I’m not a K-Pop fan. But, I have a friend that is. Riley wanted to grab a new edition of EXO‘s newest release, and so we popped into SM Town‘s multi story building to pick up her stuff. Little did I know that I was about to embark on an adventure!
Before we could even enter the doors, Riley got distracted by a crowd of girls waiting around at an adjacent car park, and after plucking up the courage to ask fans who the hell we were ‘waiting’ for, we discovered that Red Velvet, a local girl band who were attending a signing event at SM Town, were expected to appear at any moment.
After waiting around for about fifteen minutes, Riley decided that since we didn’t know when they would appear, we could move on. We resumed our hunt for EXO’s “The War: Kokobop”.
We took the escalator up, and here, we found a hall with posters featuring bands managed and produced by SM Entertainment. After encountering some younger Korean ladies sprawled all over the floor in the hall, Riley explained to me that these girls had cards of pop idols that they wanted to trade. That explained why they had merchandise scattered around them. Essentially, when you buy merchandise like albums, they come with cards (like collectors baseball cards) featuring cute band members, and many girls have a favourite member. Often, girls receive cards that they’d prefer to trade for cards that feature their crush.
We stepped onto the brightly lit sales floor. The room was packed with mostly young women in their teens to mid twenties. A few boys were there too, mostly because they worked there, or were boyfriends waiting while their girls shopped.
Here, we found a large open area featuring all kinds of stuff: fancy record displays, live-sized cardboard cut-out pop stars, album displays, posters, tote bags, hats and clothing merchandise. There were even traditional style Korean items usually featured in museums on the display cases.
We got into a line up, and were handed a paper so Riley could mark down what she wished to purchase. At the paying counter, Riley handed over 45,000 won, and in return, received three albums. She explained that she was getting EXO’s The War: Kokobop version a, version b, and a private version, all sung in Korean and Mandarin. Apparently EXO pride market themselves as a band that release songs sung in various languages.
Happy with her purchase, which included poster gifts and trade-able cards, our adventure continued. We meandered up to the next floor, which opened up into another hall. It had a long, central display case of clothing used by band members while shooting videos that later became famous. There were many sexy posters featuring SM’s bands dotting the walls, and plenty more girls sitting on the floor displaying their pop idol cards. The environment itself gave a feeling of close accessibility to the stars, and this presumably, is why so many fans flock to this venue.
Riley explained to me that SM invites clients to experience various degrees of feeling like a star, by offering services like recording a video at their studio, for around 200,000 won (approximately $200 US).
At the end of the hall, was another large room named the SUM Cafe. It was filled with hundreds of girls sitting around tables, displaying their idol cards that they hoped to swap. There was a section dedicated to K-pop food, including tea and snacks, and there was a very long cafe counter, displaying macaroons and other delicious delights to entertain the fans that wile away their time with other like-minded girls.
My favourite feature was the ceiling lamps which had many idol cards hanging down. The arrangement reminded me of tree-like chandeliers. Everywhere I looked, fans were comparing and admiring cards. Signatures from the SM stars were applied to the backs of chairs and table surfaces. Girls played video games. Riley explained that these games were based on reactions to rhythm, and were designed by some of the pop idols themselves.
Leaving the room, we were about to go to the top floor, which Riley described as the best floor of the three because it contained handprints from EXO and other bands, and fans could place their hands within the handprints of their favourite stars. Unfortunately, the top floor was temporarily blocked off to the public because of the Red Velvet signing event, which presumably was taking place upstairs. I agreed to visit again with Riley as I would like to see the third floor displays.
Overall, the experience was fascinating to me. The entire building seemed like a sacred space for these fans, and I felt like an undercover alien discovering a young female ecosystem. It was fascinating, and I have every intention to return, if only to explore the treasures closest to heaven: the top floor.
Shout out to Riley Haslett, K-pop expat consultant and specialist.
What do you find interesting about the K-pop culture in Korea? Have you visited SM Town or any production studios that you would recommend experiencing?
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Standby for my follow-up blog: my SM visit to the top floor!
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