“The police, translator, and military involved did an admirable job. Nothing in these situations is ever handled perfectly. However, I felt protected and represented inside the police station. This is not a foreigner vs. Korean issue. This is an issue of a club owner mishandling a situation.”
I visited a bar in Itaewon that is the only place in Korea where I have seen women publicly attacked by the staff. It is also the only club that assaults a paid photographer (me) who has a broken ankle. Maybe foreigners deserve the majority of the blame for staining Itaewon’s reputation, but with club owners and bouncers who attempt to attack their foreign patrons inside police stations, this notion should be reconsidered.
My friends were leaving Korea and decided to have a going away party. They hired me to photograph the event. The individual who hired me has practically given her life to benefit animals and animal shelters in Korea. She is one of those unsung heroes who never receives credit for her amazing work but quietly makes the world a better place. In fact, you can read about her amazing work with dog shelters here. I think she would rather people contribute to the causes she cared about than read about why people should avoid this bar.
Welcome to My Saturday Night
I met the group for their 80’s themed party at their house in Haebangchon. Had we known we would end the night, we would have worn different clothes. Dressing like 80’s rockers with pink stockings and leopard print pants added no credibility to our stories inside of a Korean police station.
After enjoying several drinks at their home rocking out to David Bowie or dancing to Bohemian Rhapsody, and after people getting upset at me for taking way too many bad pictures, we departed for Itaewon. I’d never been to this bar, but it seemed like a nice place.
I continued to take pictures of the party inside the bar and the bouncers asked me not to use my flash. While some photographers don’t mind using a high ISO and large aperture to take dark pictures, I think club pictures look far better with an off camera flash. So, I told the bouncers I was a paid photographer for a group of patrons at the club, and asked if I could speak with the owner. I planned to offer the owner additional photographs of the club for free in exchange for the ability to use my flash and fulfill my contract with my client.
Needless to say, I stopped using my flash. When my girlfriend arrived over three hours later, I was finished taking pictures. I pulled my flash out so I could simply fit my camera back inside of my bag. When the bouncers saw my flash, they went berserk. They asked me to leave, and I told them I would but I asked them if I could speak to the owner first. In no way was I disrespectful or hesitant to leave, I just wanted to clear up any confusion and show the owner I had not violated their requests of taking pictures with my flash. Instead, they stripped my camera from me, grabbed me around the neck choking me, and pulled me out of the club. One of the bouncers purposely stepped on my leg with the splint on it (I have a fractured ankle). They also twisted me around quickly so that I fell on my injured leg. They refused to let me talk to the owner, and they refused to allow me to collect my belongings – my jacket and over 2,000,000 won of camera gear. I still don’t have my grey Dockers jacket.
Pandemonium ensued. They finally allowed me back inside to get my jacket. After searching for a minute, the bouncer became unsatisfied with my efforts and pushed me down on the ground. I shared some choice words with him about attacking someone with a leg injury. I began to walk out, but he and his friend felt like it was prudent to drag me out of the club by my neck. Later at the police station, the officers noted several footprints on the dressings wrapped around my leg splint.
When I walked outside, several people in our party were upset. I saw a bouncer physically strike one of the girls in the group. She, of course, retaliated by pushing over a table and several bouncers became overly physical with her. She was only trying to get my stuff. As I looked down the street, I saw bouncers holding girls to the pavement by forcing both of their arms backwards and over their heads. People who walked by became overly concerned and tried to help. This wasn’t the typical case of a drunk individual being removed from a club, what they were witnessing was women being unjustifiably abused.
The police came and they escorted everyone to the police station. I reviewed my photographs with the police showing them that my last flash photograph was taken at 11:30pm. This shocked them since it was four in the morning – the flash photographs were taken long before the fiasco unfolded negating the claims of the bouncer. They realized I didn’t do anything wrong and they told me I could leave, but that my friends were going to be charged with assault. I told them if that happened, I would press charges against the club owner for assaulting me.
This is where this story gets interesting. The police told me if I pressed charges, I would be charged for disturbing the peace in the police station. I was confused. I turned to the translator who worked for the military and asked him if that was ethical. He actually broke his neutral role and said no. He then explained to the police that I would wait quietly and press charges. When the owner received the news, he jumped out of his chair and moved aggressively towards the group of girls. The police actually had to hold him back. It was obvious – the owner was a whack job.
The girls wisely requested to talk to their respective embassies – South African, American and Canadian. After this, all charges were dropped, and we went to another bar.
The police, translator, and military involved did an admirable job. Nothing in these situations is ever handled perfectly. However, I felt protected and represented inside the police station. This is not a foreigner vs. Korean issue. This is an issue of a club owner mishandling a situation.
Situations involving people drinking and fighting at bars is common. Bouncers are often perceived as bad guys, but are required to protect the interests of the club owner. I understand this, and things often get out of hand or escalate very quickly in these situations. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of club owners to protect patrons and to deal with problems using appropriate force. Striking 100 pound women is never acceptable, regardless of your culture. This is especially true when their only offense is requesting to retrieve a 60 dollar jacket purchased at TJ Max.