Throwaway keepsakes

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Throwaway keepsakes

In a quiet, almost invisible, gift shop inside the Expo Science Park in Daejeon, miniatures of Korean totem poles are jumbled together with the old, dusty postcards of Kkumdori, the official mascot of the 1993 Daejeon Exposition.

In Insa-dong, a tacky, plastic key-holder of a Korean groom and a bride clad in the pink and blue traditional wedding costumes is on sale for 500 won. A tiny, golden sticker on the back of the dolls, however, reveals in obscure, gray ink, "Made in China."

In Jeonju's Airport duty-free shop, replicas of regional dance-masks worn by traditional dancers of Andong, North Gyeongsang province, tempt tourists hungry for something cheap and exotic.

All these items are kitschy and far from traditional or authentic. Almost as bad, they lack creativity.

Travelers worldwide cannot escape tacky, factory-produced souvenirs whenever they go abroad. In New York, you can buy refrigerator magnets of the Statue of Liberty. In the Japanese town of Miyajima, every duty-free shop offers a box of momiji manju, a maple-leaf-shaped bun with bean-jam filling, and in Geneva, a three-inch Swiss Army knife or a brindled Swiss cow keyholder.

In Korea, however, finding authentic souvenirs can be even more tricky because most items on sale are special products from other regions, and what is called "traditional" often ends up being mass-produced goods from China or Vietnam.

Except a few specialized antique shops in Insa-dong (a traditional shopping neighborhood in central Seoul), products on display at the souvenir shops across the country often end up being all alike -- one of the reasons why more and more tourists take advantage of duty-free shopping, which offers the same selections in one convenient location.

"I do most of my shopping at the airport duty-free whenever I come to Seoul," says Takako Chiba, a frequent visitor to Korea from Japan. "Sometimes I go to Insa-dong and just look for things I want to buy. But then I'll still wait until the last day. That way it saves an awful lot of time for me to do other things like going to a beauty spa or shopping for clothes."

At the National Souvenir Centers in Myeongdong and Insa-dong, a self-proclaimed one-stop shopping mall for tourists, a display of regional products from all over the nation attracts an average of 500 customers a day. Typical souvenirs found in these stores that are popular with foreign tourists are embroidered keyholders, lacquerware, teapots, mulberry paper and fans.

Roberto Graziani, a World Cup guest from Italy who shops at the National Souvenir Center, however, didn't seem to mind the lack of originality and the regional specificity in many of the collectibles he chose for his friends.

When he learned that the dance masks he bought were from Hahoe Village in North Gyongsang province and the jade he was thinking of buying for his wife was from Chuncheon, he said, "It leaves the shopper with more selection without making too much effort. It's good."

Soccer-related souvenirs sold in official World Cup souvenir stations in Seoul subways and at the stadiums have gotten a little more creative than say a year ago, with a few eccentric items having been introduced.

Though many items on display in the windows are of ordinary items, such as "Be the Reds" T-shirts, caps, backpacks and memorial coins, inside the store are more unusual products, like a parasol with the FIFA emblem, a paper model of Sangam World Cup Stadium and a crystal soccer ball with the FIFA official logo in it.

One of the best-selling items during the tournament was the character miniatures of Korean soccer players -- already about 400,000 have been sold. According to a salesperson at the World Cup Souvenir Center in City Hall Subway station, miniatures of star players like Ahn Jung-hwan and the coach Guus Hiddink go out of stock as soon as they are put on display.

But the heavy license fees that FIFA charges mean that official merchandise is expensive. The price of a keyholder in these stores ranges from 10,000 won ($8) to 25,000 won. A golden soccer ball on a wooden pedestal engraved with logos of the 32 countries in the tournament was on sale for 640,000 won.

The surplus of tacky souvenirs reflects a less-than-confident tourist industry. Many Koreans would agree that tradition no longer exists in many of the tourist destinations the city of Seoul picks to push. Even in Insa-dong, on a street the city of Seoul introduces as "Mary's Alley," little has been done to revive the neighborhood's original history (Insa-dong was once a site of the Independence Movement and designated as the center of Seoul back in 1896) and strengthen the city's authenticity. The shops on Mary's Alley and the goods they sell may look traditional, but really they're not.

In fact, you may find stylized restaurants, taverns and shops in Insa-dong that offers the aromas of tea, the sound of the gayageum, or zither, and minature pagodas. Many Koreans, however, would agree that these aspects only reflect the naked consumerism of the local tourist industry, and how little authentic tradition that most tourists crave. Or perhaps the issue also comes down to the laziness of tourists who limit their souvenir shopping to the city's designated sites.

"People say Insa-dong is authentically Korean," says Lee Dae-woo, a 27-year-old resident of Seoul. "But I feel this place can't be more foreign to a Korean who grew up in Seoul all his life. It's almost exotic."

by Park Soo-mee

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