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The North Korean dinner show

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The menu at the Pyongyang RestaurantI saw the most unusual dinner show the other day.

It was at a North Korean restaurant in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.

Before I make an attempt to put this unique dining and entertainment experience into words, please take a look at a short video I made during the show to get an idea what I’m talking about.

 

What you see in this video are the singing waitresses at the Pyongyang Restaurant in Phnom Penh. Every night at around 8 p.m., they interrupt serving dinner and hop on stage to sing, dance and play music.

Let’s just say that the Dear Leader‘s idea of a proper show and Western concepts of funky entertainment are obviously worlds apart.

Exiled North Koreans, a theme restaurant or the real thing?

Before we entered the Pyongyang Restaurant, we didn’t really know what to expect. We’d heard rumors about singing waitresses and a dinner show, but we still weren’t sure what kind of place this would be.

tasteful wall decorations at the Pyongyang RestaurantWas it a North Korean restaurants run by expats who’d fled the country and tried to recreate a little piece of Heimat in far-away Cambodia?

Was it a restaurant that just devoted itself to North Korean cuisine? For, surely, North Korea must also have food specialties and national dishes – even though the people there are suffering food shortages nowadays.

Or was it the real thing? Could this be a North Korean enclave in Phnom Penh? A place celebrating the Dear Leader and the North Korean way of life? Could such a thing exist?

Yes, it was the real thing

I have no idea how the deal worked, but this restaurant was truly showcasing North Korea in Cambodia. The waitresses were from North Korea, the food was supposed to be North Korean and the entertainment was North Korean.

Waitresses at the Pyongyang RestaurantSince I’m still kind of shell-shocked from this bizarre experience, I’ve just listed some of my observations from that evening.

Sorry, but since the experience was so absurd, so out-of-this-world, I haven’t been able to turn them into a narrative.

  • The waitresses all looked alike. Same hairstyles, same facial expressions, same dresses. Thankfully, they wore name tags.
  • The waitresses looked so pale, you’d think a vampire had just drained them of all their blood.
  • The dresses that the waitresses wore were made of the finest North Korean polyester. The design was somewhere between The Sound of Music and The Stepford Wives.
  • If they weren’t handing out menus or taking orders, they were busy telling people not to take pictures. So all the photographs and videos on this page were taken “undercover”. I wonder why photography wasn’t allowed – were the waitresses all senior officers of the North Korean secret service afraid of having their cover blown?

  • A flat-screen TV on the stage showed a contiuous video of The Wonderful World of North Korea. The film consisted mainly of nature shots. But my favorite scenes showed traffic in North Korea: in one scene, you saw a train travelling the countryside, in another you saw city streets that were absolutely deserted – except for a lone bus. Both the train and the bus looked like ca 1950. The dinner show at the Pyongyang RestaurantAlmost like the kind of miniature trains and vehicles you sometimes find on nostalgic kiddie karoussels. Unfortunately, we can safely assume that that train and that bus in the video must be cutting-edge technology and design in North Korea.
  • The group of Asians at the tabel next to ours remained absolutely stony-faced throughout the dinner show. This was in stark contrast to the waitresses’ pasted-on on smiles. Only during one of the numbers did they smile and clap. But as soon as that number was over, their faces turned to stone again. Soon after that song was over and as soon as they’d eaten up their dinner, that whole group left.
  • A group of Asian men in suits and ties at another table got a little rowdy. It almost seemed as though they were celebrating a bachelor’s party or just plain had a little too much to drink. At the Pyongyang RestaurantAnyway, during one of the songs, one of the business men got up onto the stage, and started to dance around the singer. He also started taking close-up pictures of her, which alarmed the other waitresses. No pictures! And definitely NO such outbursts of joy and emotion! Once they’d ushered him off the stage, one of the waitresses remained stationed right behind these guys’ table, keeping a watchful eye on what they were doing. She even asked to be shown the pictures on the guy’s camera. I don’t know if she made him delete any of them or if she just flipped through them disapprovingly.
  • After the waitresses had ended their dinner show, it was karaoke time. First, one of the well-dressed businessmen got up on stage and sang. Then, an Asian man in shorts and sandals made a very courageous attempt at singing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” in English. He put on a pretty good show and tried to encourage us to join him on the stage, since we were the only Westerners in that restaurant and the only ones who might have really known the words to that song. We preferred to stay seated and applauded him wildly instead. When we asked him, whether he was from North Korea, he vigorously denied: “No, no, no! South Korea! I’m from South Korea!”

  • After the karaoke, the management began to turning off some lights in the restaurant. A subtle hint for the customers to pay up and leave.
  • As we got out of the place, all the waitresses lined up near the exit, bidding us adieu. I wondered how they lived in Phnom Penh: were they free to explore the city? Did they have lives of their own? Or were they holed up in some barrack-like communal living quarter and not allowed to befriend foreigners?
  • What did these waitresses think of Cambodia and the relatively carefree and colorful life in that city? How would they feel when they’d head back to Pyongyang? What would they tell their friends and families back home about the world out there? Or were they so deeply convinced by North Korean ideology that they really believed in the words of the Dear Leader?
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Written by Thorsten

December 18, 2008 at 10:42 pm

8 Responses

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  1. […] first-person account of creepy North Korean dinner theater. Filed Under: Food and Drink, korea […]

    We Are Here

    December 17, 2009 at 5:52 am

    • Seems a bit surreal. One tragedy of extreme supression is the cognitive dissonance that
      can make anyone crazy, living in terror and
      deprivation forced to sing joyful praises of a
      psychotic regime.

      Barb Shaw

      December 18, 2009 at 4:00 pm

      • Oh, it WAS surreal. And totally bizarre. Far removed from any kind of reality.
        I’ve often since wondered, how these waitresses felt. How they liked putting on this show – or whether they actually stood behind it. Maybe performing and living in Phnom Penh was the chance of a lifetime for them…

        Thorsten

        December 18, 2009 at 4:06 pm

  2. This is what a Klingon reataurant might be like, except that fighting would be allowed in the Klingon one.

    Roderick Reilly

    December 18, 2009 at 10:14 pm

  3. […] Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. You’ll be treated to the Dear Leader Dinner Show, but don’t try to take any pictures: Thank you, thank you! We'll be here all weekend! “A flat-screen TV on the stage showed a […]

  4. The North Koreans run these official DPRK restaurants in a number of countries to finance their diplomatic missions and other activities. They also do other less legal things to finance their activities…

    Anonymous

    December 22, 2009 at 7:05 pm

  5. Thanks for the pictures! I found your blog entry on Google after reading this description of the Pyongyang restaurants on Slate: http://www.slate.com/id/2247402/

    I’m glad you were able to take all these covert photos so I could see how weird it really was!

    Angie

    March 24, 2010 at 2:54 am


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