The facades of the buildings around Sinseol-dong crossing come in unfashionable shades like burnt sienna or bearing the tint of decades of dirt and pollution. It’s a palette that buildings only get if they’re reused and used again, and it tells you just what kind of place Sinseol-dong is.
A couple blocks south from Exit 10 on Nangye-ro (난계로), the Cheonggye Stream (청계천), cold and clear, marks the neighborhood’s southern edge. Tawny winter reeds on the banks were dusted in the year’s first snow. Under the bridge seven ducks, not yet gone south, rested in the shallow water. On the opposite bank was Sindang’s new Lotte Castle and E-mart complex, but on the Sinseol side the corner was occupied by two trash dumpsters the size of dump truck boxes and khaki green apartments that were slowly falling apart. In between these were squat, two-story commercial buildings; at the nearest end of one of these was a closed U.S. Army surplus store where a faceless mannequin in a gray uniform leaned propped up against the wall.
I turned down the narrow alley running between the buildings parallel to the stream. Most spaces had their metal shutters pulled down, but two that didn’t revealed storage shelves lined with brightly decorated vases, bronze statues, and figurines of animals, the Buddha, and miniature busts of Western philosophers or statesmen, though exactly who I couldn’t tell as their names were engraved only in Chinese characters. One alley further back were wholesale fabric and leather sellers as well as small machine shops producing and selling things like chain links, clasps, and washers. As I wandered further west I stumbled into the edges of the informal flea market that sprouts up around Dongmyo, and I wondered if any of the stuff laid out on blankets came from the cluttered shelves I’d just seen.
In the opposite direction, a short walk from Exit 8 or 9 brings you to another stream, the Seongbuk (성북천), which runs from Hansung University Station to the Cheonggye, and is a quiet, narrow channel here, with walking and jogging paths, reed banks, stone walls, and a colorful mosaic of fish and shells.
North of Jong-ro (종로) Sinseol-dong was more residential, a neighborhood of apartments and restaurants and small businesses that straddled the working class-middle class line. I walked north on Bomun-ro (보문로), which had its middle lanes blocked off for some type of construction, and passed a shop selling honey. Jars were lined up in the window, not particularly remarkable except for their labels: a photo of a guy wearing the clothes of the Joseon dynasty’s yangban class, only instead of the customary long-whiskered beard, his facial hair was a mass of bees. Coming back down the opposite side of Bomun-ro took me past a small building with large glass windows. Behind these, old televisions were stacked up – TVs from the pre-remote control days when, to adjust the contrast or to change the channel on the curved screen, one had to get up from their chair and twist one of the set’s bulky knobs.
The building that the TVs were in seemed deserted, and I wondered why the sets hadn’t found their way to one of the neighborhood’s recycling yards, of which there were many. Southeast of the station were several, scattered amid small factories and machine shops. In one yard a fire burned away in a metal drum while a worker moved tangles of twisted, spaghettied metal from one pile to another with a grab crane. In another yard a mountain of shredded paper overwhelmed the fifteen-foot tall container it was in, spilling over the brim and down the side like a white willow tree.
If not bound for the scrap heap, I’d have thought that the TVs would have found their way to the Seoul Folk Flea Market (서울풍물시장). Everything else seemingly does.
Although it’s actually closer to Exit 9, all signage and directions from the station are from Exit 10. In either case, make a U-turn out of the exit and turn down Cheonho-dae-ro-4-gil (천호대로4길); it’ll be straight ahead, one block down. According to the Korea Tourism Organization, the flea market that now occupies this back street building has a somewhat peripatetic lineage, originating in Hwanghak-dong near the Cheongye, moving to Dongdaemun Stadium when the Cheongye was renovated, moving back to the Cheongye when Dongdaemun Stadium was torn down, and, five years ago, moving here. (Just how one traces the lineage of something as disorganized as a flea market, and separates this one from the Dongmyo flea market or the one that still exists in Hwanghak-dong is not a process I understand.)
The first thing visitors encounter is a craft experience center outside the main entrance where visitors can paint traditional masks and perhaps try out other activities. Incongruously for a flea market, things here are well-organized – each stall has a number and sections are color coded: yellow for sundry goods, orange for vintage clothing, red for the food court, purple for hobbies, blue for clothing, indigo for more sundry goods, and green for antiques and ‘all things.’
Among ‘all things’ you can find military surplus, sparkly hats, gramophones, reel-to-reel film projectors, framed pictures of Bruce Lee and Audrey Hepburn (not together), and long black jackets with a turntable and ‘SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS!’ stitched onto the back. Really though, it’s a bit fruitless to try and list what’s at the market, because there’s simply no concise way to catalog what’s available at the kind of place where you might find a model ship, a bronze pig, and kid’s sunglasses all at the same booth (which you will here).
The flea market is billed as a tourist attraction, though I’m not quite convinced of that. I saw one other foreigner when I was there, though he was actively looking for something specific and seemed like a resident. The bulk of the visitors were part of the same demographic as the vendors: north of 50 and the type that were likely fans of the warbling Korean oldies played at every one of the market’s music stalls. The visitors slowly meandered through the aisles, pausing frequently to chat with the stall owners. Judging by the amount of business I saw being done, for a lot of the people who work here the hours seem to be as social as they are commercial, spent gabbing with the visitors and with their neighbors. Most vendors also had TVs wedged into a corner of their stall to help pass the time. It was the Koreans under forty that I really wondered about, of which I saw a handful. Vintage freaks? Students working on art projects? Sent out on errands by their grandmas?
It was nearly past lunchtime so I headed into the food court, which was much closer in type to the stalls of Gwangjang Market than it was to the shiny surfaces of your local mall. Smells were strong, patrons were old, and menus listed dog meat and cow head soup. To get in the spirit I sat down and ordered a smelly bowl of cheonggukjang. As I waited for it to arrive I kept an eye on the pair of friends at one of the tables opposite me, together perfect avatars of the flea market. One guy was dressed in a tweed jacket, red bow tie, and horn-rimmed glasses; his friend wore his long hair in a ponytail, a studded belt, and leather pants.
Cheonggye Stream (청계천)
Left on Nangye-ro (난계로)
Seongbuk Stream (성북천)
Exit 8 or 9
Straight on Cheonho-dae-ro (천호대로)
Seoul Folk Flea Market (서울풍물시장)
U-turn, Right on Cheonho-dae-ro-4-gil (천호대로4길)
Hours | 10:00 – 19:00, closed the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays of each month