“Will we enjoy it?”
Sarah’s friend, the bar owner, writes down the name of the night club we’re going to, answers with an abrupt “HA!” and walks away. In the cab, we ask the driver to put on some music so that we can get in the mood; he puts on “Hotel California,” and is startled by our enthusiasm. We assume, however, there will be no Eagles at the night club.
We were ushered in by one waiter with a “come on” and were not abandoned by the staff for more than a moment thereafter. As much as we thought we knew about booking clubs, we could not have been prepared. Even though we were warned: “It’s a cross between a high school dance and a whore house.” (I would add “and speed dating.”) Somehow we thought waiters would not be kissing our hands and hissing in our ears all night: “Booking, booking — young guys!” Did not realize that we would not really be left alone at any point, force fed anju, even. I have never felt so commodified. Or glad to be under-dressed to a club. Or over-dressed if you’re talking skin coverage.
Women pay less for their tables than men who not only pay more but tip heavily to have women brought to their tables. So it’s not prostitution, but it is about sex and someone is getting money off of it, which lends a decidedly unsavory flavor to the enterprise.
Most of my Google results on the subject of booking are about Le Prive, a club in K-Town LA, but they have been enlightening nonetheless. The best one I found is from Nerve.com:
Booking began in South Korea during the early ’90s, as the nation’s youth culture began shedding its Confucian chain mail and fumbling toward a sexual revolution. As the national economy boomed, Euro-style cafes and discotheques sprang up and became wildly popular. But social mores held fast: in Korea, loyalty to family remains paramount to individual choice.
“You have to understand how heavy the influence of arranged marriage has been,” says Kye Young Park, an associate professor of anthropology at UCLA. “Courtship hasn’t been developed in Korea, so booking became one way to compensate. There’s a strong belief in romance in the U.S., but Koreans and other East Asians believed that was superficial. What was more important in choosing your spouse was if your family respected that person.”
In Korea today, young adults still live with their parents until marriage. To compensate for the lack of independence, couples go to love hotels, private karaokes and video rooms for quickies. Booking may have developed as a transitional derivation of arranged marriages, partly because there is no pretense of choice. Girls can maintain the guise of chastity because they’re forced into pairings; men can parade their masculinity without sacrificing their egos. It’s a set-up without the chance of humiliation.
But what I see isn’t that sensational. Watching the action in Le Prive, I’m reminded of the awkward rituals of middle-school dances, sweaty-palmed boys and bashful girls are unable to relax and have a normal conversation. It’s a tribute to social dysfunction.
Around midnight, Clara’s been booked a few times. She doesn’t particularly mind it tonight. In one nightclub in Korea, she was booked thirty times in an hour. It’s more intense over there, Clara says, more awful. When she first started booking, she liked the attention and the free drinks, but the formula’s getting harder for her to swallow. “It’s sexist, but it’s not just the guys,” Clara says. “The girls like to get booked. They order expensive drinks, then they leave.”
Our club is in the biggest city on an island whose entire population is about the same as the city of Pittsburgh, however, so the scale was somewhat different –in cost and class.
The place was all neon and laser lights, a Roman-esque decorating scheme, a three story affair –the masses on the ground floor, VIP tables the next floor up, VIP rooms the floor above that, and you could watch girls in miniskirts being dragged by waiters up the spiral stairs to these patrons. It must be a great job. To get paid so well to behave towards women in a way that is totally inappropriate in your culture outside of that context.
One does hate to see girls being forcibly handed off to strange men. One hates the assumption and acceptance of the fact that girls do not/cannot go dancing just to be with the girls. But one also knows that some of the resistance is for show –but how much? And that girls go knowing what will happen. One also hate the idea that there are video cameras trained on the dance floor so that men can circle like vultures from their private rooms and single out the most appealing company. This all on top of what one normally hates about dance clubs, which are the gross dudes trying do dance up on one.
A middle aged man danced our way with a woman in his arms who looked extremely uncomfortable. He timed this so that he could snag Gretchen as the slow song came on. I had bolted immediately from the stage, pulling my hand out of any hands that attempted to get hold of it. But Kaneda and I went back and slow danced together, supportively nearby.
She said “Have you ever waltzed before?”
“In high school.”
“I was a debutante.”
“Jesus, I’m out of my league.”
The next slow song, though I almost wanted to stay. It was “Desperado” by the Eagles. Then around 1 am there was a mass rock paper scissors competition on stage MCed by a dude dressed as a hobo, between, like, 50 people, and the winner, some guy in a mint green shirt, got $100.
We never did allow ourselves to be booked. In retrospect it might have been an interesting cultural experiment, but to three Americans who felt completely fish-out-of-water, the whole thing looked too much like a recipe for date rape to risk letting your friends out of your sight.