Yeogwans are often known as "love motels" because they're cheap, tacky, and geared toward couples looking for a quickie. Koreans may evince a certain level of sexual conservatism and naïveté,* but given that this tiny plot of land holds over 50 million people, it should be obvious that there's plenty of sex going on, and a huge, sex-driven industry is there to support it.
When I arrived in Daegu on January 15, I had searched online for a decent place near the train station, and I found one: the Assa! Motel. This is a painful pun in a number of ways. First, "Assa!" (accent on the second syllable) is a shout of triumph, often heard in Net cafes when kids are playing video games and winning. I suppose it could be applied to sex, if one views sex in terms of conquest and/or victory. Second, the motel's name can be written as "A4," which is pronounced "ah-sah," where the "A" is said the French way and the "4" is rendered as a Sino-Korean number (1, 2, 3, 4 = il, ee, sam, sa). The online reviews for this love motel showed some impressive furnishings, but strangely, it was hard to locate the price listings. I eventually found them, and it was no surprise to see that the Assa! Motel charged W40,000 for weekdays and W45,000 for weekends. I was going to be in Daegu for only one night, so I'd didn't really want to pay that much.
Fortunately, the Assa! Motel proved to be located in a yeogwan-rich neighborhood. I went to Assa! first and asked the desk clerk to confirm the price. "W50,000," he said expressionlessly. Fuck that, I thought, and walked out. Right next door to Assa! were two smaller, weatherbeaten motels, both of which advertised their prices openly: an hourly rate for the hookups and a daily rate for those who were serious about using the motel as an actual motel instead of as a breeding-chamber. I dodged into the Sweet Motel and was delighted to hear a rate of W25,000 a night from the old lady running the desk—half the rate of Assa! I was given a room at the end of the hall on the second floor; it was shabby but serviceable, and definitely in better condition than the dilapidated yeogwan that I currently call home.
Know this about love motels: one of their tackiest features is the two-mode lighting. In one mode, the lighting is normal—standard ceiling lighting, for the most part. But yeogwans come equipped with a second type of illumination: we'll call it the fuck-lighting. This is a type of red mood lighting whose purpose is to get you horny. Switch off the normal lights, switch on the fuck-lighting, and the room is bathed in a warm red glow, guaranteeing that sex will be surreal and strawberry-flavored. My room's fuck-lighting was a hilariously bad visual pun-and-metaphor. Behold:
The red chili pepper is s symbol of sexuality in Korea. First, it resembles the man's penis, at least vaguely, and the Korean word for the pepper, gochu, is often used as a term of endearment by parents and grandparents referring to a little child's genitals. The gochu's sexual significance also extends to its spiciness: a chili pepper gets you hot.** Note that, on my yeogwan's wall, the gochu is pointing upward—possibly indicating arousal—and it's shaped like a flame, thus evoking flames of passion. The whole thing is a horrid, laughable jumble of competing metaphors, but that's what you get for W25,000 a night.
My current digs are much, much nicer. Of course, I'm paying W40,000 a night for them (about $36), but there's still fuck-lighting here. Maybe I should take a picture and show you the difference in ambiance. No, that's a bad idea: you might get all excited.
*For a sample of both sexual naïveté and conservatism, visit Mike Hurt's recent blog post at The Metropolitician. Mike has embedded a YouTube video showing Korean women's reactions to Nicki Minaj's recent hit "Anaconda." Now, any Western male, brought up to understand the language and symbolism of Freud, will know right away that "anaconda" is a phallus reference. The German word Schlang (snake) has entered English slang as "shlong," i.e., dick, and an anaconda is nothing if not a Schlang. The ladies featured in this video generally have a hard time understanding what "anaconda" might signify. They also have trouble understanding a fascination with the female posterior, and with doing things like slathering whipped cream all over one's ample breasts. It was both cute and sad for me to witness this level of innocence/cluelessness, and an indication of the great cultural gulf that lies between American and Korean notions of sexuality.
**In the interminable discussion about penis size between and among the races, Koreans say: the smaller the gochu, the spicier it is. Sorry, white men, but you're apparently bland.