‘Itaewon Class’: How Seoul’s multicultural neighborhood battles Covid crisis

By Andrés Sánchez Braun

Seoul, Jun 2 (efe-epa).- The vibrant streets of Itaewon, Seoul’s most multi-ethnic neighborhood and one of the few sanctuaries of the South Korean LGBTQ community, sport a deserted look these days after a recent outbreak of the new coronavirus, fresh addition to the series of stigmas faced by the district and its businesses.

On a bright weekend afternoon, the Buddha’s Belly restaurant is occupied by just six diners despite it being the lunch hour.

The establishment is among the most popular in the neighborhood thanks to its Thai delicacies and the rooftop views it offers.

The widely popular South Koren TV series “Itaewon Class,” has also led to more people visiting it in recent months, like the cafe, which the protagonist runs in the soap, is barely 50-meters away.

However, all restaurants are nearly vacant now due to the epidemic.

“We are billing 10 percent of what we usually bill since the outbreak,” Choi Won, part of the management at Buddha’s Belly, told EFE, referring to an infection hotspot detected in an alley lined up with bars in the neighborhood.

Since then, the coronavirus has become the latest in a long series of prejudices faced by the neighborhood, which has evolved along with the drastic ups and downs witnessed by the region during the last century.

Itaewon’s history is closely linked to the nearby military barracks of Yongsan, a massive complex spread over two square kilometers and built for Imperial Japanese troops during the colonial period (1910-1945), which was subsequently used by the United States forces in South Korea (USFK) as their headquarters.

Since then, for decades Itaewon was known as a den of brothels and bars visited by soldiers, and in a country characterized by racial homogeneity, it developed the image of a “dangerous place full of foreigners,” which persists to some extent.

Its imposing mosque was built in 1976, another feature that cemented its identity as a “foreigners’ ghetto,” but also attracted a sizable Muslim community, which has become one of its main driving forces today.

With their restaurants and businesses, the group helped change the face of Itaewon by the turn of the century, while South Korea’s rapid economic growth and opening of the economy along with the gradual redeployment of troops in the country did the rest.

This was the time when cafes like Route 66 – managed by American Ryan Burda and famous for its chicken wings and an extensive choice of beers – came up in the neighborhood.

“It’s been pretty brutal, especially around this area. Business is down by quite a bit,” Burda said, referring to the impact of the epidemic, even as night fell and music wafted in from nearby establishments which have chosen to stay open.

Burda and other restaurateurs believe that authorities have not issued a message or launched a support initiative for the neighborhood, contributing to the idea that the infection was lurking in the neighborhood.

“They’re gonna let this area die and it’s hurting a lot of business owners,” he added.

The district has already been hit by the gradual transfer of the residents of the Yongsan base – which earlier housed more than 25,000 people – to Pyeongtaek, 60 km (37 miles) south of Seoul, where the USFK established fresh barracks in 2018.

Now the complete halt in tourism – an activity boosted and supported by the restaurants according to Willy Watson, owner of Irish bar Shenanigans – has made the matters worse.

A few blocks away lies “The Hill,” the nickname of a steep alley where LGBTQ bars – which were the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak – are squeezed next to each other, now shrouded in absolute silence.

The first bars for a gay clientèle began opening on the hill a couple of decades ago, taking advantage of the closure of brothels.

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