A few years ago I was sitting at a small local bar called Mambo in the sleepy upscale neighborhood of Gaepo-dong in southern Seoul for a last beer after my two Korean friends had headed home when a man from India took a seat a few stools down from me. This was peculiar for a number of reasons but mostly because I had rarely seen a foreigner anywhere in the neighborhood and never at this particular bar.
He wore a neat dark suit and carried a traditional black briefcase which he placed in the stool next to him. I guess that he was in his late 30s. He ordered Scotch on the rocks from the attractive female bartender I had stayed to talk to then looked around the nearly empty bar and quickly struck up a conversation with me. His name was Jaipal. He was involved in some kind of computer business and said he was “staying in the area for a while.” Some business associates had brought him to Mambo a few weeks before and he liked the low-key feel it had (and the bartender).
We carried on talking about the same things foreigners from different corners of the world who meet in another foreign country discuss: home, job, places traveled to and the current country of residence. This went on for more than an hour until he asked me, “Have you been to any night clubs or room salons.” “You mean like in Hongdae or Shinchon?” I responded referring to the two college areas of Seoul where many people—mostly young—gather to drink, dance, listen to live music or techno and generally party. No, he wasn’t talking about that he was talking about places where women served men in any number of ways. “I know a Russian place,” I remember him saying. “Do you want to go?” This type of situation has never ceased to amaze me during my time living and travelling abroad— meeting random strangers in one place and then going to another place with them.
The next thing I knew we were in a cab headed for the ritzy business area of Seoul near Gangnam Station where skyscrapers rise over streets of congested traffic and neon sidewalks buzzing with swarms of people. I swear the place was called “Aphrodite” but I never saw it again. There were Greek-like statues (think Venus de Milo) at the entrance and along the stairs leading down to the main door. Men in tight, shiny black suits who looked like they were on security detail for a visiting head of state quickly made us as anything but a threat and said welcome: “O-seo-o-sae-yo!” I heard loud dance music as we neared the bottom door and stood in front of a counter with a computer/register which a stunning Korean woman was clearly in charge of. I had not seen anyone who looked like a Russian. Jaipal held up two fingers and said two in Korean and the woman directed us through the door which led to another much larger room, perhaps the size of a rural high school gymnasium. The first thing I noticed was a stage at the far end of the room where about five nearly naked white women were dancing, their bodies pulsing to the music.
The room was filled with different kinds of seating areas: circular tables in the center, couches and lounge seating on the sides and what looked to be “private” rooms that were sealed from any kind of viewing. Jaipal headed for a central table guided by another sylphid Korean who, after seating us, presented us with a menu from which Jaipal ordered a bottle of whiskey and some beers. We were probably 10 meters from the stage. I just remember thinking, “Jesus are they tall!” aside from the other things men marvel at when they see a beautiful woman’s body. Our libations came quick and no one was skimming on service: Whiskey with an ice bucket on the side, bottles of beer and a large tray of fresh fruit. The waitress filled all the necessary glasses and left.
It all seemed a bit surreal. Every 10 minutes or so the girls would rotate and another group of gorgeous “Russian” women would come out. After the switches some girls would come out to sit with a certain table of customers or disappear into the side rooms. “You can pick,” Jaipal said. The girls had clearly noticed that we were not the usual suspects (everyone else in the place was a Korean man in a suit). At some point—I don’t remember when—I asked Jaipal about money: what was the deal? He seemed uninterested in monetary discussions but entertained me: just to sit down we’d dropped $200 (the whiskey and fruit came with that); to have a girl come sit, talk and serve would be at least another $100 depending on time spent and anything beyond that would be considerably more expensive. He and some Korean business associates had dropped several thousand dollars a few months before (he’d taken a girl to a love motel). “Since we’re here why not have a girl come sit?” Jaipal offered. I didn’t argue. I clearly remember that there was this one who resembled the actress Brigitte Nielsen who was married to and starred with Sylvester Stallone in the 80s film “Cobra.” She was nearly as tall as I am (I’m about 190cm), had an athletic build (everything held firm as she danced) and her red hair was in pig tails. Jaipal pointed out a slightly shorter stunner with very short black hair and a body like a gymnast.
At the break both girls came just slightly more clothed in bras and half robes and sat down. Despite my inebriation, I was intimidated by “Nadia” as she called herself. She was more beautiful up close: light blue eyes, a high, soft nose, glowing skin and legs that went forever. Both girls spoke English and were extremely personable. They were also all business— the business of the place. They established immediate physical contact and maintained it throughout. Little shifts of their legs, brushes of their hair or face, a tilted revealing of the neck, a thrust of a breast into the arm; everything was directed to the sensual. They were there to close the deal. They kept the alcohol flowing, filling glasses and raising toasts in the most salacious of ways. One of the last clear things I recall was Nadia leaning over on me—her hand on my thigh, her lips brushing my ear—asking “Do you want to go with me?” And I didn’t answer. It was like the moment between sleep and waking when you can’t move: sleep paralysis. A few moments later our waitress came and said something to the girls. Nadia looked at me and said, “someone else wants to see us.” A smiling Jaipal looked at me and said, “sure.” The two stood up, said goodbye and were led to one of the private rooms.
I never saw Jaipal or Nadia or Aphrodite again. But I got my first look at an industry that is ubiquitous in Korea and reportedly worth up to 4% of GDP. The surreality of the night stayed with me for some time in telling the story, which I rarely did because the staple male question was “why didn’t you say yes?” Truth is, I don’t have any answers and “I don’t know” doesn’t cut it for most. It’s been a while since I even thought about the experience until recently when a Wall Street Journal Reporter asked the finance minister about room salon culture on International Women’s Day in March. The question and a subsequent profanity were not well received. One doesn’t speak publicly of prostitution and bar girls on International Women’s Day in Korea (any local knows that). Really, most gender-related issues are relegated to the back seat under the floor mat.
Around that time an artist friend who has a studio in the fashion boutique/recording studio/plastic surgery mecca of Apgujeong-dong, Seoul told me that he had dozens of room salons and juicy bars within a stone’s throw of his place. He spoke of looking down from his roof after midnight and seeing the streets full of luxury sedans flanked by “serious” security details clothed in all black waiting for their bosses. In fact, he told me, the building his studio was in had one such establishment in the basement.
To Be Continued.