New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 1, 2013
SEOUL » As monuments go, this one seems puny and tasteless next to the designer glass skyscrapers and upscale fashion boutiques of the affluent Gangnam district. Yet, it occupies a spot of honor right across from Samsung's corporate headquarters: a hastily built plywood stage decorated with black, 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.
But Park's success has also helped feed much grander ambitions. Already famous within Korea as the opulent stamping grounds 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, self-professedly, conspicuous consumption.
"PSY appeared right when we were ready to take Gangnam global," said Shin Yeon-hee, the district's mayor. "We already believe we are on par with Manhattan or Beverly Hills in every way."
The question is how to capitalize on Park's video, which in the five months since it appeared has already become the first ever 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 Park, a midlevel star who is as much a comedian as a singer. The district government has been left scrambling to catch up. Its 13-member tourist promotion office, created in November, built the wooden stage at Gangnam station, the closest thing the area has to a center. Next will come the visitor center, with the holograms of Korean pop stars including, they hope, Park. (They have yet to sign a deal with the rapper.) 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.
"Thanks to PSY, even people who don't know South Korea now know Gangnam," said Kim Kwang-soo, who heads the new tourism office.
The officials admit this will be an uphill battle. Despite the song's name, Gangnam itself barely appears in the video, except as a distant, high-rise-studded skyline.
"We need to create a stronger connection between the song and the district," Kim said.
What Park does do in his video is parody the area's reputation for pretentious displays of wealth. In one scene, a man in a yellow suit and oversized sunglasses saunters over to a red sports car; in another, the rapper himself prances in a tuxedo between glamorous women.
Some of that flaunting of wealth is apparent in the actual Gangnam district, which sits across the broad Han River from central Seoul, the South Korean capital. (Gangnam means "south of the river.") 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 appears 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 offer all-day brunch and burritos. (Both are rare in most of Asia.) Seattle-style coffee shops are found not only on every block but in every building.
To hear many Koreans tell it, Gangnam's pretensions are just an extreme form of the desires shared by most of this nation of scrappy overachievers. The district's high-rises emerged from the rice paddies as the South Korean economy took off in the 1960s and '70s, turning Gangnam into a symbol of the aspirations, and the excesses, of an Asian miracle that also created growing social inequalities.
"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, a city two hours from Seoul, who visited the PSY stage with friends on a recent frigid morning.
Park, who is a Gangnam native, did not respond to requests for an interview. But other residents said "Gangnam Style" had accurately captured the split personality of an area that embraces a U.S.-style free-spirited individualism while also trying to keep a Korean identity.
Park's song lampooned this predicament with lyrics about his preference for women who act the traditional role of demure female in the daytime but know how to have fun at night. Residents said that while the reality is not nearly so decadent, they said they were still trying to figure out how to balance Western freedoms and traditional values.
"Gangnam residents follow what they think is American on the outside," said Jenny Tae, a 32-year-old boutique clerk who strolled down a tree-lined shopping street in tight brown corduroy pants, gold-painted nails and pink ear muffs. "But a modern, open lifestyle does not mean getting rid of everything."
That distinctly Korean flavor is one thing that the district government hopes to promote. When asked if Gangnam aspired to be like Beverly Hills, Shin, the mayor, proudly proclaimed that it no longer needed to imitate the West.
"Gangnam is a uniquely Korean brand," she said.
Indeed, the handful of Western visitors who visited the PSY stage on a recent weekend in Gangnam said that they came not to see the U.S.-style shops but 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 serviceman from Louisiana, who toured Gangnam by bus with his family. "The song shows PSY's pride in his home. I can respect that."