Busan, You Don’t Have to Put on a Red Light

Living a short walk (or shorter cab ride) away from the most popular, most visited beach in South Korea, I spent many weekends patroning the restaurants off the boardwalk and holding my breath while I strolled past the little ajummas—technically a woman of marital age, but vernacularly an old lady with a bad perm and a visor as big as the moon—selling stinky silk worm larvae.

Haeundae Beach is a strip of sand like no other.  Some sources say that record days draw up to one million beach lovers to the tiny plot of coast that you can see from one end to the other.  The towel-to-towel crowds were shocking, but not nearly as much as the “attraction” that is not even one block from the biggest summer tourist destination in the country.

Down a little alley just across the street from the bustling and bright beach is a row of windows, like salon windows.  At night, while bars and clubs on all the adjacent streets and alleys are intoxicating the men and women of Haeundae, the alley of big, glass windows is attracting customers as well.

The biggest family destination in Korea, right next to less family-friendly spots. Via @my_enigma86 of Flickr.

Some friends and I stumbled down the alley one night, looking for a shortcut.  We walked past the windows and looked into big, anime eyes of girls that looked young.  They were dressed like a Lady Gaga video, neon bras and a few inches of spandex around their hips, balanced on toothpick legs that teetered on transparent, plastic platforms.  Their hair and make-up were intensely deliberate, but it was their eyes that gave away the seedy exchanges that went on in that alley.  They didn’t expect to see four Westerners on the outside of those windows.  The girls, perched on swiveling salon chairs and leaned against the door frames, were looking for someone else.  One of the girls called out a greeting to a man, the only other pedestrian in sight.  We tried not to stare, but she batted her heavily mascara-ed eyes, while the man sauntered/stumbled toward her window.  As he got closer, their voices got lower, and my understanding of the exchange in Korean is only an interpretation of body language.

Between thirty and fifty girls sat in that alley of windows.  There were no red lights, no barber poles spinning in opposite directions—supposedly the understood signal for a place of prostitution in Korea—but questionable business was taking place.  The window shopping done here, not two blocks from some great stores and high-end boutiques, was for women.  The women with the technicolor lingerie and anime eyes.

Unassuming to the 'naked' eye

These places exist in most big cities around the world, and Busan is a big city, 4 million people.  I didn’t expect to find this little brothel boulevard so close to one of the biggest tourist attractions in all of South Korea though.  Do the beach-goers know it’s here?  Would they stumble down the alley like we had?  Or do they know better?  Know better than to look into the windows with anime eyes looking back? 

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  • steve chang

    This refrain: “anime eyes”? Why? Because they’re Asian? It’s a little dehumanizing.

  • Anime characters have unrealistically large, innocent-looking eyes.  This study by Amy Shirong Lu showed that viewers usually cannot correctly identify the racial identify of anime characters.  Instead, Asians assume the characters are Asian, and Caucasians assume they are likewise.  So we see a bit of ourselves in the characters, when their physical attributes are not racially distinguishable.  http://anm.sagepub.com/content/4/2/169 

  • steve chang

    Ah, so the prostitutes are cartoonized in this piece so the voice (or reader?) can see him/herself in them? So this is about self-discovery by dehumanizing the Other?

  • Anonymous

    I didn’t get any of that from this piece. What I personally got from it was a person discovering an alleyway for prostitution right next to the busiest beach in Korea. I don’t see how using an adjective like “anime” eyes is dehumanizing. Check out this blog about “anime eyes”: http://www.nikkeiview.com/blog/2009/11/17/the-eyes-have-it-anime-eyes-asian-women-change-their-looks/

    • Anonymous

      No value judgment here, just curious about what’s going on in this piece. Personally I think this site is a cool endeavor.

      Well, “anime eyes” assigns a cartoon characteristic to a human being. Swapping out a human trait for one that’s non-human. That’s textbook dehumanization. Some people think ‘dehumanizing’ means violating human rights, or think of Abu Ghraib or something. Maybe that’s adding some confusion here.

      It’s not just a single word achieving the effect, but the whole slant of this voice. Here are a few more descriptions:

      “They were dressed like a Lady Gaga video, neon bras and a few inches of
      spandex around their hips, balanced on toothpick legs that teetered on
      transparent, plastic platforms.”

      “The women with the technicolor lingerie and anime eyes.”

      These women are images from a video, with weak wooden legs, cartoon eyes, and wearing clothing out of Tron. If we tried to actually draw these descriptions, the dehumanizing effect would be hard to deny.

      Sure, artistic liberty, metaphor, personal opinion, etc. No problem. This isn’t a human-interest piece or whatever so nobody’s obligated to delve into the ‘humanity’ of these prostitutes, but the unavoidable politics of describing women like this is worth reconsidering. Especially among ex-pats who inevitably treat foreign nations and people as the Other through which they see themselves. It’s nice to be aware of the biases we can’t avoid rather than pretend we’re objective. In fact I think this has become the standard for ethnography in academia?