Ezy Reading: Postcard On Seoul — Dongdaemun Market

Evan Kanarakis

On this mid-Winter morning the first thing I really notice upon exiting Dongdaemun Station in the heart of Seoul is the oppressive Siberian chill bearing down upon the city. I hastily zip up my jacket, tighten the scarf around my neck and join the throng of locals and tourists alike frequenting this most busy shopping district. The Great East Gate — a magnificent structure that, though rebuilt in 1869, dates back to the Joseon Dynasty — is a striking landmark that seems almost out of place here amid the congestion and honking horns of chaotic after-work traffic scurrying around at its base. But any sense of awe I’ve been struck with is swiftly eliminated by that ever present, piercing cold, and in combination with the earthy, acrid aroma of a nearby beondegi stand — boiled silkworm pupae served up as a steaming snack — it keeps me moving along.

I’m not here, after all, to casually gawk at the countless market stalls lining the footpaths and hawking anything from toilet plungers to underwear, and jewelry accessories to souvenir key-chains. I’m here under the heavy weight of a soju hangover and an early morning departing flight the next day to pay a visit to the Doota Mall in Doosan Tower and try to fulfill a request to buy a new sports jacket for a relative in the United States. Doosan Tower perhaps most strongly represents the modern contrast in Dongdaemun shopping to the older, more traditional markets and stalls of Seoul. Decorated in thousands of bright lights and boasting twelve floors of some 1,500 clothing and accessory stores, Doosan Tower receives over 100,000 visitors a day between its 10.30am to 5am store hours. It is quite simply a shopping behemoth.

As the last sliver of daylight disappears into night I slip inside the mall but find any temporary relief provided by the jet-stream heating system is soon replaced by a gulp of intimidation as I realize just how labyrinthine and overwhelmingly packed with fashion options the Doota Mall is. While the designer items on sale are clearly well below retail prices, it’s difficult to know exactly where to begin — I find it a struggle just to negotiate my way through the sea of women’s scarves, skirts and blouses towards the escalator that eventually leads me to menswear on the third floor.

In every direction before me lie narrow pathways through dozens upon dozens of stalls offering up jeans, shirts and jackets available in every known Western designer brand — Tommy Hilfiger, Armani, Calvin Klein, J. Crew and Versace. Many brands I haven’t even heard of. The most significant problem that quickly dawns upon me, however, is not an issue of navigation, it’s the fact my American relative failed to offer me any specific details for what he was after in a new sports jacket other than the casual, “You know, my size, something stylish.” Given he had also not likely considered he was asking a shopping invalid to secure this purchase, it was not to bode well that when presented with over a thousand odd styles to choose from I had no idea of where to ruddy begin, let alone whether or not to start guessing if a particular jacket might have been about right for his size. The claustrophobia of the situation only became worse as the many wily shopkeepers spotted me for what I was: a doe-eyed virgin shopper who was the retail equivalent of fresh meat for the taking. Aggressively tugging at me from all corners, calling me to come closer in broken English and shoving various pairs of jeans and shirts into my face accompanied by calculator presentations of figures that evidently were illustrating a too-good-to-be-true bargain, the best I could muster under pressure was a meek, apologetic shake of the head and a gamsa hamnida ‘thank-you’ before making a hasty retreat.

On the upper floors — well past any clothing, household supplies and footwear — I finally found a scene I could handle more easily in the form of a busy food court. About a dozen stalls offering various local staples like bibmbap (a rice-based dish), bulgogi (barbecued beef) and gimbap (Korean sushi) filled the air with alluring cooking smells, and every diner’s table in the crowded hall was spotted red with spicy plates of pickled kimchi. For mine, given the abrasive cold outside and the male-in-retail meltdown I’d just suffered, I settled for a simple, calming choice of cinnamon tea accompanied by some sweet, sponge-textured rice cakes on the side.

Now, at the very top of Doosan Tower I pulled up a seat alongside the many large windows offering a nighttime vista of Seoul’s neon-illuminated landscape. Unexpected though it was, just a few floors above such a manic, crowded shopping scene I found some brief peace in a warm cup of spiced tea and a glowing, sprawling city skyline. Soon I’d have to steer through the madness once more so as to find my exit. For the moment, however, I opted to take in the view a while longer and ponder cheap excuses for a relative in America of as to how Seoul had ‘run out’ of his particular preference in a sports jacket.

Ezy Reading is out every month…