It should be obvious that in a city the size of Seoul there will always be a place that catches you unawares, that opens like a fold of paper in Exquisite Corpse, revealing something at once recognizable and yet utterly, sometimes bewilderingly unexpected. It should be obvious, what with the enormity of Seoul’s population and expanse, but it isn’t. One gets accustomed to their surroundings, often remarkably quickly, and an idea of the city congeals. This is no less true for expats. Our primary motivator for moving abroad may be the promise of adventure, but we also tend to pride ourselves on how rapidly we adapt to the new surroundings, and how quickly we can claim (with varying degrees of falsity) that we ‘know’ the city, that it’s all old hat. Listen to a second year expat talk to a first year. Call it the race to blasé.
But then a fold lifts and you suddenly feel like you don’t know the city at all. For me, Sindang was one of those folds.
I started my canvasing of the neighborhood south of Toegye-ro (퇴계로), which didn’t have such a dramatic effect. The area is like many I’ve come across before. Some clothing stores line the main drag heading east, a large high school sits near the corner of Toegye-ro and Nangye-ro (난계로), and behind those is a neighborhood of low red brick and granite apartment buildings, where some of the streets actually have sidewalks of sorts – stone strips running flush with the road. East of the station and Dasan-ro (다산로), closest to Exits 7 and 8, a couple small warrens of tiny homes sit nestled among the buildings, obviously very low-income areas, though relatively clean and orderly, not like the slums we’ve seen near Geoyeo for example.
Also near these two exits is Sindang Tteokbokki Town (신당 떡볶이 타운) (also sometimes written 떡볶이길 or 떡볶이촌). There’s never a bad time for tteokbokki, really, but it’s undoubtedly best when the weather has gotten cold. That’s when well-lit pojangmachas on dark streets are their most alluring, the steam pouring out of them into the cold air wrapping the carts in an irresistible haze; and when you pull aside the flap and step into the pungent circle the warmth of the hot food, the steaming odeng broth, and the bodies packed in next to you make the cold all but disappear for a few minutes.
Most of the time when you eat tteokbokki it’s something like that: a quick plate on the street, standing up. In Tteokbokki Town, however, there’s only one place like that. The rest are true restaurants where tteokbokki is an entire meal, and the basic pinkie-size rice cakes in spicy sauce are augmented with noodles, veggies, and more. The restaurants, and almost nothing else, take up an entire block, and each has a pitchman or two outside trying to wave customers in to their particular establishment. Approximately ten different restaurants can be found there, each displaying the logos of TV networks on which they’ve made appearances like badges of honor.
A couple co-eaters and I decided to stop in at Maboknim Halmeoni Tteokbokki (마복림 할머니 떡볶이), which purports to be the oldest restaurant on the strip, open since 1953. There’s only one thing on the menu here – tteokbokki – which you can order in various sizes depending on the number in your party or your appetite, or you can simply order a la carte. Add cheese to the mix for an extra 3,000 won. If you’ve only ever had tteokbokki at street stalls, you’ll likely be a bit surprised by what gets put in front of you. More like what you’d be presented with at a tchiggae restaurant, a large cast iron pot filled with water, chili powder, chili paste, tteok, ramen noodles, jjolmyeon, odeng, mandu, cabbage, carrot, green onion, and hard-boiled eggs is placed on a gas burner in the middle of your table. As you cook it, the watery concoction slowly bubbles away, condensing into the familiar red-orange sauce of Korea’s favorite comfort food. To get it go out Exit 8 and take your first left, on Toegye-ro-76-gil (퇴계로76길). Tteokbokki Town starts one block up, past the fire station.
Before turning into the street leading to Tteokbokki Town you may have noticed Chungmu Arts Hall (충무아트홀) across Toegye-ro. Just a few steps from Exit 9, the 8-level center hosts art exhibitions and theater performances – ‘Rent’ was in the middle of a run and an exhibit of photos of Mongolia and Africa by 신미식) was opening on the day I happened to stop by – as well as a fitness center, arts academy, driving range, café, and gymnasiums. While people browsed through the photos downstairs, several girls’ volleyball teams where holding practice upstairs. In front of the Arts Hall you can also take a look at a model of 이순신’s famous Turtle Boat (거북선) housed in a glass case or sit in one of the bright red, green, orange, and yellow chairs shaped like globs of melting taffy that sit on the fake grass out front. This last gimmicky feature was likely meant as an attempt to make the Hall seem ‘greener’ and more inviting, but in fact does little but remind visitors of what the city really lacks.
Continuing northwest from Exit 9 or 10 Sindang Station provides a backdoor entrance to the Dongdaemun fashion shopping area, near the Nuzzon, U:US, and Designer Club malls. A short walk straight from Exit 10 on Dasan-ro will lead to Cheonggye Stream (청계천). It’s a pleasant stretch with a thickly vegetated bank about fifteen feet below the Dongdaemun bustle, and the birdsong from the pet market on the north side of the stream even gives things a bit of a tropical feel. Just before the stream you’ll find the Cheong-Pyeonghwa Market (청평화시장) where in the late afternoon many of the sellers are just starting to roll up the grates and set out their goods for sale.
If you walk to the stream from Exit 11, near the corner you’ll spot a curious little statue of a friendly looking man in a bespoke suit and bow tie sitting down raising his hand in a wave. It’s 장소팔, a famous 만담가, or comedian and story teller, who used to live in the area.
Very modern places like the Chungmu Arts Hall and the restored Cheonggye Stream contrast sharply with much of the rest of the Sindang area, which can be decidedly, stunningly archaic. The first hints you might get of this could come by walking west on Toegye-ro. On the south side, via Exit 8, the road is lined with woodworking shops after about a block, and the smell of sawdust fills the air as you walk over the shavings sprinkled on the sidewalk. On the north side, past the Arts Hall, is a trio of actual blacksmiths shops, which quite literally stopped me in my tracks. Blacksmithing is one of those professions that, living in a first-world country, it’s easy to forget even exist anymore. It just seems so medieval, something from the realm of artisan guilds and apprenticeships. Don’t machines do all of that now? Even the famed Blacksmith Street in Hanoi only has one actual smithy left.
But there, on the same street that goes right in front of Myeongdong, the profession continued. In the largest shop of the three, a man gazed out at the street from a pocked red face, exactly the face you’d expect a blacksmith to have, while behind him the burning embers of the forge glowed orange-red, illuminating the dim interior. All around the blacksmith and on racks outside hung finished products: saws, stakes, hoes, picks, sledgehammers, trowels, rakes, saw blades, and hooks of various sizes, as well as several other things that I couldn’t identify but which looked like their only possible use would be by very bad men to do very bad things. Each languished in various stages of rusting.
If the woodworking and blacksmith shops raised the corner of the fold, the area north of the Line 2 entrances and east of Line 6 pulled it back completely, revealing an area of the city that felt foreign compared to the rest of Seoul, and that made me feel more foreign than I had in a long, long time.
This area is home to Jungang, or Central, Market (중안시장). So, what do you know about Jungang Market? Odds are, not a whole lot. I didn’t, being only vaguely aware of its existence. Despite being the third of Seoul’s big three markets (after Namdaemun and Dongdaemun) and, according to the Jung-gu website, having handled 80% of the rice traded in Seoul at one point it gets scarce media coverage and is largely ignored by the English press and blogosphere. Neither the Korea Tourism Organization nor Seoul city websites have an entry for Jungang Market on their English pages. Whether the reason for or the result of that lack of exposure, Jungang is strictly a locals-only market. You will find no kitschy souvenirs, no I love Seoul t-shirts; in the course of several hours spent at the market on two separate days I didn’t even see another foreign face. What you’ll find is a Korea that hasn’t changed terribly much in the past few decades.
Do I dare to steal a peach? A U-turn from either Exit 1 or 2 will put you in front of the market’s main entrance. I went from Exit 2, immediately outside of which was a small fruit store that had taken up residence in an ex-cell phone shop. As I stood there listening to the stereo pump out MC Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’ (as suddenly hearing a song that ruled the airwaves in elementary school will make you do) I witnessed an old guy in an outrageously loud shirt – white on red Hawaiian print with a different white on black Hawaiian print collar – steal a piece of fruit in a blatantly premeditated act. As he stood in front of a row of plastic bowls containing peaches that had been set on the ground in front of the store, his wife walked past, pretending to accidentally bump him in the process, whereupon the ajeosshi pretended to be half knocked over, taking the opportunity to bend down and grab a peach before straightening up and casually walking away.
Past the fruit shop and beneath a two-story ceiling the huge Jungang wet market extends far in front of you, motorcycles zipping up and down the aisle ferrying produce. There is pork, beef, and dog meat; chicken breasts and chicken feet; fresh fish and octopi and shrimp a colorless gray; purple eggplant sits on trays next to huge mounds of garlic; and platters of banchan surround firey bags of kimchi, swollen from the gas of fermentation.
Walking through the market I began to have the odd, creeping sensation of being in a foreign country, which may seem like a strange thing to say at first, but by which I mean that my scales of banality about the city were falling away. I didn’t know about this place. Why didn’t I know about this place? It wasn’t like the Seoul I knew; it was earthier, more insular, somehow different. It was strange to me and I felt strange in it.
When I reached the end of the market I turned left onto Majang-ro (마장로). By now it was shortly after dark, and both sides of the street were lined with small places to eat – gopchang, or pig intestine, restaurants, each just a single parasol with three or four plastic tables surrounded by stools, while bare fluorescent bulbs lit up pungent clouds of steam and smoke rising from the grill and drifting into the night air. The single ajumma working at each eatery called out as I passed. Korea has outdoor places to eat, sure, but this didn’t feel like one of them so much as it felt like the improvised night markets in China or Thailand.
Just north of Exit 1 the market is filled with several blocks of furniture stores, signaled by the sign reading Furniture Complex (가구 단자) above the entrance to Toegyero-83-gil (퇴계로83길), and walking through the area my nose would periodically catch whiffs of epoxy. Animal lovers may want to approach from a different street, however, as before arriving at the furniture shops, you’ll pass a small grouping of dog butchers. A handful of stores sit next to each other on either side of the street, with dogs in cages on display outside. The dogs, kept in groups of three to seven to a cage, either slept, curled up next to one another, or gazed out at the street without expression.
Just west of this area are grain wholesalers where huge sacks of rice are piled to the ceiling in small, one-room warehouses. Majang-ro and the nearby streets are crowded with shops selling every possible kitchen good you could imagine – from domestic to industrial – as the pillar at the corner of Majang-ro and Nangye-ro reading 황학동 주방가구거리 (Hwanghak-dong Kitchen Supplies Street) lets you know. Yeoinsuks dotted the passageways. I went by a clothing factory with workers lined up at sewing machines. Stores with gaudy clothes for old women and tiny, gritty restaurants were jammed into miniscule alleyways where the shop awnings created a canopy above the lane.
My sensation of displacement only grew as I walked through the area between Sindang Station and Cheonggye Stream. What was couched away here between the station and the stream felt virtually unrecognizable to the high tech, appearance-conscious picture of the city that expats generally carry, and that many Seoulites do as well. It felt cut off not just from the expat world, but from the rest of Seoul, like a remote island where unique and strange species have evolved.
A bit further north, between Majang-ro and the stream things got even more curious, in the remnants of the old Hwanghak-dong Flea Market, before it was moved to Dongdaemun Stadium to make room for the Cheonggye renovation, from which it was subsequently moved to the new Seoul Folk Flea Market complex to make room for the Dongdaemun History and Culture Park. Here a strange pantomime of commerce takes place, as stalls open every day, though it’s hard to imagine who would buy what’s being offered. A small sampling:
Cameras, computers, fake jewelry, fishing supplies, Super Nintendo game cartridges, fake steer horns, typewriters, rotary phones, golf clubs, two-decade-old stereos, Laurel and Hardy piggybanks, industrial size soup ladles, dirty movies on VHS tapes, burlap in ten-foot long rolls, ice buckets, tacky pirate statues and décor you’d find on the walls of small town American pubs.
These are things that I either can’t imagine any Korean having cause to buy or that anyone I know would buy in the kind of store where the goods were newer by twenty years and came with a receipt. I didn’t notice anyone buying or selling anything and it made me wonder: Who actually shops here? How do these people stay in business? They must own their shop and not hire any staff. And can it be worth it, to come here and open every day to try and sell a video game that’s a quarter-century old? Or is it simply a mix of habit and social obligation and the despair of not having any other options?
I walked back out to the stream and to the east, where at the corner of Nangye-ro there was an enormous new Lotte Castle apartment complex, complete with an attached E-Mart and Starbucks. This was a more familiar side of Seoul, but after having disappeared into the market for so long it was just as unsettling as the market had at first been. The two – the market and the apartments – seemed to be different countries, as foreign to each other as I am to Korea. I wondered how many people who work in the market live in the high rises, and how many people that live in the high rises ever ventured into the market to do their shopping, and I doubted that it was many at all.
Sindang holds one more surprise, this one underground. As you go into the main Jungang Market entrance back between Exits 1 and 2, you might notice a yellow sign to your right above a ramp leading underground that reads 신당창작아케이드 next to another for the Sindang Hoe Center (회센터) that’s accompanied by a more artistic than usual picture of a fish, painted in bright segmented colors like a stained glass window. Go down the ramp and into the arcade, where you’ll pass a number of small, remarkably clean raw fish restaurants before arriving at Seoul Art Space Sindang (신당창작아케이드).
Seoul Art Space Sindang is part of a series of studios and performance spaces that have been established around the city (We visited another one when we went to Mullae Station.) in an attempt to foster up-and-coming artists by giving them access to a collective community and a place to work. Taking up a long stretch of the arcade, dozens of old market spaces have been converted into bright, clean studios about the size of a large goshiwon room, or approximately 160 square feet. The workshops are occupied by artists who produce work in a variety of media: metal, fabric, ceramic, glass, paint, and simple pen and paper. 안경희 does book artworks, bookbinding, and papermaking at Studio AN, including a lovely and tiny book that was on display that unfolded to show translucent thumbnail snapshots imbedded in the pages. 연고은 creates whimsical household goods designed to confuse – kettles shaped like radios and pencil holders like rolls of toilet paper.
The Art Space is more than just a collection of workshops, though. It actively engages with and tries to give back to the Sindang and Seoul communities. You’re free to stroll past and look at the work, and possibly even at the artists working. You can also participate yourself, as the Art Space holds special classes for kids, and on Saturdays classes in various media – usually of the arts and craft variety – are offered to the public, free of charge. For details and to register, refer to the website. Besides inviting the community in, the artists also try to take their work to the community. They’ve painted walls and murals in the area, and as you walk through the underground arcade you’ll notice their charming tribute to their neighbors that work in the raw fish restaurants. Many of the columns lining the middle of the hallway have holographic images of the workers on them, some switching poses from angle to angle, others turning into Superman or Wonder Woman at the tilt of your head.
Sindang Tteokbokki Town (신당 떡볶이 타운)
Left on Toegye-ro-76-gil (퇴계로76길)
Maboknim Halmeoni Tteokbokki (마복림 할머니 떡볶이)
Chungmu Arts Hall (충무아트홀)
Cheonggye Stream (청계천)
Exit 10 or 11
Straight on Dasan-ro (다산로)
Cheong-Pyeonghwa Market (청평화시장)
Straight on Dasan-ro
Jungang Market (중앙시장)
Exit 1 or 2
Seoul Art Space Sindang (신당창작아케이드)
Exit 1 or 2
U-turn, enter Jungang Market, and follow the signs leading to the underground arcade
Parts of this post first appeared in the November 2011 issue of SEOUL magazine.