South Korea’s rapid economic development has meant some startling changes within its conservative social structure, including the rise of so-called host bars, where wealthy women pay the equivalent of thousands of dollars for male company.
In the dim light of an underground room, a dozen perfectly groomed young men kneel in rows, calling out their names.
Muscular, with shiny boy-band hairstyles, they cram side by side into the narrow space, waiting for us to make our choice. Outside in the corridor, more of their colleagues are arriving for another night at work. It is 2am, and we are their first customers.
Hidden beneath the pavements of Seoul’s ritziest postcode, Gangnam, the men at Bar 123 are part of a growing industry, which grew out of the long traditions of Japanese geisha and Korea’s kisaeng houses but with one crucial difference – the customers here are all women.
Known as “host bars”, these all-night drinking rooms offer female customers the chance to select and pay for male companions, sometimes at a cost of thousands of pounds a night.
One of the women I meet at Bar 123 is Minkyoung, a waitressing manager for a five-star hotel. She says she comes to host bars once or twice a month.
Minkyoung is very pretty and her clothes are immaculate. She does not look like someone who would need to pay for male company. But the allure of host bars can be subtle. Here, she says, she has more attention from her male companions, more choice and, crucially, more control.
“In regular bars the guys who drink with me have only one goal – to have a one-night stand. But I don’t want that, so that’s why I come here, I want to have fun,” she says.
Hosts are hired by bars like this one to provide companionship and entertainment. Officially that means pouring drinks for their customers, talking and dancing with them, and singing karaoke.
Sex is not officially on offer in most host bars. That would be illegal but even Minkyoung seems happy to touch and flirt with her host, and the men here estimate that around half the customers want to pay for sex, either on or off the premises.
James has been working at Bar 123 for a couple of years. In Korean culture, he says, there is a lot of pride and negotiating a price for sex is never done explicitly. Instead, he tells me, it is all down to the host’s own assessment.
“The guys here are pros – we know what we’re doing,” he says.
“After talking to a girl for an hour we basically know how much money she makes and what she does for a living. We’ve already analysed her personality and what she’s willing to give.”
James and other hosts say their customers include some of South Korea’s elite, and that the money and perks on offer are unbelievable. One client James met, during his first week in the job, asked him to sign himself over to her for two years.
“She said ‘let’s make a contract. I’ve got this piece of paper and I’ve numbered it 1-5. Whatever you write down next to those numbers, I’ll get you.'”
James says at the time he took it as a joke but since found out the same woman spent £60,000 ($97,000) on another host.
“If it happened now, I’d do it – I’d be thinking straight.”
Ironically perhaps, host bars grew out of one of Korea’s most entrenched and, some say, misogynist business traditions – the room salon. These are private drinking rooms where groups of men select, and are served by, attractive female hostesses.
It was the hostesses’ need to let off steam after work, says veteran host Kim Dong-hee, that created the initial demand for host bars, with all-male staff.
“What these hostesses want is to [make us] do the same thing they had to do in their own workplace. These girls are forced to do things they don’t want to do for money.
“I think a lot of them are in pain, and a lot feel lonely. Simply put, they want to buy our time and our bodies.”
Hostesses still make up a large percentage of the customers at host bars here, but at Bar 123, for example, up to 40% of the customers on a given night are now from other walks of life.
The reasons for that growing appeal are tied up in South Korea’s rapid economic rise. Within 50 years, the country shifted from post-war devastation to OECD member.
But, according to Jasper Kim, head of the Asia-Pacific Global Research Group in Seoul, something important was lost along the way.
“I think that with all this fast growth comes fast change, and Koreans just don’t know how to cope with it. Increasingly, capitalism is overtaking basic societal norms that you would expect a couple of decades ago.”
Jasper Kim says South Korea’s notoriously long working hours have left many Korean women feeling lonely, while the country’s technical advance has left many people feeling detached.
“The human element of Korean society that existed before simply doesn’t exist today. People are focused on technology, people are focused on their jobs, they aren’t focused on human relations anymore.
“In many ways, Korean society today kind of reminds me of 1960s society in the US, where it’s on the verge of some type of cultural revolution.”
The grandfather of Seoul’s host bar scene, Kim Dong-hee, agrees that many of the women who come to host bars are not paying for sex but for companionship, which is why he opened a new chain of freshly-marketed outlets aimed at the mainstream market – called Red Model Bars.
“Men want to have visual pleasure and want to feel things, they’re tactile. Women like to talk and to listen. And that’s why I thought of opening a bar like this – a kind of dialogue bar.”
Red Model Bars are different to traditional host bars in one key respect – there is a no-touching rule. Hosts sit on one side of the table, customers on the other, and no physical contact is allowed, and certainly no sex.
Perhaps as a result there is a lack of furtiveness among the people who work or drink here – the lights are low, the decor mainly dark red and the space is divided into discreet booths, but it is an open-plan room and hosts and customers are divided in each booth by a large table.
This new business model depends entirely on women paying the equivalent of hundreds or even thousands of dollars to talk to good-looking young men over a drink. Still, it seems to be working – three new branches are due to open this year.
Sitting at a table at one end of the bar was one of their regular customers, a florist called Kim Nayu. She tells me she comes here every day to meet her favourite host and discuss issues she is having at work.
The price for this slice of male attention is $487-650 (£300-400) a day.
“Talking to friends would be cheaper” she admits, “but they don’t listen as much. They’re busy, and in a hurry to talk about themselves. Here, people will pay attention to me and they’ll listen to me.”
“I spend a lot of money but it’s worth it for what I get emotionally. People pay to go to see a psychologist or psychiatrist, so it’s similar but less stressful.”
Nayu’s favourite host Sung-il says it can be hard to keep his personal and professional life separate.
“Honestly I’d be lying if I say I haven’t been tempted to take things further with some customers, because we’re human, we’re men, but there are rules.”
One of his customers talked a lot to her husband about him and when the three of them met, Sung-il and the husband became close friends.
“No one hides – the workers don’t hide that they work here, and customers can be open too.”
This openness is posing a new kind of challenge to South Korean society, different from the sometimes seedy underworld of traditional host bars and their hinterland of male prostitution.
By offering women a “respectable” way to challenge traditional gender roles and flex their economic power, these new bars ask questions of Korean society that are becoming harder to ignore.