중앙데일리

Light shop owners swell with pride over products

[Glimpse of Business in Seoul 19th in the series: Jongno Lighting Shop Street]

Oct 13,2008
Around 300 lighting shops are clustered along a street in Jangsa-dong, Jongno District, Seoul. By Jeon Min-kyu

In the early 1990s, Kang Seok-joon, a Seoul native, rarely watched televised games of the LG Twins or OB Bears, two professional baseball teams based in Seoul.

Kang switched on the tube, however, when television aired night games of the SBW Raiders, the now defunct team in far-off Jeonju, North Jeolla.

It was not affection for the Raiders that kept Kan glued to the games of the team. He would smile at a home run even by a player from a visiting team, as long as the cameras showed light poles that brightened the Jeonju Baseball Stadium.

Those light poles were sold and installed by Kang, a veteran in the lighting industry.

“I felt proud because, without the light poles, it would have been impossible for players to play in the games and the crowd to enjoy watching them at night,” Kang, now 59, said. He said he also helped in setting up the lighting system at Incheon International Airport, one of the world’s largest airports.

“The pride, though it might seem trivial to others, is what has kept the people here maintaining their businesses for decades,” he said.

Shoppers browse a great variety of lighting products at shops in Jangsa-dong, Jongno, Seoul. By Jeon Min-kyu
What Kang meant by “here” is the lighting shop street in Jangsa-dong, Jongno District of Seoul, where he has worked for the past 37 years.

The street, home to the biggest cluster of lighting shops in Korea, has many people like Kang, who pride themselves in helping turn dark nights in what had once been one of the world’s poorest countries into brightly lit ones. Many tourists remark on the “dazzling nights of Seoul.”

The lighting store owners, wholesalers or retail sellers or both, have provided lighting throughout the country. They have brightened houses, schools, factories and buildings. Many hotels, department stores and large discount stores have been illuminated by the products from those shops. Billboards and signs of bars and clubs beckon brightly until the night fades into dawn, thanks to the shops.

According to the Lighting Lamp Association, one of the three associations of the lighting shops in the street, around 600 factories in and around Seoul have been providing lighting products to those shops. The shops then sell them wholesale to lighting shops in other cities or to retail shoppers in Seoul.

“I don’t mean to sound too proud, but we are sort of the stewards of the light God brought into the world,” said Jung In-ho, the head of the Lighting Lamp Association.

According to Jung, the lighting shop street shares the history of Sewoon Electronics Market, the oldest electronics market in Korea, which includes the light shop street. The Sewoon Market, comprising clusters of the Saewoon Electronics Department and several other specialized-electronics buildings lining both sides of about a kilometer stretch of the Cheonggye Stream, began forming in 1966.

Shops selling other industrial goods followed electronics shops to nestling in the buildings. Lighting shops were among them.

“Here, we have wallpaper shops, paint shops, electronics shops and interior decoration shops,” said Hwang Yeon-seok, the 36-year-old owner of Yerim Lighting.

“People moving into a new house or contractors outfitting new buildings or factories come here and pick up everything they want,” Hwang said.

The synergy among the shops of related items has been much lessened these days with the rise of online sales, shop owners say.

Kang, who runs Choil Lighting, said he once netted 10 million won a day. The high revenue, familiar to some other lighting shops in the past, was also thanks to the dependence of retail shop owners outside Seoul on the Lighting Shop Street for supplying them with lighting products. The dependency has mostly gone since lighting shop owners in areas outside Seoul built their own factories or began to import foreign products, shop owners say.

The main customer base on the street are still retail shop owners, companies and municipal governments, but a trickle of retail consumers are also visiting every day. The shoppers are drawn, among other things, to the large variety of items and cheaper price tags on the street.

Kim Seong-gye, a 32-year-old piano instructor living in Myeongryun-dong, northern Seoul, was one of those shoppers seen on Friday. Kim, who came alone, went from shop to shop to buy some lighting for her house. “The products here are cheap indeed, cheaper than products in my neighborhood,” she said. “The quality also looks good.”

About 160 shops on the street sell home lighting products, but 80 others, like the Shinil Stage Lighting run by Lee Ki-hwa, 50, sell lighting for recreation or outdoor decoration.

The products are used in pubs, cafes, clubs as well as stages and for night lighting in the streets. Even some of the clubs in Hongdae, the well-known youth club cluster in Seoul, have bought light fixtures at his shop, Lee said.

“Clubs come asking for lighting products with better effects and are satisfied with our products,” Lee said.

Lee said, however, that he has stopped investing in bringing in new products, just like many other shop owners on the street, getting nervous about a storm that is set to hit the street.

The old, shabby Sewoon Electronics Market is destined to give way to state-of-the-art buildings. The Seoul Metropolitan Government has plans to redevelop the market and the surrounding area in several years.

The lighting shop owners and other industrial goods sellers may stay individually, but the city hopes the shops in the market would move collectively to an indoor electronics market it is building in Munjeong-dong, eastern Seoul.

Many shop owners are opposed to the plan.

“We are proud of ourselves setting up the infrastructure of the country, in particular with lighting that is indispensable in our lives,” Lee said. “We hope the city government would not take the pride away from us.”


By Moon Gwang-lip Staff Reporter [joe@joongang.co.kr]



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