Should you ever find yourself sick of the new Seoul, of the gentrifying Seoul, of the Zara-wearing, cream pasta-slurping, Kakao-tapping, latte-sipping, craft beer-tippling bourgeois masses, well, Cheongnyangni has your cure. This may be the least trendy neighborhood in the city. It’s no hyperbole to say that 80% of the people here are over 50. Nobody’s stylish. The clothes are bad. The suits are unfashionable and maybe fit 20 years ago, if they even did then. Men wear copper-colored hairpieces that sit stiffly above clearly visible natural gray, blending as well as oil with water. The area is home to one of Seoul’s biggest red light districts; much of the rest of it is a pungent, haphazard sprawl of intermingling wet markets. Yet even here there are signs that eventually Cheongnyangni too will change. The creation of the Gyeongui-Jungang Line has brought a spic-and-span new station, and Lotte has opened a department store next to it. Still, any gentrification here will come slowly and begrudgingly.
Cheongnyangni is essentially an inland port. For decades it’s served as a transportation hub linking the provinces with the capital. Significantly, during the Korean War, the U.S. Army used it as a staging area for troops on their way to Gangwon’s front lines, and where army grunts go, houses of ill repute follow. What the area is now most famous, or, rather, infamous, for is the red light district of Cheongnyangni 588 (청량리 588), near Exits 5 and 6. Cheongnyangni 588’s unusual name has two possible origins, and there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on which is right. One possibility is that it refers to the number of a bus that used to pass through here; another is that it simply referred to the district’s address.
The fact that sex is for sale just about everywhere in Seoul is an open secret. Prostitution wasn’t made illegal until 2004, and the biggest effect of that legislation wasn’t reducing the amount of sex that’s bought and sold in Korea but merely forcing it to move from places like Cheongnyangi to more discreet locations and, increasingly, the Internet. Cheongnyangni 588 had its heyday in the 1980s and 90s, when upward of 1,000 prostitutes worked here; now about 60 brothels remain. The obvious question is if prostitution is illegal in Korea, how does Cheongnyangni 588 exist and exist so openly? I can’t say exactly, but it’s clear that, here at least, the authorities look the other way. At least two police cruisers passed me while I was walking around, and a third sat parked on a corner between a gambling hall and a brothel. And, like in the red light district near Cheonho Station, there are helpful signs declaring the streets here off limits to kids.
If you want an idea of prostitution’s acceptance within Korean society, you need only look at the buildings the girls work in. Part storefront, part apartment, part stable, they’re low-slung, about three meters tall, and often run the length of an entire block. The buildings are subdivided into identical apartments, each with a shallow front room with tile floors and floor-to-ceiling windows. Inside are a mirror and a shelf with a makeup kit and a tall chair or stool and pillow. Behind these is a door or curtain leading to a back room. The buildings in Cheongnyangni are the same as those in Cheonho or those that used to exist in Yongsan, meaning that the prostitutes didn’t move into unused buildings. Nor were these buildings remodeled from old structures to serve a new function. They were purpose-built. Their particular architecture is no good for any other business. Someone had to approach a construction company with a set of building plans and the construction company had to build them, and whether or not the buildings’ intended purpose was ever explicitly stated it was certainly understood. Sex in Korea is an established, if unspoken, part of the economy, generating roughly fourteen billion won a year. This acceptance is reinforced by what may be the oddest thing about Cheongnyangni 588: its location. Just a block off Wangsan-ro (왕산로), it literally bumps up against both the Lotte Plaza shopping center and the Catholic University of Korea St. Paul’s Hospital.
Besides the prostitutes’ working quarters, dotted around the neighborhood are noraebangs advertising doumi, or ‘helpers,’ hostess who sing and pour drinks, among other things; one such place also publicized its ‘full course show,’ whatever that might be. Nor is sex the only vice available here, as there’s at least one gambling hall in the area, and on one corner I was convinced I smelled the earthy aroma of pot coming from somewhere.
I showed up in Cheongnyangni 588 on a weekday afternoon, not exactly a busy time, which made it hard to gauge just how much business here might have contracted. Regardless of the time, the pink and white fluorescent lights lining the awnings were all on, and about ten percent of the apartments had girls in them, waiting for clients and absentmindedly thumbing their phones. At a corner room I slowed and watched as a girl slid open the door for a john (the only one I saw) and showed him to the back room. They did this wordlessly, and it seemed as if they already knew each other. The girls in Cheongnyangni 588 all seemed to be Korean and the district’s activities are largely limited to Korean customers, which meant that I was either ignored or met with looks of curiosity, with the exception of one girl who had the courtesy to slide open her door and call out ‘놀아요!’ (‘Let’s play!’) as I walked by.
The days of playing in Cheongnyangni 588 are numbered, though, and it’s not moralism or legislation that’s doing it in, but economics. The area is marked for redevelopment, with plans to build a pair of 65-story towers and what a newspaper referred to as a ‘landmark tower’ on the land the brothels now occupy. Demolition is slated to begin by early 2016.
It will be interesting to see how redevelopment progresses because the greater Cheongnyangni area seems stubbornly stuck in its ways. As I headed out of Exit 1, most of the people passing me were seniors returning from market, carrying black plastic bags or pulling two-wheeled carts. Which market was anyone’s guess, as the neighborhood is filled with them, so much so that it’s rarely clear where one ends and another begins. Nor is market commerce here limited solely to markets, properly speaking. Immediately outside the station, most of the sidewalk was taken up by vendors selling vegetables, jewelry, or candy, leaving little space for actual walking. Coupled with the geriatric crowd, a walk down Wangsan-ro is very slow going. (Indicative of the local populace, one of the stores I passed sold wheelchairs and knee braces.)
The first market I came to was the Cheongnyangni Traditional Market (청량리재래시장), which also goes by the name the Cheongnyangni Greengrocery Wholesale Market (청량리 청과물 도매시장), unless they are, in fact, two separate markets, which they very well might be. I can’t tell. It was also hard to tell that I was still in Seoul. I can’t remember another place – not even Sindang – that made me feel more like I was in the countryside. The demographics here were as lopsided as those in the country’s rural communities, where younger generations have absconded for the city, leaving empty schools and graying villages behind. There was a palpable proximity to the earth here as well. Devoid of more urban businesses like cafes and cell phone shops, commerce here focused almost entirely on the fruits of the land and the sea, making this little corner of Seoul probably the closest thing you could find to an agrarian community in the city. (And with trade in food and in sex being Cheongnyangni’s two most tangible forms of commerce, it’s also probably the closest thing you could find to a prehistoric community.)
Old signs above shops were aged and sun-bleached. In a street leading into the market an old man pushed a small cart filled with whole peppercorns; atop the cart was a hand-crank grinder that ground the peppercorns into powder that the man sold in small bottles. It was apple season, and many vendors sold red and yellow fist-sized fruits. I ducked into a covered section of the market where a sign above the entrance read ‘Cheongnyangni Traditional Market’ (청량리전통시장). (Another market? Just another name for the same one?) Just inside, an alley to the left led out of the market and into post-war Korea. The old buildings had signs for yeoinsuk (여인숙) and dog stew (보신탕) and little lunch joints (식당). An ajeosshi who’d presumably just left one of them stood in the alley with three fingers indecorously jammed into the back of his mouth, trying to pick out a bit of stuck food.
In the market another ajeosshi used a wooden stick to jam dried peppers into a grinder to make red pepper powder. The exertion had caused his combover to slip, and now a long strand of hair dangled from his temple. Butchers in the market displayed meat underneath mobiles with long strands of tinsel dangling from their rotating arms, intended to keep flies away. Pig heads were sliced longitudinally, in case customers just wanted half a head, I suppose. As it was just before Chuseok, rice cake shops were doing a brisk business.
I kept drifting west, weaving from Wangsan-ro, where more sidewalk vendors sold chestnuts and leeks and laver, back into the market and its zucchini, near-black eggplant, and seemingly all of the city’s grandmothers. A bit to the north the market crowds thinned out, and produce vendors were largely replaced by shops that sold oil and pepper paste in bulk.
Slightly further west was another overhead sign, this one for the Cheongnyangni Agricultural and Marine Products Market (청량리농수산물시장). Entering, I was met by the crisp, pure smell of fresh vegetables. To the left a tiny alley led to some old hanok, one of which had a sign on it advertising Buddhist fortunetelling. The Cheongnyangni Agricultural and Marine Products Market led into, or was a part of, Gyeongdong Market (경동시장), which we also delved into from Jegi-dong Station.
Gyeongdong is, even more than Jungang, what I’ve come to think of as the purest market in Seoul, the one where the traditional Korean market is the least changed, the least touched by the country’s modernization and cosmopolitanization. There are few, if any, Western products sold here, the customers are virtually all Korean, and one imagines that the way business is conducted there now is more or less the way it was conducted thirty or forty years ago. The market is also huge and cluttered and almost always busy, making for an intense experience.
Wandering around I passed machines roasting sesame seeds, charcoal cylinders for sale, signs advertising dog meat, and women carrying trays bearing lunch deliveries on their heads. Old folks sat side by side on benches eating bowls of cheap noodles. A fishmonger scooped tiny live eels into plastic bags, making the bags shimmy and jitter. Open-air parts of the market changed into tarp-covered sections, then into areas covered by roof, and then back again, the differences almost imperceptible among the continuous busyness all around. A section of the market was denoted the Dried Fish Shop Arcade (건어물 전문상가). Huge pots of muddy-looking soybean paste lined up in the alleys. Herbs for seasoning were spread on tables. I thought of how these were the smells of Korea and then almost immediately questioned that thought. A couple decades ago they certainly were, but are they now? Or is modern Korea more present in the scents of a latte or cup ramen?
I came out on the west end of Gyeongdong and turned north on Gosanja-ro (고산자로), but even then I couldn’t escape the market, as it had made a land-grab of the sidewalk here, essentially turning it into just another market alley. Moving north, I walked past clams, potatoes, nearly meter-long catfish, and shrimp all lined up in the same direction, their little tails seeming to kick out like a chorus line. It was cramped and busy, and it was almost a relief when I finally came out at its end.
I circled back around to the east, passing through a residential neighborhood north of the markets where the apartments shared space with restaurants and little hostess bars, the presence of which didn’t surprise me in Cheongnyangni. Northeast of the station, Wangsan-ro was lined by cheap clothing stores and restaurants, and it was only in the immediate vicinity of the new part of the station that I started to see things like cafes and fast food restaurants. All the other businesses seemed aimed at customers who were either a few rungs down the economic ladder or had fixed their tastes a couple decades ago.
Between Exits 1 and 2, the wide-arching sidewalk served less as a pedestrian walkway than as more market space, with a fortune teller, an old pop cassette vendor, and a guy selling clocks. Across the street, on the plaza in front of the Lotte Department Store and Exits 4 and 5, it was the same. Despite the adjacent presence of the new Seoul – Starbucks, Daiso, Les More – there were stalls selling eggplant, carrots, cucumbers, fried snacks, cheap-o belts, underwear, and tarot card readings. It was as if the market impulse was an irresistible force in Cheongnyangni, as irrepressible as the growth of jungle over temple ruins.
Walking southwest from Exit 6, I passed more sidewalk vendors and a guy selling bug killer from a roving cart. When I reached Wangsan-ro-30-gil (왕산로30길) I turned into what the overhead sign said was the Cheongnyangni Marine Products Market (청량리수산시장). There were fish in tubs, dried fish strung up with nylon rope, and crabs scuttling in a tank’s filthy water, but most of the market had already closed up shop for the day, though the smell still lingered. The section around Wangsan-ro-30- and 32-gils seemed to be primarily wholesale, but slightly closer to the station and running the length of Wangsan-ro-34-gil (왕산로34길) was the market’s retail section. Cramped and bustling, it was the sort of market where you have to be extra aware of what’s going on around you. Here too the crowd was old, and grandmas engaged the fishmongers in fierce haggling over hairtail, mackerel, monkfish, and white bellied crabs. The market seemed to specialize in skates, which were splayed out on tables like greasy kites. When not making sales, stall owners would rearrange their displays using wooden sticks with small blades at the end, like mini-scythes, to hook and drag the fish.
The alley terminated at an empty lot where there was a large pile of trash and rubble, and I followed a narrow concrete path that led the short way to Dapsimni-ro (답십리로), which also marks the southern limits of Cheongnyangni 588. On Dapsimni-ro I headed southeast, passing yet another market: Dongbu Produce Market (동부청과시장), this one just a few low-slung stalls of vegetable sellers.
I followed the road under the train tracks and into the neighborhood on Cheongnyangni Station’s east side, a slightly scruffy residential area, filled with older and cheaper buildings. I hung a left on Seoulsirip-daero (서울시립대로), passing a couple motorcycle and moped repair shops, a sex toys store, and a seamstress. There were some newer middle-class apartment towers a bit further on and a few wall murals but no more markets, which I was almost grateful for at that point. In general, as I moved northeast along the street the surroundings got marginally nicer, until finally, at the intersection with Jeonnong-ro (전농로), I found myself at the front gate to the University of Seoul (서울시립대학교), which we visited when we went to Hoegi Station. Here there were cafes and bubble tea shops and bars that weren’t musty or creepy. There were people under the age of 30 too, and there was the distinct sensation that I’d returned to the modern world.
Cheongnyangni 588 (청량리 588)
Left on Wangsan-ro-40-gil (왕산로40길), Right on Dapsimni-ro-3-gil (답십리로3길)
Cheongnyangni Traditional Market (청량리재래시장) and Cheongnyangni Greengrocery Wholesale Market (청량리 청과물 도매시장)
Right on Wangsan-ro-33-gil (왕산로33길)
Gyeongdong Market (경동시장)
Right on Gyeongdongsijang-ro (경동시장로)
Cheongnyangni Marine Products Market (청량리수산시장)
Left on Wangsan-ro-34-gil (왕산로34길) to Wangsan-ro-30-gil (왕산로30길)
Dongbu Produce Market (동부청과시장)
Left on Dapsimni-ro (답십리로)
University of Seoul (서울시립대학교)
Straight on Wangsan-ro (왕산로), Right on Jeonnong-ro (전농로)