Looking for a Ton of Dried Fish?In the middle of downtown Seoul is a cluster of markets. Two very dissimilar ones are located across the street from one another on a congested part of Euljiro in central Seoul. Whether all the traffic is due to market goers or not is debatable, but the crowded streets certainly do make a strong first impression before you walk under the arches that distinguish Chungbu Market from Bangsan Market. Parking is not available at Chungbu Market and only limited parking is available in Bangsan Jonghab Market, one of the buildings that make up Bangsan Market.
The buzz word in the dried fish industry is Chungbu Market. Bargain-minded connoisseurs head to Chungbu Market when they are throwing a party or restocking their pantry. Between 9 and 10 a.m., serious shoppers comb the outdoor market for gim (dried seaweed), myeolchi (dried anchovies), ojing-eo (dried squid), nogari (dried pollack) and gulbi (dried croaker).
While the market specializes in different kinds of dried fish, vendors do sell other food products such as ddangkong (peanuts), bam (chestnuts), gotgam (dried persimmon) and ganjang (soy sauce). Most of these are sold in bulk.
Cloth awnings propped up by long sticks, cyclists and a pungent aroma give the market a vibrant and old-town ambience that an upscale grocery store cannot match. Established in 1959 as a traditional market with an assortment of products, it found its niche as the supplier of dried fish within ten years. Now there are more than 1,000 speciality stores that focus on one type of product. For example, if the speciality is anchovies, merchants display an astounding range of the tiny shimmering silver fish.
Dried fish is usually a hard product to market. At most supermarkets, it is allotted a small space and sells best during holidays. Chungbu Market gives department stores a run for their money by offering prices up to 30 percent cheaper and having a heavy concentration of goods.
Since this market sells to both retailers and wholesalers, they are ensured a year-round clientele and plenty of tourists also visit. Wholesale customers from all over South Korea flock the market between 3 and 4 a.m. The majority of tourists are from Japan, shopping for gim and ojingeo.
Now that the weather has warmed up, shoppers walk at a leisurely pace through the close quarters, sometimes sampling the wares as they pass by. Most of the customers during the day are housewives and elderly couples.
Normal business hours are 3 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, visit the market Web site at www.chungbumarket.com (Korean only).
Take a close look at your clothes. If they are made in Korea, chances are some of their components came from Bangsan Market. Because the market supplies virtually all the labels for Korean clothes and other odds and ends that are so specialized, you will rarely find the average citizen wandering around Bangsan Market.
A list of the types of products available reveals the breadth in variety: shopping bags, stickers, wall paper, embroidered patches, packaging material and gloves.
Bangsan Market is not prominent in the public eye. Hence once you enter the market, the streets are quiet. Many patrons are repeat customers who phone in their orders. Once the order is ready, merchants have it sent it to their client.
Most buyers are not shopping for ready-made products, but custom-ordered products at a cheap price. One retail customer was looking for cell phone hand straps to emboss for a special event. The straps are usually sold for 2,000 won ($1.60) in stores elsewhere, 1,000 won in Namdaemun Market, but for only 350 won at Bangsan Market, where embossing service is available.
The market targets wholesalers, but they are not the only shoppers. Kindergarten teachers come to the market for doll accessories and other crafts supplies. Students come to shop for accessories to help them create visual presentations. Event organizers custom-order goods embossed with their company's logo. People purchasing corporate gifts also shop at the market. Foreign customers from Japan, Africa and Pakistan also make wholesale purchases.
In the labyrinthine streets, two buildings stand out in particular: Bangsan Jonghap Market. According to Lim Ju-in, a manager at Bangsan Jonghap Market, the neighboring streets around the two buildings that constitute Bangsan Jonghap Market are not legally recognized as Bangsan Market. Mr. Lim contends that the heart of the market is Bangsan Jonghap Market, which was recognized as such at the end of 1975.
The two buildings have four floors each, including a basement level, of goods ranging from gloves to textiles and rope and custom services. Many of the small shops are hidden behind frosted glass walls. Behind some of the walls are artisans handling machines or computers, depending on the type of skill required.
Business is directly affected by the economy. The market went through a slump several years back, but has picked up since then. Still, the level of activity is not on par with that of the market's heyday, when customer traffic was so heavy that parking was virtually impossible.
Most of the stores are open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Next Week: Janghanpyeong Market, an antique market.
by Joe Yong-hee