The false fantasy of Cheongdam-dong
What is Cheongdam-dong anyway?
I was an avid fan of the TV soap “Cheongdam-dong Alice” and was disappointed when it wrapped up with a typical Cinderella-style ending. The show made me curious about what’s really going on in the fabled Gangnam neighborhood, so I headed out to visit some of its hottest spots. Friends familiar with the area recommended SSG Food Market and Gourmet 494, both of which opened last year. They said homemakers from all over Seoul make the trek to these high-end food markets inspired by gourmet shops in New York.
It was a weekday afternoon, but I had to wait in a line on the otherwise empty Dosan Road for 15 minutes to get into the parking lot at SSG Food Market. I saw more domestic midsized and compact cars than the exotic foreign cars I was expecting. Some license plates indicated that the shoppers had come in all the way from Incheon and Gyeonggi. Many people were also just browsing with empty carts, checking out items like apples at 18,500 won ($17) apiece and a 50 milliliter (1.69 ounce) bottle soy sauce with a whopping 350,000 won price tag.
I then moved on to Gourmet 494. It was well past lunch hour but it was tough to find an empty table as it was pacted with a throng of residents of and workers in Cheongdam-dong, culinary pilgrims and aspiring Cheongdam-dong Alices.
Many believe the people of Cheongdam-dong are living the Korean dream, and wannabes of all stripes follow trends from the neighborhood no matter the cost. “Cheongdam-dong daughters-in-law” are women who marry rich and flaunt the handbags that ladies of lower incomes drool over and request as wedding gifts.
Thanks to the immense demand, luxury brands constantly ratchet up the price of such bags into the multimillion won range despite the falling won-euro exchange rate. But as soon as a bag becomes popular for ladies of other, less celebrated neighborhoods, Cheongdam-dong’s divas have already moved on.
In the TV show, Alice buys an expensive bag with a credit card as she falls deeper into the Cheongdam-dong fantasy. But now, Cheongdam-dong denizens have grown blase about brand-name bags. They’d rather browse photo books of luxury goods saying, “Goyard was the first brand to offer vertical stripes and naming designs. Is it a coincidence that other high-end brands are coming out with similar styles, or are they just copying?” Instead of Barbie dolls, they buy their children a 1.2 million won art book of Barbie dolls and say, “What’s important is to have an eye for art, not the product itself.”
The Cheongdam-dong fantasy is spiraling out of control. And in the end it’s just that: a fantasy. The gourmet supermarket sells soy sauce that’s so ridiculously expensive that each spoonful costs about 10,000 won. Importers of luxury goods advertise purses produced in China and India as works of master craftsmen.
Here, all Alice can buy is fantasy. Merchants set up stores in Cheongdam-dong, put fantasy in Alice’s shopping cart and encourage her to open her wallet so they can fatten theirs. And the Cheongdam-dong dream continues to spread across the country. In the soap, Alice became Cinderella. But does the fantasy ever come true in real life?
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yang Sunny