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[Weekender] Unique ecosystem of Korean ‘night’

Peculiar night clubbing culture for older partygoers in Korea

Booming music blasting from the speakers, flocks of people drenched in alcohol and excitement flailing about into the night; nightclubs are normally thought of as places for music-lovers and partygoers to cool off and let their troubles roll by.

But the nightclub culture in Korea is divided into two main factions -- what locals call “night” and “clubs.” 

“Clubs” are basically the same as most nightclubs found around the world. They have a dance floor, a few tables and people socialize as they dance and drink. But hanging out at a “night” is another story.

Step into any “night,” and the first thing you’ll notice is that occupants appear to be of an older crowd.

In Korea, nights are playgrounds for the older generation, more specifically those in their 30s and 40s. Some venues have an age minimum -- you need to be at least in your mid-20s, but it does not mean they will necessarily bounce young, attractive people. 

Inside of a Seoul night club (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
Inside of a Seoul night club (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)

As soon as you walk in, a waiter greets you. Your waiter is the key to having a good time at a night, as they dictate what many consider the most important element of the evening: “booking.”

Booking refers to helping men and women meet each other and socialize at these venues. The difference from regular clubs -- and it is a big difference -- is that at nights this usually happens via waiters dragging female merrymakers to the tables of male guests.

How often you get “bookings” is up to the waiters. Naturally, a hefty tip and ordering pricey drinks helps your chances, while a basic order of beer and nuts will do exactly the opposite.

If you do not want pesky waiters constantly walking up to your table and trying to play matchmaker, go with someone of the opposite sex and order the cheapest drinks available. No one will bother you.

The waiters often have slightly cheesy nicknames. At a night in Yeongdeungpo, The Korea Herald’s waiter nicknamed “maknae,” meaning “the youngest” -- an interesting choice of nickname as he appeared to be well into his 40s. After he left the table looking somewhat disappointed with our selection of drinks, we were left to our own devices to observe the goings-on of the night.

As in other clubs, nights start filling up with revelers after midnight. A trio of giggling women -- presumably in their mid- to late-30s -- walks in, and the three are immediately snatched by waiters to be led to another table occupied by men. They return 20 minutes later, only to be led to another group of men, this time in a private room.

Nights are divided into sections, categorized by how much money you spend. The more you spend -- from table to booth to room -- the better chance of making a connection with another nightgoer.

Of course, a better chance does not necessarily ensure success. The three ladies return to their seats not much after their second booking, still giggling and looking to be having the time of their lives.

Then comes time to dance. DJs play mostly earsplitting dance music, but mix in sentimental ballads every now and then, as if to serenade newly formed couples.

Some may find the music a little irritating -- not only because they play the same past hit songs over and over again, but also because of the constant snarky comments DJs slip in. Hardly anyone appears to care about the music, however.

Nights in Korea are considered a dying industry. In 2014, “Mool” in Jamwon-dong, southern Seoul, which boasted a 33-year history, shut down. The venue was redesigned into a lounge bar, following in the footsteps of other nights that failed to withstand the test of time.

Unlike in the past when youngsters danced the night away at such places, nights of today have changed both in demographics and function.

If you are well over 30 and meeting someone new is your priority, nights could be the option for you. If you are looking to just dance, enjoy music and party with friends without being dragged to meet complete strangers, avoid nights that have waiters with ridiculous nicknames.

By Yoon Min-sik (