Over-The-Top Korean Weddings, Gangnam-Style

The neighborhood in Seoul known to Westerns from Psy's mega-hit single is also the place status-conscious South Koreans go to get married. But something is lost in all the ritz.

A wedding in Gangnam
A wedding in Gangnam
Jason Strother

SEOUL – Ahn Eun-mi and Nick Derret got married in the Gangnam district of South Korea's capital. Now famous around the world thanks to the 2012 record-breaking song and video Gangnam expand=1] Style, the neighborhood has long been known to locals for its ritz and glamour.

And in status-conscious South Korea, one of the first things people look for on a wedding invitation is the address. “Many people think it’s a good place and they want to show off that they got married in Gangnam. It is not our case…” says Ahn.

Though Derret also dismisses those who choose it for "showing off,” he does note the convenience of having a cluster of marriage-related businesses, that has become known as "wedding town."

Inside this one particularly large wedding hall in Gangnam, separate ceremonies are taking place on each floor. In one room, designed to look like a European chapel, a bride enters the room in a luxurious white dress. Thirty minutes from now, after this couple will be married, another bride and groom will do the exact same thing.

Lee Dong-young is a manager at the Raum Wedding Hall, one of the most expensive places in Seoul for newlyweds to tie the knot. He says he never has a problem finding clients willing to pay. “Location is very important in this business. Gangman is the home of many of Korea’s top companies and the families who live here are very well off. So it makes sense for their children to have their weddings in this neighborhood.”

There’s no such thing as a cheap wedding in South Korea, for any family.

Government statistics show that middle-class couples and their families often spend at least $100,000 on the whole event.

Choi Seong-hee has planned and directed weddings in Gangnam for about ten years. She says it’s perhaps the most desired location in the entire country to get married.

“Even if someone doesn’t live here, they want the Gangnam experience. All the expensive luxury brands are located here, as well as all the best businesses. People want to spend their time here, meet their friends, live their life here as much as they can. They crave to live here and to work here. And have their weddings here too.”

Choi says, it’s her job to connect these couples with all the right businesses in a one-stop shopping approach to putting on a wedding.

“All the wedding halls, beauty shops, dress shops and wedding photo studios are all concentrated around here. Women from other cities want to come here because they know they can put together their entire wedding in one go.”

Old customs die away

One of the shops that Choi introduces to her brides-to-be belongs to wedding dress designer Lee Seong-mi. Her work has appeared in international bridal magazines and in fashion shows overseas.

After Lee was done helping one of her clients pick out the right dress, she tells me that Seoul has long had a wedding district, but it wasn’t always in Gangnam.

“Gangnam is now the Mecca for weddings, but it wasn’t like that 20 years ago when I first started making dresses. At that time it was located near Ewha Women’s University, it was called Wedding Street. But about ten years ago the wedding industry started to move south of the Han River and that’s when I came to Gangnam too.”

Lee says the move from the old wedding street to Gangnam reflects the overall change in wedding tastes in Korea.

“When I had a shop there, there were about 100 other wedding related shops along that street. At the time the style was simpler, with mostly conventional dresses sold there. But since moving to Gangnam, I would say that I have been able to make more high-end designs.”

Lee’s dresses aren’t for the budget wedding shopper. They cost around $7,000 for a 2-day rental of a 5-piece set of her signature crystal beaded dresses.

Guests help offset all the costs of weddings in Korea. As soon as they arrive at the wedding, they hand over an envelope, filled with cash to a clerk who sits at a desk outside the hall. Their names and the amount they give is recorded. They receive a coupon for the post-ceremony buffet in return.

Wedding planner Choi Seong-hee confesses that ceremonies these days do seem rather business-like. She says something was lost during South Korea’s economic development.

“In the past, Korean families would stay up all night before the wedding, cooking. It was a real community event," she says. "Now we have adopted some Western wedding styles, but in appearance only. Ceremonies are so quick and expensive, you can’t even tell if the couple is enjoying it. It seems too much about money.”

Choi adds, she just wants to make the couple happy — no matter the cost.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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