Gwangjang Market: Where History Breathes

  • onJune 1, 2015
  • Vol.21 Autumn 2013
  • byKim Chong-khwang

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 both sides the merchants were allotted a single pyeong where they put up a stall without a partition or divider. In the back they hung loose fabric and piled up folded or rolls of fabric by the pathway, and the owner did the business, standing on top of the stall. It looked like an enormous dry-goods store when one just walked into the department store but it was a fierce arena of competition for many one-pyeong business proprietors.”

Of course, the present day Gwangjang Shopping Center is no longer a “fierce arena of competition.” The stores are at least four to five pyeong in size. There are some that are over 10 pyeong. But the absence of partitions or boundaries remains the same, and fabric still hangs loose on the rear wall with the rolled up fabric piled up in a display case by the pathway.

On November 13, 1971 a 22-year-old young man by the name of Chun Tae-il set himself ablaze in the Peace Market across from the Gwangjang Market, shouting “Obey the Labor Law!” “Let my death not be in vain!” The Gwangjang Market has a deep relationship with Chun Tae-il. The prodigious personal records he left behind was compiled by Cho Young-rae, and published into a book, A Single Spark: The Biography of Chun Tae-il. The following is a passage from the book:
“The young Tae-il, who had to take on the responsibility of taking care of his family of six, took his younger brother, Tae-sam to the Dongdaemun Market to sell kitchen objects. They got things like trivets, brushes, strainers, brooms, and grills from a consignment store, paid back the price of the items, and then kept the profit. The trivet was relatively easy to make and therefore the two brothers bought the material from Dongdaemun and made them themselves on the rice paddy of Yongdudong where they lived.”

Tae-il was only 13-years old then. It wasn’t just Tae-il and his family who were destitute, because in those days there were many children who had to work to support their families.
The Biography of Chun Tae-il is filled with heartrending stories of his youth and the young girl factory workers he met in the Peace Market. Chun Tae-il was born in 1948, the year the Republic of Korea was founded. Most of the people from that generation underwent as much hardship as Chun Tae-il. The older merchants of the Gwangjang Shopping Center experienced as difficult a childhood and youth as Chun. What they remember the most are those difficult years—horrific childhoods because of poverty and war, when they were inhumanely treated while working in factories and marketplaces. A Single Spark: The Biography of Chun Tae-il is not only a story of one person but about the entire generation that lived during a very difficult period.

“Lament” is a short story by Choi Il-nam that was published in the monthly magazine, Hyundae Munhak, in 1976. The protagonists, a married couple who sell fish in the market, have a dream. “When the couple somehow managed to survive while running a small shop in a market that was on the outskirts of the city, the wife talked about moving to Dongdaemun Market after several years of hard work. The husband yelled at his wife for being a piker, instead of dreaming big and closing down their small store for a much bigger and more reputable business. Then his wife replied that it was her wish to make a fortune in the grandest market with the same business that they began.” Hence, the Dongdaemun Market before 1976 was grand enough to be the subject of one woman’s life’s dream.

The elder merchants remember the 1970s as the heyday of Dongdaemun Market. “There were so many customers that we didn’t have enough time to count our money. In those days, we could provide for our children until after college from our one to two-pyeong store. There was such a stream of customers from dawn to late night that our doorsteps got worn out. We were so busy that we sometimes forgot to eat.”

The comedian, Kang Ho-dong, came to Gwangjang Market only once, but it gained the place new renown. The Mayor of Seoul, National Assemblymen, Cabinet Ministers, and the presidents of banks and companies have all paid visits to Gwangjang Market as well. Yet even if the president came wearing a hanbok along with the first lady at the bequest of merchants on festive occasions, these visits didn’t have nearly the effect of Kang’s visit. When Kang Ho-dong carried out his assignment of “Eat 10 Different Kinds of Food and Show 10 Different Reactions” for a TV program, Gwangjang Market instantly became known as the mecca of food.

The attitude of the media’s coverage of the Gwangjang Market has changed according to the times. During the Japanese colonial period, it was known as the “greatest agro-fishery market in Joseon.” From 1960 to 1980, it became the largest fabric market in Korea, and then during the 1990s, silk, satin, linen, and cotton were popular items. Since the Asian financial crisis in 1998 to the early 2000s, secondhand stores and custom-tailored clothes were common. Recently, it has become known as a place to stop off for inexpensive food after taking a walk around nearby Cheonggye Stream.

The majority of the stores in the Gwangjang Market still do business in fabrics and dry goods. However, fabric sales have plummeted in the poor economy and the silk and satin stores that now specialize mostly in hanbok are not doing very well. Even though the hanbok shops are empty most of the time, the secondhand stores are always crowded. There have always been many stalls and eateries in the small alleys that surround the market, but after the restoration of Cheonggye Stream, the dining business in the surrounding area suddenly revived. This is a rather unwelcome phenomenon from the perspective of Gwangjang Market.

In the first half of the 1960s when the construction of the Gwangjang Shopping Center was completed, it was the most modern market in Korea. But now, it has become the biggest and the most famous traditional market. Embracing the most energetic and passion-filled years of millions of humble people, the place has aged along with the people. While everyone is caught up in the most cutting-edge, massive-scale, and luxurious styles available, renovating their shops to make them bigger, trendier, and more distinctive, Gwangjang Market is a place that tries to change with the times even as it is known as an embodiment of the past.

1. His House
Park Wansuh, Segyesa Publishing Co., Ltd.
2012, 308p, ISBN 9788933801956

2. A Single Spark: The Biography of Chun Tae-il
Cho Young-rae, Chun Tae-il Memorial Foundation
2009, 340p, ISBN 9788996187424