[FOUNTAIN]A piece of Seoul’s history

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[FOUNTAIN]A piece of Seoul’s history

What do Nangok, Namdaemun, Banghak-dong and Hwanghak-dong have in common? The answer is a flea market.
Such markets are found all over Seoul, but the best is the one in Hwanghak-dong, the neighborhood of Cheonggyecheon 8-ga and 9-ga. There are over 1,500 shops and vendors selling everything except tanks and missiles. Flea markets are known as dokkaebi , meaning haunted market. The Hwanghak-dong market is a digest of modern Korean history.
The area used to contain rice fields where cranes were spotted until the Japanese occupation, and thus it earned the name Hwanghak, or yellow crane. The market’s history began in the 1950s after the Korean War. The war left many people homeless, and they gathered along the banks of the Cheonggyecheon stream to trade U.S. military supplies and second-hand goods. The area also became a prostitution district attracting American soldiers.
In the 1960s, the government-led export drive transformed the area into a center for wig trade, in which the hair of poor Korean women was made into wigs to be sold in the United States and Japan. The 1970s saw the Saemaeul movement, a nationwide campaign to reform the agricultural sector. Folk craft items made at agricultural industrial complexes poured into the Hwanghak-dong market. At the peak, over 200 shops specialized in antiques and folk crafts.
Two international sports events, the Asian Games in 1986 and the Seoul Olympics in 1988, defined the decade. Prior to the events, the Chun Doo Hwan administration relocated the antiques market to Insa-dong and Jangan-dong, to create new cultural spots. Machine parts and motors replaced antiques in Hwanghak-dong. In the 1990s, redevelopment in Wangsimni and other Cheonggyecheon areas drove local merchants out, and they gathered in Hwanghak-dong to open street stalls.
The Cheonggyecheon restoration project began this year. Vendors are determined to physically protest the project but their chances seem slim. Before Hwanghak-dong becomes history, why not go to see the market? Every street and back alley holds a piece of history from the 1950s to the present. People still talk about this market online. “Where can I find aphrodisiacs?” “Where do they sell fatigues and bulletproof helmets?” The answer still is the Hwanghak-dong dokkaebi market.


by Lee Kyu-youn

The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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