A Postcard from Seoul
May 12, 2023
“Forty years ago this area, Gangnam, was just fields,” says Jae — friend and business partner, born and raised across the Han River. “There was nothing else, just some farms.” We’re sat inside Sopung, a tiny barbecue restaurant set down a quiet alley in Seoul’s trendiest neighbourhood, the one from that song. A solitary street lamp glows through the front window, blurred with condensation, the air heavy with charcoal smoke and the smell of grilled sirloin. Basketball crackles on a TV in the corner. Neither team seems to be playing that well.
“Things move fast here,” says Jae, occasionally returning his attention to cooking slivers of shiitake mushrooms on charcoal. “We joke that Koreans don’t have much patience.”
It takes a while for Seoul, the metropolis of nearly 10 million people, to present itself. On a grey and oppressive afternoon we land in Incheon, a transit hub outside of the city proper. Flat, arid, a bit bleak. The airport was voted the fourth best in the world in 2021 and, to be fair, It’s a good one. Enormous and pristine. A looped message rings out on the tannoy: an instruction, a greeting, or a warning.
Crawling through rush hour traffic, the smog gradually burns off into pale blue as the scrubland gives way to identikit tower blocks lining the side of the highway, giant numbers painted on their exterior and air conditioning units clinging to the stained concrete like barnacles on an old whale.
We miss cherry blossom season by a couple of weeks, the trees still pale and skeletal. Old and new, Seoul, as they say, changes quickly. A snow white McLaren parked on the curb outside a soju bar, the dim silhouettes of men drinking around low tables visible through a translucent plastic sheet. Deoksugung Palace, most of the original razed by fire, rebuilt as an impressive facsimile of a long-faded dynasty. Quiet on a midweek afternoon, it’s surrounded by skyscrapers, the Koreana hotel looming over a replica pagoda.
In Dosan Park, a woman in a life-size bear costume dances in front of her phone on a tripod, the afternoon sun refracting through the blossom-less trees. She offers a shy wave as we walk past, before returning to her performance. We see more than one Pomeranian wearing a pair of shoes.
On the second story of an unassuming apartment building is Big Lights, Seoul’s first natural wine bar. No sign, if you know… you know, which seems to be a theme here. There’s white wine from Jura and a 2019 Viognier; oysters from a supplier down the road and rare pepper from Cambodia. The owners’ dogs, Jackon and Morrison, watch cautiously from behind the bar.
Karaoke is hidden beneath a shopping mall, we weave through dark corridors, into a room punctuated by a disco ball already spinning. The group, led by our friend Wonsik, know the words and the dance moves to match. The best burger is at Sound Planet, and Alex Moon at Electric Shoes might play Caribbean Queen by Billy Ocean if you write it on a piece of paper and ask nicely. From the 17th floor Seoul seems to be a city without end. They say that it’s the centre of the contemporary art boom in Asia. People have money, and taste, and they want to express themselves.
Sat outside of Drake’s Dosan on a sunny Saturday, we watch couples in matching jackets amble past coffee shops, beneath pylons clustered with electrical wiring. A chef sits low and tired on his haunches outside of a restaurant, smoking contemplatively. It’s a perfect spring day. Soon we’ll be on a 14-hour flight to Heathrow – home and routine – but for now all is right and all is well. Anyway, we’ve got dinner to think about first.