written by gkim
This entrance to one of the “refined” brothels which are called Room Salons or Room Bangs in the Korean community, where hostesses work (or Hobbars, where hosts work), seems to be a glass enclosure just protruding upwards from the ground. Looks a bit shady, doesn’t it? The room salons don’t all look like this, but this one caught my eye because of the entryway. It is seemingly wide and the first step you take will dip you onto a stairwell that descends downwards into a hell of a place for mostly rich male or female customers. You can’t actually see the establishment because it’s built way below the street. Why would men or women want to come to places like these? The environment and ambiance are fully catered to make every customer feel like a potentate. Because the workers who work at these places dress elegantly and are usually very persuasive and seductive–not trashy–with their language, the customers don’t feel as if they are involved in any type of misconduct with per say a street-walking prostitute.
Room salons in all over the world operate similarly to the ones in South Korea. There are chauffeurs who pick up and bring non-driving customers to these places. Also, there is always a valet attendant at the front, usually on the side. Not only does the valet attendant direct his fellow employees to park or retrieve people’s cars, he also makes sure that no “stray cats” make their way downstairs. What happens when someone reaches the bottom of this stairwell with a party of four let’s say? “ANYONGHASAYO!” (“Hello” in Korean) The front host will greet them and give them a gracious bow. They’ll be asked how many are in the party if they haven’t already called to make a reservation–which is usually the protocol. Then they’ll be ushered into a grandiose looking room that usually has plush leather seating surrounding three sides of the room. A large table is at the center and a karaoke machine attached to a television screen sits in the corner facing the seating area. Once in a while, males will bring along females but 95% of the time, men won’t bring women. Some may say that the room salon world is boring, trivial, or uncontroversial. Who doesn’t know about sexual exploitation in Asia, right? However, the room salon business makes up a huge part of the sex trafficking business industry in Korean communities all around the U.S.A. They have tiers–like a caste system of some sort where there are high-level room salons and low- level room salons. The levels are based on how beautiful and smart the women who work there are. The higher the level, the costlier it is to receive entertainment from there. These room salons are a huge problem in Korea and the States because they can easily be disguised as noraebangs (karaoke rooms). Therefore, it is much harder for them to be cited or caught as locations of trafficking. Also, because sex does not usually occur on the premises or in the rooms, it is much easier for people to believe that this is an acceptable form of entertainment or that the workers are not being coerced into doing anything. Many of the women who work here are violated every night even though they may not have sex with customers all the time.
Once the party has been seated, the host will leave, and a madam will come inside. She’ll be very beautiful and elegant looking, usually decked out in jewels and expensive clothes and shoes. She’ll chat with the party and get to know what type of business they’re in and take their order for alcohol. Now, the alcohol is ridiculously overpriced here. A bottle of whiskey that you would be able to buy for under $100 at the supermarket or liquor store would cost you anywhere from $1500 to about $2000 here. This would include a side plate of sliced fruit, water bottles, and nuts. Next, the madam will leave to fetch the room salon girls (or guys if it is a hobbar). Depending on the town, city, and country, there can be anywhere from 20-300 girls working in one night. I have seen 20 girls working in small room salons in Santa Clara, California all the way to 300 girls working in room salons in Siem Reap, Cambodia. And yes, the ones in Cambodia are Korean-owned. The madam will bring in about 4-5 girls at a time and she’ll have them line up in front of the entire party. She’ll do this until all of the available girls have been seen. Then each customer will tell the madam which girl he liked by describing her attire or telling her he liked the far right girl in the second round of girls. The madam will bring in all of the girls that have been chosen by each customer.
In the lower caste of room salons, the working girls are required to lift their skirts up as they walk inside in front of the customers. The girls are not allowed to wear undergarments. Then the males choose the girls based on what the girls look like underneath their skirts. Extremely disturbing. Even more heinous is that these lower caste room salons are popular for their “talented” girls. The girls are forced to do things such as get butt-naked on the center of the table, put knife handles up their crotches, and cut fruit using their vaginal muscles to control the knife or do other types of tricks. The humiliation these girls go through is usually met with ignorance from outsiders who hear about these acts. Most people believe that these workers are doing what they love and are not being victimized or harmed in any way.
After the customers have taken their pick of girls, they begin to drink. Each customer will have a girl beside them, pouring them drinks, feeding them fruit, starting up a conversation, and lighting cigarettes for them. If a customer requests a “band,” from the madam, a guy with a guitar will come in and play while one of the girls sing along on the karaoke machine. Oftentimes, someone will bang along on a tambourine. The parties in each room get pretty loud. Now, if a girl is very popular, she will have multiple customers across several rooms. She will have to run back and forth spending a certain amount of time with her partner in each room. One girl I met stated that she felt like a bouncing ball when she had more than two customers. She couldn’t even remember who she met the night before when she woke up the next day from her drunken stupor. When there are multiple customers at one time, the girls get sloshed off of the immense amount of alcohol they are required to consume. The customers who frequent room salons are known to be pretty touchy-feely with the girls. They’ll stick their hands into their shirts while sitting in front of everyone else and start fondling the girls. Most of the girls I interviewed were so desensitized to such touching and kissing that their facial expressions didn’t change the slightest bit when the men did this. Can you imagine sitting in a room with about five grown men just fondling girls who are dressed in decadent attire and draped in fancy jewelry and watches, and furthermore, these girls are just nonchalantly chattering away next to them as if they can’t feel anything that is happening to their bodies because they are so desensitized? These are God’s beautiful daughters whom He loves very dearly. A lot of these girls have been brainwashed, coerced through threats of shame, forced into debt bondage, or have had their passports and IDs confiscated after being trafficked across borders. The madams usually encourage the girls to drink more and go home with the customers. It is customary and usually mandatory for each customer to tip their own girl. In the US, room salon girls are usually tipped $100-$300 from each customer. Sometimes, very wealthy customers will pay off the girls’ debt with the room salon, which can be anywhere from $5000-$20,000. Usually, girls who are trafficked across borders have higher debt than Korean American girls and are trapped in peonage. Because it seems that these girls get in voluntarily to make a lot of money and sometimes drive luxurious cars and wear expensive clothing, many Koreans and others place judgement on them and assume they deserve to be oppressed, raped, violated, and mistreated. These are God’s beautiful daughters and our sisters in Christ. We must strive to bring justice on every level for the Lord instead of turning a blind eye and merely criticizing or looking down upon workers. Korean room salons in other countries such as Cambodia or Thailand operate with girls who work for tips as low as $5 per customer.
Many Korean people argue that room salons and hobbars are not hosting any illegal activities. They defend these types of hostess establishments saying it should be a person’s right to work where they want to and that sex doesn’t occur there. I wonder–would these same people care if their own daughters or sisters worked in one? Yes it is true that sex rarely occurs inside these places, but it is also true that sex is highly promoted and very encouraged for monetary exchange after hours outside of the establishment. Furthermore, these women are extremely objectified and treated as if they are for sale. These women are not given respectful treatment as men view them as their sex objects.
Who frequents these room salons? 90% of Korean American companies have had sex entertainment and hosted parties for out-of-town guests in this places. Furthermore, they are known to expense them as corporate meals and entertainment. Receipts may reflect very high amounts for one night out, however any traces of illegal activities or hostess services are not shown on them. Therefore, during audits or on expense reports, these costs are usually overlooked. Even Korean American media companies such as newspaper, radio, and television outlets have departments who go to room salons after company dinners. When crimes are committed inside or are linked to room salons they frequent, or if any suspicious activity is in question, these media outlets usually do not investigate or pursue these stories in-depth. Many of these establishments continue to conduct business by staying very publicly visible yet silently hidden at the same time.
How do we recognize room salons in cities of America? Here are some easy ways to distinguish or identify them:
- They are almost always around or in Korean communities, towns, or cities.
- They are never open for business during the day.
- They will not allow you to stay and drink with your party unless each person pays for their own individual hostess or host from that venue to entertain them for the evening–even if you bring your own date.
- If they have an actual bar, they will not serve you a drink at the bar, especially after about 10pm.
- The buildings or storefronts will have vague signage or no signage at all. There will be names on the signs with no actual description of the type of business.
- There are usually no windows on any side of the business structure, however if there are any, they are tinted to be pitch-black so that you cannot see inside at all.
- You cannot rent the rooms as a karaoke room unless you pay the extravagant price for a bottle of alcohol and pay for a hostess or host to be seated next to you.
- There will almost always be a valet attendant surrounded by many chauffeurs or illegal Korean taxi drivers.
- There will always be one room filled with girls somewhere inside, waiting to be called into rooms with customers.
- Most of the girls who work at room salons will not be able to speak English as they have been trafficked across borders.
If you are a worker wanting to get out of this industry, a person contemplating on working in a room salon, an ex-worker trying to avoid stigmatization and attacks or dealing with guilt and shame, a trafficker selling girls into the industry, a room salon owner, a taxi driver driving the girls and johns to and fro, or anyone who is associated or a supporter of the industry, please contact us. There are many people who would like to help you, pray with you, and love you in the name of Christ.
It is so important to remember that we must not support these types of businesses. Furthermore, we must not simply pass by and submit to the injustices of oppression that the girls are enduring. Doing nothing is doing something. Being silent speaks volumes. It is up to us as Christians to bring these places into the light and seek justice for Christ. We must be a voice in the Korean community and stand up for what is right. Pray that the business owners may come to know Christ and turn their businesses into places of hope for our sisters, daughters, and friends who are trapped physically, mentally, and emotionally in this industry. Lord, convict their hearts so that they will stop oppressing and selling our sisters for the love of money! Let us pray that the evil chains of slavery may be broken throughout Koreatown–the chains that link everyone together–even the ones who are not directly involved in the sex industry yet are allowing this to happen by staying silent. Finally, please be in prayer for the johns of the community who frequent these types of establishments thinking they are good environments for fun, business meetings, guest entertaining, and relaxation. Let the veil that is covering the eyes of this community be lifted away in Jesus’ name!