MARKET GUIDE: Hwanghak-Dong Flea Market

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MARKET GUIDE: Hwanghak-Dong Flea Market

For those new to Korea and looking for a quick lesson on the last 70-odd years of Korean popular culture, the best classroom is Hwanghak-dong Flea Market. The outdoor market displays all sorts of products that Koreans used last century. Bulky fans, telephones and typewriters now considered "funky" rest alongside wooden chests and old records that depict Korean singers in afros.

"Anything you need, you can find at Hwanghak-dong Flea Market," is the catchphrase at the market in Hwanghak-dong.

Second-hand items are its speciality. Individual stores stock everything from Korean antiques and American memorabilia to used musical instruments, electronic products, military uniforms and cell phone battery rechargers.

The most exciting time to shop is the weekend. Droves of people, in particular tourists, interior designers and collectors, scour the outdoor market, hunting for that elusive perfect item. Last Saturday Erin Skelly, an English teacher from the United States, was shopping for a lamp. New to Korea, she had heard about the flea market through Mike Jallow, a businessman from England. Mr. Jallow was not able to recall the number of times he had been to the market. "Too many times, too much stuff," he said, later naming a camera and Walkman as past purchases.

The market is located next to an overpass, an extension of Cheonggyecheon. The roar of passing cars and the whistles of traffic-control people keep cars from parking illegally and adding chaos to the already busy market.

Trucks park on the perimeter of the market to sell goods. Other street vendors daily unload their colorful assortments to display on the sidewalk, a tedious job at best. "It takes me three hours to set up, and three hours to clean up," said Lee Sang-uk of Wang Byeo-ruk.

Tourists often mistake these street vendors for the core of the market, and so visit only the outskirts of the market. "There's so much more inside," said Ahn Gui-ho, president of the newly formed Hwanghak-dong, Cheonggye Merchant's Association.

The center of the market is not as hectic as the outskirts, but these stores are the real treasures. Run by a colorful assortment of young and old owners, most of them specialize in just one type of product.

Reputed as the "Hwanghak-dong historian," Kim Jeong-nam has owned Minsok Goldongpum for 30 years. He crams an assortment of antiques, from Korean to Chinese, in a store the size of a large walk-in closet. Chinese paper lanterns hang over dusty rice chests, folk instruments, ceramics and an accordion. It is easy to walk right past the store, as antiques are piled in front of the windows, obscuring any signs.

One of the younger and newer merchants is Peter Kim of Viking. With eight stores and storage areas scattered throughout the market, Viking stocks 50,000 items. Most are from junk sales and auctions in the United States. Employees travel overseas six times a year to shop in the underbelly of the United States marketplace. The bulk of his clients are restaurant designers, set designers and those bitten with "mania," a term Koreans apply to devotees and in this case, avid collectors.

But Peter Kim himself says, "I don't collect anything."

Another merchant, Oh Moon-nam at Gwang-un Jeonja is able to fix any music-related equipment, from 1940s-era Japanese radios to amplifiers, radios and recorders. Mr. Oh can be seen hunched under a desk light in a store that is literally wide enough for one person. If a customer wants to exit, all the customers leading to the entry have to back out.

In addition to the aforementioned equipment, used violins and guitars hang from hooks on the walls. Guitars made in Korea sell for 30,000 won ($24) or more.

Hwanghak-dong Flea Market is also famous for cheap prices. People on a tight budget can find used televisions, VCRs, telephones and watches.

Including the street vendors, there are about 1,000 merchants and many own several stores. But the figures are hard to pinpoint, as a centralized market association is still in its infancy, according to Mr. Ahn.

Some merchants will also buy products. People moving out of Korea can try selling their second-hand goods at the flea market, leaving behind another assortment of wares for the next round of shoppers to wonder about.

by Joe Yong-hee

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