‘Perm factory’ streets slowly ebbing

[Glimpse of Business in Seoul 43rd in a series: Edae-ap beauty salon street]

Apr 21,2009
As many as 118 beauty salons are clustered around Edae-ap area in Daehyun-dong, Seodaemun District, in central Seoul. By Jeon Min-kyu
Until recently, the streets in front of Ewha Womans University, popularly known as Edae-ap, were called the “perm factory.” Young trendsetters from far and near came to this area to have their hair done in the most fashionable way, even if it meant waiting in long lines for several hours.

The scene has changed, however.

Like most businesses in front of Ewha that are facing hard times trying to satisfy the ever-so-quickly changing tastes of the young generation, the beauty salons are no exception.

Average monthly earnings of beauty salons near the university have recently dropped to as little as 15 million won ($11,250) max, half of what they took in during the 1970s and 1980s, according to the Seodaemun branch of the Korean Cosmetologists’ Association.

“Some beauty salons don’t even have one customer until 2 or 3 in the afternoon,” says Lee Nam-soo, the director of the association’s Seodaemun branch.

An even worse indication that the industry is struggling is that only one or two new beauty salons have opened this year, while those already in existence are suffering from low volume and high rent.

“Edae-ap beauty salons are going through tough times,” Kim said with a sigh.

And he’s not the only one concerned.

Many ajumma stationed on the Edae-ap streets passing out fliers also note that business is not thriving as it used to do years back.

Nevertheless, Park In-sook, an ajumma in her mid-40s asked a passerby, “Are you here to have your hair done?” She hopes to lure customers into the beauty salon where she works part time. In her hand, she holds a flier advertising a discount salon.

“In the past, I could send at least one customer a day to the salon,” Park said, exhausted, on a Saturday afternoon. “Now, it’s difficult to even get anyone to take a flier.”

If you stroll down from Ewha Womans University Station, line No. 2, exit 3 or 4, toward the university’s main gate, you will find at least five or six ajumma like Park, trying to hand out fliers.

“How times have changed,” she recalled. Park has been handing out fliers for the past six years now and she has seen the area evolve.

The Ewha Womans University neighborhood is well known for trendy shops and beauty salons. Streets are clustered with fashion outlets and shops selling private accessories and shoes.

The interior of Jeong Da-yeon Hair Shop near Ewha Womans University station is in full view of pedestrians. A sign on the left side of the window says the shop is offering a discount price of 1,000 won for a bang haircut.
The stylish streets were established as early as the 1960s when couture houses opened one after another to meet the tastes of young women enrolled at the university.

During the 1970s, boutiques, dressmakers’ shops and many shoe stores opened along the streets. With them came beauty salons. There were some 120 salons clustered in the area in the 1980s.

“The 1980s was the peak of the salon industry in front of the university,” said Lee, from the association, reminiscing about the good old days.

“One beauty parlor even opened up seven or eight branches, all close by, and all would take in good business,” he said.

The rise of the beauty salon strip has been largely influenced by the university’s May Queen Pageant, once the most memorable and symbolic traditional festival of Ewha, dating back to 1908.

The festival for selecting Miss Ewha has been abolished almost three decades ago, after students asserted the competition was degrading to women. The standard for choosing the May Queen mostly depended on physical beauty as well as on having a grade point average above 3.0, good manners and being a Christian.

A majority of the students who were against the May Queen program saw the festival as the standardization of female beauty and the evaluation and commercialization of an individual, according to the results of the 1978 vote by the university’s faculty council.

Cha Moon-jung, a liberal arts graduate, was the last May Queen, crowned in 1977.

Nevertheless, the shops and salons near the Ewha gate played a crucial role in giving makeovers to the contestants.

Today, however, the strip is a different picture.

Students and passersby who wish to get coiffed have many more choices of beauty salons in other nearby areas such as Sinchon and Hongdae in northwest Seoul.

“I used to get my hair done frequently at Edae,” said Lim Hyun-ji, a graduate student at Korea University, who lives in Sinchon. “But now, I choose to go to other areas in town, depending on how good the service is. Beauty salons in front of Ewha are no longer my first choice.”

She said that while most salons at Edae-ap close around 10 p.m., others in southern Seoul areas such as Sinsa-dong stay open until 12 midnight, or even around the clock.

To recreate the university area into a hairdo hot spot, the Seodaemun District Office tried to establish a special zone by making the streets more pedestrian- friendly for tourists and passersby. For example, the district office wanted to expand the sidewalks, remove telephone booths to create more pedestrian space and allow construction of more shopping complexes.

A foreigner gets her hair done at Eunha Hair Salon, one of the oldest in the area, founded in 1974. By Jeon Min-kyu
But university officials and the student body opposed the effort, arguing that designating a special zone for beauty parlors would commercialize the streets, which would distract students who should be studying.

Like any other fashionable area in town, there is a rapid turnover of shops in front of Ewha due to high rents that store proprietors say they cannot afford. “There must be a sustainable plan to develop the area so that it is distinct from other fashion or beauty salon areas in Seoul,” says Shin Min-hee, a stylist at one of the parlors in Edae. “Otherwise, we won’t survive the changing trends.”

As of now, though, there is no financial aid or support given by the Seoul city or district government. The industry is already shrinking.

The number of beauty salons in the Daehyung-dong area shrank from 120 in the 1980s to 80 in 2007, according to the Korean Cosmetologists’ Association. Twenty more are expected to close down this year. The Seodaemun District Office estimates that there are more, up to some 118 salons, currently clustered in this area.

“Judging by its scale, the Edae area is still the mecca for beauty salons,” says Kim Young-sun, an official in charge of health and beauty at the Seodaemun District Office.

He said that though the salons aren’t as luxurious as those in other areas, they are priced right.

By Lee Eun-joo [angie@joongang.co.kr]

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