It may serve as Seoul’s secondary train depot, but say the words ‘Yongsan Station’ and the first thing anyone thinks of is the sprawling electronics and technology market occupying the neighborhood to the west, an agglomeration of shops and buildings so large, so jumbled, and so exhaustive in its offerings that anyone who is not either a rabid technophile or a veteran explorer of the market may, by the end of a visit, find themselves entertaining fantasies of trashing their toaster and moving to a cabin in Idaho. Tech-heads, on the other hand, may feel they’ve died and gone to heaven.
While not quite a Luddite, I definitely fall into the former category, and after a few tepid visits to the market in the past I was hoping that this visit, with more time and less purpose, would finally be the one to, if not quite give me a sense of comfort with the place, at least ease my sense of panic when I go there. But first, I had to get out of the station, which offers its fair share of reasons not to.
If you take the subway to Yongsan, you’ll exit through the station’s central hall, a bright, cavernous space crisscrossed by singles and small groups on their way to or from a train. Beneath the molecule and UFO-like sculptures hanging from the ceiling, other passengers sit around snacking on ice cream, watching one of the station’s TVs, or merely staring into space waiting for their boarding time as the echoing announcements of a delayed train bounce off the walls.
After exiting through the central doors, a wide corridor separates the station from the I’Park Mall. Before going inside, though, I walked up the steps just outside the exit doors to what’s called the Event Park, an open plaza that, for the moment at least, held a small ice rink. It was slowly melting in the early March sunshine, but about eight or nine determined girls continued to cut their way through the slush.
Walking back down, I entered the first floor of the I’Park Mall, which is actually the third floor as ground level is a couple stories down. Immediately I was greeted with solicitations of ‘Hello, camera. Digital camera. Mp3,’ from the eager salesmen whose booths line the fluorescent-lit aisles. For many people the I’Park Mall is the first (and sometimes only) encounter they have with Yongsan’s electronic commerce, and although it’s more convenient and certainly nicer than the market proper, prices here tend to be higher as well, and the salespeople can be a bit on the pushy side. The 3rd floor holds mostly cameras and mp3 players, the 4th floor more of the same, along with home appliances like TVs and vacuums, and the 6th and 7th floors laptops (including a small area labeled ‘Laptops for Foreigners’). If you turn back towards the station you’ll escape the gadget glut for a bit and end up in regular old mallsville: clothes, housewares, food courts, etc.
Keep taking the escalators up, though, and on the top floor you’ll come to the rather unassuming looking E-sports Stadium (전자경기장), where the battles in Korean computer gaming’s top league, the SK Planet Starcraft Pro League, take place and are filmed for broadcast on the TV channel dedicated to the video game. I’d been wanting for quite some time to watch some professional gaming live, not out of any particular interest in Starcraft (of which I have none), but because when one is in a foreign land it’s both edifying and entertaining to observe the natives as they pursue their traditional sport. I’ve been to a bullfight in Seville, an intra-city soccer derby in Rome, a muay thai bout in Chiang Mai, and a shopping mall in Singapore. Starcraft in Seoul was naturally next on the list.
Luckily enough, I happened to stumble upon a competition taking place. The arena(?) is about the size of a large café, and was packed – standing room only. The crowd, which was 90% male, either sat in the rows of gray plastic chairs at the front or merely stood around, shoulder to shoulder, in the open space at the back. On either side of the room, in front of banners bearing the names and logos of the League teams (Samsung KHAN Pro Game Team, Air Force ACE, CJ ENTUS), teammates of the present competitor sat in more plastic chairs, watching the action and awaiting their turn.
Their gaze was directed at an enormous video screen at the front of the room that broadcast the action (if that’s the right word), occasionally cutting away for brief shots of the competitors’ faces, which remained perfectly inscrutable throughout the match. The competitors, dressed in tracksuits bearing the logos of various sponsors, like a NASCAR driver’s jumpsuit, sat in large angular glass boxes at either end of an elevated stage. Between them a trio of announcers kept up a rapid-fire running commentary, and although the players wore headsets I wondered if the play-by-play still seeped in, which would provide the strange sensation of hearing your decisions analyzed and critiqued as they were being made.
Before even the gameplay, the first thing I noticed when I walked in (Which you can just do, by the way. Admission is free.) was how incredibly quiet the crowd was. For anyone who’s been to a baseball or soccer game here, or even just watched on TV, you know how loud and enthusiastic Korean sports fans can be. The audience here, though, conducted themselves exactly the way one does when one watches TV or sits in a PC bang: largely silently, minimal blinking. In the ten minutes it took for the two competitors to build up their armies from the time I entered, the crowd, so much a part of the live sports experience, did almost nothing. It wasn’t until the first attack that a very mild Ooooh rose up from some of them and one guy off to my left, looking for some sort of outlet for his excitement, hopped up and down in place a bit.
And yet, as I watched and as things vaguely started to make more sense, I began to get the appeal of the game, not just as a game but as a spectator sport. Its draw lies in the excitement of watching a war where something is at stake, but nothing matters. There’s no carnage and no consequences, but there are all of the things that make battle entertaining: strategy, conflict, the victor, the vanquished. I love those TV shows that chart out and reenact the strategies, the mistakes, the gambits, and the sheer dumb luck that led to historical military conflicts turning out the way they did. Watching how an army of Zergs overruns an army of Terrans in real time isn’t all that different from watching how the English fleet did the same to the Spanish Armada or how the French outlasted the Germans at Verdun.
Finally, after about 20 minutes, a brief round of clapping and a few tentative cheers went up. It was over. The guy with the red things had defeated the guy with the blue things.
Turn left out of the station exit instead of walking directly into the mall, and you’ll arrive at the top of a large flight of steps leading down to Station Plaza, a paved space with some benches and a giant metal ring off to the right. From the top of the steps, a couple stories up, you can see several skyscraping apartment towers in the distance, their newness and shine a match for the structure you’re currently standing in, with its spotless waiting room, E-Mart and CGV Imax. In the near distance, though, just across Hangang-daero-23-gil (한강대로23길) from the plaza, things look quite different. Several shuttered businesses are visible, along with the tops of scaffolding, and, a bit further up the street, empty buildings that have had some of their upper floors half-demolished.
Along with its electronics market, the other feature that the area around Yongsan Station used to be known for was the red light district just across from it. Until relatively recently, the parallel street only one block back from Hangang-daero-23-gil was lined with pink-lit rooms where girls waited for customers behind full-length windows. That’s all gone now, as the city has focused on development and gentrification, but a walk down the backstreet revealed that a handful of those glass rooms are still there, only now there’s tape over cracks in the windows and all that’s inside is broken glass and other detritus. Mostly, things are just gone, torn down. Several lots along the alley are just piles of rubble: chunked concrete and metal behind cloth-covered fences.
It’s not just the red light district that’s seen the end of the line here. Across from the Yongsan E-mart was a collection of well-known gamjatang restaurants, but these too have been gutted, and in the area behind them partially demolished buildings wait for the coup de grâce; for now their upper floors gape half open like a cross-sectioned diagram. Even more than in other parts of the city, the redevelopment of Yongsan has been particularly contentious, with residents having claimed inadequate compensation and intimidation by armed thugs. Fierce opposition by some of the area’s residents to their forced evictions reached a tragic culmination in January 2009 when police raided a building that Molotov cocktail-armed protestors had occupied. At some point in the ensuing battle a fire broke out, and by the time things had ended five protestors and one police officer were dead.
But the struggle over the future of Yongsan is not yet over. The 2009 fire occurred in Yongsan District 4. When I left the station I noticed a long banner that had been strung up directly opposite Station Plaza proclaiming ‘We are not giving this land to thieves.’ It was signed the Union of Yongsan District 3 Residents.
Finally, the moment came for me to venture into the Yongsan Electronics Market (용산전자시장). Taking a deep breath I headed across the long covered walkway that leads from the side of the corridor opposite the steps to Station Plaza, over what’s currently a large empty lot, and into the market’s first building, Yongsan Terminal Mall (용산터미널상가). Similar to the tech part of I’Park Mall but older, Terminal covers several floors of cameras, computers, mp3 players, and accessories. Step out the back door and on the sidewalk next to the parking lot is a collection of guys selling pirated DVDs, everything from the latest Hollywood blockbuster to The African Queen to an Art Garfunkel concert.
Not far away, past a line of snack shacks and DVD hawkers, is Seonin Mall (선인상가), which specializes in computer parts. If you’re a hardcore computer geek, more interested in building your own machine than buying one, this is the place to come. A bit surprisingly, even to myself, it’s the one place in the market that I kind of actually like going to. There’s something fun about looking at all of the spare parts – motherboards, processors, uh…chips, and umm…uh, bytes and stuff? right? – and the salesmen have been friendly and helpful on the pair of occasions when I’ve needed something. This time I had brought along my laptop, which had lost a couple of screws from its underside, and when I asked the guy who had replaced them how much it cost he just waved me off.
Across the parking lot from Terminal is Najin Mall (나진상가), specializing in phones and video games, though it was quite quiet as I walked through, and it looked as if many businesses had moved out. Next to that, just to the west, stood the ET Land Main Building (전자랜드본관) and ET Land New Building (전자랜드신관). I passed a Discman and portable cassette player on my way in, but other than that the merchandise in there was the same as in the Main Building and as in the Terminal Electronics Mall and as in the I’Park Mall, and I started to ponder something I find myself pondering a lot in Seoul, namely, how do all of these businesses that sell basically the same thing in the same area all manage to stay in business? There was a smattering of shoppers in the ET New Building, but they didn’t seem sufficient to support it long-term, to say nothing of necessitating an expansion to a second structure.
The places I’ve mentioned here are only some of the main ones in the market, which, just when you begin to think there can’t be any more to it, reveals yet another building, another agglomeration of electricity-fed gadgetry. Continuing to walk around, there seemed to be no end. On Cheongpa-ro (청파로), a string of lighting shops where there was everything from chandeliers to multicolored signs programmable to flash either ‘삼겹살’ or ‘길비’ along with a cartoon of the livestock of your choice. Next to Seonin Mall, running block after block, the Electronics Flea Market (벼룩시장). Across from that, the old, grungy buildings of Electronics Town (전자타운). Further down the street, the long Wonhyo Electronics Arcade (원효전자상가). My hope that this visit would finally be the one to put me at ease, to at last chase away the tension I immediately feel as soon as I arrive at Yongsan was evaporating. I’d walked around for close to two hours, but still I wanted to throw up my hands. It’s too much. I can’t go on. I see Girls’ Generation’s smiling faces advertising Intel. I’ll go on.
E-sports Stadium (전자경기장)
Top floor of I’Park Mall
Yongsan Electronics Market (용산전자시장)
Take the elevated walkway from the station