By Markus Bell and Jieun Kim
In 1998 an article in Seoul’s Kyeonghyang newspaper described a visit to Seoul’s Noryanggin Fish Market as follows:
“Arriving in the Noryanggin Fish Market your timid heart will flutter like an excited fish in water. Whether you buy or not, simply strolling around the market will wash the sweaty odor from your body” (Sept. 5, 1998).
Noryangjin fish market is a cultural institution, and that’s why news of its relocation and ‘modernization’, following directives from the government cooperative, the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives (NFFC), has caused such a stir.
A fish market was established in 1927, during the Japanese colonial period, near Seoul central station. It moved to Noryangjin in 1971.
The recent relocation plans include replacing the market with a resort complex that includes hotels, entertainment facilities, and chain restaurants. But the NFFC and a determined group of market vendors are at odds over the move.
The vendors’ union insists that the government has ignored the voices of the merchants. They claim that the new building is unsuitable for trade, with less space and higher rent. As of late July this year, 321 of the 1,334 merchants – some 24% – were refusing to relocate.
The state argues that the rent is reasonable, and claims that vendors are “illegally using private property.” Recently, violent clashes between vendors and the NFFC resulted in several injuries.
The market place relocation denotes a ‘qualia’ shift in Korea’s dining culture toward “cleanness.”
Nicholas Harkness (2013) noted a shift in contemporary soju drinking practices in Korea. Analyzing soju advertisements, he stressed that “softness” is analogically linked to other dimensions, such as femininity in soju consumption and representation. The qualia of the dining experience means a greater emphasis placed on “cleanness” – hygienically, visually, and in the relationship between the buyers and sellers.
During our visit to Noryangjin market, in the middle of an August heat wave, banners protesting the relocation hang from the ceiling and windows are boarded up. Listless middle-aged Korean women fan themselves atop up-turned beer crates, barely finding the energy to tout their wares.
Record heat or not, it’s business as usual. Huge containers are filled to the brim with everything from lobster to sea cucumber. The catch of the day is sea bass. We enter into negotiations with a fast-talking vendor.
Tossing a plump fish onto the concrete the fishmonger exacts a fatal blow on our chosen victim. Without hesitation, she guts it and strips the scales.
Clutching polystyrene dishes of finely sliced raw fish, we dance our way around puddles of stagnant water to the doors of the on-site restaurant.
“Oe-seo-o-seyo!” the staff welcome, ushering us to our table. Several groups of Chinese tourists have set up camp at tables strewn with beer bottles and an afternoon’s worth of shelled crustacean. A red-faced man is slumped in the corner; chin on chest he defies the efforts of his party to wake him.
We peel off slice after slice of sashimi with metal chopsticks, coat it in soy sauce and wasabi, and wrap it in sesame leaves. It has a bite that can only be chased by Korea’s green-eyed monster – soju.
As the afternoon bleeds into the evening the table groans under the weight of empty bottles.
The man in the corner suddenly awakes and the waitress scuttles over to help carry him out.
Noryangjin fish market has a visceral feel that’s disappearing from Seoul’s street scene. It’s a piece of history that, once gone, all the Starbucks in the world won’t bring back.
It’s the odor, frenetic energy, auditory, visual, and somatic sensuality of the market that can’t be replicated. This is the life energy of Seoul’s working class, which transverses the history of modernizing Korea.
It won’t be long until the relocation is complete. Most vendors will move, displaced by regulated hours, American chain stores, and serious men in serious suits. The Noryangjin controversy will be forgotten.
The market will be mourned by people who remember what it was like to haggle for a mackerel, or to have their fingers clamped between the claws of a dissenting crab.
Markus Bell is a lecturer in the University of Sheffield’s School of East Asian Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @mpsbell
Jieun Kim is a PhD candidate at Seoul National University. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org