Yongsan and the Electric Mayhem
By Micah Granderson
I enjoyed growing up around Yongsan Garrison. Outdoors, kids played roller hockey on streets lined with old gingko trees that turned fragrant in the fall. It had almost the look of a college campus, if a bit more rustic and utilitarian. The public spaces indoors were a different matter altogether. They roared with music, thudded with explosions and shook with the rattle of machine guns. But this wasn’t precisely military related.
In the early 1980s, video game arcades went through another boom in the United States as clanky pinball machines gave way to video cabinets with digital sound and blasting subwoofers. Perhaps the leadership of the post didn’t immediately see the benefits of shipping heavy arcade machines across the Pacific, but that changed suddenly. Overseas military posts are packed with young men, mostly fond of arcades, all with regular government-issued paychecks, all separated from loved ones and slightly bored. It became apparent to those in charge that buying arcade machines was as good as printing money when it came to balancing the post activity budget.
At first there were two main arcades. Dragon Hill Lodge was the plushest with deep carpets and massive game setups, the size of a walk-in refrigerator. The competition was a far seedier room in the Townhouse, that had the advantage of being directly across from the Post Exchange. Incredibly long but too narrow, there was almost no overhead lighting, just soldiers packed in by the hundreds anyway to play or cheer on their friends. Being the 1980s, every third person held a cigarette. Overall it was a choking, claustrophobic, disco-lit, deafening madhouse. But, to my seven-year-old eyes, it was magic.
Soon game machines sprang up in every public space, down to every spare nook and cranny.
There were machines at the snack bar, across the back of the bowling alley, machines annoyingly close to the payphone. The older generation was getting fed up, but to the soldiers and youngsters, it was one non-stop party.
Returning to Yongsan recently, I found the garrison where I grew up quiet and eerie. Home game consoles and depopulation of the base had taken their toll. The gleeful din that dominated every public space was gone. Entrance rooms had become ghostly quiet with nothing but a cellphone conversation echoing through the halls. To me it was as if every building decided, in a single moment, to stub out their Marlboros and take a vow of silence.
Visit yongsanlegacy.org to learn more about the history of Seoul’s disappearing U.S. garrison or to contribute your own memories.