When We Became Gangnam

Se-Woong Koo
Se-Woong Koo

There are a few things I cannot forget from my childhood: picking mugwort with my sexagenarian babysitter at a nearby park, to dry and put in bean-paste soup; delighting in a cheap candy ring that came in a range of bright shades so pretty I dared not eat it; a mass of cosmos behind our apartment complex in autumn, attracting multitudes of dragonflies we caught with flimsy nets from a corner stationery shop; a tennis court-turned-temporary skating link, covered by a thin layer of water frozen in Seoul’s bitter cold.

They would be mundane fragments of memory had it not been for the fact that they are of Gangnam, a place now better known for wealth, a cheeky song and plastic surgery than innocence or natural beauty. But there once was Gangnam before it became the Gangnam we know, its fields of nothing giving way to something full of somebodies in a mere span of three decades, exemplifying excesses of contemporary South Korea that we see this day. I wonder how it could have gone wrong so quickly.

Gangnam’s history has always seemed straightforward: It rose nearly a decade before my birth in 1980, cajoled into existence by a military dictatorship keen on creating a new power base away from the decrepitude north of the Han River. Concrete towers now ubiquitous in South Korea as the most coveted form of housing began filling the southern skyline to accommodate elites. Top schools, too, relocated southward, drawing education-hungry families determined to achieve social mobility. Gangnam became the center of all things desirable, proudly symbolizing South Korea’s transformation into an economic power.

But as it is with all things, the reality on the ground was a little more complicated.

My parents moved to Gangnam in the late 1970s as it was the fashion, escaping urban decay, insects and malodours of the old city for space and hygiene. I was born not long after, into a home that was part of an unremarkable, sparsely populated strip of concrete buildings not far from Tehran Road, a name whose exotic aura did not quite render the area less ordinary. There was no subway line; the nearest station came into being only two years later. There was nature. There were only so many people.

But something was already brewing behind the quiet facade well before my arrival: the beginning of a three decade-long real estate boom fueled by both genuine needs and speculative purchases, driving up the property price in the capital to the point that soon, those who never bought into the market would be shut out, or forced to pay a heavy due for the privilege of entry. Gangnam was at the heart of this buying frenzy, and those who moved there at the right time hit the jackpot, seeing price gains many times those elsewhere.

My family were among the winners. Our first Gangnam apartment, worth little in the beginning, went up several times in price, allowing us to take possession of a newer, shinier, bigger apartment near COEX. More than doubling in value in the aftermath of the 1988 summer Olympic Games in Seoul, that new apartment was then exchanged for an even larger one also in Gangnam four years later, an enviable four-bedroom, two-bath unit that marked the height of luxury and our family’s complete transformation into genuine Gangnamites.

The new fortune drove people more than a little mad. Not content to have made money, everyone we knew, largely fellow denizens of Gangnam, still wanted to play the game and bought more land and apartments both in Gangnam and elsewhere. Prices kept on rising, construction continued, and people around me, awash in cash, began developing unsavory proclivities. Unbeknownst to us, my father was spending a fortune on Scotch at five-star hotel bars. Our downstairs neighbor — jolbu, or an uncouth nouveau riche as my mother derided him — insisted on paving his living room in Italian marble until other residents put their collective foot down fearing structural problems from the weight. Even Buddhist monks, from the famous temple feeding on rich local devotees in Samsung-dong, showed up nightly at the upscale barbeque restaurant I could see from our parking lot, arriving in dark sedans and reemerging hours later reeking of galbi and inebriants.

Drunk on money and other things, Gangnam morphed into a cautionary tale, like an indigent who wins the lottery and is killed by excesses afforded by his sudden wealth. Churches sprouted attracting worshippers who prayed to get richer. Prostitution flourished. Even Gangnam’s vaunted school system rotted under the stewardship of teachers demanding bribes from willing mothers seeking preferential treatments for children. Dubbed chonji in the media, school bribery took on an outsized dimension in Gangnam, to the point that it became synonymous with the local education fervor. One complicit figure was my brother’s homeroom teacher, who penalized him with a poor grade in physical education for my mother’s refusal to pay up and, as we soon found out, also moonlighted as tutor to our marble-loving jolbu neighbor’s son, against the law that specifically forbade teachers from working in private education.

Growing up under such authority figures, Gangnam’s children, at least those were not consumed by studying, roamed the streets with plenty of money to throw around. Some became the mythical Orenji-jok — “Orange Tribe” — whom my classmates, either too young or not rich enough to join, spoke of in reverential tones during recess. Sent abroad for education by well-to-do Gangnam parents, the Orenji-jok returned during vacation or after graduation to play in the Motherland, giving off an enviable whiff of foreignness like expensive imported fruits. Even more outrageous were the Yata-jok who drove around in luxury cars and tried to pick up random women with the now-infamous phrase: “Ya, ta!” (“You there, get in!”) You can still find voyeuristic news articles from the era describing with no small amount of disapproval and jealousy these young members of Gangnam’s upper crust.

I left Gangnam around then for another country and have no anecdotes to share about the area’s continued d/evolution. My parents thankfully decamped to a slightly less absurd part of Seoul during my absence and I have made the old Gangbuk my current home. But my relatives still call Gangnam their haunt, thinking it the pinnacle of South Korean society they could never abandon. Through them and other contacts I gain a view of a place that has been reduced even further into a caricature than I thought possible: where a former student is starved by his mother on his birthday because he gets a bad score on a test, a cousin spends every weekend for three years on marriage interviews with prospective husbands, and uncles have no qualms about throwing a birthday party inside a bona fide brothel, also known as a “room salon.”

Meanwhile, our old apartment building, once named Gaenari, after forsythia flowers, has been razed and replaced with a new one christened Cartier.

Strange as it may sound, Gangnam, created out of nothing, has turned its creators into something else in return. Few Gangnam families are Gangnam natives: Like my mother who was born in Gangbuk and my father in Jeolla-do, the generation who first settled in Gangnam were outsiders with identities, values, and habits distinct from and perhaps more authentic than what their current Gangnam selves embody. But rather than taming the wilderness and molding it to their image, it is Gangnamites themselves who have been thoroughly domesticated and reshaped by their skewed ideal of Gangnam: the notion that money comes easy, buys all, and should beget more. They ruined once-beautiful Gangnam of my infancy, and Gangnam has ruined them in equally beautiful revenge.

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