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.