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Sunday, August 08, 2004

Asia, Two Evenings in Hell

This is a continuation of Afternoon in Hell. This multipart post covers a single and continuous 36 hour period.

My personal demon, uh, tour guide to hell, "Park", took me to his private drinking establishment. In my visits to this place (admittedly over twelve hours total time spent there), I met two ambassadors, five former government ministers, the heads of a few investment banks, and several CEOs. If there were a club like this in the US, the dues would be fantastic for the connections alone. As it is, the place is owned by a woman who used to be one of the most popular high end bar hostesses. Now in her early forties (my guess, she may be older), she has her own place, her second, a relatively small and exclusive drinking, dining and singing establishment.

So let me take a moment to explain how these clubs work.

There are private rooms and a public area. The public area has several low tables, like coffee tables, around which is usually a semicircular couch or a couch and several wide easy chairs. The private rooms are like a private karaoke room, that is, a low table with a couch on three sides. The establishment will serve drinks, primarily beer, whisky, and soju, a cheap Korean drink of a potency between wine and whisky (soju is typically at the lower end of 22% to 45% alcohol). They will have other drinks, but those are the staples. There will be a kitchen that will serve everything from bar snacks to full dinners. At a higher end place, there is usually at least one musical talent, a pianist, saxophonist, or guitarist, who can also sing backup. They will accompany the "band", which is a computerized karaoke machine. The musical talent in the places I have gone are very very good. One guitarist was fantastic. Often they are professional musicians filling time; with the right audience they can have a great time.

But what the Western man will zero in on are the hostesses, the girls that serve the drinks and food. These are independent operators who may elect to contract short term or long term with an establishment. They may or may not be available for post-evening recreational activities (although keep in mind that you're drunk at the end of the night), and, yes, apparently many are reviewed on the Internet. They can be called in via cell phone by the club owner if the night looks busy. Or they may leave if the night looks slow. The girls must be pretty, have some talent for conversation, and know a lot of drinking games. Oh, and they'll be drinking with you, too, so they have to have a high tolerance for alcohol. A really high tolerance. Because unlike you, they may be drinking every night. As I noted in the previous post, some girls who can't take this kind of alcohol consumption decide to go the massage route.

You can find hostesses that range from movie actresses and models, to merely cute girls. The general rule of thumb, I am told, is that the actresses are better looking, but somewhat duller and less affectionate than the "ordinary" gals. But there are a lot of these girls, because these clubs are typically very small, and there are a thousand of them in Seoul, a city with a larger population than Manhattan. Also of note: nothing illegal happens here, at least at the nicer establishments. The biggest issue in the past has been the fact that too many businessmen expense the costs here. It is also reflective of the old boys network mentality of business. Women sometimes attend, and there are even family versions (without the hostesses), but it is really for the boys. Of course if you go low class enough you eventually get to the prostitution bars with indentured foreigners from the middle east and eastern European countries; these originally cater to the armed forces.

To give a sense of the operating margins of these establishments, they usually take underground real estate (the cheapest in Seoul. where real estate is more than in Manhattan), but will charge as much as a 4x premium over retail for, say, a bottle of whisky. And no BYOB here. The typical whisky evening can run over $1k for a party of four. At a lower class establishment, a beer night will go several hundred dollars. Still lower and they will drink cheap soju, which is the cheapest way to get drunk quickly, similar to the role of vodka in Russia. Salaried men will rotate taking each other out. It is estimated that as much as 10-20% of household income will go to drinking and eating in these and similar venues, so it is a big part of the economy (although almost paradoxically, the largest household expenditure goes to kids' education, not real estate).

Ok, so on with the night.

We arrive at the venue. Park is greeted with the fanfare of a foreign dignitary. The owner comes up to him and chats him up, and he introduces me in embarrassingly glowing terms. She is interested, gives me her card, and talks with me. Her English is good, with a strong sense of idiom, although it is Australian English. I compliment her on a nicely decorated, classy establishment. She is quite charming and very presentable and classy herself, the product of many years of exposure to the social elite.

We are in the public area tonight, in the front and center seats. The girls join us. During the evening they will rotate; this is kind of an option. I end up talking mostly to a fashion school student, a senior, who dreams of attending graduate school in Paris, Italy, or New York City. She is bright and funny. She trades me her contact info. I also am with a girl for whom it is her first night working. She is quieter and reserved. She is doing this to earn money. Her plan is to work for a few years and pay her way to go to school in Germany.

Given the afternoon I had, I'm also in a somewhat reserved mood.

Now as much as a Westerner would notice the girls, the local men see this as a networking venue. With drinks flowing and songs belted out, men let down their guards and can socialize like fraternity brothers. The women are accessories, but not the main point. In fact, it's considered strange to show up alone, just to hang out with the women. And indeed it is a great networking opportunity. I trade many business cards, and, yes, I am able to start several business deals. Perhaps more importantly, I am seen and know to a community from which I can start to network more.

Beyond the business there are many jokes, but also some interest piqued among the girls, by Park's story of how I spent five hours at the massage place. I am something of a hit, being an exotic Asian in their experience and a bit of a novelty. Some of this sentiment rubs off on the girls, and for a shining evening, I am popular. I enjoy the easy camaraderie of the venue, the way that people move seamlessly from joking and drinking and singing to business discussion.

The evening wears on to three AM, and we leave. I am exhausted, and intoxicated. I liked the girls, but there is nothing really that remarkable about them. The owner asks me for feedback and makes me promise I'll visit her again. I tell her about my plans for the next day, and she is excited.

I leave with Park, and spend the night at his place. He tells me that the owner was very impressed with me and my interaction with the other guests, and she had asked him how she could get me as a client. He also said that she and the girls had mentioned how much they liked me. When I called bullshit on that, he said, no, seriously, there aren't that many Asians they see that act as gentlemen, and they see your politeness and class, mixed with an exotic sense of humor. Ok, so sometimes I can fool the experts.

I'll take a moment to note that my time with Park is not all hedonistic sybartic delights. He is mentoring me very effectively in the business community of Korea. It is singularly effective to have him sponsoring me. He has taken a personal interest in me, in a culture where these kinds of relationships are important. He calls me "little brother," I call him "big brother."

Neither of us sleep very much, and we wake up no more than five hours later ready for a continuation of business meetings. This takes up the morning; then we are in the lather, rinse, repeat mode. We hit the unisex spa again, where the most therapeutic treatment is the very hot jacuzzi followed by the very very cold plunge pool with waterfall. A few cycles through that gets the blood flowing quite well despite the 95 degree 85% humidity weather outside, thank you.

I miss May a little, who I have not called (what would be the purpose?), but tonight we go out to a dinner with a larger group. I have promised to treat on this night out. I will host at Park's club, and I'm mixing in a new circle of contacts. The head of this second circle is another person who invited me out on my previous trip, let's call him "Young." Both Park and Young know of each other, but have never met personally. All together we are a party of six. I ask the owner of the club for a private room, and based on our feedback the previous night, she says she will make sure that good girls are there, including Park's regular.

We arrive a little late, but we are still the first. Within minutes, however, everybody is there in the room. Of course it turns out that one of the CEOs in Young's group knows the owner from her former club and she knows his chairman. It appears that nobody of importance in Korea is separated by more than one degree; after all over 25% of the population is in one city, nearly 2/3 in its four major cities, and the country is only the size of Indiana. So we get cozy and drunk, and then a few of my party start mixing with other parties in the public area, which include some ambassadors and others. We have a grand time, and I verbally get a deal done pretty early on.

I continue to be popular. Oddly, all the women, if given no data, guess I'm from Hong Kong not the US. Must be that rock star thing. The owner is going all out to impress, having been told (inaccurately but fortunately for me) that I am a big shot. I think she's impressed at how the other big shots are treating me and talking me up, but it's mostly because I'm a novelty. So we're having a good time. She brought a group of talented musicians, and they're having fun cranking the tunes, jamming, and everybody is singing. I have missed much of the early fun for the first hour, having been working the deal, but now I pay more attention to the extended group, including the people in the public area. There are more people to meet, a few other CEOs, an investment banker deal guy. I sing with the ambassador.

All this time the girl that the owner "specially selected" for me is patiently waiting, feeding me drinks and food, listening to the deal-making and jokes, and interjecting when appropriate. I slowly start to notice that she is smart in a quiet way. She is also beautiful, although she says she is not; she claims the better word for her is something I think means charming. (She and the other girls say that I am cute, but they use a word that I think is more often applied to babies. It must be my toddler vocabulary that impresses them so.) She tells me her name, and for a strange short moment I am worried that she's related to me because we share the same last name. But it turns out she's from a different family and we share a funny moment over that. I'll call her "Jenny."

At one point she confesses her age (she left her twenties, which I find unbelievable), and swears me to tell nobody. Jenny has an interesting story: she has engineering undergraduate and business graduate degrees; she works at a company, but hit the glass ceiling pretty fast. She doesn't like the way that men treat her at work, which doesn't surprise me as she is really quite attractive, has unusually well-formed breasts for a Korean, and is probably more outspoken than is good for her in a strictly hierarchical male-dominated corporate environment. She doesn't golf. So she does this for additional income on weekends and is considering going 5 days a week and trying to start a business of her own.

The age and experience is why she is quite smooth and so very polished compared to the girls of last night. She gets drunk with me, but saves me from going too far. At several points she is watering down my drinks (in one case even secretly substituting barley tea) while I'm toasting these other CEOs. It is a charming competitive advantage she gives me. She is telling me a few stories from her point of view on the power structure of business in Korea.

And she is trying to pick me up. As the night goes on, she is getting drunker herself, and she really latches on to me, or at least appears to! Some time during the evening she whispers in my ear that she is good at everything! everything, well, except for one thing: speaking English. Even across the language barrier I get her meaning. She says she loves men and treats them very well, but Korean men are intimidated by her. Obviously this is not a pick up line she can use often, but there is always that question of veracity from somebody in the service industry. Of course if it's true that in vino veritas, then this is a gift...

Jenny really charms the socks off me and being male, I can't help but be curious as to whether her skills are anywhere near to those of May, because she is obviously a lot smarter. Had I not needed to leave the next day, I would have been sorely tempted to take her up on her whispered claims of competency. But I also don't like a first encounter to be a drunken grope. And I didn't want to be bad this trip anyhow. So when the night finally ended at 4 AM, Jenny gave me her handphone number and extracted a promise for a call. Another opportunity with no future.

Oh, and my buddy Park? He really enjoyed his regular. I dimly recall prying him off her at 4 AM.

Besides throwing off my schedule worse than any jetlag, what did 36 hours in hell get me?

Quite a lot, actually.

I could focus on the three phone numbers I obtained, keeping in mind how up until less than a year ago no woman had offered me her phone number like that.

I am unable to forget the truly amazing experience with May, although the potency of it is already starting to fade. Truly Asia has completed a sweep in my competition, taking the gold in the menage a trois, the social geisha, and one-on-one categories. I'd argue that America still has it in the social date category (e.g. dinner, show and conversation) and the oral talent category. The former is probably a side effect of my language issue, but the latter I intend to expose Park to on his next trip to the US.

But I should not discount the real purpose of this trip: business. And my tour of hell was particularly fruitful in that regard. As a compact place to be integrated into an important network, and to quickly establish trust in deals, this experience has no peer. In the past I have sometimes spent years on Asia deals, and this experience accelerates progress by a factor of 10 at least. And it isn't unpleasant, to boot!

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