Evolution of Korean 'bang' culture
Don’t jump to conclusions over the word just yet. After all, in Korean, “bang” (pronounced BAH-ng) simply means "a room."
However, it is true that suggesting a visit to a bang to any young Seoulite will lead to a smirk or perhaps a slap on the face.
The fact is, most of the specialized rooms that make up Korea’s bang culture suggest something like the similar-sounding English slang. And as bangs are open 24 hours a day, they are a popular destination for young couples seeking privacy.
Even the bare-bones description of the more recent crop of bangs is enough to draw suspicion.
Almost all rooms are no larger than 20 square meters, equipped with soundproofed walls, curtained windows (if any), and oversized cushions and blankets on heated ondol floors.
The father of them all
Video-bangs, the prototypes of the bang culture, were born in the early 1990s and were small rooms equipped with large screens, a sofa, and a large selection of popular movie videos.
Originally established as a cheaper alternative for moviegoers, video-bangs rose to instant popularity amongst Seoul’s young people thanks to the privacy they offered.
"When I was in college I used to go to video-bangs in between classes to take naps," says Eunhee Kim, 28. "I'd put in a quiet movie -- French ones are the quietest -- and it would be great, especially during exam period and I could sleep for an hour or two."
She added that she did see a lot of couples going in and out of video-bangs, but that a lot of other students patronized them for the same reasons that she did.
"They're great because they're dark and air-conditioned -- much better places to take a nap than jjimjilbangs where there are people stepping over you every minute and it's loud," said Kim.
Get a room
With Seoul’s exorbitantly high real estate prices, most college students and 20-somethings live with their parents, so private space is a rarity. Given that inviting your significant other to your home is considered something akin to a marriage proposal, bangs became a cheap alternative to hotels and motels for young college lovers, with rental no more than ₩20,000 for a movie's duration, or about two hours.
Hence, most bangs are located around the city’s colleges and other youth areas, like Sinchon and Hongdae.
Over the years, the technological level of in-room entertainment has improved: the first upgrade brought "DVD-bangs" and there next "multi-bangs," showcasing VOD movies as well as Nintendo Wii video games, karaoke machines, and board games. They even provide mostly complimentary snacks and non-alcoholic drinks -- one multi-bang in Hongdae even boasts a chocolate fondue fountain.
Proprietors complain about this seedy image, claiming the spaces are made for -- and just for --good clean fun and entertainment.
“It’s true that we have a lot of couples come, but a lot of groups of friends come to hang out,” said Mr Lee, the owner of a multi-bang in Myeong-dong who did not want to give his first name. He added that his multi-bang is frequented by groups of female students looking for some Wii Fit action or as just a fun hangout space.
"It is not as suspicious as people think it is," added Lee.
And until social norms and real estate prices make it easier for young people to hang out at home, it seems that the bang culture will be around for quite a while.