As spring ripens in Korea, a small town in central Seoul is also waking up from a long winter slumber.
One of the city’s oldest towns, Haebangchon in central Seoul’s Yongsan District is set to be reborn with the ambitious 10 billion won (about $8 million) urban regeneration project. of the municipal government which is finally coming to an end after six years of planning and construction. .
At the head of the city’s new vigor is Shin Heung Art Market, a historic market that flourished in the 1970s after Korea’s liberation from annexation by Japan, but waned in popularity over the years. It has been transformed into a cultural art market with the aim of bringing the space back to life while preserving its history.
Today, the period buildings are filled with young business owners selling everything from food and coffee to jewelry and candles. There is also a ceramics studio, a photography studio, a shoe store and office space. Young locals roam the decades-old market and pose for photos against the backdrop of worn buildings and telephone lines that crisscross the town’s narrow lanes like cobwebs.
“The bulk of our customers are people in their 20s and 30s and foreigners,” Hyde Lee, 31, owner and barista of Upstanding Coffee, told Shin Heung Art Market. “They make up the cool, liberal atmosphere of the market.”
Relatively new to the neighborhood, Lee opened the cafe in July last year. It sells Aussie style coffees.
“I first saw this place two years ago in the winter,” Lee said. “It reminded me a lot of Hong Kong. At the time, there weren’t these new pillars and the roof, and the dilapidated cement walls of the buildings were covered in snow.
“I could imagine the cafe here. I knew it would be a fun project,” Lee said.
The winding staircase that stands in the middle of the cafe’s first floor goes up to the second floor and a roof.
From here, visitors can get a closer look at the transparent circular roof that was installed as part of the city’s regeneration plan. It encircles the entire 2,101 square meter area of the market. In the evening, the roof lights up and keeps the market bright until late at night.
Almost all buildings in the market have rooftop spaces. Located atop the hillside town of Haebangchon, it’s a hotspot for many looking to bask in the sun or soak up the city’s golden sunset. It also offers panoramic views of central Seoul and the iconic N Seoul Tower.
The city’s cityscape is one of the reasons why Haebangchon was able to avoid being crowded with tall buildings and apartments. Municipal authorities have banned the construction of buildings over 12 meters in height.
Southwest of the market is an area of 2.43 million square meters which is expected to be the site of Yongsan Park, a new national part to be built on the former US Army base by 2027.
“The fastest way from N Seoul Tower to Yongsan Park is through the market,” said Lee Choong-gil, 70, a local real estate agent. “The market is basically between the two most iconic places in the city.”
A popular restaurant in the market is a real Thai restaurant called Pad Ka Paw.
“When we first opened in 2017, there weren’t many businesses,” said Sriprateep Paw, 44, owner-chief of Pad Ka Paw.
Before moving to Shin Heung Art Market, Paw operated a Thai noodle cart with his wife next to Sungshin Women’s University.
His wife first spotted Shin Heung’s art market space by chance. It was an abandoned house at the time, but the couple worked together to turn the space into a restaurant.
“Since we opened Pad Ka Paw here, I think it’s been the happiest time of our lives,” Paw said.
The Shin Heung Art Market was established in 1968, a few years after Korea’s liberation from Japan in 1953.
The heyday of the market was in the 70s and 80s when the local textile industry boomed. There were over 300 textile factories in Haebangchon.
“At the time, people came to the market from all over Seoul,” real estate agent Lee said. He is a native of the village since his parents moved to Haebangchon from North Korea after the liberation of Korea in 1953. “He mainly sold groceries and clothes.”…There were also restaurants . Hot noodle bowls were a popular dish to eat in the market. The market was the center of commercial activity in Seoul.”
But market profits began to decline in the 1990s when the local textile industry began to suffer due to industrialization, outsourcing of labor and the emergence of large supermarkets. By the early 2000s, many people had left town and almost no market stores were open.
Jeon Sun-hye, 48, who moved to Haebangchon in the early 2000s, described the area as a “slum”.
“I didn’t want to move here at first,” Jeon said. “Shin Heung’s art market at the time was very dark, dirty, quiet and almost scary. Everything seemed dead.
But she said the general atmosphere of the city has changed as young people have started to take an interest in the city’s vintage vibe. “Thanks to them, the culture here has completely changed.”
Jeon is a pastry chef graduated from the Le Cordon Bleu campus in Tokyo. She owns the Le Montblanc café in Haebangchon. The shop is just two meters from the other shops in Shin Heung Art Market.
According to her, the cafe was her husband’s textile business until five years ago.
“Since the 1970s, my father-in-law had been a city textile worker who sold his clothes to local textile retailers,” she said. “After his retirement, my husband took up his trade and opened a textile factory here.”
Carrying on the building’s history and his family’s legacy, signature desserts on the Montblanc menu are mousse cakes shaped like knit sweaters and a ball of yarn.
“While other pastry shops flip through dessert books for ideas, I read my husband’s books on textiles,” Jeon said.
Although her business has experienced a slowdown since Covid-19, she said she was “happy to have opened Le Montblanc in Haebangchon”.
“I am very proud to work here every day. My desserts carry the story of Haebangchon, this building and our family, and it’s something I cherish.
As more and more people rediscover Haebangchon and the Shin Heung Art Market, the city has also attracted media attention.
Shin Heung Art Market has appeared in dramas such as JTBC’s “Itaewon Class” (2020) and KBS’s “When the Camellia Blooms” (2019), and the entertainment program “Baek Jong-won’s Alley Restaurant” (2018-) .
Such sudden media attention and an influx of people into a small area often leads to gentrification, much like what happened in Gyeongnidan-gil, several blocks from Haebangchon.
To avoid soaring rents and real estate prices, the Seoul Metropolitan Government, Yongsan District Office, landlords and tenants signed an agreement in 2016 not to raise rent for six years. The 44 owners of Shin Heung Art Market buildings have signed it.
But the deal doesn’t seem to be holding up, according to real estate agent Lee.
“Prices for some buildings inside the market have shot up over the past few years,” Lee said. “In some cases, it costs up to 100 million won for a single pyeong [three square meters].”
Lee continued, “There aren’t many places like Haebangchon left in Seoul, and people here, including myself, are very proud of the city’s history and how it has evolved. The city, residents and merchants here have been very active participants in the public planning process for the neighborhood revitalization project. So I hope the people of Haebangchon and Shin Heung Art Market can stay rooted and serve as an archetype for other less developed neighborhoods in Seoul.
BY LEE JIAN [[email protected]]