Dongdaemun Postcard: From Stall to Tower, Merchant to Tourist

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The stalls are set up like tiny stores; an air-conditioned box designated for each merchant. Most hide behind their goods like hermit crabs in their shells, recoiling at the sight of the hot summer sun. Others yell out prices and wave signs on the sidewalk, trying to catch the attention of the passerby.

“I’ve even learned how to speak a bit of English,” said Shim Jeong-sook, a merchant in her 50s working at one of these stalls. “It really helps with the business. I’d learn Chinese too, but it’s much too difficult at my age.”

She has worked in Dongdaemun, Seoul for the past four years, and has observed much during her time here. She sells a variety of pajamas and comfortable clothing, the articles on display thin and flowing, perfect for the summer heat. When asked why the district attracts so many different people, she responded that it is a “good place to look around, have fun, and visit department stores.”

Those very department stores, cream-colored buildings heavily concentrated in this particular area, tower over the streets and the stalls, as if asserting their dominance over the crowded city.

The towering department stores at Dongdaemun. (Source: Kim Kyoung-Joong)

 

The Dongdaemun area, presumably in the early 1900s. (Source: Unknown)

According to the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), South Korea is the seventh most traveled country by tourists in Asia and the Pacific. In the past ten years, the country has seen the number of annual visitors double. Despite THAAD, Chinese tourists still reign; in the month of June 2017 alone, approximately 255,000 Chinese tourists entered the country. In the same month, 168,000 Japanese tourists and 32,000 Vietnamese tourists came to South Korea.

Determined to make the best shopping out of the Korean experience, many of these tourists head straight for the most heavily-populated, bustling shopping areas. Dongdaemun area is one of the most prominent stops.

To attest to Dongdaemun’s popularity, a group of tourists from the U.S explained they were appreciative of the duty free shopping and the “open green space,” saying that they enjoyed the many trees and that “it feels fresh.” I’m not quite sure what they meant by the greenery. There seems to be more steel and concrete rather than plants and trees; especially in recent years.

There is, however, an artificial rose garden in the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, shining with LED lights. (Source: Pixabay)

The Seoul Metropolitan Government set a target of having 17,000,000 foreign tourists visit the country in 2017, also collaborating with businesses in Dongdaemun in an effort to morph the area into a popular, tourist-friendly location. (In 2015, KTO estimated that around 13,200,000 tourists visited the country.)

As a result, the Dongdaemun Future Foundation, an organization aimed at growing the area, has created initiatives to further increase the number of tourists. Foundation chairman Dong-ho Kim stated, “[We] will focus on making Dongdaemun the center of the fashion tourism industry.” 

The area surrounding the eastern palace gate (dongdaemun), probably around the turn of the century in the early 1900s. This area would become the Dongdaemun we know today. (Source: Unknown)

The first version of the Dongdaemun market was established in 1905, but the first time it underwent major changes was in the 1970s, under the Park Chung-hee regime. At the time, Dongdaemun was deemed the center of the textile industry in South Korea.

With the addition of modern buildings that characterize the area today, including the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in 2014 (designed by Zaha Hadid), Dongdaemun is today a major shopping destination, growing in concrete and popularity as new “improvement projects” emerge each year. What is called the “Dongdaemun market” today starts from Gwangjang Market and spans 1.3 km, including around 30,000 stores. 

Dongdaemun Design Plaza, designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. (Source: Nestor Lacle)

The competition for customers in Dongdaemun is fierce, and this reality is particularly hard on smaller shops.

“The most difficult part of my job is probably interacting with customers of different ethnicities. It’s really bad, but I find that I’m so much more comfortable with Korean people,” said Shim at the stall. “It’s much easier to strike up a quick conversation and chat with them, which also makes it easier to sell products. But I’m in the process of improving on my interactions with other customers.”

Her small stall of clothes and fabric, hanging on wires, is dwarfed by the colossal department stores, among them Doota.

Because Doota, owned by the chaebol Doosan, has approximately 55,000 local visitors and 10,000 foreign visitors a day, the department store has also recently implemented the provision of special services for foreign tourists: an information desk (complete with information available in English, Chinese, and Japanese), a tax refund office for duty-free shopping, and a place to exchange currency. These comforts are among the many that Shim can’t afford to provide to her non-Korean customers.

“In South Korea, we now sell many more products to foreigners than we do to locals. Chinese tourists come here a lot as well, and it has been helpful to the business,” Lee Ji-young, a store owner of one of the accessory booths at Doota smiles hesitantly before going on. “I’d say that the Chinese make up around 80 percent of the customers here, but the number has recently decreased because of the THAAD issue.”

Earlier this year, China began clamping down on tourism to South Korea, as a response to Korea implementing a missile-defense system against North Korea. In March, the number of Chinese tourists declined drastically. A department store was near-empty in Myeongdong, another popular shopping destination for tourists. (Jieun Choi/Korea Exposé)

With an objective of helping smaller businesses like Shim’s prosper, the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Doosan corporation have signed a memorandum to “grow Dongdaemun into [a] global shopping district,” and have agreed on the aim to “develop Dongdaemun’s traditional market into a must-visit shopping district for inbound tourists by integrating Korea’s cultural factors.”

Dongdaemun Future Foundation is an organization created by Doosan and partially funded by the Seoul Metropolitan Government. With the purpose of “develop[ing] the Dongdaemun traditional market into must-travel shopping district,” the two companies have collaborated to create multiple different advancements in an attempt to attract more foreign tourists to Dongdaemun.

Rather than being upset or skeptical about the Dongdaemun Future Foundation, small-scale merchants like Shim tend to lean more towards the hopeful side. As the organization’s primary focus is to bring in more tourists from around the world, these merchants have great anticipation for more new customers.

From the tiniest clothing stalls to the largest department stores, the merchants of Dongdaemun are doing all they can to retain their businesses. Shim Jeong-sook is struggling to learn Chinese and Doota is attempting to implement more tourist services. The competitive game of survival of the fittest carries on, even though the players and the scenery are not what the merchants in 1905 would’ve predicted in their wildest dreams.

 

Cover image: Dongdaemun Design Plaza, left, and the shopping towers at Dongdaemun, right. (Source: Nestor Lacle)

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For a beautiful photo essay on what Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza created, and destroyed, check out:

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Sydney Yejin Chun is a rising sophomore at Seoul Foreign School and a participant in Korea Exposé's 2017 Journalism Summer School.