A trip to a hostess bar
In about a month I’ll return to Korea. When I do I’ll be living in Jeollanam-do, quite close to one of my best Korean friends, KH. This makes me glad. In the past I’ve only been able to see him once or twice a year, but it’s usually been a memorable time when we have caught up.
I originally met KH in Australia, of all places. I was taking CELTA in Sydney, and he was one of the crash test dummy students who got free English lessons in exchange for being taught by incompetents. At that time he was taking a post-army, mid-university gap year, theoretically to learn English in Australia. Actually he was learning a bunch of laid-back Australian habits – marijuana, sick days, overuse of the word “mate” – that would leave him forever dissatisfied with the obligations of Korean society.
He’s a bright guy; he’s also funny. In Australia, he worked as a removalist and enjoyed subverting customers’ stereotypes about both Koreans and removalists.
“Don’t Koreans eat dog?” a customer once asked him.
“Sometimes,” he said. Slyly, he then asked them if they had a dog. They conceded they did.
“What’s it’s name?” KH asked.
“Mm,” KH said; I imagine somewhat wistfully, with a slight smile. “Perfect.”
Another appealing quality of KH’s, particularly to an introvert such as myself, is that he is one of those people who enjoys bringing friends from different social circles together and then seeing what happens. A night with KH usually involves him making and receiving a number of phone calls and moving around the city from place to place, rendezvousing and separating from groups of people that he knows. Making friends with Koreans isn’t easy, so I’ll be glad to have a friend like that close by when I am back in Korea.
But one time when I visited him there were no other friends to be found. It was the end of university semester and his friends, in particular the girls he knew, who were mostly his juniors, were preparing end-of-semester essays and studying for exams. KH was, I think, technically still at university in some sense, but either he had finished his important studies, or he had in some fashion managed to extend his time at university to avoid looking for work, in the tradition of university students worldwide. So there were no friends to meet; in particular no girls to talk to, which was a disappointment to both of us.
So KH suggested we go to a bar.
I knew what he meant by “a bar”. These establishments are sometimes called business bars, or hostess bars; they’re frequented by Korean businessmen, and from what I’d gathered were disreputable places, one step above brothels.
I’d never been to one of these places. Well, that’s not true; I went to one accidentally with some friends in my first year in Korea. It was a tenth floor establishment and its name, Sexy Bar, was prominently advertised across the width of its darkened windows. We were taken with the frivolous idea of drinking at a place called Sexy Bar, as you would be when you’re new to Korea. We went up and walked into a large, completely empty bar. Around the walls stood some amazingly attractive girls in high heels and hotpants, shifting their weight from foot to foot and looking bored. We immediately got the sense that we were in the wrong sort of place, but persevered long enough to look at a menu, which offered only bottles of whiskey and other spirits starting from around 150,000 won. We quickly left. And that was all I really knew about Korean hostess bars.
KH asked me if I’d ever been to one; I said no. To convince me he told me about another waeguk friend he’d once had; a guy he’d worked with at an English camp. This guy, from the sounds of it, was something of a dissolute figure. According to KH, he had introduced him to the pleasures of a Korean hostess bar, and the guy had become addicted. He would go there frequently and drink himself into a stupor; the bar girls would have to ring up KH to come collect him.
I wasn’t too convinced by this story. But the evening was going nowhere, and as I wrote on here once, it’s a good idea to accept invitations from Koreans; it can take you to strange and interesting places. And I trusted KH – if I was ever going to experience this aspect of Korean culture, this was the only sort of circumstance in which I was likely to do it.
Michael Chabon once wrote, “All male friendships are essentially quixotic: they last only so long as each man is willing to polish the shaving-bowl helmet, climb on his donkey, and ride off after the other in pursuit of illusive glory and questionable adventure.” There’s truth in that.
“OK,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
KH had a theory about finding a good hostess bar. We’d been drinking in the university area, and although there were such bars around, it was not a good place for them. “There are too many young men here,” he said. “It is competition. If we go to another place, then there are only businessmen. So the girls will want to talk to us.”
I also wanted to find a motel for the night. What we needed was the part of the city where love motels bloom like strange orchids; where the noraebang advertisements feature pictures of girls in bikinis. KH knew where to go, and we caught a taxi. We wandered the neighborhood while I looked for a motel to stay.
We found a place, and I got a room. The bar KH knew was across the street from my motel, on the second floor. We went up to it, KH leading the way.
A story like this typically has a disclaimer: I’m no expert on this topic. What I know is what I heard from friends. Some words to let you know that I’m not a degenerate.
In this case, it happens to be true. What I know about hostess bars, and the various forms of prostitution in Korea, could be literally written on a postcard. If I were to do that, the postcard would say something like this:
1. Prostitution is really common in Korea.
2. Despite this, a foreigner is unlikely to randomly encounter it. It is not hidden, exactly, but there is a code to it, and it’s not obvious if you don’t know the code. For instance I’ve heard about “Kiss Bangs” plenty of times, but if I’ve ever seen one, I didn’t recognise it.
3. To quote KH, “There are many business models”. If you want to know more, there’s this useful reddit guide.
4. From what I can tell, with some, though not all, of those business models, sex is not a given; there is some process of mutual sizing up and negotiation. The girls can say no, which seems like a good idea.
OK; maybe it would be a long postcard. Hostess bars, from what I can tell, are at the milder end of that spectrum. They offer the illusion of attraction and intimacy; the bar girls will flirt with you, laugh at your jokes, pour your drinks and light your cigarettes. But it is mostly illusion. Just the same, from what I understand from KH and others, it’s not impossible to make arrangements to leave the bar with a girl.
Now you know as much as I do. The rest of this is more illustrative than informative.
I don’t know what I was expecting: stripper poles and red neon, maybe. But the bar was nothing like that. It was a small, nondescript room, not obviously “sexy”. A counter ran around three sides of the room. I don’t think the place could have held more than a dozen customers at a time. When we arrived it was empty apart from three businessmen sitting at the counter, talking to a girl. Two other girls, pretty rather than extraordinarily beautiful, waited behind the bar with nothing to do.
When we came in there were the expected glances back-and-forth, silently asking who was going to have to talk to the waegukin. The cash register faced the entrance. We walked up to it and looked at the menu, and I was surprised and relieved by the prices. There were 100,000 won bottles of spirits, but also the familiar Hite and Cass at 6,000 won a bottle: expensive, but not extraordinarily so. KH said we should order three bottles: one each, and one for the girl. We ordered them and sat at an empty stretch of the bar.
As it turned out, though, one of the girls was quite happy to talk to the foreigner. Her name was SeMi, and she spoke pretty good English, which I hadn’t expected. She poured our drinks, including one for herself. One thing that surprised me was that there was no slight-of-hand with the drinks. Although we had bought three bottles, she opened and poured from each of them in turn; she was clearly drinking the same beer as us, not coloured water. I wondered how much these girls ended up drinking in a given night, and how they handled it.
SeMi was attentive and gamely flirtatious, in that teasing Korean way. KH mentioned that I’d just got a room at a love motel, and she jokingly asked me for the room number. For the most part it was a normal conversation. When the range of topics I could talk to her about in our pool of shared language started to fade, KH talked to her in Korean. KH and I also talked to each other, while she listened. From time-to-time one of the other girls would wander over, apparently mostly for the novelty of hearing SeMi talk in English, then wander off again.
At one point KH and I were discussing where I would go the next day. I was on vacation at the time, on one of my unplanned trips around Korea via the bus network. I didn’t know where I would head to the next day and asked him for suggestions. KH suggested a couple of cities, and we asked SeMi for her suggestions, too.
This gave SeMi an idea. From behind the bar she produced a game. It was a circular pad of paper cards on a spinning roulette wheel; think Wheel of Fortune. She drew radiating lines on the card, segmenting it into wedges. In those wedges, she wrote the names of the cities we had been discussing as possibilities.
She also added a few impractical possibilities: North Korea (with SeMi) and Japan (with SeMi).
Finally, she added two extremely narrow wedges which spanned no more than a couple of degrees. In these, she wrote “SeMi house” and “Motel (with SeMi)”. We were ready to play the game.
In order to make the game last longer, I made a suggestion. Instead of spinning the wheel once, we should spin it and each time cross off one of the possibilities. Whichever suggestion was left at the end would be where I would go the next day. SeMi agreed.
At this, KH started to laugh and whispered to me, “You are very smart.” I guess I’m not as smart as him, because it took me a while to realize what he had seen instantly – that by changing the game in this way, I had turned those ulta-narrow wedges from unlikely possibilities to very, very likely ones.
After a few spins, SeMi realized the same thing, and began acting nervously – or mock-nervously. Eventually it came down to two possibilities: SeMi’s house and Buan, a small seaside city in Jeollabuk-do. The wheel came up with SeMi’s house, which was crossed off, probably to everyone’s relief, and it was decided that I would go to Buan the next day.
After that, while KH and SeMi talked, I looked at the Wheel of Fortune game. Beneath our card was another, and I puzzled through the Korean. It gave me a sense of how things went on a busier night. The card was divided in a similar way to our card, with large segments and three narrow segments. The large segments had things like this:
Person to the left drinks
Everybody else drinks
The narrow segments read 키스 – kiss – and 뽀뽀, which I thought just meant “kiss”, but which possibly has some different connotation to the Konglish version of “kiss”. The third was a word I didn’t recognise, and I asked SeMi what it meant.
“Sex,” she said. The words they don’t teach you in language class…
I wasn’t sure how seriously to take all this. What would have happened if my card had come up with SeMi’s house? What if the other card came up with sex? Was this really how she spent her night – gambling her body on a wheel of fortune game? I don’t know the answers to that.
I talked to SeMi about her life. She was a university grad student, studying ceramics. I asked her if she had any photographs of her ceramics, and she showed me some on her phone. I’m no expert in ceramics, but to my eye they were really good. They were delicate and beautiful.
I asked her if she liked this job. She paused for a very long time. I got the sense it was the sort of question you shouldn’t ask, and she was thinking about whether to give a truthful or performed answer. “No,” she said eventually.
I took a swig of my drink. She looked me in the eye. “Drink slowly,” she said. I thought that was surprising, too. It didn’t seem like it should be part of the script.
It got late, and it was time to go. KH had to be up early for some busy Korean thing he had to do. As we were about to leave, he asked me quietly if I wanted him to inquire whether SeMi was available for the night.
I’ll admit – I was momentarily tempted. Under other circumstances, she was the sort of girl I would love to meet. Attractive, smart, creative and fun. And in the glow of half-drunkenness, it was easy to imagine that there was something more to the flirting than just professionalism – that it might, somehow, have been real.
I thought of all the guys in these sorts of bars who had made that sort of mistake and believed they’d found true love. And I thought about whether I was the kind of person who bought a girl in a bar, and decided I wasn’t. I declined, and we left.
About a year later, I ended up in another hostess bar with KH. The experience was comparatively boring; the girls were uninterested and uninteresting. The one who was serving us spent most of her time playing with her phone and glancing around the room, like someone at a party who wishes they were talking to someone else.
I talked to KH about SeMi; we agreed she had been much more interesting. He teased me for remembering her name. But I remembered it because it was the same name as one of the first, great students I had had in Korea. I won’t say that they reminded me of each other, apart from their shared name, but they were both bright, attractive girls who were good at English, and I’d formed some sort of connection in my mind that made me think about the transition from being one to being the other.
KH asked me if I wanted to go back to that bar and see if SeMi was still around. I declined. The thing is, I would have been disappointed if she wasn’t still there – but more so if she was.