clubs, cinema & the cutting edge of Korea (now defunct)
Sunday, 19 September 2010
Medley (lost chapter from a work in progress)
Three girls strip and mime on a podium, on fire in the blinding purple-blue light.
I’m in Suwon, a city known for trannies and homosexuality in a country where such things are not so much hidden as rare. Korea isn’t Japan. Gay doesn’t even translate into anything.
So, seedy Suwon in Shampoo, traditional Korean nightclub. This means there are bench tables all the way from the back of the hall up to the small elevated dancefloor, and, as Helen tells me, all the floors up above are lined with private rooms - rows of shut doors in the dark. She, Daisy and the receptionist are witnessing the show with me, everyone facing the stage, faces raised like dogs’ paws. The stripping trio are dancing to what can only be described as a Disney medley - chipmunk high voices bounding over godawful early 90s production values as tacky as the plastic they’re wearing. I’m back in the kindergarten.
Two stand behind the leader of the group and - this really gets me - one of them stops dancing halfway to chat to a guy poking a flirty finger into her ankle, his head level with her plastic high heels as she natters, synchronised groupwork be damned.
The lead dancer is down to her underwear, and I pretend to hide my face from the sight cos the girls are laughing at me out of communal embarrassment. I cover my mouth as I laugh and shake my head in disbelief. She whips off her underwear in time with the lights going out to applause. The darkness is quite apt really - this strip show was as alluring as a Punch & Judy show, and just as childish. Incredulity and Disney disabled the whole of my libido.
And back on. Time for the K-pop to recommence. We stay where we are and I like how I’m cock of the roost, the only dancing male. Earlier at noraebang, a private karaoke room, it was me plus five women, including the school owner and the 50 something principal.
None of them have dressed up for shitty Shampoo - Daisy’s in a tracksuit and leggings, and the receptionist in a red hoodie. The latter, 18, dances to the boy bands and girl bands with an odd bouncy style by springing off her feet with karate chop arms fanning about like a windmill in well memorised patterns, as seen in the videos, almost eerily mechanised. She looks like a North Korean with her big round saucer of a face, and she has the pale ringed eyes of a flapper, beauty spot by her cold indigo lips. She’s rather teutonic and I hate her actually, most of the time. Ice cold even when looking hot. Or she’s just simply so stalled by concentrating on her English vocabulary she forgets her social skills in the process. I don’t know. We head back to our specially reserved table with fruit and snacks straight out of a 70s cookbook shoot.
‘Hey guy, are you American?’ A Korean’s grabbed me by the elbow. The girls continue ahead.
‘Wow, do you know Pak Ji Sung?’ The Manchester United import. I’ve heard this question a million times. He still hasn’t let go of my elbow. I answer for the millionth time.
‘Are you looking for girls tonight?’ The question is too earnest, the grip too strong. I laugh and look away, almost embarrassed.
‘Do you have a girlfriend?’
‘No? But you are so handsome.’
He’s staring me in the eyes with a big grin. He’s muscular, in a white vest and unzipped gilet jacket.
‘What’s your name?’
‘I’m Jong Min.’ His grip is as hard as his row of teeth. ‘Come with me, you can meet many hot girls tonight.’
And suddenly I’m excited cos he’s taking me backstage - the hidden world of these private rooms I’ve heard about. I’m in quiet corridors, away from the hoi poloi - possibility is electric in the air as he guides me through the labyrinth, dotted with the occasional waiter carrying a tray. Private rooms + girls? Of course I’m excited.
Everyone looks up when we enter, awkward smiles. It’s a bunch of guys around a table - more fruit, plus a large bottle of whiskey and an empty ice bucket. Squares of light orbit their skin and clothes and the walls, halcyon specks rotating in an off-tilt angle. Some wear suits, others just shirts.
I do the rounds - yes, I’m English, yes I’m a teacher, yes I have no girlfriend. We do a round of shots.
The four guys have made room for me in the middle, the Jesus at this supper, captain of the table. Jong Min’s smiling away next to me, serving me more alcohol as the small talk becomes even smaller. The porter brings in two girls, very average looking.
Korean chatter. I bow my head. They cover their faces when I ask how they are.
‘They can’t speak English’ Jon explains.
One of the girls instinctively grabs the karaoke pad, types in a number. The other collects two mikes hanging by the machine on the wall opposite to us. We stay seated and drink and watch them sing something native. They’ve done this before, not even needing the words on the screen in the wall.
Applause. I’m laughing. More small talk when the girls sit down, small talk from everyone but me - the alien alone. I drink, they leave.
‘Did you like?’
Jon doesn’t mean their singing of course.
‘Oh! Playboy. More girls coming, don’t worry.’
I nod, but I’m confused.
‘These girls work here, yeah?’
‘This is their job? Sing and talk?’
‘The club bring them here? To sing? Pay money.’
‘No-one pay money.’
‘This is not their job’ says the suit beside me.
‘Why do they come here then?’
‘He brought them here.’
The porter’s back, with three girls this time. He hurries them in then shuts the door.
‘From where?’ I ask but the Korean small talk’s started up again.
Another song. We drink. They sit down, we drink. They leave. The suit asks why I didn’t ask for a number.
‘But these girls work here?’
‘No. They customers.’
‘And the club brings them here?’
‘This is Korean club’ Jon adds. ‘Girls dance then come to here’.
And there’s me thinking there was a little room of girls all standing around, like show dancers in a dressing room, waiting to be summoned by the porter.
Another round of drinks. A 3rd round of girls. Helen texts me - time to go home. No-one’s talking to me and I need the lift, fuck knows where I am. Jon’s sad, hand patting my knee.
I find the roost dancing, coats draped over their arms, and all around me on the dancefloor abuctions are taking place - I see porters dragging girls by the arms upstairs, some willing, some not. A subtle subterfuge. Girls deplete one by one.
On the way out a bouncer asks me how I am, says I love you. Another Korean dude winks at me.