Well, hell…I just realized this post has been sitting in draft, unpublished, for five years. I guess we’ll put it up.
One of my very first nights in Seoul, way back in the early days after stepping off my first Chicago – Incheon flight, was spent in the alleys of Apgujeong’s Rodeo Street, cluelessly tagging along after a friend I’d met just days before who was, in turn, cluelessly tagging along after a Korean girl he’d met just days before. The small alleys were illegible, the turns and angles and sudden ends disorienting, the businesses lining them even more so, their neon signs blossoming glyph-like characters that gave no clue as to whether what was behind their door was a bar, a club, a shop, a party, a mistake. I lived in a small village in the countryside and so was committed to staying out all night, until the sun came up and the first buses started again. Until then there were several dark hours where whatever happened was at the whim of someone I’d never met, at the turns of the streets, and at the why-the-hell-not decisions that were the only ones my greenness and confusion afforded me.
It was, without doubt, a good night. But even after living in Seoul for more than half a decade this is a place that can still baffle, albeit it in an entirely different way.
More so than any other neighborhood I’ve been to, Apgujeong drips with money, and money, especially to those without a lot of it, is its own source of confusion. So in Apgujeong one wonders. Who are the people that shop here? How did they get so much money? Should I act differently here? Like I have money? Like I don’t care that I don’t? Like I’m just passing through on my way to a more modest neighborhood? Is it OK to go into this store? Will the staff know I’m not going to buy anything? Will they be annoyed? Will they sympathize? Will they care at all?
Apgujeong’s affluence is anchored in the twinned Galleria Department Store (갤러리아 백화점), split by Seolleung-ro (선릉로) into two structures that parallel the divide between Old Money and the nouveau riche. Galleria East (갤러리아 East), accessible via Exit 1, is the original half, its design typical luxury department store, elegant but hardly understated, lit up in Christmas lights for the holiday season and hosting a gaudy installation of enormous silver candy canes on the corner outside. Inside, clothes and jewelry tend to follow a classic, European-influenced line.
Across the street is Galleria West (갤러리아 West), the flashier younger sibling whose signature façade, slate green fish scale in the daytime, is lit up in shimmering multicolored lights at night. Outside of Exit 7, the first floor of the building featured displays for Prada and Gucci, whose handbags and cosmetics shared space with other similarly exclusive brands inside. I made my way upstairs, sticking close to the escalators so that I didn’t have to think about those questions too much. The second through fourth floors were sectioned into individual boutiques, though you had to look closely to notice, as the open floor plan and uniform minimalist black clothing racks gave the appearance of a single unified space. Above the clothes, the fifth floor, the ‘Creative Lifestyle’ floor, was filled with clocks, toys, furniture, incense, and other expensive knickknacks.
When I first found out that Galleria West had a food court this was yet another bit of confusion. A food court? That seemed so…shopping mall. Wasn’t Galleria, you know, above that? Then again, Gourmet 494 isn’t your average food court. Here as well everything is done in a unified décor: simple, clean black and white signs with ash wood trim, grocery store ajummas in prim black and white uniforms and matching pillbox hats. Jazzy Christmas music, the sort you might hear in the soundtrack to a movie about the holidays of upper-crust Manhattanites, played from the speakers. No Mariah Carey here. As for the Lotteria and Dunkin Donuts outlets in the food court…Ha Ha Ha! What? You thought there would be Lotteria and Dunkin Donuts outlets here? Please. Looks like somebody needs to get out of Yeongdeungpo a bit more. And, oh, were you doing yard work? No? Those are just your regular clothes? Oh. Um, anyway.
In actuality, 494 is pretty amazing and not overly exclusive. What it does is pull together mini versions of some of the best eateries (particularly Western eateries) in the city. There’s Vatos for Korean-Mexican fusion; Brooklyn the Burger, whose original Sorae Maeul location makes the best burgers I’ve had in Korea; Café Mamas for reliably good sandwiches; Fell + Cole’s gastronomic ice cream; authentic Neapolitan style pizza at Pizzeria d’Buzza; a branch of Itaewon’s wonderful Tartine bakery; and Mizuho by Sushi Matsumoto, an offshoot of one of the most renowned sushi joints in the city. And the grocery store? Suffice to say it has ten (10!) different kinds of maple syrup.
Apgujeong-ro (압구정로), the avenue running in front of the Gallerias, was lined with half-denuded trees and traversed by a higher than average rate of BMWs, Mercedes, and Audis. To the northwest, the area between Galleria West and the Han River was taken up by apartment blocks, surprisingly modest for their location. They were decent but not any different from complexes you see in many other parts of town, and many of the structures were actually starting to look a bit shabby, in need of a paint job at the very least. Not many other complexes have Maseratis and Porsches parked outside, though, nor do most have hanwoo-specific butchers or organic grocery stores on the corner, as the apartments here did. Needing a drink I popped into a convenience store and in lieu of the usual K-pop soundtrack the store was playing classical music. Less high-class than trying just a bit too hard, I thought.
Returning to the main road I headed the other way down Apgujeong-ro, down the stretch past Exits 2 and 3 known as Cheongdam Culture Street (청담문화거리), ‘culture’ in this case meaning that of the très haute couture variety. The half-dozen curving blocks between Seolleung-ro and Dosan-daero (도산대로) read like the index of one of Kanye West’s closets. There was Gucci and Givenchy and 10 Corso Como with its Kandinsky circles and tourists taking photos outside. There was MCM and DKNY, Dolce & Gabbana and Louis Vuitton, Emporio Armani and Tory Burch and a new Prada shop that was being built. There was Louis Quatorze and Ferragamo and Michael Kors, and a Rolls Royce dealership too. Valets at each shop hustled around, taking keys and parking cars, and impeccably dressed attendants escorted shoppers back to their cars before delicately placing shopping bags in car trunks and bowing to a crisp ninety degrees.
The hilly backstreets south of Cheongdam Culture Street held more boutiques, these just a step or two down in price and name recognition, labels like Alexander Wang and Phillip Plein, the latter with its trademark glittering skull decorating the vestibule. Surrounding the shops were upscale restaurants, beauty clinics, bakery-cafes, and art galleries catering to shoppers whose feet, presumably, tired long before their pocket books did.
When it comes to shopping for mere mortals, one can head into that same warren of streets that I wandered through, enthralled and bewildered, when I first came to Seoul. The main entrance to Apgujeong Rodeo Street (압구정로데오거리), or Apgujeong-ro Fashion Street (압구정로 패션의거리) as it’s also known, is Apgujeong-ro-50-gil (압구정로50길), near Exit 6. Past the small sculpture of a girl holding an apple, shopping here bears some resemblance to what you might find in Myeongdong or other similar areas: Adidas, Codes Combine, Burt’s Bees, domestic cosmetic shops, a toy store with a giant giraffe on the roof, plenty of little boutiques and restaurants and cafes.
Apgujeong Rodeo, however, is less a single street than a general area, and less a general area than a state of mind. Plenty here is nothing like Myeongdong and is symptomatic of the neighborhood’s own unique culture. Not to be outdone by the stores on the avenue, many of its boutiques and cafes advertised valet parking, though in the narrow lanes it was seldom apparent just where those cars would be parked. And while you’ll find many of the same clothing stores here that you will elsewhere, Apgujeong’s reputation as the spot at the sharp end of the fashion spear means that more eclectic and more niche foreign brands turn up here too. The venerable American shoemaker Red Wing opened up a store here, and I walked past a big pink shop called Paul’s Boutique, though whether its operator made the reference on purpose or not is open to question. Apgujeong’s infatuation with the cosmopolitan cache extends beyond clothing to food, meaning that you’re as likely to find Thai restaurants or Portuguese egg tart shops here as you are noodle joints. You can sign up for lessons at a chocolate school, or get breakfast at a place called The Pancake Epidemic, whose sign advertised that its coffee was provided by Stumptown, the venerable Portland-based roaster. And, this being Gangnam, there were plastic surgery clinics promising to turn cash into beauty and modeling agencies promising to take that beauty and turn it back into cash.
Tucked in the backstreets south of Apgujeong Rodeo is Dosan Park (도산공원), which bears the penname of Ahn Chang-ho (안창호), a revered independence activist. Born on Doryong Island off the west coast of what is now North Korea, Ahn was an educator and an organizer of the Korean diaspora in the early years of Japanese occupation before, in 1919, becoming the Internal Minister and acting Prime Minister of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai. After Yun Bong-gil’s assassination of Japanese military and political figures, Ahn was arrested and extradited back to Korea, where he served time, was released, and re-arrested five years later. While jailed at Seodaemun Prison, Ahn contracted tuberculosis, and though he was released on medical grounds he died soon after. He was buried in Manguri Public Cemetery, but when the park was built in 1973 his remains were exhumed and reburied here together with his wife, Lee Hye-ryon (이혜련), whose own remains were transferred from her burial site in Los Angeles.
Owing to the fact that the park has only a single, south-facing entrance, the shortest route to it from the station is a bit wending. After leaving Exit 5, a right turn on Seolleung-ro-153-gil (선릉로153길) will take you path more cafes and boutiques before terminating at the park’s east wall. Turn left here, onto Apgujeong-ro-46-ro (압구정로46로), and then right on Eonju-ro-154-gil (언주로154길), where the park’s wall does the same.
The path from the entrance leads directly to the tomb of Ahn and his wife, passing a large stone engraved with one of Dosan’s quotes. Two squat black incense urns flank a simple burial mound, which is bordered by low granite blocks. A bouquet of fake flowers was placed in front. On either side of the mound were a few trees, two of them with trunks wrapped in straw to protect against the cold. A stele with Lee’s name stood off to the right, while to the left was a stone listing the names of Ahn’s children along with the dates of their births and deaths. The three youngest – Susan, Soora, and Ralph (필영) – had no date of death listed, leaving me to wonder if they were still alive.
East of the tomb is a large circular plaza that surrounds a statue of Ahn, which a sign explained is a replacement of the original, taken down due to corrosion. Ahn, dressed in a three-piece suit and sporting a not-negligible moustache, struck a perfectly calibrated ajeosshi pose: stern face, hands clasped behind his back.
As locals circumnavigated the park’s walking paths or sat on its benches, and as a small flock of pigeons pecked at the ground, rustling the brittle leaves, I headed back toward the entrance. Across from a hulking stone monument with Ahn’s name carved into it was the Dosan Ahn Chang-Ho Memorial Hall (도산안창호기념관). On its outside were old photos of the park’s creation, of Ahn’s burial, and, most interesting, of nearby Dosan-ro (도산로) when the major artery wasn’t lined with art galleries and Jaguar dealerships, as it is now, but with nothing at all. Inside there was a bust of Ahn, a timeline of his life, and displays of items that he owned, his writings, and family portraits. What most caught my eye, however, was a simple, blunt two-word telegram saying only, ‘AHNCHANGHO ARRESTED’, sent from Shanghai to 3421 South Catalina Street in Los Angeles, today the site of a pretty little two-story bungalow with five palm trees in the front yard, about four kilometers southwest of downtown.
Besides fashion, the area around Apgujeong Rodeo’s second major association is with the K-pop industry, home as it is to the headquarters of several entertainment companies. Before even leaving the station you encounter the area’s efforts to promote and leverage this fact into tourist dollars, as its interior features something called the G*Star Zone, where a large screen plays music videos and fans can take their picture with cardboard cutouts of various idols. There are broad steps and benches to hang out on as well, but when I showed up nearly all the people taking advantage of the lounge area were ajummas and ajeosshis chatting with their friends.
While walking around the neighborhood you might notice a minimalist bird logo perched atop street signs or little blue Ks affixed to the sidewalk. These mark the route and attractions along the K-Star Road, a district initiative angling to corral the various headquarters, filming locations, and ‘hip places loved by Hallyu stars’ into a unified tourist attraction of sorts. Once again, the term ‘road’ is entirely inaccurate, as the attractions are dotted all over the neighborhood, but the most road-like route to take to hit the highlights would start from Exit 2.
With the façade of Galleria West turning a coppery orange in the setting sun behind me, I started off down Apgujeong-ro, back along Cheongdam Culture Street. A block later I was in front of the headquarters for SM Entertainment (SM 엔터테인먼트), one of the industry’s heavyweights and home to acts like Girls’ Generation, EXO, and SHINee. The building, undergoing renovation, had its entire three-story façade covered in a giant promo for ‘Be Natural,’ a new song from the girl group Red Velvet. The ad was a black and white photo of the four girls gazing at the camera, their mouths open just enough to be sexy but not so much as to be sexual. Around the corner, the building’s side was covered by another enormous banner, this one pushing a new mini-album from the Girls’ Generation spin-off group TTS.
At Apgujeong-ro-79-gil (압구정로79길) I turned left, and after about three blocks I came to a Dunkin Donuts on my right. It was busy, which was not unusual, but every single customer was female and most sat at tables with trays that had just enough food left on them that the staff couldn’t really ask them to leave, though no one looked like they were eating anything. Despite the dipping temperatures more groups sat and stood around outside, and several had large suitcases with them, as if they’d come directly from the airport without bothering to check into their hotel.
The reasons for the vigil were the building across the street, the offices of JYP Entertainment (제와피 엔터테인먼트), and, to a lesser extent, the one around the corner, where Cube Entertainment (큐브 엔터테인먼트) was housed, and the hope that, if they were lucky or if they just waited long enough and ordered enough Bavarian cream-filled, they might catch a glimpse of 2PM or 4MINUTE coming out of the former or latter, respectively. I hung around myself for a bit, in the hope that someone would indeed show up and I could see just what happened when the swarm smelled blood. There was a brief stirring when a minivan pulled up and a few guys came out of the JYP building with suitcases, but they turned out to just be crew, and the devotees settled back in while the Dunkin employees, nothing to do, went back to their smartphones.
Galleria Department Store (갤러리아 백화점)
Galleria East (갤러리아 East)
Galleria West (갤러리아 West)
Access directly from station
Hours | 10:30 – 21:00
Cheongdam Culture Street (청담문화거리)
Exit 2 or 3
Apgujeong Rodeo Street (압구정로데오거리)
Left on Apgujeong-ro-50-gil (압구정로50길)
Dosan Park (도산공원)
Straight on Seolleung-ro (선릉로), Right on Seolleung-ro-153-gil (선릉로153길), Left on Apgujeong-ro-46-ro (압구정로46로), Right on Eonju-ro-154-gil (언주로154길)
The Dosan Ahn Chang-Ho Memorial Hall (도산안창호기념관)
Hours | Weekdays 10:00 – 16:00, Saturdays and Holidays 10:00 – 14:00, Closed Sundays, Seollal, and Chuseok (Note: The Korean and English pamphlets gave very different opening hours information. Times provided here are based on the Korean version.)
Admission | Free
SM Entertainment (SM 엔터테인먼트)
Straight on Apgujeong-ro (압구정로)
JYP Entertainment (제와피 엔터테인먼트)
Straight on Apgujeong-ro (압구정로), Left on Apgujeong-ro-79-gil (압구정로79길)
Cube Entertainment (큐브 엔터테인먼트)
Straight on Apgujeong-ro (압구정로), Left on Apgujeong-ro-79-gil (압구정로79길), Right on Dosan-daero-89-gil (도산대로89길)