Once upon a time, the ‘Won was seedier stillIf you’re like most expats here, you’ve been telling your friends for months, years, decades, that you’re going to write a novel set in Korea. Primarily in Itaewon. You say the same thing to Korean immigration agents every few months, especially if you’re an English teacher whose passport is thick with tourist visa stamps.
But if your plot involves a couple of tough-guy foreigners prowling Hooker Hill looking for clues to help them save a little girl who’s been kidnapped by blood-drinking Mongolians, forget it. It’s been done.
“Buddha’s Money” is one of three Korea-set suspense novels written by Martin Limon, a U.S. Army veteran who was stationed here for 10 of the 20 years he served. Though it was published in 1998, Mr. Limon sets the action in the ’70s, and serves up lurid descriptions of that scrappy, dirt-poor era, with passages like “walls made of stone and wood and ancient lumber lined the gloom... water trickled down the center of a cobbled lane, reeking of human waste.”
Reality was harsh then. As a policeman questions a young Korean woman in the company of one of the Western toughs, he says, “Are you registered to consort with foreigners?”
And of course, there weren’t many foreigners besides soldiers. Take this conjecture by the protagonist, George Sueno, after a Buddhist nun who got beat up while plying Itaewon for alms says her attacker was a black man: “He was almost certainly a GI. The number of blacks in Korea who aren’t GIs is not worth considering.”
That was then. Sueno also notes that Samgakji used to have a hopping nightclub district catering to black GIs.
And can you imagine rickshaws in Korea? After Sueno, hot on the trail of a suspect, takes an army helicopter to Daejeon, he hops in a pedicab to continue his chase.
Then again, reading about the Itaewon and Korea of the ’70s reinforces that old dictum that the more things change, the more they don’t.
In the could-have-happened-last-week department: After the nun is roughed up, the local media hype the incident, and the anti-American elements start portraying the nun as a saint. After the suspect vanishes, the nun announces that she’ll immolate herself in public unless he’s nabbed and brought to justice.
In the probably-did-happen-last-week department: At one point, Sueno and his sidekick get stuck in a huge traffic jam outside the Yongsan base. They look ahead and realize that the cause is a student-staged rally.
“Buddha’s Money” is the most recent of Limon’s books set here; the others are “Jade Lady Burning” and “Slicky Boys.” All of them are available at amazon.com. If you’re not that patient, you can drop by Abby’s, the second-hand bookshop up by the mosque; they’ll have my copy of “Buddha’s Money” by Sunday.
Then again, don’t forget you’re supposed to be writing your own.
by Mike Ferrin