It’s late 1998, and Viagra has gained FDA approval for the treatment of erectile dysfunction. You are an expat, standing at the top of Itaewon’s Hooker Hill. You have recently ingested 100mg, twice the recommended starting dosage, and you are interested in love. Down the Hill and around various corners lay possibly 30-40 establishments staffed by women and trannies who would be more than happy to take your money, your time and your load. Some of them are older, but most are in their 20’s. Some of them look like university students who are just down on their luck, or office ladies who are moonlighting for extra cash while practicing English. A few of them are hideous, but most of them aren’t.
They’re popping out of doors to greet you. They’re grabbing at your arms as you pass. You’re thinking that the solution to your current dilemma is behind one of the little doors that line the hill, and you might be right. Walking the Hill and ‘striking out’ is pretty rare in 1998. The IMF crisis has recently occurred, and people are actually selling their wedding rings to raise funds and bail out the Chaebol/government (they are the same thing) who have borrowed heavily from banks and then defaulted. Some of the girls on the Hill don’t look like they belong on the Hill, but its 1998 and people are doing all sorts of things they wouldn’t normally do for extra money. In other words, for the monger, it’s a buyer’s market. If you fail to score on Hooker Hill, you can always go to the Rio club and get a 6 foot tall peroxide blonde Uzbek hooker with prison tattoos and a chipped front tooth, standing around in a pair of sprayed-on skin tight leopard print tights. Its 1998: anything is possible.
Fast-forward to 2013. It’s Friday night. You are an expat, standing at the top of Itaewon’s Hooker Hill. You have recently ingested 100mg of Viagra, and you are interested in love. The only problem is that it’s not 1998 anymore. What greets you between the top of Hooker Hill and the bottom is a stark contrast to what you saw back in 1998. In other words, things have taken a slide downhill. The previous sentence being perhaps the understatement of the year.
First, a little history lesson. From 1908 to the early to mid 1940’s, Itaewon served as an entertainment district or place of ‘relaxation’ for Japanese colonial occupation forces in Korea. The small shops and businesses set up around the Yongsan/Itaewon area catered specifically to Japanese troops, whom at the time, were using what is modern day Yongsan as one of their bases of operations. Prostitution was one of the industries that thrived in this area – not via forced sexual slavery, but as an organized financial trade between Japanese soldiers and Korean citizens. Then 1945 came, and just about the only thing that changed in Itaewon were the faces of the soldiers. The Japanese were out, and the Americans were in. Brothels exchanged their large Japanese signs for English signs, and resumed business as usual. Girls tossed out their Japanese dictionaries, and picked up English dictionaries.
The sex industry in Itaewon roughly encompassed the entire main drag and much of the surrounding hills from the late 60s up until the late 80s, at which point the sex industry slowly started to contract to the point where it only occupied a few select streets on “Hooker Hill” behind the Itaewon fire station. Through the early to late 90’s, the “Hill” continued to serve as a place of “relaxation” for soldiers. At some point the US army started getting stricter about off-base conduct, and a series of curfews were introduced, which today see the number of soldiers on The Hill reduced to practically zero. End of history lesson, for now.
Modern day Hooker Hill is but a shell of what it once was, and the general consensus among many long term expat bar stool warmers is that The Hill’s days are numbered. A 2013 night time stroll down The Hill reveals anything but an entertainment zone. In fact, it’s the opposite of an entertainment zone; it’s actually depressing and a bit scary. One expat was heard to remark that “even the cockroaches have tattoos and knives”. After a recent Hill visit, I’m not entirely sure he was joking. No longer is it a place mutual needs are met and money exchanges hands. Hooker Hill in 2013 is a place where one goes to satisfy a certain perverse curiosity. Like, “does such a place actually still exist?”, or something like that. A place where you might go if say, you wanted to buck the staid and predictable course of your current life, and dip down into the depths of human misery and desperation for an hour or so. Modern day Hooker Hill is a celebration of human misery.
For those who patronized or even walked around The Hill as recently as the late 90s and early 00s, nothing will quite prepare you for the existential hell you’ll encounter on Itaewon’s Hooker Hill today. A recent stroll down The Hill on a weekend evening left me with the following questions and observations:
- What illness or sexually transmitted disease causes one to get golf-ball sized purple spots all over their body? More than one of the hookers who approached me was afflicted with this. Is it something that can be transmitted from human to human?
- The girls no longer jump out of the doors and grab at potential Johns. From my observations, this is because they have become both lazy, and overweight. The act of standing up is simply too much, and most of them prefer to just stay seated, opening the door with a broom handle or stick while shouting out to potential Johns. If they are too lazy to stand, what possible services could they be offering that are worth paying for?
- I’m in my 30’s, and some of these women are older than I am. Some of them are a decade or more older than I am, and it shows, even at night, even with layers of makeup, even after several bottles of beer. Who is paying these women for sex?
- I see more Korean men than I do foreign men on Hooker Hill. I’m guessing that this is because they are going to the tranny bars, of which there are still a handful in and around The Hill. More often than not, the Korean men that I observed on The Hill were visibly and heavily intoxicated, sometimes falling over or breaking things. Is business so bad that the trannies literally cannot choose their customers anymore?
- There is now graffiti all over the place in and around Hooker Hill, and to a lesser extent, around areas of Seoul where I wouldn’t expect to see it.
On a typical early Saturday or Sunday morning, one can routinely see the police escorting drunken ajeossis down from The Hill, where they’ve invariably been causing problems/damage.
The women? I don’t think there is a word in the dictionary to properly describe them. Years of abuse have taken their toll, and several of these women look like they are made of barbed wire and razor blades. They are at the very bottom of the prostitution scale, about as far down as it’s possible to slide. Most of them should be at home looking after their grandchildren instead of peddling pussy. And the few who are under the age of 40 have adorned their bodies with cheap tattoos and scars from cigarette burns and wrist slashings. I don’t know what the world record is for ascending from the top of Hooker Hill to the bottom, but I must have broken it on my most recent visit.
While I can certainly appreciate sleaze, and the extra element of excitement it provides, there has to exist some line between sleaze and downright misery/desperate criminality, the wrong side of which is currently occupied by Itaewon’s Hooker Hill as it continues on a downward slide year after year. How much longer can it possibly last? They are building a new hotel in the place where a GI torched a few whore houses. The construction is about 80% complete as of this writing. Strange place for a hotel, right? Is the entire area about to be re-zoned, or have the pimps done a deal with the Itaewon police to keep things going for a while? Is the writing on the wall for Hooker Hill? Some of these women are clearly hooking from meal to meal. Their bellies are literally empty if they don’t snag a John. How bad does business have to become before the entire place is razed and re-zoned into an area occupied by restaurants and cheap hotels?