Changsin-dong awakens

by Robert Koehler
Korea Tourism Organization

The “hidden heart” of Dongdaemun is finally getting the attention it deserves. A working-class neighborhood known locally for its thousands of small garment factories that feed the Dongdaemun Market, Changsin-dong has long been passed over by visitors in favor of the flash of the Korea’s largest clothing bazaar. The recent opening of the landmark Dongdaemun Design Plaza and renewed public interest in the city’s historic alleyways, however, are bringing the curious and adventurous to this little piece of 1980s Korea, a place where residents, artisans and social enterprises are transforming gritty alleyways into spaces of dynamism and culture.

Made in Changsin-dong
The history and lifeblood of Changsin-dong is inseparable from that of Dongdaemun Market, the sprawling city of lights and glamor that is the heart of Korea’s thriving fashion industry. It is the neighborhood’s army of small-scale needlework artisans, operating in cramped conditions, that produces the high-quality, reasonably priced fashions for which Dongdaemun is rightly famous. Garment factories began opening in the area in the 1970s, when union activity among sweatshop workers in the nearby Pyeonghwa Textiles Market, where the garment industry had previously been located, caused the industry to disperse. All told, there are about 3,000 small needlework factories in Changsin-dong; as you explore the alleyways, the sound of sewing machines is ever present.

While needlework factories are literally everywhere in Changsin-dong, the biggest concentration can be found along the road that runs from Changsin Market to the top of the hill that overlooks Jongno from the north. At the bottom of the road, a stone’s throw from the market, several alleys have been turned into the so-called Changsin-dong Needlework Street Museum, a small urban walking path lined with murals and installation art explaining the history of Changsin-dong’s garment industry and detailing the lives of its garment workers.

Faced with stiff competition from cheap imported clothing from places such as China, Korea’s fashion industry has been forced to change, and Changsin-dong’s garment workers are taking pains to adjust. Social enterprises are lending a hand to make the neighborhood a more pleasant place, too. Gong Gong Gong Gan (T. 070-7626-5782), stylized as 000-gan, brings art and life together to improve the livelihood of local residents. Beginning in 2011 with arts programs for local youth, 000-gan now engages in a range of upcycling projects such as producing “zero waste” products made from garment shops’ waste fabric, including cushions and bags. The company designed the simple and stylish signboards that grace many of the neighborhood’s small garment factories, and also make and sell very helpful maps of the area at their shop near the top of the hill.

Through Aug. 30, the neighborhood also hosts a “Made in Changsin-dong” program (T. 02-2148-1863) every Sunday from 2 PM to 4 PM. Led by local residents, the program includes hour-long guided tours followed by hands-on doll-, apron- or pouch-making programs. Everything is in Korean, but even if you don’t speak the language, it’s still an opportunity to getter a closer understanding of the neighborhood and its people.

‘Village below the cliffs’
Changsin-dong’s defining topographical feature is its imposing granite cliffs, of which there are several. The cliffs are not natural – they were blasted out of the hillsides in the first half of the 20th century by Japanese colonizers. The area was made into a quarry to obtain the stone used to build imperial landmarks such as the old Government-General Building, the imposing and much-hated symbol of Japanese rule that stood for decades in Gwanghwamun before it was demolished in 1996. It was only in the 1960s that people began to move into the old quarry, where they built ramshackle homes both below and above the rocky cliffs.

Making your way to the top of the escarpments involves exploring the neighborhood’s labyrinth of steeply climbing alleyways or driving up the so-called “whirlwind roads,” several stretches of hairpin turns á la San Francisco’s Lombard Street that test the skills of even the most accomplished taxi drivers.

One popular way to ascend to – or descend from – the clifftop neighborhood is the flight of concrete steps that lead from the appropriately named “village below the cliffs,” a dense collection of old multi-storey dwellings that  resembles a Brazilian favela, to a pleasant public space over the cliffs called Dangogae Park. The view over the neighborhood from the top of the steps – frequently employed in films and commercials – is worth the effort of finding it. Just next to the park is the very friendly Dal Café (T. 070-4119-9682), which not only serves caffeinated beverage but also actively contributes to community events and activities.

Toys and hanok
The “lowland” part of Changsin-dong, that is, the gritty alleys that immediately flank Jongno behind Heunginjimun Gate and Dongdaemun Market, are well worth exploring, too.

On the south side of Jongno, just behind the Dongdaemun Hotel, is a web of old alleyways lined by a most unpolished mixture of flophouses, industrial and warehouse facilities and old Korean-style homes, or hanok. Not so long ago, much of Seoul looked like this, but now, such neighborhoods have become endangered species.

Hidden at the end of one of these rough, working-class alleys is Creative House (T. 010-7210-4286), a long-neglected Korean hanok home gracefully renovated into a stylish rental house by hip design group Z_Lab. Popular with both local and international visitors, the space – essentially a gallery of young Korean design, complete with a sleekly designed kitchen and an outdoor barbecue pit – aims to provide guests with an urban oasis where they can find creative inspiration. It also demonstrates that urban redevelopment can be done in a way that preserves neighborhood identity.

Continue exploring south of Jongno and you'll find he is the Changsin-dong Stationery and Toy Market, a street lined by over 100 wholesale stationery and toy stores. If you’ve got small children, this is where to take them – they’ll love exploring the stacks of toy robots, cars and other fun distractions. There’s a big Lego shop on the street, too. Expect to pay 30-40% less here than you would at a retail shop.

Seoul’s growing ethnic diversity is on display here, too. South of Jongno is where you’ll also find plenty of Chinese lamb restaurants catering to the district’s sizable Chinese-Korean population. Lamb kebabs seasoned with cumin are a favorite, but they also do Chinese hot pot. On the north side of the road, meanwhile, you’ll find “Little Nepal,” a collection of some of the city’s best Indian and Nepalese eateries, along with shops catering to the

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A short walk from Exit 3 of Dongdaemun Station (Line 1),

Changsin Market is famous for its spicy pigs' feet, or maeun jjokbal. It can be a messy affair (customers are given a pair of plastic gloves), and it’s so spicy it could burn you a new bodily orifice, but the meat will melt in your mouth. It’s perfect with a shot of soju, too.

For something more exotic, try one of the many Indian/Nepalese restaurants. The most popular (and, it should be noted, a favorite of this writer) is Everest (T. 02-766-8850), where you can enjoy a wide range of Indian, Nepalese and Tibetan dishes, including its excellent Special Chicken Curry. Wash down your meal with a lassi or an Indian Kingfisher beer.

Near the “village below the cliffs” are two charming cafes run by young entrepreneurs, Andy Cup Café (T. 070-5017-2127) and Café Yeonguso (T. 010-2015-6809).

Exit 3, Dongdaemun Station (Line 1)

The article courtesy of Seoul Magazine

Korea Tourism Organization

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