Namdaemun’s ‘goblin market’

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Namdaemun’s ‘goblin market’

For variety and scale, there aren’t many shopping districts like Namdaemun Market, one of Seoul’s prime tourist attractions. Korea’s largest wholesale market, Namdaemun has more than 10,000 stalls, where goods of all kinds are sold; it attracts an estimated 100,000 visitors a day, 7,000 to 10,000 of them foreigners. Its proximity to two of the city’s biggest department stores only adds to its status as a shopping destination.
But within Namdaemun, there’s a smaller attraction that’s not as famous. It’s an underground shopping arcade that’s been known for decades as a “doggaebi sijang,” or “goblin market.”
It started out after the Korean War as a black market dealing in Western goods that had been smuggled out of U.S. military bases. It was known as a “goblin market” because, though there was practically nothing displayed on the shelves, the merchants could produce a whole variety of illicit goods from under the table ― like a goblin performing a feat of magic ―if a customer knew what to ask for.
Until restrictions on overseas travel were lifted in 1992, this arcade was one of the only places where working-class Koreans could get a taste of real Hershey chocolate and Nestle’s coffee without paying a fortune at department stores.
Often, these Western imports would find their way to smaller markets in residential districts, where merchants who’d bought them at the goblin market sold them under the counter (at higher prices). In the past, according to a merchant here, foreign companies sometimes used the goblin market to gauge local interest before officially launching their products in Korea.
Nowadays, the goblin market still deals in imports, but things have changed. “Merchants still purchase some alcoholic beverages and cosmetic products through illegal channels,” says a Namdaemun Market spokesman. “But nowadays, rather than getting their merchandise through the military base, they deal directly with distributors and importers.”
Indeed, most of the products we examined on a recent visit had official stickers on the back indicating that they’d gone through customs. Nor are the prices absurdly low. A pair of Jil Sander sneakers costs about 180,000 won ($173); a bottle of premium whiskey can be had for about 100,000 won.
Still, the prices seem to be lower by about a third than what you’d find in department stores. One merchant, who deals in imported cosmetics, says that’s simply because the merchants here are willing to minimize their profit margins, taking as little as a tenth of the profit most retailers would take for the same item.
Another possibility, of course, is that there are still plenty of illicit goods being sold here, whether the source is a military PX or “bottari [bundles] merchants” who bring boxes of merchandise back with them from trips abroad. Judging from the multinational array of products being sold, it does seem safe to say that if the U.S. military is still a source of illicit goods at the goblin market, it’s now just one among many.

Bargains aside, for Koreans of a certain age, the goblin market is a very nostalgic scene. Colorful displays of chocolates and caramels, frozen sausages and hams, aftershave lotions, cucumber-based massage cream for women ―in the 1970s, these items were among the few imports that most Koreans could find.
It’s a scene you won’t see anywhere else. The 900 or so stalls in the long, underground passageway make for a claustrophobic effect (and make you worry about what would happen if a fire broke out.) Food merchants offer samples to passersby; early in the morning, the arcade is filled with retailers purchasing goods by the bagful.
Many of the products here have improvised nicknames, largely because local shoppers can’t memorize their full non-Korean names. A mix of honey roasted almonds and cashews is known as “airplane nuts.” Tootsie Pops are “American lollipops.” Beef ribs that have been cut crosswise are “L.A. ribs.” An herbal soap is dubbed a “scrubbing soap.”
These days, the goblin market has considerably more ethnic variety than it once did. A recent visit turned up products imported from Turkey, Spain, Mexico and Tunisia. Of course, that’s based on what the merchants told us. Frankly, if you want reliable information on a product’s origins, and want to be sure that it came here legitimately, this probably isn’t the place to shop.
There are plenty of alleged medicinal products for sale, and the buyer is well advised to beware of these. Health foods are sometimes advertised as medicine, with inadequately translated product information; diet foods are displayed with exaggerated descriptions of their effects. Vitamins are also popular here. A visitor will find kitchenware, perfume, glasses, electric razors, curling irons and cheese. Recently, a branch of the Kosney home furnishings chain opened in the arcade.
There are brand-name goods priced lower than in Itaewon or in neighborhood shops; many such retailers buy their merchandise at markets like this and mark them up by 20 to 30 percent. The best deals at the goblin market can be had between midnight and 4 a.m., when veteran retailers do their shopping. During those hours, you might bargain a merchant down to 23,000 or 25,000 won on something priced at 30,000 won.
Find out whether a merchant gives refunds before you buy. Some won’t accept credit cards, especially if you want a better deal. If you’re looking for a bargain on something specific, bring a Korean friend.

by Park Soo-mee

The goblin market is in the basement of Daedo Arcade, near the Mesa department store. Daedo Arcade is located on Namdaemun Market’s central lane; tell someone you’re looking for “Daedo sheechang” and they’ll probably be able to help you out. The market is closed on the first and third Sunday of each month, and on Lunar New Year’s Day. Wholesalers operate from midnight to 6 a.m., and retailers are open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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