The old man plucked the centipede from a bucket with a pair of silver tongs. Its menacing red pincers chomped at the air and its segmented body writhed in that unsettling manner peculiar to things that crawl. Beside me was a large pot full of arthropods, deceased and waiting to be ground into pills. I smiled politely and backed away, ready to move onto the next stall.
Centipede medicine was not something I expected to encounter on a spring afternoon in Seoul. When it comes to the Folk Flea Market in Sinseol-dong, however, expecting the unexpected is a good rule of thumb. On Sunday afternoon the outdoor Merchant Market—a weekend extension of the Flea Market—was buzzing with activity. Vendors were peddling everything from books and DVDs to Buddhist statues and telephones. The market attracts a diverse crowd: families perused card tables covered with toys, while older men and women in hiking attire lined up before the makgeolli stall (1,000 won per cup). A vendor selling second hand stereo systems provided a surprising soundtrack—Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” supplemented every so often by an old man strolling through the streets with a piano accordion.
A vendor selling second hand stereo systems provided a surprising soundtrack—Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” supplemented every so often by an old man strolling through the streets with a piano accordion.
The Merchant Market pales in comparison to the Folk Flea Market itself. A two story “urban treasure warehouse,” the Flea Market is packed with everything you need and many things you don’t. The first floor is home to a large and eclectic collection of vintage clothing: trench coats, T-shirts, cowboy boots and leather jackets. The clothing section also includes a surprising array of military fatigues and, at one stall, a pile of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) in unappetizing beige packages.
The real curiosities on the first floor, however, are in the “Hand Craft Antiques” section, a warren of aisles full to bursting with chandeliers, statues, instruments, and ornaments. Here a giant turtle hangs from a wall; there a naked Barbie doll lies atop a tea set. There is antique furniture, golf clubs, jewellery, old telephones. I even spotted a dusty pile of National Geographic videos. This is by far the most surprising area of the market—a wonderful mix of time periods and cultural curios that can keep you busy for hours. The information center is able to arrange guided tours through this section of the market, an experience that promises to be as intriguing as a trip through any museum.
The long walkway between the first and second floors seems to serve as a timeline of Korean history—earthenware pots become typewriters, public telephones, and faded English language books. Above and below the walkway is a sprawling food court, and as I ascended a multitude of smells followed me up. The delicious aromas of kimchi jjigae and tteokboki mingled with something else that smelled a little too strongly of animal insides.
The second floor is made up predominantly of “Sundry Goods.” This seems to be a concise way of saying, “We really have no idea what’s in here, but it’s bound to be interesting.” I discovered car parts, ginseng, and a large selection of multi-vitamins. The next largest section on this floor is labelled, charmingly, “Dilettante Life.” Here you will find an array of leisure items for your dabbling pleasure: records, golf clubs, and fishing gear.
The Folk Flea Market is a fascinating and absorbing place to spend an afternoon, whether you’re hunting for the perfect antique spinning-wheel or simply browsing. It can also, however, be exhausting. As I left the “Dilettante Life” section I spotted an ajeossi in hiking gear stretched out on a bench – his shoes kicked off, his right arm dangling, lost in a deep sleep. Perhaps he’d seen a few too many curiosities for one afternoon.
The Folk Flea Market is located in Sinseoldong, a short walk from the Cheonggyecheon and accessible via subway lines 1 and 2. Take exit 6, 9, or 10 and follow the signs. The market is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, but closes every second and fourth Tuesday of the month. The Merchant Market can be found just outside the main Flea Market building each weekend, and is open from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. The Flea Market also hosts a Children’s Flea Market and a Citizen Flea Market. A Foreigner Flea Market will be held in the parking lot on April 28, May 26 and June 30. Foreigners wishing to register as vendors should contact the Seoul Global Center.