Cajun explodes onto the stage. He’s an impressive presence — not good looking, but he hits the right balance between charisma and surrender to the music.
Cajun explodes onto the stage. He’s an impressive presence — not good looking, but he hits the right balance between charisma and surrender to the music. The crowd is with him. He can sing too; his first song, a kind of synthesized surf rock ode to Busan’s main beach, Haeundae, has the punters grooving at the front of the stage. He’s a big guy sporting an Elvis do and shades, a kind of Korean teddy bear.
His second song, a syrupy ballad, proves less popular. The customers begin drifting away steadily, it’s embarrassing to watch. What had been a thick crowd of 300 or so quickly dwindles down to about 30. Cajun and his hypeman, a thrumming bicep of a man, carry on regardless. This is real showbiz, grinding out performances in shitty venues to people who don’t care, carrying on with a smile on your face. The hypeman shows himself to be more than a novelty presence with an accomplished dance break, even executing a double backflip and a couple of handsprings. His manager is standing next to me. The backing track for his third number comes in, a kind of trance-lite speed-ballad. I go backstage to collect my CDs. The owner is in the hallway giving Seol-jin, the head DJ, a drive-by dressing down.
“What the fuck is this? Whose fucking idea was this? No one’s dancing.”
Seol-jin responds in the Korean way: eyes on the floor, nodding, saying nothing. I head out onto the stage. Kang-jin has been cueing up the backing tracks for Cajun in the side DJ booth. There are two DJ setups at the Tropicana club. It’s a huge place in the basement of a large hotel. No one knows why it’s called the Tropicana. The décor is kind of Aztec-futurist.
This is a “booking club.” People come in single sex groups and buy a table or a private room for the night; $50 for the table, $300 for the private room. That money gets you a few bottles of beer and a limpid selection of fruit, squid and crackers. Every DJ or live act plays a 20-minute set with a break for a ballad or two between. The music is a mix of Korean pop and cheesy house. Before I started, I had visions of educating the crowd, introducing them to superb music they had never heard before which still made them want to dance their tits off. I realize now how stupid that was. Male customers tip the waiters, maybe $10 a time, so they bring groups of girls over to their table and introduce them. Any woman not dancing is fair game for being “booked.” Some waiters will wheedle and charm the girls into making an introduction; some will literally grab and drag any woman they find. Girls flood the floor for every set simply so they won’t be kidnapped by a tenacious waiter. They can say “no” but they need to say it loudly, insistently and quite a few times. And that won’t stop other waiters from trying to grab you. After all, if you don’t want to get booked, why did you come to a booking club?
At first the whole thing seemed awkward and immature. I can’t imagine a situation less conducive to pleasantly meeting a girl than having her dumped in front of me, against her will, with an expectation of measuring each other up as potential sex partners. Why would you pay people just for the privilege of meeting random girls in a club? But it’s not that different from speed dating, I suppose.
Korean culture as a whole doesn’t make meeting people easy. Grades of seniority and closeness are so inherently woven into the language that approaching a stranger, even to ask directions, is fraught with the potential for extreme social embarrassment. The phrase for “excuse me” literally means “doing something wrong.” People can work with one another for decades without using first names. Many Koreans will feel utterly unable to satisfyingly connect with anyone who is a year younger or older than themselves.
“Is this your friend?” I’ll say.
“No,” they’ll reply in earnest. “He is my junior.”
This is why booking is popular; the club is fucking packed every night of the summer. However silly it may seem, the waiter acts as a bridge introducing people from one sphere into another.
In the summertime, the place is full of people from the monochrome dormitory hives dotting South Korea — Yangsan, Chungju, Yeosu. They’ve come to enjoy the beach and the “international” vibe of Busan, Korea’s second city. (Busan often seems like the world’s biggest village to me; I dread to imagine life in the sticks.) Despite living in densely packed cities of hundreds of thousands of people, lots of the summer guests won’t have spoken to a non-Korean before, so a white DJ underscores the coolness and sophistication of the “big city” club.
Opinions vary on just how much sex goes down as a result of booking clubs. Some of my friends swear that people will hook up and head off to motels together; others say it’s just a good way to set up dates in the future –- speed dating, more or less. The atmosphere isn’t particularly sexual. I’ve only seen classic booking once myself. I was having a drink with the owner’s nephew when a waiter brought in two sets of girls. No one said anything until I started picking up the conversational slack — where are you from, what do you do, where do you live. My middle school-level Korean was the only thing keeping us from drowning in a sea of blushing silence
The owners have banned me from talking to the female guests out on the main floor, so I have to play a kind of Pac-Man or Metal Gear Solid game to drop flex; I’ve had several severe reamings for sitting down and talking to girls at their tables. The main room is set out with tables on a grid pattern with the dance floor at the front. At times I’ve literally crouch-walked behind the seats, trying to keep the head waiter or owners from spotting me. Usually I just introduce myself quickly, drop my name and number on a piece of paper into her hand and scuttle off. Bumping into a sexy lady in the corridor means having a slightly longer conversation. It’s thrilling in a juvenile way.
I have a few other jobs, and while I enjoy the money and it’s easy work, I know getting fired wouldn’t really affect me that much. It’s reinforced just how much pussy anyone who’s actually famous must get. Just being an average-looking DJ in a cheesy fleapit has been like getting a face transplant — cockblocking waiters aside.
Last week I met Candy. I’d spotted her in the crowd during my first set, while playing the night’s umpteenth rendition of “No Speak Americano.” Great body. White mini-dress. When my set was over I’d managed to catch her eye from a little nook off the side of the dance floor. I beckoned her over — Korean style, palm facing the floor -– and to my mild astonishment, she’d followed me into the corridor. I’d quickly introduced myself and harvested her number, aware I wasn’t making the best first impression, eyes alert for either of the owners or the head waiter.
Up close, I noticed her skin was pitted. She was wearing a lot of makeup and her nail polish was chipped. My dick is getting hard just writing about her. I sent her back on her way before texting her. Her tween-like Korean textspeak replies were hard to understand but I soon won a promise to go and drink somewhere else when my final set was finished.
When I caught up with her an hour and a half later, she’d snared a Korean guy. My chance was gone. She bowed as I passed them in the corridor. Ah well. At least the guy looked absolutely ecstatic to be with her.