Seoul Sisters

By | Category: Travel destinations, Travel tips & opinions

From puberty to pensioners, Koreans love to sing. CD Traveller wonders why?

Forget kimchi (the pickled vegetables that accompany every meal in Korea), kimbab (better known as Korean sushi) and the colourful silk costumes called hanbok. It’s karaoke – aka noraebang –that South Korea is crazy about and arguably nowhere more so than Seoul.

While in the west karaoke commonly evokes images of raucous hen parties where scantily clad women boozily belt out Britney, Bon Jovi and off key renditions of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, in Seoul noraebang is big among businessmen, teenage girls in their gymslips and their grandmothers at the other end of the age spectrum alike. Make no mistake, you can’t escape karaoke in South Korea’s capital; noraebang venues are everywhere you turn, down every street, in every shopping mall.

But how to account for the phenomenal success of noraebang? One theory touted is that singing into a microphone is something of a stress buster for the capital’s 10 million residents. Today the Republic of Korea (ROK) is the 11th largest economy in the world but this feat has come at an enormous cost; for decades South Koreans (in particular Seoulites) worked the longest hours in the industrial world and, not surprisingly, needed a place they could go to relax at the end of a vexing day – enter noraebang.

Typically Koreans are restricted and confined in their daily lives (the pressure to conform to a standard of normality is intense. Case in point? In 2009, when Korean actress Kim Bu Seon was arrested for smoking marijuana and call for the legalisation of pot, she faced an unprecedented barrage of criticism) and so karaoke rooms – with their dark décor and dim background light –provide a place where the capital’s workers could let their hair down, sing songs and drink in small groups.

It’s a stance that’s shared by Yoonjie Kim, a 30 year old interpreter at FSS in Seoul. “Korean culture values the cultivation of self-restraint,” says Kim. “People are not encouraged to be aggressive and show individuality but in noraebang, we can unleash and perform anything we want. It’s a way to let off steam and vent our emotions whether it be depression or happiness.”

Part of noraebang’s popularity in Seoul, stems from the fact that the singing takes place in a secluded rooms in front of family and work colleagues – who will applaud warmly regardless of whether you dance like an uncle at a wedding or how off key you actually are. “We don’t criticise someone if they’re not pitch perfect”, says Kim. “We just laugh and sing along.”

Yet while noraebang may have traditionally been something of a stress buster for businessmen and young professionals like Liz Her, part of the concierge team at the W Seoul Walkerhill hotel, who finds noraebang to be “a fun way to wind down with friends after work”, today noraebang has also become a means of fantasy fulfilment.

K pop star Rain was recently voted the world's most influential person in a poll by Time magazine

Watching K Superstar –a popular singing audition show whose third series airs in August, having attracted two million applicants – prompts many young people to emulate their idols and give noraebang a go. There is, after all, an undeniable link between between the often counterposed active and passive forms of entertainment; it’s why people take to the tennis courts after watching Wimbledon on the silver screen or have an impromptu kick about after the final whistle of a good football match.

“Singing into a microphone with a loud backing track can make you feel like a real pop star, even if only for a few minutes” says Chi Hun Yu, manager of Luxury Noraebang – a top flight karaoke hall in Seoul’s hip Hongdae district. Here university students such as 19 year old Ha Jung dream of being discovered and becoming a K pop celebrity like Rain (the singer and Speed Racer and Ninja Assassin star who recently won top spot in TIME’s annual poll of the world’s 100 most influential people), Girls Generation (the video to their single Hoot clocked up two million hits on YouTube within 24 hours) and cute boy band TVXQ who have outsold many major label acts in the UK and US. For nowadays “being anonymous is worse than being poor” as Rachel, a character in the hit US TV show Glee, says. “When I was growing up, my friends and I aspired to be teachers, bankers, doctors and lawyers whereas now young people want to become celebrities,” concurs Kim.

Nonetheless for most Seoulites, noraebang is not about becoming famous or releasing stress but about satisfying their wide spread love of singing. Simply put singing is a primal activity as Kim acknowledges: “I’ve been singing since I was born. One of my earliest childhood memories is of my grandparents singing at a family function and everyone just joining in. Singing is something everyone can have a go at no matter whether you’re young or old, fat or thin, male or female.”

Essentially whether you see singing as a way of socialising, relieving stress or harbour hopes of being the next BoA – ‘the queen of K-pop’ – noraebang is a quintessential experience while in Seoul. But be warned: it can be as infectious as a hit by South Korean pop sensation Wonder Girls (who joined the Jonas Brothers on the North American leg of their tour, no less). Or as Kim puts it: “You start by booking a room for one hour but that one hour turns into two and so it begins…”


Noraebang venues

Coda (02 512 1004)
Chunddam dong district

A&K (011 443 4786; 02 338 8838)
Hongdae district

Jam (02 326 2640; 010 2720 3056)
Hongdae district

Luxury Noraebang (02 322 3111)
Hongdae district

Sirroco (02 450 4367)

Where to stay: W Seoul Walkerhill

When it comes to accommodation in the capital, it doesn’t get any better than the W Seoul Walkerhill (465 2222;  Walkerhill is a little away from downtown Seoul but rooms in this stylish bolthole – the first W Hotel in Asia – won’t fail to wow. The 252 rooms including 29 suites are decked out in simple yet striking colours and boast floor to ceiling windows and flat screen TVs, while the bathrooms are stocked with covetable Bliss toiletries. The urban oasis also has a smattering of excellent restaurants, sumptuous Away spa and the best bar in town: WooBar. Here you can enjoy a drink from the 18m long bar (the longest in Korea) in an egg shaped seat, while planning your return.

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