South Korea

In good company

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 January, 2007, 12:00am

THEY'RE THE FOCUS of a hit television series, a musical and comic books. Now, a movie is being made, with a dance production and more TV shows in the works. Gisaeng, the Korean equivalent of Japan's geishas, are riding a wave of popularity in modern South Korea.

Professional entertainers and artists, ranking gisaeng wielded considerable influence in ancient Korea and were admired for their sensuality and independence - qualities that have made them cultural heroines for young women. Despite its modern image, the country remains a patriarchal society.

Recent attention centres on 16th-century heroine Hwang Jin-i. The most famous of the gisaeng, she has captured the nation's attention, thanks to a lavish, 24-episode TV drama with actress Ha Ji-won in the lead role, and a successful musical that has just ended a month-long run in Seoul.

Although the award-winning TV drama focuses on the everyday lives of Joseon-era gisaeng, the Hwang musical that ran last month centred on her love life and the four men who inspired her most.

The producer of the TV series, Kim Chul-kyu, attributes the Hwang Jin-i craze to audiences' fascination with historical dramas in recent years. He says the show sought to capture the spirit of Hwang and her fellow gisaeng by portraying how they stood up to discrimination and overcame social stigma with their wit and talent.

'Hwang Jin-i represents a mysterious part of Korean history,' he says. 'Not many people in ancient Korea filled this role. The gisaeng are Korea's best-kept secret. I'm banking on this.'

Said to have appeared as early as the fifth-century Shilla dynasty, gisaeng were divided into three grades. The top ranks served the court or provincial offices and were the only ones to wear lavish costumes and openly associate with men. Chosen for their beauty, intelligent conversation and training in poetry, music and dance, they also became known as haeohwa, or 'flowers that can understand words'. The lowest ranked, however, were prostitutes and forbidden to perform the songs and dances of the first-grade gisaeng. The system collapsed after the fall of the Joseon dynasty in 1910, and the term gisaeng is now applied to all women engaged in entertaining men.

But whereas the gisaeng of old were trained artists, their modern-day counterparts are more like refined, high-class hostesses. Dressed in traditional hanbok, they entertain customers and ply them with fine food and alcohol in a handful of yojeong or gisaeng houses in the backstreets of Seoul.

Marianne, a maths graduate who for the past year has worked as a full-time gisaeng in the old Jongno district, regrets the erosion of standards. 'Traditional gisaeng were wonderful,' she says. 'I wish their culture could be relived. Like the geisha, gisaeng were taught to dance, sing and play musical instruments, but I've received no special training. I sing pop songs.'

For US$230, she will keep a patron company for a couple of hours, sharing wine, food and song. 'We work on an incentive basis. If I have many reservations, I earn a lot of money.' Marianne won't reveal how much she makes, although she says, 'I'm popular'.

Even so, the 29-year-old is unhappy in the job, which she views as a role. 'We're looked down on in Korean society,' Marianne says. 'My job may seem mysterious, but it has no cultural importance. I'm basically a waitress who listens to men's problems.' Some get paid for sex, 'but I don't'.

Like many modern gisaeng, 24-year-old Winne works part-time. 'Most are university students and office workers, like me,' she says. 'It's a very hard job - harder than others. We get very tired, but the pay is good and we can make a lot of money in a short time.'

Untrained in the traditional arts, Winne is required only to perform a simple Korean dance for clients. What they really want is a hostess. 'Businessmen expect us to put food on their plates, sing, dance and drink whisky,' she says.

It can be fun, but gisaeng can sometimes find themselves in 'bad situations' that test all their charm, she says. 'I'm just doing this because I want to run my own shop some day,' Winne says.

Gisaeng houses have long been meeting places for the rich and powerful. Entry to yojeong, often exquisite traditional buildings featuring a pond and small garden, is by reservation only. Although young men regard the yojeong as old fashioned, many high-profile businessmen and politicians still rendezvous behind their closed doors.

At a yojeong in affluent Gangnam district, the owner rushes around with a reservation list, directing groups of businessmen through an antique door. 'We're very busy tonight,' he says. 'We try to show the beauty of Korean women, combined with good food and traditional court dances.'

A rival operation down the road touts the talents of gisaeng who are not only beautiful, but can also speak several languages - an asset at business gatherings. 'My gisaeng are adept at entertaining businessmen, especially when you need to treat foreign buyers,' says the owner. 'We have rooms accommodating two to 50 people where you can land a deal.'

For most of the clientele, the appeal lies in the pampering. 'I have ladies in hanbok feed me morsels,' says an executive with a multinational company. 'My gisaeng's motto is 'make your customer feel like a king'. I like that.'

Another businessman, in his 30s, sings the praises of university students who moonlight as gisaeng. 'They're smart and charming, and can talk about golf, travel and business,' he says. 'Seoul National University girls draw the most attention. With their beauty and brains, some are hired on contract by senior businessmen and politicians for their company.'

Meanwhile, a stream of productions continues to tap the Hwang Jin-i trend. Movie director Chang Youn-hyun has been filming Hwang's story as a sweeping historical romance with Song Hye-gyo in the lead role. Basing the film on an award-winning novel on the gisaeng's life, Chang hopes to achieve success on the same epic scale as Gone with the Wind. Some may reckon there's a glut of Hwang material, but Chang disagrees. 'Hwang Jin-i was the most progressive thinker of her time. Maybe it's time to re-evaluate her.'

Next on the bandwagon is a dance production in May, which will combine Korean dance with drama. Director Cho Hyung-dong hopes to evoke the transience of life through the character of Hwang. 'The ability to dance well was the most important skill a gisaeng could have,' he says. 'Through our production we strive to showcase her unprecedented flair and artistry.'

The 16th-century haeohwa, who once entertained in courts, blooms anew under the neon lights of the city.