Gwangjang Market: Where History Breathes

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.

 

Dongdaemun Market was completely destroyed during the Korean War. Only the site of the building remained, but after the war the market became more vibrant. Survivors had to continue to live and the market was a necessity in order for people to go on living. The people who arrived in Seoul in great numbers from all parts of the country settled in the Cheonggyecheon area and as a result, the market region became completely packed with people.


After the recovery of Seoul, there was a presidential order from Rhee Syngman to reconstruct Dongdaemun Market. President Rhee ordered three international-sized markets to be built in Seoul. The construction of the Gwangjang Shopping Center took place swiftly. From 1957 to 1959 a massive construction project commenced and finally in 1959, it was completed as the building it is today. In other words, the three-story concrete Gwangjang Shopping Center was newly constructed and maintained for 50 years until now in its present form. At that time, most of the buildings around the Cheonggyecheon area were traditional Korean style houses and as these buildings were mostly destroyed during the Korean War, the newly built Gwangjang Shopping Center was the most modern structure between Jongno and Dongdaemun.


The Gwangjang Shopping Center was the tallest building around at the time, and the watchtower mounted on the roof must have made people feel as if they were looking down from a mountaintop. Seoul was the most popular overnight school trip destination for students from the provinces. Gwangjang Market was always included on the itinerary. Students climbed to the top of the watchtower of the Gwangjang Shopping Center building and looked out at the Dongdaemun area. They took pride in the fact that there was such a big market in Korea, and bought gifts to bring back for their parents from the Gwangjang Shopping Center.


In January 2011 the novelist Park Wansuh passed away. She was an integral part of the history of Gwangjang Market. Her novel His House, published in 2004, records in detail the sights of the Gwangjang Market during the 1950s. It delineates the period from after the Korean War when there were hardly any buildings intact up to the post-War construction of the department store era.
One cannot find a more detailed depiction of Dongdaemun Market than in His House. Park’s novel provides a very thorough description of the market as it was then, and the commerce that revolved around it. What is astounding is that things remain pretty much the same to this day.


“It was called a department store or a dry-goods store but in actuality, it was simply a long pathway like an alley; and on bo...