So I was reading The Grand Narrative, one of my favourite blogs on sexuality and gender in Korea from back in my Honours days, and the issue of male prostitution in Korea through 'host bars' came up. (By the way - is it just me or do all of the men on the sign for the Japanese bar at the bottom look like the same man or maybe two or three men at most with different hairstyles?) Now this is interesting, because as a foreigner in Korea who has some Korean-American friends with experience in Korean culture, I heard about 'booking clubs' fairly early on. Sorry to my Korean-American buddies by the way, but it's true! Maybe all of my Korean friends are too straight-laced, or think I am, but I've never heard anything about booking clubs from Koreans unless I've brought it up myself and directly asked them about it. A 'booking club' or 'night-u club' (as opposed to a plain club where you go to dance) is basically a place you go with the expectation of meeting someone. Don't get me wrong - this doesn't necessarily mean you and everyone you meet there are expecting sex (unless you are somewhere very seedy). You might just be out for a fun night of flirting and or dancing with your friends, and in places like Cheongju the 'night-u clubs' are actually pretty much the only places you can go to dance anyway because there is only one (very dodgy) dance club.
This is usually how it goes: you pay the entry fee and go in. You have to buy a table or a room and some drinks. If you are a woman and it's a fairly busy club, sometimes you don't have to pay the door fee, and you usually just get a table and a round of beer (the cheapest alcohol) because you wouldn't expect to be there for very long - only until you get 'booked'. If you are a man, you would usually buy a bottle of alcohol like whiskey or vodka, and some anju (안주 or 'bar food' that you are normally expected to buy when you buy alcohol anywhere you go). If you are there to really just have fun with your friends you'll probably get a room so that you can sing karaoke and don't have to scream over the house music to talk to your friends. This also means you'll probably get more girls or at least more attractive ones because that's how the waiters make tips - in booking clubs, you aren't supposed to find people yourself, you ask the waiters to do it for you. And this is probably what keeps booking clubs relatively un-dodgy - the fact that you don't have to take the plunge and make the first move yourself and that when the waiter brings a girl to your table, you know that they will talk to you, if only for as long as their drink lasts. It's also in the waiters' and clubs' interests not to let anything too crazy happen, as their reputations and jobs are at risk if it does. Which is not to say that they can't get damn pushy about it. Booking clubs are all about men meeting women so it's the waiter's job to find as many attractive girls as possible for the men to flirt with and if you're there it's assumed you want to flirt too, but for many it's a bit of a giggle, and still a bit daunting to be all by yourself so girls will usually go in packs - if a waiter grabs one girl, he's also usually grabbing her friends too because they'll have immediately gripped onto each other like a line of crabs. Once at the chosen table or in the room, it's etiquette that you stay for at least one drink. One of my friends told me that she once tried to leave immediately after being shoved into a room by herself, and the waiter held onto the doorknob on the other side and laughed at her trying to get out. Technically, you can say 'no' if a waiter tries to pull you off by yourself, but they can also pretend not to hear you, or take some dramatic and very sneaky measures - for example, when I went to my first booking club with about four other people, one of whom wasn't even 17, and a waiter tried to pull her off by herself, of course we all immediately said no. Seeing that it was a no-go, but not wanting to take all five of us, he pretended it was ok and then led us on a roundabout way to one of the rooms. On the way, as we walked through a hallway, another waiter with a large group of girls walked through us and as if by magic, a bunch of other waiters appeared and grabbed different people from our group and dragged us off in separate directions. Co-incidence? I think not. Luckily I grabbed someone else's hand so we were ok together, but it took us a while to find everyone else after we'd had our obligatory drink and politely excused ourselves.
Anyway, that's basically it. If you're an obvious foreigner (i.e. white or black) and not in Seoul, then you might have some trouble getting booked, as we found out a couple of weekends ago at Castle, one of the Cheongju night clubs. I actually broke the rules on that one since our waiters weren't too concerned about helping us out and went up to some guys myself and brought them back to our table to flirt with my lovely friend visiting from Busan (who'd never been to a night club before). But SOMEONE ELSE (you know who you are!) immediately stole the cutest one and then the other one clammed up when he found out my friend didn't speak Korean so my stint as pimp-waiter was a bit of a failure. But we got to dance (and I got to practice my Korean) so it was still good fun. Oh and one of my friends who was with us and is an English teacher at one of the universities here also ran into some of her students so it was probably good we didn't stay for more than a couple of hoursㅋㅋㅋ
Anyway, so booking clubs are interesting facets of Korean culture. Keep in mind that in Korea, although people are very casual about talking to strangers if they feel they have something in common (e.g. you often see ajummas chatting to each other like old friends about their children or problems with their health or what have you when they've only just met by sitting next to each other on the bus), but can be very shy about talking to their crush, which is why a lot of relationships start through mutual friends introducing people here. And back to the other interesting part - that is, the point of my post - which is the other side of booking clubs: host clubs. These are basically the same but the other way around, and for women to flirt with men. Judging from the tone of The Grand Narrative's article and this post by an American girl living in Korea who was curious and decided to check it out for herself, it doesn't seem like men go there of their own volition to flirt and have a laugh like women go to booking clubs. What does that tell you about men the world over? (Sorry to the nice men out there ^_^)
I think I'll stick to dog-cafes instead :p
****ADDENDUM: I asked a friend about host bars and she said that it's mostly hookers and hostesses who go there, i.e. women who have to spend all their time fawning over the men. I'm pretty sure the American girl living in Korea was neither of those things, so it's obviously not entirely them, but I guess it makes sense that the hard working ladies like being pampered too occasionally. She also said that there's a service where you can call someone to run to the grocery store for you and bring it to your house if you don't want to go outside or whatever, but again, it's mostly used by 'ladies of the evening' (but presumably also by day) that are trying not to interrupt business by making a 7-11 run for cigarettes and soju etc. And no, I don't know how she knows these things when she's spent the last 8 years living in Sydney.