Girl, Interrupted

In Koreatown, the newest matchmakers are pretty-boys with headsets and a firm grip.

December 1, 2005

Photo: Miko Lim; Hair/Makeup: Diane Catorc; Wardrobe: Meng Lau; Models: Joan Pan, Seung Won Park, Dean Chen, Kelvin Wong, Kevin Kim. Shot on location at Mecca, San Francisco

A skinny Korean girl wearing gold bangles and a tight, white mini-dress brushes past me, smirking at the bouncer as she scurries through the door. Wearing a faux fur coat over dark jeans, my curly hair pulled back in a bun, I suddenly feel covered and conservative; most of the women here are fashionable and scantily-clad, their naked backs peeking out behind bone-straight hair. “Name,” barks the bouncer in Korean. “My name?” I ask in English.

“The name of your waiter,” he says, annoyed. Nodding to a group of men, he scratches their names from a clipboard.

I tell him I don’t know any waiters but would like to go in anyway.

“Table for two is $200,” he says. “But you can have it for $130.”

“But I heard women’s tables were free.”

“It’s too late,” he grunts. “If you want a free table, come before 9:30. But not tomorrow—we’re already full.” He motions for me to step aside and greets the crowd forming in line behind me.

It’s 11 pm on a Friday night and I’m at Le Privé, an upscale club located on Western Avenue, a major thoroughfare that cuts through the heart of Los Angeles’ Koreatown. Embellished with electric blue light, Le Privé is known for its glitterati sightings and their aggressive “booking” policy—a system that allows waiters to handpick any female patron and physically steer her to a table or room of waiting men.

Before tonight, I’d never been denied access into a club and I am instantly irritated. After all, this isn’t Tunnel, New York City circa 1985. This is K-town and I am Korean. I’m wearing red lipstick and two-inch heels. So what’s the problem?

“You need to make a reservation with a waiter,” says a woman, who is smoking outside despite Le Privé’s laissez-faire indoor smoking policy. “You have to call his cell phone to even get on the list.”

The large club doors are open. Inside, laser lights flicker to deep house; women linger by the doorway wearing short skirts and jeweled stilettos.

My initial curiosity about booking, combined with Le Privé’s iron hand door procedure, makes me even more determined. “I need to get in there,” I tell the woman. “Help me.”

She crushes her cigarette with her wooden heel and hands me a waiter’s business card. “Call him tomorrow,” she says, as she saunters back into the club.

I look at the card. My waiter’s name is Inferno.*

*The names of the waiters have been changed to protect their job security.

The next day I call Inferno and reserve a table at Le Privé for Sunday night. With Saturday night open, I go to Kar Nak, a booking club on Wilshire Boulevard. Liz, a friend of my cousin’s, calls to tell me our waiter’s name because just like at Le Privé, it is vital for entry.

Liz is a 27-year-old Korean American law student who started club-hopping in K-town as a teenager. “When you go out in Hollywood, you talk to two people a night, if at all. At a booking club, it’s guaranteed that you’ll talk to 10 different people,” she says. “There is a lot more interaction because you are forced to sit down and have a conversation.”

When a woman is booked, a waiter will bring her to a table of men, where she is poured a shot of Crown Royal. Glasses are raised, heads are tilted and whiskey is downed. It’s a spasmodic speed-dating ritual where the first encounter lasts three minutes if you’re lucky and the fear of rejection is diffused by the presence of a third party—your waiter. The waiters, a ubiquitous and revered group who communicate via headset, are entrusted to make the first move, allowing the male patrons to sidestep the agony of having to hit on a girl themselves.

Booking began in South Korea in the early 1990s as the country’s economic upsurge boosted nightlife culture with scores of new clubs and a revamping of dating and sex mores. Popularized by singles—mostly college students or young professionals not far removed from an era of arranged marriages and matchmaking—booking fused a new generation’s sexual experimentation with age-old courtship rituals.

“Historically, [Asian] couples met through matchmaking,” Liz says. “It’s rooted [in the culture] that someone else is putting two people together, rather than you—yourself—taking that initiative. That is why at a club or social setting, you have that third person to do things for you; there is that reliance on intermediary forces.”

Booking migrated to the United States in the 1990s, taking off in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, where young Korean and Asian populations are a medley of recent immigrants, 1.5ers and second and third generation Asian Americans. Although in the past few years booking has increased in popularity among second and third generation Asian Americans, recent Korean immigrants and 1.5ers make up the majority of booking clubs’ clientele. “Korean Americans don’t depend on booking as much as natives or
1.5-ers,” says Jeanette, Liz’s 27-year-old cousin.
“The larger appeal is that here, Asians can hang out with other Asians.”

Booking clubs charge $200 to $500 per table or room, which includes a bottle of Crown Royal, a fruit platter and booking services. This doesn’t include tips, which for men’s tables can soar up to 100 percent of the table’s cost depending on how hard a waiter hustles to book pretty girls. Unlike other clubs, there is no mingling at the bar—the table is your required home base.

At 11 pm, Kar Nak is bustling. A waiter appears at our table and without a word, he pulls me from my seat. I follow obediently but am practically tripping over myself because he is walking so fast. His fingers dig into my arm.

We arrive at a table and the waiter plants me next to Jimmy, a clothing manager in the garment district. After two shots, I ask him about booking. “It’s a good way to meet people in an easy, non-threatening way,” he says.

“What about the fact that women are being dragged to your table against their will?”

“That’s all an act,” he says. “If they really didn’t want to be booked, they would’ve stayed home.”

Later, Liz agrees. “Women have to put up some resistance—it would look bad if a girl said ‘yeah, go ahead and have me!’ In Asian cultures, girls are raised to be a little shy and reserved and conservative. It’s not ladylike to want to be booked.” Although women do book men, it is rare. “Korean guys don’t like women who are too forward about liking someone,” Liz adds. “There is a concern among Asian cultures—a stigma, if a woman doesn’t act pure.”

Booking clubs, similar to many regular clubs, also attract crowds that differ by age. In Los Angeles, Kar Nak serves people in their mid- to late-20s and early 30s, while Le Privé caters to a younger clientele.

Jeanette, who first ventured into a booking club at 19, says, “In most Asian cultures, once a woman hits 25, she’s considered off the market. It’s time for her to get married and it’s no longer appropriate for her to be at booking clubs.”

“But in the U.S.,” she adds, “booking is a modified, sugarcoated version, so women my age will still be
at these clubs, but being in your late 20s is still
considered old.”

After a series of bookings, I break away from the waiters by joining Jeanette on the dance floor. As we dance, we hold hands and hug, shielding each other from drunk, leering men. This is quite strange considering the fact that this is the first night Jeanette and I have met. Yet there is a sense of female camaraderie at booking clubs. Many women stick close to their female friends, often holding each other and arguing on each other’s behalf to pushy waiters. During the booking process, it is common to see women linking hands or begging their female friends to join them.

“Kar Nak serves an older crowd,” Jeanette says, as we stand on the dance floor in an embrace. “All the girls here are skinny and pretty, and are wearing cute outfits, but if you look closer, they all have wrinkles.”

South Korea’s booking phenomenon is attributed to a new wave of independent young women who in the 1990s began frolicking to nightclubs en masse to meet men. “Although booking can be linked to a new form of sexual inequality and oppression of women, it is also a reflection of new, privileged women exercising their independence,” says Ingyu Oh, a Korean professor of organizational behavior and innovation at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan.

Despite this, booking poses an element of danger. Oh speculates that middle or high school youth go to booking clubs in Seoul dressed up as college students and are then taken advantage of by older men.

But JiSung Kim, a 30-year-old Korean American graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that booking culture is less about the sexual vulnerability of females than the economic exploitation of men. “Based on the structure of booking—having to tip a lot and pay $300 for a bottle of Crown Royal—booking exploits men.”

On Sunday night, I return to Le Privé with my cousin Nayoung. Walking in, we are greeted by our waiter, Inferno, an angelic pretty-boy decked out in black slacks and a crisp, white blazer.

When Inferno returns to our table, he places one hand on my shoulder. “Come with me.”

We walk into a private room. Inside, there are three young men who pour us shots and offer their Marlboros. “How old are you?” asks the man sitting next to me.

In Korean culture, your age is as important as your name. Your age is often the first question asked when you meet someone, because how you speak and the words you use change depending on whether someone is older or younger than you.

For example, if you are older than someone, your name is never used. You are called “older sister” or “older brother,” even if you are not related by blood, even if you are dating. It had always perturbed me to hear my female friends call their boyfriends or men they flirted with oppa, meaning “brother.” In order to avoid being called “sister,” I decide right then to lie about my age.

“I’m 21,” I say, slowly sipping my shot. I couldn’t refuse the liquor—Koreans get offended if you decline an offer of food or drink. But at this rate, I’d be praying to the porcelain god by midnight and I had to sober up before the club closed at two. After all, this is Los Angeles—we all eventually get behind the wheel.

“So, what year is that?” he asks.

I freeze. I forgot that Koreans use the year of their birth to express age, rather than the age itself. I desperately try to do the math in my head. My real age is 28 so I quickly subtract seven from my birth year of 1976.

“1969,” I say quickly, suddenly realizing that I was supposed to add rather than subtract.

“What?” he yelps. “Don’t you mean 1983?”

“Uh yeah, that’s what I meant,” I stammer. “I’m sorry, I’m trashed.”

After two shots and four cigarettes, Nayoung and I say thank you and walk out. We’re nowhere near our table when one of the waiters stops us.

“We just got booked,” I whine. “Let us just rest at our table for a few minutes.”

“Come with me,” he says, pulling me back upstairs.

“We were just there!” Nayoung calls out.

“Different room,” the waiter says. I look at his name tag. His name is Angel.

Feeling drunk and defiant, I pull back my arm. “You’re not Inferno. We don’t have to follow you.”

Angel turns around and crosses his arms. “It doesn’t matter that I’m not Inferno,” he says testily. “We all book for each other.”

Angel is much more persistent than Inferno and is adamant about booking me to another private room, where there is a man with an “MBA from Poland.” Interesting, I think. A Korean from Poland? The Korean diaspora never ceases to amaze me. This is someone I want to meet.

Angel leads us upstairs. Walking in, I see Ha Seung Jin, the 7-foot 3-inch, 335-pound Korean teenager who was drafted by the Portland Trailblazers last year.
I realize I’d misunderstood Angel’s English. He wasn’t talking about an “MBA from Poland” but the “NBA from Portland.”

Seung Jin is in Los Angeles because the Trailblazers are playing the Clippers at the Staples Center the next night. He is with his agent, John, who, like me, was born and raised in the United States by immigrant Korean parents. John looks uncomfortable and admits he doesn’t enjoy or understand the booking custom the way native Koreans do. But Seung Jin wanted to party in K-town and Le Privé is the only decent club open on a Sunday night.

“I find it weird, odd and confusing,” says John, who is 29. “I understand matchmaking, where two people come together in a relaxed environment, but booking is more like a bad blind date. Why are women here if they don’t want to be? That’s force.”

The door swings open and two more women are dragged into the room. They sit down and after punching numbers into the karaoke machine, they croon love songs at the top of their lungs. John turns to me, his face completely deadpan. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he says. “But please don’t leave.”

When Nayoung and I do leave, we venture cautiously to our table. Angel is waiting at the foot of the stairs. He doesn’t let us pass.

“Please, let us go,” Nayoung cries out.

“Oh relax,” Angel says. “I just want to ask something.”

“What did you think of those guys?” he asks, pointing upstairs. “Did you think they were good-looking?” He is referring to the first group of men who booked us.

“I can’t remember,” I reply.

“They want to see you again. Would you consider going to a karaoke bar with them later?”

“I’ll think about it.”

“Of course, of course! I am not forcing you to do anything—you decide,” he says. His hair is short and gelled at the tips. Like all the waiters, he is brisk, graceful and handsome. “But I just want to say, I am not a homosexual but even I could tell that those men are good-looking. I know this, even though I am not a gay.”

Angel takes a step closer. “And Kai?” he continues. “I don’t want to offend you but I have to say something. You look good but your inner beauty is trying to come out.”

He frowns at my jacket, which is zipped to my
neck. “This outer layer is no good, you understand? Your beauty is trying to burst from this jacket! It is bursting to be free!”

His English is heavily accented and I am confused. At first, I think he means that I don’t need the polished club gear and should just go au natural. I soon realize he wants me to show skin.

I unzip my jacket and show him the black nylon, strapless top I am wearing underneath.

“Oh my god,” he screams, stumbling back. “Help me, help me! I need sunglasses!”

Close to 1 am, I spot Inferno standing by the bar. Walking up to him, I bow the standard Korean farewell. The waiters instantly surround me, fussing and begging me to stay. “No, I have to go,” I say to them. For a moment, I regret that I am leaving and I now understand why Le Privé gets away with its hard-line booking: the waiters are irresistible.

“Come again … on a Friday or Saturday night!” says Inferno.

“Call us!” they all cheer. They bow frenetically and hug me. “Come back!”

As I head for the door, Angel follows.

“Kai?” His head is slightly tilted, his eyes wide and his lips pushed out in a pout. “I do have one more favor to ask you.” He is leaning close and resting his chin on his finger-locked hands.

Although Angel is my favorite waiter—a charming diva with beauty and an attitude to boot—I still flinch inward. Unbelievable, I think. Even as I am walking out the door, he’s still trying to book me. This guy just doesn’t quit.

I sigh and roll my eyes.

“One more favor, just do me one more thing,” he croons.

“Okay,” I say, preparing to be led to yet another room. “What do you want me to do?”

Angel smiles and folds his hands over mine.

“Drive safe.”

Kai Ma is a writer, journalist and co-author of “The Awful Truth,” a relationship column published in Audrey. Before moving to Berkeley, CA, she performed poetry as a member of feedBACK, a spoken word troupe that hosted the first Asian American open mic series in New York City.

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