Dongdaemun by Night

No matter how long I stay in Seoul, there are still some places here that boggle me with their energy and emphatically reinforce those creaky old “dynamic Korea” stereotypes. Dongdaemun is definitely one of those places.

Though much is said about Dongdaemun in tourist bumph — the market that never sleeps, world famous fashion hub, etc — it’s difficult to appreciate the distinctly Korean brand of vigour this place exudes until you’ve actually been there. The malls at Dongdaemun are open for most of the day but get even busier by night, when they get a stream of wholesale business right up until 5 in the morning.

There are three main sections to Dongdaemun Fashion Town, as the shops are collectively known. For most tourists or casual shoppers, the first port of call is the string of huge, cut-price malls on your left as you come out of exit 14 of Dongdaemun History & Culture Park Station. Springing up from the mid-’90s onwards, these retail behemoths (including Migliore, right) comprise upwards of 10 floors and sell everything from jewellery and shoes to teapots and imported sweets. There are even some manicurists and hairdressers still cutting or snipping at 4am.

The shops themselves are generally pretty humdrum, with an endless supply of skimpy, extravagantly logoed t-shirts and trousers that would be much too figure-hugging for me even if they weren’t too short in the arm or leg. Having gone a bit more upmarket, Doota now stocks some pretty swanky gear — including, on my last visit, Tissot watches — as well as some more interesting stuff from young local designers. For me, the clothes are a bit teeny-bopper, and the experience of hanging out in this late-night retail lair considerably outweighs the allure of actually buying anything. And though a couple of the vendors there told me of late-night visits by groups of bar girls or transgenders, the more striking thing for me was just how regular everyone seemed — a far cry from the kind of characters that might populate a place like that back home at 3 in the morning.

Just next door is the place that started it all: Pyounghwa Market. Founded by merchants displaced by the Korean War (Pyounghwa means “peace”), the market is now almost 50 years old and most definitely looks its age. Absent the chrome trim and dazzling lights of the neighbouring mega-malls, Pyounghwa comprises row after endless row of mostly small stalls with decidedly more dowdy offerings. Just as the decor appears not to have changed here in 30 years, much of the stock would have been equally (or more) at home in the 1970s or ’80s: piles of straw hats, thick, gold-buttoned nylon blousons, gaudy golf shirts, shiny suits and mountains of belts, scarves, cheap accessories and long johns.

There is, I suppose, an air of “authenticity” here — some stalls sell traditional Korean hanbok outfits,  bubble-permed ajumma (middle-aged women) sit cross-legged noisily swapping war stories and the smell of dried octopus and kimchi hang heavy in the air. But at least on the two times I’ve visited, there was an unmistakable sense of decline, too. While the malls right next door still hummed with custom well past midnight, Pyounghwa was largely deserted, with some stallholders (albeit on a Sunday, apparently the quietest day of the week) under blankets and fast asleep. It gave off, I’m sad to say, the kind of dreary pallor you find in small-town shops and bus stations throughout Korea, places the country’s glittering success and development simply passed by.

But if you wanted an example of where Korea’s brash, restless brand of modernity did arrive, you need look no further than the wholesale malls just across the road. Anchored by a busy four-way junction, the towering blocks here — Designer Club, U:Us, Nuzzon and others — don’t really get going until 10 or 11 at night, when swarms of wholesalers and shop owners from around the country descend to snap up bag-fulls of clothes, shoes, jewellery, underwear and much else. At around 2am, when I arrived, the lights were almost blinding, techno music boomed from vast wall-side speakers, and piles of garment-filled laundry bags cluttered the pavement, piled next to signposts marking their ultimate destination — Busan, Daegu, Jeonju, Jeju. It was less like entering a shopping plaza, and more like stumbling into a late-night rave when disconcertingly sober, with everyone “larging” it apart from you.

The scenes were no less dizzying inside. In U:Us, late-night merchants scurried around, pen and notebook at the ready, stopping at one stall to strike a deal, and then just as quickly upping sticks to try their luck elsewhere. It was far busier than anything else I’d seen that night, with more bustle and fizz than most shopping malls could muster by day. Though I wasn’t moved to buy anything here either, the clothes seemed a good bit nicer, with a dose of more restrained stuff that I could envisage myself wearing — as well as piles of skinny-fit shirts and jeans, studiously retro dresses, Olive Oyl t-shirts and plate-like shades. But, as I suspect it was for many of the wide-eyed browsers here, the stuff being sold took a distant second billing to the people, the noise and the exhilarating, piledriving energy. As exaggerated and hackneyed as the “dynamic Korea” line can be, Dongdaemun definitely lives up to it.