beijing — “Great ideology,” Kim Jong Il wrote, “creates great times.” Night after night in a smoky basement in the Chinese capital, a platoon of North Korean women armed with teapots, buckwheat noodles, and electric guitars fights to prove the Dear Leader right. Their assignment: to reveal to tables of South Korean visitors the pleasures of life in the North. This evening, a fat South Korean businessman, energized by cocktails and the attentions of his favourite server, is slurring his way through a series of toasts to the dream of a single Korea. Women diners chatter tipsily while kids nibble at rice cakes and veggies. The air is stuffy, and the room suggests at once a neighbourhood tavern and a safe place in the event of a missile strike.
The government of North Korea sponsors the creepy Haitanhua Pyongyang Cold Noodle Restaurant to host carefully managed encounters with visiting South Koreans. For natives of the divided peninsula, it’s the closest thing to Rick’s Café Américain from Casablanca — a place where citizens from both sides of the demilitarized zone interact in neutral territory. At Rick’s, customers came for baccarat and letters of transit; here, they come for kimcheescented nostalgia and the worst soup in Beijing.
The half-dozen waitresses are paragons of totalitarian femininity: lithe, demure, and always smiling. In uniforms resembling nurses’ outfits, they move like graceful robots, with an uncanny ability to handle the tea, food, and pan-Korean mirth of whole tables without breaking stride or character.
An American tourist is grimacing over his food. He picks chewy Korean pasta from a thin, flavourless brown soup garnished with ice cubes and meat shreds, complaining that it isn’t the spicy and sour South Korean fare he favours. At the businessman’s table, though, the South Koreans smile along with the wait staff, their Communist cousins. They’re eating the outmoded North Korean grub as comfort food, the way a Londoner might swap her nightly tikka for the boiled meat and spuds of her forefathers: as a reminder of simpler times.
Without any warning, the bashful robot who had dutifully topped up the tea not a minute before starts wailing away on an electric guitar, amp cranked high. Still in uniform, she stares intently at her functional white shoes, spectacularly if joylessly accompanying another waitress who is belting out a series of Korean standards. Between sets, the American catches the guitarist and asks her in Mandarin where she learned to play so well. “We’re always learning,” she says with a panicked giggle, excusing herself hurriedly by claiming — in Mandarin — that she doesn’t speak the language.
Back onstage, the performance grows more surreal. The other waitresses display their talents — one is a keyboard virtuoso, another a squeezebox player worthy of Piazzolla — and the show ends with a medley that inspires half of the South Koreans present to stand up and sing along with weepy gusto. A big TV by the stage flashes bucolic images of Korea, perhaps to avoid reminders that the musicians’ boss has threatened to reduce the audience’s capital city of Seoul to hot slag.
The medley ends, and the South Korean families file out into the Beijing night. The drunk fat man corners his favourite waitress, leaning in suggestively while writing a message on his business card. Her duties don’t include being hit on, and they both must know that her commissars are watching. But he pushes his card at her anyway, his winking expression making clear that he would be shocked, shocked to find that something not too far from slavery is going on here.
The server maintains her smile, as if sunshine had been forever botoxed into her face. This second, more revealing floor show is the Korean peninsula in miniature: North Koreans, trapped in a regimented existence, forced not only to do what they’re told but to like it; South Koreans, desperate for reconnection and willing to overlook a multitude of horrors in its pursuit.
Before he leaves, the American finds the guitarist and asks more insistently about her training. Her eyes widen slightly: the interrogation is making her anxious. Her smile stays fixed, but now as a rictus that no longer belongs to the face that carries it. When she rushes away without answering, it seems to hang menacingly in the air behind her, like a Cheshire cat’s.