Walking through Itaewon in 1968

Contributor: Martin Limon

In her high, lilting voice she would recite:
“It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know,
By the name of Annabel Lee. . . “

Topic: Entertainment, People, Recreation, Yongsan Legacy

Itaewon as seen in 1969 / Courtesy of Richard Kent

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In 1968, leaving Yongsan Garrison and heading toward Itaewon, meant walking on a road GIs called the MSR, or Main Supply Route. More often than not, you’d be immediately set upon by a group of ragamuffin boys shouting “Ten Won! Ten Won!” They’d hang around for a while and if you didn’t hand them a coin they’d soon lose interest and move on to the next GI exiting the gate.

At the first road crossing stood the Coulter Statue, a stone edifice of a U.S. general who’d served during the 1950-53 Korean War and had apparently greatly impressed President Syngman Rhee. Traffic was mild during the day and almost non-existent at night. That would change a few years later when Namsan Tunnel 3 was opened. The Coulter Statue was taken down to make way for a traffic control system.

In those pre-economic boom days, the stroll toward Itaewon would not take you through a shopping area. Only an open-fronted fruit stand where ― with hand gestures and proffered coins ― one could purchase a banana or a pear. At night, wooden shacks with dirt floors and pot-bellied space heaters sold makgeolli and snacks to cab drivers and other Korean working men. The Hamilton Hotel did not yet stand.

 Itaewon as seen in 1969 / Courtesy of Richard Kent
Martin Limon

In those days (if memory serves) there were only six nightclubs in Itaewon: U.N. Club, Seven Club, King Club, Grand Old Opry Club, Double Oh Seven Club and one more at the top of the hill beyond the Grand Old Opry, the name of which I can’t remember. However, in the 1970s that club was purchased by two men who’d met while fighting in Vietnam: Sam Yu and Rich Sharland. They remodeled it, threw in a few bales of hay, hired some extremely talented Korean musicians and transformed it into the legendary country-western honky-tonk known as Sam’s Club.

As I approached the U.N. Club, the door swung open and a young boy bowed and said, “Oso oseiyo,” or please come in. Inside it was cozy and staffed by a male bartender in white shirt and bowtie and about a dozen attractive cocktail waitresses, all wearing the same smock-like outfit. The customers were American GIs, no one else. Hanging beside the bar was an official-looking plaque with the emblem of the Korean Tourist Association. Only “tourists” were allowed into the bars and nightclubs of Itaewon. And since at the time tourism in South Korea was almost non-existent, the only “tourists” were American soldiers.

I paid 90 won for a brown bottle of OB Beer. The exchange rate at that time was about 300 won for one U.S. dollar, so about 30 cents. It was a 12 ounce bottle, the type served in the designated “tourist” establishments. Elsewhere, beer was served in liter bottles since, I suppose, only foreigners are crazy enough to drink alone.

I found out how seriously the Koreans took the “tourists only” rule once when two Korean businessmen in suits paraded into the King Club. The GIs paid them no mind but the Korean floor manager approached them and even though I couldn’t understand what was said it was clear he was telling them to leave. The businessmen protested loudly, mightily offended. Fisticuffs broke out and with the aid of some of the other male staff, the offending interlopers were pushed back out through the double swinging doors. As weird as it sounds today, in those days Koreans weren’t allowed into certain establishments in their own country. I believe the Park Chung-hee government did this in the forlorn hope of keeping incidents between U.S. servicemen and Korean civilians to a minimum. Also, I don’t think they wanted the general Korean populace to be fully aware of the extent of the debauchery prevailing in GI bars.

The only Koreans allowed in the GI bars were employees. And they had to be registered with the local health authorities and checked for communicable diseases such as tuberculosis which had been rampant during and after the Korean War.

The only other Koreans allowed in were what GIs called “business girls.” The English-language Korean press preferred their own euphemism: camp followers. The young women were required to be at least 18 years old. They were also required to receive a health card and have it regularly reviewed by a doctor. GIs were told in training that they should check the card to make sure it had a recent stamp as part of the effort to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

The girls in Itaewon were from all over the country and through them I realized the differences between the dialects spoken from Busan to Daejeon to Seoul. They dressed shabbily, often wearing checkered blouses with striped skirts or committing similar fashion faux pas.

One girl stuck in my mind as an exception. She traveled alone, not with the usual clutch of close friends. She always seemed serious ― determined, apparently, to do her job and do it well.

Her GI boyfriend, who I knew, told me her mission was to assuage the loneliness of American soldiers. They were far from home: away from family, away from wives and away from girlfriends. It was up to her to comfort them.

Years later, I was to find out the Korean government, along with requiring the regular health checkups, also made the girls attend training sessions. They were actually told that by being kind to GIs, they were helping to save their country from the imminent danger of North Korea. Apparently, she took those patriotic exhortations to heart.

 Itaewon as seen in 1969 / Courtesy of Richard Kent
The cover of “GI Confidential” by Martin Limon

This young woman, whose name I’ve forgotten, was in my mind a living Victorian doll. Her face was made up and cute, with a bow mouth, and her hair piled and pinned rather than permed or cut in a more modern style. My intuition was confirmed by the same GI who told me that one night she recited a poem to him ― in precisely pronounced English. Intrigued, I asked him what poem it was. She had helped him memorize parts of it. In her high, lilting voice she would recite:

“It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know,
By the name of Annabel Lee. . . ”

All the way from start to finish she recited it, he told me, without a single mistake. And then the last line:

“In her sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.”

And then she’d lie silent, staring into the Korean night.

Martin Limon is a full-time writer who retired from the army with 20 years of military service, 10 of which he spent in Korea. The latest of his novels is “GI Confidential.” Visit Soho Press for more information.

Published in The Korea Times http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2020/03/177_277436.html