Covid-19 has sucked the life out of Tokyo's usually lively Shinjuku. Photo; AFP

Tattooed, built and bearded, Jae Lee is not just the personification of neo-Asian male cool, he is also the owner of South Korea’s most famed nightclub.

But the youthful-looking 46-year-old is currently in very hot water: His business, King Club, is in the media glare for all the wrong reasons.

The gay hotspot, located at the heart of Seoul’s famed/notorious Itaewon  district, was one of three establishments at the center of a recent Covid-19 cluster that caught Korea by surprise in early May.

Lee faces a double whammy: indefinite business closure and a public backlash against gays.

But perhaps more concerning for the sector as a whole is the fact that, operationally, King Club had busted all the right moves.

“We did not let people in without masks, we did temperature tests on the doors and we took the names and phone numbers of everyone who came in,” he told Asia Times. “We did everything the authorities asked us to do – but it still happened! It’s a nightmare.”

King Club owner Jae Lee considers an uncertain future. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

It is not just Itaewon. A dark cloud now hangs over the often-racy, neon-lit, after-hours entertainment zones that have, for decades, been one of the standout draws in Asia’s service sector – far more so than their staid counterparts in Western capitals.

From Bangkok to Tokyo, the good times are over.

One question is for how long. Another is whether a sector that is about socializing, not social distancing, can realistically adjust its operational practices for the Covid-19 era. 

Ghost town

Itaewon never looks its best in daylight, but on a recent weekend evening, it appeared especially bleak.

Tiny bars lining a dusty, gritty hill known for paid, short-time dalliances were shuttered. The only sounds emanated from a dark entrance where a trio of transgender sex workers shrieked in a furious argument.

Around the corner, gay establishments with brands like “Always Homme,” “Eat Me,” and “Fireball” were silent. Official notices in red, pasted on front doors, ordered an indefinite ban on gathering within.

Across Itaewon’s main road, a more upscale street of restaurants, bars and clubs was almost as quiet. Just three establishments were open in an area usually thronged with couples and revelers.

Yet, this hard-hit, tawdry-looking ‘hood is the epicenter of the liberalization of South Korean society.

Itaewon’s infamous “Hooker Hill” stands silent amid a Covid-19 outbreak that has made Itaewon a virtual no-go zone. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

For decades, Itaewon was an after-hours hangout for American troops based in nearby Yongsan. As Korea grew prosperous, it transitioned into the nation’s most multicultural district, alive with international watering holes and eateries.

As US troops redeployed from Seoul to the giant new Camp Humphreys in the south in the 2010s, the district gentrified, drawing a hip crowd of young locals indulging foreign tastes.

And after dark, Itaewon charted Korea’s expanding sexual geography.

For decades, prostitutes serviced GIs on a steep, narrow alley – “Hooker Hill.” As a freewheeling enclave where conservative domestic mores were relaxed, Itaewon also lured gays, who congregated on the parallel alley, “Homo Hill.” A transgender community subsequently colonized the nearby “Tranny Alley.”

But now Itaewon – and other Seoul entertainment zones like the upscale Gangnam and the trendy Hongik University – face uncertain futures. 

Club cluster

“Across Seoul, all clubs are closed,” by government mandate, Lee said. The period is indefinite.

That is problematic. Lee pays $40,000 monthly to rent King Club; other clubs in the city, he said, pay as much $100,000. His landlord gave him a one-month’s waiver, but no more. “That’s fair,” said Lee. “It’s his business, too.”

Moreover, King Club – an establishment that originated as a GI hangout in Itaewon’s old “wild, wild east” days  – had closed during March and April, as the country fought the virus. 

This explains why Lee and colleagues were excited when Korea, which had deployed extensive testing and aggressive contact tracing, successfully containing the pandemic, announced social distancing easing in early May ahead of a five-day national holiday.

“Some may say, “Why did you go out to clubs? It’s too soon!” Lee said. “People in their 60s and 70s say this.”

An explosion of pent-up energies ensured that “Golden Week” kicked off in rollicking fashion. 

“After two months of business being down, we enjoyed the money – people were coming back,” said Andrew Lorincz, a Hungarian who manages Itaewon expatriate bar Fat Alberts. “But [bar owners] were talking to each other – ‘It’s too early, something might happen.’”

On the night of May 1-2, it happened: An infected client went clubbing in Itaewon.

Silent streets at the heart of Itaewon’s clubbing and red-light district. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

As Korea was believed to have beaten the coronavirus, the resultant cluster grabbed national and international headlines. Over 170 people nationwide would subsequently test positive from the Itaewon cluster in the days and weeks following.

Adding to the furore: King and two other clubs the client had visited were gay.

“This could have happened in any straight place, but it happened here,” Lee said. “People think we acted differently; that was really upsetting.”

Lee was also punished for transparency. To counter rumors, “We put out the truth on our Facebook page – we said, “Yes, it is true” – and we will follow government guidelines,” Lee said. “But reporters picked it up and used it as a weapon.”

Conservative and Christian media attacked his club in print, Lee said, and photojournalists descended to snap King’s exterior. The logo went global – granting Lee one ironic upside. “We are a world-famous club now!” he joked.

But it is not just gay clubs – nor just clubs – that have been hammered by the surprise outbreak.  

Tobias Jerling, a South African, runs a restaurant in Itaewon and two pubs in Haebangchon, a suburb of Itaewon. “For a couple of months we were impacted [by the pandemic]” he said. “But not as much as now: We were down 20%, now we are down 70%.”

Unlike most business in Korea, there is no association of bar or club owners, making it impossible to assess overall economic damage. But interviewees tell grim tales.

Lorincz reckons Fat Albert’s saw commerce fall 30% on weekdays and 50% on weekends in March and April, but since the recent cluster, “now it is a complete ghost town.” Six part-time staff have been cut.  

Jerling, too, has laid off staff. Still, at least bars can remain open.

Lee has taken the biggest hit. He employed 25 part-timers and lost two entire months of business at King, and H.I.M., another Itaewon club he runs. That was before the recent outbreak. Now he is indefinitely shut.

Suds are served at Fat Albert’s – but who is buying? Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

The party’s over

Nightlife zones across Asia are taking similar batterings.

In late March, dozens of Covid-19 cases were identified in Lan Kwai Fong, a rowdy nightlife cluster in Hong Kong. The government ordered a two-week shutdown from April 3, then extended it to May 7.

“Prior to this, bars and restaurants in Lan Kwai Fong said they had already seen a 30-50% decline in revenue due to the epidemic,” said Jeff Pao, Asia Times’ Hong Kong editor. “During the shutdown, they generated no revenue and had to pay rents and salaries.”

On May 8, authorities permitted the reopening of bars, but banned gatherings of more than eight persons. Four kinds of premises – bathhouses, party rooms, nightclubs and karaoke salons – remain shuttered, Pao noted.

Under Tokyo’s “lockdown lite,” enforcement is genteel, but the city’s neon-lit drinking zones have gone dark. You can still drink at an izakaya, bar or a restaurant until 9 pm but tables are spaced wide apart and there is disinfectant at the door. Clubs are closed.

“Ginza is a ghost-town, and Kabukicho is starting to show signs of life – some bars are open to the wee hours of the morning – but the lights are dimmed and the signs are off after nine,” noted Jake Adelstein, a Tokyo-based Asia Times contributor. “In Shinjuku 2-chome, the gay district, there are one or two clubs open late – but the sign on the door won’t tell you that.”

In Kichijoji, Koenji and Shimokitazawa – three hip ‘hoods not on mainstream radars – drinking can run late. But even there, “if you’re looking for a place to party past nine, you need to know someone,” Adelstein said. “What is open for nocturnal creatures is strictly a ‘members-only’ kind of thing at the moment.”

A Bangkok girly bar in the days before Covid-19 gate-crashed the party. Photo: AFP

Matters are direr in Thailand. The country’s vast, “anything goes” sex sector employs an estimated 800,000 to 2 million women. It is unclear when, or if, it will recover.

In Soi Cowboy , a red-light district in downtown Bangkok, the girls are gone, the neon is dark, the music silent.

“Many bar owners have packed up and left,” said one long-term bar owner who asked to remain anonymous. “The landlords are still asking for rent, but with no income at all, very few of the bar owners can pay.”

The sex workers – mainly young women from rural Thailand – headed home after Bangkok’s lockdown was announced.

In nearby Nana Plaza, a street food vendor, who once catered to thousands of bar girls every evening, said things had never been so bad.

“Everything is shut, the girls have all left town and I’m losing money every day. Soon I’ll be broke and have nothing,” he lamented. “The sex tourists all left…there’s no business.”

Socializing vs social distancing

What can the sector do? Some players anticipate a bounce back.

“Human behavior has to change, we can’t be in close proximity, and we have to wear masks,” said Jerling. “But the business model will stay the same – people need to eat and drink.”

“People want to hang out, but you can’t party in crowds,” added Lorincz. “People will be back – but it is about timing.”

Customers are sparse at Fat Albert’s pub in Itaewon. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

The Bangkok bar owner, however, was at a loss.

“I’m not sure how many bars will reopen once they are allowed to,” he said. “‘Girly bars’ will be among the last things allowed to reopen – how do you do social distancing?”

In Seoul, Lee, who had applied all recommended safety measures, faces a similar conundrum.

“I have no idea what we can do,” he said. “We [club owners in the district] laugh and talk about it – we talk about having tests on the doors.”

Clearly, pubbing and clubbing cannot go online – but the global pandemic has shown the limits of Internet interaction. Online education, for example, has proven unpopular in Korea, with complaints from school children and demands for tuition refunds from university students.

That may be the best news to emerge from Covid: Even millennial, digital man, it seems, remains a social beast.

“People go to clubs to meet people: If it is socially distanced, what is the point of going?” asked Lee. “There is no solution to change this business.”

Amid the pandemic, silence hangs heavy over Soi Cowboy. Photo; Alan Parkhouse/Asia Times