No one wants to sing karaoke alone. Especially in Korean “noraebangs,” the private karaoke rooms that people rent in groups so they don’t have to mangle “Suspicious Minds” in front of horrified strangers.
And that’s where Taesan Won saw his business opportunity. Operating out of a brown brick townhouse on heavily traveled Gallows Road in Merrifield, Won admitted that he recruited young Korean women to join Korean men in noraebang, for the low, low rate of $70 per woman per hour, according to federal court papers.
In Annandale’s Koreatown neighborhood around Little River Turnpike, some noraebangs (literally “song rooms”) stay open round-the-clock. And Won’s neighbors said it wasn’t unusual to see, or hear, groups of two or three women in short skirts and high heels teetering out to the curb, sometimes at 2 in the morning, to jump in a car and be whisked away to places unknown.
Three young women lived with Won in the townhouse on Gallows Road, according to both a federal affidavit and the neighbors on either side. Won pleaded guilty Tuesday to harboring illegal immigrants for financial gain. His company was known as a “doumi,” and his workers were not indentured servants: They responded to advertisements, and Won told investigators that they kept $50 of every $70 paid. They just didn’t quite have the, uh, legal right to be here. Nor did Won, it turns out.
Next-door neighbor Jay, who wouldn’t give his last name, said, “You could tell something was going on,” he just wasn’t sure what. But he could hear the heels clicking up and down the stairs of the townhouse on the other side of his, and said the women were frequently picked up and whisked away by the same driver, sometimes well into the a.m. hours, always in groups of two or three.
“It seemed like they came home and slept,” Jay said. There were never any parties at the townhouse, but the girls were called out and picked up at all hours, all days, not just late nights, Jay said.
Won’s business, called “Honey,” was one of eight or nine doumis in the Annandale area who received regular calls from Korean bars and restaurants with customers who wanted companionship. Women from another company, called “Romance,” also lived in the Gallows Road townhouse, the affidavit by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Carl Stiffler states, and paid $300 a month in rent.
Won’s business was so good that he had to rent more apartments in Annandale to house all his doumis. A “sook-so,” or housing dormitory, was set up in the Lafayette Forest apartments off Americana Drive in Annandale, court records show. The women had to pay $400 in monthly rent there, and Won told agents that he advertised for women in Korea, made flight arrangements for those who responded and picked them up at Dulles when they arrived.
Won‘s burgeoning empire came tumbling down when he decided he wanted to rat out some other doumi companies who were using illegal immigrants, Stiffler’s affidavit states. Won thought his cooperation might help him win a green card. Instead, upon further review, agents found that Won and his doumis were here illegally too. Won was taken into administrative detention by ICE on March 31, and charged criminally last month. And then there was no more Honey.
And what went on in the noraebangs, you ask? “Once at the business, the doumi girls may sing for, dance with, flirt with, pour drinks for and entertain the paying customer,” Stiffler wrote. “In my investigation, I have learned that these doumi girls sometimes engage in prostitution with their customers.”
So what songs did the doumis perform to liven up the noraebangs? A little “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” by Elvis? (Boy, the King’s estate must be reaping mad royalties from karaoke now, right?) “Let’s Spend the Night Together” by the Stones? Prince’s “Do Me Baby”? Jimmy Buffett’s “Why Don’t We Get Drunk?” The possibilities are endless. Add yours in the comments.
And here’s a look inside a noraebang, from YouTube: