Possibly the most famous thing to ever come out of Seoul, “Gangnam Style” has become one of the few things most people in the world know about South Korea. Judging by the more than 1.3 billion views Psy’s music video currently has on YouTube, the most viewed video on the site, I can assume that if you haven’t seen it multiple times, you have at least heard of it. I’m only just now, able to walk around my neighborhood without hearing it emanating from some convenience store, restaurant or clothing stand, almost 7 months after its first release.
Seoul itself is trying to capitalize on the song’s quickly receding viral takeover and convert it into tangible tourism money. This can be seen quite obviously with the ridiculous sign that they have installed outside of Gangnam Station with “GANGNAM STYLE” in huge letters for all to see and take pictures with. However, when I was there, more people seemed interested in the big Nike ad immediately next to it.Gangnam is more than just a call to dance as though you are riding a majestic horse. Specifically, it is a place in Seoul. Seoul is divided up into districts, much like New York City is divided into boroughs, and Gangnam is one of its 25 districts. Meaning “south of the river,” Gangnam is roughly 25 square miles in size (40 square kilometers) and is one of the busiest and most economically important regions of the city. The area is known for its newly built skyscrapers, alleys upon alleys of neon-lit international restaurants, shopping malls, language schools and especially its nightlife. But most of all, it is probably best known within Korea as a place of opulence and expense.
Before even leaving Gangnam’s Station, you are inundated with ads for plastic surgery, name-brand handbags, watches for yachtsmen and high-rise real estate. After exiting, you are greeted by walls of people and towers of commerce topped with pulsing electronic billboards. What seem to be boring side streets are actually paths that will inevitably lead you to hip fusion restaurants serving up some of the best food you can imagine. In many ways Gangnam is the realization of the Seoul’s cultural aspirations to link the East and the West.
Fashion is a huge part of Gangnam’s reputation. There are a large number of neighborhoods individually famous within Korea for their density of trendy boutiques as well as big labels, often accompanied by luxurious price tags. In this regard, many compare it to New York’s 5th avenue or Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive.
South Korea has become the world’s center for plastic surgery, and the Gangnam neighborhood Apgujeong is its focal point. The streets are lined with plastic surgery clinics advertising drastic before and after photos. I find it hard to believe that a lot of these are even the same people. The streets are always littered with people donning surgical facemasks, hiding their newly modified faces, still bruised from surgery. As an added bonus, numerous luxury car dealerships are sprinkled between the clinics.
Gangnam is also one of the main nightlife hubs of the country. Primarily a scene for clubs and loud bars, many go out wearing their most expensive outfits for a night of fun and extravagance, or at least pretending. Gangnam has the notorious reputation of being a place where people go exclusively to meet and hopefully hookup with the young and wealthy.
Before concluding, the pronunciation of Gangnam is worth clarifying. Most people seem to pronounce it “Gayng-nim.” However, it’s more correct to pronounce the As more like when the doctor puts a popsicle stick in your mouth and asks you to go “aaaah.” “Gahngnahm.”
It’s very easy to see how Gangnam got its high-class reputation. Just walking around serves up constant reminders around each corner. In the rare case that you forget, Psy’s grinning face is likely to pass you on a bus.
Go back into “The Kimchi-ite” archives here for more on Korean food, culture and oddities.
[Photo credit: Jonathan Kramer]