Itaewon and the art of silent runningBack in 1991 when I arrived in Korea, I had no idea that 14 years later I would still be here, albeit doing a much more satisfying job. I came over from a rather unpleasant little episode involving a war in the Gulf. At the urging then of my Korean girlfriend ― alas no more ― and had no idea what to expect when I moved.
I considered myself totally inured to culture shock, having lived for a considerable length of time in Europe and the Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia. Having come from a particularly repressive country, I approached South Korea with a particular reckless abandon.
At that time, Roh Tae-woo was president, dining out on western food was a nightmare and the country closed at midnight on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends. Yes, that’s right: A curfew-like night time business restriction law existed for Korean bars, shops and restaurants.
The actual law was a throwback to the good old days of the curfew (lifted in 1982) imposed by the military regimes, though it was conspicuously lifted during the 1988 Olympics and other sports events likely to place Korea under the international media spotlight. And while it sounds bad, enforcement wasn’t exactly a priority in Itaewon in 1992. In those days this area was about the only place a foreigner could go to have an after-hours drink, although I’m sure establishments in other parts of the city were running the same sort of operations.
The law brought about the practice that became known as “silent running” to diehard partiers and World War II submarine buffs.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, curfew busting had only been a sport that U.S. soldiers practiced, but up until 1992, it was a hobby everybody could, courtesy of this novel law, indulge in with sometimes hilarious results.
Back then the biggest clubs on the infamous “hill” were the Grand Old Oprey and the original Stompers Club. The rest, including Polly’s Kettle House, were small hole-in-the-wall cafe-like bars with large glass windows. They served snacks, a limited selection of beers and the ever present hallucinogenic soju kettle. Needless to say, this was the only place to go at night for a late tipple, as all the main street bars and restaurants would dutifully close ― exceptions were hostess bars that would lock their doors, close the shutters and turn the music down.
A now non-existent favorite of mine was Ms. Ahn’s Kettle House, which apart from being the best place to sample a beef, egg, cheese and kimchi ramyon ― a true marvel to behold and awesomely nutritious ― was a favorite for silent running, because of the Monty Pythonesque situation that would ensue.
At 11:55 p.m. messages, most likely issuing from the police themselves, would be passed up the hill by word of mouth that an inspection patrol was on the way ― lights were switched off, conversation ceased and the door was locked.
Now bear in mind that this was a glass patio-style door with a clear view into and out of the shop, and sure enough the police would inspect from the outside via torchlight.
Occasionally, an officer would knock on the door to inquire whether there were any customers, to which Ms. Ahn would reply “no ― just house guests and family members.” This in a place that could comfortable seat about six people, but regularly had double or more. The policeman would nod, have a quick look round and depart.
It soon became apparent that as long as there was no noise or rowdy behavior, the police would be satisfied that the law was being upheld. And so, after repeating their inspection of other businesses on the hill, they would dutifully retire to the station for a good nights sleep, leaving the party to continue.
It goes without saying that no bar owner to my knowledge was ever arrested for violating the business restriction law, and to foreigners it was a harmless flirtation with lawlessness that gave the hill much of its thrill in the old days.
With the onset of full democracy and an eye toward development via foreign franchises and investment, the law was rightly struck from the books, and the bars and restaurants could open whenever they wanted to and for as long as they wanted.
And while this was undoubtedly a good and positive move, I sometimes can’t help reminiscing about acting like a submariner.
By Chris Price