Market down, damp outlookIt’s a holiday afternoon, and pedestrians are elbowing their way through the crowd outside Dongdaemun’s aging baseball and soccer stadiums. The area is decidedly unfashionable compared to the modern, high-rise fashion malls across the street, in the heart of the Dongdaemun commercial district.
The scene inside the derelict soccer stadium is even stranger. Crammed onto the former athletic field are nearly 900 vendors’ stalls, lined in endless rows on the asphalt field.
Regulars at the old Cheonggyecheon flea market, whose stalls stood under a highway overpass in nearby Hwanghak-dong, may recognize a few familiar faces here. In fact, after the city’s Cheonggyecheon stream restoration and redevelopment project forced out merchants and their creaky stands from the Cheonggyecheon area of northeast Seoul last year, about half of those vendors moved their wares here.
Last November, squadrons of riot police swooped in to drive out the last stalwart street merchants. That legendary flea market, with all of its myths and nuances, was relegated to history.
Those who continued trading moved into Dongdaemun Stadium, whose flea market opened Jan. 16. Although traces of the color and old glory endure ― the cornucopia includes fossils of prehistoric animals, brass crafts imported from China, classic vinyl records, antique cameras and old Korean books ― much of the excitement and nostalgia that lured people to Hwanghak-dong in days gone by has vanished. Compounding this, vendors are angry over the city’s perceived failure to keep its promise to provide certain amenities.
Mix of goods
On this holiday, a fair number of shoppers wander about, stopping to crane their necks now and then to have a closer look at wares displayed on the shelves. Sometimes, they stop to hand-inspect an item, or flip around something that’s upside down.
“I found some old stuff here, but there are a number of things that you can find elsewhere other than in the flea market,” said Lee Min-suk, who was visiting the Dongdaemun flea market for the first time, with her family. “Things like antiques that I found in Hwanghak-dong are scattered around but are mixed up with other things like clothes.”
Unlike at the old flea market, many of the stands here sell goods such as clothes, socks and toys that are commonly sold in stores.
“The authenticity of the flea market is gone,” said Kim In-suk, a vendor who has switched over from antiques and used goods to bamboo items.
Jeon Seong-cheol, who sells brassware, said, “There used be something spectacular about the Cheonggyecheon flea market, but since it moved here, it became ordinary.”
Besides the fading authenticity of the reincarnated flea market, merchants said the biggest problem was the shrinking number of visitors, with even fewer actually buying.
“The sales here are nothing compared to those when we were in Cheonggyecheon, and a shopkeeper running a stall beside mine collapsed from high blood pressure and stress,” said Park Seon-hi, a merchant selling sunglasses. “The city mayor, Lee Myung-bak, killed the flea market.” One of the mayor’s promises in the 2002 election was the restoration of Cheongyecheon stream, to be followed by development of streamside pedestrian walkways.
The flea-market shopkeepers attributed their plunging sales to several factors such as the cramped conditions in the stadium, as well as the lack of electricity and restrooms. Because electricity cannot be fed into individual stands, stalls must close by sunset.
“The street stands that were once spread out along nine blocks are now concentrated within a single block, resulting in many merchants selling overlapping items,” said Ms. Kim.
Origins after the war
A city landmark since the late 1950s, the original market formed when secondhand dealers flocked to the stream during the early stages of postwar rebuilding. The used-goods market hit its stride in 1973, when the stream was paved over.
Prior to the start of restoration work in mid-2003, the Cheonggyecheon flea market stretched out over nearly nine blocks with vendors displaying antiques, used electronics, clothes and canned foods, not to mention porn videos and black-market U.S. military goods.
It was hardly an exaggeration to say you could find literally anything at the Cheonggyecheon flea market. There was even a saying that secondhand dealers there could bring a tank; nobody would bat an eyelash.
Some shopkeepers contended that the old flea market had a larger-than-life quality that almost encouraged people to spend. Now, they said, many visitors to the Dongdaemun-area flea market think it’s just a place to hunt down very cheap goods.
“Most people come here just to have a look or are searching for a bargain,” said Lee Gi-sung, who sells aromatic products. “They ask questions but do not make a purchase.”
Adding to their laundry list of worries is the impending rainy season in late June, followed by summer’s steamy conditions.
“When it rains, there is no business,” said Ms. Park, the sunglass vendor. “Summer is at the door, and without shade we are likely to die from the summer heat.”
The city broke its promise to provide services like electricity, water, more restrooms and tents large enough to keep out sun and rain, shopkeepers say ― promises made before the merchants agreed to relocate.
“Because the city drove us out, they need to provide us with shade, electricity and water as they promised earlier,” Ms. Park said. “At least the city should make it feasible for us to do business and make a living.”
It was 3 p.m., more than six hours after the market had opened. Ms. Park said she had not yet sold a single pair of sunglasses that day.
“Parking and electricity are not available, and the infrastructure is just not there,” said Kim Dong-jin, who deals in fossils. “The city does not care about us anymore, and there’s a limit to what merchants can do for themselves.”
A city official at the office overseeing traditional markets, who declined to give his name, said Seoul was putting in electrical lines, but was unwilling to set up shade tents. He added that the merchants are responsible for some amenities, like the sunshades.
When asked whether the city had pledged to erect sunshades before removing shopkeepers from Cheonggyecheon, he declined to comment.
Wandering through the passages here, it is not hard to find bitterness on the part of these Dongdaemun merchants toward City Hall.
“The city kicked all of us out of the Cheonggyecheon area while it is holding the Hi Seoul festival,” said Ms. Kim, referring to a much-hyped weeklong festival that ended last Sunday. “I think it is an irony.”
by Limb Jae-un