The address that says successI am standing across the street from Tower Palace, a luxurious high-rise apartment building in Dogok-dong, southern Seoul, that has become a status symbol for the upper-middle class.
To my right, just across the street from one of Seoul’s most expensive real estate bets, there is a street cart with the name Lotto Snack, selling toasted dough with red bean paste filling for 700 won (60 cents).
It seems cruel, but I am tempted to ask the vendor about his cart’s name, and whether it ever reminds him of the odds against his life ever being like those of the people living across the street.
In an age when, for half the Korean population, the conditions for happiness seem to be the same ―buy a suite at Tower Palace, get insured and send your kids to a Gangnam school ― it may be that all that’s left for the “have-nots” in our society is to wait for a miracle to happen, such as winning the Lotto.
Recently at Kyobo Book Center in Gwangwhamun, in the “steady sellers” section, I found a book called “An Entry Into Tower Palace,” written by a working-class couple who, having started out humbly, saved enough money to buy an apartment at Tower Palace in their middle age.
The book is basically a collection of advice, urging readers to analyze their consumption patterns and learn to save money by taking advantage of interest rates. At the same time, the book validates the common myth that wealth can be attained by anyone, ending with the epilogue, “A prosperous future only belongs to those who act.”
On my second visit to this neighborhood, I am curious about what draws people in their right minds to pay as much as 1.8 billion won to make their homes in the middle of this urban abyss. I am here to find out why.
I start at the complex’s Star Super, which is known as a supermarket but is really more of a department store. Starting at the seafood section, I browse through the displays. Within seconds, I notice products that aren’t seen in the discount stores where average Koreans shop: a box of fresh prawns that might be sold as a gift set in a department store; a variety of fresh herbs; imported nuts and cheeses. In the dairy section is a plate of French goat cheese with sliced grapes for shoppers to sample.
There is an entire stall of dried pasta and Japanese snacks, and another filled with high-end coffee brands. In another display, there are boxes of fine, sweet Japanese bean cakes, all homemade, which come in flavors like green tea and red bean.
Perhaps even more remarkable than the variety are the prices. A cantaloupe (labeled a “five star fruit”) costs 27,000 won. The homemade Japanese bean cakes cost from 45,000 won to 50,000 won per box. A package of beef jerky goes for 13,500 won.
The take-out deli also offers unusual variety, including a separate salad bar, and menus featuring expensive ingredients like abalone and mero.
On my way out, a young lady at the information desk offers a flier containing discount coupons. On the bottom of the page is an advertisement for Mercedes Benz. On the same page is an ad touting a gold-plated key chain that’s given to Star Super customers who spend more than 50,000 won.
Outside, toward the Tower Arcade, one of the largest shopping arcades in the neighborhood, I notice a long line of the expensive, black “mobeom” taxis standing by. It’s around 7 p.m.; heading toward the building’s parking facility are big, flashy cars, with tinted windows.
The first time I came here, I was visiting a friend who has a design studio at Tower Palace. She took me around the apartment, which was stylishly designed and had a marble-floored lobby. The view wasn’t great, although I was quite pleased with the spacious elevator. Overall, it was a fancy apartment, but it didn’t leave an impression beyond that.
Most of the differences between this neighborhood and other parts of the city are subtle, at least to the casual observer. Everything is just little more upscale than you’ll find in other parts of Seoul. Yet it’s these subtleties that define the status that many residents who choose to move into Tower Palace are seeking.
Instead of Baskin Robbins, kids here hang out at Haagen-Dazs. In flower shops, they sell more orchids than roses or carnations.
Instead of Bic Macs, parents feed their kids burgers made out of organic meat and vegetables at Craze Burger. Instead of PC rooms, there are computer repair shops. Certain types of businesses found in most Seoul neighborhoods, like fast food chains and chicken joints, are nowhere to be seen.
Two things particularly stand out about the neighborhood. One is the number of real estate offices. The other is the number of pawnshops.
There are literally hundreds of real estate offices around Tower Palace. This is no surprise, considering that the area’s property values have been steadily climbing since the apartments were built. In Central 500, a small arcade near the Dogok subway station, there are six real estate offices and two pawnshops in a single building.
I stop in front of a real estate office to see the ads for apartments for sale or rent. Key money of 50 million won is required to rent a 198-square meter suite. For a 238-square-meter apartment, it’s 70 million won. For those who can afford to buy it outright, one of the suites, at 225 square meters, is going for 1.8 billion won.
The pawnshops specialize in brand name watches, bags and shoes.
Ironically, just a few blocks from these gold estates is one of the last remaining shantytowns in Seoul, Guryong Village. Another evident, though less dramatic, class gap exists between the Tower Palace residents and the people who live around nearby Hanti subway station.
Education is most likely one of the main reasons parents choose to live here; test results from past years have shown that students from Gangnam schools have a better chance of getting into prestigious universities. But such benefits aside, I’m still not sure whether someone with refined tastes would want to live here. For me, two trips to Tower Palace are enough for one lifetime.
by Park Soo-mee