Tag Archives: Thriller

Ghosts of Koreatown

17 May


The first chapter from an unpublished novel of mine, about a young working class white guy who gets caught up in a centuries old blood feud between two Korean families in LA’s Koreatown:


As usual, I was the only white guy in the place.

I watched as the cordless microphone was passed down along the bar to Chin Ho, a pale faced Korean with huge bags under his eyes. I looked up at the wall mounted TV behind the bar. A Korean ballad began to play – words I couldn’t understand. Chin Ho dug into the tune – he was a good singer.

Once or twice, when I got really drunk, I’d try to sing in Korean. No one ever told me to shut up. No one ever grabbed the mic out of my hand. Instead they’d smile and slap me on the back as I gutted their language.

I looked over at the front door where a tall floor fan whirred and buzzed, doing its best to cool off the bar. Cars drove past. It took some getting used to – sitting in a bar and being on public view.

There was only an inch left in my bottle of Hite. At five bucks a pop I could only afford one or two a night. I looked up at the queue of songs running along the bottom of the video image. My song was next – I’d sing and then go home.

Chin Ho finished up and Min Jee, the good-looking barmaid, took the mic out of his hand. With a smile she handed it to me. Min Jee had her hair dyed an auburn color, with streaks of blonde highlights. She almost always wore golden earrings of some kind. For weeks now I’d been thinking of asking her out but I always took a step back. I liked coming to the Saja Room every night for a song and a beer – I didn’t want to do anything to fuck it up.

The first notes of “Moon River” began to play and I looked up at the karaoke screen. I knew the lyrics by heart but I liked the reassurance of seeing the words crawl slowly up the TV tube. The screen showed a flurry of disconnected Korean images unrelated to the song – a bungee jumper, animated cell phones, kids bouncing a ball, cherry blossoms waving in the wind – the images made no sense at all.

I weighed the mic in my hand. It had a lot of reverb and it made almost every singer sound like he was in the shower, his voice bouncing off the tiles. There were a few singers the mic couldn’t save – guys who sang angry, loud and desperate. Most patrons would stare into their drinks when a singer like that roamed the floor – they rarely sang from their seats since they were in too much pain to sit still. But karaoke Korean-style was all about flushing out the jim-jams. It was no American Idol fantasy. It was a balm for the psyche.

I began to sing, enjoying the feeling. “Moon River” was my song. My grandma back in Pittsburgh used to play that tune over and over. It had gotten under my skin in an odd way and when I first dropped into Saja and they handed me the mic, without thinking I asked for “Moon River”. The regulars all had their signature song and this was mine.

I glanced over at Ms. Tam, the owner of the bar. She was smiling. She liked it when I sang. The Koreans were middle class and were pleased when a white guy showed them respect – even a white guy like me, in jeans and a black T-shirt.

Ms. Tam looked to be in her 50s, still put together well, always wearing a sheath-like dress. I think her black hair was a wig, since it never changed shape. She always had a Marlboro pasted to her lower lip. The rest of LA had won the war against smokers but you’d never know it in Koreatown. It seemed like everyone in Saja smoked – the air was blue with it. I didn’t have the habit, but I breathed in so much second-hand smoke I’d probably have to start wearing a patch if I ever changed bars.

There was a young Korean woman standing next to Ms. Tam. I’d never seen her before. She kept her head down and leaned in towards Ms. Tam, like a shadow. Dressed in a white shift, she looked demure next to the older woman’s flash. I’d noticed that most Korean women had a really hearty sensuality about them. This young woman looked bled out and shy.

I dug into the lyrics –

Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker
Wherever you’re goin’, I’m goin’ your way

There was polite applause at the end of my song and some of the patrons raised their beers in a salute. I gave a little wave of thanks and handed the mic to Min Jee.

Min Jee said, “I like the way you sing that song. So much feeling.”

She brought the mic down to a grey-haired Korean and the old guy started singing an upbeat Korean number.

Maybe it was worth the risk, asking Min Jee out. Maybe there was a way I could approach it without feeling like a jerk if she said no. There was a fancy-looking Korean barbecue restaurant a block away. I could ask her to show me the ropes when it came to Korean cooking. I’d examined the menu on the front door a couple of times – it looked confusing as hell.

I was imagining sitting across from Min Jee, maneuvering a pair of chopsticks, eating something gooey and strange, when I saw a Korean dude walk into the bar. Instead of finding a seat, he stood in the open doorway. The guy had presence – a sense of style. He wore a sharp-looking suit without a tie; his glowing white shirt was open at the neck. He had the fresh look of a guy straight from the barber shop. It was strange the way he stood there, his eyes searching the bar. There wasn’t much to see – just a long row of stools, a tiny dance floor and a couple of restrooms off the kitchen. The guy’s eyes fastened on Ms. Tam and the young woman standing close to her.

The man smiled –

Then his head exploded in a burst of shotgun fire from the street.