Words by Kyuhee Baik / Photos by Pep Kim
SEOUL – the city I love, and the city I love to hate.
We are the city that never sleeps, for good reasons and bad. Historically coined the “Hermit Kingdom” and more recently marketed as the “Land of the Morning Calm,” Korea went through a heavy hundred plus years of Japanese and (less explicitly) American imperialization—basically a century of sociocultural rape and brainwashing.
Following an insane regime for rapid industrialisation and economic growth, the country at present has caught global attention in various industries such as entertainment, fashion and food. Today, Seoul is often described as “The New Tokyo.” To those who don’t know any better, fuck you. The economical backing Japan had post-Cold War allowed the country to explore, experiment, and invest in creative curiosities, while nearby Korea had to build its country from the bottom. But now we are here.
Here’s an array of popular truths and misconceptions on the world’s second largest metropolitan area. From the booze to the babes to skateboarding – Seoul is 24/7 fun and fast. Try to keep up.
Let’s get this out of the way—we’re not North Korea. Get over it.
FOOD and FUCKING
All day all night, Seoul provides the most satiable services for both food and sex. Korean food is damn good. From samgaetang (whole chicken stuffed with garlic, ginseng, and rice soup) to budaejjigae (guilty pleasure essemblage of canned meats, beans, instant noodles and kimchi broth stew), Korean cuisine can be pungent but light, naturally medicinal, and traditionally very thoughtful. Your basic Korean meal breaks down to the carbs (rice), the protein (meat/fish/poultry/pork), the veggies (small sides dishes of raw and/or pickled banchan), and a soup (often beef or anchovy broth-based with vegetables). The way to properly enjoy a Korean meal is to customize each mouthful with elements from this bountiful spread. Grab your spoon with some rice and add colorful pieces of pickled veggies with a pinch of the main protein. Chew and wash it down with a spoonful of soup. Yum.
As good as the food gets, Seoul offers a tasty carte du jour for lark and love. Young Koreans tend to live with their families until marriage (sigh). So, there are various tricks horny youth take advantage of to let a load off. From love motels to even cheaper DVD rooms (private room high school students rent to ‘watch movies’), our youth love to love at a moderate hourly rate. The older and more sophisticated lovers will invest into a more luxurious carnal experience in upscale lodgings specific to the Financial District. In the case of adultery, you can go to one of these cash-only haute-hotels complete with complimentary coffee, hot tub, plush robes, condoms and hair dryer with absolutely no human interaction besides the mistress, of course.
Red lights and kinda big, taut and tight sights—Seoul’s underground, under-the-sheets services are pretty good (from what I hear). We don’t have strip clubs but we do have prostitutes. Young and pretty, old and rough around the edges, Russians, transgenders… It’s a given that every Korean male has gone to a prostitute at least once—some sort of a ritual embedded in the tradition of Korean misogyny. It’s normal for ‘business meetings’ at room salons to turn from sing-a-long karaoke to multi-person fuck fests. For the married and sexually deprived, one can ‘book a girlfriend’ during their lunch break and go to her studio apartment, receive a warm meal with a nurturing blowjob. Women, too, we get our fix through chauvinistic courtship and ‘ho bars’ (private karaoke rooms with full-service male entertainment).
Welcome to the dark side. A multi-billion dollar industry based on the formulaic manufacturing of culturally ambiguous puppets seems to be what defines modern Korean culture today. From PSY’s gallivanting horse dance to Girl’s Generation’s 8-member candy-coated stripped teasing, K-Pop holds the hearts of adolescents across the world in one of the most strategic forms of slave contracts. As young as 9 years old, children audition to become strictly supervised trainees for the chance of stardom under 15-year contracts. Should a lucky child get this contract, he or she could receive investment of up to $400,000 for voice, dance, and attitude training—essentially forever indebted to the music label and agency such as SM Entertainment. K-Pops plastically packaged persona with catchy beats and strangely suggestive lyrics is pretty goddamn savvy, poignantly satiating the sexually repressed undertones common across Asian and South East Asian cultures.
Ultimately though, K-Pop embraces trends. And where do trends come from? Like anywhere else, trends are born from subculture. There is a thriving underground music scene in Seoul. We got good shit here, just not enough of the questionable resources that YG, SM, and JYP – the Kings of K-Pop – have immorally besieged. Take for instance DJ Soulscape and the 360 Sounds crew. 10 years in and going strong, this collective of DJs, producers, artists, designers and so forth stretch across three generations of Korean underground hip hop. With a vision to counter the Korean education and workforce system that enforces ‘what is right and wrong’ as opposed to ‘what could be,’ these dudes incubate creativity across all facets with the young and old. The 360 extended family includes talented artists and musicians in various genres including Second Session (jazz trio), Jinbo (singer/songwriter/producer), YNHP (visual artist), Okeh (illustrator), and so forth. Groundbreaking venues like Cakeshop and Pistil have fixed Seoul on the map in terms of the Asia club circuit. International artists used to just skip over us straight onto Tokyo into Shanghai. But now, Seoul is a must. Why? Because we party hard and we party so fucking good.
CAN’T STOP, WON’T STOP
Drinking culture here is disgustingly entertaining and pretty much all we do because even a gram of bud runs for $150. Clubs run until the break-a, break-a-dawn. Private rooms for sing-along debauchery, noraebangs (or karaoke bars) are scattered throughout the city and a popular go-to for post-party sessions. You’ve got your basic mega-clubs sprinkled all over Asia. Plus 2,000 people, all the girls super cut-up and the boys awkwardly dandy, jumping up and down to EDM and drinking vodka cranberries with a fruit platter. That’s your average weekend Gangnam entertainment for you.
Beyond the weekend though, Seoul drinks 24/7. Over-worked corporate slaves enjoy the ultimate binge of BBQ and soju every night. Company dinners are often and mandatory. Due to the rigid formalities in the Korean language, the workplace is socially and politically daunted. Company dinners are necessary for co-workers to let loose, say exactly how they feel and then forget about it the next day and shit’s awkward as fuck again.
Drinking rules? There are a lot. Too many to explain in fact, so just ask a Korean friend. An interesting point, though—it’s really ok to get completely fucked up. It’s common and accepted to pass out on the street, shoes off, arms folded, head nodding. In the winter time, you should be careful not to slip on frozen vomit. You can catch a 70-year-old dude at Seoul Station sipping on that soju about to start his day right. Koreans drink to temporarily negotiate the cultural formalities so heavily embedded in their day to day lives. It’s complete escapism from Korea’s ultra sexist and ageist Confucian foundation.
Women and men, Korea has by the far the best-looking boys and girls in ALL of Asia. But that’s because our culture is superficially based. Appearance is everything. There’s a common belief that good appearance brings good luck in work, family and your future in general. Even if you live in a tiny dirty ass apartment, you drive a Beamer, wear A Wang and drink $15 lattes. There are mirrors everywhere and with no hesitation Koreans check themselves out. I’m pretty confident we started the selfie phenomenon way back in 2005.
And of course, the plastic surgery. We are the hub of nip and tuck. You can fulfil all your plastic fantasies here with premium quality at a manageable price point. Stroll down Plastic Surgery Avenue in Apgujeong and you’ll see girls heavily bandaged walking post-op and pumped with local anaesthesia… waiting for the bus. Why do you drop a few grand on your face and then proceed to take the bus?
MECCA OF FASHION?
As aforementioned, appearance is everything; accordingly, Seoul has a strong concern for fashion. But it’s not necessarily always good. A lot of eyes have recently turned to Seoul Fashion Week. Held biannually at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza built by Zaha Hadid, SFW brings swarms of young fashionistas and self-promoting fashion bloggers. Amongst the tragic mess of fashion fans trying to take a photo of a blogger/model or be photographed like a blogger/model, SFW is also in-and-of-itself a mess in terms of programming. It’s unorganized and chaotic. The typos—god, the typos—on branded materials and invitations are embarrassing.
I don’t know why/when/how people began calling Seoul a “fashion mecca,” but this phrase should be used with strong caution. Korea’s inchoate runway fashion tryingly echoes past collections of prominent US and European fashion houses. Check out Suzy Menkes poignant critiques on this past SFW SS16.
Likewise to K-Pop’s ‘borrowing’ of underground subculture, high fashion (?) here too takes nods from Seoul’s streets. Korean youth are experimental and they love to spend money on fashion. Different from previous generations who would rather spend money on conformed looks and safe pieces, today’s generation is willing to stand out and go against the median. With this, we’ve witnessed an influx of independent brands mostly riding on the global streetwear trend. There are a few notable independent labels and designers in contemporary menswear right now. Amongst them: THISISNEVERTHAT (DIY attitude that cohesively ties each collection with heavy beat productions and urban motifs), LIFUL (timely design and clean, minimal execution) and IISE (elements of traditional Korean craftsmanship applied to smart lines with superior quality materials).
Skate Scene in Seoul
After the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and World Championship in 2002, the city had built tons of modernised buildings and parks based on an urban city plan. Just like Barcelona had so many spots after they hosted the Olympics in 1992, the same happened to Seoul. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the must-go skate city was always Tokyo, and then around the mid-2000s, cities in China became the new go-to. But don’t you want to see totally new and interesting spots in another Asian country? What about the thriving skate scene in Seoul?
What’s so interesting about Seoul is that it’s a city split in two—there’s the uber-developed area, and then there’s the super raw neighbourhood with its New York style spots. If you’d like to take a quick peek at what those spots look like, please do yourself a favour watch two recent two videos: Full Service and Journey with Jason Choi. Pretty sure you have never seen anything like that crazy halfpipe made out of granite in the Full Service vid, and chances are you’re on Expedia booking the cheapest flight right now. See you soon.