Fishnets In The Far East
CHAPTER ONE: “KOREA? …THERE'S A WAR ON, YOU KNOW!”
Mid March, 1989.
The three of us stood to attention like soldiers during inspection- rather than the dancers we actually were - as our agent and choreographer, Marion, marched past our beds like a sergeant major, eyeing our luggage suspiciously. We had just finished ten days of rehearsals and were due to fly out to South Korea the following day.
Both Louise and Sharon - the two girls with whom I would be spending the next six months of my life - received a dismissive nod of approval, but I was less fortunate. Marion stared in disbelief at my two suitcases, make-up case and hand-luggage bag, all stuffed to bursting.
“You can't possible take all that to Korea!” she exclaimed theatrically. “One suitcase, and don't put a lot in that either. Everything is SO cheap over there that you might as well buy a whole new wardrobe!”
I stared in dismay at my luggage, laden with everything but the kitchen sink, trying to imagine how on earth I was supposed to reduce the contents. Up until now, I had worked on holiday centres as part of the entertainment's team, where it was customary for me to set off for each summer season by filling my dad's car to bursting and unloading it all, with his help, at the other end. (Personally I thought I'd downsized considerable well!)
Dad, my trusty roadie, looked as vexed as I did. He stood with his hands on his hips shaking his head looking utterly defeated.
“Look at Sharon, she's only brought a small suitcase,” Marion continued, seemingly oblivious to our dilemma. “Heaven only knows what on earth possessed you to bring so much stuff. You'll never get all that on a plane!”
Sharon stood to attention, smirking slightly with a look of sheer unadulterated complacency. She had been made head girl on the first day of rehearsals, purely due to the fact that she had worked for the agent on a previous contract. In Marion's eyes, despite Sharon being the youngest of the three of us, she was thought to know the ropes and therefore deemed to be the best girl for the job – or perhaps, in other words, the one least likely to do a runner!
Dad unexpectedly dropped to his knees. For a fleeting moment, I thought that he was going to plead with Marion to let me take all of my treasured possessions, but he merely bowed his head and slowly unzipped the first suitcase with a sigh.
“Come on then, Michele, let's get organized.”
Half an hour later, my luggage finally passed Marion's approval and we all dispersed, arranging to meet at the airport the next day, to begin a six month tour of South Korea.
* * *
The following morning as Dad was driving me to the airport and I was growing exceedingly more nervous with the passing of every mile, I sat in the passenger seat, quietly ruminated on the events which had led to my imminent departure to the Far East.
I had been eating my evening meal at the dining room table, blissfully unaware of mum's imminent statement:
“I've just found out about an agent who is looking for dancers to work in the Far East …” she informed me from her position of authority, at the head of the long dining table. “And, I've arranged an audition for you this Saturday morning.”
“I don't know…” I muttered, automatically starting to feel apprehensive.
“You go first,” mother said, totally ignoring my reservations, “And if it all turns out okay, I'll let your little sister go out on a later contract.”
Not relishing the thought of being the family Guinea pig, I frequently voiced my misgivings, general lack of enthusiasm and fear of impending doom, over the next few days, but it all fell on deaf ears.
Saturday came around all too quickly and I was bustled off to audition in London. Despite my misapprehensions, the audition went well and I was further reassured to find another group of five dancers there, who were in the midst of rehearsals. It appeared that they were also heading off for Korea and would be leaving in a few days' time. The girls were chatty and friendly and a couple of them had worked for the agent before, which helped to qualm my fears of gullibly allowing myself to be sold into the sex trade and unwittingly becoming the latest victim of human trafficking!
A week or so later, I was summoned back to London to start rehearsals. With apprehension mounting, I arrived at the boarding house with the words of my next-door neighbour ringing in my ears.
“Korea? What do you want to go there for? There's a war on, you know.”
“Well, it's not like I'm going to live there permanently!” I argued. “Anyway, it's only for six months,” I said, trying to convince myself more than my neighbour. “Besides, I've always wanted to visit Asia.”
“Well, I've hear of people going to Korea, but they never come back.” she said. -Hardly the type of words to instil confidence when I was heading off to the other side of the world!
The two girls, with whom I was destined to spend the next six months of my life, were already installed in the boarding house when I arrived, so I took the remaining bed.
“Hello,” I said shyly as I busied myself with my belongings.
“Hi!” They replied, eyeing me curiously from their recumbent positions on their beds: one eating packets of crisps and the other flicking through a magazine.
Conversation between the three of us was markedly stilted at first but, as I unpacked, the three of us continued to tentatively assess each other, chatting cautiously, trying to discover what we had in common and what other dancing jobs we had done.
I found myself comparing the three of us with the quintet I had previously met and, it had to be said that we were hardly the epitome of the perfect dance trio. Sharon stood five foot four inches tall, rounded and plump, with long, straight, blond hair. Louise was five eight, buxom, with a mane of shoulder-length curly black hair and .the most impressive pair of breasts I had ever seen! Then there was me; five foot seven, long ginger hair, built like a beanpole and totally flat-chested!
Despite these dissimilarities, the agent, in her ultimate wisdom, had seen fit to sling us all together and over the next ten days, worked diligently on molding us into some semblance of a trio, teaching us two twenty minute shows, which, according to Marion, would be sure to 'wow' the Koreans.
Our motley threesome was christened 'The Collier Dancers'. This proved to be rather unfortunate, not only because it made me think of three coal miners clomping about on the stage, but also as Koreans, like all Asians, constantly struggle with the difficulty of pronouncing the 'L' or the 'R', the chances of being announced as the Collier trio were bordering on the impossible!
We diligently rehearsed our two shows from dawn to dusk. Each 20 minute spectacular contained an average of six routines and consisted of an opening number with feather headdresses, back-packs (the mass of feather boas which hang from the shoulders of the dancers) two solo performances and a variety of duets and trios to finish each show. Two of these were “play back” numbers, which basically involved one of us miming to a song, while the other two danced behind her.
I was chosen to mime or 'lip-sync' to 'Finger on the trigger' by Donna Summer and also to perform one of the solo routines. I was to dress like a Bond girl and, whilst brandishing a gun, I would dance to the 007 Theme tune – I have no idea why everything I fronted had to be related to guns!
Once all these routines had been memorized, we prepared for the final dress rehearsal. This was no easy task. At specific points in every dance routine, one or two of us had to sprint off stage and make a mad dash to the corner of the studio where all our clothes were laid out; one on top of the other, in preparation for each ridiculously quick costume change.
We battled through the dress rehearsal various times, to master the art of tearing off the existing costume and replacing it with another in thirty seconds flat, while the end of the previous routine's music drew increasingly rapidly to a close.
Each change usually consisted of replacing one entire costume for another: bikini and feathers for a dress, dress for leotard, leotard for lycra tights and a sequined top, plus the compulsory 'Marion accessories': gloves and headdresses or hats accompanied by different shoes or boots.
Every time one of us failed to complete the change, we faced the wrath of Marion! The tape recorder would be snapped off and our agent would turn to us with a face like thunder. She was tiny compared to Louise and myself; we towered over her, however, what she lacked in stature, she made up for in attitude. No-one wanted to be in her bad books and face the barrage of abuse she deemed fit to holler in our direction, every time a sequin caught in our fishnet tights and we failed to complete the marathon quick change.
“Come on, come on! What are you playing at? And mind the costume. If you tear it you'll have to repair it!” she would bark, then head off towards the tape recorder again, shaking her head and muttering something inaudible - but probably expletives - under her breath.
When we finally managed to successfully complete all the quick changes required for two full shows, Marion deemed us ready for Korea. Her husband, Mike, stood in the doorway to assure a bird's eye view as we repeatedly ripped of our clothes and struggled in our G-strings and fishnet tights to dress ourselves again. When we had finished, he coughed sharply, supposedly to get our attention, but we were well aware that he was there!
“Right girls, you need to follow me back to our flat, as you have got contracts to sign. You can also have a look at the photos I took from the photo shoot a few days ago. I need to fax some of them to the Korean agent.”
This all sounded very amiable to me, yet at the back of my mind, I could not abate the lingering feelings of doubt which I harbored when it came to signing the contract. The silent voice of reasoning inside me seemed to vociferate daily, silently niggling away at me, as I became more and more deeply enmeshed in the intricacies involved in the proceedings, until I reached a stage where I was so entrenched, I felt that I could no longer back out.
Back at the flat, once the signing of the contracts was completed, Mike informed us that, for some reason, the photos he was obliged to fax immediately to the Korean agent, were arriving blurred and fuzzy at the other end.
“Never mind,” he said, “I'm going to send fliers with pictures of Sharon's original dance group on them instead. It won't make any difference.”
This struck me as slightly odd and rather deceptive, but I did not voice my opinion. The deed was done. I had signed the paperwork, so all I could do was let fate take its course.
CHAPTER TWO: MOVING TO KYONGJU
The next day, March 28th, we began our 24 hour journey to South Korea. We set off all bright, alert and excited and on arrival, we groggily made our way through the airport feeling jetlagged, dishevelled and disorientated. As we sleepily looked around, at the multitude of people meeting and greeting each other with tears, laughter or austerity, we spotted two young Korean men marching purposely towards us.
With no attempt at any sort of introduction, either formal or otherwise, they came to a sudden halt in front of us.
“Dancers, you come!” they said, in a brusque authoritarian manner with no hint of a smile.
They seemed to speak no other English than the phrase they had just uttered, and we certainly did not speak Korean, so through a process of exaggerated gesturing and waggling of paperwork under our noses which we could not read, we followed them to the exit, struggling to keep up and carry our huge amount of luggage.
As the doors opened, the thickness of the air which hit us momentarily impelled us to stop. Oppressive and oven-like, we gulped in the heady oxygen, pungent with a fusion of aromas, a bitter-sweet blending of flora, car fumes, food and sweat.
The two men strode ahead, oblivious to our predicament, as we traversed the car-park in silence, concentrating on following the two dictatorial Koreans who made no attempt to help us as we simultaneously dragged all our personal belongings, plus a huge suitcase and a smaller one containing all the costumes, towards a waiting van.
As the men stood watching us, we began throwing our luggage inside and were just about to climb in behind it, when a third Korean arrived with another group of three Australian girls. We surmised their nationality from the passports they still clutched in their hands. The trio refrained from speaking and merely eyed us up and down with expressions of contempt mixed with curiosity.
The Koreans exchanged words, more papers were waggled and checked then, immediately, everything changed. Our luggage was unceremoniously dumped in the car-park and we were shooed away like a pack of mangy dogs.
The Australian trio, who continued to ignore us, merely sighed superciliously at the inconvenience, as we shuffled aside, allowing them to sulkily take our places inside the van.
“Tteonana,” the three men said, barely glancing in our direction.
“What?” we answered in unison.
“Tteonana, tteonana!” (Go away!) The men repeated incessantly, whilst shooing us away with their hands and flapping the paperwork.
“Huh! It appears that we are not the trio they originally thought we were,” Louise said. “I think we were about to leave with the wrong guys.”
“Bloody hell!” was the only interjection I could muster. “I wonder where we would have ended up if we had left with them?”
“Don't go there!” Louise replied. “I don't even want to think about it!”
Dejected, we slowly retraced our steps, dragging our entire collection of luggage back towards airport arrivals where, on our return to the airport lounge, it became more than apparent that there was nobody waiting to meet us.
We sat about for over an hour, talking intermittently and biting our nails nervously, until it finally dawned on Sharon that she had been given the Korean agent's telephone number. After managing to change some money into Korean Won, she scuttled off to find a phone.
“The agent is running late,” she told us, returning with a smile. “But, don't worry, he's on his way!”
“Talk about state the bleeding obvious!” Louise muttered under her breath.
“This isn't a good sign,” I said nervously.
“Yeah, he's not exactly making a good first impression, is he?” Louise replied.
We sat for nearly two hours before a little, squat, rotund minion of a guy waddled into the airport. Sporting a dark brown suit and glasses, and sweating profusely, he spotted us huddled together and beckoned us towards him.
“I'm late, I'm late!”
“For a very important date.” Louise sang quietly as we gathered all our belongings once again and dragged them in his direction.
When we came to a stop in front of him, we immediately jumped, as he abruptly shot his right arm forward, holding it aloft. For a brief second, I thought that he had mistaken us for Germans and was about to give us a German salute, but his arm bent inwards at the elbow towards his face so that his wrist stopped directly in front of his right eye. We realized that he was checking his watch! (We would later learn that he had almost lost his eye in a fight when his assailant had stabbed him with a pencil!)
Patting his cheeks and rubbing his brow with a grubby looking handkerchief, he introduced himself as Mr. Lee – a surname which we were to discover was one of the three most common in Korea and used by more than half of the population, (Park, Lee and Kim). He ushered us outside towards what was locally known as a 'Bongo van': a similar vehicle to the one from which we had previously been ejected.
“Come, I will tell you the plan,” he said, as we struggled again to load the luggage without any help.
We were to be taken to a hotel in the centre of Seoul in the province of Chong-y-Chong where we would be allowed to stay for a couple of days to recover from our jetlag. Later we would be driven to the province of Kyong-ju (also known as Gyeongju) to work in a hotel there.
As we left the airport and joined the motorway, I felt excited yet decidedly nervous and more than a little vulnerable but I tried to banish any misapprehensions and enjoy my first impressions of Korea. These turned out to be a mixture of surprise and disappointment. I had naively assumed that the only buildings I would be likely to see would be traditional Asian pagodas, not the huge, cosmopolitan metropolis with high rise buildings, wide, snaking motorways and towering skyscrapers which met my eyes. I scanned the landscape for a traditional building but by the time we reached the hotel, I had not seen a single one.