Venerable flea market seeks a future amid urban changes
The open-air stall keepers rioted in 2003, hurling gas canisters and stones at police intent on enforcing Seoul City’s ruling that open air stalls must vacate the refurbished Cheongye Stream area. The two sides eventually reached an agreement, and on Jan. 16, 2004 the flea market moved to the former Olympic stadium.
These days, Pungmul Flea Market, formerly known as the Hwanghak-dong Market, has restored its reputation for having everything but artillery. Its 894 stalls sell everything from household goods like sets of toothbrushes and batteries for 1,000 won ($1) to genuine fur coats for 3.8 million won.
One open-air stall was selling a bottle of coke made in 1980. The price: 25,000 won. “These coke bottles are not produced anymore so collectors buy a bottle even when it’s that expensive,” said the stall keeper.
Other genuinely distinctive goods that are not easily found elsewhere include a 70,000-won karaoke set, clamps for using coal briquettes and phonographs from the 1960s. There is also Goryeo Dynasty celadon which the seller claims came from North Korea, pornographic material and even artillery cartridges. About 100 food stalls sell all sorts of food, even whale meat.
But the faces of stall keepers were not very bright as this winter has been slack. The level of visitors and sales have decreased. Based on sales figures for Sundays, when the market is busiest, the number of visitors declined to 30,000 in the winter of 2004 but recovered to 70,000 last October with the restoration of Cheonggye Stream. However, the number of visitors has fallen again to 30,000 recently.
Perceived economic conditions are worse. Garment dealer Kim Ki-deuk, 62, who used to run an open-air stall for twenty years at 8th street and Cheonggye, said, “It’s hard to break 50,000 won a day. I borrowed 2 million won to rent a stall so I have to pay 24,000 won a day for principal and interest. Nothing is left when I subtract the cost of merchandise. My savings have been eaten up.”
“One thing that’s better than when I was at Cheonggye Stream is that I don’t have to worry about crackdowns. I wish Seoul City would promote the market with active advertisements to make up for the passersby we used to have at Hwanghak-dong,” said Mr. Kim.
Lee Sang-gyu, 52, sells aloha shirts and dress shirts from a 2 square-meter platform, but he also uses an adjacent platform because its original occupant couldn’t make ends meet. “It’s hard to earn 20,000 won to 30,000 won on weekdays. So about 30 percent of shops do not open at all,” said Mr. Lee.
Alas, little help may be forthcoming from Seoul City, which plans to convert the surrounding area into a park. The open air stalls in Dongdaemun Stadium are one of the obstacles to the plan, which includes using a nearby baseball field and restoring the Dongdaemun fortress site. But the vendors remain resolute. “If the city closes the flea market in the stadium, we’ll have nowhere else to go. I will not give up on this site, said Mr. Kim.
Some are hoping that the National Association of Open-air Stall Keepers will help them, so they participate in demonstrations to support other markets. Seoul City probably faces many obstacles before it can build its new park.
by Shin June-bong, Kim Ho-jung