One night I took my artist friend up on the offer to check out the bar in the basement of his building with a room salon story in mind. He said the place had appeared to have changed ownership several times since he’d been in the building and it all seemed rather unofficial. We walked down a dark, dank staircase under a sign that said “GO” and through a heavy metal door into a clean, well lit vestibule that looked newly painted, tiled and paneled. My friend acknowledged the owner who was sitting in the first open stall on our right seemingly conducting some business with another man, both smartly dressed with coats and open collars. A young woman in a short black skirt with unusually large breasts restrained beneath a white blouse and taunt black jacket came out from behind the bar (also on our right) and led us along a corridor with private rooms on the left to an open area with semi-circular seating separated by flowered glass partitions. Everything looked new.
The place was dead given that it was before 9 P.M. on a weeknight. We ordered two beers from a menu that included bottles of whiskey and cognac priced in the millions of won or thousands of dollars, and I asked my friend what more he knew about the place. “It’s a call-in style place,” he said, explaining that customers show up, order drinks and request certain girls. Those girls are then “called in” and will show up in less than 30 minutes. They serve and entertain the men at the bar and then leave with them in most cases.
While we were talking, a 20-something girl dressed in business wear entered with a 30-something guy and sat in the area next to ours. I paid little attention and a few minutes later I headed to the bathroom. When I returned, my friend told me that something interesting, though rather regular, was occurring at that table. The man was some sort of producer and the woman was in need of work. They’d come from the studio. “The casting couch,” my friend said. On our way out I glanced at their seating area and noticed the man was sitting right next to the door and was certainly interested in more than business.
When I’d mentioned my interest in the room salon to my friend, he’d listed several kinds and levels of them including one where gorgeous girls in skimpy, white feathered outfits welcome you, serve you and will leave with you, another where customers can eat food off a naked woman on a table and even another where the most elite politicians, businessman, athletes, entertainers and gangsters can request and get female entertainers to join them. He spoke of the last place with some reservation. We both knew of the case of the actress Jang Ja-yeon who committed suicide after claiming she’d been forced by her manager to “entertain” numerous elite individuals. (A recent survey has revealed some disturbing realities for such entertainers.) The list of the individuals she revealed disappeared and those implicated faced light punishment.
Nevertheless, he knew someone who knew someone. Normally the only people allowed into such a place would be members and guests. He estimated membership fees to be in the tens of thousands of dollars. We had to reserve our arrival time several days before down to the minute: 12:15 A.M. When my artist friend, his wife, Mizaru and I arrived, the first thing I noticed was that the place was right next to a Brooks Brothers boutique. Even the sidewalks looked clean.
We descended a teak-planked staircase that was lit by golden bands filled with bulbs and it strangely made me think of Christmastime. A slick security guard in black waited at the bottom of the stairs (B1) in an area that looked like some kind of rock garden with the teak planks twisting left around the corner to the entrance. We were met at the entrance by a lively Korean woman wearing a bandana, lots of jewelry and an outfit that made me think of French hippieism. She was the owner. At the beginning of entering a such a place there seems to be a how-can-I-not-pause-and-stare moment. But only a moment; things are meant to move along.
The place was spacious and rectangular with two large semi-circular seating areas on our left and a long metallic bar on our right backed by mirrored shelves with many bottles of booze, all top-shelf. Lighting was dim but the first thing I noticed after the owner welcomed us was a Buddhist monk in full gray monk garb sitting at a one of the tables on our left with middle-aged Korean men and some women. I did not stare.
We were led by a hostess to the far end of the long main room where two private rooms with seating for what looked like more than 10 people occupied the space on the left and two semi-circular open seating areas faced us. On the right after the bar ended was an area for live music—an informal stage—where two Korean men comfortable in their time warp were singing some bygone tune.
At first, the hostess led us toward a private room out of view but we indicated that we wanted to sit in the open. As soon as we sat several sets of glasses were placed in front of each person: shot glass, rocks glass, high ball glass. We ordered whiskey and beer and had it within what seemed like a minute along with the staple fresh fruit tray. The service was so ready and set that the following moments were like “Oh, who is gonna make the move to fix the drinks or the move to come fix us.” The only female in our party took charge.
When I looked at my artist friend, an odd look had filled his face. “Do you know who is sitting at the table we passed on our way in,” he asked. “Yeah, a monk,” I answered. “No, not him,” he said quickly. I didn’t know anyone in the place. He explained that one of the two main men who’d been implicated in the Jang Ja-yeon scandal was at the table. Just then the owner approached and spoke to my friend’s wife for a minute or so. Did we want women? She could get English speakers. Money would be discussed at a later time but a flat fee of 100,000 won per girl would get the ball rolling. We would wait, we told her. Not long after, the table with the monk and the cretin my friend identified (a short, diminutive man with an unfriendly face) departed.
We drank, talked and glanced at new arrivals but nothing of interest seemed to transpire. A sort of empty, artificial air filled the place and we wondered what the use was in dropping hundreds of dollars to sit with some pretty girls We watched groups of girls with kept-under-thumb manners join Korean customers and I suppose the question to ask before winding up at one of the far-flung room salons on the peninsula is: just how much of an Asian male can I be?
As we spilled out onto the street after settling our bill someone suggested we head to the northern part of the city (Bukchang-dong) near City Hall—where seedier and shadier at-the-ready room salons are located—to further pursue the story. Ducking into a taxi it dawned on me that the same feeling had been with me years before after “Aphrodite.” It’s all just one behemoth of a business and someone’s milking you while they milk the “working girls.” Yes, I know it’s the oldest profession. And, yes, I know it’s providing income for those in need. But in the end, we all can make the call on whether or not to fall for the monkey business. I was on my way home.
Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business”
Mizaru contributed to reporting.