I didn’t go to Pusan today as planned. Instead, I made quite an unexpected detour to an infamous place in Seoul–"Hooker Hill," a narrow alleyway one block south of Itaewon’s main drag. You can guess why they call it "Hooker Hill." Yes, work took me there, and no, it is not a place I frequent. I had to go there to secure some belongings for an American who had been staying there but could not retrieve their personal belongings. I went with a Korean colleague who helped me with Korean translation. We found the "hotel," a seedy place set back from the small bars lining both sides of the street, most of which really serve as fronts for prostitution. Sure, you can order beer there. But the couches and back rooms give away their other services. The bars feature a variety of English names, including "Club Friend," "Grand Ole Opry," and "Texas Bar." "Hooker Hill" is not the only Red Light District in Korea, let alone Seoul, but it is the one most frequented by foreigners.
My colleague and I waited on the Hill for a couple of hours until it was late enough for the establishments along the street to open (most clientele come in the evening and at night). The "ajuma," an older lady who owned this particular hotel was not there when we arrived, and we had to talk to neighboring businesses to find that she usually arrived each night around 6 p.m. We stood near the top of the hill, looking down at the two-block length of street lined with a hodge podge of bars and brothels featuring dated, kitschy decor. After 5 o’clock, a couple of the scantily-clad "hostesses" came out of some of the bars to wait at the door for clientele to pass by. I definitely felt out of place loitering across from the hotel, dressed in a suit, not far from where the hostesses waited. Military police occasionally wander the Hill looking for GIs who break the rules and go to "off-limits" establishments, so it’s not uncommon to see official-looking people hanging out at the Hill. I wasn’t wearing a uniform, but I imagine that not too many men who frequent Hooker Hill come wearing a business suit.
Sure enough, around 6 p.m. the ajuma arrived. We talked to her and explained her in a mixture of English and Korean that we were there to retrieve someone’s belongings. She knew who we were talking about and dug out a couple of suitcases that had been put into storage. (The American had left behind their belongings and had been absent for several weeks–fortunately, the ajuma had not thrown them away. I think she was holding them as colleteral.) The ajuma voluntarily gave us the luggage so we could give them back to the American. Mission accomplished. We left soon thereafter with our prize. The outing gave me a chance to legitimately visit a place that you hear about from time to time in foreign conversations about Seoul. Most people, especially men, won’t admit to visiting "Hooker Hill," even just to look around, because they don’t want to be accused of impropriety. My two hours on the Hill, surveying this place, gave me a chance to observe a side of life that is so different from my own. I really didn’t know what to think. Men and women, old and young, involved in one of the world’s oldest professions, a carefully orchestrated business where clientele are willing to pay big bucks, and workers are willing to do just about anything to earn big bucks. Fascinating.