Walking through streets of Itaewon in 1968
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.
Itaewon as seen in 1969