Saturday, June 17, 2023

Blaming victims of a go-go club fire amid anti-decadence campaigns in 1974

A firefighter amid the charred ruins of a go-go club where 72 people died (Weekly Hanguk, Nov. 10, 1974)

My latest Korea Times article examines a series of fires which took place in Seoul in the early 1970s, culminating in the Daewang Corner fire of November 3, 1974, in which 88 people - mostly young people at a go-go club that was operating illegally after hours - were killed in the blaze. 

The newspaper descriptions of unidentified victims made for sobering reading, while articles in the weekly magazines, with their clear aim of denouncing decadence and blaming the victims, are far more infuriating. In three articles spread over eight pages of 주간여성 (Weekly Woman)'s November 17 issue, the magazine ignored the fact that people had continued dancing because they were unaware of the fire and twisted this into the headline, "Even if I burn to death, I'm going to dance." 

Should parallels with a more recent tragedy become apparent, that's not accidental.

Below are photos not included in the article, translations of a so-called "memoir" of a survivor of the fire and another article's introduction, and a scan of a Korea Times article on how these clubs operated.

An advertisement for the new Daewang Corner building reads "The birth of a deluxe city in eastern Seoul!" (Chosun Ilbo, Nov. 3, 1968)

A photo of the first large fire at Daewang Corner (Korea Times, August 6, 1972)

Photos of the fire at Citizen's Hall where Sejong Cultural Center now stands (Korea Times, December 3, 1972)

A grotesque photo of the victims of the fire at Daewang Corner which appeared in several newspapers and magazines (Korea Times, November 5, 1974)

An article about how many go-go clubs operated illegally (Korea Times, November 10, 1974)

Below are a few pages of the November 17, 1974 issue of 주간여성 (Weekly Woman) magazine, including the open splash page that introduced the following group of three related articles. This was pretty standard in the weekly magazines that were published in a magazine format (as opposed to broadsheet format).

Exposing scenes rife with sex

Decadent packed clubs… Seoul nights

Frenzied go-go clubs, pink bars, indecent bathhouses

The New Namsan Hotel-Corner fire unexpectedly exposed a cross-section of sexual promiscuity, and the forms of promiscuity have taken on unprecedented and bizarre forms, making Seoul feel like a "place rife with sex." Just to name the typical forms, "pink bars," "obscene bathhouses," "call-girls at inns and hotels," and "broad daylight go-go meetings" are all decadent. We will expose all of these scenes that are rife with sex.

The introduction of another article reads as follows:

“Even if I burn to death, I’m going to dance.”
The 'stay up all night ecology' of the go-go tribe that grows like poisonous mushrooms

Amidst moody hallucinatory lighting and deafening psychedelic music, the number of go-go tribe members who go crazy all night is growing like poisonous mushrooms every day. What is the ecology of these go-go people who even give birth to the dark humor of “go-go dancing while burning to death”? If you go to the go-go site from opening to closing time… 

"Poisonous mushrooms" indeed. We can be certain that it was the media (with who knows what direction from the government) that gave birth to the so-called dark humor of "go-go dancing while burning to death", not the "go-go tribe" members.

One of the more egregious articles (and obvious anti-decadence propaganda) is the following "confession of a go-go girl" which is obviously fictional. Many articles in these magazines were titillating mixes of fact and fiction meant to both decry decadence and obscenity while also knowing they would draw in readers.

90% of the Go-go tribe fall into the trap of sex

A 24-year-old go-go girl's memoir of surviving the Daewang Fire

A go-go girl who was lucky enough to survive the Daewang Corner fire recounts her hellish experience and the death of her friend, and how "go-go is cursed without end". This account of a naive girl's strategy amidst the excitement of the go-go hall is a lesson for many in the go-go tribe.

Meet, shake it to your heart’s content, have fun, and then part ways without warning 

"Were you still a virgin? Hey, you ripped that band aid off quickly”

Youngja is dead. I rub my eyes and look again, but there's no mistaking her name on the death list in the newspaper. Age 24, the address is Youngja’s house exactly.

She's the same age as me, pretty, slender, and full of charm, and I can't believe she's dead.

Let's play with empty-headed men 

It was Young-ja who taught me about go-go, the same go-go that’s causing me to feel so much remorse. After graduating from the girls' school, while not up to much, I got a job and there I met Youngja. She was my senior BG, so to speak.

She chuckled and told me stories about her boys.

"When you're bored or depressed, go play with the boys."

With that, she led me by the wrist. I followed her to a so-called go-go hall that I had never seen before.

The first thing that overwhelmed me was the deafening music, but it was the atmosphere in the hall that stole my heart. After exchanging pleasantries with some of the boys, Young-ja sat down at one of the tables.

"Hey, don't look like a chicken, act like you're having a good time. They are no big deal either.”

Youngja whispered in my ear. There was no need to say hello to the boys. She went out into the hall and shook her ass, and I joined in with one of the guys. Go-go was like a drug.

To the next room...

This was the beginning of my go-go life, and it was like a rush of water. I even moved out of my house and went to a boarding house with the right excuse. The go-go hall was a convenient place for women, especially for girls, and at around 9:00 p.m., there were men who flirted with me as I passed in front of it.

"Enjoy the go-go," they would say, and all you had to do was go in, let the men bite, and shake you, and have fun. To be honest, I was a virgin until I entered a go-go hall. In my experience, the physiology of the go-go hall and the maintenance of virginity had a treacherous element to it. It was on my third go-go hall visit that I realized Youngja was not there. It must have been around 2 a.m. When I asked the man who was there, he said that he had a headache and was resting in his room.

Worried, I asked the man to take me to Youngja's room. He led the way and went into a room. Youngja wasn't there, and I don't want to imagine what happened next.

Suddenly, I realized that I had fruitlessly lost my 21 years of virginity to a man whose face I could barely remember. I was so upset that I sobbed and told Youngja. Youngja was surprised and asked, "Were you still a virgin?" Youngja continued, "You ripped that band aid off quickly. It's for the best!"

"See you later" is funny. 

Losing my virginity gave me a convenient excuse to play with men. I had nothing to lose, so I would play with them in moderation, and when I felt their eyes on me eagerly, I would take my clothes off, sometimes with a fire in me that made me crave a man. All my relationships had a clean aftertaste. "Let's see each other again!" I thought there was nothing ugly about men: having fun, flirting, and then breaking up without warning. I thought it was funny how outdated conventional morals were. It was only a short time, half a decade or so, that passed before I changed from a well-behaved child to this.

We were free of shame and shyness. Looking back on it now, I was an amazingly bad girl.

If I get pregnant, “It’s nothing!” 

Look at the people who frequent go-go halls and ask. I can say with certainty that eight out of 10 girls who return beautifully after dancing go through the haejangguk house in the morning and find an inn or hotel. The only time my go-go-mad self came to my senses was when I found out I was pregnant last year... “No problem, what are you worried about? You can just get rid of it,” Youngja said with a smirk. I couldn't do anything about it, so I followed her to the gynecologist's office and got it taken care of. The shame I felt at the time was excruciating...

Unbearable pleasure 

But the go-go-hall had a strange magic. Even though I was determined to stay away, I couldn't help but feel my shoulders shake at night. The temptation to go and have a good time was too much for me to resist. I swayed frantically, and with a man I'd never met before I went from the haejangguk restaurant to the inn. Pleasure that took my breath away. I fell deeper and deeper into that pleasure.

Then the fire at the New Namsan Hotel shocked Young-ja and me.

I'm afraid I'll be a little more careful now!" she said. "Shouldn't I also get married?"

She said it just like that.

"When I see girls who keep their virginity, I feel envious!" This was a remarkable thing to say for Youngja. But that Youngja died.

She lost her life during the Daewang Corner fire that shook the world to its core. On that night as well she and I went there together. We were dancing and having a great time when all of a sudden there was a commotion. It was absolute pandemonium. I ran out without thinking. I didn’t think of Youngja or the men at all. Thankfully, I didn't even get a scratch. I came back to the boarding house scared out of my wits, trembling along the road.

I couldn't breathe as I watched the TV news that evening, and it wasn't until I saw the report that more than 80 people had lost their lives that I rushed to read the list of deaths, wondering about Youngja’s safety. Youngja, my Youngja, was dead. That pretty body and charming face had been turned to ashes! I thought I was lucky to be alive, that God had given me one more chance. The horrors of that hellish ordeal and the death of Youngja made me bite my tongue. I bit my tongue and swore that I would never go to a go-go hall again.

In the three years of my madness, my body and mind were torn to shreds like rags. Now I'm going to sew it back together, stitch by stitch. I am ashamed to death of my past. I am regretful. There has never been a woman as unfortunate as me!

God, please wipe the evil go-go madness from this world! 

Not exactly subtle, but such was the propaganda of the time. I can't help but wonder if the name "Youngja" was chosen deliberately, especially considering of the main characters in Choi In-ho's book "March of Fools", which was serialized in Ilgan Sports from October 1973 to May 1974 (and which supposedly doubled Ilgan Sports readership), was named Youngja (who features heavily in the film adapted from the book which was released the next year).

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