Monday, March 3, 2008


Axis bold as love
It's been Commie manna from heaven since I've arrived in Beijing. In addition to almost stepping on the Cuban ambassador to China's shoes, I had my first face-to-face with real live North Koreans - one third of Geo W Bush's "Axis of Evil."

Portrayed largely in the news and travel accounts I've read as robotic American-loathing xenophobes it was at at the North Korean Haitanghua Pyongyang restaurant in Beijing where I learned if I couldn't paint the town red, at least I could paint it a tasteful beige. The invite came courtesy of a former Standard coworker, D, a British woman now working as freelancer based in Beijnig.

I was jazzed. Throwing diplomacy and common sense ot the wind, I donned my counterfeit Ralph Lauren stars and stripes shirt - usually reserved for July 4 - and after a convoluted taxi ride was deposited at the door of Pyongyang Lite. Outwardly it appeared to be like any other semi-upscale South Korean restaurant - no garish portraits of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, for example - though closer inspection of the water bottles revealed the contents were supposedly drawn from North Korea's near-mythical Baekdu Mountain, the same location that Dear Leader's father was allegedly born after a rainbow and swallows foretold his coming.

The waitresses all spoke fluent Chinese as well as very limited English ("thank you") but I compensated with my even more limited Korean. The Uncle Sam shirt did draw attention - though not hostile, merely curious. Upstairs were karaoke rooms where the women, all attractive and in their 20s, also entertained for higher fees.

According to an article in Asia Times Online the restaurants are a revenue source for North Korea and draw a mix of curious South Koreans as well as foreigners like us eager for a glimpse of a semi-forbidden culture. That night we only saw a happily drunk South Korean couple and occasional gaggles of badly dressed, hatchet faced North Korean businessmen and/or aparatchiks with DPRK flag lapel pins irregularly emerging from the upstairs karaoke dens. They gaped quickly at D, me and our two Aussie pals and kept walking as we all gaped back. The waitresses all went to "the finest universities in Pyongyang" - sort of like going to the best junior college in Hibbing, Minnesota? - and then are sent to China as entertainers and waitresses. A wise career move? But it ultimately beats starving in the North, I suppose.

Our Miss Kim, (left, in psuedo-air hostess uniform) told us she had one unspecified day off per week, liked to shop and had no cell phone. This after both D and I had asked for her number. In very bad Korean I told her she was pretty. In passable English she thanked me and then repeated that she had no phone. Get the message? Yes, we see. But she smiled graciously and I felt I'd accomplished, hell, maybe as much as the NY Phil and 6 party talks in reducing tensions. At least she didn't seem to think that all Americans were stone cold killers, merely harmless old goats in garish shirts.

3 comments:

Matthew said...

Fantastic post. If I'm ever back in Beijing I'll have to visit that restaurant... I'll wear my new shirt from Chinatown that reads "wo 'heart' niu yue."

John said...

Wow - between you and the NY Phil more has been done to ease tensions then the Bush Administration has done in 8 years. Ok I guess I'm not saying much.

did you tell them that you were one of the evil pigs staring across the DMZ at them!

Anonymous said...

Yes, we see. Showing your age, amigo.