“Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh… oppan Gangnam style”… Just the lyrics probably have you picturing that hilariously moronic horse dance, or covering your ears in anticipation. If you haven’t seen the video for Korean pop-rapper Psy’s infectious parody on Seoul’s southern business district yet, you can’t be the web-loving type. In it, Psy discos up some stables, graces the faux VIP areas of locations such as playgrounds and Han River boat rides, and generally tries to convince the local ladies that he has the necessary street cred to be worth a second look.
Eyeing the video, you could be forgiven for thinking Gangnam is the heart of everything in Seoul. In some senses, you’d be right. As home to a huge number of the city’s major businesses, Gangnam is a district of skyscrapers, exceptionally high property prices and one of the few Seoul neighbourhoods where a typical Dublin visitor’s travel budget could be utterly obliterated by stepping into the wrong restaurant. On a week night, businessmen view ‘entertaining’ customers as a part of their job. As a result, the nightlife is heavily occupied by suited men, yet tends to be wild and alcohol fueled. The ‘kimchi flower’, an unfortunate product of vomit-inducing levels of soju and the Korean love of the spicy, red fermented cabbage ‘kimchi’, is a common sight on the area’s otherwise pristine sidewalks. Generally Gangnam glimmers with designer chic and clean-cut business facades, but there is a seedier side. That lies in the much discussed but possibly mythical brothel bars, and in the aptly named DVD bangs (bang translates as room), private cinemas that have more to do with sex than watching your choice of movie.
The women of Gangnam, though, are Psy’s concern. Generally speaking, Korea has an exceptionally image conscious society, particularly among the better off. There’s a fascination with looks that goes far beyond what’s common in Europe, so much so that plastic surgery is commonly advertised and bordering on expected of the rich. One of Gangnam’s most notable stereotypes is the Dweonjang lady, a woman on an average salary who’s willing to survive on cheap dweonjang noodles and commute huge distances in order to save for a Louis Vuitton hang bag or a Prada coat. The brands form a rare exception to the general Korean belief that ‘Korean is better’ (Samsung barely has to concern itself with Apple in its own country), and they’re so common in the Gangnam district that if you didn’t know better, you’d think they were a standard, affordable brand.