Itaewon isn’t just for foreigners anymoreIt used to be that “nice” Korean girls didn’t go to Itaewon, the well-known foreigners’ district in the center of Seoul.
Sure, they might have gone there during the day to go shopping and buy imitation Louis Vuitton and Abercrombie & Fitch overruns, but they usually left before dark and certainly didn’t visit at night.
But that’s all changing. In fact, more and more Koreans are going to Itaewon these days, and it’s not just in search of fake designer goods. Koreans are discovering that what was once a raunchy American GI playground is turning into one of the hottest restaurant scenes in Seoul.
One little alley in particular, located behind the Hamilton Hotel, is becoming a mecca of fine dining and is studded with such little gems as Le Saint-Ex French Bistro, Gecko’s Garden, and most recently, Santorini Greek Restaurant.
The restaurants are drawing Koreans to a part of Seoul they had avoided in the past. Mischa Richter started noticing it after he opened Gecko’s Garden a couple of years ago.
“[Before], if you’re a decent Korean, you don’t go to Itaewon,” he says. “But regular Korean people come, they see it and they like it.” The restaurant is busy every night of the week and packed on weekends with diners, many of whom are Korean.
At Santorini Greek Restaurant, which opened in April, owner Irini Choi says she’s been surprised by the response, especially from Koreans who come from all over Seoul. You can’t get a table at Santorini on a Saturday night unless you have a reservation.
At Gecko’s Garden, a group of Korean women in their early 30s explain that Itaewon used to have a “bad reputation.”
Bae Ju-hyun admits she used to worry that people would think she was strange for going to Itaewon. But she wanted her friends to try the food.
One friend says approvingly that “the atmosphere has gotten better in Itaewon, and it seems less dangerous.”
John Yoo, a 37-year-old Korean having dinner with his wife at Le Saint-Ex, says that the perception of Itaewon has changed. In the past, he says, there were two kinds of girls who came to Itaewon: those who “serviced” GIs and those who wanted to meet and marry a GI to move to the United States.
“But now, if I see a Korean girl in Itaewon, I think maybe she has friends who are foreigners or maybe she’s married to a foreigner,” he says.
His wife, who is a few years younger, disagrees. She loves coming to Itaewon during the day to shop, she admits, but “a Korean girl at night in Itaewon still looks bad.”
History of crime
A bad reputation is hard to shake, and Itaewon has earned one over the years.
Itaewon has always been associated with foreigners. In Chinese characters, “Itaewon” means “place of foreign birth.” (At one point, “Itaewon” also meant “area of numerous pear trees,” but this definition is believed to have come later when a king attempted to change the meaning of the name by using different Chinese characters.)
Yongsan military base was first occupied by the Chinese Army during the 1880s and 1890s, the Japanese Army during Japan’s occupation of Korea, and finally the U.S. military beginning with the Korean War.
The area has been associated with crime and ignominious deeds since its earliest days. During the Japanese invasions of Korea during the Imjinwaerin War of the 1590s, Korean women and Buddhist nuns who were raped and impregnated by Japanese soldiers gave birth and lived with their children in Itaewon.
B.C. Chong, who has had a tailor shop in Itaewon since 1972, holds administrative positions with the Korea and Itaewon Special Tourism Zone Associations. He recalls that in the 1960s and 1970s, Itaewon was a seedier place, full of bars with strip shows and open prostitution.
With the rapes, fights and violence that occurred there between GIs and Koreans during that time, Itaewon got a reputation as a dangerous place.
At that time, Mr. Chong says, “any Korean girl walking or hanging around with a GI, we treat her like a prostitute. Why do you meet a GI? For what?” he asks. “For money. Selling your body, that’s all.”
But now, he says, it’s very different. No one thinks that way anymore about Korean women who come to Itaewon because the neighborhood has changed, he says.
The changes began in the 1980s when foreigners attending international events in Seoul, such as the 1986 Asian Games and 1988 Olympics, began going to Itaewon to shop. Security around Itaewon was increased again beginning in the 1990s.
In 1997, the city decided to tout’s Itaewon potential as a tourist attraction by having the neighborhood designated as a “special tourism zone,” the first such area in Seoul. The neighborhood currently draws about 6,500 to 7,000 foreign tourists a day who spent approximately $1.2 billion in Itaewon last year, according to the Yongsan district office.
“Itaewon is not just for GIs anymore,” says Mr. Chong. “It’s an international place for foreigners and tourists, and it’s a safe place.”
But Itaewon has still got its sleazy element where anything goes. From “Hooker Hill” to “Homo Hill” to transgender cabarets, gay saunas, and nightclubs open till 7 a.m., Itaewon very well may be the “Babylon of Seoul,” as one 36-year-old Korean-American man puts it.
However, the upscale restaurants and the tawdry bars seem to be largely divided by the main road in Itaewon, so it depends on which side of the street you’re standing.
Dr. Kim Do-hyun, a heart surgeon who recently visited Gecko’s Garden for the first time with colleagues from Yonsei University’s Severance Hospital, uses one of the most overused buzzwords to explain why more Koreans are going to Itaewon: globalization. But there’s some truth to the cliche. As Koreans travel abroad more, their minds are being opened to different cultures, and many find they miss the diversity when they return to Korea.
Such is the case with Park Beum-jun, who spent five years in Greece while in college. He’s a regular at Santorini and raves that it tastes just like the food he ate in Greece.
Dr. Kim observes that Koreans have traditionally been “shy about trying to communicate [with foreigners] and are not aggressive in meeting new people.” But, he says, that is changing as their worlds are widened by overseas travel and the Internet.
Itaewon is the only place of its kind in Korea with a blend of high-quality restaurants and the opportunity to meet and mix with lots of foreigners. Plus, say many Korean diners, the prices are more reasonable than in the trendier, more upscale Apgujeong and Cheongdam neighborhoods, which also offer a variety of ethnic eateries.
But many Koreans also seem to have a “been there, done that” attitude toward those tony areas. Kim Sae-hee, a 26-year-old Korean, says she goes to Itaewon with her friends because they are “looking for something different.”
Young Korean people these days, she says, are interested in what’s new and they find foreign things exotic. They want something different than the Korean clubs they are used to.
Irene Lee says she feels “more free” when she goes out in Itaewon because some Koreans still have a negative view of women who smoke in public.
Make-up of patrons
At Club Limelight in Itaewon, the clubbers used to be about 80 percent foreigner and 20 percent Korean, but now the ratio is even, with more Koreans on some nights.
At All That Jazz, a live jazz club that’s been in Itaewon for 30 years, the change has been even more dramatic. The owner, Jin Nok-won, estimates it was once 80 to 90 percent foreigners at his club, but now, it’s more than 80 percent Korean.
Corry Day, Club Limelight’s manager, is a Canadian who taught English for a number of years in Korea. He has seen his Korean students’ perceptions of Itaewon change over the years, from what he called the “Itaewon, I’m scared, I don’t want to go” attitude to not being so sure about not liking Itaewon.
Mr. Day says now he’ll run into some of his former students, male and female, who come into the Limelight. Many of them have traveled abroad, and when they return to Korea, they find they want to be around foreigners. And they’re realizing that Itaewon is not the scary, dangerous place it once was, or reputed to be.
And, yes, nice Korean girls do go out in Itaewon ― even at night.
Restaurants in Itaewon’s International Food Alley
(To get there, take subway line No. 6 to Itaewon Station, exit No. 1. Walk straight out and turn right at the KFC. Walk up the alley and when it ends, turn left.)
Le Saint-Ex French Bistro
119-28 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan
116-6 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan
Santorini Greek Restaurant
2F, 119-10 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan
Three Alley Pub
116-15 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan
Chez Vous Lounge and Bar
2F, 116-22 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan
On Itaewon’s main drag:
All That Jazz Nightclub
168-17 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan
by Helen E. Sung