Haebangchon hides a revived market wrapped in decades of history
As spring comes to full bloom in Korea, a small town in central Seoul is also waking up from a long winter sleep.
One of the oldest towns in the city, Haebangchon in Yongsan District, central Seoul, is poised for revival with the city government’s ambitious 10-billion-won (about $8 million) urban regeneration project finally nearing its end after six years of planning and construction.
Leading the town’s new vigor is Shin Heung Art Market, a historic marketplace that thrived during the 1970s after Korea became liberated from Japan’s annexation, but whose popularity waned over the years. It has been refashioned into a cultural art market with the aim of breathing life back into the space while still preserving its history.
Today, the vintage buildings are filled with young business owners selling all sorts of items from food and coffee to jewelry and candles. There is also a ceramics studio, a photography studio, a shoe store and office spaces. Young locals roam the decades-old market and pose for photos under the backdrop of worn-down buildings and telephone lines that crisscross above the town’s small alleyways like spider webs.
“The bulk of our customers are people in their 20s and 30s, and foreigners,” said Hyde Lee, 31, the owner and barista of Upstanding Coffee at Shin Heung Art Market. “They make up the market’s cool and liberal atmosphere.”
Relatively new to the neighborhood, Lee opened the coffee shop in July last year. He sells Australian-style coffees.
“I saw this place for the first time two years ago during winter,” said Lee. “It reminded me a lot of Hong Kong. At the time, there weren’t these new pillars and the roof, and the run-down cement walls of the buildings were covered with snow.”
“I could picture the cafe here. I knew it would be a fun project,” Lee said.
The twisting staircase that stands erect in the middle of the cafe’s first floor goes up to the second floor and a rooftop.
From there, visitors can get a closer look at the transparent circular roof that has been installed as part of the city’s regeneration plan. It encircles the market’s entire 2,101-meter square area. In the evening, the roof lights up and keeps the market bright until late into the night.
Nearly all the buildings in the market have rooftop spaces. Situated atop the hillside town of Haebangchon, it is a hot spot for many seeking to bask in some sunlight or enjoy the city’s golden sunset. It also offers a panoramic view of central Seoul and the city’s iconic landmark N Seoul Tower.
The town’s urban landscape is one of the reasons that Haebangchon has been able to avoid becoming crowded with tall buildings and apartments. City officials have prohibited the construction of buildings that measure over 12 meters in height.
To the southwest of the market is an area of 2.43-million-square-meters that is set to be the site of Yongsan Park, a new national park to be built on the former U.S. army base by 2027.
“The quickest route from N Seoul Tower to Yongsan Park is by passing through the market,” said Lee Choong-gil, 70, a local real estate agent. “The market is essentially between the two of the most iconic spots of the city.”
A popular eatery in the market is a bona fide Thai restaurant called Pad Ka Paw.
“When we first opened in 2017, there were not very many businesses,” said Sriprateep Paw, 44, the owner-chef of Pad Ka Paw.
Before settling in at Shin Heung Art Market, Paw had operated a Thai noodle cart with his wife next to Sungshin Women’s University.
His wife first spotted the space in the market by complete chance. It was an abandoned house at the time, but the couple worked together to turn the space into a restaurant.
“Since we opened Pad Ka Paw here, I think this is the happiest time of our lives,” Paw said.
Shin Heung Art Market was established in 1968, a few years after Korea’s liberation from Japan.
The market’s heyday was in the 70s and 80s when the local textile industry boomed. There were over 300 textile factories in Haebangchon.
“Back then, people would come to the market from all over Seoul," said real estate agent Lee. He is native to the village since his parents moved to Haebangchon from North Korea after Korea’s liberation in 1945. “It mostly sold groceries and clothes. There were also restaurants. Hot bowls of noodles were a popular dish to eat in the market. The market was at the center of commercial activity in Seoul.”
But the market’s profits began to dip in the 1990s when the local textile industry began to suffer due to industrialization, outsourcing of labor and the emergence of large supermarkets. By the early 2000s, many people had moved out of the town and barely any stores in the market were open.
Jeon Sun-hye, 48, who moved to Haebangchon in the earlier 2000s described the area as a “slum.”
“I didn’t want to move here at first,” said Jeon. “Shin Heung Art Market at the time was very dark, dirty, quiet and almost creepy. Everything felt dead.”
But she said that the town’s overall atmosphere has taken a turn as young people began to take interest in the town’s vintage ambiance. “Thanks to them, the culture here has completely turned around.”
Jeon is pâtissier who graduated from Le Cordon Bleu’s Tokyo campus. She owns the cafe Le Montblanc in Haebangchon. The shop is just some two meters across from the other stores in Shin Heung Art Market.
According to her, the cafe space used to be her husband’s textile company until five years ago.
“Since the 1970s, my father-in-law was a textile worker in the town who sold his clothes to retailers,” she said. “After he retired, my husband took over his profession and opened a textile factory here.”
Carrying on the history of the building and her family’s legacy, the signature desserts on the menu at Le Montblanc are mousse cakes shaped like knit sweaters and balls of yarn.
“While other patisseries flip through dessert books for ideas, I read my husband’s books on textiles,” said Jeon.
Though her business has seen a downturn since Covid-19, she said she feels “glad to have opened Le Montblanc in Haebangchon.”
“I am very proud to be working here every day. My desserts bear the history of Haebangchon, this building and our family, and that is something that I cherish.”
As more people are rediscovering Haebangchon and Shin Heung Art Market, the town has garnered media attention as well.
Shin Heung Art Market has appeared in dramas such as JTBC’s “Itaewon Class” (2020) and KBS’s “When the Camellia Blooms” (2019), and the entertainment program “Baek Jong-won's Alley Restaurant” (2018-).
Such sudden media attention and influx of people in a small area often leads to gentrification, much like what happened in Gyeongnidan-gil, several blocks away from Haebangchon.
To prevent soaring rent and real estate prices, the Seoul Metropolitan Government, the Yongsan District Office, the landlords and tenants signed an agreement in 2016 to not raise the rent for six years. All 44 landlords of the buildings in Shin Heung Art Market signed it.
But the agreement doesn’t seem to be holding up against time, according to real estate agent Lee.
“The prices of some buildings inside the market have shot up over the last few years,” said Lee. “In some cases, it costs as much as 100 million won for just one pyeong [three square meters].”
Lee continued, “There aren’t many places like Haebangchon left in Seoul, and people here, including myself, take great pride in the town’s history and its evolution. The city, townspeople and business owners here have been very actively participating in the public planning process of the area’s revitalization project. So I am hopeful that people in Haebangchon and Shin Heung Art Market can stay rooted, and can serve as an archetype for other less developed parts of Seoul.”
BY LEE JIAN [firstname.lastname@example.org]