SEOUL — A funny odor fills the air at the House of Lilac, a health food restaurant in Seoul's trendy Pangbae-Dong neighborhood where they are cooking "Vitality Soup." For about $12, a diner can enjoy this delicacy, the main ingredient of which is a lean, protein-filled, choice cut of dog.
"You're beginning to ruin my day," snapped waitress Lee Shin Woo when asked whether foreign customers ever objected to the dish. They love it, she said, as do the many priests and physicians who come to eat canine cuisine, which is believed here to have curative powers.
Still, the House of Lilac will be out of business when the Seoul Olympics open Sept. 17. Authorities have persuaded its owner to close temporarily, along with many other restaurants serving dog or snake soup within city limits, to avoid offending foreign guests.
The government also plans to eject colorful street vendors from shopping areas, muzzle student protests and outlaw spitting on the sidewalks in an effort to sanitize--some say take the spontaneity out of--the South Korean capital.
Moreover, authorities are getting ready for the Summer Games with a chilling anti-terrorism program that has received so much publicity that they are now worried that potential visitors might be frightened away. When officials are not thinking of the specter of North Korean agents planting bombs, they fret about how the world will perceive South Korea after the floodlights go on next month. For this newly industrialized but highly traditional and culture-bound Asian nation, the coming of the Olympics represents at once a rite of passage and an identity crisis.
Most South Koreans seem to have rallied around the official preoccupation with appearances. "We don't have any hard feelings about the government shutting us down," said Lee, the waitress at the restaurant serving the canine cuisine. "We know this is a necessary part of preparing for the Olympics. It's for our country's image."
The government has spared no opportunity to get its message across. At Seoul's cinemas, before the movies begin, audiences are subjected to a lengthy propaganda film depicting proud, industrious citizens scrubbing restaurant kitchens and polishing public toilets for the Olympics.
But not everyone in Seoul is happy about the new edicts on being antiseptic, or with the pressures of adopting the guise of a modern, Western-style city. Seoul, a city of 10 million people, is already in dynamic transition, as tall glass and steel buildings replace the low-slung structures with curved tile roofs that once set the tone for Korean architecture. It is the contrasts between old and new, chaos and order that give character to many of Seoul's neighborhoods.
In few places is that ironic blend more obvious than in Myongdong, a shopping district in central Seoul where vendors hawk goods from makeshift stalls among rows of fashionable boutiques and fast-food outlets. Kim Myong Kil, 42, who earns about $40 a day selling bananas off a cart here, rejects the government's argument that street vendors are an eyesore or, worse, that they block traffic.
"It's fine that we hold the Olympics. The face of the Korean people is at stake," Kim said. "I just wish they'd come up with an alternative before deciding to move us out of here. Something has to be done about our livelihood. The Olympics is going to be a real headache for us."
Traffic is an issue close to obsession for city fathers, who have come up with a plan to unsnarl Seoul's roadways by allowing only vehicles with odd-numbered plates on odd-numbered days, and even-numbered plates on even-numbered days during the two-week period of the games. Even so, the 15,448 vendors counted by officials on city streets threaten to "paralyze traffic," they say.
'They Must Cooperate'
Removing them is "one of our biggest headaches," said Kim Yong Nae, mayor of Seoul. "It's not going to be compulsory. We're trying to educate them, not push them. We're reminding them that they are the hosts of the Olympics and they must cooperate."
He acknowledged that the vendors might be viewed by some foreigners with fascination--as a cultural asset--and that most of them stay out of the way on the sidewalks anyway. But he is concerned about sanitation problems as well as traffic patterns.
"To protect the health of our citizens, I have to look into their business and give them guidance," he said.
Another headache, more accurately a throat-ache, is the potential for clouds of pepper gas billowing in Seoul's already polluted summer air. Myongdong is a prime locale for this experience as well, as students and anti-government dissidents make it a ritual to hold rallies in the sanctuary of the Myongdong Cathedral on the edge of the district.
Invariably, when demonstrators leave the compound to march on City Hall Plaza, they are greeted by riot police firing pepper gas, a vile and pernicious form of tear gas that blinds, chokes and burns the skin of anyone in its path.