‘Gay’ clubs draw straight people, tooIn Korean society, where being different can be tough on an individual, homosexuality is considered the ultimate form of nonconformity, often producing lifelong pain and complications in daily life.
Thanks largely to the controversial “coming out” of Korean celebrity Hong Suk-chun five years ago, perceptions about those with a less conventional sexuality ― homosexuals, transvestites and transsexuals ― are slowly changing.
The gay characters Mr. Hong plays on television and his real-life personality have helped to change the dark and tormented image with which gays have been portrayed. The popularity of such cable network programs as “Sex and the City,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and “Will and Grace” also contributed to public understanding of the so-called “gay culture” in Korea.
But, because of the social stigma, entertainment aimed at the gay community often took place in the shadows of society, primarily in the northern Seoul areas of Itaewon and Jongno 2-ga. There, entertainment facilities like bars, clubs and karaoke lounges typically had no signs or were hidden, dirty and dingy. But that is changing, as brighter, more inviting places open up and as “gay” places attract a straight clientele as well.
This ongoing campaign to improve gays’ image through the media has been joined by Seoul’s gay community, primarily opinion leaders and trendsetters in the fashion and entertainment industries.
Most noticeably, the street known as “Gay Hill,” the second street from the fire station on Itaewon’s main street, has been cleaned up, and the area welcomes non-gays.
This slow change in perceptions also extends to the capital’s party scene.
Regarding the changes in the entertainment scene since he publicly disclosed his homosexuality, Mr. Hong says that one of the notable differences is that now straight people come to enjoy the “gay” parties as well.
In 2002, Mr. Hong opened Our Place, a cafe/restaurant in Itaewon.
“For the first year and a half, business was bad because people thought that Our Place was only for gays, but now everyone comes here to have a good time,” he says, pointing out one large table occupied by seven young Korean women celebrating a birthday.
For those who like to dabble in gay parties, in the manner of Carrie Bradshaw and her gang on “Sex and the City,” there are a number of gay bars, karaoke places and clubs to check out on weekend nights, most of which are on Gay Hill.
For trendsetting gay men, activities can range from sipping a glass of Moet and Chandon champagne to dancing and singing or attending a raunchy strip show.
For Jason Song, a Korean fashion advertising executive, and his friends, a Saturday night out usually begins with chardonnay at Bungalow, a lounge located on a back street of Itaewon.
Bungalow is not necessarily a gay spot, but he loves the atmosphere. “There aren’t any places in Seoul that play ‘real’ lounge music. Bungalow has low beach chairs with some sand underneath, and is a great place to start the evening,” Mr. Song comments.
A sleek bar frequented by fashionable gay men and their straight friends is Fushigi, or Fu, tucked in another back street of Itaewon. Owned by Sian Choi, a music director, the bar churns out cool lounge music, and Mr. Choi is proud of his personal collection of Buddha statues that decorate the bar, displayed against glimmering walls covered with Italian tile. Popular beverages, from wine and champagne to tea, are available, while a plate of crisp fried chicken can be ordered from a pub upstairs.
Bungalow and Fushigi are places where plans for the rest of the night are discussed. Revelers can stay in the same area or head out to Wallpaper, a sleek karaoke bar in Jongno in northern Seoul. The actor Hong Suk-chun says he loves Wallpaper because “it’s different from most gay karaoke bars. It’s clean, bright, young and modern.”
Near midnight, those who want a somewhat wilder scene can choose to party at a karaoke bar known as a “host bar,” or “hoppa,” opposite Fushigi.
This bar has a sign saying “danlanjujeom” in Korean outside, which means that it provides entertainment and alcoholic beverages. The place may look a bit rundown, but its “entertainment” features “straight” hosts who cater to gay men and heterosexual women. Partiers can expect almost the same service as at notorious Korean “hostess” bars.
Partying at a host bar known as Cuba in Itaewon can be expensive. A group of four can expect to pay 400,000 won ($400) for a karaoke room, a large bottle of Korean whiskey, a large plate of assorted fruits and soft drinks. When a group of young men is presented by a “madam,” each guest can choose his or her “partner” for the party for 30,000 won. An additional tip is encouraged when the partner strips and offers other services. For 100,000 won more, the guest can take the partner home.
For something less wild, just walk to Gay Hill, where a number of bars stay open until the wee hours.
Most trendy gay men say that the club Why Not? is suitable for both gay and straight visitors to the area, while G-Spot offers the best party on the only two nights, Friday and Saturday, that the club is open during the week. G-Spot draws straight revelers for its latest dance music and topless male dancers on stage.
Additional exotic fun available at a small club called Trans, opposite G-Spot, is a lively drag queen show at around 1 a.m. on Saturday nights. Six-foot-tall transvestites are decked out in glittering costumes and platform heels; their theatrical personas vary from a maid to a sexy songstress and an angry housewife.
Just the sight of these glamorous queens of the night generates a lot of cheers, drinking, tipping and of course, great laughter ― the best way to cure life’s pain.
Life changes for actor after coming out
Before Hong Suk-chun declared his homosexuality five years ago, the Korean public never mentioned or acknowledged homosexuality. His courageous step in becoming the country’s first gay public persona and spokesperson has won admiration and encouragement from supporters in Korea and abroad. Mr. Hong will lead the Queer Festival parade this afternoon in Jongno and participate in the three-day Blue Party this weekend. The IHT-JoongAng Daily spoke with him about his life after the public disclosure.
Q. Have things changed since you came out in public five years ago?
A. A lot has changed. Before I came out, no one talked about it in Korean society, as if homosexuals didn’t exist. After I came out, people acknowledge and accept that there are gays. When I decided to come out through an interview, my parents, who were living in South Chungcheong province, were so shocked that they came to Seoul and begged me to cancel it. Even now, people sometimes mistakenly believe that because I’m gay I must have some kind of traumatic problem. But, I don’t.
After I came out, a lot of gay people who had suffered came out and are leading a happier life. In the Korean entertainment industry, transsexuals, like Harisu and Lady, became popular. These days, I give lectures, about once a week, to university students around the country on human rights, minorities, peace and the like. An 18-year-old boy thanked me for giving him the courage to come out.
What are you working on?
When “A Sad Love Story,” one of the dramas I appeared in, was shown in Japan, the audience found out that I was gay and that I had a big story to tell. A Japanese publisher contacted me about its plan to translate my book into Japanese. But I thought many things have changed over the past five years, so I wanted to rewrite the book. Back then, Korean society was so strict that there were many parts that I had to delete before it got printed. [They were mostly] about the sexual promiscuity of gay men and about the deep sense of shame inside me that I was a bad person. I’m really thankful to leading celebrities like Lee Byung-heon, Kwon Sang-woo, Choi Ji-woo and Lee Seung-yeon, who have embraced me and my sexuality.
What do you want to happen in the next five years?
I’d like my role to be not just a gay man, but to portray other characters, just like everyone else. I’ve finished two Korean dramas and I’m discussing another one with a director now. I get these parts because the director or screenwriter likes me, and I play a gay man. But, I don’t know why I am never invited to appear on talk shows or game shows.
Join the fun at the 3-day ‘Blue Party’
This weekend, “The Blue Party,” the country’s first public “queer” party, organized by a mainstream party organizer, will take place. This is also the first time in Korean entertainment history that a gay party is being held outside Itaewon.
“The gay community has wanted to have a big party for themselves for a long time, so when I decided it’s about time that Korea has a ‘queer’ party, sponsors came along to celebrate the cause,” says Chi Miggi of Sway Productions, one of the organizers.
But Ms. Chi, still wary of public opinion, says she had to produce two kinds of posters: one for the gay community showing an image of a sexy topless man, and the other, an ordinary party poster. “That way, those who know what ‘queer’ means know what to expect, and those who thought the party was ordinary can come without any prejudice and have fun,” Ms. Chi says, “because these days there are a lot of gay people at straight people’s parties.”
The three-day event kicks off tonight from 9 p.m to 4 a.m. at the Tribeca Club in Cheongdam-dong in southern Seoul. Admission to the “Friday Blues” party costs 30,000 won ($30) at the door, including one free drink. Tribeca is located behind the Hard Rock Cafe near Hakdong Junction.
The second party, “Blue Him Away,” tomorrow night at Lime Light in Itaewon, features go-go boys from Japan. A ticket costs 25,000 won in advance and 30,000 won at the door, with two free drinks included. Doors will open at 10 p.m. Lime Light is located near the Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon.
The capital’s hottest gay club in Itaewon, G-Spot, which is normally closed on Sundays, will open from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. Monday for its “G-Spot Sunday” party. Admission is 20,000 won at the door.
Tickets are sold through G-Spot (www.gspot.co.kr), Sway Productions (02-544-3467), Fushigi bar (02-795-2080), Wallpaper karaoke bar (02-795-2449) and Tsunami bar (02-3785-0939).
by Ines Cho