The swanky district of Gangnam in Seoul was unknown outside South Korea until late 2012, when Psy smashed his way into the world’s consciousness with the K-Pop mega-hit “Gangnam Style”—a parody of life in the Korean capital’s most upmarket postcode. Parodies of his song erupted across the Internet as the video went viral to become the most-viewed on YouTube ever. Kids, hen parties, sports stars across the globe mimicked Psy’s horse-riding dance and sang along to the one line of the song not in Korean: “Eh, sexy lady!” The night after seeing Psy raise the roof at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Asian Games, in the satellite city of Incheon, I saw Gangnam first-hand.
Thirty years ago the suburb was hardly known, even in Seoul. An undeveloped backwater, it was mostly paddy fields and the location of the Bongeunsa Buddhist Temple. This 1,200-year-old temple with its dozen or so ornate buildings still nestles on a wooded hillside, its lawns neatly tended. On a gloriously sunny Saturday morning, I joined the peace-seeking pilgrims who come to slip off their shoes, chant, meditate, and honour their forefathers. The view that accompanies the gentle ringing of bells is no longer an agrarian idyll but a jungle of glass and steel. Opposite the main entrance is the massive, ultra-modern COEX Convention Centre (Psy danced on its roof in the famous video).
In the past couple of decades many of Korea’s chaebol (mega corporations) have made their headquarters in Gangnam. Their names are ubiquitous: Samsung Wedding Hall, Hyundai Department Store.
A few manicured streets away, the Samsung d’light showroom bills itself as “Tomorrow Playground” and lets you get your hands on the electronics giant’s latest cameras, laptops, tablets, phones, and gawp in awe at the mesmerising UHD curved 105-inch TV. I experienced a mind-bending virtual journey into nanotechnology and read about some of the eco-innovations conceived as part of Samsung’s Planet First initiative. It’s exciting and feels like a glimpse into the future. There’s a store in the basement so you can leave with a bag full of shiny gadgets if you desire.
Gangnam is also the heartland of one of Korea’s other growth industries: cosmetic surgery. Adventurous visitors can acquire a tighter tummy, fuller bosom, rounder eyes, or fewer chins than they arrived with. It’s cheap and well regulated, I was told, and attracts hordes of Chinese visitors as well as locals looking for a lift.
It’s a district transformed in a generation. Sipping cappuccino, I watched impeccably dressed young Koreans hang out and spend their won (Korean currency) on state-of-the-art technology and designer brands. It’s a colourful vignette; an insight into how ancient and modern live side by side in 21st-century Korea. The millennia-old temple provides an oasis of calm and tranquility alongside the rampant consumerism at the heart of Psy’s musical.
Appeared in the November 2014 issue as “Gangnam Style.”
Mark Hannant was born in London and migrated to India in 2009 in search of adventure. He is an entrepreneur and co-founder of a creative agency. He balances his love of food and wine with fell walking and distance running. He lives in Mumbai.