Walk­ing through streets of Itae­won in 1968

The Korea Times - - FOREIGN COMMUNITY - By Martin Li­mon 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.

In 1968, leav­ing Yongsan Gar­ri­son and head­ing to­ward Itae­won, meant walk­ing on a road GIs called the Main Sup­ply Route. One would im­me­di­ately meet a group of boys shout­ing “Ten Won! Ten Won!” If you didn’t hand them a coin they’d soon lose in­ter­est and move on to the next GI.

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. The Hamil­ton Ho­tel did not yet stand.

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. 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.

Cour­tesy of Richard Kent

Itae­won as seen in 1969

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