Across Seoul’s ancient Heunginjimum Gate lies the Dongdaemun Shopping Complex and entrance to one of the busiest textile districts in Asia. This is a busy but orderly intersection with cars, minivans and motor bikes turning right into downtown Seoul or heading left, out of the city core. When the traffic light changes a huddle of well dressed pedestrians surge across the street. A lone chige porter runs through the crowd, his stride quick and nimble with an empty wooden A-frame balanced lightly on his shoulders.
Further away, in the core of the textile market, the traffic composition changes. In this neighborhood of wholesalers and resellers, the roads are congested with people and automobiles delivering and unloading goods. The warren of narrow alleys are blocked to large vehicles. Instead they stop at the boundaries where porters load bales of cloth and packages onto their A-frame carriers. Three wheeled and bi-pedaled porters throng the streets and it’s an artful dance to avoid collision on the packed sidewalks.
I am fascinated by the chige carriers. Made of wood and rope, the sturdy A-frame back carriers were originally used by Korean farmers and field workers. It was designed to hang the weight of the load on the shoulders while the center of gravity was low in the back. This allowed the bearer to carry heavy loads while walking, even on a steep gradient. During the Korean war, the carrier was quickly adopted by the United Nations troops. The Americans called them A-frames, the British called them ‘jiggies.’ Backpackers will recognize the origins of modern day aluminum frames used to hoist camping, hunting and baby gear all over the world.
It is early afternoon, late in a day that started in midnight morning. Dongdaemun is busiest at night during the after-hours of day-time business, when buyers converge on the district to purchase supplies. It makes sense that food vendors dash by, delivering dinner on heavily laden trays balanced on their heads. They move with apparent sonar vision, eyes cast down, deftly avoiding stationary and moving obstacles.
I love the busyness of the market, the earnest vitality of hard working people going about their lives. There’s nothing artificial here. Nothing reconstructed, recreated or re-enacted. It’s a working market with a thrum of energy that’s as real as the sound of traffic, the heat of the crowds and the brush of pedestrians passing you by.
Seoul, South Korea. May 2016