There are three famous gwangjang (squares) in South Korea: Choi In-hoon’s monumental novel, The Square; the Seoul Gwangjang in front of City Hall, the place of candlelight protests; and the Gwangjang traditional market that boasts a hundred year history.
Originally, Gwangjang Market was a name exclusive to a 3,000 pyeong shopping establishment that was privately owned by the Gwangjang Corporation, and located in the center of the market. It now refers to some 60 commercial buildings that are clustered around the Gwangjang Shopping Center.
The market has a 300-year history if one looks at it from a historical perspective, and at least a 108-year history if one considers its establishment from 1905 when the Gwangjang Corporation was founded.
In the latter part of the Joseon era, there were three large open markets in Seoul: The I-hyeon Market, open from early dawn to morning located near Dongdaemun; the Chil-pae Market, around what is now Namdaemun; and the Jongno Market, which opened in the evening. Among the three, I-hyeon Market was more renowned for its morning Baeogae Market.
Baeogae was a hill that connected the areas of Jongmyo, Dongdaemun, and Cheonggyecheon. There are many stories regarding the genealogy of its name: that there were many pear trees (bae means pear); that it was the last point where a large boat crossing the Han River could reach through to Cheonggye Stream (bae also means boat); and that because of the frequent appearance of tigers, a hundred people had to gather together in order to go up the hill. Baeogae was a morning market that developed around this region.
In 1910, the Joseon empire was annexed by Japan. But even before that, Korea had been hopelessly subject to all kinds of invasions by Japan. The circumstances of the markets were also bleak. The merchants, who had a strong sense of nationalism, united and established the Gwangjang Corporation on July 5, 1905. Despite much interference, Dongdaemun Market, Korea’s first privately owned market, came about at last.
Before the annexation, the Japanese merchants who had developed the Jingogae (Myeongdong) area into a busy commercial center, opened five department stores after 1920. The Hwashin Department Store was built in Jongno. A very small number of people were able to go to Japan and engage in a luxurious shopping spree or shop at the Hwashin Department Store in Jongno. The market for the majority of the people during the Joseon era was Dongdaemun Market. Just as life would have been impossible for most Joseon people if the five-day market had not been maintained, everyday living would not have been possible had there not been a traditional market such as Dongdaemun during the Japanese colonial period. That is the reason why Dongdaemun Market could neither be expanded nor demolished.
Dongdaemun Market was like a fortress. When the sun rose, the four gates on the east, west, south, and north opened and all kinds of items from the entire country started to pour in. Dried fish from the East Coast, coal from mines throughout the peninsula, as well as an assortment of paraphernalia from Japan and the West arrived. But it was agricultural products that were sold in the largest quantity. Fresh vegetables, seasonal fruit, and five grains were transported by horses and cows. Dongdaemun Market was known to have the largest number of agro-fishery products in all of Korea.
The shops were categorized into three tiers. Tier one shops were located in tile roof houses and were wealthy enough to be able to place advertisements in newspapers. Tier two shops were all under tin roofs, and offered mostly agro-fishery products. The tier three shops were vendors who sold things on a mat under a somewhat shabby plank roof; they sold mostly miscellaneous household objects. Around 200 merchants owned the tier one and two shops, and the tier three sellers changed constantly. On average, around 2,000 customers visited daily.