Social Club Triggers Questions Of EgalitarianismIt's 10:30 in the evening at the JW Marriott Hotel in southern Seoul, and the chefs at the Demoda Lounge, a restaurant and bar discreetly located in the hotel's basement, are still sweating from the heat coming from their saucepans. Despite the open kitchen, the area is full of smoke, and one middle-aged chef keeps blinking her eyes as she adds a few cloves of garlic to a sizzling pan. About 10 chefs adorned in full-length aprons move with swift motions along the narrow path between the refrigerators and the stoves.
On the other side of the room, however, there is an entirely different scene. A group of men and women ranging from their late 20s to early 40s stand with wine glasses in their hands, casually talking about their last trip to the Caribbean. This may be a typical scene in cigar bars near Soho, but it is certainly not how ordinary business people in Korea generally spend their Saturday nights. The dinner event was one of the monthly gatherings of "Club Friends," an elite social club that has recently stirred a controversy in the Korean social scene.
Stylizing itself as "a social network for urban leaders," the club organizes an average of three to four gatherings a month in unobtrusive places like private galleries or jazz bars in southern Seoul. Each party is thematically divided by the company's event organizing team, and the itinerary includes events such as wine drinking and costume events, which are rather rare in social calendars in Korea.
Club Friends was launched by a small group of MBA students at the Seoul National University as an attempt to escape from the traditional ways of networking in Korea, methods heavily influenced by blood, regional ties or where one went to school. It eventually organized itself as a profit-making company in 1997.
"You are less likely to have opportunities in Korean society if you are not connected through schools or personal acquaintance," says Lee Hoon, the managing organizer of Club Friends.
"The chance to meet other professionals in Korea is just not available naturally. The club's philosophy is distinct from other companies which style themselves 'social clubs' or even as marriage consultants in the sense that we provide opportunities for those who feel the need to meet different groups of people through practical human relationships," he says, while admitting that the events are more focused on meeting new people more efficiently rather than on having serious discussions.
Despite the club's realistic vision about its role, however, the question of selection criteria for acceptance into the club continues to be raised, and many suggest that the club has not really discarded Korean methods of networking based on class and occupation.
The club consists mostly of young professionals, single and married, between the ages of 26 and 40, many of whom have lived abroad. It offers social activities like cocktail parties, which may not be familiar to Koreans who were not exposed to western culture. And even though the selection of club members is not directly based on social standing, the stress on western cultural exposure and professional standing makes the group the frequent target of criticism that it is an "aristocratic cultural group."
"The club has much potential to be attacked by the general public. For one thing, it's the first official social club open to the public. I think the fact that the group first started with MBA students at Seoul National University is another reason for it being frequently censured. In fact, many of the members of the group are from the elite, but our definition of the word is somewhat different than the way it has traditionally been used. We also have members who are high school graduates," says Mr. Lee.
Perhaps the club philosophy reflects the view of the so-called "neo-patricians" who are gaining attention in Korean society. Referring to those young professionals who have earned their position rather than inherited it from their families' wealth, the club offers what it believes to be distinctively different social values from its predecessors and competitors.
Nevertheless, the club's screening process has often been the subject of debate. Because the club does a detailed background investigation of applicants, those who fail to meet the company's requirements question whether the jury's decisions were arrived at fairly. Some raise suspicions as to whether there really are genuinely objective criteria.
Elite social clubs in Korea are increasing in number. Among them are more extreme examples of elite clubs like "Noble Marriage Consultants," which asks its clients to submit an inventory of their property.
Regardless of values, there are mixed opinions about the exclusive nature of such social organizations and what their existence implies about Korean society and its standards as a whole. Even though the majority of the clubs would not openly admit to giving preferential treatment to the gentry, their screening processes are seen by some to undermine any notion of being democratic.
Perhaps its just as well that ultimately, many Koreans would still prefer going to a noraebang and releasing stress by screaming out their favorite lyrics with their old high school friends.
by Park Soo-mee