In the early hours of Presidents Day 2018, the New York nightclub Circle closed its doors for good. If you’re an Asian American of a certain age who has partied in NYC, you’ve undoubtedly at least heard of the venue — “Like a midtown bonfire for the ‘Korean and Turnt,’” as hip-hop radio personality Minya “Miss Info” Oh describes it. For 10 years, Circle was the go-to club for Asians in the city, with its main demographic gradually expanding from Koreans to Korean Americans and (just barely) beyond.
Circle’s decadelong run as the epicenter of Korean nightlife in New York coincided with the rise of outside interest in Korean entertainment and culture. When it opened 10 years ago, Korean cuisine was essentially limited to a single Manhattan block and there was no “Gangnam Style”; today, you can’t fart in Brooklyn without hitting a jar of artisanal kimchi, and K-pop supergroup BTS just performed at the American Music Awards. Korea, in other words, has become cool. Thus, in addition to visits from all sorts of K-pop royalty over the years, Circle has also entertained the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Usher, and Pharrell Williams (no link — I was there, too). To the uninitiated, Circle had a certain mystique, like most Korean haunts in NYC and Los Angeles: a word-of-mouth secret, hidden in plain sight.
For those who frequented the place, however, Circle was a habitual stomping ground, for better and (sometimes) for worse. “It’s the venue equivalent of drinking absinthe,” says author Mary H.K. Choi. “You know what it is and why you’re doing it to yourself, but it’s definitely something you do to yourself less than a place to go.”
In an attempt to capture the essence of the club — and because Asians are such prolific Yelpers — I pored through hundreds of Yelp reviews to piece together the following unofficial oral history of Circle. (Comments have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)
In February 2008, a new nightclub opened on a nondescript block on West 41st Street, in the shadow of Times Square.
Eric K.: “The Circle is the newest Korean Club in NYC, which opened mid-Feb.”
Chris H.: “If you aren’t Asian, it’s likely that you haven’t heard of this place. It’s an innocuous looking doorway, right off of Times Square, and despite its location, is mercifully devoid of tourists (though sometimes I consider residents of Flushing to fit in the tourist category).”
H K.: “This venue formerly housed the legendary Korean club, Diablo, which was later reincarnated as Show, then Arena, and now Circle.”
David P.: “When you hear of clubbing in New York for Koreans or Asians all voices point to The Circle.”
Denis K.: “From the outside, the entrance is Gothic, like you’re about to walk into church. If you do, boy will you be in for a surprise.”
Entering Circle was like crossing into another dimension, replete with fog and snow machines, lasers, strobe lights, and go-go dancer poles.
Andrea K.: “Ever wondered what being thrown into a laundry machine and having firecrackers go off at the same time felt like? Just go to Circle.”
Peter D.: “This place is a SCENE. The madness included wall-to-wall people, smoke machines, go-go dancers, and some sort of gymnast was doing gymnastics on a ring that was hanging from the ceiling.”
Gina L.: “It was a Saturday night and the music was loud enough to make your heart jump out of your chest, so it made you want to dance.”
Gina K.: “The sound system is awesome and you can barely hear yourself even if you’re screaming at the top of your lungs.”
Kristen Q.: “The lighting in here is crazy flashing with the disco/multi-colored lights. How do people see who they’re hitting on in this club?”
Kale H.: “I like more crowded clubs, which Circle certainly is. Lose your friend and never find them again.”
Dalhea K.: “What is the lure of this place? I’m pretty sure the flashing lasers are boring holes into the brains of their patrons. That is the only explanation for why people keep coming back here.”
J C.: “If you want to feel like you just stepped into a dilapidated warehouse-turned-nightclub in downtown Seoul where the only thing more depressing than the ambiance are the joyless faces of the service staff, this is your place.”
Outside of the pyrotechnics and the crowded dance floor, Circle’s other most notable feature was its primary clientele: Asians. A lot of them.
Jason L.: “I ended up in Circle under the usual circumstance; being dragged out by my thirsty Asian, Korean friends. After the appropriate rituals and passcodes, I ended up inside a half-packed sausage market.”
Melanie A.: “I walked in and holy wow. I told my friend the story later on and was like ‘I walked in to a Korean NIGHTCLUB like not a bar, nightclub. I couldn’t believe there was a nightclub of only Asians.’ And he was all like, ‘Um, there are entire countries filled with them.’”
Nathan G.: “It’s pure Korean meat market.”
MJ W.: “I think it was 100% Asians or Koreans and maybe 30% FOBs and SOBs (still-on the-boat, aka SUPER FOBby ones). So if you don’t like Koreans (but who doesn’t?) [or] if you want diversity, then you shouldn’t go there. “
Peter K.: “Let’s be real. The girls here are hot. They may not speak English. They may have a bad attitude. But this place always has hot Asian girls if that’s what you’re looking for.”
Katee L.: “If you like Asian people, getting drunk, getting rubbed up against while dancing, and have no qualms about how much you spend when you go out, then this is your place!”
Matt P.: If you feel like waiting in the longest of lines, only to be awkwardly and aggressively stared down by Korean dudes, look no further!
Leo K.: “This place is way too Korean for its own good. I’m not the self-loathing type but seriously, get too many of us together in a small space and you have a bunch of angsty yellow fellows thinking they’re the main character from that shitty movie Chingoo.”
Jessie H.: “Mainly a Korean crowd with a rare sighting of non-Asians here and there but this is SUPER RARE, it’s like finding Mew in the Pokémon game…impossible.”
Andrew M.: “I was the only white person there for almost the entire night. The next day when I told some friends that I went there who are from the area, they looked at me incredulously and said, ‘They let YOU in?!’”
Circle quickly became known as the hot spot for Koreans — but possibly at the expense of other ethnicities, according to the many who failed to gain entrance. (In 2013, the club paid more than $20,000 in fines for discriminatory practices.)
Jeffrey Y.: “The best experience at this club was waiting in line. I never made it inside. Maybe it was because I wasn’t a local, a Korean, or probably both.”
Jen C.: “Don’t think about coming unless you’re Korean or love Korean people.”
Molly W.: “If you’re not Asian, a hot Caucasian girl, or willing to shell over $450 for table service, FUGGITABOUTIT!!!!”
B G.: “If you choose to go to this establishment, make sure you are Korean and Korean only!!! Otherwise you are looking to have a ruined night.”
Lily T.: “The place is filled with 98% Asians with maybe 80% Koreans. And yes, they try not to let anyone non-Asian go in. But come on! You know this is a nightclub for Asians, why do you go when you are not Asian?”
Mike C.: “I find it funny how all these non-Asians are so critical of the door policy at this place. However, when Asians try to go to the hot ‘white’ clubs, especially Asian guys, they always get turned away unless you are willing to pay the minimum for table service which runs anywhere between $1,500-$3,000.”
Johnny C.: “If Fox 5 is going to single out Circle for discriminating, they should do so for a lot of other clubs like the ones in the Meatpacking District.”
Olivia C.: “With the recent bad press it got, people still keep coming; it seems to reinforce any press is good press.”
Jodi Y.: “In an interesting demographic shift, I heard Mandarin being spoken almost ubiquitously. Chinese are invading Circle.”
As a nightclub targeting Koreans, Circle was experientially similar to clubs you might find in Seoul. In its earlier days, Circle was known to have adopted the practice of “booking,” a common feature of nightclubs in Korea whereby men who buy bottle service at tables point out women at the club, who are then sent to them by waiters to share drinks.
Erica L.: “Circle is infamous for one thing: booking.”
Rui H.: “‘Booking’ is when your waiter brings girls to your table (apparently, the more $ you spend, the hotter the girls — but not sure if this is true or not).”
Charlie L.: “The waiters here [are] different than your normal American clubs. They are usually well-dressed Korean guys with walkies (think Secret Service).”
Jane K.: “Don’t get creeped out if a waiter grabs you out of nowhere to drag you to a table where you get shots of Johnny for some awkward conversation.”
Esther K.: “I was led to the VIP tables and seated with three guys. It was just weird. They offered me a shot of J Black, some fruit, and chatted with me politely in Korean as best we could considering we were screaming into each other’s ears.”
Jenny H.: “It was easy to spot the girls who were interested in getting ‘booked,’ as they were strutting about the place in the tiniest things imaginable. You could tell that they were successful in their endeavors because they’d also be the ones attempting to ‘dance’ within the crowd after said bookings.”
Stacy T.: “For some reason, a lot of girls like to suck on lollipops while they dance.”
Sally K.: “ If there are no sparks, you simply take the shot, say thanks, and walk back to the dance floor and move your hips like they don’t lie and wait for the next round of booking. If you hit it off with that random person, then who knows. Ah, the art of booking.”
Steph W.: “I define booking as drunk companionship, which can be fun but not always.”
lora c.: “Some people consider booking a valuable dating service. I waver between seeing it as some sort of female empowerment and softcore prostitution. Mostly, though, I just think it’s hilarious.”
Sandra S.: “For those who compare it to prostitution…well…there are men out there that really believe that you owe them something for buying you a $8 drink but these guys are at Gansevoort in fedoras.”
Peter J.: “If you’re into the booking thing, they have that here, but I prefer to go up to and talk to people like a man.”
In the latter half of its 10-year run, Circle settled into its reputation as an institution of Asian American nightlife, despite its exhausting, Vegas-like intensity.
Mary Q.: “Circle’s kinda like crack, everyone’s doing it but no one wants to admit it.”
Sumito A.: “It’s often the place you hear your friends say ‘Oh god not that place…’ But yet for some reason they always end up there.”
Sarah L.: “Only with a certain amount of alcohol already in you before a night of clubbing can you enjoy Circle.”
Jennifer L.: “Everyone has a love-hate relationship with this place. You say it’s the worst place but somehow always end up coming here despite that. This place is THE Asian club in the city, and if you want that crowd, then this is the place to go.”
Edward K.: “The people who end up with the table option mostly love it, those who hate it are the people who wait it in line.”
catherine p.: “You ‘hate’ it but…. cant… stop…. going….back….”
Cheryl K.: “I love Circle. I am NOT even going to attempt to lie. If you are Korean and into the Korean scene, you love it too. Don’t kid yourself; you’re not fooling anyone.”
Susan L.: “Despite the high casualty rate, absurdly overpriced drinks, purported racism, this is one of those venues that you will always go to because the very act of going to Circle is ironic and self-deprecating in and of itself. We do not Circle for the clubbing experience. We Circle because it is an existential exercise in walking into palm of the Devil, staring at him in the eye, then waking up the next morning pondering if it was indeed a dream.”
The dream doesn’t end here. Neither of the Circle owners wanted to be quoted for this piece, but via a new Facebook page, they’ve announced their newest venture: On March 3, they will open Mission on West 28th Street, billed as “Koreatown’s Mega Club.” Time is a flat circle, after all.