This Is Not Just About Shopping

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This Is Not Just About Shopping

In the middle of Seongnam city, you may come across a beach scene of colorful parasols flapping in the breeze. Only, here at Moran Market, there is no sandy beach; there is only a dusty parking lot. Instead of ice cream cones and clowns on a boardwalk there are ppeong twigi (sweet rice puffs) and merchants with monkeys.

Moran Market is one of the largest traditional rural markets that still thrives in Korea. The market opens every fifth day - which is why it is called an o-il sijang (fifth-day market) - but only on days that end with the number four or nine. The next openings are Wednesday, April 9, 14, 19, 24 and 29.

Department stores may now be the place to check out trends and the latest products, but regular gatherings of itinerant merchants like Moran Market used to be the only one-stop shopping places in rural Korea.

The market was more than a shopping place, it was a much anticipated event akin to spring markets in feudal Europe. Traveling merchants brought exotic wares and news and local merchants sold fresh produce. On hot days merchants set up their stands under huge umbrellas. The townspeople would come out in droves to buy goods and to be entertained.

Moran Market offers a glimpse into this past. Even to this day, Moran is rich with Korean tradition. It is still an outdoor market decorated with functional umbrellas; it is still held at the same intervals and it still pulses with humanity and a solid earthiness.

Droves of people - Seongnam locals, Seoul natives, tourists and lots of children, up to 150,000 people on weekends - shop at this market. The children especially love to see the live poultry and puppies on sale. Some days, the crowds are so overwhelming that standing still is impossible. You are carried along by the streams of humanity.

As with any market, the low prices and a variety of interesting products draw people. What sets Moran Market apart is its historic, romantic appearance and allure, its famed sesame oil and hot pepper, and its version of dog meat soup (bosintang), which many Koreans protest is not unique to Korea, but found throughout Asia. Eating dog is an issue that divides Koreans like bullfighting divides Spaniards.

Moran Market is full of paradoxes. It is known as a traditional market, but it has been in its present location for barely more than a decade. It is only an hour's drive from central Seoul, but it feels like another time, almost another place.

HERE'S THE BUZZ---------------------------------------------------------

MERCHANTS AND PRODUCTS

"There's nothing we don't have," boasts the president of the market association, Jeon Seong-bae. Registered merchants are divided into 13 product categories: plants, grains, herbs, clothing, shoes, fish, vegetables, pets, hot pepper, meat and poultry, accessories, restaurants and others. The market is so famous for hot pepper that it sets the market price.

About 942 merchants are registered with the market association. The number does not account for people who occasionally show up at the market to sell homegrown fresh produce. Mr. Jeon estimates there are more than 1,400 merchants in all.

Most of the booths are family-run, headed by merchants who have been in the business for decades. The sight of a 90-year-old merchant is not unusual. The merchants change their products with the seasons. During spring, Seongnam locals often sell homegrown flowers.



PLACES TO EAT

Food stalls serving traditional Korean meals line the market. The cooks prepare their specialities the night before. One famous stand sells handmade kalguksu (flour noodle soup). Called Hongdukkae-wa Kaldoma, it serves 350 people a day.

If you're looking for a light, delicious snack, there are several ppeong twigi stands. One classic image associated with ppeong twigi is that of a merchant surrounded by children with eager eyes. Traditionally, as soon as the popping machine gives a loud bang, "Ppeong!," children quickly snatch up and munch on any wayward pops.

These days, it is more common to see a tired adult shopper lounging by the merchant, waiting for the freshest popped grains.



ITINERANT ENTERTAINERS

Moran Market is not a carnival, but the excitement is just as lofty. Itinerant entertainers lend a hand in making the market lively.

Picture a dance scene from the movie "Footloose," with the same dusty, small-town, unsophisticated feeling but set in Korea, and what you have is an image of one of the traveling entertainers who frequent Moran Sijang.

One troupe travels the market circuit performing while selling yeot (a type of taffy). One lively and bawdy performance last Saturday afternoon drew more than 200 people.

As the sound of drums and old Korean pop songs punctuated the air, people spontaneously converged around the yeot stand and Korean drums. Eager for a view, the audience sat on newspapers, squatted in the dirt or climbed onto trucks in the nearby parking lot. Performers danced while lip syncing to Korean "oldies, but goodies."

As the day progresses into night, the revelries become more intense. Onlookers and merchants will sometimes join in the dancing.

Another traveling merchant, who asked that his name be withheld, sells silver-cleaning polish by entertaining curious passersby with tricks using a pet monkey. The 5-year-old monkey, named Yeonsil, can do more than 10 tricks, from performing feats with numbers to putting his head on the floor in mock contrition.





by Joe Yong-hee

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