I first heard of the North Korean joints a while back. Vice, true to its usual finesse in reporting, had presented them as slave houses made to produce foreign currency for the hermit kingdom. Even though I doubt that a few restaurants dotted around mainland China make a major difference to the country’s brain dead economy, the “slave” aspect is probably only mildly exaggerated, and I’ll trust their sources on that. We chose, among Time Out Beijing’s list of DPRK restaurants, one dubbed “best for entertainment”. Oh Lord, were they spot on.
Being exposed to western media all of my life, the words “North Korea” bring up images of military parades, death camps and anti-aircraft gun executions. Needless to say, I was super excited to come into contact with some of Kim Jong Un most loyal servants. At least loyal enough to be trusted being in contact with foreigners all day long. The waiters in these establishments are all women, usually young and attractive (on North Korean standards) but more importantly, from Pyongyang. Party members from the capital city are known to be the most disciplined and staunch supporters of the regime.
The restaurant sits in some grey area of Beijing (I’m still looking for the colorful areas in Beijing), on a wide avenue where neon signs in Korean flicker here and there, indicating an expat life there. Our eyes fall on the beautifully kitsch hanbok (the traditional Korean dress) shaped neons, a sign reading “Pyongyang Bar, Café, Restaurant, 2F”. We had arrived. We walk in what is a typical commercial area on the ground floor of an old residential building, like so many in urban centers in China. All the shops are closed, and the smell of old velvet and long stubbed cigarettes fill the air. Another broken, flickering neon sign next to the stairs points up to the second floor. We follow it, our legs getting numb with anticipation. Before we even come to full view of the second floor, I feel someone is waiting for us, a presence at the top of the stairs. Two wooden doors, decorated with yellow hammered glass swing open, revealing two waitresses, dressed in pink hanboks, a white ribbon circling their waists. They greet us in Korean, their faces frozen in what is would call “sheer hospitality”. There were no emotions, no spontaneity. I had a chill, feeling like I had fallen in the uncanny valley, like the person who i was interacting with wasn’t really a person, just some kind of realistic robot. In their eyes, no traces of anything, be it happiness, sadness, fatigue. I speak in Mandarin, they answer in Korean. Convenient.
Whoever decorated the place got stuck in some netherworld sandwich between the 60s and 80s, like all of the bad designers at these periods were exiled to North Korea. Brown walls, fake velvet booths, crumbling moldings running around the ceiling. I was expecting some awesome representation of Kim Jong Il riding a tiger into battle, but was only treated to plain tigers running down a hill. Lame. A few horses running in a prairie here, a little girl playing in a field there… old, outdated things you could see in China. As we get comfortable in the room, we realize the hierarchy at play. The waitresses in hanbok answer to women in black waistcoats, the latter being more hostesses than servants. They chat up customers, top up beers, all the while making sure that their DPRK flag pin is straight on their uniforms. The make up is subtle, the clothes fit perfectly, they all have the same ponytail. Service, on European standards, is impeccable. Every movement, may it be handing out menus, serving drinks or dishes seems to be synchronized, moves which were learnt, repeated over and over again.
We order what we know of Korean food, bibimbaps (mixed fried rice) and mandu (korean dumplings), as well as something that the waitress seems to be eagerly pointing at, in all of her North Korean restraint: stuffed fish. We half-heartedly order it, more to please the her than ourselves. They also had about 5 different variations of kimchi, varying in shades of red. Once we were done ordering, we realized something disturbing: a gaze. One of the waistcoat wearing hostesses was staring at us from the back of the room, just behind what we would learn later is a stage. Her eyes were fixated, and she wouldn’t divert her them if we stared back. No emotion in these eyes either. We decided that she was probably some kind of agent watching our every move, ready to slit our throats at any sign of rebellion. I played some kind of John Woo movie scene in my head, where we’d have to fight trained waitress/soldiers, stuffed fish flying around, hardcore kimchi slapping galore. Thinking better of it, we divert our attention, submitting to her scrutiny. Slowly but surely, we were learning the North Korean ways. Beer and Soju (some kind of mild Korean vodka) are decided upon to cope with the fact that we are now under North Korean surveillance. Was someone faxing our photos to Kim?
But the reason we came was not the food nor the murderous spies. It was the 8pm show.
We speculated that the back wall of the small 4 by 5m stage was a one way mirror from where stern looking officials in impeccable oversized uniforms would take notes and nod, peeping on unsuspecting customers. But it ended up being way better than that: just before the show, it started lighting up with purple, green, and yellow LEDs, while the disco ball on the ceiling initiated slow rotations, lighting up our apprehensive faces. I decided to switch chairs, less to have a better view of the upcoming show than to avoid eye-contact with my cousin, during what we expected to be a surreal spectacle.
On our left, we could see all the hostesses assembling, some of them holding mics, but two of them holding, respectively, a bass and a keytar. A synth was already set up on stage, and when a plump, previously unseen hostess with a headmic stepped behind it staring straight ahead. The waitresses politely asked everyone to stub their cigarettes and not, under any pretense, take any photos. Lights began to fade out, and finally the show started.
The songs were no different from what you could find on youtube, just more intimate, and live.
The tunes referred to morning mist, blooming flowers, changing seasons, and guys running after girls in teh most respectful/creepy way. Nothing political, nothing about Kim or even North Korea itself, besides a few geographical references. As the hostesses sang, I could swear I saw a single tear rolling down one of their cheeks, while she was staring at the karaoke screen behind us. Something was boiling inside us while this surreal mix of synth, keytar, bass slapping and resolved voices was unfolding in before our petrified faces. It wasn’t amusement, nor a will to take the piss out of what North Korea wants to show the world. It was simpler, deeper than that.
We just wanted to scream, let it out, whatever it was. I was oscillating between laughter and tearing up, happiness and sorrow, like some kind of highly condensed mushroom trip. Waves of emotions were overwhelming me, as I was trying to rationalize every aspect of what I was watching. It was overwhelming: an impeccable choreography was taking place, as the two singers revolved around each other while singing along with their crystal clear voices was triggering an immense amount of questions: Why? How? What are their lives like? What do they think of what they are doing? Of us, as westerners? Do they care? What is deep within this psyche? Is that an accordion I am seeing?
At this moment I felt some kind of connection. A weird, human connection to what was presented to me. For a few minutes, I think I actually stopped judging. And took everything I saw at face value.
When the show was over, we felt like what I imagine one feels after a great spiritual experience. We tried to engage in small talk, but failed miserably prompting us to order yet another of Soju. The restaurant slowly emptied of the three other groups of North and South Koreans there, and we just laughed, followed by periods of silence and describing what we had seen to each other. Background music was now turned off, the lights turned up, our voices the only sound filling up the restaurant.
Most of the waitresses were also nowhere to be seen, except for one of the hostesses, now hunched on the register behind us. Head resting on it, she barely turned and yelled in Mandarin « 买单吗 ? », a very simple, not-polite-but-not-rude (at least in China) to suggest that we pay and get the hell out of there. She was right though.
We had been living the North Korean dream for more than four hours.