Fly-by-nightersBehind all those modern skyscrapers that line eight-lane avenues lurks the spirit of dokkaebi, a goblin from Korean folklore, in the form of traditional open-air markets that come and go like an illusion.
What is the dokkaebi? Their ferocious images can be seen in old palaces and temples. They stand guard at the door to ward off evil and safeguard the sanctity of a designated arena. They have superhuman powers and can either grant wishes to humble people or play tricks on the innocent. If you're good to them, they will be good to you. If you're bad, they will curse you.
The origin of the term dokkaebi sijang, or goblin market, is unclear, but many people say that the usage started from the black market in Namdaemun Market in the post-Korean War period. Vendors would thrive all through the day, but when tipped off about an imminent bust, then suddenly no trace of them could be found.
When the markets are open, it's like a carnival under the bright lights, a pandemonium of noise and crowds - sellers hawking wares while dressed as cowboys or clowns, plump ajumma (middle-aged women) cooking noodles and vendors selling everything from Corning Ware plates to underwear to pirated compact disks. When it closes, everything and everyone disappears.
One evening after eating at a Vietnamese restaurant near the Westin Chosun hotel, two colleagues from work and I decided to take a walk past Namdaemun to Myeongdong for coffee at the nontraditional, magic-free realm that is Starbucks.
As we strolled toward the gaping entrance of Myeongdong, we were suddenly confronted by two vendors who had laid out rows of fake Gucci purses and Louis Vuitton bags on the sidewalk.
I recalled how a friend told me she once came here one evening but couldn't find any vendors selling anything. "Why aren't you open some nights?" I asked one vendor.
The woman, in her late 20s, said, "Maybe there was a bust. Otherwise, we're always here after sundown." She seemed happy that she had a loyal patron. "Please come back anytime," she said smiling.
Su-jin, one of my work mates, really liked one of the Prada purses; she also didn't forget to mention that her birthday was coming up soon. We made up our minds right there: "All right, we'll definitely come back to that lady."
But first, the coffee. We walked through the underpass to Myeongdong and its stormy sea of people. All the people walking and (more often) bumping past us were young, in their teens or early 20s. They weren't walking straight either, zigzagging around every which way, like they were lost, or perhaps merely stunned. We, however, walked with purpose - like moths to the flame, we were constantly drawn to the brightly lit carts full of vanities. And our vanity seemed to stretch out forever along the Myeongdong street.
There were three more carts to get past, all selling more fake bags. They had belts, too - Fendi, Ferragamo, Etienne Aigner, to name a few that tweaked our fancy. We checked if the Burberry hat was actually "Blueberry." No, the hat looked pretty good; it looked real - well almost. One vendor had a beaded version of a Louis Vuitton handbag, making us ask each other if Vuitton makes that style. The vendor said it was very popular with Japanese tourists. Another vendor had a Vuitton suitcase. Wow. At 580,000 won ($440), it was more expensive than in Itaewon, so I dismissed it. While I was looking at counterfeits, Sang-min and Su-jin began looking at the Polo shirts on sale.
Sang-min shook her head; she didn't like the Polo shirts. Su-jin seemed to be lost at one point, but then came to life again; she found cute phone accessories of all kinds. Miniature Bruce Lees piled up in one corner, right next to Japanese animated characters in white boots. I picked the little martial arts superstar, but balked at the 2,000 won asking price. Protests that it was not for me, but for a friend of mine, got me nowhere, so I decided to forget it. On the circular hanger were a menagerie of miniature pets, all wanting to be hung on our phones. "How cute!" Su-jin gushed over them, stroking a furry creature. She became lost in thought for what seemed like a long time.
Between the blaring Korean pop coming from the CD cart on the left and the makeup stand on the right, I saw a row of plastic legs displaying stockings. Stripes are in this year, so I looked for ones with thick stripes that can pass for the Italian kind. At 10,000 won, they were too steep for me. Two carts away I found an ajumma had better-looking ones going for only 7,000 won. Not bad. In department stores, they cost more than 20,000 won.
While I was bargaining for my purchase, Su-jin walked about five steps ahead and stopped at the stall of a guy selling fried odeng, or fish cakes. He was surrounded by five or six young and hungry-looking women. Two of them were waiting their turn to spread ketchup on their steaming sticks. "I just can't pass this up!" said Su-jin. "That's so delicious!" She asked Sang-min and me to eat with her. We shook our heads - still too full from Vietnamese noodles and dumplings.
Besides, we were going to have coffee, remember? The Starbucks building is only a short distance away, but we were still trapped in the throngs of Myeongdong shoppers. "Hey girls, this way!" Sang-min motioned me and Su-jin in the right direction. Again, all three of us almost passed the coffee shop, lured by more noise and happenings nearby. But finally we got our coffee.
Back at the office, Yong-hee, another fellow staffer, appeared jealous of our new purchases. She wanted to go back for the same thing: phone accessories, purses and especially the pretty stockings. While explaining all we had seen on our adventure, we became excited again. Yong-hee couldn't wait to check it out for herself.
A half an hour later, Yong-hee and I were back on the Myeongdong street. But the street was empty, deserted with bits of garbage strewn everywhere. Where did it all go? An elderly woman dashed right by us, pushing her cart covered with a blue vinyl sheet. Within seconds, she and her cart disappeared from our sight, into the darkness. Yong-hee managed to find one pair of stockings from a vendor who was busy packing up. The stockings were not the same as mine, but she felt compelled to buy something. I couldn't believe this; Yong-hee couldn't believe our tale. We kept on asking: Where did everyone go?
Disappointed and desperate, we stopped at a shop on one corner and asked: Where did everyone go? The shopkeeper shrugged and said, "You never know. You just gotta come back and find them because they'll come back." When? "Maybe tomorrow. Maybe a few days later. They just come and go, just like that. Like, you know, dokkaebi."
Just who is the dokkaebi? A telling tale...
Once upon a time, there lived a poor old man in a remote hamlet. His life was miserable because he had a painful lump that grew on the side of his face.
One day he was walking alone in the woods when he ran into a dokkaebi.
The curious dokkaebi looked at him and asked, "What is that thing on your face?"
The man told the creature, "Nothing important. Nobody wants something like this."
The dokkaebi became more curious and asked, "Why not? Are you sure it's not a magic stone?"
"No, no. Nobody wants this," the man said sadly.
The dokkaebi became intrigued. "For your stone, I will give you my magic stick. How about that?"
The dokkaebi happily took the lump off the man's face and gave him a magic stick. The man now looked fine and became very rich as every strike of the magic stick brought him heaps of gold.
Another man with the same kind of growth on his face heard the story and decided to do the same. So he walked around the woods for days until he finally met the dokkaebi.
The dokkaebi asked, "What it that thing hanging on your face?"
The man caressed his lump and said, "This is a precious magic stone that brings lots and lots of good fortune."
"Sure. If you want, I can give it to you."
But the dokkaebi said, "You liar! The magic stone I have doesn't work, so I will give you my stone!"
And the greedy and dishonest man ended up with two lumps on his face.
by Inēs Cho