Popping into Gangnam
Stephanie Wood tackles the style-obsessed Seoul consumer district immortalised in the global pop hit.
I found Psy in Garosu-gil, Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, eating a bowl of bibimbap. Completely fitting that the rapper should be at the Garosu-gil branch of the Seoul chain restaurant Bibigo. As Psy has taken Korean pop music - K-pop - to the world, so has the Bibigo empire exported Korean food (specifically, its version of the rice dish bibimbap), with branches from Beverly Hills to Soho. Meanwhile, the Garosu-gil strip is the hottest spot on the Seoul map; a poster child for everything Psy's Gangnam Style is said to represent.
Gangnam Style is, commentators declare, a send-up of the affluent Seoul district's lavish consumer culture; its status-consciousness and shallowness, its self-importance and vanity.
Psy's own explanation is a little different; the song, he says, pokes fun at "the posers and wannabes" who put on airs and claim to have "Gangnam style". He should know what he's talking about. He grew up in Gangnam.
To be fair, I should add that the man who has been viewed on YouTube more than 900 million times shared his explanation with CNN, not with me: at Bibigo, a stylish, minimalistic space where the floors are polished concrete and the sesame sauce for the "hot stone bibim bansang" is squeezed out of a plastic pack, the star refused to talk. To be fair, I should add that, at Bibigo, Psy is present only in spirit - and in an autographed photograph at the entrance showing him eating from a Bibigo "picnic box" wearing a cheesy grin and an oddly unattractive white sleeveless shirt. Apparently, Bibigo delivers picnic boxes to him whenever he performs.
But no matter which explanation of Gangnam Style you accept, Seoul first-timers might still find it difficult to pinpoint what defines the sprawling, multi-faceted district south of the city's Han River that, until the late 1960s, was a largely rural area dotted with straw-roofed houses.
"It's the yolk in the egg," one local says, after telling me Gangnam's residential property prices are among the highest in the world.
"It's newer, fake Seoul; poodles work very well in Gangnam - instant respect," another says.
"What you do in Gangnam is you go look nice and go to a coffee shop; and if you're a businessman you go to a secret underground bar and sing karaoke," says Nathan McMurray, a lawyer and blogger who has lived in Seoul for nearly two decades.
In Garosu-gil, a ginkgo-tree-lined street in Gangnam's Sinsa-dong ward, coffee shops such as the hot-spot Coffeesmith and the cutesy Rabbit in the Moon feed the city's recently-found caffeine addiction alongside chic, fur-filled boutiques, multinationals such as Swarovski and Kate Spade, a handbag museum and plastic surgery clinics. (According to The Economist, South Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world; clinics such as Bong Bong Plastic Surgery, Miracle in Seven Days, Dr Oh's Plastic Surgery and Wannabe Plastic Surgery practise the art of imposing desirable Western features on Korean faces - smaller cheekbones, "V-line" jawlines and tiny under-eye pouches. In a Gangnam Station stairwell, I spot a billboard ad for one clinic bearing the slogan, "smaller, more beautiful, dear ladies, you will be born as a new person". The accompanying photograph is of a half-peeled potato with eyes.)
In Gangnam's Apgujeong neighbourhood, K-pop stars are delivered to their entertainment companies' headquarters in gleaming black Hyundai Starex people-movers with tinted windows, while Seoul's super-rich worship at the flashy temples of luxury fashion lining a boulevard of dreams dubbed "yuppie street". Not so far away in the "Rodeo Street" area (a reference, of course, to the Beverly Hills strip) are boutiques, restaurants, K-pop talent schools (including a "star-creating centre"), hair and beauty salons - and dozens of outlets for pre-loved luxury goods. Buy your Prada, Chanel and Louis Vuitton handbags, shoes and watches in Apgujeong, wear once, then offload in Rodeo.
Meanwhile, Seoul's corporate titans and their minions come to work and play in the business district around Gangnam Station. Here, shiny high-rises house the headquarters of chaebols such as the mighty Samsung, while, at street level, teeming back alleys host the bars and the pocha (tented bars), the noraebangs (singing rooms) and karaoke bars, and the room salons where hostesses stroke men's egos and lure them to splash out on expensive liquor (and, maybe later, something a little more).
It's this Gangnam, this after-dark, beer-and-soju-soused Gangnam, to which Psy is perhaps referring in Gangnam Style when he describes himself as a guy "who goes completely crazy when the right time comes". His "sexy lady" is analogous to the district - "a classy girl ... who puts her hair down when the right time comes".
I tried to let my hair down in Gangnam. At Club Octagon, one of the city's hottest clubs, I queued with the cool kids. Sexy babes straight from the salon, groovy Korean boys, all dressed to the nines for a serious night out on the town. But there is only bad news at the top of the queue. Two smooth men in black are there to deliver it. They ask for my ID but, really, they hardly need it. A Western woman of a certain age is not welcome here. Anyone over 30 is not welcome in this speaker-shaking party house, where there are, apparently, private VIP bunkers, a swimming pool for the club's dancers and a VIP lift.
The story is barely more heartening at Gangnam's Club Answer. To get in, over-30s need to pay 600,000 won ($530) for a table. "They're just pick-up joints anyway," my guide Jinny says consolingly, as we turn away and consider instead a nearby street stall selling cookie sticks for Pepero Day, Korea's answer to Valentine's Day. If you're a woman over 30, you'll never get into a Seoul club, McMurray says - unless you're a super-famous celebrity. And men? "It depends, if you're driving a Bentley, maybe you'd get in."
I should, I decide, instead let my hair down and find my Gangnam style at a noraebang - the Korean version of a karaoke establishment. These, I am led to believe, are Seoul's beating heart and soul, and they range from the luxe - appointment-only affairs that often employ singers to serenade guests in private rooms - to the sleazy, where "helpers" might well be exercising more than their vocal cords.
Again though, obstacles: I don't have a No. 18 - a song I can belt out off-by-heart and backwards. Every Korean, I'm told, has a No. 18: Korean men favour a little ditty called Speed Up Losers by local punk outfit Crying Nut; women like the raunchy Poison by pop group Secret.
And then I learn about second rounds (ee-cha) and third rounds (sam-cha): A night out on the town in Seoul can mean two, three, four or more "rounds" of letting your hair down, from a first round at a restaurant with the Korean booze soju, to a second round at a bar or pub where the focus is firmly on draft beer and more soju and, most likely, drinking games. It could be the third round or later before any singing happens. As those smooth men in black identified, I am a woman of a certain age. Tonight at least, I don't have the stamina for third or fourth rounds.
I drown my sorrows instead in soju and silkworm larvae. With my new Seoul friend Grace Lee, who works for a pharmaceutical research company by day and translates the lyrics of K-pop songs into English for her website Pop!gasa by night, I plunge into the nuttiness that is Friday-after-work drinks, Gangnam-style. At a dimly lit basement pocha with crazy-loud '90s K-pop and oversized chandeliers, Lee and her buddies summon waiters using a doorbell attached to the table and top up glasses of beer with shots of soju. The shots don't seem optional. Nor does the silkworm larvae. "It's a nostalgic snack for my parents' generation," Lee says.
One of her buddies at the table is playing a game on his phone; another jiggles to the music. Meanwhile, Lee's friend Yoonah talks about her bad experience at a "booking bar" - a sprouting Seoul phenomenon for young Koreans to get instant blind dates (groups of friends take over a private room at a booking bar and, using tablet computers, try and hook up with potential dates elsewhere in the establishment).
I turn my attention to the silkworm larvae. Koreans never drink without eating and silkworm larvae - beondegi - is a popular snack. Here, it seems to be doused in soy, oil and chilli. It's a crunch that I don't care to repeat.
I prefer the snacks at Moonjar. Not far from Rodeo Street's conspicuous consumption, this is a hot spot for Gangnam's beautiful people; a post-modernish collision of old and new in which worn floorboards, old school-style desks and vintage lamps meet contemporary music and attitude. The snacks - a seafood and green onion pancake (haemul pajeon) and spicy octopus - are tasty and the liquor is the very-gulpable milky makgeolli rice wine.
As she pours my makgeolli from a metal "teapot" into a light metal cup, my guide Jinny declares she knows why Moonjar is so busy: the waiters, ridiculously tall girls with flannelette shirts tied around their waists, are so good looking. She makes an inquiry: yes, they're moonlighting models. And if model waitstaff is insufficient drawcard, Psy's here in spirit again: his signature scrawl is in a gallery of stars' autographs on a wall near the front entrance.
In fact, it's hard in Gangnam, indeed in greater Seoul, to avoid Psy and his "hallyu" cohort. The hallyu, or "Korean wave", is a commercial juggernaut; sit in Seoul traffic for too long (and you will) and Psy will trundle past on the side of a bus endorsing Nongshim "black cup" instant noodles; flick through Korean television channels in your hotel room and there he is again, cutely slurping them up. Hallyu stars, stars from boy bands, girl bands, soap operas and film, are there at every step in full-blown, two-dimensional happy colour selling Koreans face whiteners, lottery tickets, watches, cars and fried chicken.
On a footpath in Rodeo Street I nearly trip over a life-size cardboard cut-out of the members of boy band 2AM promoting a skincare product. At dinner one night at a Gangnam barbecue restaurant, Jinny lifts the soju bottle to show me a little sticker underneath. It features a photograph of legendary singer Lee Hyori. The brand is Chumchurum, which, in Korean, means "pure" or "like the first time".
By the time I sit down with Psy's mother for lunch at Modern Babsang, I'm longing for some purity, a bit worn down by Gangnam style. To be fair, I should add that Psy's mother is with me for lunch only in spirit: Modern Babsang is one of two restaurants she owns in Garosu-gil and Mrs Psy is nowhere to be seen.
But still, I find purity in her menu: a fabulous potato pancake, using, we discover, the famous Gangwon Province potatoes; cubes of acorn jelly in a salad of mugwort and water dropwort leaves, carrot, cucumber, seaweed and onion; a wicked selection of side dishes including kimchi, burdock with sugar and soy, and hot-sweet fried anchovies; a snail casserole that we wrap with kimchi and sauce in springy sesame leaves. Soul food indeed.
Finally, I look up from my gluttony and notice the restaurant. At a nearby table, ladies-who-lunch, the mothers of Gangnam, are immaculately coiffed and discussing important matters. "Is your daughter married yet?" one asks. "No, she's too busy," is the reply. "My son is studying medicine," another adds. Jinny points out a handbag, worth, it seems, more than the price of a small car, but I'm not listening. Instead I'm noticing, gratefully, that there's not a K-pop star's photograph, nor autograph, to be seen.
The Park Hyatt Seoul, near the city's COEX Convention and Exhibition Centre in Gangnam-gu and one of the world's largest underground shopping malls, gets plaudits for its boutique feel, floor-to-ceiling windows and chic design. Phone +82 2 2016 1234, see seoul.park.hyatt.com.
The Ritz-Carlton Seoul may be a little dated but it's close to the main Gangnam Station area, the metro, shopping and some of the area's crazy nightlife. Phone +82 2 3451 8000, see ritzcarltonseoul.com.
Try sophisticated, contemporary Korean seafood at GoraeBul Korean Seafood Cuisine (630-23 Sinsa-dong Gangnam-gu, phone 02 542 8892).
Jungsik serves some of the city's finest Korean-contemporary fare (649-7 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam, phone 02 517 4654, see jungsik.kr).
Gwangbok Sangheo barbecue restaurant has a '70s retro vibe and great barbecue pork (1F & 2F, 153-30 Samseong-dong, Gangnam-gu, phone 02 553 0815, see gb815.com).
Modern Babsang serves high-quality traditional Korean fare (545-20, Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, phone 02 546 6782).
Visit the Simone Handbag Museum, a stunning new ode to the handbag (Bagstage Building, 17, Dosan-daero 13-gil, Gangnam-gu, phone 02 3444 0914, see simonehandbagmuseum.co.kr).
Pop into Bada Design Atelier for fine contemporary Korean ceramics
(521-5, 1F, How Building, Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, phone 02 592 5342, see badadesignatelier.com).
Food lovers will adore SSG food market, the Harrods food hall of Seoul (first floor and basement floor, 4-1 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu, phone 02 1588 1234, see ssgfoodmarket.com).
Tech heads will appreciate the new Samsung d'light Centre (1320-10, Seocho 2-dong, Seocho-gu - directly connected to exit no. 8 of Gangnam Station, subway line 2, phone 02 2255 2272-7, see dlightshop.com).
Stephanie Wood was a guest of Korea Tourism Office.
Sydney Morning Herald