Gukje-Sijang (Gukje Market), a traditional market located in Busan, has been catching the attention of numerous tourists ever since its appearance in the film Ode to My Father (2014). This film, one of the most successful movies in Korea last winter, shed light on the value of Korean traditional markets as an evocative portrayal of the past in present times. These interests, combined with the variety of gourmet foods and flamboyant traditional goods they sell, have contributed to the growing attention toward the resurrection of traditional markets.
Indeed, lately, a number of crucial efforts to vitalize Korean traditional markets are being carried out at both the government and individual levels alike. In the case of efforts from the government, amenities have been installed to make traditional markets more convenient and customer-friendly. Examples include arcades and tents that assure untroubled business management even in harsh weather conditions. Additionally, various cultural events concerning these markets are also taking place. For instance, many contest exhibitions have been held, seeking new promotion methods for traditional markets.
Meanwhile, a leading pioneer in promoting traditional markets is Lee Hee Jun, a passionate young man who has just reached his late-twenties. Interestingly, he designates himself as a traditional market docent. “Docent is a term that refers to people who specialize in explaining artworks,” Lee said, “I sensed the necessity that someone should illustrate and record these priceless traditional markets of Korea, so I decided to become a docent myself.” These significant endeavors from various bodies are, in fact, contributing to transforming this interest from a short-term fad into a long lasting phenomenon.
▲ Lee Hee Jun, a traditional market docent, explaining his thoughts on the revitalization of traditional markets. Photographed by Suh Jaehee.
Before Korean Traditional Markets Became a Tradition
“The emergence of Korean traditional markets traces its history back to prehistoric times,” Lee explained. Primary markets in Korea originated in the form of memorial ceremonies; a massive number of people congregated to perform ancestral rites, and the exchange of goods between these people transpired spontaneously. From then on, traditional markets constantly began to make progress. In Joseon Dynasty, however, this consistent advancement began to stagger slightly. This was due to the fact that Joseon was an agrarian based society, and as a result disdained people who engaged in commerce. Nevertheless, the types of markets did diversify, with regard to the proliferation of population and emergence of various goods.
▲ Traditional market of the past. Provided by Mr & Miss Egg House.
Yet the era of colonization under the Japanese had the most decisive influence on traditional markets, since it was when markets as we know them today initially emerged. Japan, following its colonial policy to aggravate the Korean economy, suppressed traditional markets, and established new market systems. To protest against this vicious regulation, Korean merchants initiated the Commercial Rights Protection Movement. From this initiated conventional markets, including Gwangjang and Dongdaemun market. These markets are precisely the origins of today’s traditional markets.
Upon examining the history of Korean markets more in depth, it could be asserted that markets were more than just places for mere exchange of goods. Rather, they served as a ground base for active interaction among neighbors, functioning as a forum of diverse conversation at a time when communication technologies had not yet been fully developed. Markets thereby played a crucial role, for they predicated the passionate, everyday lives of its people by indwelling the spirit, the custom, along with the joys, and sorrows of its inhabitants.
This role as a field of interaction between people, though feeble compared to the past, still continues on in the current society as well, and is precisely what many people aim to revive. “I mostly visit traditional markets to listen to the stories of the merchants; basically, I buy their stories,” Lee mentioned, “and this is precisely the role of markets that I want to resurrect.”
Where Traditional Markets Are Located Today
Today, there are 1,372 traditional markets throughout Korea, with 330 markets in Seoul alone. Yet, each of these communicates with its customers by portraying an intrinsic characteristic of its own. In a local toy market near Changsin-dong, for instance, consumers are able to acquire up-to-date products at a reasonable price. Another example is Gwangjang Market, best known for its mouth-watering street foods such as mayak kimbap (addictive kimbap) and bindaetteok (mung-bean pancake) as well as drapery shops that sell hanbok (Korean traditional clothing) and suits.
▲ Traditional market of today. Provided by The Naeway News.
Various methods have also been implemented concerning the vitalization of Korean traditional markets. One example of these supporting policies is the modernization of facilities by adopting parking assistant systems and remodeling signboards. Another is the support provided by the government in order to attract a wide range of customers through advertisements utilizing mass media, creating mobile applications introducing nearby traditional markets, and naming every second and fourth Sunday as Going to Traditional Market Day.
However, difficulties do exist when it comes to the process of revitalizing traditional markets. To begin with, traditional markets are disappearing at a speed that cannot be overlooked. “Out of about 400 markets that I visited over the past two years, 10 have already disappeared,” sighed Lee. As a result of this phenomenon, merchants and retailers are constantly being threatened and put out of business. In fact, sales have decreased by approximately 11.4 percent over the past six years, and about 23 thousand traders have lost their jobs.
Indifference toward these markets among the young generation who are more accustomed to supermarkets is also posing a serious threat. Although the quality of products are fairly equivalent to that of the hypermarket’s and the price of them even cheaper, customers avoid traditional markets just because they are unacquainted with it. Fortunately though, numerous attempts from markets themselves are being carried out to overcome the obstacles, such as opening flea markets to encourage the active participation of local residents.
Traditional Markets: Where to Head?
Nevertheless, Korean traditional markets retain their value and hold the possibility of invigoration by transforming into local, popularized markets. This signifies that traditional markets have the power to become the most widely-used, everyday markets. “In London, merely 15 traditional markets exist. There is no place around the world with this many markets other than our own,” Lee added.
Another distinctive characteristic is that Korean traditional markets are more closely engaged with our daily lives, compared to those of other countries. For instance, because the markets of London or Taiwan are systematically fostered as tourist attractions, they concentrate more on displaying the contrived and artificial image of their markets. Meanwhile, those of Korea are rather more utilized by its locals, thereby making it easier to experience the true, everyday Korean culture.
▲ A traditional market merchant and its customer. Provided by Mapo FM.
With these characteristics in mind, resurrection of the markets is also crucial in that they provide small merchants and independent businessmen with opportunities to obtain occupations and retain employment. Additionally, traditional markets guarantee their customers the chance to maintain a close relationship with the merchants through encountering the life stories of its sellers, a feature nonexistent in modern-day hypermarts.
Above all, mutual respect and interaction between merchants and consumers, along with constant attention of the public seem to be the keys toward the revitalization of traditional markets. “We should think of traditional markets as an amusement park, a place where our dreams and imaginations come true. Solely listening to the life stories and advice of the merchants means a lot.” Here in Lee’s words lies the true value of traditional markets; they are not only an exchange ground of goods, but rather a place that sell stories, each one embodied with a priceless piece of wisdom in life.