Even, with my limited knowledge of modern music, I have heard and seen Gangnam Style, the Korean pop video that is still, I believe, the most watched-ever clip on YouTube. But I never thought I’d be right in the middle of it.
The Korean pop sensation Psy, who shot to global fame on the strength of the video, obviously had one eye on marketing when he chose the name for the song. Gangnam, it turns out, is the coolest and most dynamic area of Seoul, which itself is rapidly getting a reputation as one of Asia’s most fun-loving cities.
My generous guides in Seoul were still raving about the effect the song has had on life in the city. “Previously all Korean pop music was quite dull and conventional. Psy was never like that, he was always a bit of a rebel. Now the whole place is like him.”
The Gangnam district is one of the smarter parts of town, on the upwardly-mobile southern banks of the river Incheon. I suppose it’s a bit like Chelsea was in the “swinging” 1960s, before it got too rich for its boots.
Wide thoroughfares – although still not wide enough for the city’s rush-hour congestion – give way to smaller side streets where, it appears, the whole of human life is represented.
Bars, clubs, restaurants and 24/7 stores co-exist side by side, and it’s easy to while away an hour or two in these pleasant surroundings, watching the flow of Korean life go by, Gangnam-style.
If you want a sharp contrast in lifestyle attitudes, head for the headquarters of Samsung Engineering, just a short car ride out of Gangnam. There, corporate life seems to be run with a rigid efficiency at odds with the freewheeling street life elsewhere.
The buildings themselves are spick-and-span glass and steel, as you might expect from one of the world’s biggest engineering companies.
The workforce seems to appreciate the discipline, however, and the material benefit it brings. It’s rare for Korean workers to be fired or made redundant, and retirement age on full benefits is set at a fairly relaxed 55 years – apart from high-flying executives, who can stay on much longer, as long as they perform.
The staff canteen was a model of efficiency, with different serving stations for Korean, Asian and western food. The meals are pictured next to Korean and English descriptions, helping you avoid the sometimes unwelcome surprise of being handed a dish you weren’t really expecting.
Thoughtful, that. As was one surprising dish on the menu entitled “hangover stew”. It appears it has something to do with the way the beef is treated, rather than any reference to the after-effects of a night out in Gangnam.
What to say about Korean food? I had lots of jokey warnings before I left Dubai, but I can honestly say every dish I tried was delicious – fresh and wholesome ingredients cooked to perfection.
One of the specialities is Korean barbecue, a little like Japanese tepanyaki in that the food is cooked in front of you over hot coals buried into the table. It was a pleasure watching consummate artists of cuisine showing off their skills with fork and (a new one for me this at a dinner table) big scissors for cutting meat.
The dishes eventually served up after the artistry were wonderful: a whole range of spices some of which I’d never encountered before, and some very creative vegetable dishes.
Creative too were the restaurant names. “Mad About Garlic” was exactly that, garlic served with everything, including dessert. And what about one name guaranteed to appeal to the western palate: “Ho Lee Chow”?