It doesn’t help that I had to report to my boss’s boss who was patently unclear on what was needed and then scolded me about not applying for the visa sooner when there was no way I could have done it.
Then I stressed over what to pack because I couldn’t tell if it was going to hot or cold and with V telling me that Korean women are extremely well dressed.
But finally, I was in the bus on my way to the airport and then, after an eventless check-in, we were on the CX flight to Seoul. I had two seats to myself which I saw as a good omen and I calmed my nerves by re-watching the SATC movie. Honestly, those clothes are fabulous. Sadly, the CX food wasn’t as nice as I would’ve liked.
And three and a half hours later we touched down in Seoul, where I was relieved to be let through with only one question from the immigration officer about how long I was staying which got cleared up quite quickly when I mentioned I lived in Hong Kong. Honestly, only we go through this shit.
After a ubiquitous walk through the airport we were met at the arrivals hall by the Korean PRs. I was relieved that my fellow travellers were not uber-stylish and were happy to speak English.
Thus began a very hectic three-day itinerary, almost all of which was art related. We were whisked from an artist residency programme on the outskirts of the city to an art centre to an experienced artist’s studio to the Korea International Art Fair to the main art districts. Meals were at some of Seoul’s finest restaurants and disappointingly international. Because art normally goes with the wealthy (unless it’s being created), we ended up seeing mostly upscale areas.
At the end of it, I couldn’t form a proper impression of Seoul the city. I was driven around everywhere in an AC bus. I failed to look out of the window en route because I felt obliged to work on questions. When I did I saw short, boxy grey buildings, wide streets and not much else. The people weren’t as well dressed as Hong Kong.
I was surprised that Korea seemed so underdeveloped. It could pass as an Indian city with much better roads and cleanliness and Chinese looking people. I didn’t get a buzz.
The people though seemed much nicer and more normal than the Hong Kong people. Their English is sporadic but their manner is more welcoming and less abrasive. In Asia, Hong Kong people are unique in their lack of social grace. Both the Hong Kong PR and the journalists surprised me with their ocassionally really rude remarks to the hosts and the tendency to view Hong Kong as obviously superior. Weird.
On the third day, we had the opportunity to stroll around two of Seoul’s three maojr art districts. Samcheong-dong is where many important art galleries are located in a combination of ultra-modern and restored traditional houses. Around them, quirky little boutiques, cafes and restaurants have opened. It’s a really nice place to walk around and I would have loved to hang around for a coffee if I had not been so full.
Insadong, the original art district, has now become very touristy and combines the atmosphere of a street market peppered with a few serious galleries. It’s a long road with street food sellers, souvenir shops and some more unusual stationary shops.
We also had lunch Samcheong-gak which is a mountain resort built in old Korean houses. The food was stylised Korean cuisine, not the BBQ we’re used to in Hong Kong.
I stayed an extra day so got to go to Myeong-dong, sort of a Mong Kok like place where the locals like to shop. Here I spent a good half hour in the Skin Food shop stocking up on yummy cosmetics like peach-sake emulsion, kiwi yogurt face mask and ginger face balm for half the price it would cost in Hong Kong.
At night, the Korean PR took us to Apgujeong, a trendy shopping, dining and bar district. It was my chance to take the metro system, which is wider than Hong Kong trains. Interestingly, young people in Korea will never sit in the seats reserved for the disabled and elderly even if they’re empty and other seats are full. It’s a mark of the highly respectful and traditional culture that still permeates Korean society.
We got here to take us for a more down-to-earth Korean meal where we ate porridge-like soup with mushrooms and barbeque ribs. Yummy! I really love Korean food. Then we walked down a street of shops that make you ache to go in and landed up in an English-country house style wine bar. Wine is just about becoming popular in Korea and is still an upscale pursuit because the tax is so high. The three of us got a little tipsy and had a little bit of a girl bitch about bosses, boyfriends etc.
On my last day, I got a guided tour of Leeum museum, which houses the private collection of the family that founded Samsung. The museum buildings were designed by internationally acclaimed architects and house not only the family’s collection of traditional and contemporary Korean paintings but contemporary Western art – Damien Hirst, Edward Rouscha etc – that would give any Western museum a run for its money. And this is just the collection of one family.
Clearly, there is a thriving art scene in Korea. The wealthy families have a long tradition of buying art and surprisingly are tending toward contemporary and experimental art work. There are a number of art residency programmes and art districts that are well promoted. The Korea International Art Fair is the biggest in Asia and unlike the Hong Kong International Art Fair, Korean art is widely in evidence.
Although I still prefer Hong Kong as a city, Seoul has its own charm and the next time I go, I want to just walk the streets, rub shoulders with everyday people and really discover what it’s all about.