One less smiling face behind the barLook around next week and you’ll see fewer smiles. That’s because Korea will by then have lost about 1,000 Filipinos ― the ones who had been working here illegally and turned down the government’s offer of amnesty, which ends Saturday, deciding to fly home rather than brave the threatened crackdown.
The Filipino smile Itaewon will miss most is that of CJ, a bartender and waiter at Always Homme, the coziest bar on Gay Hill. CJ, who asked that his real name not be used, came to Korea in 2001 on one of those foreign-trainee programs that train Third World types to do the jobs Koreans turn their noses up at.
Now, the stereotype about Filipinos is that they smile no matter what adversities they face. But the thing is, they do. CJ will smile as he tells you about the odyssey of boring, underpaying and sometimes dangerous jobs he’s done over two years in Korea.
His first job here, beginning in September 2001, was at a Hankook Tire factory in the Gyeonggi province city of Pyeongtaek, where he put together car seat belts. His paycheck came to only 350,000 won ($300) per month.
After a few months his boss transferred him to a textile factory in Seoul. But by then, CJ had figured out that foreign workers make more money when they work illegally. So after just a week, CJ ran away ― from the textile factory, from the foreign trainee system and from the passport he’d surrendered to his boss.
His next stop was a wristwatch factory near Dongdaemun Market in Seoul, where he earned 700,000 per month. Unfortunately the boss moved the factory to Ilsan, and CJ quit because he feared that as a foreigner he would be more conspicuous in the northern Seoul suburb. He went to work at a dress-shirt factory in Miasamgeori, where he snipped loose threads off finished products for 750,000 a month.
After a year of factory jobs, though, CJ had enough of tedious assembly work, and had heard enough horror stories to last him a lifetime. A friend of a friend of his had been crushed dead by a plastic injection machine; other people he knew had lost hands.
Luckily, the World Cup was just around the corner, so Itaewon’s bars were looking for help. CJ picked up a gig at the UN Club, and started raking in the tips. He took in 150,000 won on one busy night alone. After the hoopla died down, though, the UN Club cut CJ loose. That’s when the owner of Always Homme, Seo Young-sik, picked him up.
And thanks to Mr. Seo, we may be getting CJ’s smile back. Because Mr. Seo finds CJ’s help at the bar invaluable, he paid for his ticket home to Manila. But Mr. Seo insisted that it be a round-trip ticket, and that CJ try to come back to Korea legally.
CJ’s not completely sure he’s coming back ― moving to San Francisco, where he has relatives, is an option ― but the regulars at Always Homme are certainly hoping he does. Without CJ’s smile, service there just wouldn’t be the same.
by Mike Ferrin