My Night with the Prostitute from…Seoul
My poor language partner. Last night I made him take me to the seedier side of Seoul, home, namely, to one of Seoul’s increasingly obsolete red-light district. Why did I do that? Not because I’m a perv, but because, well, my idea of Korea before I left the US—at least, the one in my mind’s eye—was that human trafficking and the like were a large part of the illegal subculture here. When I was growing up in the States, I would sometimes hear about little girls in Korea who would get kidnapped and forced into prostitution. So it was my assumption that such places were rampant, and in one of my first drafts of Jane, Part II, she accidentally stumbles upon such a neighborhood. I wanted to see such a neighborhood for myself, to get a feel for Jane’s discomfort/fear in that moment.
However, after talking with a number of people—including my Fbright research affiliate professor—it seemed like one would have to go horribly out of one’s way to find such neighborhoods. Because of the crazy redevelopment taking place all over the city, as well as the crackdown on prostitute, the areas that offer such services keep moving around locations, and the number of such workers grows smaller each year. So I am thinking of omitting such a scene from Jane altogether.
BH, in typical Korean fashion, felt very sorry and personally responsible if we would not be able to find the area. He had scoured the internet for me, but he told me to be prepared to find that the area may no longer exist. I, in turn, felt very sorry and responsible for compromising his respectable dignity. Ah well, this is what happens when you hang out with Americans.
We got out at Chung-Nyang-Nee Station on Line 1, at exit 4. CNN is also a railroad station hub for all trains heading east. BH tells me Line 1 is the most…interesting because it passes through the poorest neighborhoods, so you’re likely to see the most pan-handlers as well as drunk people on the line. It makes for an interesting daily commute to school for him. BH was told there was an area behind the Lotte Dept store. When we got there, we just saw shady little alley streets and a random police station. And then a school. There was no way there’d be a red-light district right by a school.
What was perhaps more fascinating/interesting/shocking/pity-inducing were the conditions of the “houses” in these narrow streets. They opened right up into the street, and they were tiny—just a room where you barely have enough space to lie down. With no bathrooms. These 쪽방 were filled with the electric glow of 10’ portable TV sets. Many of the rooms had their doors open. It was very dirty.
This photo does not belong to me. My friend BH found it on the internet.
Anyway, we passed one 쪽방, where a 할머니 or old lady was crouched in her little room, watching TV. She called out, “There’s no road that way! Turn around.”
BH mustered up the courage to ask her, “Excuse me, do you know where the….is there a….” he gave a nervous laugh.
The halmuhnee just looked at us, like, WTF are you kids doing. Then she offered, “You mean, the girls?”
“Yes. Do they…exist?”
“Yes. You have to go around the other way. Why?”
I didn’t dare open my mouth, because I was afraid my American accent would be a dead giveaway and the cops might be hot on our tail.
We went down another narrow road, where we saw the first sign of “promise:” 연인 means lover, and 숙 I think generally refers to a house or lodging or something. BH described this as one step above prostitution.
We turned down an alley, where we saw the tell-tale electric pink glow. The girls were displayed in these little booths that looked kind of like bathroom vanities. There was white tile work, and hairdryers, brushes, tubes of makeup, and they sat in these swivel stools like the kinds at barbershops.
This was the best picture I could get, because I was afraid some pimp would come out of nowhere and beat the crap out of us.
More interesting than the girls were the men who were walking around. They were by themselves or in groups of twos, and many of them avoided eye-contact with the ladies who were calling out to them. I wondered whether they were there for the same reasons as us—curiosity—or if perhaps there was a different agenda. BH thought they were scoping out for their favorite prostitute. We even saw a middle-aged couple holding hands and strolling through, like it was any old day on any old street.
The red-light district opens right up to this busy scene, where there is an open-air food market at 8pm at night.
Most of the “storefronts” were closed, a sign that the industry was floundering. After one more street of this, we called it a day. There wasn’t much more to see, besides the cop car we saw nearby. BH said they probably just turn a blind eye to the prostitution. Probably while accepting a handout.
My pictures end here. Below are a series of photos BH found for me on the internet, which probably do a better job of explaining what I saw. Later, when I spoke with one of my other Korean language partner from Boston, BS, he said that the old lady we saw was probably a pimp.
“In America, pimps are like the big guys, but in Korea they are the old halmuhnee. Is different,” he said. So it was.
Please note these pictures were not taken by me, they are courtesy of the www.