South Korea: Get down in Gangnam

By Sharon Stephenson

This posh Seoul suburb is a hub of luxury and excess, discovers Sharon Stephenson

Gangnam Style has overtaken street corners in Seoul; and below, pop star Psy. Photo / AP
Gangnam Style has overtaken street corners in Seoul; and below, pop star Psy. Photo / AP

I'm wiggling my hips and pretending to ride a horse. I'm also singing "Hey, sexy lady" quite loudly. Do I feel silly? Yes, but when Psy tells you to do something, you don't argue.

I'm in Gangnam, the affluent suburb of Seoul made famous by that song, and we're being taught the slightly bonkers dance routine that catapulted musician Psy on to the global stage. I should add that the real Psy isn't here, but the chap leading us is such a dead ringer for the Gangnam Style singer, he may as well be the real thing.

We prance and preen and try to look like we know what we're doing; if nothing else, it gives the locals something to smile about. Surprisingly, it doesn't take long for my embarrassment quota to be filled and we quickly shuffle off the purpose-built stage that has been erected at one of Gangnam's main intersections.

It's hard to overplay the influence - or avoid - South Korea's unofficial cultural ambassador in Seoul, particularly in the posh suburb his global hit parodied.

Psy's sunglass-clad face is plastered on socks, watches and adverts for instant noodles.

Images of him cover the clean and supremely efficient subway like a rash.

And why not? Gangnam Style went viral shortly after its release last year and became YouTube's most watched video ever, with more than 1.3 billion views. It also holds the Guinness world record for the most "liked" song ever (nearly eight million, at last count). Everyone from United Nations head Ban Ki-moon to Eton schoolboys have parodied the catchy single. A friend tells me she saw a flash mob riding imaginary horses in New York's Central Park and elderly women across China have apparently incorporated it into their Tai Chi routines. Even the Korean Tourism Organisation has got in on the act, releasing a promotional video about the area.

We've come to see what all the fuss is about. Gangnam means "south of the river" and it is, appropriately, located to the south of the Han River, which slices this city of 25 million in two. Seoul's fourth most populated suburb is also its poshest. Our guide Jenny tells us there is probably more wealth, luxury and excess in this 24km area than in the whole country. A question about how much it would cost to live here elicits an eye roll. "It's too much to even think about," says Jenny. "You have to be in Psy's league to be able to afford an apartment here."

The streets certainly seem paved with credit cards, wielded by pretty young women who probably weigh less than the numerous designer bags they carry. Shops such as Chloe, Jimmy Choo and Louis Vuitton are heaving.

And I probably shouldn't be surprised by the number of plastic surgery clinics, one of the highest concentrations in the world. It is said one in five South Korean women have had plastic surgery, apparently the highest per capita in the world. "Korean women want to look more 'Western', with big eyes, high noses and slim jawlines. Most Koreans are not born with those features," says Jenny, who admits she'd love to get her eyes done. K-pop groups set the plastic surgery agenda and fuel fans' quests for physical perfection.

It's easy to see why Psy would satirise this world of "dressing classy and dancing cheesy" but the irony seems to be lost on the locals who prowl Gangnam's wide, cherry-tree lined boulevards.

We walk to nearby Apgujeong, still part of the Gangnam district, but where K-pop has the slight edge over rampant consumerism. Bars and cafes are filled with mostly young girls, who sip coffee and nod politely along to the kitschy boy and girl bands. K-pop is part of the hallyu movement, which includes films, soaps, video games and cartoons and is worth around $4 billion to the South Korean economy.

We chat to some of the punters who giggle and tell us Psy doesn't really represent Gangnam style. "He's just a chubby old guy doing a funny dance. But we love him because he put Seoul on the map ..."

Korean Air flies from Auckland to Seoul four times a week.

Sharon Stephenson travelled with the assistance of Korean Air and Visit Korea.

- Herald on Sunday

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