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Nice Tie, Sucker

Bernardo's Fawn Spot: The innocuous- looking Bernardo's in Sunnyvale is just one of several Korean "hostess bars," where patrons pay hundreds of dollars to have attractive young women fawn over them, pour their drinks, sing karaoke and feed them fruit.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Alongside the valley's restaurants, nightclubs and shopping malls, lonely Asian businessmen find refuge and companionship at a "Hostess Bar." But is this a tradition best left at home?

By Richard Sine

The men start to trickle in at about ten at night, dresssed in white shirts and red ties like they have just come from work. The Madam is there to welcome them, wearing a powder-blue suit which matches her powder-blue Mercedes 300E parked outside. Her expression shifts instantly from pinched anxiety to cheerfulness, and she leads them to the booths or one of the private rooms. A lone, sport-coated emcee caresses the synthesizer and launches into "Three Times A Lady" in a buttery voice that screams Asian Lounge.

The girls all appear to be crammed into a booth across from James and I, chatting. The Madam does not release them yet. Instead she lets the men settle in and order a round of drinks, letting the anticipation build. About 45 minutes after we arrive, the Madam alights in our booth, lobs a smile at us and asks us whether we would like to see a couple of "young ladies."

We say yes.

James, who has lived in the United States since he was 10 years old, has never been to a hostess bar. But when James' brother visited his family in Korea, his cousins took him out to a bar something like this one. His brother was shocked when a young woman sat down with them and his cousins said, "You can touch her." His cousins spent $600 that night, or about two months' wages.

With just a little less restraint than we practiced, James and I could have spent considerably more than that the night we visited our hostess bar.

Bernardo's shares an entrance with a restaurant, a low-slung brick-and-clapboard affair that slouches just off a main thoroughfare in Sunnyvale. The signs outside are bilingual. I did not ask what the signs say in Korean, but they don't seem aimed to entice English-speakers, reading simply "Night Club" and "Korean Restaurant." Inside, the little bar has a downmarket Saturday Night Live feel to it, with black walls, mirrors, disco lights and glittery band equipment. On the wall above the band is a leering, muted-neon outline of a naked sea nymph.

In short, it is not the kind of bar where one would expect to drop several hundred dollars in a couple of hours. But atmosphere is not what patrons here are paying for. They are here to seal business relationships. They are here to escape solitude. And they are here to feel like men.

And for those purposes, Bernardo's--one of possibly dozens of "hostess bars" in the South Bay that cater to businessfolk from Korea, Vietnam or other Asian countries--does a yeoman job.

There's still one hitch, however: The bars sustain an East Asian tradition that the American legal system does not smile upon. Even though many are not selling sex, most are still breaking the law.

MOST EVERY GIRL who works at this bar is beautiful, and our girls are no exception. Sun Ah, who has been assigned to James, is the brasher of the two. She has big sleepy eyes, a fashionably distressed hairdo, lilac buttoned blouse and plastic miniskirt. "You like Korean girls?" are her first words to me across the table. She is very affectionate with James, rubbing his thigh, putting her arm around his and trying to hold his hand. James, whose wedding ring is in plain sight, resists.

My girl, Susie, who wears a black velvet sheath dress matched with nearly black lipstick, seems a little more shy. She giggles at her own broken English, pinches my arm, sits up close. She tells me she is taking classes in special effects and movie makeup. Sun Ah is 25 years old; Susie is 26.

The madam sits with us for a few minutes as we order drinks and appetizers for the girls, then hurries off to the next customers. Asked for cognac, the waiter returns, not with four snifters of honey liquid but with a full bottle of Chivas Regal Special Reserve--chosen for me, Susie confides, because I am "special." The girls fill up our tumblers, and we toast to nothing in particular. From that moment on, the girls fill and ice our glasses at every opportunity, occasionally wiping the table with a cocktail napkin.

A plate of sliced melons and carved fruit arrives. As I stare down at it Susie asks me what I want. When I say the peach, she spears the slice with a toothpick and raises it, to my mouth to feed me. When I've finished the slice, she picks up a napkin and wipes my mouth.

I look back at the plate, think: What the hell, I'll play along. I feed her a grape.

Sun Ah addresses James as Op Pah, or "Older Brother," a term of respect. When James excuses himself to the bathroom, she tells me he is a "kind and gentle man." Speaking in Korean, she tells James she lives in a two-bedroom apartment with seven other girls. Having lived in the United States for two years, she arrived at the West Coast only last month. She plans to borrow the Madam's Mercedes to tour San Francisco.

Susie turns to James and tells him that I am handsome. She tells me I make a "good first impression." She does her best to run through a series of routine questions: What kind of food do you like? What are your hobbies? She laughs anytime I say anything that my expression shows should be funny. We discuss her American name. Her friend suggested "Susie" but she is unsatisfied. She prefers Jackie, as in Jackie Onassis.

Up on the stage, the karaoke songs have started up. A young man in blue shirt and a yellow spotted tie wraps his arms around his girl as they sing a duet. He sings like a wounded goat, and she loses him to sing the next song alone. She is quite good and obviously savors the performance, but he is too drunk to let her alone. He gropes her, hangs off her, and finally, she cannot escape a frown.

Other girls are smoothly fulfilling their men's desires. As an older Japanese man croons Elvis's "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You," his girl clutches and gazes at him as if he were The King himself. A Caucasian man sits alone with his girl at the bar, deep in conversation.

The girls sing karaoke songs for us. Sun Ah sings a fast song as I twirl Susie about the floor. Susie acts as if no one has ever treated her to this experience, and she may be honest; the businessmen here tonight cannot dance. Through little windows I can see tables full of smoking businessmen and fawning girls in the three private rooms, laughing and making deals. For just a moment, as the disco lights spin around us, I feel like I'm in a Hong Kong gangster movie.

The girls appear to be matching us drink for drink. But as we sink deeper into an alcoholic haze, James notices that the girls are taking sips and then, with a magician's flick of the wrist, dumping the rest into the ice bucket. (A real pity, because the stuff is quite good, and dearer than blood.)

As the bottle nears exhaustion, I plead almost desperately for the check. The girls ask for our business cards and honor our requests for their phone numbers. Sun Ah keeps telling James to call her, and Susie says she would be happy to accompany me to a San Jose nightclub, having never gone to one before. James has told them we are from San Francisco, but I let slip that I live near San Jose and give her a phone number with a 408 area code. The girls hear me, don't notice the difference in stories or, more likely, don't care.

The check, which covers four drinks, two karaoke songs, the fruit plate, the Chivas and a pack of Marlboros, comes to $285. Realizing I am already over budget, I gallantly offer $100 more as a tip. The waiter picks up the tab, looks at it, and says, "Fifty dollars for each girl?" I nod yes.

The waiter, however, refuses to leave. "How about greater?" he says.

There is an uncomfortable pause before James kicks in an extra 40 bucks. Finally the waiter leaves. Susie has turned cold. She explains to James in clipped Korean that most patrons tip $100 a girl. Then the girls lighten up as they make us promise we will come again.

"Next time," Sun Ah intimates to James in Korean, "don't let him treat you. You treat him."

AS WE LEAVE the bar we nearly trip over the karaoke fellow in the yellow spotted tie, who has passed out on the concrete at the edge of the parking lot. A few minutes later he brushes himself off and staggers back through the swinging doors. We head to my Toyota, which is parked next to three Mercedes Benzes in a row.

James, who's a little tipsy, is a bit flushed by the whole experience. He confides to me that if he were single, he would have returned to Bernardo's, and damn the expense. "It's nice to be flattered by pretty girls," he tells me.

The men who go to Bernardo's may be particularly vulnerable to flattery from strangers. Sun Ah told us that most of the customers are businessmen from Korean-owned companies, who speak little English. They have been assigned here for only one or two years before they return to Korea, and have difficulty developing a social life here.

Shortly before going to the bar, I talked to "Julie," a young woman who had briefly worked as a hostess, called a "comfort girl," in some circles. Julie said the girls at Bernardo's make fairly good money, as they're paid a set $8 an hour on top of their hefty tips of, at minimum, $40 a customer.

But their services don't include sex. In fact, Julie says any woman found to be having sex with the customers is fired. Likewise, any man who solicits for sex at Bernardo's is permanently thrown out of the club. "The girls would all report on each other. We wouldn't want that image because if it happened with any of us, the businessmen would expect it from all of us."

To Americans, it may seem like a pretty big waste of money to spend a couple of hundred dollars for a smile, a whiff of perfume and a rub on the knee. But it makes more sense to those familiar with the East Asian sex industry. Anne Allison, an anthropologist at Duke University, worked for four months at a hostess bar to research her book Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club.

According to Allison, the ultimate function of a hostess bar is to promote male bonding between white-collar workers. This is essential in a country where the businessman is expected to feel as much loyalty toward his coworkers as to his family.

The work-related purpose of these clubs explains why prices at Bernardo's and other hostess bars throughout the Pacific Rim are so grossly inflated, because it is a sign of generosity for the boss or business partner to foot such a large bill.

It also explains why the women are not expected to have sex with their clients. According to Allison, the girls' chastity demonstrates that the businessman has taken his colleagues to a "respectable" establishment. Also, for a hostess to have sex with one man in the group might make the others jealous. That might undermine group cohesion, the purpose of the bars in the first place.

IT'S NOT too hard in the United States to find people with jobs somewhat similar to the Korean hostesses girl. Ocean cruise lines hire "gentleman hosts" to dance and chat with lonely widows on board. Staff at Club Med resorts are encouraged to mingle with unlucky singles. And since the days of the Old West bar owners have employed "shills," who make money for the house by getting men to buy them drinks.

But it's been illegal since 1954 for bar employees to ask customers to buy them drinks, part of a state legislative effort to stem alcohol abuse. Today the cops call these employees "b-girls."

"It's somewhat out of control in Santa Clara County," Alcoholic Beverage Control investigator Chris O'Hanlon says of the b-girl phenomenon. O'Hanlon confirmed that the ABC and Sunnyvale police completed a sting of Bernardo's this summer. If the charges against Bernardo's stick, the bar will lose its liquor license, and the girls will be found guilty of misdemeanors. A handful of other clubs in the county have been shut down for employing b-girls.

According to O'Hanlon, most of these clubs used to cater to Koreans until recently, when a growing Vietnamese population spurred the opening of more Vietnamese clubs. O'Hanlon contends that some of these clubs are linked to mobsters, who apparently shuffle the girls from club to club around the state.

"The girl usually gets a percentage of whatever she pushes, whether it's food, or drinks. Sometimes they solicit things the customer didn't even order. She'll bring food and the customer ends up paying for it. We've had some situations where the customer refused to pay the bill and ended up getting assaulted by the bar's musclemen. Recently a patron was beat up and kicked, then forced to come back and sign the slip."

ASIDE FROM their purported connections, hostess bars don't exactly promote nurturing relations between the sexes. Allison observes that the time married men in the East spend with the coworkers at the hostess bar is time they could be spending at home with their wives and children. As for single men, they could be meeting single women with real needs and desires, women who aren't playing in a masquerade.

Many white-collar workers in Japan saw long nights at a hostess bar as a job obligation, according to Allison. Their wives often tolerated the flirtations they knew occurred at such bars for the same reason. The end result was the same: The men spent more of their evenings with the work "family" than their real family. The same is true of the many married men whose wives followed them to the United States but who still spend their evenings at a hostess bar.

For the American men who have discovered these bars, often because they were taken here by Asian businessmen, these places only reinforce the stereotype of the Asian woman as a meek and nodding violet. In fact, the women at the hostess bars are just doing their jobs, often turning to the profession out of cirumstance. Julie said some of her coworkers were forced into this line of work by a lack of skills or because their husbands were in prison.

Julie said she worked at Bernardo's "because I was young and on the run, and I needed the money to pay the bills." She didn't last long. She sensed some of the girls were abusing drugs, then avoided the scene because she herself was in recovery.

To James and I, the hostesses were endlessly friendly, giving us their phone numbers and hinting at meetings outside the bar. According to Julie, however, the relations between the clients and their hostesses was strictly business. Indeed, it is difficult to see how many healthy relationships could be born in a hostess bar, and it could be pathetic to think otherwise. "To me, they were nobody after I got off work," Julie said of her clients. "Some of us would go as far as to pretend we didn't know them if we saw them outside. As soon as I got my tip, I was happy."

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From the December 5-11, 1996 issue of Metro

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