What do Britney Spears, West Point cadets and Filipino prisoners have in common? They are all gaga for Gangnam Style, the contagious pop song by South Korean rapper Psy. Aided by a dance video that went viral on YouTube (480 million views and counting), the song has topped the iTunes, UK and Australian charts and hit number 2 on the US’ Billboard Hot 100 chart. It’s sparked a global craze for crazy horse-riding dance moves as well as a fascination with Korean pop (K-pop) and the area of Seoul that Psy raps about.
Fashion mannequins, Gangnam, Seoul. Photo by Simon Richmond
Psy and K-pop
Although his music has been widely attributed as K-pop, Psy (real name is Park Jae-sang) is far from your average K-popster. The chubby 34-year-old, whose role model is Freddie Mercury, has been in the Korean music business for more than a decade. Unlike the youthfully cute members of hit K-pop groups such as Bigbang (www.ygfamily.com), Super Junior (superjunior.smtown.com) and Girls' Generation (www.girlsgenerationusa.com) - all the finely crafted products of giant Korean entertainment agencies - Psy is a solo talent who writes his own songs and choreographs his own dance routines.
Meaning 'south of the river', Gangnam refers generally to all of Seoul south of the Han River, and specifically to a smaller administrative area within that region. A handful of decades ago there wasn’t much here beyond rice fields and the odd temple. Gangnam saw much development for the 1988 Olympics and ever since has been associated with expensive real estate and upmarket shopping and partying in chic neighbourhoods such as Apgujeong and Cheongdam.
GT Tower, Gangnam, Seoul (ArchitectenConsort). Photo by Simon Richmond
The old money of northern Seoul can be snotty about the nouveau riche of Gangnam; it’s that flashy, fashion-conscious style that Psy is rapping about. While its true that Gangnam lacks the royal palaces and old fortress walls of northern Seoul, it’s not totally devoid of tradition. The temple Bongeun-sa (www.bongeunsa.org) is one of Seoul’s most impressive and two Korean kings and a queen are buried in Seonjeongneung Park (seonjeong.cha.go.kr).
This said, it’s Gangnam’s contemporary attractions, including the giant theme park Lotte World, the vast Olympic Park and Samsung D’Light (www.samsungdlight.com), the digital playground of the major electronics conglomerate, that are the main tourist draws.
Shopping for K-pop
If you’re into K-pop, Seoul has several excellent places to stock up on the latest CDs and DVDs including Evans Records in the massive COEX Mall and the Hottracks (www.hottracks.co.kr) section of Kyobo Bookshop, which has a branch in the heart of Gangnam. It's free to join Hottracks membership club for instant discounts.
There’s another big Kyobo Bookshop north of the Han River near Gwanghwamun Square. K-Story (www.k-story.kr) in Myeong-dong is the perfect one-stop K-pop experience selling stacks of merchandise, screens videos, and serves food and drink. A more discerning selection of K-poppery is offered at Seoul Selection (www.seoulselection.co.kr).
Tangent building near the COEX Mall, Gangnam, Seoul (Daniel Libeskind). Photo by Simon Richmond
“Dress classy and … dance cheesy”
That’s how Psy summed up his style on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show. Gangnam has plenty of classy boutiques, the fanciest of the lot located in Apgujeong and Cheongdam. Pick up outfits by top Korean and international designers at 10 Corso Como Seoul (www.10corsocomo.co.kr), Daily Projects (dailyprojectsseoul.blogspot.com) and the super chic department store Galleria (dept.galleria.co.kr).
Once suitably attired head to a Gangnam club to get jiggy with it. Currently popular is Ellui (www.ellui.com) an industrial chic place with a dazzling light and sound system, several dance spaces and plenty of room to move. Eden (www.eden-club.co.kr) is also a long established late-night haunt of Seoul's smart set.
If all you want to do is dance like a K-popster, then hang out beside Migliore department store in Myeong-dong. Artists frequently showcase their latest songs and choreography on the outdoor stage.
Eating and sleeping
K-popsters cannot live by fashion and dance alone. Hip fuelling outposts in Gangnam include Jung Sikdang (jungsik.kr) for gorgeous to look at and delicious to taste neo-Korean cuisine; Gorilla in the Kitchen (www.gorillakitchen.co.kr) for western fusion food and lazy brunches at the weekend; Grill5Taco (www.grill5taco.com) dishing up zesty Mexican fodder to on-the-go shoppers and hipsters mooching Serosu-gil and Garosu-gil, a more affordable shopping district; and Queens Park (www.queens-park.co.kr) - the place to catch Seoul fashionistas grazing between boutique and beauty parlour visits.
Korean afternoon tea at the Park Hyatt in Seoul. Photo by Simon Richmond
Perfectly placed for swanning around Garosu-gil and Serosu-gil is La Casa (www.hotellacasa.kr) a lovely boutique hotel owned by chic Korean furniture and interior design store Casamia. If an international brand is more to your taste, then look no further than the chic Zen-minimalist stylings of Park Hyatt Seoul (www.seoul.park.hyatt.com) where spacious rooms ingeniously combine the high-tech with the traditional; the views across Gangnam are also superb. The more affordable Hotel Tria (www.hoteltria.co.kr) also packs plenty of Gangnam style including, in most rooms, a whirlpool bath.
Fallen for South Korea, heart and Seoul? Grab a copy of Lonely Planet's Korea guide book and make the trip.