How one bar in Korea tried to prevent Ebola by banning ‘Africans’

This weekend, this sign at JR’s pub in Itaewon, Seoul, South Korea that has been circulating and causing all kinds of uproar. Here it is, for background information:


Now I, like many others, spread that around at 2am on Sunday morning. It was ridiculous and wrong, and caused a firestorm in the expat community and beyond. I mean, look at that thing. You’d have to be insane to think that was a good idea. Into the next evening, people were calling for boycotts and shouting down the bar for its absolutely ridiculous actions.

Like you, I have some questions. The purpose of the article is to use these questions to clear up a few misunderstandings about the nature of the situation. That being said,  let’s begin.

Is Ebola a problem in Korea?

As I write this, there are exactly ZERO cases of the ebola virus in Korea. I’m not, in any way, saying it’s impossible. I’m merely pointing out that the threat level, at present, is zero (the same as Kenya, which Korea has cancelled all flights to and from right now). Also, Ebola is not spread by any other means than direct contact with bodily fluids (see: not food). It makes me wonder what kind of party JRs pub would be hosting that this would be a concern.
Misunderstandings based on ignorance about race and/or nationality are not new issues in Korea, as I have previously written about here.

Nonetheless, let’s push on.

Who made this sign?

Initially, there was some dispute over who had made these signs. Accusations ranged from disgruntled customers to misguided employees. Let’s quickly examine those statements.

Possible answer #1: Vengeful act by someone unrelated.

Let’s say that someone wanted to sabotage the bar. They went out to artbox, bought tape, paper, and two colours of markers and made two signs. They then came to the front door, unaware to staff, and stuck two notices up on the door unnoticed, and fled the scene Thus, it was an insidious plot by someone who felt wronged by the bar and, knowing that this would kick up a storm, ran away into the night laughing maniacally.

Problems: For starters, if it were this far-fetched conspiracy, it would likely have to be a Korean. The nature of that sign reads ‘due to Ebola virus’. The phrasing (misuse of articles) in this message indicates that it was not written by a native English speaker, but someone with a high level in English. I would say, high enough to work at or operate a bar with mostly foreign customers. Otherwise, I would have to add that a disgruntled foreigner, while purchasing materials and crafting signs to sabotage the bar, would also have to sneak in a deliberate mistake of minute proportions in order to make this more believable (before sneakily taping them on the front door of a business on Saturday night).  Probability: A generous 5%

Possible Answer #2: An Employee.

So, let’s say that someone who is an employee at the bar has been watching CNN or FOX for three straight days and has decided that, despite the zero cases of Ebola in Korea at the moment, they were terrified about ebola and decided they could not serve ‘Africans’ on that basis. They, without consultation of management, crafts signs and post them at the door to help them stave off infection from ‘Africans’. Comforted in their actions, they can now rest easy in an ‘African-less’, Ebola-free environment.

Problems: The likelihood of an employee of a restaurant (let alone in Itaewon) taking it upon themselves -without tacit or active complicity of the manager- to forbid other customers is extremely low (especially based on race). Also (and I know I’m generalizing), Korean workers are not known for their conscientious defiance of their superiors in the workplace. Anyone worried enough about being the victim of a pandemic to forbid customers without their managers consent would likely just not show up or quit for the roughly 5 dollars an hour they are making. Probability: An extremely generous 15%

Possibly answer #3: A Manager/Owner

Short of any options I have missed, the Probability of a manager or owner directly acting is about 80% by my sensible (albeit arbitrary) calculations. That being said, it would be wise to direct questions towards the person most likely to be responsible: The management and ownership of the bar.

Furthermore, patrons were asked for ID, and black Africans were turned away for all of Saturday night, while white Africans, after some discussion, were allowed in. To put all doubt behind us, management is directly responsible for this situation.

Now that we’ve dealt with the question of who did this, let’s ask the more important question.

Does the bar deserve to be boycotted?

Well, after the storm of ridicule that they received, they reacted by sending messages like this one:


As a former restaurant owner/someone actually concerned with their reputation, this is a pretty hideously understated reaction.

Let’s say you own a bar (and one might be for sale, before long) -in the middle of the most diverse area in Korea- embroiled in an uproar over racist and ignorant signs strewn across the door. This could utterly destroy your reputation and your business and its gone absolutely viral through your entire customer base. So naturally, you send a Kakao message to two other people asking them to pass a message along to solve it. Moreover, this message was also sent through a popular expat FB group:

“I didn’t even know about this. I’m at the BBQ restaurant now.  I just hosted the Gabon ambassador last night at the BBQ. 50 people from Gabon reserved the roof yesterday. I will talk to whoever put up this sign. I will clear everything up today.”

– Troy Armando, JR Pub owner

Oh, dear owner of the bar. You may have been in Hawaii, New York, or even combatting ISIS . Even if I buy that you were completely unaware of the situation and rectified it as soon as you were notified, your dealings with the controversy surrounding the actions that you “accept full responsibility for” are, as I’ve made clear, lacklustre.

You responded to a full blown controversy by messaging two people, asking them to post an apology for you. In addition to it being obvious that you do not have competent management over the goings on of your bar, you also show a lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation, your actual customer relation skills, and your inability to rectify the situation sincerely and effectively.

I’d like to give constructive feedback to countervail my finger-wagging, but as you know, this is a pretty clear case of wrongdoing. Carding and turning away black people is just something that neither of us will defend, and there’s really no way out but apology.

This evening, the co-owner taped this statement to the door of the pub:


THIS, while sincere, is not enough.

I’d suggest taking a break and opening under a new name. Should I suggest ‘Michael Richards’ pub’?

-Adam R Carr

Also, my friends over at Asia Pundits have a nice write up here!