Orient Express: A Poem and Street Photography on South Korea by Jack Hubbell (1981-1983)

Eric’s Note: For this post, I am honored to feature the words and photographs of Jack Hubbell and his experiences in South Korea as a G.I. I thank Jack very much for sharing these personal stories that tell much about himself and the experiences of those in Korea. 

From what I have heard,
the aim is to follow the tracks
and not cross them.
Crossing achieves nothing.
Simply scars the velvet landscape, and
corrupts both soil and soul.
No, if your objective
is to reach the end,
it is best to sink down
deep into the tracks
and ride the rails
to your final destination.

Life can be easy
when you hold a ticket
for the passenger car.
It’s a closed cell environment with
your privileged life
encased within glass all while
the pedestrian blur beyond
must brace against your passing.

Box cars.
Cattle cars.
Open air freight.
Climb on up but…
Hang on for dear life.
For dear life.
Assuming you hold it dear.

The Orient Express.
Sounds pretty exotic doesn’t it?
Paris, Prague, Budapest.
“Step up. Step up.
Your fate is about to
pull out of the station.”
A year in the Far East.
The true Far East.
One ecstatic tour of duty
on the Orient Express.
“Hello G.I.
Welcome to our country.
Have your way with our women.
And now you go. You go.
Yankee go home.”

I was so desperate to see the orient
that I volunteered for South Korea.
Not for a mere one year tour, but two.
And for one of those two whole years,
those Korean inhabitants
were fodder
for my pleasure.

Walk into a brothel at night
and all is glitter and seduction.
Walk into that same establishment
during the daylight hours and
you see the torn vinyl,
the splintered plywood,
the stained and matted carpet,
the stench of humanity
of which you are part.

One year into that two-year tour
and the siren stupor
of whore amore
That city of sin
resolves into focus.
I see who they are.
I see who I am.
And we begin to talk.
And that city I knew so well
How the doormen and bouncers
are more than doormen and bouncers.
How they are so easy to smile
in my presence,
yet how no girl smiles in theirs.
How the girls who are absent on
supposed vacation
all seem to come back
with bruises.

How the one bar owner
whose club got a little too popular,
suddenly breaks both of his legs.
How the booze of which you imbibe
is laced with amphetamine
so as you won’t pass out
and stop drinking.

How every other girl you meet
has a striation of scars
running up and down her forearms.

How these girls come
to embrace the pain
their prescribed lives entail.

How those repeatedly slashed
and healed forearms
act as transcript and testimony
to the travail their lives had become.
They with their arms
a multitude of scars.
And here it should be noted
that for scars to form
you have to have
survived the wound.
And this they did.
Very few girls died
by way of slashed wrist,
but die they did.
An unstoppable momentum.

Did I mention how a train
passed through this town?
How it had no reason to stop?
How it would barrel through
at high speed?

There in that
second year of my tour,
I was told a secret that was
kept from us military tourists.
That almost every week,
some unfortunate girl
went down to the train tracks.
And yet there upon her arrival,
have the understanding
that there was no good reason
to follow them.
That there was no good reason
to cross them.
Rather to simply
step to the middle,
face their fate,
and wait
for the
Orient Express
to come and
take them away.

c 2011 Jack Hubbell

Under the Overpass

It took quite some time before I would even go downtown. I was certain that every upholstered chair was infested with lice, and every woman that brushed your arm, was a sadly corrupted vessel for all those diseases the goddess Venus had waiting behind door number three.

Yes, I did venture down amid the daylight hours, but the night belonged to an alien sort that brought an element of fear to the young man I was at that time. My fear was of some internal or external physical assault that might transpire from encountering this alien culture from the underside up. In the end, the wound was merely emotional, but emotional wounds often cut the deepest.

I was stationed with the US military in South Korea from 1981 to 83. Most servicemen were generally assigned for only one-year tours, and their experiences reflect this short time. Their total insights into the culture extend no further than the type of towns which build up around American military bases. Hence, their understandings of the Korean people and any qualities or faults they hold, were made predominately through the people they met there; the type of Koreans who would be drawn to a “G.I. Town”.

Where these the true Koreans? No more I hope than we military being true examples of Americanism. Since for the most part, the military presence was men, the interactions between Americans and Koreans were mainly limited to those with prostitutes found in the many bars and discotheques which saturated the town. In these American’s pursuit of the perpetual party, all of life’s undercurrents were obscured by an alcohol-induced bliss and the pursuit of the perfect lay.

Toward the middle of my second year, I began to see more than this. Having moved off base into a small one room flat, I saw all the dancers, prostitutes and behind-the-scene people as they were without the party atmosphere. They became people I knew, instead of people I knew of. I still found myself fanning out to see the other people of Korea, but my main interest became the photo-documentation of a small group of dancer/prostitutes within the town of Song Tan.

I had had an interest in photography for some time, but never in documentation. Here and now was something beyond myself to focus upon. Without the camera, I do not know that I could have gotten as involved with, or ever cared as much for these individuals. The camera’s lens became a window for me to travel through into their lives. I found them photogenic, for they were far outside the realm of any experience I had ever encountered or seen through a viewfinder. Perhaps the best defense I had against culture shock was to put a camera between myself and this foreign world which then surrounded me.

Upon viewing the first group of photos as they materialized within the developing tray, I realized that everything I had been doing photographically before this time was now meaningless. The recording of life—the photo-journal—was all that mattered and via this instant obsession, I was led to intimately know people I would never have known otherwise.

The photographs that came to make up the sequence known as Under the Overpass originated from a group of portraits I had done of older Koreans who spent their days visiting and gambling under an overpass which crossed the town’s railway. The phrase began to apply not only to these people, but to the population of Song Tan overall and especially to that of the prostitutes I had met. Under the overpass were those who led lives beneath all who lead normal lives. The overpass was the normal life, and under it were all the prostitutes striving to reach it.

The vast majority of the military saw none of this and could not have cared less. They were there to do their jobs and have a good time whenever they could. Any hardships the prostitutes endured did not concern them. After all, they had brought it upon themselves. Or had they?

It would seem a lot of the girls who came to Song Tan had no idea what they were truly in for. They had come with the idea that they would meet and eventually marry the ideal American. Until this came about, most thought all they would have to be was a hostess or a barmaid. The rest knew otherwise, but likely not to the extent they would soon find. Yes, they might have to possibly subjugate themselves for awhile, but how long could that take?

With their arrival at Song Tan, they had to find room and board. The madams who ran the bars, brothels and discotheques were of course aware of this and lying in wait. In reality the madams were mere fronts for Korean Mafiosi, but because of my own ignorance, it took some time to realize just who they, the bouncers and doormen actually were. This, and why the girls were always so abnormally respectful to them.

Upon introduction to the madams, the girls were told not to worry for all would be taken care of. Any thing they might want—room, clothing and furniture—would be purchased for them with a small interest rate attached; they would easily work it off in time. This was the hook, and because of their naivet‚, they would not realize it until it was too late.

At first they were very shy, which was further amplified by the fact that they spoke little or no English. This hindered their abilities to interact with the servicemen, and soon they found themselves owing hundreds or even thousands of dollars in interest alone. The madams told them not to worry; soon an American would offer to pay for all the debts, and marry them. For some, this did happen; for most, it did not. The girls who thought they were only to be hostesses, barmaids and stage dancers now found what their true professions in Song Tan were meant to be, and how this was the only way they would be able to cope with the debts they now owed.

Their debts continued to climb, and yet the girls were still much too shy (do we honestly feel that they as women, possessed emotions any different than those within our own country?). Their fellow prostitutes began to show them how to surmount this, and with time they began drinking heavily, indulging in drugs and altering their original personas in any form possible. Their lives soon degenerated to pathetic levels. Some rebounded; many adapted and carried on at this level for years. Among them, there were those who decided to end their debts the easy way.

It was staggering how many suicides I became aware of after moving downtown. Being on the military base had allowed a buffer zone against all of this. After moving, I heard of them so often through girls that I had come to know, that I wondered how much of it was happening to those I had known nothing of.

The easiest and most popular method seemed to be the slashing of wrists. One of the girls I photographed did it so often, that her arms were literally crisscrossed with scars. Not all such scars were deep though. Having lived with the constant concept of suicide and the razor’s edge, it would appear that these young women’s psyches and perceptions had come to be mutated. I found that many of the women would slash their arms when in distress, but only to the point of getting the scar and not the end result. It almost seemed that all of the girls as an entity had accepted this act of self mutilation as a rite of passage the stress of leading such a life had decreed for them. It was expected. With my new found awareness of such a lifestyle’s existence, I then found myself looking around to find scars everywhere.

The closest I came to any of the girls was of one named Ju He. It should be stated that most of the girls did not go by their true names. They came to Song Tan and picked alternative names for themselves; names they had always wanted, and which came to stand for the alter-personalities they were soon to become. Most of the girls I came to know were through this so called Ju He, and my knowledge of Song Tan’s underworld was through them.

I had thought Ju He to be one of the most stable of all the girls although at times she would recess into fits of drinking and the use of amphetamines. I found myself forever opening drawers to find small pills which I would promptly flush down the toilet. She later revealed to me that one of the last portraits of her that I had taken was while she was under the influence. Now, when I gaze at this face from my past, it is all sadly appropriate.

A month before I was to leave Korea, Ju He slashed her wrist with a pocketknife—one that she had only recently seen me sharpening. Although the two cuts were deep and jagged, there was not a great amount of blood loss and no true danger came to her life. Still, this is hindsight, and at the time I was quite alarmed, insisting that she let me take her to the base hospital to get sutures. She absolutely refused. I sterilized and taped the wounds shut to the best of my abilities but found that on the next day, she had removed the tape, and thereby allowed the wounds to return to their original open and jagged state. By this time the wounds had set and I could not convince her to do anymore with them. It would seem that these permanent marks were to be her proof of anguish and she would not be released of them. She would not release me of them either.


A little over a year after leaving Korea, I received a postmarked parcel from a small village outside of Song Tan. Upon opening it, I found a letter from Ju He. In it she wrote that she was now working as a waitress at a military base close to Song Tan. She was no longer a prostitute; she was no longer under the overpass.

A short time after this, I found the old pocketknife and threw it away. Who am I to say where the overpass ends or begins? Who’s to say that I ever escaped?

©84 Jack Hubbell


Make sure to check out my last feature on my blog with Jack: The Ink Soaked Street Photographs of Jack Hubbell (aka Cyclops-Optic)

7 thoughts on “Orient Express: A Poem and Street Photography on South Korea by Jack Hubbell (1981-1983)”

  1. “the aim is to follow the tracks
    and not cross them.
    Crossing achieves nothing.
    Simply scars the velvet landscape,”

    I see these lines as a nice metaphor for street photography (not the original intention I suspect). It was nonetheless interesting seeing the lines in the context of street photography. To me this is in part what defines the difference between street photography and photos on the street (and feel free to disagree).

  2. Intense. Have been a fan of Jack’s work for some time, but this is incredible. Song Tan still exists as a military town, have never been myself but have met a few air force guys who live there.

    I wonder how much has changed. The amazing things about these pictures is that any one of them could have been taken yesterday. Of course Korea has changed dramatically since the early 80’s. But every one of these scenes (minus the cut wrists) are very familiar to me.

  3. Marrying good poetry and good photography can be difficult but when it’s done well it is a joy to behold.

    War poetry is probably the most difficult form of personal expression to combine with visual media. Often the best photo-stories are poetry in themselves – consider the epic work: ‘One Ride with Yankee Papa 13’ by the legendary Larry Borrows, produced by for Life. Words, even captions are in no way necessary – just look at the photographs in that photo-story. Awesome doesn’t even begin to describe what you see.

    Great blog, keep it up!

  4. Well done GI. I am glad someone when beyond the ” ville ” to see 5000 years of ROK history and people. I pulled three tours in ROK as a NCO and an Officer. I saw too many low IQ

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.