korean-Americans started abandoning Itaewon and embracing Hongdae, and club after club sprang up to welcome them. Eventually, the excitement drew large numbers of GIs, even some based on remote parts of the peninsula, who would charter buses to the area.

GIs were becoming such a common sight in Hongdae that Koreans started calling it "Hong-itaewon." Mr. Chae says, "It's not that I don't welcome foreigners, but there are just too many."

One of those "too many" GIs is Natka, a specialist stationed in Uijeongbu, who asked that his last name not be used. "What I love about Hongdae is that there are some 'real' Korean people," he says. Before taking to Hongdae, he had tried out Itaewon, only to find the foreigner area too un-Korean. And he says that the Koreans in Itaewon are too used to foreigners, and so not interesting to him. No wonder that he and his fellow GIs are miffed about the decision. Mr. Chae describes the current situation: "There are some GIs now who will do just about anything to get back into the clubs -- they disguise themselves to look like English teachers, they beg for just one night in the club, or they get angry and threaten us."

Still, not every GI is left out. Natka proudly says that he is friends with many of the club owners and doormen, and they still let him in.

Mr. Chae says the decision to ban GIs was a practical one, and not a show of anti-American sentiment. "Over the years, I've seen more troubles caused by Korean-Americans and foreign civilians," he says. "They are the ones who pick fights with GIs." But a clear and visible decision had to be made, and the opinion of local students could not be ignored, he says, so GIs became the due target. "GIs may call themselves victims in this sense."

In particular, Mr. Chae says, ethnic Koreans raised overseas often take especially strong offense when they see foreigners here. "We have the biggest number of troubles around summer and winter when overseas colleges are on vacation, and Korean students from abroad are here," he explains.

Mr. Chae says he misses the Hongdae of the early 1990s, when fewer people were on the streets, but people could enjoy "the true delight of club culture." Another club owner, Moon Jong-oh, agrees. Mr. Moon says that he remembers when young artists and art majors from Hongik University used to do performance art in the clubs. Mr. Moon, who now runs the techno dance club Matmata, is trying to keep that spirit alive. "We want Hongdae to be the place where young people know the true meaning of having fun -- being culturally sophisticated and socially conscious."

Choi Jeong-han, a social activist in his 40s who joined the movement to ban GIs from Hongdae's clubs, says the area is special and needs to be protected. He is not a clubgoer -- but he heard about the controversy from one, his daughter. "Hongdae is the alternative to all the other gutter entertainment culture of drinking the night away," Mr. Choi says.

Last Friday around 3 a.m., excitement in Hongdae's club area was just pitching up: Young clubbers are having the time of their lives. Because it is the last Friday of the month, it is Club Day, when a 10,000 won ($8) ticket gets you into 10 clubs.

Among the throngs of revelers outside going from one club to another are plenty of foreigners, but not very many who look like GIs. "Actually, many foreigners also welcome this decision," Mr. Chae says. Inside the clubs, there is barely room to stand, and crowds are pulsating to sonic whirlpools of ear-splitting music. To get into NB, you have to wait in line at least 20 minutes. Listen to the people around you and you hear more English than Korean.

Outside NB and looking upset is a young man, Lee Yul-pin, 23, who majors in business administration at Hongik University, and comes across as your typical Yankee-go-home college student. Mr. Lee never misses Club Day, he says. But this time he got caught up in a fight with a group of foreigners over two Korean women. Crouching and smoking a cigarette, he says it's not just the fight that made him angry. "Hongdae is contaminated now," he says. "Why are the Americans here starting fights? Why the big noise and all the trouble?"

Mr. Lee brings up the recent accident in which two Korean girls were hit and killed by a U.S. Army vehicle. "They are not doing anything about the deaths of Hyo-sun and Mi-son," he says. "They are not going to bring the girls back. They are so arrogant and they won't do the right thing."

A moment later, another scuffle between foreigners and Koreans breaks out just 50 steps away. Two bodyguards in formidable black suits are having a hard time stopping it. You could blame Club Day for the hostilities, because so many more people are on the streets. But back at Hodge Podge, Mr. Chae says, "Actually, we have the least trouble on Club Day."

Some American soldiers say they respect the decision that keeps them out of the clubs. "I've seen enough GIs acting stupid, especially around Itaewon," says one, who asks not to be identified. "I understand that Hongdae people don't want the same trouble, and that's O.K. It's their decision and we should follow it."

After finding out that he could not get into the main Hongdae clubs, he was enjoying himself at Stompers, a club across the street from NB that still welcomes GIs.

Will the American soldiers ever be welcome again at the main clubs? Mr. Chae at Hodge Podge says, "We decided to stop letting GIs in our clubs, and we are not going to withdraw the decision."


The peninsula's artsiest area is always evolving

Hongdae has always been a place with a rich cultural character. Over the years, though, that character has been undergoing a change. Now Hongdae is the center of Korea's club scene.

Nobody would have imagined that two decades ago. In the 1980s, it was a nest for hungry artists. Hongik University is famed for its art college, and artists naturally flocked to the neighborhoods around it. In 1984, however, one of the biggest floods in Korean history inundated many studios and ateliers. The artists moved to higher ground, closer to the university, and became more clustered.

As a result, the streets around the university became more artistic, with wall paintings and posters advertising exhibitions. Artists lived off money they made from tutoring students who wanted to enter the university. By the mid-1980s, businessmen had picked up on the idea and begun to set up art institutes. The institutes are still around, but many locals complain that the "artsiness" of the area is fading.

Bars and clubs favored by avant-garde artists started to appear in the early 1990s. One such club, now a legend, is Baljeonso (Power Station). It used to play movies such as "The Wall" by Pink Floyd and "Battleship Potemkin" (1925) by Sergei Eisenstein.

Also since the 1990s, the underground music scene has been a force in the Hongdae area. Live clubs, few in number but influential, have spawned quality rock bands like Crying Nut and Cherry Filter. By the middle of the decade, techno clubs began to appear, and foreigners started coming to the area.

Hongdae in 2002 is a place where people can do their own thing. An office lady in her late 20s out for a night of clubbing says, "At Hongdae, I don't have to care about what others think. That liberal and fun atmosphere makes me a Hongdae devotee."

by Chun Su-jin

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