At first glace, Lower Main in Wailuku is indistinguishable from any other gentrified industrial neighborhood. Indistinguishable, until you notice the vast proliferation of “Korean Bars” canvasing the neighborhood. Named 7 Pools, Club Starlite, Club Ocean, Club Osaka, these establishments are conspicuously anonymous. The only clue to the nature of these establishments are vague signs advertising “beautiful hostesses” or “Korean dancing.”
One night I walked into a place called Hot and Rich. It was completely empty save for three women who gossiped excitedly in tepid Korean. There were glimmering neon lights, pink walls and blaring Korean techno music. It was a tiny, almost cozy place. I was the only customer.
“I wanted to name it Paprika, but no Ameri-can can understand paprika,” the owner told me, hanging on my arm. “Then, ah, one day, I am with my bay-bee and we are watching-ah Brues Crews [Blues Clues] every morning. And they have-ah Meestah Salt and Miss Pepper and they make a baby called Paprika. Can I introduce to nice-ah Korean girr?”
I moved on and found myself sitting in the warm bask of shimmering neon. A middle aged Korean woman.
“You like-ah Korean girr?” she cooed.
Above my “date’s” head sat a television screen showing Korean karaoke. Slowly the hollow letters on the screen became hot pink, as if being filled with air. A man wailed his way through the lyrics like a wounded animal. Middle-aged men stared slack-jawed at the screen from their tables. They looked hypnotized.
I ordered a Corona.
To my immediate left a group of Korean women sat smoking cigarettes as long as pencils, idly waiting for the next customer. Some of these women were clearly past their prime. Their feet were squished into ill-fitting shoes. They wore skin-tight leopard print outfits and their faces were caked with make-up. The younger girls had long jet-black hair, sleek bodies and angular faces.
My appointed companion got bored by my incessant note taking. She leaned hard against me, her breast squishing against my arm. She whispered something incomprehensible in my ear. I said nothing, then she grabbed my notepad and marched over to her colleagues at the next table.
They talked quickly as they looked over my scrawl. Finally my spurned “date” made her way back to my barstool, twirling and bellowing.
“I am mer-maid!,” she said. “I have-ah no lek!”
As she handed my notebook back she took out a pen and wrote on one of the pages, in Korean, “Goodbye and goodbye.”
Every hostess bar I visited had a ceramic white cat sitting on the bar. The cat was always winking and holding a gold tablet with Chinese script on it. No one could tell me what the cat symbolized.
At one bar, I always saw one woman who I called Oma, which is Korean for Grandmother. Whenever I saw her I’d give her a high-five, which she thought was hilarious. She was always eating a bag of cherries. She would offer me some and smile at me. She would just sit there all night.
Some hostesses I met had thick Korean accents. Some spoke no English. Some had thick Korean accents, but would slip in Americanisms like “You know what I’m sayin?” or “I’m feelin’ that!” They all carried cell phones with little stuffed animals, canaries, cats, puppy dogs, hanging from a chain.
One hostess told me that in Korea she was a writer. She said she liked Saul Bellow, Ayn Rand and the Egyptian poet Naguib Mahfouz. She told me that she had read these authors and more translated into Korean at a university.
“When it is slow, I am trying to reading but too dark!” she said.
While many of these women are fresh off the boat, some are Korean-Americans. One of them was Soon, who grew up in Denver.
“I had to make some quick cash,” she told me one night. “I got locked up, I saw my man hanging out with his ex-girl at a PC Bong [an Internet gaming cafe owned and operated by and for Koreans]. I flipped out and went in with a bat and smashed up some computers. I did three months and now I owe money. Lots.
“Some girls get tricked into it,” she continued. “They come from Korea and think they are coming into something glamorous, or they will meet their husband and get citizenship. They end up having to stay for months and months to recoup the bar owners for their plane ticket here. Lots of them are illegal and paranoid about getting deported. Their families think they are in school in America.”
I asked her how much she makes in a given night.
“It depends on the girl,” she said. “We are like independent agents, except the bar keeps a cut of what we make. How far a girl wants to go is up to her. I don’t touch the guy, but some girls go all the way. The idea is to keep them drinking. Each drink they buy for us is $20 and we keep about half of that. It depends on the bar. Oh yeah, each champagne, well… you know about that. It’s $200. It’s shitty champagne, too. We buy it from Foodland.”