In Northeast China, overworked performers sent home to Pyongyang

In Northeast China, overworked performers sent home to Pyongyang

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Several hotels and restaurants in northeast China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture employ young North Korean women as performers and waiting staff. In many cases such arrangements provide benefits to all sides, representing economic opportunity for the performers and their official handlers, and a means for the Chinese institution to attract custom.
But cultural differences, the girls’ monotonous living conditions and the cold logic of business can also put a strain on relationships. And when things go sour, as they did in one recent case in the border town of Hunchun, everyday Sino-DPRK interactions can mirror the two countries’ troubled official relations.

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py-performers-china-hunchun-hotel

Chinese visitor sings with a py-performers

Chinese visitor sings with a py-performers

“The food here is not very nice,” said the waitress bluntly when asked for a recommendation.
It was a curious marketing strategy, but the statement revealed much about Ms. Kim’s detachment from the institution where she was employed. Sarcastic waiting staff are hardly unique to Northeast Asia, and Ms. Kim’s main complaint, legitimate as it turned out, was that the kimchi was not as good as back home in Pyongyang.
But her frankness, surprising when delivered by someone hired specifically to be charming, was a clue to a set of problems running well beyond the spiciness of the banchan (Korean side dishes) at Hunchun’s Kunlun Hotel. These deeper issues would see Ms. Kim and her compatriot workers return to the DPRK capital sooner than initially planned.
Arriving in Hunchun in summer 2014 for their first time abroad, the 22 girls took up residence in the Kunlun where, by agreement between the hotel and the Korean brokers who brought them over, they would live upstairs and appear on stage each night in the main dining room off the lobby.
Such arrangements are, with a few variations, typical for North Korean performers sojourning in neighboring China. From Yanji, Hunchun and Longjing in Yanbian to more distant locales such as Beijing and Shanghai, these performing girls are intended to serve as an exotic draw for customers, and in exchange for their shows receive board, lodging and a modest salary.
The Kunlun’s “Pyongyang Art Troupe” (as a poster on the side of the building advertised it) would sleep, eat and learn Chinese in the hotel and have everything they needed to perform – including costumes and musical instruments – provided free of charge. The hotel would also pay a monthly wage of 3,000 RMB (about $470) per person, around a quarter of which the girls would be allowed to keep for themselves. The remainder would be directed back to the complex tangle of commercial, official and semi-official DPRK interests which had engineered their arrival in China in the first place.
While many Yanbian residents are aware of, and appalled by, the fact that the performers get to keep so little of their pay, back in North Korea there is stiff competition for the chance to cross the Tumen as part of such a group. With the girls having no living expenses to speak of – something further ensured by the fact that they enjoy few if any opportunities to leave the hotel under strict supervision from (always male) minders – this represents an opportunity to save funds.
Stints abroad usually last around three years (as was the initial plan at the Kunlun) although they can sometimes be considerably longer if things go well. Most attractively, the money accumulated during this time can be spent before returning home.
This is the real prize, for access to the vast array of consumer goods available in China presents an unparalleled opportunity to stock up on household goods from fridges to televisions, as well as makeup and clothes. Items ranging from comfortable tracksuits to more elegant high-heeled shoes and dresses are popular purchases.
Pyongyang Art Troupe lasts just one year in the disillusioning conditions of the Hunchun hotel
NK News December 9th, 2015
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Several hotels and restaurants in northeast China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture employ young North Korean women as performers and waiting staff. In many cases such arrangements provide benefits to all sides, representing economic opportunity for the performers and their official handlers, and a means for the Chinese institution to attract custom.
But cultural differences, the girls’ monotonous living conditions and the cold logic of business can also put a strain on relationships. And when things go sour, as they did in one recent case in the border town of Hunchun, everyday Sino-DPRK interactions can mirror the two countries’ troubled official relations.
“The food here is not very nice,” said the waitress bluntly when asked for a recommendation.
It was a curious marketing strategy, but the statement revealed much about Ms. Kim’s detachment from the institution where she was employed. Sarcastic waiting staff are hardly unique to Northeast Asia, and Ms. Kim’s main complaint, legitimate as it turned out, was that the kimchi was not as good as back home in Pyongyang.
But her frankness, surprising when delivered by someone hired specifically to be charming, was a clue to a set of problems running well beyond the spiciness of the banchan (Korean side dishes) at Hunchun’s Kunlun Hotel. These deeper issues would see Ms. Kim and her compatriot workers return to the DPRK capital sooner than initially planned.
Arriving in Hunchun in summer 2014 for their first time abroad, the 22 girls took up residence in the Kunlun where, by agreement between the hotel and the Korean brokers who brought them over, they would live upstairs and appear on stage each night in the main dining room off the lobby.
Such arrangements are, with a few variations, typical for North Korean performers sojourning in neighboring China. From Yanji, Hunchun and Longjing in Yanbian to more distant locales such as Beijing and Shanghai, these performing girls are intended to serve as an exotic draw for customers, and in exchange for their shows receive board, lodging and a modest salary.
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The Kunlun’s “Pyongyang Art Troupe” (as a poster on the side of the building advertised it) would sleep, eat and learn Chinese in the hotel and have everything they needed to perform – including costumes and musical instruments – provided free of charge. The hotel would also pay a monthly wage of 3,000 RMB (about $470) per person, around a quarter of which the girls would be allowed to keep for themselves. The remainder would be directed back to the complex tangle of commercial, official and semi-official DPRK interests which had engineered their arrival in China in the first place.
With the girls having no living expenses to speak of … this represents an opportunity to save funds
While many Yanbian residents are aware of, and appalled by, the fact that the performers get to keep so little of their pay, back in North Korea there is stiff competition for the chance to cross the Tumen as part of such a group. With the girls having no living expenses to speak of – something further ensured by the fact that they enjoy few if any opportunities to leave the hotel under strict supervision from (always male) minders – this represents an opportunity to save funds.
Stints abroad usually last around three years (as was the initial plan at the Kunlun) although they can sometimes be considerably longer if things go well. Most attractively, the money accumulated during this time can be spent before returning home.
This is the real prize, for access to the vast array of consumer goods available in China presents an unparalleled opportunity to stock up on household goods from fridges to televisions, as well as makeup and clothes. Items ranging from comfortable tracksuits to more elegant high-heeled shoes and dresses are popular purchases.
Consequently, whilst singing and dancing nightly for diners of varying – although usually high – levels of intoxication might seem a dubious honor, the economic opportunity this represents is better than much on offer in the DPRK itself.
Unquestionably North Korean state organs lurk somewhat sinisterly behind the whole enterprise, overseeing arrangements and ultimately exploiting their talented citizens to earn much-needed foreign currency, but when things go smoothly, such deals can still be seen to offer some benefit to all concerned. Individual Koreans make personal economic gains and get at least a limited firsthand glimpse of the outside world, and the Chinese side obtains a new selling point for its services.
The Kunlun’s excitement at the young women’s arrival was palpable, and promotional posters promised that “intimate performances” in the dining room where “all the waitresses and performers are from North Korea” could happily cater for weddings and birthday parties.
Yet with another establishment, the DPRK Nanyuanguan restaurant just across town, the Kunlun was not the only place in Hunchun with North Korean performers. Alas, the show which the girls and the hotel put together over the ensuing months therefore spared little effort to set itself apart.
Entering the dining room at around 6 p.m., one would be greeted politely in Chinese by a throng of smiling Koreans and, once seated, service would be attentive as several waitresses would encourage the customer to prod his or her order into an electronic menu on a clunky domestically produced Chinese Android tablet. This was a novel step, but the true innovation was in the performance which began shortly afterwards.
In a highly unusual move for shows by DPRK groups in Yanbian, and indeed those which foreign visitors see in North Korea itself, the first song was never the classic, but somewhat overdone, opener Pleased to Meet You (Pangapsumnida).
Instead an energetic instrumental number took its place, giving full play to the two keyboards, electric guitar, bass and drums which – borrowing much from the Kim Jong Un-backed Moranbong Band – formed the instrumental backing. The stringed wooden gayageums and galgo drums still favored by more traditional Yanbian DPRK acts were nowhere to be seen.
The group’s skill on their rock band instruments was considerable. Like most individuals given the chance to work in such jobs in China, the majority had attended schools with a special musical or dance focus, and many had previous performing experience in the DPRK itself.
All were therefore highly accomplished, and their richly creative shows full of numerous costume changes and musical innovations presented a playful and colorful side to DPRK culture which contrasted starkly with the more staid spectacles on offer at Nanyuanguan and elsewhere. Bright summer dresses were donned for a whimsical rural-themed dance, an enormous screen created a swirling backdrop of sparks or snowflakes, and musical numbers included a deconstructed version of Arirang which began with a deep brooding bass solo.
Bean Paste Song “Tojang norae”
On the back of these efforts, friendship seemed to be in the air for a time, at least within the hotel itself.
From a repertoire featuring mostly Korean songs, from Arirang to nationalistic culinary staples such as Bean Paste Song (Tojang Norae), the troupe gradually added more Chinese content including several Cultural Revolution-era hits glorifying Mao Zedong, and more contemporary favourites such as Zhuang Xinyan’s Ten Thousand Reluctants (Yiwan ge shebude).
Outreach to the Chinese audience even led to the spectacle of North Korean performers singing the patriotic lines “if there were no Communist Party there would be no New China” in front of the flag of their giant northern neighbor, an arresting sight given the uncompromising nationalism for which the DPRK is usually known.
In lulls between daytime rehearsal sessions, some of the girls would sit in the hotel’s dimly lit, smoke-filled coffee shop, practicing Chinese with the local Han girls working there, and taking turns to braid each others’ hair.
Elsewhere in Yanbian, the presence of a Korean dance troupe is marked by old copies of Rodong Sinmun in magazine racks, but at the Kunlun the DPRK’s literary presence took the form of several Chinese translations of pamphlets, including Kim Jong Il’s On the Art of Cinema and a biography of his mother Kim Jong Suk scattered on a side table.
However, the mostly middle-aged hotel diners who formed the core audience each night were not the sort to be moved either by the girls’ musical virtuosity or by Kim Jong Il’s thoughts on the role of film in forging revolutionary consciousness.
Many spectators were either groups of visiting Chinese businessmen or South Korean tourists and the main draw for these usually mostly male groups was the exoticism of contact, however fleeting, with a girl from the DPRK.
The Chinese phrase nan nan bei nü (South men, North women) holds that each Korea specializes in one sex, with females from the North and males from the South being deemed the more beautiful. Many aspects of DPRK life are ridiculed or disdained in Yanbian, but it is also held as gospel that – perhaps in contrast to surgery-loving Southerners – Northern girls preserve a kind of virginal purity, in social habits as in socialism, which certain men find appealing.
In the Kunlun, 50 RMB ($8) secured a post-performance chance to sing karaoke with and give a bunch of artificial flowers to one’s performer of choice. Yet all of this appeared to contribute little where it really mattered for the hotel.
The longed-for wedding and birthday parties failed to materialize and with a large troupe of Koreans and a small number of diners, the enterprise was not proving profitable.
On this background, the Kunlun management became more demanding, rarely missing an opportunity to make use of the boon in potential extra labor which the foreign guests offered.
One particularly talented pianist in the group was asked every morning to play the out-of-tune white piano which was perched on a glass platform over a large goldfish pool in the lobby, while some of the other girls were put to work cleaning in the café or ferrying overpriced espressos and green tea lattes to gruff businessmen as they chain smoked and bellowed into their mobile phones.
As the months wore on these extra chores began to take their toll.
Few 20-somethings anywhere in the world would choose to spend their entire existence for several years in a single building and, although not necessarily used to choice-filled lives in Korea, the girls came to experience many of the frustrations which anyone obliged to pour cheap beer for raucous middle-aged men on a nightly basis would resent.
Moreover, carried away by the discovery that Northern girls really were as beautiful as they had heard, some customers would show considerably less restraint than the DPRK’s more reserved norms of male-female interaction suggest, at least in theory, are appropriate.
The extra work, homesickness, and nightly over-exposure to the less attractive side of an alien culture made it unsurprising that even superficial signs of friendliness faded from the faces of Ms. Kim and the others.
Leisurely hours in the café grew rarer and most troupe members became invisible, withdrawing into their rooms to watch South Korean dramas, forced by circumstances into the kind of mysterious existence which much of the rest of the world believes North Koreans to lead.
“Those girls have such bad characters,” Huali, one of the Chinese staff working in the hotel, said to me in the coffee shop one afternoon when none of the girls were around. “They think they’re so important because of their upbringing in Korea, but here they just have bad characters.”
I asked what she meant.
“Well they all understand Chinese perfectly,” she said, “but lots of them have started pretending they don’t understand because they don’t want to work. Customers have gotten angry.
“Anyway, it’s too expensive to keep them now,” she continued. “Our cleaning staff only get 1600 per month, so how can these girls get 3000? And there are so many of them!”
And so gradually things began to unravel as tempers frayed and resentment grew.
Only a year after their arrival, the Pyongyang troupe was no longer performing in the dining room and remained upstairs whiling away the days until the bureaucratic machinery, slowed by the Korean side’s annoyance at their loss of income, made arrangements for their departure.
Occasional trips out to Hunchun’s nearby shops during these last few weeks included supervised visits to watch and jewelry emporia.
The girls might not have been able to buy as many such items as if they had stayed longer, but most were simply glad to be returning home.
China had been something new, but at this point Pyongyang was much the preferred option. At least the kimchi is better there.
By NK News borderlands correspondent. Some names have been changed to protect identities in this article – NK News

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