Chuck Berry got his kicks on Route 66 and The Kinks watched the sun set over Waterloo Station, but in today’s music, no singer is as closely linked to a place as Psy is to the Gangnam district.

With prank-rap Gangnam Style the biggest YouTube hit ever, Seoul’s most arriviste district has arrived on global maps. Gangnam District Office, Seoul Convention Bureau and the Korea Tourism Organization are all leveraging on it in their public relations efforts.

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The upmarket district of Gangnam is a cluster of skyscrapers. Photo: Andrew Salmon

Since Psy’s hit, Kim Gwang Soo, team leader of Tourism Promotion and Development at Gangnam District Office, reckons numbers of tourists have doubled.

Ms Lee Jee Eun of the Korean Tourism Organization says her organisation now receives “thousands of inquiries” from across the world about Gangnam.

But things are problematic for fadfocused tourists. Gangnam, meaning “south of the river” in reference to the Han, which bisects Seoul, is essentially a modern commercial and residential district. Seoul’s major tourist sites are in Gangbuk (“north of the river”): museums, mediaeval palaces, traditional markets, the arts and crafts district of Insa-dong, the shopping district of Myeong-dong, the Hongdae clubbing zone, the foreign quarter of Itaewon, the old alleyways of Bukchon and the mountains.

In contrast, Gangnam was countryside until the 1970s, when it was built – vertically – to accommodate population overflow. By the 1980s, it was rich (a real-estate boom turned many property owners into millionaires) and brash (a website once advertised European castles which could be bought for the price of a Gangnam apartment). Korea’s old money, its secretive corporate dynasties, spurn Gangnam, dwelling instead in fortress-like villas nestled among mountains in the city’s north.

But in the post-Psy era, no tourist visiting Seoul can avoid Gangnam. “It’s posh and stylish,” says entrepreneur Fiona Bae. “If you want to see new, trendy things, apart from Itaewon, Gangnam is the place.”

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Boutiques, restaurants and cafes can be found in Rodeo Drive (above) and Garosu-gil or Tree-lined Street. Photo: Reuters

Gangnam itself is a long, broad boulevard of approximately 1km, flanked by high-rises and choked with usually slow-moving Hyundais, Kias and BMWs. At its south end sprouts a futuristic copse of grey, smoked-glass skyscrapers. This city-within-a-city is Samsung Town, the headquarters of Korea’s mightiest corporation.

Otherwise, Gangnam offers little that you cannot find in other Seoul ‘hoods: branded outlets, restaurants, bars, karaokes, the myriad cram schools feeding Koreans’ manic educational appetite and the even more numerous coffee shops fuelling their “work hard, play harder” dynamism.

However, you may want to snap yourself next to the Gangnam Subway Station sign, currently as iconic as Abbey Road’s zebra crossing. And if you feel energetic, Gangnam District Office has kindly erected a “horse dancing” stage inside the station.

Gangnam is, in fact, a series of sub- districts, and it is Cheongdam-dong, Apgujeong (which is known for Rodeo Drive), Garuso-gil and Teheran-no of which Psy sings: This is where hallyu idols, funksters and innumerable wannabes hang.

Branching off the southern end of Gangnam is Teheran-no – a car-filled canyon lined with corporate headquarters and tech ventures. However, at its end, it opens out into the colossal COEX, or Korea Exhibition Center. This spectacular edifice is Seoul’s top conference venue and has hosted, among other events, the G20 Leaders’ Summit.

South of COEX stands Korea’s coolest hotel, the boutique Park Hyatt. North of it stands one of Gangnam’s few oases of old Koreana and an accommodation option with a twist: Bongeun-sa, an 8th-century temple. But Gangnam is more about Hedonism and Mammonism than Buddhism.

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Young women at a private party in a high-end social club at the Grey Box building in the Gangnam district of Seoul. Photo: Agence France-Presse

Gangnam’s trendy heart beats around the Cheongdam and Apgujeong subway stations. Here stands Galleria, Seoul’s most exclusive department store and across the street is Rodeo Drive – nobody is sure why it is so called – a block of boutiques, restaurants, cafes, wine bars and karaoke lounges.

“Cheongdam-dong represents Gangnam,” says Su Han, a public relations manager with Galleria department store. “Really, it should be ‘Cheongdam-dong style!'”

Han added that pre-Psy, most foreign tourists shopped in Myeong-dong for its good range of lower-end fashion brands and cosmetics, as well as upmarket department stores. Now, they venture south of the river.

Nearby are the offices of JYP and SM, two of Korea’s biggest entertainment companies. Their forecourts often feature crowds of jabbering schoolgirls desperate to glimpse their idol as he/she heads into the studio.

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Boutiques, restaurants and cafes can be found in Rodeo Drive (above) and Garosu-gil or Tree-lined Street. Photo: Reuters

More relaxing experiences are available in Garosu-gil, which means “Tree-lined Street”. This low-rise district, lined with boutiques, cafes, bars and restaurants, presents a pleasing contrast to the fast pace of life elsewhere in Gangnam.

South of Garosu-gil in Sinsa-dong is where you can find scores of cosmetic surgery clinics. Koreans reportedly have more nips and tucks than any other nationality and the sector is so well-established that plastic surgery tours now lure legions of Asian tourists seeking the pristine skins and chiselled features sported by K-pop stars.

Journalist Euny Hong, who grew up in the Gangnam area in the late 1980s and early 1990s, writes in a recent piece for The Atlantic magazine: “The Korean language has no word for irony, nor for ‘parody’, which is why the Korean press has been using the English word ‘parody’ to describe Gangnam Style.”

If you are planning a special trip to Gangnam, go, in all earnestness – but do not forget to pack some irony for the jaunt.

VISIT

SAMSUNG D’LIGHT

D’light (“D” stands for “digital”) in Samsung headquarters is the showroom of the sprawling “chips to ships” conglomerate. You cannot buy a supertanker here, but you can buy pretty much any electronic gadget – from a smart TV to a smartphone to a kimchi refrigerator. Fiddle with tech toys to your heart’s content and sample technology such as programmable glass and language interpretation devices.

Subway: Gangnam Tel: +82-2-2255-2277 Website:www.samsung.com/us/experience/dlight/main/main.html

COEX

Even if you are not attending an exhibition or conference, there is plenty to do here. This steel-and-glass monstrosity is book- ended by two Intercontinental Hotels and encompasses Hyundai Department Store, the COEX Shopping Mall, an aquarium, a cineplex, office towers and a City Air Terminal. When cruising its subterranean mall, trail a ball of string: It is labyrinthine.

Subway: Samseong Website: www.coex.co.kr

BONGEUN-SA

This Buddhist temple offers affordable, spartan accommodation right in deepest Gangnam. Its temple-stay programme costs 70,000 won (S$80). In the shadow of COEX, it is a photographers’ delight, offering perfect old-meets-new shots. And it contains a sobering reminder that this country is not just about soap operas, gadgets and kimchi: a shrine to secret agents lost on missions in North Korea.

Subway: Samseong Tel: ++82-2-3218-4895 Website: www.bongeunsa.org


STAY

PARK HYATT

This ultra high-tech property vies with the W Hotel as Seoul’s top boutique hotel, but offers a far more convenient location, just south of COEX.

Huge rooms with floor-to ceiling windows, wooden floors and DVD players, plus an urban spa with personal trainers, make this Seoul’s height of luxury. Rates start from 350,000 won (plus 10 per cent tax) for a 42 sq m Park King room.

Subway: Samseong Tel: ++82-2-2016-1234 Website: www.seoul.park.hyatt.com

OAKWOOD SEOUL

If Gangnam grips you so hard that you want to stay longer, Oakwood Premier Service Apartments offers better rates than the hotels – one-night single occupancy is 240,000 won (plus 21 per cent tax) but equally luxurious facilities such as pool, gym, indoor golf and kids’ play area. And being part of COEX, it is in the centre of the action. Gangnam is a 10-minute subway commute; Cheongdam a 10-minute taxi ride (if the traffic is kind).

Subway: Samseong Tel: ++82-2-3466-7000 Website:www.oakwoodasia.com/seoul/oakwood-seoul.php


DRINK

CAFE BENE

Koreans are hopelessly caffeine-addicted. One local brand is Cafe Bene, part invested in by entertainment firm Sidus. The Cheongdam branch, across from Galleria, is a great spot to people watch. There are the usual Americanos and espressos, but for a local taste, sample the Misgaru Latte: a thick, malty grain concoction.

Subway: Cheongdam Tel: ++82-2-3444-6232 Website: www.cafebene.co.kr

ONCE IN A BLUE MOON

This jazz bar is a Cheongdam staple. A relaxing, upscale ambience; fine wines, cocktails and whiskies; international haute cuisine; a cool proprietor; and live jazz from 7.30pm every night – all in the heart of Cheongdam. What more could you ask for?

Subway: Cheongdam Tel: ++82-2-549-5490 Website:www.onceinabluemoon.co.kr


SHOP

FACE SHOP

Koreans are renowned for their pretty looks and while much is due to cosmetic surgery, it is buttressed by cosmetic products. Face Shop is a nation-wide discount brand with a friendly outlet in Garosu-gil, full of his ‘n’ her dream creams. The current trend? “Mango!” says shop assistant Koh Byung-hyun. “We eat it, we put it on our faces!” A range of mango creams sells between 8,450 won and 18,320 won.

Subway: Sinsa Tel: ++82-2-512-8940 Website: www.thefaceshop.com

8 SECONDS

For that K-pop star look at less than K-pop star prices, check out the threads in 8 Seconds. This chain store, which opened just eight months ago, is Korea’s answer to fast-fashion brands such as Japan’s Uniqlo, Hong Kong’s Giordano and Spain’s Zara. Its first store is in a mock Tudor building in Garosu-gil, with obligatory coffee shop attached. A winter coat here costs 75,000 won, for example.

Subway: Sinsa Tel: ++82-2-7090-1144 Website: www.8seconds.co.kr

GALLERIA DEPARTMENT STORE

No self-respecting Singaporean can holiday abroad without hitting at least one department store and Korea’s most exclusive is Galleria in Cheongdam. In December, a giant bubble, containing a fairy-tale wax couple in a snowscape, surrounded by Samsung displays, is set up outside. Inside, stalkers of Gucci, Prada, et al, will find rich hunting grounds. Just do not tell your bank manager: This is Gangnam style at Gangnam prices.

Subway: Cheongdam Tel: ++82-2-1588-0121 Website: www.galleria.co.kr


DINE

SAMWON GARDEN

Korea’s most famed cuisine is meat barbecued at the table – steak (deungshim), fire beef (bulgogi) and galbi (ribs). With accompanying side dishes of kimchi, stews, rice and fermented bean and pepper pastes, this is a feast fit for the carnivore gods set in a garden near Dosan Park (setting for many a K-soap opera). Koreans often bring visiting VIPs here and, yes, it is pricey. Be sure to try the makgeolli, a milky white rice brew. Budget more than 70,000 won a head.

Subway: Apgujeong Tel: ++82-548-3030 Website: www.samwongarden.com

PILGYEONGJAE

Set in a “hanok” or traditional Korean cottage near a royal burial ground, Pilgyeongjae serves hanjeongsik. Usually translated as “Korean table d’hote”, this is the cuisine of the Korean royalty and aristocracy of yore. Dish after dish comes at you: everything from stews to braised ribs to grilled fish, with dozens of side dishes. A banquet. Price range similar to Samwon Garden.

Subway: Suseo. It is opposite Seoul Samsung General Hospital Tel: ++82-02-445-2115

GOURMET EO

One of Korea’s most exclusive restaurants, this tiny, ultra-modern, ultra-trendy Italian place is only for dining cognoscenti and real Gangnamites. A dinner for two with wine will set you back at least 400,000 won. But it will be exquisite.

Where: 99-11 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, behind Gucci at Cheongdam junction Subway: Not applicable Tel: ++82-2-3445-1926

DAL

For decent curry after a hard day’s shopping, try Dal. With Korean waiting staff, Indian chefs and stained-glass windows portraying a maharaja’s elephant procession, Dal is bright and spacious. And by Gangnam prices, it is reasonable: The set lunch (two curries, naan, rice and lassi) will lighten your wallet by a mere 15,000 won.

Subway: Sinsa Tel: ++82-2-3445-3886 Website: www.dalindia.com


DANCE

CLUB OCTAGON

Nothing to do with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which is fought in a cage officially named The Octagon, this is one of Gangnam’s top clubs. Set in the New Hilltop Hotel and covering three floors, there is dining, a lounge, different bars, different DJs and different music, mainly house and trance. (Do not request anything passe like Gangnam Style here, please.) Offers a multinational vibe, especially at weekends when the hip party crowd jets in from Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai.

Subway: Hakdong Tel: 2516-8847 Website: www.cluboctagon.co.kr

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on December 16, 2012. For similar stories, go
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