Friday, August 24, 2012

KOREAN MOVIES: PSY’s “Gangnam Style” and "Gangnam Oppa" in “Architecture 101” (3)

 Gangnam Kids: The Rise of Nouveaux Riches

I was born and raised in Gangbuk district but wasn’t even aware of that; I was just a kid living in Seoul.  While growing up, I usually watched Korean TV dramas with my mom, who was (and still is) a great fan of Kim Suhyun, an author and 50+ year veteran writer for TV dramas. Kim’s dramas were (and still are) either family-oriented comedies or complicated love stories involving infidelities, which of course were so far from appropriate for my age at that time that I actually didn’t understand most of the scenes. One thing I noticed as I'd gotten a little older though was most of her dramas featured a snobby rich mother who didn't approve of her son's girl friend from a poor or lower-middle class family. Whenever she answered the phone, she used the phrase, “This is Gahoe-dong (가회동) or Pyungchang-dong (평창동) or Sungbuk-dong (성북동)…,” which are rich villages, located in the heart of old Seoul, i.e., Jongno-gu and Sungbuk-gu, in so-called Gangbuk, until the late 80’s and early 90’s; and even at that time, it came across my little mind that those neighborhoods were very wealthy areas.

Gahoe-dong "Bukchon Maeul" in Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
(Photo: Donga Ilbo)

When I was in high school, I had a chance to participate in extracurricular activities involving female students from various schools. There, I made friends with three girls and one Saturday afternoon, four of us met in Myeongdong, Jung-gu, Gangbuk, which is the center of present-day Seoul. When having a late lunch together in Shinsegae department store, one of the girls told me, “You are quite well-dressed for a Gangbuk-ae (강북애, “kid living in Gangbuk”). She went to Eunkwang Girls' High School located in Gangnam.  I really didn’t get it first, so I asked her what she meant and she said with a shrug, “Well, you know the way Gangbuk kids dress.” 

Not until that moment did I realize they called us Gangbuk-ae-deul (강북애들, “kids living in Gangbuk”) when we didn’t call them Gangnam-ae-deul (강남애들, “kids living in Gangnam”). I’d thought I was one of those Seoul kids until then.  And I still didn’t get it. Gangnam, as I remembered the place, was just a sticky, muddy field I once visited with my parents when I was very little. As described in Yoon Soo-il’s 1982 mega hit Apateu (아파트, “An Apartment”), I still vaguely remember seeing a ghastly apartment complex standing alone in the middle of reed and pear fields. And as I look back on those days now, I'm quite sure it was her parents who put such words into her mouth. For one, teenagers from my generation (compared to now) were much less sophisticated to say such things; and for two, the level of polarization between Gangnam and the rest of Seoul was not as extreme as today. Seriously, I really couldn’t figure any difference between me and her in terms of everything at that time but they were already starting to act like douchebags.

Rodeo Drive, Apgujeong-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
(Photo: Korea Tourism Organization)

Among those who multiplied their fortune over the short term through real estate in the 70’s and 80’s were native Gangnam residents and people outside the area who were adept at a variety of money-making activities. In the early 90’s, I left Korea to study in the United States and learned about massive regional shifts in economic activity and population, mainly from Gangbuk to Gangnam, from the Korean TV news, dramas, and shows I watched on the VHS tapes I rented from Korean video rental stores. And accordingly, Kim Suhyun’s stereotypical snobby rich mothers gradually dropped their use of such phrases I described above but started living in Gangnam district, i.e., in such villages as Apgujeong-dong, Cheongdam-dong, Yangjae-dong, or Dogok-dong.  (Click to learn more about Gangbuk and Gangnam of Seoul city.)  Lee Kunhee (Chairman of Samsung Electronics) and Bang Sanghoon (Korean media mogul) respectively own and live in the most expensive and the fourth most expensive mansion in Korea located in Gangbuk and not a few jaebols or chaebols (a term to refer to business conglomerates) still live in Gangbuk.  But the majority of them are gradually moving into Gangnam (mostly into Dogok-dong or Cheongdam-dong) even at this moment.

And such new words as Orenji-jok (오렌지족, “the orange tribe”) or Yata-jok (야타족, “the hey-get-on tribe”) were coined to describe the “consumer” Gangnam society, represented by the Galleria department store and Rodeo Drive located in Apgujeong-dong. Back then in Korea, luxury import cars were still rarae aves but it was just a piece of cake for the Gangnam kids to own them. Some of them were just blowing their parents’ money, bumming around with no job and some of them were Yuhaksaeng (유학생, “students studying overseas, esp., in the US”) visiting Korea during summer or winter break.  They were called Orenji-jok (“the orange tribe”).  Just like luxury import cars, oranges were a rare item in Korea in the 90’s and I still vividly remember my mom, while visiting me in the US, asking me why I didn’t eat oranges when the fruit was so cheap everywhere – I don’t like oranges ‘cause they are too hard to peel.

According to the Donga Ilbo article, there are two prevailing views as to the origins of this term: (i) When the Gangnam kids made advances to attractive girls they encountered, they beckoned to them with their hands holding oranges they always had in their cars; or (ii) a Gangnam kid went to a local grocery store for oranges but the lady owner handed him Gyul (, “mandarin orange”) instead so he reprimanded her for her ignorance.  They were also called Yata-jok (“the hey-get-in tribe”) as they were known to come onto girls they found attractive while driving, by yelling Ya! Ta! (“Hey! Get in (my car)!”)

The 2012 Korean movie “Architecture 101” basically revolves around two college freshmen, Seungmin and Seoyeon (Lee Jehoon and Bae Suzy) who first met each other taking Architecture 101 in the spring of 1995. (In South Korea, the new academic year starts in March.)  And it was less than 2 years before the 1997 Asian financial crisis, aka “IMF crisis” in Korea which derived from the fact the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had approved a 21 billion US dollar loan for Korea.  At the beginning of the movie, Seungmin finds out Seoyeon lives in his neighborhood, Jeongneung, located in Gangbuk.  And there is our Gangnam oppa, Jaewook, who couldn’t care less about the world outside Gangnam.  Just like the Korean peninsula is divided along the demarcation line, the city of Seoul is seemingly divided along the Han River.

(Click to read the final part of this series)

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  1. How awful to be introduced to such a class system in such a way by your own 'friends'. I think in my country we have similar attitudes though not as pronounced and with not so much 'label names'.

    I've watched the movie Architecture 101 but never noticed about this 'class' system. Indeed I have a friend who married a Korean and has been living in Seoul. She said that actually things are not that much different than in the dramas we see. (referring to perhaps the hardship of being a daughter - in - law)

  2. W-imo, I didn't feel awful 'cause I simply didn't get it at that time. BTW, it is an autobiographical film from the writer and director Lee Yongju and I'll walk you through this movie in the final part of this four-part series on Gangbuk vs. Gangnam.

  3. I'm soaking this all up. It's incredibly interesting to me and I'm constantly impressed by your thoroughness and by your delivery of the material! My wife watches many k-dramas and I have not yet really been bitten by the bug; however, the hardships of being a daughter-in-law are probably universal (my wife and my mother's relationship being an exception, of course... ). Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  4. Allan, maybe it's the sons-in-law instead in the US? haha. I just added a few more details in this post and will start working on the final part of the series sometime today. :)

  5. I think I found a right place for my answer to why there are many "arrogant" korean kids nowadays. I live in Vancouver, Canada, and I love K-pop and K-drama so much that I tend to have my attention on Korean people. But unfortunately, most of the Korean kids who are studying here seem to be a little show off (I don't mean to post negative view on them but they do have that "snobbyish" style and making another person feel smaller than he/she is). Now, I understand that I am judging those who are Gangnam kids but not the rest of Koreans or even Seoul people. My apology for that. And now I feel much better about Koreans, what I mean is "real" Koreans are the same kind and caring people who I see in Dramas but not Gangnam kids. Honestly, I think those rich kids exist everywhere in the world not just Korea. And they always misrepresent their countries because they tend to be accessible for oversea trips where they will encounter many people outside of Korea. On side note, I am curious on how do you feel about many people (internationally) giving so much attention about your country? With that, I would like to end my long comment. Sorry for writing so long..

  6. Khine, not at all! I really thank you for sharing your thoughts! And I second this comment of yours -> "Honestly, I think those rich kids exist everywhere in the world not just Korea. And they always misrepresent their countries because they tend to be accessible for oversea trips where they will encounter many people outside of Korea."

    And about getting so much attention internationally, I think it's better than being talked about because we're bad people. I mean, they are talking about this Korean hip song, which also led you to a new realization about the majority of ordinary "good" Koreans. :)

  7. this is so interesting. I have one grandmother who lived in sungsoodong and never thought about the neighborhoods very distinctly while visiting because i also just figured it was seoul...but of course there are neighborhoods and attitudes just like anywhere.

  8. Thornicrofts, thank you for the comment and hope you will have a chance to read the final part of the series I'm currently working on. :)

  9. Your mention of oranges as being fancy and for rich kids reminded me of always getting an orange in my stocking at Christmas! (Also, I prefer tangerines myself, because they're much easier to peel.)

    It's a Christmas tradition in the US to give oranges in Christmas stockings, partially because oranges used to be quite expensive if one lived far away from California.

    Or, there's this story:
    Nicholas (like Saint Nicholas, or Santa), was born in a village on the shore of what is now part of Turkey. He inherited a fortune, but spent his life helping the poor and the persecuted, and eventually became a bishop in the new Christian church.

    Bishop Nicholas learned of a poor man with three daughters who had no dowries and hence could not marry. The next night Nicholas returned and tossed three bags of gold for the daughters' dowries through the chimney which happened to land in the stockings of the three maidens which they had hung to dry in front of the fireplace. The bags of gold turned into balls of gold which are now symbolized by oranges. Bishop Nicholas is often portrayed in pictures wearing the red ceremonial robes and miter (or headdress) and holding the staff of a bishop as well as holding three gold balls, gold coins, or pieces of fruit.

    Love your blog!! :D

  10. mimu, I really really thank you for sharing a great story behind this Christmas tradition. Maybe Korean orange tribes take their roots in those age-old gold balls or oranges in the Christmas stockings! (haha) Thanks again!!!!!


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