Photo by Raul Vega
The waiter grabs me by the wrist and yanks me up from the red velvet booth midsentence, giving me just enough time to gesture to my girlfriend that I’ll be back. He drags me across the room, past rows of tables cluttered with whiskey bottles, overflowing ashtrays and picked-apart fruit platters. Then he stops abruptly at a booth crammed with grinning, expectant guys who, judging from the number of empty shot glasses, have clearly been here a while. I can barely make out their faces in the dark. It’s okay, the waiter assures me, they’ve requested me. Sensing the tension in my arm, my resistance, the waiter adds: “Don’t worry, the guys do all the talking.” Then he pushes me down next to a pudgy but attractive 20-something who blows cigarette smoke in my face. I’ve successfully been “booked,” a custom at Korean nightclubs in which waiters play matchmaker between guests, leading women to men’s tables. The guys I’m with have spent a lot of money tonight, and our waiter is looking at a significant tip.
We’re at Le Privé, the largest nightclub not just in Koreatown but in all of Los Angeles — a vast, Vegas-style compound with gargoyles on the walls, imposing knights on either side of the stage and an elaborate laser system projecting 3-D cubes that float above the dance floor. An elevated ring of glass-fronted private rooms encircles the main floor, like luxury boxes at a sports arena — perfect aeries for high rollers to scope the women on the dance floor whom they’d like to book. Though it’s far from full, there must be close to 600 people at Le Privé tonight. And aside from the friend I’ve brought along, I’m the only Anglo person in the room, the only non-Korean of any race, a situation I’m familiar with after living in Tokyo for three years — there’s that same curious blend of alienation, exhilaration and sensory overload.
In a way, Koreatown does feel like another country — four square miles of bustling, freewheeling nightlife thick with more than 1,500 neon-lit restaurants, bars, nightclubs, 24-hour cafés, karaoke “norae-bangs,” pool halls and high-speed Internet “PC bangs,” all catering to the largest Korean community in the world outside of Seoul: 160,000 in Los Angeles County, 25,000 of whom live in K-Town proper. It’s an insular place where most storefront signs and menus are in Korean, and there’s a complicated, word-of-mouth system for getting into nightclubs. But with the right passport, crossing into Koreatown after dark feels like falling down the rabbit hole and awakening in an enchanted bar with cascading waterfalls and bowls of butterscotch and mint candies by the door, a land where smoking is almost always allowed, and in some places the unfiltered rice wine, soju, flows until 5 a.m. When the Sunset Strip quiets down and West Hollywood and Silver Lake partiers slog back to their bungalows and Chi Dynasty leftovers, Koreatown is just heating up. In a sprawling city with only a handful of places open past 2 a.m., K-Town may be the hippest little pocket in Los Angeles, a teaspoon of Manhattan west of downtown, perhaps the last territory in the city where the party goes on 24/7.
First Car (Il-Cha)
Café Nandarang 3815 W. Sixth St., (213) 388-8513
Zip 3855 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 365-6677
Intercrew 3465 W. Sixth St., (213) 365-8111
Café Home 3377 Wilshire Blvd., No.109, (213) 383-0102
Bohemian 3451 W. Sixth St., (213) 487-6155
Café Bleu 3470 W. Sixth St., (213) 383-0180
Wilshire Square (formerly Greenbelt)
3250 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 380-0908
Blink 3377 Wilshire Blvd., No.200, (213) 385-1440
Bliss 3465 W. Sixth St., No.200, (213) 365-1222
Pointe 3680 Wilshire Blvd., No.B02 (213) 383-8686
Rosen Brewery 400 S. Western Ave., (213) 388-0061
Second Car (Yi-Cha) Nightclubs
Velvet Room The hottest club in K-Town right now; for the 21-to-23 age group. 3470 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 381-6006
Le Privé The largest nightclub in L.A.; for the 22-to-27 set. 721 S. Western Ave., (213) 381-7007
Kar Nak Smaller and more intimate; for the 27- to 34-year-olds. 3319 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 380-1030
Third Car (Sahm Cha)
Chorus 326 S. Western Ave., (213) 380-4333
Renaissance 3465 W. Sixth St., (213) 380-6864
Soop Sok 4070 W. Third St., (213) 380-0909
Young Dong 3607 W. Sixth St., (213) 739-0322
Vaskia 3377 Wilshire Blvd., No.208, (213) 351-0070
Fourth Car (Sah-Cha)
Late-night grub to sober up
Hodori 1001 S. Vermont Ave., No.102, (213) 383-3554
Pho LA 3470 W. Sixth St., No.5, (213) 389-6750
Denny’s 635 S. Vermont Ave., (213) 386-3427
I-Hop 3165 W. Sixth St., (213) 388-7770
Albenei 3470 W. Sixth St., No.6, (213) 388-1105
Fifth Car (Oh-Cha)
High-speed Internet Cafés or “PC bangs”
Cyberria 3324 W. Sixth St., No.J-K, (213) 381-5670
PC & Comics 3470 W. Sixth St., 2B, (213) 382-7783
and PC & Comics 4001 Wilshire Blvd., No.C, (213) 427-6262
For several rounds in one place, check out Palm Tree (3240 Wilshire Blvd., 213-381-3388) and Orchid Restaurant and Karaoke Club (3900 W. Sixth St., 213-251-8886) which have restaurants, nightclubs and karaoke norae-bangs all under one roof.
Sixth Car (Yook-Cha)
Le Privé would be a good place to start — Nicolas Cage, who frequents the club, apparently thinks so. All across the room, young men raise votives on their table, saluting the ceiling as if hailing a cab. This is the standard way to get the waiter’s attention, but at times the bobbing flames make the room glow like an Aerosmith concert. The waiters, connected by a network of headsets, zigzag past one another in stiff, waist-length navy jackets that make them appear to be either bellboys or secret-service agents. They drag women behind them, who in turn drag their girlfriends behind them, pushing back on their heels and giggling, in some cases waving their hands “no” and even arguing with the waiters. “The girls resist because if they show interest, it’s considered shameful,” one clubgoer tells me. “Even if the guy is cute and she’s digging him, she has to play hard to get.” The booking ritual is a frenetic, patriarchal version of speed dating. But efficient. “It’s a great way to meet girls,” says one smartly dressed 26-year-old regular.
“[Many] Korean kids don’t build up their social skills like American kids do,” says Paul Kim, a 27-year-old standup comic raised in Burbank and known around K-Town as PK. “[With] Korean parents, it’s all about education. From the time [the kids] pick up a pen it’s books, studying, PSATs, SATs . . . they don’t know how to approach a girl. The whole booking thing, it’s all just a tool to break down inhibitions.” More important, PK points out, “In Korean culture, you don’t walk up to a stranger and introduce yourself. You get an introduction. You can’t just go up to a girl at a club and say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ That’s American style. The waiter is the friend who introduces you to the girl.”
Waiters rule the Korean club scene. They act as promoters for their individual clubs, determine the guest list and facilitate the booking. They hand out business cards like Halloween candy, take reservations on their cell phones during the week and track down regulars with deals (a free half-pint of whiskey, say, to entice women out for ladies’ night). They even have groupies. One waiter, aptly named Romeo, is especially beloved. “Le Privé is known all over the world, and Romeo is by far the most popular waiter at Le Privé,” says 28-year-old singer-songwriter Ken Oak, a friend of PK’s. “I’ve talked to girls in New York and Texas, and they’re like, ‘You know Romeo?!’ Guys come here for the girls. The girls come here for Romeo.”
Romeo and his fellow waiters, I’m told, can make into the six figures at Le Privé. Korean nightclubs have no cover charge; instead, you buy a table for $200 to $500 depending on its size and where it’s located in the club, how far from the dance floor. You have to buy a table; there’s no bar or public space to hang out. But each table comes with a bottle of Crown Royal, a pitcher of Coke and one anju (food plate), or whatever deal you strike with your waiter. Women get a substantial discount — if they agree to be booked. The number of liquor bottles on each table, the brand and cost, clue the waiter in. He books the prettiest girls at the tables spending the most money — incentive for a bigger tip. “You tip your waiter well — especially if you want him to bring you girls,” one guy tells me. “We tip between 80 to 100 percent.” But you can’t get past the door without a reservation, and you can’t get a reservation without knowing a waiter — most guests have personal waiters at each club. And you can’t get to know a waiter unless you’ve already been there.
Example: I show up without a Korean friend at Kar Nak, a small, intimate, Egyptian-themed nightclub on Wilshire. The club’s middle-aged manager, dressed in a shiny gray suit, and a husky African-American bouncer monitor the sidewalk like two high school bullies tracking their Brooklyn street corner.
“Who’s your waiter?” the manager asks briskly.
“You need to know a waiter,” the bouncer apologizes.
“I’ve never been here before,” I say. “I don’t know any of the waiters.”
“You need to know a waiter,” the manager says, shaking his head “no.”
The bouncer holds me back with his arm.
“Okay, how can I get to know a waiter?” I ask.
“Call,” the manager says. “Make a reservation.”
“What’s the number?”
“Ask the waiter.”
Kar Nak, it turns out, is listed. But when I call the next day — and for three days thereafter — there is no answer. No recorded message. The phone just rings and rings and rings.
Good thing, then, that I meet Kevin Ha and Sam Kim late one night while waiting for my car after dinner in Koreatown. “You reach your waiter on his cell phone,” Kevin, 26, explains. He knows the drill because he goes out a lot. “It used to be every night,” he says, nodding to a passing group of girls piling into an SUV, a cigarette wedged in his lips. “Now it’s like five nights a week. But not clubbing every time. It’s easy to spend three bills a night out in K-Town.” Kevin, who immigrated to this country when he was 10, is considered “a 1.5-generation Korean-American, or K.A.,” he tells me. Sam is second-generation, born and raised in Reseda, a 6-foot-4, all-American jock with just enough baby fat padding his cheeks to make the 27-year-old appear charmingly adolescent. “No one knows K-Town like us,” they boast. So I take them up on an invitation to go clubbing.
A night out in Koreatown, if you do it right, unfolds in stages called chas, or “cars.” It’s like a train. First Car (Il-Cha) typically starts at a café or bar for dinner or a drink; then it’s on to a nightclub or another bar — that’s Second Car (Yi-Cha); Third Car (Sahm-Cha) might be a little after-hours karaoke; then some late-night noodles to sober up for Fourth Car (Sah-Cha) or maybe a round of Counter-Strike at a 24-hour Internet café. “They can go up to seven cars,” says PK. “If you have a girlfriend, that’s round seven right there.”
Later tonight, Kevin and Sam will introduce me to Le Privé. But for our First Car, a friend and I meet them at Blink. The name is appropriate: Tucked into the top floor of the Chapman Market west complex on Sixth and Alexandria, Blink is easy to miss from the street. It opened six months ago and is now the hottest bar in
K-Town, what the young, K.A. trendoids call an American-style bar, as opposed to an older-style soju house or a larger, full-service nightclub. But as narrow, sleek and futuristic as it is, Blink has more in common with watering holes in Tokyo. Or something you’d see in an American Express commercial: exotic, glossy, high-tech, with oblong lanterns, wall-mounted TVs playing Korean action films and Plexiglas chairs.
(Photo by Anthony Allen)
On the outdoor patio, by an enormous TV playing ESPN, pretty, skinny girls in super-fashionable outfits — lots of short skirts, high boots and fake fur — split pints and half-pints of Crown Royal with their dates, drinking straight shots to toasts of “Gun-bae!” and chasing them with beers or Coke. You can see the economy at work here, as if in fast-forward: money being fanned out to a hip-hop beat at nearly every table; bottles of whiskey being emptied, refilled and drained again; Gucci wallets zipping shut.
There’s no trouble getting past the door at Le Privé tonight. “Our waiter is Coco, the headwaiter,” Kevin says. Not Romeo?, I wonder as a brawny bouncer empties my purse and roots around inside with a flashlight. We descend the staircase into a thick canopy of cigarette smoke, and it takes several seconds for my eyes to stop burning. When my vision clears, one of the first things I see is a “No Smoking” sign next to another warning that prostitution is illegal.
Coco leads us to our semicircular booth on the edge of the stage. A plate of spaghetti, an order of chicken strips and an elaborate fruit platter, along with the standard Crown Royal and pitcher of Coke, await us. “It used to be Rémy Martin,” Kevin explains. “Now it’s Crown or Johnnie Walker.” K-Town, I’m told, consumes more whiskey than any other area in Southern California. Someone’s getting laid.
Three years ago, Le Privé regularly swelled to its 1,500-person capacity each night, bringing in several hundred thousand dollars a weekend. But Asian party promoters like ON Productions and Limelight are hosting parties at Gotham Hall in Santa Monica, at Cinespace or the Key Club, so the scene is getting more dispersed.
“Korean clubbing is changing,” one guy tells me. “Kids are going into Hollywood now.”
“Many Koreans used to come to L.A. to make money — in and out — and their kids went out, spent a lot of money in K-Town,” adds his friend. “But now, because of 9/11, it’s harder to get work visas. They’re going through Canada, and the wealthier Koreans with money to burn aren’t here anymore.” Perhaps that’s why Le Privé’s dance floor is entirely empty tonight but for three young women who have formed a tight, shy circle in the center of the floor, swinging their hips reservedly to a mix of Korean pop and hip-hop. But it’s early yet. In a private ring off to the side, two scantily clad sexpots go at it with abandon, like teenagers dancing in front of their bedroom mirrors when no one is home. The taller of the two, the one in the tight Cat in the Hat T-shirt and black platform sneaker-boots, lifts her leg high, rests it on the chrome railing and thrusts her pelvis to Kelis. “My milkshake is better than your milkshake, damn straight . . .”
“J-Lo filmed her first video here,” Sam yells over the music.
He raises the votive on our table and speaks urgently to Coco in Korean. In an instant, another waiter is back with a thin, attractive Korean girl in a tight white blouse. She stiffens against the waiter’s grip, digs in her heels and stumbles backward before finally glancing helplessly back over her shoulder at her girlfriends. She sits with her hands in her lap, not saying a word. Kevin pours her a shot of whiskey, and we all drink. It’s too loud to hear what the two are saying, but the body language is clear, cut into short, jerky movements by the strobe light. She giggles self-consciously, covers her mouth with her hand, pushes her hair behind her ear, giggles some more as the disco ball spins above. A nearby fog machine coughs up billows of smoke. After three or four minutes she stands and bows slightly, shakes Kevin’s hand and scurries back to her table of women friends. “You’re not supposed to pick the first girl,” Kevin says, explaining why he hadn’t encouraged her to stay.
Coco has been to our table three or four times already, but he’s not said a single word to us. Thin and erect, in a crisp white shirt instead of a waiter’s uniform — delineating that he is the top dog here — he’s a silent, ghost-like figure, stern and authoritative. During one of his visits, he pours himself a shot of Crown from the bottle we’ve paid for, refills our glasses and raises his: “Gun-bae!” He downs his shot and walks off. “The waiters drink with us,” says Sam. “It’s the custom.”
It’s 1 a.m. and the dance floor is now almost solid with bodies. Pockets of girls — many of whom barely look old enough to be trusted as baby sitters — bump and grind, shag their butts and bunch their lips into sexy, pouty buds. Around them, groups of guys shuffle awkwardly to DMX, Eminem and the occasional Britney Spears or 50 Cent song. “You don’t see that in [hetero] Hollywood, circles of just guys,” one clubgoer tells me. “They have to do that or they can’t get girls. It’s considered shameful for the girls to dance alone with them.”
In the ladies’ room, flush-faced girls primp and prod their hair in the mirror, perfecting their lipstick, consoling one another, as at any club, a haven of familiarity: “No, you’re pretty. You don’t need to lose weight. You’re only 20 years of age — you’ve got time!”
A statuesque young woman in a loose, silky black tank eyes my friend and me in the mirror. “So, did you guys have fun?” she asks. “I’m Lisa.” Her friend, Linda, leans in: “I think it’s awesome that you guys are here. I wish they’d open it up to everyone. I brought a Chinese friend with me one night, a girl, and I was turned away at the door. They like to keep it mostly Korean.” Lisa and Linda don’t particularly like booking, they say, but they do it to get cheaper tables. “Girls can get promo tables for $40, plus a free half-pint of whiskey,” Lisa explains. “They go around to the guys’ tables and drink for free. But some girls pay the full $200 so they don’t have to be bothered with it.”
No matter. There are places in Koreatown where, late at night and for a very high price, the waiters lead the men to the women’s tables.
“do you like Korean men?” my contact asks over the phone. She’s agreed to take me, under a fake identity, to an exclusive underground host bar. The price will come to at least $700, she warns, but it’s worth it: a private room, liquor and food, two men to wait on us, and the periodic company of the madam, who plays host to customers from the time the bar opens at 9:30 p.m. until the last person leaves — as late as 8 a.m. the next morning. Her family doesn’t know that she frequents such places — as often as every other week sometimes — so she’s requested to be called, simply, The Diva. We agree to meet at an old-style Korean saloon on Berendo Street.
Her pseudonym fits. A 31-year-old Korean woman who came to this country when she was a teenager, The Diva is pretty, even regal-looking, in an expensive black suit with a low-cut shell underneath. She carries herself like a wealthy woman who’s slightly bored. “Kids,” she sneers, as we walk past a table of spirited youngsters emptying a bottle of soju. “I prefer strong men who are in control.”
(Photo by Raul Vega)
The waitress, a silver-haired Korean woman in a Hello Kitty apron, brings us an assortment of appetizers from an open grill in the center of the room and lots of beer. The Diva lights up her first American Spirit of the night. “The thing is,” she says, “it’s all about image. It’s all about money and power. You have to impress them to get in.” She takes my business card and scans my outfit. I exude neither money nor power. “Don’t worry,” she says, “we’ll come up with a good story for you.”
In the car on the way over to the host bar, The Diva spins my identity. “You’re a writer from New York, a really famous food writer . . .” She digs through her purse for a bottle of perfume and douses her cleavage. “And you’re here because . . . you’re doing a story on me. I’m gonna say you lived all your life in Japan. Then we can just bullshit from there. Don’t worry, girlfriend, I’ll put you on a pedestal.”
Just before midnight, we arrive at a generic storefront on a main street in
K-Town. The front door, painted black, is scribbled with graffiti. The Diva rings the bell, and a narrow slot on the door slides open. I make out a slice of forehead and two brown eyes. Then the owner swings the door wide open, and The Diva strides in. “Happy New Year,” he sings cheerfully, hugging her and swaying back and forth. He peers over her shoulder at me. “You with her?” he asks suspiciously.
The entrance is awash in a dim, velvety blue light. But for the occasional glint of a disco ball spinning in one of the private rooms off to the corner and the distant echo of a Korean karaoke love song, the place at first glance appears entirely empty. The owner shows us to our private room, which has dark, tinted windows on three sides. It’s spare but clean: white walls, violet trim and a low, U-shaped couch that curls around a wooden table. There is an assortment of bottled water, soda, an ice bucket and glasses of every kind — for beer, for water, for shots — all pushed neatly together at one end of the table. The objective tonight is clear: We’re going to sit here and drink until we can’t take it anymore.
The madam is a man, explains The Diva, pronouncing it “Ma-daahm,” as if she were French royalty. But he’s pretty, with full lips and shiny red leather pants. “That’s as good as it gets,” The Diva sighs. “Most of the others are straight FOBs — fresh off the boat.”
Later in the evening, when we are liquored up and looser, the madam will take my hand in his and say, through a translator, that he’s honored to meet me; that he lives in Koreatown, works in Koreatown and that in the three years since he’s come to the U.S., I’m the only non-Korean he’s actually interacted with — even spoken to — in this country. Though he understands nearly everything we say, he’s shy, he says, and avoids speaking English, even at the grocery store. “Nice-to-meet-you,” he’ll say. Then he’ll smile and turn beet red.
But right now the madam is leaning on Korean — and makes hardly any eye contact. Neither does our waiter, a cherubic-faced young man in a white dress shirt. He comes in and out quietly, dressing our table with plates of fruit — banana cubes resting in their peel, mounds of grapes, dewy watermelon triangles — and another with pretzel twists, salted nuts and dried squid.
The owner herds in three young men who line up in front of us against the wall. They’re still for a second or two before the fidgeting starts, the staring into empty corners of the room. Then they bow in unison, turn and walk out single file. The Diva speaks animatedly in Korean, and the madam listens intently. “I ordered for us,” she says. “The cute one in the trench coat for me, whoever speaks the most English for you.”
When the madam returns with our “dates,” he dims the lights. Mine sits down beside me on the couch and pours me a shot of Crown Royal Special Reserve over ice. He’s clean-cut-looking, with spiky dyed black hair, a pressed Liz Claiborne shirt and Banana Republic pants. “Is there anything you need? More ice?” He gestures to my glass. “I’m Monte.” He’s adorable in a collegiate sort of way, speaks perfect English, was born and raised in Chicago. When I wince with the first sip of whiskey, he places a piece of watermelon in my glass to sweeten the bite. We struggle to make conversation, the small talk infused with all the awkwardness of a blind date. “I’m just doing this to get through school,” he tells me later, adding that he makes several hundred a night, about $1,000 a week.
For the rest of the evening, Monte (not his real name) dotes on me, anticipating my every need. When I help myself to a handful of pistachio nuts, he blocks my grip. “Let me,” he says, shelling the nuts and placing them in front of me. When I reach for a pretzel, he hands me a napkin; when I pick up a cigarette, he’s there with a match. There are no ashtrays, so he arranges a few shards of ice in the center of a cocktail napkin and pushes it in my direction with a smile. When I go to the bathroom, Monte escorts me, and when I emerge a minute later, he’s standing there in the hallway with his hands folded in front of him. “Would you like a hand massage?” he asks when we return. Then he cradles my palm and slowly, firmly, kneads the base of my thumb.
The Diva’s partner, “Sean,” speaks less English. He sits quietly, rolling and twisting a cocktail napkin. He lights the paper with a match, and just before it’s consumed by fire, he snuffs out the flames with his fingers. When the smoke clears, he presents us with a perfect, edge-burned rose. “Oohh, that’s soo cute,” The Diva says with a girlish whine and kisses him on the cheek. “Such a cute boy.”
The room next to us, a birthday party, is getting increasingly rowdy. Though we can’t make out much more than silhouettes gathered around a karaoke machine through the tinted windows, we can hear a group of mostly male voices chanting sloppily and wildly out of tune: “All day I dream about sex . . . all day I dream about fucking.” Sean places a drained egg, with an arrow drawn in red marker at the narrow end, in the center of a plate. “North, South, East, West.” He points to the edges of the dish. “Spin.” It’s a version of Truth or Dare, with all the expected questions (“What’s your favorite sexual position?”), the first of many drinking games this night.
“De-bo-rah, a tornado?” Sean asks, gesturing to my empty beer glass. He fills it halfway with Hite lager, pours in a stream of whiskey, and places a napkin over the lip. Then he whips the glass around in the air until a fuzzy, white spiral appears inside, twirling and bouncing off the edges. When he slams it down, The Diva picks off the now-soaked napkin and tosses it behind her so that it sticks to the glass pane. “The night is young,” she wails.
A little past 2 a.m., the waiter brings us a second bottle of Crown, and Sean presents us with a bouquet of chopsticks, each with a discreet number inked on the bottom. “Ladies first,” he says. “If you pick the King, you decide the command,” Monte explains. “The others must obey. Or drink.” It’s simple, PG stuff: a little French kissing between The Diva and Monte, the exchange of clothing between Sean and me. High school games. Until Monte commands that whoever has Number 1 (that’s Sean) must lick — he scans the table now crowded with empty, sticky shot glasses — must lick mayonnaise off Number Three’s nipple (that’s me). Or we drink. I’m wearing Sean’s sweater and The Diva is wearing my bra on her head. Sean lines up two shots of whiskey in front of me and a small container of mayonnaise. Then the lights go out, and he mutters something in Korean. “He says, ‘Whatever you’re comfortable with,’” Monte translates. “It’s your choice.”
Monte tells me that most of his clients are wealthy, older women who come here to either entertain business clients or escape domesticity for the night. But the bar is also frequented by his counterparts, the women who work at hostess bars in K-Town. “They feel comfortable here,” he says. “They make like $10,000 a month.”
“What if you don’t like the client you’re set up with?” I ask.
“It’s hard. Sometimes they throw up and we have to clean it up. But we don’t have a choice. We have to entertain them. It’s our job.”
“I’m sure it goes on, but we’re told not to. We’re not prostitutes.” Then he adds: “But sometimes we want to — if the girl is really hot.”
In the back, by the bathroom, the boys who aren’t entertaining clients sit slumped around a rickety card table, their cell phones, keys and Palm Pilots resting beside them, smoking and playing poker. “They’re waiting until they can leave at 3 a.m.,” Monte says. Then the owner steps into the dimly lit hallway and rushes us back into our private room. “You’re not supposed to look in there,” he scolds playfully, fingering the edge of his Dolce & Gabbana vest. The party next door to us is full-on into a George Michael song: “You gotta have faith, faith, faith baby . . .” Monte pours me another drink, the one that will finally taste all right and make the ceiling spin. “Let’s karaoke,” Sean says. The Diva launches into a deep and throaty version of “Hotel California.”
We’re slow dancing, Monte and I, to a Korean band called Country Chicken when the madam checks in on us. “Do you like light shows?” Monte translates, kissing me sweetly on the cheek. The waiter brings us a platter of raw snails over ice garnished with slips of seaweed, and the madam escorts in a young man who, in baggy pants, a knit ski cap over a bandanna and silver hoops in both ears, might as well be deejaying at a club in Hollywood tonight rather than working at a male host bar. A glow stick dangles from each of his wrists, and he’s named, he tells us, after a car engine. Diesel, we’ll call him here. “Just watch,” Monte says, falling back onto the couch. The lights go out, the techno music goes up and Diesel spins his sticks into small lime-green circles that grow increasingly wide until they fill the room, bleeding together, creating hearts and triangles and diamonds. He twirls them above his head like a cowboy with a lasso, making enormous rings that loop around us and then unravel into long trails of light.
“She could make you famous,” The Diva tells Diesel afterward. “She could write about you in her column. Really important person in New York.” She’s taken my fake identity so far that Sean and Monte now believe I am the writer who Sex and the City was based on. “Carrie Bradshaw, wow,” says Monte, picking bits of raw seaweed from a pool of now-melted ice water. We’ve killed two bottles of Crown Special, had three rounds of beer after that, and made a mess of the once impressive-looking fruit platter. It’s close to 5:30 a.m., so the waiter brings a tray of hot green tea to help prepare us for the ride home.
“You know, you have a really nice body,” Monte says, helping me on with my coat. “Carrie Bradshaw,” I joke, changing the subject. But when he replies, “Sex and the city,” he’s not talking about the TV show. He presses his cheek against mine and whispers into my ear: “Call me. We’ll go out for coffee sometime.”
Outside, the sidewalks are deserted. “Don’t do it, don’t call him, girl,” The Diva warns. “Don’t be gullible. These guys know what they’re doing. They’re looking for their next sugar mama.”
On the way home, she tells me that host bars are harmless, really just a way to have an easy, bite-sized dating experience when you don’t want to wade through the sea of singles in L.A. “I pay my damn money, I do what I want to do, I play as much as I want to play, and if I want to take it further, I do,” she says. She turns off the engine at my apartment so that we can talk further. “I’ve done that, you know, I’ve gone beyond. But in the end, it’s not about happiness. It’s about intoxication, about having a good time. And damn, we’re paying for it.”
“Nandarang is a landmark café in K-Town,” PK tells me the next night. “It’s such an easy meeting spot before you go out.” An odd but charming blend of Korean culture, ’50s American diner and ’60s swank, Nandarang is a smooth place to start the night — First Car. Young lovers in Boston U. sweatshirts share a milkshake from their cream-colored egg-bucket seats that look as if they’ve been lifted from a James Bond pad. “Sheh-eh-rry, Sherry baby” plays on the stereo. Brian Lee and Eric Kim, two of PK’s buddies who’ve driven in from Orange County, join us, and we order beer, a plate of onion rings and kimchi.
The cred at the table is high. PK, who performs every Saturday at the Laugh Factory and produces an annual Korean-American talent show through his kollaboration.org, is intense, super-confident, a social operator who seems to know at least one table of people everywhere we go (a high-five here, a squeeze of the shoulder there). Brian and Eric are more laid-back. With soft features and clean-cut, stylish good looks, they could be late-’70s teen heartthrobs. Brian, with shaggy, longish hair and a black leather jacket, is a Shaun Cassidy type. Eric, thin-faced and preppy in a black dress shirt, could be a distant cousin of Matt LeBlanc. When the three get into conversation, unleashing opinions on everything from the joys of K-Town clubbing to their frustrations over how Koreans have been portrayed in the local media since the 1992 riots, it’s clear this trio hasn’t just come out to party tonight. They’re here to set the record straight.
“We want to show the good side of K-Town,” Brian says. They’re still raw over the L.A. riots, a turning point, they say, when the media really began to exploit and distort the K-Town image. “Our property was damaged,” says PK, “and they’d highlight Korean shopkeepers on top of cars with, like, AK-47s. We became a scapegoat. On TV, they’d show the same two images over and over: Rodney King and the Korean grocer who shot the black girl . . . Rodney King, the Korean grocer . . . King, the grocer . . .”
“The L.A. riots affected us the way 9/11 affected the rest of the nation,” Brian says.
Behind us, a table of 12 plays a raucous drinking game, the cheering and clapping getting louder with each coin that plunks into a beer glass. But these three stay focused; there’s a long list of topics they’re burning about. Of the utmost importance? Koreatown’s image.
“When Koreans get here, to this country,” Eric says, “they join a church. Then they have a dentist, a mechanic . . . White suburbia thinks K-Town is dangerous. It’s not in the best location, but it’s not dangerous at all.”
“It’s like Friendster in real life,” Brian says. “Everyone knows each other. Two degrees of separation.”
“Even with 200,000 Koreans here,” adds PK, “everyone knows each other. Families, churches, the Internet, clubbing. It’s a tight community.”
We move on to Le Privé for Second Car, and this time the manager greets me at the door like a regular: “Hello,” he says with a warm, wide grin. “Nice to see you again.”
Tonight, I’m determined to meet Romeo, but first I find one of his Juliets in tears in the ladies’ room. She grips a business card that says “Romeo” on it and pats her cheeks with a cool, wet towel at the sink. Her friend caresses her shoulder and gently tucks a stray curl behind the sobbing girl’s ear. “Blah, blah, blah, ROMEO,” she cries in Korean. “Blah, blah, Romeo, Romeo.”
Where art thou, Romeo?! I ask myself. (Okay, so I’d had a few drinks.)
Coco, Romeo, they’re pseudonyms, waiter names, PK’s friend Ken explains. “They want to separate this life from their regular life.”
When I finally track down Romeo, I get the gist. It’s not just about looks. He’s a really nice guy too. Romeo slides up next to me in the booth. “I’ve been here since the beginning. Since June 2000,” he says. I ask him about Linda being turned away at the door with a Chinese friend, and he laughs it off. “That does happen. But as you can see, these two tables right here are all Chinese.” Even Hollywood stars — a race unto themselves — drop into Le Privé from time to time. “Nicolas Cage came the Sunday after the holidays. He hadn’t been here since a year before that. In the past, he’d bring Mickey Rourke with him a lot.” All this talk of movie stars leads the conversation back to American misconceptions about Koreans — this time in Hollywood.
“On TV and in the movies,” says PK, “the order of sexy guys is always white, black, Latin, vibrators, Asian guys. We’re always below the vibrators.”
“We’re always the bad guys,” Brian adds.
“Or kung fu masters,” says PK. “Or yakuza gangsters.”
“Just look at The Fast and the Furious,” Eric says.
“Asian women are portrayed as ‘exotic,’ but Asian men,” Brian says, “we’re portrayed as . . .”
“. . . having small penises,” PK says. “Math geeks. Businessmen.”
“Laundry men,” Brian says. “Computer nerds.”
“Workaholics,” says Eric.
“You never see Asian supermen on TV,” PK gripes. “If you did, they’d be delivering laundry. And be really bad drivers. The mainstream media emasculates Asian men.”
Funny coming from a table of hotties.
At 2 a.m., the overhead lights go on, and the trance music fades to a low, repetitive pulse. There’s an exodus to the parking lot, where gleaming Mercedes, Lexuses and souped-up SUVs clog the exit. Hundreds of sweaty, pumped clubbers file out the front door, and six parking attendants jog back and forth as if this were an elite commando training drill, each one flailing his arms above the crowd’s heads and shouting as if he were the designated army captain: “White Maxima. Maxima?!” “Benz SUV! Come on!!” And there’s the usual post-club drama. To our right: “Come on, girl, it’s just a phone number. Not like I’m asking you to marry me.” On our left: “She’s crying. That girl in the car. She’s like Michael Jackson’s sister on crack. And they’re talking shit about her. That’s fucked up.”
“Oh, look, there are the guys I was dancing with,” says Ken’s sister, Jane Oak. “They’re cute in the light!”
If you were to find yourself lost in Koreatown after dark, Hodori would be the place to go, a 24-hour Korean cafeteria where most everyone meets up after clubbing for a bowl of late-night noodles or simply to sober up. It’s clean and bright, refreshingly devoid of smoke, and so busy tonight after 2 a.m. this could be the noon lunch crush. “If I don’t hook up with a girl at a club,” Eric said earlier, “I just go to Hodori afterwards.”
This is our Third Car of the night, and aside from the couple next to us, Ken, Jane and I are the smallest party in the room — the others are closer to 11 or 14. Against the picture window, a party of eight exuberant guys slap their hands down on the table, laughing and one-upping each other in Korean over something. And there’s much table-hopping. A curvy young woman in a plaid miniskirt, Uggs and a backward baseball cap rushes by, talking her way to the front of the bathroom line.
A round of ice water appears in shallow aluminum bowls — like something you’d pan for gold in — and we share a generous serving of spicy, cold buckwheat noodles with thin, broth-logged strips of beef. As Ken makes repeated trips outside for a smoke, Jane, still flushed and effervescent from the dancing, gushes about the evening. She’s 32, an attorney, but she’d been booked for the first time ever tonight. “The waiter was like, please, just do me a favor and let me book you at this one table,” she says. “But it was great. So much fun. By the end of the night, we were like family.” Ken falls back into his seat reeking of Camel Lights: “It’s always fun, Korean clubs. Always a good time.”
It’s 4:30 a.m., Fourth Car, and the 24-hour Internet café is full-up with kids, as if the after-school bell had just gone off. It’s a mellow but active scene, a long, narrow room in which 15 or so people, mostly boys, sit transfixed at two banks of computer terminals facing each other, with Orange Crush–colored walls, light hardwood floors and more than 100 shelves of Korean comic books. But it is sound that defines this place, the testosterone-infused communal cacophony of about six different computer games all going at once: gunshots, an occasional explosion, bleeps and swooshes from computer card games, the fast, out-of-sync peck of disparate fingers on bilingual keyboards and a periodic digital walkie-talkie voice: “Fire in the hole, fire in the hole!” Korean Internet radio plays from one computer — Frank Sinatra, then an Aerosmith love song, then a news broadcast in Korean — and the employee at the register zones out to a CD of the Korean pop band Brown Eyes.
This is the most popular PC bang in K-Town, one gamer tells me. Why? “Because they have Counter-Strike.” On his computer: “Go, go, go. Affirmative,” to a quick techno beat. “You’ve got your terrorists and your counterterrorists, and you just go around killing as many people as you can,” he says.
At the far end of the room, a young man in his late 20s sits hunched over a row of empty energy drinks reading a comic book and munching from a bag of shrimp crackers. At the other end, a stringy, older man with leathery, hollow cheeks is checking his e-mail, talking quietly but rapidly into his cell phone with one hand and fingering $20 bills from what looks like a half-inch-thick wad of cash in the other. I sit next to the girl playing computer solitaire. Bleep, swoosh. “Fire in the hole!”
“We come here to pass the time by playing night games,” one particularly spry teenager says. “I don’t have a computer at home.“ Then: “Oh my God!” “Clear in the hole . . .”
Next door, the Korean barbecue restaurant is packed, though no longer serving alcohol, and outside, kids are hanging in front of the 7-Eleven, smoking, talking, reviewing the night: “Kar Nak, man, that was dope.” All but one little storefront in the adjacent mini-mall is closed and dark. But Vaskia Karaoke is still going strong. The owner, perhaps the friendliest and most spirited person up at this hour in Los Angeles, welcomes me inside, gesturing proudly down the long, narrow hallway with jet-black walls lined in plush zebra print and bathed in fluorescent purple light. “Please come back,” he urges after a quick tour. “We serve nine nations — Korean, Chinese, American . . .” Then he whips out his card and adds with a bright smile: “Open 24 hours. We never close.”
Fifth Car, 6 a.m., it goes without saying: bed.