Where art mingles with dried fish

Where art mingles with dried fish

Although Dongdaemun and Namdaemun tend to dominate many lists of "must-see markets" in Seoul, small-scale markets that are equally full of history and character are scattered across the city. This is the fourth instalment of a series introducing traditional local markets.

At first glance, one would probably never guess what lies below the hustle and bustle of persistent food vendors of Seoul Jungang Market.

Nestled in Hwanghak-dong near the city's signature Cheonggyecheon Stream, the market greets visitors with the usual caterwauling of merchants trying to sell their kimchi pancakes, dried fish snacks and, even dog meat, which is rare to find in most traditional markets nowadays.

However, the market gives off hints that it's no ordinary street market. Hanging from the vaulted steel ceiling one are decorative lamps lighting the halls and random accents of artistic nuisance. The reason for the elevated design flare of the Jungang market is the Sindang Creative Arcade, which lurks below the surface.

"I would say that most people don't even know this place exists," said Yoon Hye-rim, artist and director of "Efluvi" custom arts.

Yoon is one of the current 38 artists and occupants of the Creative Arcade, a space for artists to work and produce their craft, be it woodwork, jewelry, textiles, metalwork or painting. It is not just a place of work for these artists ― some even call it home.

"A lot of artists do sleep here. There are beds and a shower room," said Yoon, who has been making custom jewelry at the underground arcade for four years. "I think one of the greatest things about this place is that after midnight, everything is super quiet, and this allows you to really concentrate on your work."

In the 1950s, when Jungang Market was full of life and vigour, competing with Namdaemun and Dongdaemun to be Seoul's biggest market, this underground space, too, was occupied by merchants selling various goods and foods.

But as the capital city transformed into a modern metropolis, the market began to lose its sheen, and underground shops were the first to disappear.

Later in 2007, the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture decided to revitalise the virtually deserted underground section into a foreground for the creative arts.

Although the revamp of the space has breathed new life into the market, for those merchants who have stood the test of time, the dark days are not over yet.

"You know everything upstairs, none of that used to be here," said Hanbok merchant Choi Bok-im, whose family-run business has been located at the underground market for the past 70 years. "I keep doing this business because this is what I know, and I am too old to do anything else."

Featuring a conventional outdoor market above ground and artists' residencies below, the Jungang market is probably one of those places where two seemingly opposite things interlink.

This very visual contradiction is what makes Jungang Market one of a kind and a recommended place to visit when stopping by Hwanghak-dong.

Even when descending the colorfully painted entrance of the arcade, instead of being greeted by an array of art shops and boutiques as one would probably expect, there are first rows upon rows of mom-and-pop raw seafood dining stalls.

"Really the only nonlocal visitors we tend to get here are those who stop by as part of one of the city's government-sponsored tour programs," said Yoon, the artist.

"But even then, I think people misunderstand why we are here. I've been asked by some people if I could resize their rings for them because they were under the impression that this was a jewelry shop."

While visitors are certainly welcome to take a look at the various artworks being created, the arcade's main purpose is to provide artists with an open space to work. For those interested in purchasing pieces, each artist typically has a shop or online store where customers can buy items.

If you go:

Seoul Jungang Market is a traditional market located east of Heunginjimun Gate in Hwanghak-dong, Jung-gu, and can be reached via Shindang Station off Exits 1 or 2.

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