[Originally published at OhmyNews!]
People are all the same, in terms of human motivations, desires, and basic instincts. But our cultures — as defined simply by different world views, customs, and even the little habits of the everyday — differ quite a bit. Despite our common traits, our cultures and societies are the results of different specific histories, which are the results of geography, human will, and blind circumstance. No matter the causes, we live in the here and now, and our ways of life differ from society to society.
Our natural geographies differ, and so do our built (man-made) spaces. And as unique as Korea’s natural geography are the spaces that are a sign of the culture here, from comic book rooms to love motels to the noraebangs, which is celebrating only its 20th anniversary since being introduced to Korea. Of course, the idea of “karaoke” comes from Japan, but not the idea of singing itself, which Koreans surely love to do. Combined with the fact that Korea, as a fast-developing country in 1991, had developed a population that could actually afford to go to the “noraebang” at the time, and you have a uniquely Korean social space. Remember, Japanese tended to use the karaoke machines in the larger space of a bar or club; Koreans are far more exclusive and less public, so they preferred to be in rooms with only people whom they directly knew. The Korean “noraebang” is no more Japanese, by this point, than a bulgogi burrito made by a Mexican guy selling them out of his truck to students at UCLA, or Japanese “donkatsu” is an American pork chop. They all have become adapted to their cultures, and thereby unique to them.
As a photographer wanting to do a photo shoot for a Korean American necktie designer, with the idea of using uniquely Korean spaces as the backdrop, the first thing that occurred to me was also a place that had always fascinated me — the “room salon.” As an American coming to Korea in 1994, I’d never been exposed to a cultural space in which women were so overtly objectified in the service of men, from merely singing, dancing, and drinking, all the way to sex itself. America is a puritanical culture, where most states ban alcohol after 2am and was once illegal (the Prohibition period), and prostitution is not just nominally illegal, so it is either a refuge of the desperate (the streetwalker you might see in American movies) or the option of the elite (highly-paid, private “escorts”). Typical of American culture is the contradiction that exists between the liberal and conservative streaks in our culture — this is why American has strip clubs in most states, but you are really not allowed to even touch the girl. Doing so will land you on the street. America is the land of “look, but don’t touch.” Korea is far more practical about the way it hides desire — “touch, just don’t tell.” It’s a very Confucian solution to the problem. The puritanical American feels the temptation, but feels very confused about what to do with that desire.
So, the space of the room salon was always one of the most fascinating to me, since it was the most alien. In America, even if one engages in formal prostitution, it is done alone, secretly, behind closed doors. What fascinated me about the room salon — and all the similar spaces of the “business club” or what I came to learn about later as the “bikini bar” or “sexy bar” and so forth — is that they are very social spaces, where groups of men go to engage their desire. Men go there to socialize, conduct business, and bond with one another. Especially from the days of Pak Chung Hee’s “kisaeng diplomacy,” to the more expensive business clubs in City Hall that foreign businessmen are often treated to as the cherry on the cake after a major international deal, to even the cheap and sordid bars that still line the streets of working-class neighborhoods, and now even to the expensive “room cafes” in Kangnam or bars in my own neighborhood in Mapo, with well-dressed female-only bartenders, which actually don’t sell sex — there is still a lively culture in which men socialize with one another, with women providing either sexy (or overtly sexual) social lubricant.
It is in this space that I think of neckties. When I think of neckties, I think of men in suits, and in the Korean context, I think of the ajussi, especially a suited salaryman. When I think of how Korean salarymen socialize, I think of smoking cigarettes, flowing alcohol, and women. When I see images of the room salon, I see the pictures and stories of every “sports newspaper” that provides me with the imagery of these spaces, along with my direct experience. Even the advertising in this very newspaper is quite stark and often overtly sexual — in my own culture, one would have difficulty finding bikini-clad women in banner ads for penis enlargement surgery, blackhead removal creams, and the like in say, The New York Times, Newsweek, or even OhmyNews’ equivalent, The Huffington Post.
I’m not making a value judgement here; I’m merely talking about my motivations for making a photo shoot utilizing this uniquely Korean cultural and physical backdrop. Indeed, most non-Koreans would find this space also fascinating. Despite Koreans’ tendency to think only in terms of national image or shame (“나라망신”), the actual foreigners most Koreans are worried about don’t really care about “negative” or “positive” — they’re looking for what’s interesting, for cultural item that are new to them, that deepen interest in the culture in general. Koreans, when thinking about how some supposedly “negative” aspects of Korean culture bring embarrassment, are stuck in an irrelevant frame of thinking based on “shame,” which is rooted in Confucian ideas of following social rules and sticking to one’s social roles. Westerners, for example, simply aren’t thinking in these terms when looking in from the outside.
When looking at the “room salon,” the idea both fascinates many of us, is fodder for conversation, and is always the stuff that makes certain people want to go deeper and learn more about a culture. What’s funny is that when Korean organizations and the government wants to promote “Korean culture” overseas, it generally picks the things that Koreans think makes the culture look good, as opposed to what’s interesting or is actually good on the ground. The government now, wants to promote Chosun-era cuisine and bibimpap artificially, even as Americans are consuming Korean BBQ, fried chicken, and even bulgogi burritos sold on Mexican lunch trucks. Americans aren’t going to go for what the government wants it to. Suntubu, for example, has taken off because many Korean American restauranteurs have marketed it as a vegetarian health dish. The first Korean movie to sweep Cannes was Old Boy, not a film like Chunghyangjeon, which is what the government would like; similarly, many foreign audiences found The King and the Clown a fascinating story; western audiences collectively yawned at Taegukki.
And in a similar way, as an editorial shoot for a Korean fashion magazine, promoting Korean cultural content to the growing number of people around the world who think Korean fashion is worth looking at, the backdrop of the room salon, as a sexual play space for men, is a fascinating and truly edgy backdrop to do it in. And since fashion’s role in any society is to push the boundaries and even provoke controversy, as a fashion photographer trying to promote interest in Korean culture, this is exactly how I need to do it. The typical Korean tendency in this situation, perhaps using the Kyeongbok Palace as a backdrop, with women in “fusion” (read: tired and cliched) hanboks, would only provoke drowsiness and disinterest. Perhaps this is why not only the Korean fashion industry, but most Korean “culture industries” in general, utterly fail to winn the interest of foreign audiences.
I, for one, will not make this mistake. In the arts, playing it safe means you will surely go unnoticed. If one tried to be provocative, going unnoticed is the worst-case scenario. If one does it right, people will be talking about you. As the old American saying goes, “If no one is talking about you, you must not be doing anything worth noticing.” And no one talks about those who play it safe.