Let me be clear: the lads only went to see boobs. This is why, after two-and-a-half hours of drinking through one of South Korea’s most notorious and least desirable red light districts—and having eyeballed disappointingly zero nipples—it seemed a good idea to ask the six-foot-two, black-leather-jacketed Russian man stumbling down the street at 2:30 in the morning: “Do you know where a strip bar is?”
In hindsight, it was foolish to assume he spoke English. He stared at the lads, eyes narrowed in his attempt to stand upright. He responded in Russian, prompting his friend to appear from behind the group of British expats: a taller, stubbly, grey-haired man with whose smoking seemed to age him 20 years. He came within three inches of the tallest Briton.
“Uh, actually, forget it, guys,” the Brit said, backing up. “Don’t worry about it.”
Which apparently is Russian for “I want to fight you now.”
If this had been the only miscommunication of the night, it would have been enough. But Texas Street is like that: you want one thing, you get another. The Russians, for example, wanted to hurt the expats (the first one slurred out his entire English vocabulary—”Fight?”—while the taller one punched his fists together gleefully), but instead they hastily escaped as they were distracted by a matronly Russian bartender.
Or take the street itself. When I first heard of Texas Street, Busan’s best-left-unmentioned foreign red light district, I expected something distinctly Korean; a futuristic brothel, maybe, where women could be bought by scanning a QR code with your smartphone.
But Texas Street is not that. Named by American soldiers sometime after the Korean War, the murky three-block stretch lies mostly in darkness but for the Cyrillic neon signs. Surrounded by cheap motels and willfully ignored by most native Koreans, it sits quietly one block west of Busan Station, cushioned to the south of Chinatown, by the water and the docks. When you enter, the uneven stonework underfoot transforms into a black and grey pattern distinct within Korea’s second-largest city, created nearly a decade ago by the municipal government as part of an attempted reformation of the street from “creepy sex den” to “Foreigners’ Shopping District”. It has only sort of worked. Russian and American sailors can now buy cheap jewelry or leather goods there during the day, indulging in different leathered goods at night.
It felt eerily calm for a Friday in early November. I arrived with the band of british expats near midnight, finding only tall, blonde-haired Russians and tiny, dark-skinned Filipinos standing idly outside. The Brits spotted a place called “London Bar,” so we walked inside, expecting busty women on poles, or desperate sailors chatting up women all too eager to listen. Instead we found only two middle-aged prostitutes, heavy-set with heavier make-up, sitting in black leather jackets and slowly drinking their beers in silence by the bar.
We laughed it off, drank our 5,000-won bottles of Hite beer and left in search of a livelier club. En route we were stopped by a nervous-looking American man, skinny with greasy black hair who asked us if we knew of a cheap jjimjilbang where he could crash for the night. We told him we didn’t but wished him luck, and he thanked us uncertainly and sat back down with his beer under a ratty food tent.
We flew from London Bar to Club Las Vegas, thinking maybe there we’d find the bosoms of our dreams, but it only turned out to be more of the same, except with its floor inexplicably covered in balloons and an invitation to the unused karaoke machine in the corner. A Filipino in fishnets sat next to me with the song book. I asked her age, and she told me she was 25. How long had she been in Busan? Just two months. She came here for work, she said with a smile, because there isn’t much work back home.
Prostitution in South Korea is a paradox. It is furtively accepted that businessmen group together and pay to spend long evenings with women who are not their wives—not constantly, but more often than is comfortable—while their wives sit at home and quietly acknowledge that this is the way things are. In 2010 alone, South Koreans spent US$14 billion on prostitution—roughly 1.6 percent of its national GDP. How much of that number is boils down to human trafficking or foreign prostitution is, to me at least, unknown. Suffice it to say, we witnessed Texas on a slow night.
We wound up killing maybe a half-hour on Vegas’s karaoke machine, an effort which culminated in a painfully long rendition of “Hey Jude” and a Filipino woman yelling from the bar, “No more white man on karaoke!”
Outside we encountered the Russian men, escaping only to find Filipino sirens off on the streetsides, yelling “Hello! Hello!” to lure us into their clubs. Each time, we’d peek inside—Club Manila, Club Havana—but the world all over looked the same. Each promised luxury and alcohol and sex, and each was just a small room with a vacant karaoke machine and a few women too tired to smile anymore.
We approached one of the sirens asking if there were actually any strip clubs here, or if we had been misled from the start. Her friend laughed and began to pull her fishnets up seductively in a dance, while the more sober one just shook her head. “In Busan, yes,” she said. “But not here.”
By now it was 3 a.m., and we agreed that our night was a bust without busts. We began looking for a cab when the greasy-haired American spotted us again. He began to walk with us. He wasn’t a sailor, he explained, but a fellow English teacher who came down from the northern part of the country. He seemed anxious, but not suspiciously so; mostly he just looked lost and was waiting for his train home the next morning. He asked if he could tag along with us but we apologized and told him no, that we were going home to our beds, that our mission tonight had failed. We wished him luck and left him there, walking alone down the street, past the neon-lit shadows and into the dark.
This article originally appeared on Travelmag in December, 2011.
One thought on “Busan, South Korea: Texas Street is an Angry, Lonely Place”
Looks and sounds like Texas has changed big time, just like many other places around the world where expats hang out in my opinion. In early 2000s, back to 1990 I was all over the places in Asia deeply involved in HDD with many companies including IBM, Samsung, Toshiba, Maxtor etc…. And so Singapore, Bangkok Manila Georgetown-Malaysia, and South Korea I spent plenty of time in. Not quite long as expats but long..
I stumbled on this article and read for fun after googling Texas Busan ( earlier was Pusan) South Korea, at present in the third month of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, half hoping to see anything vaguely reflecting the time. And half nostalgically remembering the time back in the months before 9/11 that I frequented Busan on weekends staying mostly at the Marriott Executive floor with the discount Samsung offered to escape the industrial setting many hours by train due north.
Busan was beautiful. Interestingly, Haeundae gave me the sense of peace of hustle bustle and a sense of adventure all combined. A good friend who was Busan Native gave me a good introduction to the city. I Didn’t speak Korean only English Spanish and…Vietnamese.
Texas was fun. Plenty of activities and lots of Russians alright. Not only sailors but blonde hair blue eyes lanky ladies as well. Don’t think they all qualify as prostitutes though many young ladies in Texas were obviously in the trade there.
My first exposure there was one of the “second places” we went to to while away the cold winter night (though Busan is the warmest place in Korea and it rarely snowed there like the rest of Korea). It was very lively and quite a surprise for me, an Asian, to be entertained in Asia by.. .. Caucasian ladies. Unlike many other celebrants in our group including Korean natives and American coworkers, I kept my manner though very loosened from the sojus and hurricanes grouply forced and enjoyed. It was a great night. In my observation, those ladies were NOT to be bought cheaply and ordinarily THERE. They spoke some English, some French but some spoke some Korean also because they are on their TOUR only a few months there then return to their homeland. They danced very nicely in some very controlled manner not quite like exotic dancers we have in America but good with the music and fluid with the flow.
When the night’s over We said goodbyes but not before one young lady who was from Novosibirsk with short blonde hair Exchange phone number with me. We saw each other only a few occasions in the beginning with her friend as chauffeur but always with her English dictionary on hand. It was nice knowing her and we ended up rushing to see each other whenever we could. Finally she had to return home that last time we met in Seoul. Nataya didn’t hesitate paying six hundred bucks to the airline to stay one last night with when we stayed up all night after dining Italian (her first, she said) with red wine and a walk along the beach Haeundae, where there was installed an animae character windsurfing-a sport I was active in. It was memorable for me and we stopped by a few “tent bars” near the sand and kept each other so much alive till day break.
The most exciting part of my recollection is this, it was South Korea. I’m American-born in Vietnam and the dear friend I met there is Russian-from Novosibirsk with Ukrainian ancestry (I was taught that’s evident from the fish tail drawn near the rear of her beautiful ocean blue eyes).
There are so many beautiful things in life. I’ll always treasure my experience and will always look at everything and everyone with an open eye taking in Not where they are from what is said about where they live who their friends their associates are what color and what language they speak. But what they are, to me.
Sorry to share my inner thoughts here. Way too too long. Good bye Texas street.