“Itaewon Class”, the Korean series that denounces discrimination

You may not know his name and even less his story relayed last year in some Korean media, but Suh Kwan-woo is one of 30 Métis children born to a Liberian mother and a Korean father in the late 1980s, while Daewoo E & C was building a highway between Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, and Freetown, that of the Sierra Leone. His father already had a wife and two daughters in South Korea, but he stayed with Kwan-woo’s mother for a year. The latter became pregnant and the father returned to his country. Over twenty-nine years later, Kwan-woo followed in the footsteps of this unknown father.

Her story directly inspired the producers of the series Itaewon Class, which hits all over South Korea and on the Netflix platform? We got in touch with him. The young man looked Itaewon Class and had the feeling of seeing his own story ratold on the screen. He even jokingly remarked that he could have “played the role of Toni”, one of the main characters in the series and half-breeds like him.

Kim Toni and his colleagues on one of the rooftoops that make the reputation of the Itaewon district in Seoul.
© JTBC

Toni’s story, inspired by real events?

When we discover the character of Kim Toni for the first time, he undergoes a job interview to be a waiter in the pub of Sae-ro-yi. He is not hired because of his CV, but thanks to his appearance: He is black, so he must “necessarily” speak English, and will be able to welcome international customers without problem.

Except that Toni said it from the start: he is Korean by his father, Guinean by his mother, so he speaks Korean and French fluently, but certainly not English. Unfortunately, her announcement was met with skeptical looks. Physically, he does not look like a Korean and until his papers clearly indicate that he is Korean, he will remain just a stranger in his father’s country. Unfortunately, the young man is in a delicate situation since he has just come to Seoul to find his father. The latter lived in Guinea with him and his mother, but one day he returned to Korea and gave no sign of life.

Everything started from a webtoon (Korean comic book online) from which the series is adapted. The director put the odds on his side by choosing for the main role Park Seo-joon – one of the most popular actors of the moment – and by asking Kwang-fin, the author of the original webtoon, to taking care of writing episodes, without the help of professional screenwriters, is rather unusual.

Initially, the character of Toni did not exist in the comic strip. “I felt that certain elements were missing from the webtoon and that it was an opportunity to remedy them by myself through the series,” explained the author of the online comic strip to the press. “There are a lot of stories that I couldn’t tell in the original version. “

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Marginal characters

In itself, the intrigue is engaging, but if Itaewon Class won the hearts of viewers, it’s largely thanks to the protagonists:

Park Sae-ro-yi, a former detainee, decides to open a pub in Itaewon, a trendy district of Seoul. His goal ? Thrive and become powerful enough to take revenge on the Jang clan. This family, which is at the head of a renowned restaurant chain, has ruined their plans for the future and is behind the death of his father.

To accomplish this long-term revenge, he will be supported by his employees: a gifted sociopath, a former cellmate, a transgender chef and Toni, a Guinean of Korean origin.

Inequalities and taboos of society are exposed through the eyes of these five young people. Considered by society as marginal, they struggle to emancipate themselves, each in their own way.

It is rare to see so much “diversity” in a single drama (name given to Asian series) and it is exciting. Especially since this portrait gallery also represents what Korea is today. The proportion of immigrants has doubled in the last ten years to represent 4% of the South Korean population. But discrimination is strong and often assumed. It is not uncommon to hear people on public transport accusing strangers openly of being dirty or smelling bad. They are sometimes refused entry to restaurants.

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Unvarnished reality

Guest on the show Tea Time with David on YouTube, Chris Lyon, the American actor who plays Toni, said: “Whether they are blacks or any other person of color, it is really very rare to see us represented in main roles on the screen. And it is not just a question of ethnicity, but also of sexual orientation, of minorities in general. The young man has lived in Korea for six years now and has almost mastered the Korean language. Music producer, he recently became an actor. When he learned that he had taken on the role of Toni, he said that he was “on another planet”. “It’s not every day that a role like this presents itself,” he said. “I thought it was a huge step forward. Indeed, the character of Toni allows us to tackle head on issues generally absent from Korean dramas, namely racism and discrimination. He will in particular be turned away from a nightclub which prohibits entry to customers “from Africa and the Middle East”.

Connecticut actor Chris Lyon plays Kim To-ni in the series.
© JTBC

In real life, Chris Lyon has already experienced such scenes on several occasions: “Sometimes, we tell you opposite:“ Here, we do not accept blacks ”, sometimes, we will rather say“ foreigners ”. Generally, the argument put forward is that, in the past, foreigners have caused trouble. With these kinds of scenes, the series tried to stick as close to reality as possible, without trying to soften the unpleasant aspects. “

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Itaewon, a multicultural district

Located in Seoul, in the Yongsan district, the Itaewon district is reputed to be the most cosmopolitan in the country, to the point of sometimes being nicknamed “the international village of Korea”. Itaewon was built around an American military base in the 1950s and, over time, experienced significant commercial development. Today, many expatriates live there and the area is frequented by tourists as well as by Koreans. Cultures and traditions from around the world permeate the restaurants, pubs, clubs and shops of Itaewon. In fact, some African students whom we had met in Seoul last year had explained to us that, for them, it was a kind of essential place: it is Itaewon that they go to have their hair done, by example. When Bethel, who comes from Ethiopia, is homesick, she eats in an Ethiopian restaurant located in this district. As for Shanice, originally from Burundi, she explained that in Seoul she sometimes almost had the “impression of being in Africa” ​​thanks to Itaewon. When she wants to prepare an “African” meal, she goes shopping, even if the ingredients do not always have exactly “the same taste”.

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Poster of the new series produced by Netflix.
© JTBC

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