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A Walk Through Myeong-dong : Seoul’s Vibrant Shopping District Contains Rich Pockets of History
2010-03-31 VIEW: 5590
Seoul is a big city by any measure. Whatever you are looking for—be it entertainment, cultural heritage, a cheap or luxurious shopping experience, or just a good peep into the lives of ordinary Seoulites—people will have location names ready for you. But what if you want to sample all those things in just one visit? There is one and only one place to go: Myeong-dong.
Since its time as a modest commercial district dating back to the Joseon era, Myeong-dong has developed over the last half-century into the commercial heart of the city. Its location puts it close to the nation’s administrative headquarters, and it has also served as a financial hub, hosting many stock brokerage firms as well as the first national bank. But since the 1960s, its name has had more cultural and fashionable associations, as has the neighboring district of Chungmuro, arguably the nation’s film industry mecca. Any Koreans in their 50s or 60s will likely recall episodes of themselves or film celebrities frequenting Myeong-dong's dabang, or tea rooms, where “disc jockeys” sitting in tiny boxes played music on turntables upon requests from customers. Namdaemun Market, which does not lack for lively charm and quirky shopping experiences, is also close by.
The Golden Plot
When you get off at Myeong-dong Station, Seoul Subway Line 4, come up the stairs of Exit 6 and you will immediately face the main road, which stretches for a walk of about 10 to 15 minutes, or longer if you are walking carefully and trying not to bump into the crowds on this always bustling street. As soon as you get out of the subway station, chances are that people dressed in strange costumes will be dancing to jingles or handing out freebies, promoting the latest cell phone or beauty product. Along the central part of the road are street vendors selling all kinds of products, ranging from T-shirts and caps to sweet potato crisps, chocolate-covered bananas and hot pancakes.
Shops in Myeong-dong reportedly pay the steepest rents in Seoul, for obvious reasons. While the malaise that plagues most small-scale restaurants or fashion shops in Seoul—rarely surviving for more than one to two years in one place—seems to apply here as well, the volume of the local population, along with tourists from Japan, China and, increasingly, Southeast Asia, guarantees exposure and opportunities. All the brand names you can think of in high-street clothing, cosmetics, and eatery franchises can be safely found on one, or even two, of the signs on the buildings dotting the road. If you combine them with smaller-scale shops on the several alleyways stretching sideways from the main road, Myeong-dong should easily be the biggest shopping district in Seoul. In addition, sizeable department stores for richer people, such as Shinsegae and Lotte, are located just one street over.
Some shops from older days are harder to find but may be worth checking out—if not for the buy, then for the experience. For example, Ttrak of Bloo (02-778-7309) is one of the last old-school record shops standing in Seoul. Don’t be put off by the blaring K-pop idol group music and the pictures of Korean Wave stars lining the wall at the entrance. When you go up the narrow stairs—which, incidentally, featured in the 1997 hit film “The Contact”—you will find stacks of classical music CDs on the second floor and, on the third and fourth floors, dusty boxes filled with vinyl records from EMI and Decca. Gray gentlemen spend hours there, sometimes puffing their cigarettes inside, looking for their daily find. This shop is, along with the stores in nearby Hoehyun Arcade, part of the long and proud tradition of vinyl hunting in Seoul.
Myeonghwadang is a “snack restaurant” that has occupied a place since 1980 on the second floor of its building across from contemporary Western restaurants like VIPS. It sticks to the humble menu and interior of its older days and sells traditional Korean street food items such as tteokbokki and gimbap, along with noodle soups and tonkkaseu, at reasonable prices—a virtue not easily found in other Myeong-dong eateries.
One distinctive feature of Myeong-dong area is the number of colonial era buildings, most of which can be reached from the west side of the main shopping road by a five-minute walk through a rather dilapidated underpass. Mostly designed by Japanese architects during the colonial era, they have been partially restored or renovated but maintain unique appearances, with styles ranging from Renaissance and Baroque to Modernist. They stand in silent yet stark contrast to the nondescript square buildings surrounding them, although the controversial new “Post Tower” building, which houses the Post Office headquarters, is set to create its own category of postmodernism.
Both the Bank of Korea’s main office building, which houses a currency museum, and the old headquarters of the Korea First Bank, currently SC First Bank, boast rich Renaissance style. Myeong-dong Theater (Baroque) appears when you follow the main road to the north, having survived after renovation—unlike its cinema peers Gukdo Theater and Theater Scala—to run musicals and plays today. On the east side, Myeong-dong Cathedral was built in the late 19th century and remains the nation’s only example of pure Gothic architecture. The cathedral is not solely for Catholic gatherings; it has become a symbol of the democratization movement, as many activists and student or labor leaders sought refuge there under the wings of sympathetic Catholic priests during the authoritarian administrations of the 1970s and 1980s. When the new Chinese Embassy, which reportedly will show off that country’s growing presence in Korea with a 24-story tower, is completed in 2012, it will be another addition to the cacophony—er, harmony—of styles in Myeong-dong.
Eating and Drinking Around Myeong-dong
- Myeongdong Halmeoni Guksu (Grandma's Noodles)
Myeong-dong’s name is automatically associated with a few staple Korean food items, and kalguksu (knife-cut wheat flour noodles) is probably the most renowned. Franchise Myeongdong Kalguksu restaurants are easily found on any of the busy streets of Seoul. While few can claim originality, this modest-looking yet hugely successful eatery established in 1958 is definitely one of those that can. Famous items include tofu noodle soup and spicy bibim noodles, offered at the affordable price of 4,000 won.
Tel. (02) 778-2705 or www.1958.co.kr.
- Café Gamoo
Myeong-dong seems to be dominated by either Western franchises or a constant rotation of fashionable cafés primarily targeting teenage customers. While this café overlooking the old Chinese embassy site may look like the same kind of place at first glance, it has kept its location since 1975, which is quite a rare feat. A wide selection of coffee and wine is on offer in its four-story building, reasonably priced and sometimes even served with free pieces of cake. Patrons favor creamy “Vienna coffee.”
Tel. (02) 776-3141.
- Chinese Restaurants and Desserts
It may not be quite big enough to really deserve the official title of "Chinatown," but Myeong-dong does have a street that hosts an array of Chinese restaurants and even bakeries selling Chinese-style sweets.
The street is located near the old Chinese embassy site.
Located on the sixth floor of Shinsegae Department Store. Fans of the U.S. series "Sex and the City" may remember heroine Carrie Bradshaw proclaiming Payard the most delicious dessert café in New York.
Well, its apple tarts are now available in Seoul, too. Pricey for sure, but connoisseurs seem to generally approve.
Tel. (02) 310-1980.
- Street Food
If you are already walking through Myeong-dong, why not sample one of the many snacks on offer from street vendors? Be it takoyaki, sweet potato crisps or the weirdly shaped traditional sugar and baking powder stick candy called dalgona, street food is an indelible part of the Myeong-dong experience.
- Ggongsi Myeongwan, Myoungdong Kyoja, Fugetsu & Jinsadaek
For these four other top Myeong-dong restaurants, see our Eating Out section (p60—63)
Written by Seo Dong Shin
Photographed by Ryu Seunghoo
(Source: SEOUL Magazine Mar. Issue)
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