It is a district of Seoul made famous by a viral hit that swept the world two years ago. Now Gangnam is at the center of a row between officials who want to turn it into something of a theme park and the local traders who fear their businesses will be threatened by a garish facelift.
On a drive to attract more foreign tourists to Gangnam, Mayor Shin Yeon-hee plans to turn the area into a Korean-pop-music-themed “global luxury district,” complete with a K-Star Road and guides highlighting sites that have featured in popular music videos and TV shows.
She hopes it will compare with Abbey Road and Rome’s Piazza di Spagna as an area rich in pop-cultural heritage.
For vendors such as Lee Seon-ja, the plan is disastrous. Lee has run a street food stall in Seoul’s Gangnam District for the past 10 years, long before the area was made famous by Psy’s hit single, her garish orange tent standing out against the gray concrete skyscrapers.
A steady stream of customers approach, placing orders for deep-fried hot dogs and ddeokbokki, a signature Korean street dish of rice cakes served swimming in thick red-pepper sauce. After ordering, one young woman says she has no cash.
“That’s OK,” Lee tells her. “You can come back and pay me later.”
Lee fears this way of life is threatened by the mayor’s plan. The council has hired men to remove the vendors by force, saying they do not have permits to operate on the streets.
Their plight became public earlier this year when videos of food carts being knocked over appeared on YouTube.
Lee says she lost four carts last month and is in debt from having to replace all her equipment and support her family.
“To be honest, I’m desperate,” she said. “I wish I could find some other way of making a living, but I have no other skills.”
Lee and the other vendors say they would like to be a part of the area’s K-pop facelift.
“We’ve tried working with the government. We said we’d renovate our carts to make them look nicer, but they won’t listen,” he said.
Chopping sesame leaves to be used in topping for ddeokbokki, Lee argues that street food stalls have long been part of Korean culture and should not be brushed aside: “We’re a part of Gangnam too.”
(Lee Seon-ja’s name has been changed.)