It seems like your ordinary American nightclub at first: dark, an ear-splitting Amp Radio playlist, overpriced well drinks, and girls and boys in their early 20s crowding the spacious dance floor.
But survey the club from the tiny bar in the back—or even just turn around on the dance floor—and you'll see waiters dragging the young women by the hand to a table full of guys. The girl will sit with them for a few minutes, do a shot, and then get up, before another waiter grabs her elbow. Even though it was my first time at Feria, a booking club in Los Angeles's Koreatown neighborhood, I expected to see this. Still, when this actually happened before my eyes, I couldn't help but laugh in surprise.
Booking is a Korean dating practice, where waiters introduce male and female club-goers to each other by forcibly bringing women to men's tables. South Koreans have been booking since the 1990s, according to Kai Ma's 2005 article on the experience in Hyphen Magazine. Booking mixes sexual experimentation with Korean culture's traditional reliance on matchmaking and arranged marriages. When a group of guys wants to book, they call up a waiter they know, reserve a table, and then pay for bottle service at the club. The waiter then brings girls to their table in order to earn good tips. Girls usually get a promo table and bottle for free as an incentive to participate.
For as long as people have been discussing the booking phenomenon stateside, they've decried it as a deeply patriarchal institution. For example, Anthony Bourdain's travel show The Layover features one girl describing booking in fairly grim terms: "It's kind of like speed dating, except, like, the girls have no agency," she says—an observation seemingly confirmed by all the dragging I saw going on.
When I first heard about booking, I thought, 'What woman would willingly participate in this?'
When I first heard about booking, I thought, "What woman would willingly participate in this?" After all, it's 2015, where women are empowered (more or less) to seek out sex and love on their own terms. But then I thought more about booking in relation to my single life in the past few years, where I've had to deal with "ghosting" or making plans over text that went nowhere on a regular basis. Even worse, reading about other women's experience being bombarded with Tinder messages from a barrage of misogynistic men "with all the social grace of Steve fucking Urkel" had me cringing in recognition.
There's also the paradox of choice, an idea pioneered by psychologist Barry Schwartz that comedian Aziz Ansari discussed in his heavily researched book Modern Romance: Because online dating has opened up so many options to people, it becomes harder for us to actually settle on a choice, because we fear we didn't make the best choice possible. "Seeing all these options…are we now comparing our potential partners not to other potential partners but rather to an idealized person whom no one could measure up to?" Ansari asks, capturing the unique misery that characterizes dating amid all the choices new technology offers.
In comparison, booking almost seems like a throwback to simpler time, solving the paradox of choice in its own way. Perhaps this would mean more meaningful, less painful dating interactions. Perhaps this would even make booking a viable alternative to Tinder and OkCupid, or even just meeting a guy at a bar.
In her aforementioned Hyphen article, Kai Ma portrays the booking experience as an endless nightmare, replete with unpleasant experiences that range from holding hands with a female friend on the dance floor of one club to fend off the advance of "drunk, leering men" to being stalked by a waiter named Angel, who tells Ma that she didn't dress revealingly enough: " 'Your beauty is trying to burst from this jacket! It's bursting to be free.' " (Feria's Yelp page is filled with more recent harrowing anecdotes).
As for waiters dragging girls from table to table? In the Hyphen article, Ma's friend Liz chalks this up to Korean girls feeling the pressure to seem "shy and reserved and conservative."There is a concern among Asian cultures—a stigma, if a woman doesn't act pure," she says.
The women I interviewed for this article had no such hang-ups, perhaps because they grew up in Los Angeles. "None of the Korean American women I know put on coyness displays," says Steph Cha, who went booking every weekend one summer in her early 20s. She dismisses the waiters' aggressiveness as just a formality that comes with booking. "But really, you don't have to go if you don't want—you just have to resist."
Jasmine Chang, who's from Ktown, says she has been able to exercise a lot of freedom when booking, especially since she's been booking since she was 18 and has gotten to know the waiters well. "Let's say one day I feel like champagne, because I feel like being all kinds of bourgie," she says. "They're like, 'Okay, let's take you to a champagne table.'"
Jasmine says she's asked guys, through her waiter, to order her bottle of choice, and that they've usually had no problem agreeing to do so. She's never been shy about telling the waiters if she doesn't feel like booking one night, either, nor has she had reservations about walking away from a table if she doesn't like the guys. You can see this last occurrence on display in an episode of Ktown, the reality show she starred on in 2012—an experience Jasmine says is accurate, even though it was for television.
Jasmine has heard from her girlfriends, however, that booking clubs are much more rigid in South Korea. "When they went, they would have all the girls sit down and the waiter would specifically choose the girls to come. So he would [say], 'Yes, yes, yes, no, no, yes,'" she describes. The no's apparently went to the girls who weren't as attractive.
The Koreatown booking clubs are more open and free. Girls who are booked can bring their friends—whether deemed hot or not—and the waiter has no problem with that. In addition, guys don't always rely on the waiter: They talk to girls they're interested on their own as well.
It's the same shit that exists in Hollywood, but formalized. In some ways that makes for a more comfortable experience.
That's the weird paradox of booking in America—it's rooted in South Korean matchmaking traditions, predicated on the notion that it's not socially acceptable for men and women to approach each other without an intermediary, as the Hyphen article describes. But in reality, at least in Ktown, the booking ritual can allow much more agency for women. In contrast to what the women told Anthony Bourdain, the women I spoke to reported feeling empowered to choose whose table to go to, when to stop the conversation, and even to dictate which drinks the men who booked them would order and then offer them for free.
Steph recalls feeling weirded out by the ideas behind booking, even though she has really enjoyed participating in it. "Korea is a very deeply Confucian and patriarchal country, and you can definitely recognize the matchmaking idea behind the booking club," she says. "But the actual experience of it was not that painful; I kind of thought of it as like speed dating, and a small price to pay for a ton of alcohol."
She also explains an unexpected upside: "The alternative for a bunch of 22-year-old girls who want to go out dancing would be, like, a Hollywood club or something. And I've never been to a Hollywood club where someone doesn't get groped. That's never happened at a booking club."
I ask her why she thinks this is. "Maybe the booking has something do with it, because they're meeting the girls anyway," she reasons. In other words, since these men didn't have to make the initial approach themselves, there was less chance of them acting aggressively towards women at a booking club. Instead, that aggression seems to come from the waiter on their behalf—something that other women might consider harassment, but that Jasmine and Steph thought of as something that was easy to resist.
The men I meet on my one night booking are no less nice or mean than the guys I meet anywhere else. No matter how you slice it, having to make small talk on the spot with strangers is still an awkward and decidedly unromantic experience, with one guy telling me, "You can leave now if you want," after one too many lulls in our conversation.
It didn't help that I wasn't armed with certain cultural knowledge, such as how to approach older "FOB-y,"—meaning "fresh off the boat"—Korean guys who had just recently moved to the United States. In such cases, I learned, one is supposed to bow and then accept and drink each proffered shot with two hands, especially if the men in question are older ("You don't want to go in there and disrespect them by acting crazy or ratchet," says Jasmine).
Still, I got a lot of phone numbers, but I felt little inclination to follow up on any conversation I just had. Taking the choice out of dating doesn't make things harder or easier than with any other method. Booking doesn't guarantee a true connection any more than swiping right on Tinder, sifting through detailed OkCupid profiles, or even approaching or getting approached by a guy without an intermediary.
According to Jasmine and Steph, booking isn't inherently more or less sexist than any other method of dating or clubbing. In many ways, the same sort of thing happens, less officially, at exclusive nightclubs in places like Vegas. As Jasmine recalls: "I remember—maybe 5, 6 years back—and the promoter was like, 'Oh, you and your girlfriends, you guys are hot. You wanna come to the VIP table?'" Jasmine and her friends agreed and requested Dom Perignon; the host got it for them. All they had to do was talk to the men at the VIP table for a little bit.
Just like at South Korean booking clubs, too, promoters on the Vegas party circuit offer harsh judgments about women's looks: "The promoter guy specifically said, 'You have a group of 10? I want you to send me a picture of every single one of them, and if they're not cute then they can't get in.'"
So where can women find a nightlife experience that doesn't make them feel like shit? Perhaps it depends on what bargains you're willing to make. Bringing up Hollywood again, Steph says, "It's the same shit that exists there, but formalized. And in some ways that makes for a more comfortable experience."