In Seoul, seeking tourists fascinated by 'Gangnam'

Updated: 2013-01-14 13:36

(China Daily/The New York Times)

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In Seoul, seeking tourists fascinated by 'Gangnam'

Visitors imitate the South Korean rapper Psy on a stage in the Gangnam district of Seoul. Pedestrians in the affluent district, below. Photographs by Jean Chung for The New York Times

SEOUL, South Korea - As monuments go, this one seems puny and tasteless next to the skyscrapers and upscale fashion boutiques of the affluent Gangnam district. Yet it occupies a spot of honor across from Samsung's corporate headquarters: a hastily built plywood stage decorated with cutout silhouettes of a rotund man who appears to be prancing like a horse.

This is the first public display to honor Psy, the South Korean rapper whose viral dance video, "Gangnam Style," put Gangnam on the lips of YouTube watchers around the world. The local government plans to open a visitor center in February that could eventually include a life-size hologram of the singer, whose real name is Park Jae-sang, performing his buffoonish dance.

Already famous within Korea as the playground of this nation's nouveau riche, the district now wants to seize the "Gangnam Style" craze as a chance to win the global recognition that it believes it deserves as a center of fashion, entertainment and conspicuous consumption.

In Seoul, seeking tourists fascinated by 'Gangnam'

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"Psy appeared right when we were ready to take Gangnam global," said Shin Yeon-hee, the mayor. "We already believe we are on par with Manhattan or Beverly Hills in every way."

The question is how to capitalize on Mr. Park's video, the first on YouTube to register more than a billion hits. While Korea's heavily produced boy and girl bands and syrupy television dramas have done well in the rest of Asia, the "Korean Wave" has so far failed to make inroads in the West - until "Gangnam Style."

But many here seemed surprised by the explosive popularity of the video, perhaps because few expected the breakthrough to come from Mr. Park, a midlevel star who is as much a comedian as a singer. The district government has been left scrambling to catch up. Within a year or so, officials hope to finish Hallyu Drive, which will feature stars' handprints in its sidewalks.

The district aims to double the number of tourists from about 800,000 in 2012, most of them from China and Japan, by increasing the tiny number of visitors from the West.

Despite the song's name, Gangnam itself barely appears in the video, except as a distant, high-rise-studded skyline. Some of the video's flaunting of wealth is actually apparent in the Gangnam district, which sits across the broad Han River from central Seoul, the South Korean capital. (Gangnam means "south of the river.")

In Seoul, seeking tourists fascinated by 'Gangnam'

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Corporations seem to compete for the most futuristic skyscraper, while residents drive flashy cars, party at wine bars and get their chins tucked at one of the hundreds of plastic surgery clinics.

Gangnam also seems intent on recreating the sort of upper-middle-class American lifestyle seen in Hollywood movies or experienced by returning immigrants or students. The area boasts broad, Los Angeles-style boulevards (with Los Angeles-style traffic jams); trendy restaurants offering all-day brunch and burritos (both are rare in most of Asia); and Seattle-style coffee shops, which are found not only on every block, but in every building.

"It can be too flashy, but we all envy Gangnam because it is the most developed and richest place," said Yu Jae-yung, 16, a high school student from Chuncheon, two hours from Seoul, who visited the Psy stage.

But the handful of Western visitors here on a recent weekend said they came to learn about the artist's Korean origins.

"That song got Americans interested in who Psy is and where he's from," said Jermaine Hollis, a 38-year-old military member from Louisiana. "The song shows Psy's pride in his home. I can respect that"