April 28, 2008 -- SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA -- When Korean women go for a girls' night out, money is not an issue. At the trendy nightclubs in the bustling city of Seoul, girls-only groups enjoy a free table with beers for each of them and an elaborate platter of assorted fruits.
But once inside, they hardly talk, drink or dance together – let alone see each other – thanks to a courtship ritual of Korean nightlife called "booking."
Waiters grab the girls one by one – almost forcibly, though women are expected to make a vain gesture of resistance – and literally shove them into one of dozens of rooms where groups of men wait for potential "dates" for the night.
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On a Wednesday night, 29-year-old Mina Lee and her three girlfriends headed into the city's hip southern district to Spot, one of the Seoul's hottest nightclubs.
"There's not much to do in Korea for leisure. Coming here can be so stress-relieving," she said glancing around the room of seven guys she'd landed in.
Korean for, 'I'm Outta Here'
Sporting her skinny jeans, burgundy enamel stilettos and a Diane Von Furstenberg designer silk blouse, Lee fired off text messages to her friends, who were most likely being "booked" in other rooms, on her Samsung mobile phone with a Louis Vuitton phone strap.
"We let each other know which room has cute guys and which room has losers," she explained.
Just then, the waiter escorted another girl, already seemingly drunk, into the room and seated across the table. One of the boys offered her a shot of Chivas Regal whiskey – the group's second bottle of the night, meaning the tab had already climbed upwards of $1,000.
After one glance at him, the girl sprung back up and bluntly uttered, "My friends are waiting." It was a flat "no." The whole process took less than a minute.
Hardly another 10 minutes passed by as more girls were escorted in by pushy "booking" waiters. When two young girls entered, flinging their long, straight hair over Romanesque white cotton blouses and sexy spandex mini skirts, the boys cheer them on.
One member jumped to a seat next to the taller girl and kissed her hand. She took him up on his offer to share a "love shot" – a mix of whiskey and beer gulped with arms wrapped around each other. Finally, mutual interest: a match.
But what if the guys are uninterested in a woman who's entered their room?
"We ignore her until she gets the message," explained 29-year-old Young-Gook Hong, a university student who hits the nightclubs three times a week. He says his "success rate" – meaning casual sex – is at least one, but sometimes all three evenings.
"If they like you, they'll punch in their phone numbers," Hong said, showing off his mobile phone. "I have several hundred numbers here, and sometimes when I try to save a new number, it's already there!"
Such scenes of modern Korea and its unique booking culture are an ironic mixture of Confucian tradition, chauvinism, feminism and progressive liberalism.
In Korean culture, where up to 90 percent of marriages were arranged until just 40 years ago, the process of a man going up to a woman asking for a date was not a natural part of courtship, according to Eungi Kim, a sociology professor at Korea University.
"Men always had a matchmaker," he said. "Korean men are shy when it comes to luring women. As a result, even today's modern playboys would rather tip the waiters to bring women to them."
The logistics of booking in the nightclubs have evolved from the 1980s, when men "booked" themselves at women's tables by sending a free bottle of whiskey or a platter of fruit. But as the young affluent class grew with the economy, more men were able to reserve one of the few mega-expensive rooms, and started booking the girls into their fortresses.
"They were usually the sons of conglomerates or elite politicians – even the president's sons," explained 46-year-old Deuk-Soo Oh, an ex-waiter who is now the owner of Spot. "Nightclubs after that were designed with more and more rooms, so that all our male customers would feel special."
Almost all rooms – where ordering a $900 whiskey-beer-food platter set is mandatory – are occupied by men. Tables in the main hall with a dance floor are for women, free of charge. But they are hardly visible. The only traffic in the main hall is waiters stomping from one room to another while clutching a female customer's wrist.
"It's important to have a good pool of girls so I can match them up with rich, handsome guys," explained one waiter. "Sometimes I get tipped from both the girl and the boy if they hit if off."
For some ladies who choose to enjoy these nightclubs, this new "women going to men" style of booking is a liberating experience.
"I have the upper hand," whispered Ho-Yeon Chung, a 23-year-old dental hygienist who also came with three other girlfriends. "If I don't like them, I simply walk out. I get to choose who I want to have fun with for the night."
The Hard Way
Asked whether her friends share the same view, she shrugged. "It's not all that bad, you know. Some of my friends got married through booking."
When girls really want a break from booking, she said, they prefer clubbing. In Korea, nightclubs are for booking purposes, whereas places known simply as "clubs" are just like the ones you'd find in trendy areas of Manhattan or London.
There, courtship takes place on the dance floor instead of rooms. "That's where we have to work to get a girl. You have to 'boobie-boobie' while dancing," said Alex Hong, 29, referring to a Korean slang for dirty-dancing or grinding.
"It's too tiring," he added, shaking his head in discontent. "I prefer it here: discreet, easy, and fast."