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Korea Kapers: Sekshi Scandals

November 24, 2008

I remember when I first arrived in Korea I mentioned that, despite professing a socially conservative Confucianism that frowned upon sexuality, there was a barely-concealed, sleazy underbelly to Korean society. There is a thriving sex industry operating quite openly here.

Prostitute in Yongsan Red Light District

Prostitute in Yongsan Red Light District

Yongsan in the centre of Seoul has long been famous for its prostitutes. It is the site of Yongsan Garrison, the huge American military base in Korea, and it also contains one of the main railway stations of the South Korean capital. Near this railway station there is a street that is lined with small stores that look like glass booths. The stores themselves are made to look like hair/beauty salons (presumably to exploit legal loopholes) and in them you will find women sitting on display atop stools looking utterly bored as fuck. Behind them are doorways in the stores that lead to back rooms where the world’s oldest (and apparently recession-proof) profession goes about its business. The women are all extremely skinny and, to me, they look mostly South-East Asian rather than Korean. I would say they were Thai/Filipino/Vietnamese though I’ve not seen any data that can confirm or contradict if this is the case. They are all clad in these tight-fitting flares that are made too long and under which they wear these massive platform shoes that are kind of like small stilts. These things are about a fucking foot high and look quite bizarre. I haven’t yet come across any kind of explanation for them.

Barber shop with extras

Barber shop with extras

Throughout Korea there are numerous barber shops that identify themselves with those old-school, spinning poles. However, it is commonly known that if the barber shop displays twin, conjoined poles then the establishment is basically a knocking shop (brothel). Of course, these places are staffed by women and not male barbers. Their store windows are usually covered and concealed from the street or the stores themselves are located in basement buildings. Now, I’m not entirely sure if they are full-blown brothels that offer clients full sex since I have heard that these places tend more towards just tugging and sucking people off. I also couldn’t tell you if there is a sex-industry distinction that can be applied in such instances. My own sleepy little country town of Ganghwa has a few such establishments and I have watched wee drunk old men tottering into them at 1am in the morning but I have never seen any women that work there coming or going. Like Yongsan, there is a considerable military presence in Ganghwa. A base in the northern hills monitors North Korean activity and many young Korean men are sent here to do their two-year, compulsory military service.

I’ve heard a couple of amusing and grubby anecdotes related to foreigners frequenting such establishments, the most recent of which inspired this blog entry and delivered much mirth unto yours truly. A young man from the U.S. recently came here to work as an EFL teacher and found himself, as one occasionally does, in urgent need of a blow-job. He wandered into one of the aforementioned sex parlours and politely requested the services of an ‘ajumma’, believing this to be the Korean word for young woman. ‘Ajumma‘, in fact, means ‘auntie’ and it is a Korean term applied to late middle-aged to elderly women. One of the more tongue-in-cheek Korean guidebooks describes them thus:

Loud, bustling women in mismatched clothing. Most Koreans admire the ajumma’s hard work and aggressiveness. Market ajummas wear baggy pants, little makeup and towels wrapped around their heads. They often carry goods on their heads. They are raucous and cuss rude men. Some push and shove their way through a crowd to find a seat in the bus or subway . Such behaviour led some social commentators to dub ‘ajumma’ a third sex, neither man nor woman.

The brothel duly accommodated the request of the young man who, lacking the Korean to explain or rectify his mistake, simply went ahead with the arrangement and apparently got his ajumma blow-job. From what I heard, he said it was “okay”. When first brought to the attention of myself and my fellow teachers in Ganghwa (all of whom know precisely what an ajumma is) we decided that the not unpleasant verdict by the young man may be due to a lack of teeth on the part of the average ajumma or possibly the frequent back problems that cause many of them to be doubled over and thus in a perfect posture naturally for performing fellatio.

Note the high platform shoes

Note the high platform shoes

Another tale I heard was from a friend of mine who was on his way home one evening in Ganghwa and was taking a call on his phone outside Lotteria(Korean fast food joint) when a pissed-up old man introduced himself in the typical, overly-earnest Korean drunk way. The old dude gestured for my friend to come with him and, upon realising that the pissed-up gent wasn’t going to give up and fuck off, my mate obliged him and followed him into the labyrinth of small side streets and alleyways behind Ganghwa’s main road. Pretty soon they were in a place that my mate identified as a brothel. Though not fluent in Korean the impression was soon conveyed to my friend that the old man wanted him to participate in some kind of ‘double-team’ action with one of the girls there. As politely as possible, yet quite hastily, he got the fuck out and didn’t look back. I myself postulated the idea that the old geezer, advanced in years and as ridden with soju as he was, perhaps could not perform sexually and instead wanted to pay for the vicarious, voyeuristic privilege of watching a virile young weiguk (foreigner) banging a Korean lass whilst he sat in the corner smoking and tampering with himself, listlessly.

Somewhat less sordid, though more conspicuous, are the da-bang girls. Da-bangs are establishments that masquerade as simple high street coffee shopsthough it is widely known that they do in fact supply customers with women for entertainment. A group of guys on a night out boozing, playing pool, etc. will call a local da-bang to ostensibly order coffee which will then be delivered by a glamorous Korean woman in a short dress and high-heels. I often see them in the street coming and going in the afternoons. They are easily recognised in Ganghwa since they look like they’re dressed up to go clubbing in a country town that doesn’t have any clubs and in which all other women don’t dress remotely provocatively. That, and the fact that they carry a bag with a coffee flask and cups in it. Another friend of mine was playing pool one night when a group of Korean guys in the pool hall called a da-bang girl. My mate was quite amused to watch these wee drunk guys drooling all over the girl when she arrived. Rubbing her legs as they sat next to her. This is known as ‘il-cha’, the first level. If a customer is willing to pay to upgrade to ‘i-cha’ , the second level, this is basically paying extra to turn the da-bang girl into a hooker that will offer full sex (presumably at a nearby love motel). I’ve not been told of any levels beyond ‘i-cha’ but, dear reader, my transgressive imagination being what it is, I have given the matter some thought. If there is a ‘sam-cha’, or third level, it might involve paying a lot more money to beat the shit out of a da-bang girl and maybe piss on her. The next step would obviously be ‘sa-cha’ or fourth level. Interestingly, ‘sa’, the Korean for ‘four’ very closely resembles a Chinese character for death when written down and the numerical ‘4’ is therefore accorded a superstitious status in Korea and China as being unlucky. Fourth floors in buildings are denoted by an ‘F’ rather than the number and many adult Koreans have told me they would refuse to stay in a hospital room if it had the number 4 on it’s door. It’s fair to assume then, that taking a da-bang girl to ‘sa-cha’ would involve murdering her. I think a decent Korean serial killer flick could be made from this idea. The movie could be called ‘Sa-cha’ and it could be filled with every sub-Silence Of The Lambscliché in the book. Cop trying to catch da-bang killer, gets too close to one of the girls (erotic crime thriller, naturally), will he/won’t he be able to protect her? Hey, as long as it balances the crime element with plenty of titty it’s bound to make bank. Bit of atrocity porn for the Korean market.

You see most da-bang girls around harvest time in September. When the harvest comes in all the local farmers have money in their pockets and, subsequently, sex workers from surrounding towns migrate to Ganghwa (and other rural areas) to take full advantage of the increased demand for their services.

I wonder how Korea squares this circle? A supposedly sexually-repressive society until you turn the corner into the barber shops and coffee shops that provide the special ‘extras’ and which aren’t even that hidden. The conservative Confucianism is a mere hypocritical facade that provides Koreans with a veneer, a polite fiction to keep up appearances. Maybe that hypocrisy is an intrinsic part of the whole arrangement, there’s certainly many examples of outwardly conservative people throughout the world getting caught in compromising entanglements. The lure of ye olde forbidden fruit triumphing over all.

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One comment

  1. This entry has been getting a surprising amount of hits recently, some 18 months after it was originally posted here. There must be some recent surge in interest for the Korean sex industry.

    I’m happy to help all you guys out there looking to intergrate handjobs with your haircuts, and especially whoever it was that stumbled the above using the online search phrase “ajumma fuck”.



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