Underwear men of the late-night Peace MarketBusiness is booming for the first time in 10 years. While others working small businesses say that it’s hard to make ends meet, there is actually a place where products are flying off the shelves and the owners are skipping meals for customers. Look no further than the first floor of Sinpyeonghwa Market in Dongdaemun, Seoul.
Thanks to economic difficulties, surging oil prices and an unprecedented cold snap in December, people here are enjoying the best winter of their lives. The secret to their success is thermal underwear ― which allegedly instantly raises your perceived temperature by three degrees Celsius (37 degrees Fahrenheit). The JoongAng Ilbo met up with two market mavens that have been in the business for decades now. Park Yong-gyu (above left) has sold long johns for 25 years, and Park Won-sik (above right) for 30 years. Their tales of the past are as heartwarming as their products.
It’s 11 a.m. on a weekday, about the time for customers to stop coming (Sinpyeonghwa market is a night market these days), but on the first floor of Sinpyeonghwa Market near the recently-restored Cheonggye stream, there’s an endless line. The line comes to a stop at Building A, Shop No. 87, the “Chilbo Sanghwae (Chilbo & Co.),” owned by Park Yong-gyu. His shop is known for having a large number of loyal customers, most of whom are retailers, but it’s not hard to see people asking for just a pair or two of thermals. Park greets them in an affable North Jeolla provincial accent.
Popular brands are already out of stock. Park says he can’t remember the last time his business thrived this much. “I got into this business in 1981, but after the first few years, it was all downhill,” he says. “During the Asian economic crisis (1997-98), it took a turn for the better, but then business soon died again. But this winter, I’ve hit the jackpot. There’s a saying that goes, ‘Heaven helps the thermal underwear business.’ Well, I must say ‘Thank you. Amen’.”
“It may be that they come to see the nearby Cheonggye stream, but anyhow I have a lot more young people coming in these days,” he said. “The slow economy and record cold coinciding this year may have caused more age groups to wear thermal underwear.” He too speaks in an accent, from Sinan in South Jeolla province, from which he got the name of his shop.
“A lot of people come in and tell me, ‘This is the first time in 10 years I’ve bought long johns,’” he says. “Even retailers from the Gangnam area, where hardly anyone used to ask for long johns during some of the coldest times, come by pretty often. Well, I’m not saying I rake in the money because it’s not like I’m selling premium products, but anyhow, the business seems to be doing really well this winter.” Just as excited as these shopkeepers are the manufacturers of thermal underwear. SBW has sold 3.17 billion won ($3.17 million) worth of goods since Dec. 5, 2005 in the span of a week. Sales have increased 123 percent from last year’s 1.42 billion won. BYC’s sales have also increased by almost 10 billion won to 59.1 billion won in 2005, from a year ago.
“Sinan” owner Mr. Park got into this business in 1976 as a clerk. At the time, Park Chung Hee was president and the Cheonggye stream was an open sewer. Since then, Korea has had six different presidents and the Cheonggye stream has been paved over, then cleaned up and reopened. His first shop, which he opened after working as a clerk for three years, is now twice as large as it was when it was just 13 square meters wide (15.8 square yards). A mere 26 square meters may not seem like much, but at the Sinpyeonghwa Market, where shops of six to eight square meters are huddled together, it’s categorized as a “mammoth business.”
“Chilbo” owner Park used to be a salesperson for BYC. He spent more than 10 years visiting “Nonghyup” (National Agricultural Cooperative Federation) marketplaces in rural areas. He became the owner of a shop in 1981 with the money he raised this way. One may expect these two men to be ignorant of current affairs since they’ve spent the better half of the last 30 years selling long johns in a crowded store, but they’re fully aware of all the changes that have occurred in society. They look back on the past fondly, their stories perfectly matching as if told by the same person.
“Back in the 1970s, the textile industry was the darling of government economic planners. As part of that, the thermal underwear business too was a leading industry. I guess you could compare it with a modern startup company,” Sinan’s Mr. Park said.
“Things went pretty smoothly until the mid ‘80s, especially when the triple-layered long johns first came out. They got sold out so fast. I would open the store at 4 a.m., rush out to the factory and receive a number ticket and wait for my share of long johns,” said Chilbo’s Mr. Park.
“The profit margin for long johns has always been small. So I wasn’t really making a profit after I paid the factory for the products, but it still felt great to go home with cash in a bag after the day. I felt like I would become rich in no time although I was working on an empty stomach. It was just like our national economy,” said Sinan’s Mr. Park.
“I didn’t even think it was strenuous because I didn’t have time to think about anything else. I spent all day on my business except for perhaps two hours. Then I realized I had been neglecting my children. Their teacher once told me that the kids ‘didn’t want to go home because there was no-one at home,’” said Chilbo’s Mr. Park.
“Nevertheless, those were the good old days. In the ‘90s, people started looking down on long johns just because they came to live more comfortably. During the military regime, schools used to check whether students were wearing thermal underwear, which helped our business, but that stopped when the civilian government took over. The textile industry in general became unpopular and thermal underwear businessmen have become identical to farmers,” said Sinan’s Mr. Park.
“These days, so many thermal underwear products come from China, but thankfully more and more people are championing thermal underwear. I hear it’s an environmental move to save energy,” said Chilbo’s Mr. Park.
Having been through all this together, the two Parks are closer than brothers. They’re not the only close shopkeepers here. Everyone here knows everyone else. But one can sense a curious rivalry between the two Parks as frontrunners in the war between BYC and SBW, the two leading companies in the thermal underwear business. These two companies even went to court over the triple-layer thermal underwear in the ’80s and ramie cloth underwear in the ’90s. So the Parks are in a sort of rivalry. Not that they ever raise their voices. They merely grin and have the following exchange:
“Just take a look at the stock prices. Our BYC stock is so much higher,” said Chilbo’s Mr. Park.
“When people say underwear, they think SBW. You can tell this from just taking a look at the sales figures,” said Sinan’s Mr. Park.
There are many shops in the thermal underwear section at the Sinpyeonghwa Market that are passed down to the owners’ children. People here joke that “the thermal underwear business leaves you with so much overstock you need to pass it down to the next generation to get rid of it all.”
Sinan and Chilbo are among these shops. Sinan owner Mr. Park’s second son, Jae-sun, has been helping out since two years ago, when he was discharged from military service. His dad works for 12 hours a day starting at 5:30 a.m., comes home at 9 p.m. and stay until early the next day. Chilbo Sanghwae owner Mr. Park’s oldest son, Hyuk-chul, also carries on the tradition. A former employee of BYC, just like his dad, he has continuously said for the past three years that he wants to carry on this business. Now the two shops will become second-generation rivals.
This doesn’t spell the end for the “first general founders,” of course. Their “work ethic” is still strong after years of experience. So when they answer the question “How long will you keep working?” they answer in unison once again. Both wink and say they’ll work as long as their health permits. But they both agree, they can be confident about their health.
by Wook Nam-koong