Sunday, April 14, 2013

Seoul Incarnate!

Seoul's Gangnam
Photo by Zeng Han
NYT Magazine

The New York Times Magazine has an interesting, if somewhat superficial, article on Seoul by Phoebe Eaton, cleverly titled "The Reincarnation of Seoul" (March 22, 2013):
"Pali! Pali!" everybody likes to say. Faster! Faster! South Korea has been sprinting down the road to recovery since the end of the Korean War. As fast as PSY's "Gangnam Style" anthem, mocking Seoul's Ferrari-and-furs nouveaux riches, galloped to the top of the Western music charts this year, the city has emerged as one of the most hip (and most underrated) cultural capitals in the world. Cruise-line-proportioned flagships, architecturally bombastic headquarters, museums celebrating traditional houses to handbags, haute and hot restaurants are all competing for the attention of its 10 million increasingly affluent residents.

Koreans have the reputation for being nose-to-the-grindstone, study-smarties. But looking around Seoul today, one can only conclude they're ready to enjoy themselves. It's no longer the city voted least favorite layover in the Far East. Let everyone rabbit on about how places like Shanghai are The Future: Seoul residents are smarter dressers; its restaurants feel more fussed over, more daring; and after an early force-feed of education, everyone's creative, individualist side is emerging.

South Korea never just apes the West but puts its own topspin on music, fashion, food, technology. Apple may have won its patent-infringement lawsuit against Samsung, but Samsung's Galaxy S III is neck and neck with the iPhone 5 in stores, early to the notion that people wanted smartphones with bigger screens. Samsung has overtaken Sony as the world's biggest maker of TVs. "Apple takes forever to develop a jewel of a phone, but Samsung, they just throw it out there. Bam-bam-bam!," says the architect Euhlo Suh. "People don't like this feature? Let's make another one. Bam-bam-bam!"

That's just the hardware. Content has arrived, too. The cultural wave rolling from these shores already has a name -- hallyu -- literally, the Korean Wave, coined by awestruck Chinese who were the first to acknowledge Korea's revised profile in Asia. Its "K-pop" music and television shows have been embraced with such a Pacific Basin bear hug that money from these sectors alone buoys South Korea's economy by $4.5 billion a year. This year, Korean directors transitioned from Hallyuwood to Hollywood, and will open their first English-language films, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nicole Kidman.
Seoul is reincarnating itself as a world-class city with daring architecture and an eye for art and fashion. Quite an exciting place to be right now, even for an old man like me! The article doesn't exactly do the city justice, but it's a fun read, especially for a resident foreigner who can chuckle over exaggerations like "the all-powerful mayor" and "the economy-minded socialist government" -- meaning the city government, of course, which has a mayor with leftist views, but Seoul doesn't have a socialist government, nor is the mayor omnipotent, so Ms. Eaton is perhaps joking? Pyongyang, Seoul ain't.

I'd comment more on the article, but I'm too busy, and you can click on over there and read for yourself, or go directly to the interactive slide show, or even plan your itinerary of where to eat, drink, and stay on a visit to Seoul.

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