A version of this article appeared in print in The Korea Times on 2/15/2013. Photo courtesy of MYK Inc.
By Kim Young-jin
When Vatos Urban Tacos, a Mexican-Korean fusion restaurant, opened in Itaewon, Seoul, in 2011, its client base was 80 percent expats with Koreans making up the remainder.
This was the sort of ratio expected, given the district’s concentration of foreign residents.
But after moving last year to a better location and developing a good word of mouth reputation, business is booming. However, what’s most remarkable is the change in the breakdown of its patrons.
“It’s the complete opposite,” said co-owner Sid Kim, a Korean-American, as he surveyed a bustling weekday dinner rush. “Now it’s 80 percent Koreans, and 20 percent expats. And we’re packed.”
Koreans in their late 20s and 30s, mostly professionals with disposable income, are flooding into Itaewon, transforming the foreign enclave into one of Seoul’s trendiest hotspots. But some residents wonder if the district’s distinctive, neighborhood feel is in jeopardy.
Kim Tae-hee, a graduate student who enjoys trying exotic foods, says Itaewon abounds with variety.
“It’s got so many colors. Other places, such as Gangnam, it’s just one color – it’s the same thing over and over,” she said.
The southern Seoul district of Gangnam and nearby areas – known for their ostentatious display of affluence – are too stuffy, Kim finds. Hongdae, in the west, has its charms, but it has lost its indie feel, and is also out of the way.
In addition to Itaewon’s central location, observers say its hipness is the result of Korean’s growing taste for international-style wining and dining as well as Itaewon’s recent cleaner, more professional image. It may also reflect a generational shift in attitude toward the district, which has long carried a stigma.
“Itaewon five years ago and Itaewon now are completely different. Koreans used to be scared to come here, but now it’s a safe place to feel at home,” said Matt Koop, a Canadian whose Hollywood pub overlooks the district’s bustling main strip. “It’s the next big thing.”
All this is remarkable given the historical sense of otherness attached to Itaewon.
In the early 20th century it was occupied by reviled Japanese forces, who maintained a garrison nearby. This eventually became the headquarters for the U.S.-Korea Combined Forces Command, and Itaewon became known as a leisure and shopping district for American troops.
“The prevalence of prostitution, combined with general prejudice against American soldiers, meant Itaewon was out of bounds for any Korean hoping to preserve a good reputation,” author Daniel Tudor writes in his book “Korea: The Impossible Country.” “This was particularly the case for women.”
It is also a haven for diversity because it is the main area for the gay community to gather as well as home to Seoul Central Mosque.
Its negative reputation was reinforced in 1997 when a Korean university student was found dead in a Burger King bathroom, an incident that stirred up negative sentiment against the U.S. military.
But a “remarkable transformation” began to occur in the late 2000s, Tudor notes, due to a crackdown on late night partying by American soldiers. Chic restaurants began melding with establishments catering to expats, creating a smorgasbord of options.
“The bars there remind me of the bars in the United States, where I studied,” said Jang Gang-ho, who is currently interviewing for jobs. “I like sports bars and places where you can relax over dance clubs.”
In Korea, socializing focuses on groups of friends drinking and eating together, but not mingling with other patrons, as seen in Western pubs. The casual atmosphere has also given rise to a growing singles scene.
“It’s just the natural progression of society to want to embrace the foreign-type ambience,” said Kenneth Park, the co-owner of Vatos. “Korean business and culture in general is getting too muddled, it’s all the same. They come for a different experience.
The Korean American said that a growing number of foreign business people with families, residing in nearby areas such as Hannam-dong, are also contributing to a cleaner, safer image of the neighborhood.
This is not to say that the district has gone completely yuppie. Weekends can still get rowdy in spots, but observers note that this is not unique to Itaewon. Prostitution and “hostess bars” – where hostesses sit with men and encourage them to drink – remain as well.
Everyone familiar with Itaewon knows the street where the trendsetting is happening – but none seem to know what it’s called.
That street sits behind the Hamilton Hotel near Itaewon station, and in recent years it has exploded with new restaurants and pubs. Walking down the strip is an experience in escapism because one can eat anything from Bulgarian, Thai and Indian cuisine to burgers and fries. European facades bump up against stylish, glass-heavy modern architecture.
Among the first to move into the area was Hong Seok-cheon, an actor-turned-restaurateur and the country’s first openly gay celebrity. Hong opened a string of popular restaurants such as My Thai and My Chelsea, which helped raise the profile – and price expectations – of the street.
A handful of venues opened by MYK Inc. have also changed the landscape. Fine dining restaurant Between attracts attention for its tapas, while the multi-venue District offers a chic lounge, pub and dance club.
Three Alley Pub, one of the oldest Western-style bars in the district, continues to provide a causal atmosphere and an array of classic bar food. Sports fans can head upstairs to Sam Ryan’s, operated by the same owner, to watch a game over a drink.
Jay Claytor, resident DJ for MYK Inc., suggested the name “The Runway” to describe the alley because it alludes to its style and sense of adventure.
“Itaewon is a kind of tourism zone, not only for foreigners visiting Korea, but also Koreans looking for non-traditional Korean entertainment, dining, shopping, and nightlife. It’s kind of a place to ‘land’ and experience that,” he said.
Some wonder however, if the popularity will homogenize Itaewon’s expat vibe.
The gentrification has been seen before in the Gangnam area, which used to boast a more diverse array of independently-run boutiques. But rents soared, mom-and-pop stores were driven out and franchise retail brands moved in. A similar trend is underway in Hongdae.
“As far as giving consumers more choices, and attracting interesting new people, it’s great,” said longtime Itaewon resident John Redmond. “The problem is that rents will inevitably go up, making it difficult for small entrepreneurs with truly authentic products, to make their way in.”
Another major factor will be the plan to relocate U.S. forces from the Yongsan garrison to Pyeongtaek, south of the city. The government has announced plans to convert the base into a park in the heart of the city beginning in 2017. But some wonder if, given the strategic location, this may bring further gentrification and new apartment complexes.
Claytor, the DJ, said Itaewon has a strong identity that could help offset the problems witnessed in Gangnam. But he added that there “could be some turbulence” between established business owners who want to develop in their own way, new investors, and residents who may favor the status quo.
He said a lot depends on how the troop relocation is handled.
“Whatever happens to that plot of land will really determine fate of Itaewon. If they build a bunch of apartment complexes, I think it will be turn toward Gangnam-style. If they develop the park, with careful planning, it could become a more special place,” he said.
The business owners are confident that the Itaewon spirit will live on.
Bar owner Koop said a strong sense of community would prevent local businesses from being squeezed out. “We all know each other and try to help each other out. It’s competition, but it’s a community,” he said.
He said business owners need not agonize over making products more palatable to Koreans.
“Just put out a product the company believes in,” he said. “You don’t have to cater to foreigners or Koreans. If they like the product they will come. That’s the beauty of Itaewon.”