Pouring it onThe lecture hall at Yonsei University was packed with eager students jotting down every single word of advice. Was the speaker some wisened, old philosopher? A mind-bending astrophysicist? An enlightened literary critic?
No. Yoon Min-ho is a waiter.
Mr. Yoon, 45, isn’t just a waiter at some restaurant or cafe. He has worked at night clubs and room salons for 20 years. And in September, he published an autobiographical novel, “Waiter” (Changzak Shidae publishers), based on the drinking, partying, girls, prostitution and general bacchanalia he’s witnessed over two decades.
Fortunately for many of his customers, names have been changed.
For his lecture last week, in the chemistry course “Understanding Alcohol and Brewing,” Mr. Yoon warned the room full of college students about the dangers of the bar culture, and gave advice about how people should behave while getting sauced with their buddies.
“At bars we call customers with good manners ‘stars,’ and troublesome customers ‘jinsang,’” he says. Jinsang is a term bar workers use to refer to a real bad dude.
Mr. Yoon told his audience that jinsang customers were those who kept asking for more drinks even though they were already heavily wasted. “Customers who insult the attending girls or request kinky favors are jinsang,” Mr. Yoon says. He has even seen customers go bankrupt from their drinking and partying debts.
The waiter added that he felt it was wrong when he saw new recruits at whatever big company, fresh out of college, spending their entire salaries at room salons. Mr. Yoon said that he had seen no shortage of people who had ruined their lives like that, college students who ran up so many debts that they had to quit school and serve drinks to pay back the money they owed.
Mr. Yoon started to serve alcohol in 1977, when he was just 20, working part time in a beer hall in central Seoul.
“Back then I never dreamed that I would be working as a waiter for the rest of my life," Mr. Yoon says. He quit that job to serve his required time in the Korean military, then spent three years in the Middle East as a laborer for Hyundai Construction.
With the little bit of money he saved from working abroad, under the scorching sun, Mr. Yoon tried opening a restaurant, souvenir shop and even a corner store in his hometown, Seokcho, Gangwon province. Unfortunately, luck was not on his side, and all those businesses eventually failed, leaving Mr. Yoon broke.
Driven to depression, Mr. Yoon spent most of his time drinking soju, until one day a hometown friend who had moved to Seoul to work in a nightclub, offered Mr. Yoon a job as a waiter.
He took the offer, and soon found himself working all night, every night at the club. But despite the difficulty, Mr. Yoon was charmed by the work and really enjoyed it.
Mr. Yoon says that, although he is currently working at a room salon, he enjoyed the old days more, when downtown nightclubs were hits because of all the diverse characters he could meet.
“During the 1988 Seoul Olympics, nightclubs around Seodaemun, central Seoul, were packed,” he says.
The women were different then, too. Regular women customers at nightclubs were often employees at nearby department stores and nurses by day.
“Back then there were a lot of women customers who spent the entire night at the night clubs in Itaewon,” adding that the women would wash up and put on their makeup in the women’s restroom at the nightclub before going to work in the early morning.
Mr. Yoon said he would have a list of his female customers' phone numbers. When young employees from nearby conglomerates would visit, he would call up his customers and arrange meetings between the young group of men and women.
With his help, 15 couples successfully married. Mr. Yoon says that some of the couples still call him up from time to time.
As the years passed, room salons started to blossom and Mr. Yoon too had to adjust to the changes. He left the nightclub life behind and moved on to room salons.
In 1997, Mr. Yoon took his savings and opened up his own room salon, the largest in Sinchon, northwestern Seoul. It had long been a dream of his to be his own boss.
But his dream didn’t last long, as the country was struck by the financial crisis later that year. Mr. Yoon had to close his business after a year and a half and return to his old job as a waiter.
Mr. Yoon said that a lot of people have misconceptions about room salons. For one, room salons are not centers of gangster violence, as is often portrayed on television and in movies. Sure, room salons employ a few big, burly types, Mr. Yoon says, but they are only there to rid the places of drunken customers who make trouble. It is only in movies that gangster have fights in room salons, he says.
Additionally Mr. Yoon says that people tend to think it is easy to earn a lot of money working at room saloons. That’s just not true.
“A large number of college girls visit room salons in order to pay their credit card debts,” he says.
Mr. Yoon says that in the old days, most room salon girls worked there because they had to pay for their parents’ medical bills, or perhaps they were paying for the education of their brothers and sisters. But today, he says, it’s all about credit card debts.
“But easily earned is easily spent,” he says, “That’s why the girls’ credit card debt increases again and they can never leave the room salon work.”
Mr. Yoon recalled a college girl who came to work for the room salon because she and her boyfriend had spent their entire tuition money on entertainment and having fun. The girl had to use her credit card to pay for her college tuition. Then she borrowed money from loan sharks to pay off her credit cards.
As the interest on her loans began to grow, she started to work at room salons. Even after she finally paid all her debts, she kept spending large amounts. Today she works full-time at room salons, her dreams of going to a university dashed.
When he is not playing the waiting game at A-gent, a room salon in Chungmuro, or penning books, he is a part-time photographer. He has been snapping photos at his colleagues’ weddings, birthdays and anniversaries for a decade.
“A girl working at the room salon and a designated driver who also worked there were getting married, but they didn't wanted to pay for a photo shoot,” Mr. Yoon says. So the waiter picked up his camera and since then he has been an amateur photographer.
Today nearby store workers and colleagues always request that he take their pictures.
Mr. Yoon says that he plans on doing volunteer work. His aim is to become a missionary for proper drinking culture. The lecture at Yonsei University was just the beginning.
In addition to working every day from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m., Mr. Yoon is busy putting the final touches on a sequel to his novel, this one with the working title “Alcohol Drinking Culture.”
“I am ready to run to anyone that would like to hear my story," Mr. Yoon says.
by Kim Pil-kyu