In the film Spa Night, David Cho (Joe Soe) is mopping the floor of one of Koreatown’s all-male spas when he notices two men, lying on plastic recliners, eyeing each other. As the two gay cruisers get up and walk toward the steam room, David follows after them, hanging a sign on the door that reads, “Closed for cleaning.” His janitorial role provides a cover of plausible deniability — he’s just providing privacy for clientele, not up to anything fishy. At least not yet.
Andrew Ahn, the Korean-American director of the film, first learned about underground gay hookup culture in Korean spas when he was out drinking in West Hollywood and a friend let slip that he’d recently had sex in a steam room in Koreatown. “At first, it sounded sacrilegious and wrong — like hooking up at church,” Ahn told me. Ahn’s own memories of Korean spas involve New Year’s scrub-downs with his father, an experience he describes as “almost sacred.” Certainly not sexual.
Intrigued by the idea of gay men using the meditative, familial yet obviously homosocial environs of a Korean spa as cover for their own furtive encounters, Ahn logged online and discovered a wealth of insider tips on how best to get off in Los Angeles’ sprawling spas without getting caught.
Besides listings for clandestine meetups on old standbys like Craigslist, an entire blogging community is devoted to arranging rendezvous in the public yet private space of all-male spas. (One review of Wilshire Spa reads, “This place is basically a bath house.” Another for Century Spa, once allegedly visited by John Travolta: “I’ve never been [here] and not had some kind of action.”)
“Cruising in Korean spas is a great cover if you’re closeted,” is how Ahn explained the appeal to me. “If you’re caught on a website or app or gay bathhouse, the jig is up: People know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. With a Korean spa, the ambiguity leaves room for a certain amount of exploration.”
Ahn realized very early on that focusing on Korean spas would allow him to tell a story that was both, as he puts it, “authentically gay and authentically Korean.” Spa Night isn’t just about David’s sexual awakening, it’s also about him trying to be a good Korean boy — taking SAT prep classes, slipping his spa earnings into his mother’s purse after his night shifts and comforting his father when he stumbles belligerently into the family’s apartment from a night spent binge-drinking. Unfortunately, it’s not enough. David is failing the practice tests —(the SATs being a barometer for success in the Korean community if ever there was one)— and his parents worry that he isn’t ambitious enough.
Perhaps Ahn — who grew up in the South Bay and went to Brown — can’t relate to bombing the SATs, but he remembers struggling against a conformist Korean culture that felt stuck in the past: “To a certain extent, the Korean-American community feels a little bit behind not just the greater American culture but also Korean culture, because so many of the Korean-Americans who immigrated here came in the ‘70s and the ‘80s.” And for every Korean kid who’s lionized for being accepted into Harvard or Yale, there are plenty of those who struggle to live up to the expectations of the community. “Much of the rest of the community is striving for those things but don’t achieve them.”
But as Ahn began developing the story for Spa Night, he realized he’d set himself up for a really tricky task: He’d have to gain the trust of the Korean-American community in order to make a film that many of them might not necessarily support.
The first headache came in casting: Multiple Korean-American actors told him they couldn’t be a part of a movie because of its subject matter. “It was upsetting because I understood the meaningfulness of the movie and knew what it could do not just for queer Koreans but for the Korean community in general,” Ahn said. But he wasn’t exactly surprised. “So much of Korean culture is about perpetuating this nuclear unit, and queerness throws a wrench in that.”
Scouring Southern California spas for a place where they could (quickly!) shoot their scenes also proved to be a difficult endeavor. One spa even Googled the film’s Kickstarter campaign and wrote back: “We’re not interested. Don’t talk to us again.”
While, officially, Korean spas are anti-cruising, Ahn thinks some have embraced a laissez-faire attitude toward what happens underneath their towels, knowing if they were to raid the saunas, they’d alienate a large portion of their customers: “These spas know if they crack down too hard, gay men would take their business elsewhere.”
Given the spas’ popularity, you’d think books that charted the history of homosexuality in Los Angeles would mention something (anything!) about Koreatown — but you’d be mistaken. Lillian Faderman, one of the authors of the book Gay L.A., published in 2006, said that Korean spas never once came up in her research. “I suspect that the gay aspect of them is a relatively recent phenomenon,” she told me.
Asked for their own policy on gay hookups, the very family-friendly Koreatown mainstay Wi Spa said that if you get caught hooking up at the spa, the police aren’t automatically called, but they would ban you for life. This happens, the spa said, “at least once a week.”